MERRIMACK N.H. — In the back row of an event geared toward veterans for Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., on Thursday, a discussion broke about one of his Democratic rivals — Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Christine Bagley, 65, said Ms. Warren had been her top choice but described her as “a bit of a bulldog,” saying Mr. Buttigieg made her feel more “hopeful and inspired.” Lois Luddy, 66, had also considered Ms. Warren, but said she was too “bellicose.”
“It’s always fight, fight, fight, fight, fight,” Ms. Luddy said of Ms. Warren, repeating the word for emphasis. “Someone needs to tell her to calm down.”
Ms. Bagley shot back: “Would you say that if she wasn’t a woman?”
Ms. Warren has an electoral problem in Mr. Buttigieg. Her campaign had planned to face off against Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, her top progressive rival, and known quantities like former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. But it’s the 38-year-old former mayor who is playing the role of spoiler, most immediately complicating Ms. Warren’s path in early-nominating states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
These were the states in which Ms. Warren was supposed to build momentum, propelled by her base of white, college-educated liberals. She was supposed to prove that she was the person who could unite the Democratic Party and demonstrate the energy behind ridding Washington of corruption.
Instead, after Mr. Buttigieg led the attacks on Ms. Warren over her health care plan that began in October, he is snaring her primary voters — including women of Ms. Warren’s generation like Ms. Bagley and Ms. Luddy — with a platitude-heavy message of uniting the country and restoring democracy.
It has already worked in Iowa. In the run-up to the caucuses, Ms. Warren’s campaign highlighted her ability to become voters’ second choice — the supposed evidence of her status as the Democratic “unity candidate.” But as results trickled in from the state, it was Mr. Buttigieg who gained the most from the so-called second alignment, as supporters of candidates such as Mr. Biden, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and the businessman Andrew Yang shifted to Mr. Buttigieg when their top choice failed to cross the viability threshold.
With the New Hampshire primary just days away, and another Democratic debate on Friday night in Manchester, some of Ms. Warren’s own supporters are begging her to attack Mr. Buttigieg directly, as she did in the December debate, which became known for their memorable “wine cave” clash over high-dollar fund-raising.
Their increasingly dire warnings contrast with the message being projected by Ms. Warren’s campaign staff and the candidate herself, who has sought to maintain an even-keeled optimism even after her third-place finish, behind a progressive whose supporters rarely budge and a moderate millennial with the pedigree of her former students at Harvard.
Mr. Buttigieg has been aided by the concept of electability, which has hung over the primary season and can disadvantage women running for office in particular. Ms. Warren’s allies, who have seen her frequently faced with questions about whether a woman can win, believe Mr. Buttigieg has been treated with kid gloves by journalists who see themselves in a 38-year-old man more than a 70-year-old woman.
Mr. Buttigieg is himself a historic candidate, as the first openly gay man to mount a major campaign for president. In the early states, he and Ms. Warren are competing for more than delegates and donors — they are fighting to build enthusiasm around their barrier-breaking candidacies that can later inspire voters in more diverse states.
“He’s new. He’s fresh,” said Michael Smith, 63, who came to see Mr. Buttigieg this week in New Hampshire. Mr. Smith compared Mr. Buttigieg’s candidacy to John F. Kennedy’s in 1960. “The public always wants what’s next.”
For those who view politics through an ideologically rigid lens, the overlap between Ms. Warren and Mr. Buttigieg’s voting base can be confounding. Ms. Warren has campaigned on progressive promises like free college, the cancellation of student debt and a “Medicare-for-all” health care system — all things Mr. Buttigieg has vocally rejected.
But many voters in Iowa and New Hampshire don’t see a contradiction. They seem less concerned with what specifically Ms. Warren is proposing; to them, the value of her many policy proposals is that they project her competence and readiness for the Oval Office.
And Ms. Warren and Mr. Buttigieg overlap among voters whose choice of a candidate hinges on a simple question: Which candidate seems the smartest?
“They’re both savvy,” said Ann Vitti, 56, who attended Mr. Buttigieg’s veterans event.
Ms. Vitti, who lives in California and traveled to New Hampshire to see the candidates, said she was choosing between Ms. Warren and Mr. Buttigieg and planned to vote for whoever seemed to have a better chance of winning.
“Policies can change, but you can’t get smarts overnight,” Ms. Vitti said.
Iowa has propelled Mr. Buttigieg into pole position for Ms. Vitti’s eventual vote, and she may not be alone. He is in a statistical tie with Mr. Sanders in two polls of New Hampshire voters that were conducted in the aftermath of the Iowa caucuses.
At their only public appearances on Thursday, Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Warren each tried to frame the Iowa results in their respective interests.
Ms. Warren focused on the close delegate count, and said the data showed a bunched-up “top three” — a phrase clearly meant to draw attention to Mr. Biden’s distant fourth-place showing.
“It’s a tight, three-way race at the top,” Ms. Warren said at a stop in Keene, N.H. “We know the three of us will be dividing up most of the delegates coming out of Iowa.”
Mr. Buttigieg tried to look ahead.
“New Hampshire is New Hampshire,” he said in Merrimack. “And New Hampshire is not the kind of place to let Iowa or anybody else tell you what to do.”
There are some signs that Ms. Warren’s aides are more alert to the threat of Mr. Buttigieg than they project. Roger Lau, Ms. Warren’s campaign manager, pounced on a tweet from one of Mr. Buttigieg’s senior advisers, suggesting that it seemed to be a signal to an outside super PAC supporting Mr. Buttigieg about where it should spend money on advertising. Campaigns are not legally allowed to coordinate with outside organizations supporting them, but there is no law against publicly telegraphing the campaign’s desires.
Ms. Warren’s campaign team alluded to the episode in several fund-raising emails, trying to create a sense of urgency. One read, “Other candidates are leaning on megawealthy donors and super PACs to boost their campaigns’ advertising efforts — and that means, right now, we’re being outspent in New Hampshire in the critical days before the primary.”
In some ways, the campaign is catching up with where its supporters have been for months. Prominent backers of Ms. Warren have long been focused on maligning Mr. Buttigieg online, casting him as cynical, inexperienced and the embodiment of privilege.
Even after his performance in Iowa, those close to Ms. Warren have argued that Mr. Buttigieg’s path to the presidency dramatically narrows after New Hampshire, citing his lower standing in national polls and anemic status among nonwhite Democrats.
Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is supporting Ms. Warren in the primary, reflected the campaign’s dominant viewpoint. He said that Ms. Warren would eventually supplant Mr. Buttigieg, and that her strategy didn’t rely solely on New Hampshire.
“Pete loses support when voters learn that his campaign is fueled by big-money donors who love that he refuses to challenge power — and when they learn how nonexistent his support is with voters of color,” Mr. Green said. “Democrats will lose to Donald Trump again if we don’t have a candidate with an inspiring economic populist and racial justice message that wins over swing voters, motivates our diverse base, and excites women voters who were key to victory in 2017, 2018 and 2019. That’s clearly Warren, not Pete.”
Ms. Warren’s numbers with minority communities are not robust, according to national polls. She enjoys support from prominent black and Latino surrogates and activists, including Julián Castro, a former cabinet secretary and presidential candidate, and Representative Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts, a campaign co-chair.
But Ms. Warren had 10 percent support from black voters in the latest Morning Consult national poll — behind Mr. Biden, Mr. Sanders and former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York. Mr. Buttigieg was at 2 percent.
Mr. Buttigieg’s Iowa showing has also helped him with donors. His campaign has announced raising more than $2.7 million this week from 63,841 donations. Ms. Warren, who has not released her post-Iowa fund-raising totals, recently canceled more than $300,000 worth of advertising reservations in Nevada and South Carolina.
“I just always want to be careful about how we spend our money,” Ms. Warren said in New Hampshire when asked about the cancellation.
Some undecided voters in New Hampshire, like Laurel Devino, 60, said the Iowa results would have no bearing on her eventual vote.
“That was such a hot mess,” said Ms. Devino, who attended Ms. Warren’s event in Derry this week.
Others, like the two women at Mr. Buttigieg’s event, said the die had been cast — and Mr. Buttigieg had won them over.
Right before he began to speak, Ms. Bagley asked Ms. Luddy again: Would she be as annoyed if a male candidate talked about “fighting” like Ms. Warren?
Ms. Luddy paused. “I think so,” she said.
Shane Goldmacher contributed reporting from Derry, N.H.