While he is consistently leading national polls, Mr. Biden’s vulnerability in the primary appears to come, at least in part, from his seeming inability to inspire Democratic voters. He is seen as a sensible and safe option, and a conventionally steady hand for the presidency.
At the Nevada Democrats’ dinner on Sunday evening, Mr. Biden urged primary voters to think cautiously: “We’d better be real careful about who we nominate,” he warned, “because the risk of nominating someone who wouldn’t beat Trump is a nation and a world that our children and our grandkids won’t want to live in.”
For a good number of primary voters, that appeal is persuasive enough: At Mr. Biden’s town hall-style event in Las Vegas the night before, Phyllis Lind, a retired health care worker who is becoming a substitute teacher, explained her thinking about the race in terms that conveyed her party’s conflicting impulses. She said she was drawn to Ms. Warren because she was “for the common person,” and to Mr. Buttigieg because he had personal charisma “like Obama.” But at the moment, Ms. Lind, 73, said she was firmly supporting Mr. Biden.
“We need to have a candidate that is going to also get the moderate Republicans,” Ms. Lind said.
At the moment, Mr. Buttigieg seems to be claiming an inchoate space that lies between Mr. Sanders’s ideological movement and Mr. Biden’s unapologetically tactical approach to the election. But his rise in the polls has been chiefly confined to the earliest primary states, Iowa and New Hampshire, and he has not generated interest among African-American and Latino voters, cornerstones of the Democratic coalition.
At the dinner in Nevada, Mr. Buttigieg repeatedly struck the theme of unity, pledging to “bring together an American majority” for Democratic policies.
His prepared remarks also included a rebuke seemingly aimed at Ms. Warren: the text circulated to reporters had Mr. Buttigieg saying that no one should be “written out of a particular political party” because of a policy disagreement — an apparent allusion to Ms. Warren’s recent barb suggesting Mr. Biden might be running in the wrong party’s primary because of his attacks on the idea of single-payer health care.
But Mr. Buttigieg did not deliver the line, instead saying he wanted support from people “whether you are a progressive or a moderate or what I like to call a future former Republican.”