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04:45 - Source: CNN
Manchester, New Hampshire CNN  — 

So much for that party unity, Democrats.

A yearlong quest to find the strongest candidate to challenge President Donald Trump is opening with strains of chaos and contention among Democrats, as the party braces for an epic battle of ideology, personality and electability that many party leaders fear could complicate the ultimate goal of winning back the White House.

From the messy mechanics of the Iowa caucuses to the stark choice emerging for voters deciding between a progressive or a more pragmatic path, Democrats are coming out of the 2020 starting gate awash in confusion and uncertainty.

And the turmoil comes at the same time that Trump is in the midst of a strong week: He successfully fought an attempt to convict on two impeachment charges against him, has the loyalty of almost every Republican on Capitol Hill headed into an election year and is benefiting from the economy continuing to boom.

“Panic is a natural state for Democrats, but as Freud once said, sometimes a cigar is just a good cigar,” said David Axelrod, the chief strategist of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. “A strengthening Trump. A very uncertain picture surrounding the nomination. There is reason for concern.”

Yet what some Democrats call an alarming moment, the progressive movement sees as an opportunity to achieve revolutionary change. The strength of Bernie Sanders’ campaign – four years after narrowly falling short to Hillary Clinton – is a fresh beacon to the party’s liberal wing that has grown frustrated with establishment politics.

With voting finally underway in the Democratic race, the party may be unified around the desire of defeating Trump, but it has found virtually no consensus for how – and who – is best to do it.

A relatively genteel primary campaign over the last year has exploded into more of a circular firing squad, which was on full display here at the debate Friday night and escalated anew Saturday, as Joe Biden intensified his attacks on Pete Buttigieg.

“This guy’s not a Barack Obama,” Biden said, urging voters to scrutinize Buttigieg’s experience as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and questioning his ability to build a diverse coalition of support.

On Sunday, Buttigieg shot back.

“Well, he’s right, I’m not. And neither is he. Neither is any of us running for president,” Buttigieg told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.”

The Buttigieg campaign also responded that Biden’s comments – and a digital ad belittling Buttigieg’s responsibilities as mayor – were a sign of desperation.

It’s far too soon to know whether Democrats are squandering their chance to defeat Trump or whether this ugly opening to the voting will ultimately provide peril or promise for the party’s nominee. But there is little question that the widest smiles at the end of this remarkable week are on the faces of Trump and his fellow Republicans.

Low turnout

Next to the technological failures and delay in certifying the votes, perhaps the most alarming thing for the Democrats to come out of Iowa was the paltry turnout in the first 2020 contest.

After a yearlong campaign, with a record number of candidates making robust appeals to Democratic voters, far fewer people participated in the Iowa caucuses than they did in 2008 when Obama’s victory helped launch him to the White House.

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was one of Obama’s rivals in the 2008 primary contest, said the low turnout should be alarming for Democrats.

“The negativity of the toxic environment causes voters to stay home,” Richardson told CNN. “When we ran in 2008, there were inspirational candidates out there, but none of the candidates today are inspirational. They are all issue-driven.”

Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, dismissed the handwringing inside the party. Under fire from many Democrats, he said he had no plans to resign.

“We’re barely out of the starting gate,” Perez said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “The angst level is elevated because we have the most dangerous president in the history of America.”

Concerns about Biden

Another key concern, especially among establishment Democrats, is the sense that Biden, once seen as the best shot the party had to defeat Trump, is limping into New Hampshire and acknowledging his own weaknesses.

“This is a long race and I took a hit in Iowa and I’ll probably take a hit here,” Biden said during the Friday Democratic debate. “Bernie won by 20 points last time and usually it’s the neighboring senators that do well, but no matter what I’m still in this for the same reason.”

And on Saturday, at an afternoon event in New Hampshire, Biden looked to quell the worriers.

“The reports of our death are premature,” he quipped.

The sense around Biden is that he is a wounded candidate who, despite his fourth-place finish in Iowa, got lucky in the Hawkeye State. If, people around him believe, the Iowa results had been reported properly, more attention would be focused on his abysmal finish and not the chaos in Iowa.

joe biden new hampshire 02082020
Biden: Buttigieg is not Barack Obama
02:50 - Source: CNN

Biden has a host of top operatives and donors who are deeply loyal to him, but if he continues to turn in poor finishes, the hold will continually loosen, people close to the campaign told CNN. Biden, right now, is benefiting from the fact that there is no obvious place for those supporters to go if he falls, but that could change if Buttigieg continues over performing. Also, billionaire Mike Bloomberg looms with his massive war chest.

And there is rising skepticism that Biden could survive defeats in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada and still maintain his South Carolina firewall.

“It’s hard to claim to be the strongest candidate against Trump and fail badly in the first two contests,” Axelrod said. “Biden needs a resurgence in New Hampshire, or the firewall could buckle.”

If that firewall falls, Biden could be in real danger.

Jen Psaki, a longtime Democratic operative who worked for the Obama-Biden administration, said many Democrats are warily watching Biden struggle and wondering if they would be willing to leave the candidate they love.

“People who love Biden are willing to hold on through South Carolina because there is a feeling that South Carolina has always been Joe Biden country,” said Jen Psaki, who worked for the Obama-Biden administration. “But, after that, if he does not win there, there will be a movement from even his strongest supporters to look elsewhere.”

Psaki added though, that Biden’s poor result in Iowa already has people looking elsewhere.

“There is another layer of people who Joe Biden is their first choice,” Psaki said, “but they are shopping.”

Bloomberg in the wings

Bloomberg and his team are privately cheering the chaos in Iowa and lack of clarity headed into New Hampshire – and the former New York mayor has been charging ahead with events in key general election battleground states like Pennsylvania and Virginia.

“I think the results from Iowa underscore that we need a candidate who can build a coalition broad enough to unite the party and strong enough to go toe to toe with Donald Trump and beat him,” Bloomberg said on Tuesday in Philadelphia. “That’s the coalition we’re building, and that’s the candidate that I will be.”

And as the Iowa caucuses spun out of control, Bloomberg and his team – in a not so subtle reminder to Democrats everywhere – put out their latest staffing totals: 2,100 people on staff, including 1,700 people in 40 states and 400 people in the campaign’s New York headquarters.

Announcing their behemoth staff was both a flex to other campaigns and a reminder to operatives and donors that as millions are spent on the first four states, Bloomberg and his net worth north of $50 billion is waiting for March.

Bloomberg is directly playing to what Democrats want: Someone powerful enough to take on Trump – and avoiding the sometimes petty fights of a primary.

“While other campaigns have been focused on Iowa, we’ve been building an operation of political and organizing talent across the country that is unmatched and laying the groundwork in the states critical to defeating Trump in November,” said Dan Kanninen, Bloomberg’s states director.

Democrats have protested him in the streets, voted to impeach him in the House and fielded a record-setting roster of presidential candidates, but the Democratic Party’s chaotic stumble out of the 2020 starting gate is raising early questions about its ability to actually defeat a sitting president.

Fresh off of his Senate acquittal on impeachment, Trump is heading to New Hampshire for a rally on Monday, only the latest reminder that he is already building a robust general election campaign that his Democratic challenger – whoever he or she may be – will face later this year.

CNN’s Gloria Borger contributed to this report.