Warren, Buttigieg scrap puts Democratic divide on display

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WASHINGTON (AP) – Elizabeth Warren spent weeks absorbing attacks from more moderate rivals looking to stop her steady summer rise in the polls. Now, as the center begins to assert itself in the Democratic presidential primary and the Massachusetts senator’s momentum is at risk of slowing, she’s starting to hit back.

After a Democratic Party fundraiser in Boston on Thursday night, Warren blasted Pete Buttigieg, who is emerging as a leading moderate candidate in the lead-off Iowa caucus set for Feb. 3. She criticized the South Bend, Indiana, mayor for holding closed-door fundraisers with big donors.

“I think that Mayor Pete should open up the doors so that anyone can come in and report on what’s being said,” Warren said. “Those doors shouldn’t be closed and no one should be left to wonder what kind of promises are being made to the people that then pony up big bucks to be in the room.”

Like Warren, Buttigieg has spent much of the past year presenting himself as a someone uninterested in political squabbling. But that didn’t stop his senior adviser, Lis Smith, from chiding Warren for not being forthcoming about the senator’s past legal work representing corporate clients.

“If Warren wants to have a debate about transparency, she can start by opening up the doors to the decades of tax returns she’s hiding from her work as a corporate lawyer – often defending the types of corporate bad actors she now denounces,” Smith tweeted.

While testy exchanges are to be expected with voting now looming, this one reflects the deep divides over the Democratic Party’s philosophical direction. Warren’s progressive populism helped fuel her surge in the polls over the summer, but she lately has seen her support plateau – and even begin to slip – amid growing questions about that approach, which has been a boon to centrists like Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden.

“I think there’s no doubt that the center approach is getting another look right now,” said Mitch Landrieu, a former Mayor of New Orleans who himself was once mentioned as a possible 2020 contender and believes the country wants a “transition” away from President Donald Trump rather than a full political “transformation.”

The latter is exactly what Warren has been pitching voters for the better part of the past year, championing a “wealth tax,” a “Medicare for All” plan giving government-sponsored health care to every American and canceling trillions in college debt. Those issues dominated the primary for months, but are now starting to be edged out by questions about whether a more pragmatic approach will be needed to topple Trump in the general election.

Billionaire and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has joined the race betting he also can be a more-moderate alternative – and Warren has similarly critiqued him. Appearing this week on his own network, Bloomberg TV, Warren said of the ex-mayor: “I don’t think, as a Democratic Party, that we should say that the only way you’re gonna get elected, the only way you’re gonna be our nominee, is either if you are a billionaire, or if you’re sucking up to billionaires.”

Warren’s polls began to stall in late October when she announced plans to spend $20.5 trillion over a decade to implement “Medicare for All” but then unveiled a more gradual “transition plan.” The senator said that she’d only push to get the full proposal through Congress by the end of her third year as president and, in the meantime, use existing, public insurance options to expand health care coverage.

Some saw that as too similar to “public option” plans being championed by Biden and Buttigieg, who argue that candidates backing Medicare for All will spook general election voters who aren’t ready to fully scrap their private, usually employer-based health insurance plans.

Kevin A. Nathan, a 48-year-old cybersecurity administrator who attended a recent Warren event in Raleigh, North Carolina, said Warren may need a “strong undercard” in her choice of running mate – should she be Democratic nominee – to reassure those afraid she’s too liberal to beat Trump.

“I think if people took time to dive into her policies rather than let others tell them about who she is, she’d be electable,” Nathan said.

The race’s other leading progressive voice belongs to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has remained among its front-runners despite having a heart attack – even when it looked like Warren might run away with the most-liberal wing of the party over the summer.

Sanders has lately reminded voters that he plans to send a Medicare for All bill to Congress during his first week as president – drawing a stark contrast with Warren over a progressive issue on which the pair otherwise agree and countering the notion that the primary will come down to a center against left dogfight.

“There’s a corporate wing of the party who are desperate to hold on to power,” said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ chief strategist. “It’s not moderate versus liberal or progressive versus moderate. It’s progressive versus corporate and progressive is going to win.”

Warren’s campaign spent only about $520,000 on TV advertising in Iowa through mid-November, but says it has reserved $4.7 million worth of television air time there and the states that vote next: New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina in January and February. Her backers note that none of the candidates bunched near the top of the polls has begun pulling away – meaning there’s still time to make up ground.

“Fundamentally, most Democratic primary voters are progressive,” said Adam Green, a leading liberal activist, and Warren ally. “They want someone with big ideas and they also want to defeat Trump.”

Green said Warren getting months of attacks has frightened primary voters and affected her polling – but that it won’t last as candidates like Buttigieg face the added scrutiny that comes with their own rises.

“By January,” he said, “It starts to stabilize.”

That’s already beginning to happen. Buttigieg is under scrutiny for refusing to discuss the three years he once spent working for the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., pointing to a non-disclosure agreement he signed. A voter pressed Buttigieg on the issue Friday as he campaigned in New Hampshire.

“It’s not like I was running the place,” he said. “It was my first job out of school” while adding that the company “basically reflects what’s wrong with corporate America.”

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Associated Press writer Hunter Woodall in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.