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Primary force: Who is the best candidate to take on Donald Trump?

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. Photo: Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

There is a strategy that could defeat Trump, says PAUL CONNEW. But is there a candidate who could do so?

“So where the hell do we go from here? Unless we get our act together fast we’re gifting Trump a second term and that really will be hell.” The words of a senior Democrat strategist I’ve known for more than 20 years who played significant roles in the campaigns of Obama and both Clintons. Normally no pessimist, or defeatist, he confesses to “creeping depression” over the prospect of the party achieving at the ballot box in November what it failed to do in the principled, but inevitably doomed, impeachment attempt.

The combination of that ill-fated effort and the humiliation heaped on the Democrats by the Iowa caucus debacle – where the results were delayed for days by technical issues – has sent the party into panicked contemplation that their prospects of dumping Trump this year are fast receding.

The confused result from the Hawkeye State meant none of the Democrat candidates emerged with much momentum and apart from incompetency the other take-away from the contest for watching Americans was the division and rancour the selection process is generating in the party.

Trump, meanwhile, has been relishing the Democrat discomfort, leaping on Nancy Pelosi’s petulant ripping up of his State of the Union speech to rile his base and sending a particularly gloating tweet – an animation of election placards reading Trump 2020, Trump 2024, Trump 2028, etc, etc, an age of Trump stretching endlessly into the future.

Interestingly, when I knew him well back in his controversial, colourful business tycoon days, Trump told me the two-term presidential limit was “crap”. He held the same opinion about the electoral college system and insisted the president should be elected by the popular vote. No wonder he wasted millions of taxpayers’ dollars trying to prove he really didn’t lose the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by a cool three million plus.

If one thing is already certain about this November’s election, it is that Trump will again lose the popular vote, probably by a substantially larger margin. That might annoy him once again, but it will not necessarily deny him another term in the White House.

To do that, the Democrats desperately need to discover some momentum and find a way to ultimately heal the party’s divisions. This week’s primary in New Hampshire – where the surprise strong showing by Amy Klobuchar has further confused the picture – has done little to galvanise things, so all hope is resting on “Super Tuesday”, March 3, when 14 states hold their primary elections. On a single day, some 34% of delegates to the Democrats Convention in Milwaukee in July will be selected.

Despite the gloom among Democrat strategists and the state of the candidates’ misfiring campaigns, not all hope is lost. The 48 senators who voted to convict the president in his impeachment trial represent 18 million more people than the 52 senators who voted to acquit. The president certainly holds some aces under the electoral college system, but the Democrats can unseat him if they can mobilise maximum support in the key states that swung (often by wafer-thin margins) behind Trump and against Clinton in 2016.

There is some encouragement for the party in polls showing that in some of those states – such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania – health care is ranked by voters as their issue of greatest concern. This is a policy area where Trump has lamentably failed and on which he will not relish a battle.

So, if the outline of a potentially-winning strategy is starting to emerge, who might be best placed to lead it? (Incidentally, that may not be the exact question that the primary process is going to answer. It might be that the Democrats’ ultimate choice is not necessarily the best man or woman to take the fight to Trump. But that will be an argument for historians to have.)

Things will certainly be a lot clearer after Super Tuesday. And by then we will also finally be able to assess Mike Bloomberg’s chances of success. In an unconventional strategy most experts initially dismissed as too risky and guaranteed to flop, the media tycoon and former Republican New York mayor – a man whose personal wealth reduces Trump to relative pauper – eschewed taking part in the early primaries and instead invested tens of millions of dollars targeting the crucial Super Tuesday states.

He spent $10million on a 60-second TV advert during the Super Bowl alone. He’s also making great play of self-funding his tilt at the White House, a novel case of a tycoon shunning big bucks donations from other tycoons and corporate behemoths. At the last count, the Bloomberg campaign team has swelled to more than 2,100 staffers, 400 at his New York campaign HQ and 1,700 (growing daily) across 125 hi-tech rich offices across the country.

Suddenly, both Democrat and Republican strategists are privately shifting their view of Bloomberg’s candidacy as a doomed vanity project. Unsurprisingly, his unconventional run is infuriating his Democrat rivals. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – both from the left of the party – have accused him of spending millions to “buy” the election. His opponents were particularly furious after Bloomberg was given permission to take part in a TV debate in Nevada this month despite not being on the ballot there. “I guess if you’re worth $55billion you can get the rules changed,” Sanders mused.

Among supporters of both Sanders and Warren, the hostility to Bloomberg is visceral and many Democrat strategists warn that he will alienate many younger voters the party needs to mobilise, both at the ballot box and on the campaign trail.

Yet other senior party powerbrokers are giving serious thought to throwing their weight behind Bloomberg, concerned both by the flagging campaign of Joe Biden, the 77-year-old longtime frontrunner from the centre of the party – who frequently looks and sounds rattled on the stump – and the fear that Sanders (or Warren) would suffer a similar fate against Trump as Jeremy Corbyn did at the hands of Boris Johnson (though both senators are significantly less radical than the outgoing Labour leader).

And what of Pete Buttigieg, the surprise package from South Bend, Indiana, who – along with Sanders – has at least salvaged something from the Iowa car crash wreckage which he carried into New Hampshire (the former came top in first primary with the latter second – the positions were swapped in the second vote)? Much has been made of Buttigieg’s personal background – he is a married, gay man – and how this might play out among voters and in a race against Trump. Less discussed, but just as relevant, are his lousy polling figures among black Democrat voters, a legacy of mishandling marijuana policy and the shooting of a black man by police when he was mayor of South Bend, for which he has subsequently apologised.

Currently Buttigieg trails Sanders, Biden, Warren and Bloomberg badly among the black vote and Mayor Pete needs to change a lot of minds before Super Tuesday to keep his challenge going. Meanwhile, Trump awaits. The primary process has given him plenty of material to use against whoever his opponent is. Those desperate to see him on his way out of the White House by the end of the year are just hoping that Democrats don’t give him any more ammunition.

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