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Why some Democrats say: Don't sleep on 'Mayor Pete' Buttigieg

The South Bend mayor is having a moment with Democrats, from the blue-checkmark salons of Twitter to the house parties of the early-voting states.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks to a crowd about his Presidential run during the Democratic monthly breakfast held at the Circle of Friends Community Center in Greenville, South Carolina on March 23, 2019.Richard Shiro / AP

WASHINGTON — Pete Buttigieg just might be the anti-Trump.

Unlike President Donald Trump, the South Bend, Ind., mayor, who is still technically in the "exploratory" phase of a 2020 presidential campaign, is young, progressive and gay.

While Trump obtained deferments to avoid Vietnam, Buttigieg signed up for military service when his generation went to war in Afghanistan. He comes from a small Midwestern city rather than the Big Apple. And perhaps most important to primary voters and some Republicans, his politics are informed by a deep grasp of history, philosophy and ethics that are at odds with Trump's rejection of expertise.

"It's so diametrically opposed to everything Trump," said Molly Jong-Fast, a New York author and socialite who has hosted a dinner for Buttigieg late last year and is planning a fundraiser for him this spring. "Even if Pete is not the candidate, he is the future of the Democratic Party."

That helps explain why, for a growing group of Democrats — from the elite salons of New York, Washington and blue-checkmark Twitter to the small-dollar cash mines of the 50 states — Buttigieg is fast becoming the diamond in a presidential primary rough full of better-known and better-funded rivals.

In short, they're saying: Don't sleep on "Mayor Pete."

It has helped that Buttigieg has made the most of his few big-stage moments, including a CNN town hall interview earlier this month in which he wondered whether Vice President Mike Pence had "stopped believing in Scripture when he started believing in Donald Trump" and called the former governor of his home state the "cheerleader for the porn-star presidency."

On MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Wednesday, Buttigieg bounced between making the case that Democrats shouldn't let Republicans define religious belief — “the time has come to reclaim faith as a theme” — to parrying questions on policy, from how to “de-politicize” the Supreme Court, to the future of the war he himself fought in.

He used the DNC's debate qualification rules to make the case for contributions, quickly racking up the 65,000 donors necessary to satisfy the requirement — though not nearly as speedily as leading candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., or former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, all of whom easily cleared the bar on their first day as candidates.

Still, the interest in Buttgieg is spreading on the ground in early states, said Jaime Harrison, a former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman and Senate candidate who ran against Buttigieg for Democratic National Committee chairman a couple of years ago.

"There are definitely some folks who are talking about him," Harrison said. "He’s an extremely gifted politician and he’s very genuine. I think what everybody else is seeing is what I saw when we were head to head. ...I would not dismiss Pete at all."

That goes for Iowa, too, said state party chairman Troy Price.

"We’ve seen growing interest," Price said. "Iowa caucus-goers and Iowa Democrats are interested in what he has to say and want to hear more."

The challenges for Buttigieg to catapult into serious consideration for the party's nomination are immense.

For starters, he was tied for eighth place, with just 1 percent — essentially a rounding error — in the first Des Moines Register poll of Iowa caucus-goers earlier this month.

He's already millions of dollars behind the leading fundraisers, his staff is a comparative skeleton crew that can only operate on legal substances without reinforcements for so long, most voters have never heard of him and even some political professionals still can't come close to pronouncing his name (buddha-judge or boot-edge-edge both work).

He suffers some for the fact that even some of the women who like what he has to say are concerned about yet another white man suddenly attaining media-darling status while women who have been in higher elective office, have been on the campaign trail for months and have laid out serious policy visions for the future are getting less buzz.

"I think Buttigieg is great. He is obviously very intelligent. He is leading with policy in his campaign," said feminist writer Jill Filipovic.


"I do think a dynamic happens where young, usually white, men come on the scene and whatever they do we seem to find exciting," she said. "Most of our hero narratives in this country, the hero is male, whether that’s a political hero, a war hero, a sports star, kind of individual men are the ones we tend to picture in that role. If what we’re hunting for is this great savior to lead us out of the Trump dark ages, I’m not sure that the image of a woman — any woman — is the image that comes to mind for that specific role. ... The thing about this hunt for great men is that they’re always men."

He may have to answer to women who want to know why they should choose a 37-year-old man from a small city over a series of women who have run and won Senate races, especially after Hillary Clinton came so close to becoming the first female president in American history in 2016.

There's also the question of whether that young white man can convince voters of color to pick him over the black and Hispanic candidates in the race and white candidates with much longer records — featuring attractive and unattractive votes and quotes — on matters of importance in those communities.

Harrison said there's no substitute for spending the most valuable resource of all with black voters in South Carolina: time.

"The thing for Pete is, he’s going to have to engage in that community," Harrison said.

Buttigieg campaigned in South Carolina, Saturday, where he met with white and black voters, and a Friday profile in Ebony Magazine — "I have no idea what it is like personally, for example, to be a transgender woman of color. But I know that I need to stand up for her," he said — suggests there may be a new level of interest in him within African-American circles.

For now, though, Buttigieg, who told supporters on Friday he'd raked in $500,000 between Tuesday and Wednesday, is trying to pick up enough steam to get himself the platform he needs to make his case.

That's the right approach for this period on the calendar, said Neil Levesque, head of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm's College.

"Remember, right now, what are [candidates] trying to do? Raise money and attract attention," Levesque said. "And he's raising money and attracting attention."

Levesque, who hosts pretty much every aspiring presidential candidate, added that he's being asked "more and more" about Buttigieg by Granite State voters.

"Every time you're on 'Morning Joe' or coming into New Hampshire ... it attracts more attention," he said. "It's a force multiplier."

Many of those who have listened to him — regardless of party — like what they hear.

"He is so compelling as a thinker that people are kind of shocked by it," said Florida-based Republican strategist and author Rick Wilson, a noted Trump opponent, who praised Buttigieg's "ability to sit down and have a conversation that’s longer than a tweet."

And while that anti-Trump vibe may be the appeal for some of Buttigieg's early fans, others simply see him in the terms he likes to use: an intergenerational change agent.

Debbi Nest of Nashua, N.H., who recalls attending a rally for Gary Hart in 1984, when Buttigieg was just two years old, said that is what has drawn her to him.

Speaking to NBC at a house party for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who served in the U.S. House for more than a dozen years before taking the helm of a state with 75 times the population of Buttigieg's South Bend, Nest said Buttigieg is her pick for the nomination right now.

"I want to leave my grandchildren a better world, and I had that feeling from him," she said. "That he could do that for me."