By James Oliphant
MANCHESTER, N.H., Feb 7 - After his better-than-expected showing in the Iowa caucuses, Pete Buttigieg is likely to attract the spotlight - and incoming fire from rivals - as Democratic presidential contenders debate on Friday in New Hampshire, just days before the state's pivotal primary.
Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, eked out a win over U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders in Iowa, according to the state Democratic Party's complete count, which has been marred by technical and organizational errors.
U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S Senator Amy Klobuchar trailed behind in the nation's first nominating contest.
Historically, candidates who win the Iowa caucuses see a boost in New Hampshire, and two opinion polls released this week showed Buttigieg within striking distance of Sanders, who has consistently been atop the field in the state.
But with controversy surrounding the Iowa results, New Hampshire's primary on Tuesday takes on added importance in the Democratic race for the nomination to face President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 election.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez added to uncertainty surrounding the nominating process on Thursday by calling for an audit of the Iowa caucuses after an array of problems delayed the final count.
Even so, Buttigieg, 38, is likely to bear the brunt of more attacks at the debate than he has in past events - primarily over his relatively thin track record in public office.
At a campaign event in New Hampshire earlier this week, Biden said there was a risk in the party nominating "someone who's never held an office higher than mayor of a town of 100,000 people in Indiana."
Biden comes into the debate in a more desperate position than his campaign anticipated, having finished far behind both Buttigieg and Sanders in Iowa, a result he called "a gut punch." He still leads in opinion polls nationally, but his margin has been steadily shrinking.
As a result, Biden has turned up the heat not only on Buttigieg, but on Sanders. On Wednesday, he warned that if the self-described democratic socialist became the nominee, "every Democrat in America up and down the ballot, in blue states, red states, purple states and easy districts and competitive ones" will be branded with the same label.
In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Trump appeared to make reference to Sanders, who favors a government-run healthcare system, by declaring: "We will never let socialism destroy American healthcare!"
CAN HE BEAT TRUMP?
For Sanders, who represents the neighboring state of Vermont, the New Hampshire contest amounts to what can be considered a home game. In 2016, he swamped rival Hillary Clinton in the state by more than 20 percentage points after Clinton, the eventual nominee, defeated him in Iowa.
Now that Sanders has shown himself to be a viable threat for the nomination, he is almost certain to be challenged by Biden and others on the stage about whether his leftist agenda would draw enough voters in November to beat Trump.
The evening is also important for Warren, who finished third in Iowa. If Sanders were not in the race, the senator from neighboring Massachusetts would likely be in a better position in polls ahead of the primary.
Warren has argued at campaign events that she is the most electable candidate in the field, with the capacity to unite progressive and moderate voters.
Also onstage at St. Anselm College in Manchester will be Klobuchar, California billionaire Tom Steyer, and businessman Andrew Yang, who qualified for the debate after missing the earlier one in Iowa.
Notably absent will be Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire former New York mayor, who is not competing in New Hampshire but has been assembling a formidable campaign operation in later voting states. Although Bloomberg has been ascending in national polls, he failed to meet the criteria for the Friday debate.
(Reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Peter Cooney)
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