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Two Former DNC Chairs Back Underdog Buttigieg in Party Leadership Race

Two former chairmen of the Democratic National Committee have endorsed South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg for that job, expressing concern about intra-party factionalism if either of the race's two frontrunners win next week's chairmanship election.

David Wilhelm, Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign manager, who was then chosen to lead the DNC, and Joe Andrew, who led the party in the late 1990s, both came out for the underdog Buttigieg in statements to NBC News Wednesday.

"Let's try to avoid waging a battle through proxies that reopens wounds from past campaigns," said Wilhelm.

Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party 5:49

With Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders supporting Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison and Democrats close to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton backing former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Buttigieg and other second-tier candidates in the race have argued that electing either would leave a large segment of the party feeling scorned and left out.

"We need someone who can unify us, who can focus on the grassroots, whose experience is outside Washington, and who represents the next generation of party leadership that will lead us to victories at the national and local level. That person is Mayor Pete Buttigieg and I am proud to lend my name to his growing list of supporters," Wilhelm added.

Andrew, an Indiana native like Buttigieg, chaired the party along with former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell when the DNC used a different model that split the chairmanship between two people. The global chairman of the massive law firm Dentons, also expressed concern about Clinton-Sanders tension.

"The DNC Chair needs to be the leader of all of the party, not one faction or another. Some candidates have purposefully aligned themselves with one faction, hoping that it would assist them to break out of the pack of candidates. That approach may have gotten them more press, but it does the party a disservice. The main effect has been to encourage factionalism," Andrew said.

Three former DNC chairs have so far made their preferences known: Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe endorsed Perez, former South Carolina Gov. Don Fowler endorsed fellow South Carolinian Jaime Harrison, and former Massachusetts State Treasurer Steve Grossman endorsed Buttigieg.

"It's telling that Pete is the only candidate is this race who has the support of two people who have actually run the party," said Andrew.

While the state of the race is opaque, given its peculiar process, the 35-year-old Buttigieg is said to have a tiny faction of the support promised to Ellison or Perez. That's lead critics to dismiss his bid for the chairmanship merely an effort to raise his national profile ahead of some other campaign down the road.

The 447 members of the DNC will cast a ballot next Saturday in Atlanta, and while Perez and Ellison have claimed support of between 100 and 200 members each, Democrats peg Buttigieg's support in the single or low double digits.

But because the race will likely be decided over multiple rounds of balloting, it's conceivable -- though still unlikely -- that there could be a surprises if a large number of members pick one of the lesser-known candidates as their consensus second choice.

"I think there is a third path -- I just hope it can be me," Harrison, the popular South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman, whose star has also risen during this campaign, told NBC News.

Howard Dean, who won the party's last open chairmanship election in 2005 and who considered running again this year, told NBC News he thinks Buttigieg or Harrison have the best shot at winning.

It's an unconventional prediction, he acknowledged. But he said he wants to see younger people take leadership roles in the party.

"My generation is done in politics here. We need to get out of the way," he said.