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How moderates are seizing the moment in the Democratic Primary

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LAS VEGAS — After spending months in anxious passivity, staking their hopes on Joe Biden and little else, moderate Democrats appear suddenly determined to fight for control of their party in the 2020 elections.

The shift in attitude has come in fits and starts over the past few weeks, seemingly more as an organic turn in the political season than as a product of coordinated action by party leaders. But each assertive act has seemed to build on the one before, starting with a debate-stage clash last month over “Medicare for All” and culminating in recent days with the entry of two new moderate candidates into the primary, Michael R. Bloomberg and Deval Patrick, and a gentle warning from former President Barack Obama that Democrats should not overestimate voters’ appetite for drastic change.

Most convincing to some Democrats may be the off-year elections this month in Kentucky and Louisiana, where moderate-to-conservative Democrats prevailed in governors’ races that President Donald Trump worked strenuously to win for his party. The victories bolstered the argument, advanced by some leading Democrats, that the party could peel away some of Trump’s supporters in 2020 by avoiding “litmus test” battles and courting the political middle.

“Clearly, factually, people who voted for Trump voted for our Democratic gubernatorial candidates,” said Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island, a moderate who leads the Democratic Governors Association. She said Democrats could win those voters in 2020 with a “message of unity” and pragmatic promises on issues like health care and student debt.

For months the Democratic race was defined in terms of which candidate could promise the most daring policy reforms — a contest in which Biden, the former vice president, was struggling to keep pace with Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. As the most liberal candidates set the agenda, many in the party establishment squirmed, anxious about alienating moderate voters.

Now the primary has become an increasingly jumbled contest, shaped by Democrats’ competing appetites for visionary ideas, tactical realism and sheer political novelty. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, appears to be harnessing those tensions to his advantage, at least in Iowa, where for the first time he emerged as a clear front-runner in a CNN/Des Moines Register poll this weekend.

In Nevada, where more than a dozen candidates were gathered for the state party’s “First in the West” dinner, Rep. Dina Titus was holding up the Democrats’ off-year victories as a reason for optimism heading into 2020. But Titus, who has not endorsed a candidate in the presidential race, urged the presidential field to be mindful of the “moderate Democrats in suburban districts” who flipped control of the House last year.

“We have just got to make sure that we appeal across the board,” said Titus, who introduced both Biden and Sanders at events this weekend. “We are a big-tent party.”

That proved to be true this month, at least in Louisiana and Kentucky. The Democratic victors in both states, Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana and Andy Beshear, the governor-elect of Kentucky, ran on expanding health care coverage at the state level and largely avoided national issues, like impeachment. Edwards in particular positioned himself well to the right of the national Democratic Party, opposing abortion rights and new efforts to regulate firearms.

No Democratic leaders believe either state will be in play at the presidential level in 2020, and few would argue that the party should shift as far to the right as Edwards in order to compete.

But Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, a leading supporter of Biden, said Sunday that Democrats should take the election in his state as a sign that “the country is not as far to the left as people would have us believe.”

“If you look at Kentucky, if you look at Louisiana, it shows 2020 could be a very good year for Democrats,” Richmond said, “but we have to read the tea leaves right, learn the real lesson of what these races are saying.”

Democratic voters still appear determined to find a Goldilocks-like option in the race — a candidate who both generates excitement and soothes concern about the general election, someone who promises sweeping change but appears capable of winning Republican votes. Warren climbed in the polls for months on the strength of her reform message and a mastery of policy that conveyed reassuring competence, but her poll numbers have slipped recently amid intensive scrutiny of her health care plans.

Warren has attempted to allay voters’ reservations on that front in recent weeks by pledging not to raise middle-class taxes to pay for her plans. She also described how she would prioritize improvements to the Affordable Care Act, including the creation of an optional government health-insurance plan, before attempting to create a single-payer system.

Both Warren and Sanders remain among the best-positioned candidates in the primary election, with distinctive appeal to young people and other voters seeking a large-scale redraw of the political system — an overlapping agenda that drew roars of approval at the “First in the West” dinner.

At the dinner, both expressed disdain for incremental politics, with Sanders saying that “tinkering around the edges just won’t do what needs to be done” and Warren dismissing more modest policies as “a nibble here and a nibble there.” Both are polling at or near the top of the pack in three of the four early primary states, including Nevada.

And both are actively working to persuade voters that their approach is the better bet in a general election, including by appealing to voters who feel alienated from the political system.

“If the best that Democrats can offer is business as usual after Donald Trump, then Democrats will lose,” Warren said at a campaign stop here Sunday afternoon. “We win when we have solutions for the problems in people’s lives.”

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Andrea Griffin, an elementary school nurse in Las Vegas, said she had been wary of Warren as a general-election candidate but came away feeling more confident after watching her Sunday.

“I was a little skeptical about a plan for everything, but she has a pretty good grasp on what the major issues are and I kind of think that she might be able to get it done,” said Griffin, 56, a former independent voter who said she registered as a Democrat two weeks ago.

Griffin said she was also curious about Buttigieg, but had essentially ruled out Biden, explaining, “I think America is not ready to go back to business as usual.”

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While he is consistently leading national polls, Biden’s vulnerability in the primary appears to come, at least in part, from his seeming inability to inspire Democratic voters. He is seen as a sensible and safe option, and a conventionally steady hand for the presidency.

At the Nevada Democrats’ dinner Sunday evening, Biden urged primary voters to think cautiously: “We’d better be real careful about who we nominate,” he warned, “because the risk of nominating someone who wouldn’t beat Trump is a nation and a world that our children and our grandkids won’t want to live in.”

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For a good number of primary voters, that appeal is persuasive enough: At Biden’s town hall-style event in Las Vegas the night before, Phyllis Lind, a retired health care worker who is becoming a substitute teacher, explained her thinking about the race in terms that conveyed her party’s conflicting impulses. She said she was drawn to Warren because she was “for the common person,” and to Buttigieg because he had personal charisma “like Obama.” But at the moment, Lind, 73, said she was firmly supporting Biden.

“We need to have candidate that is going to also get the moderate Republicans,” Lind said.

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At the moment, Buttigieg seems to be claiming an inchoate space that lies between Sanders’ ideological movement and Biden’s unapologetically tactical approach to the election. But Buttigieg’s rise in the polls has been chiefly confined to the earliest primary states, Iowa and New Hampshire, and he has not generated interest among African-American and Latino voters, cornerstones of the Democratic coalition.

At the dinner in Nevada, Buttigieg repeatedly struck the theme of unity, pledging to “bring together an American majority” for Democratic policies.

His prepared remarks also included a rebuke seemingly aimed at Warren: the text circulated to reporters had Buttigieg saying that no one should be “written out of a particular political party” because of a policy disagreement — an apparent allusion to Warren’s recent barb suggesting Biden might be running in the wrong party’s primary because of his attacks on the idea of single-payer health care.

But Buttigieg did not deliver the line, instead saying he wanted support from people “whether you are a progressive or a moderate or what I like to call a future former Republican.”

Mayor John Cranley of Cincinnati, a moderate Democrat who supports Buttigieg, said he saw the shift toward Buttigieg as a function of voters’ intense concern about defeating Trump.

“I think that it’s clear Democrats are focused on winning,” Cranley said.

Pointing to neighboring Kentucky, the northern bulge of which houses the suburban bedroom communities of his own city, Cranley argued that Beshear’s victory with right-leaning voters there could be a case study for the national party.

To win there, Cranley said, “You can’t have somebody who is to the far left on some of these issues.”


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