In nearly every Democratic presidential debate this year, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has taken on the same role as most of his fellow candidates: watching as the titans of the field have clashed over competing visions for the Democratic Party like a bystander in a Toho Studios monster movie.
That all changed in October, when the millennial mayor launched one of the sharpest attacks by any candidate this cycle, casting himself as a moderate alternative to progressive rival Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) over health care, while teeing off an avalanche of coverage for his own bid over the past several weeks. Those attacks have coincided with a steady rise in polls in at least two early states.
On Wednesday, that new fame and frontrunner status appears likely to crystallize when 10 candidates take the stage at Atlanta’s Tyler Perry Studios. With recent polls showing him taking the top spot in Iowa, and a correlative increase in the volume and venom of grumblings from fellow contenders about his lack of comparative lack of experience, weak performance among key constituencies, and general the presumptuousness of a presidential run by the mayor of a city whose entire population could fit into a college football stadium, Buttigieg is nearly guaranteed to face the grilling of his short political résumé.
“Everyone who has been first in Iowa going into the debate has taken the most incoming during the debate,” Rebecca Katz, a progressive Democratic strategist, told The Daily Beast.
Buttigieg has had a relatively easy go of it so far. Though his national polling averages place him firmly at the bottom of the upper tier, the mayor has proven himself to be a fundraising juggernaut. In the third quarter of this year, he raised a comparatively massive $19.1 million and is sitting on $23.4 million in cash on hand, placing him just slightly under Warren’s sum of $25.7 million and approximately $10 million behind Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who has $33.7 million on hand. With that much money to work with, Buttigieg is in strong financial position heading into the final stretch before Iowa, with plenty of money needed to compete through the first four early voting states—and then some.
On top of those fundraising numbers and the campaign’s “radical accessibility” strategy, Buttigieg has benefited from a wide field of candidates and the seemingly unshakeable status of former Vice President Joe Biden, Warren, and Sanders as the party’s trio of frontrunners.
Judging from the digs his opponents have made publicly over the past few weeks, Buttigieg will likely face a multi-pronged attack from his rivals from his policies to his résumé to recent campaign missteps that reflect broader problems within the campaign with diversity, particularly his non-existent support from black voters.
Sanders and Warren may take steps to create even more contrast, particularly in response to Buttigieg’s framing of his “Medicare for All Who Want It” policy as a more politically palatable-slash-feasible proposal than enacting an outright single-payer system. In particular, some Democrats have in recent days said Warren’s health-care plan—now framed as a “transition” before an eventual transition to a universal health-care system—hews closer to the South Bend mayor’s proposal than she’d initially led on.
“Did Elizabeth Warren just endorse Pete Buttigieg's health care plan?” Jim Kessler, the co-founder of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, wrote last week.
Still, Buttigieg has largely publicly avoided trading back-and-forth hits with most of his opponents.
“I’m not going to get into the inside baseball stuff—I doubt that that’s going to be a question on any voter’s mind as we go around the country,” Buttigieg told reporters on his campaign bus in New Hampshire last weekend. “It’s a competition, but it’s just not where my focus is.”
Buttigieg’s campaign reiterated that message to The Daily Beast, noting that his communications team “just don't really get into debate strategy.”
His rivals, nonetheless, see it differently. In fact, many have been waiting for this exact moment for weeks, where they get to strike back over what some campaigns have said have been Buttigieg’s subtle and overt attacks.
In early October, a Buttigieg campaign official denied “trying to subtweet other people” when told that several campaigns felt slighted by his jabs here and there. But by the time the fourth debate came around in Westerville, Ohio, where 12 candidates competed on stage, Buttigieg launched his strongest critique of Warren’s approach to health care yet, noting that the senator who has a “plan” for everything doesn’t seem to have a proposal for the issue that polls as a top priority for Democrats, and allowing himself a break-out moment in the process.
“Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything. Except this,” Buttigieg said in Ohio. “I don't understand why you believe the only way to deliver affordable coverage to everybody is to obliterate private plans.” Buttigieg’s attack set off fresh critiques in the following days from rivals, including Biden, using a similar argument against Warren.
Warren, unlike others in the field, responded to Buttigieg’s jabs not with a defensive attack, but with a massive elaboration on her “Medicare for All” proposal.
For other candidates, especially those faced with strained financial resources and thinning voter patience for a presidential field that keeps expanding rather than contracting, striking at Buttigieg’s perceived weaknesses may be their last opportunity to force a “moment” less than three months out from the first nominating contest.
In recent days, former HUD Secretary Julián Castro and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) have been the most unsparing in their criticism, blasting Buttigieg on the record for his bordering-on-nonexistent polling support among black voters in South Carolina and his lack of experience, respectively. But only one of those two will be on stage on Wednesday. Castro didn’t make the cut, and a Klobuchar adviser told The Daily Beast she’s not likely to strike Buttigieg hard.
Still, while he may not be physically in Georgia, Castro’s argument—that a candidate who is polling effectively at zero among black voters in early states will never be able to build the coalition required to defeat President Donald Trump—is a critique that is not going away.
Buttigieg has recognized that he is vulnerable on the question of black voter support, an issue that has intensified in recent weeks. A report in The Intercept on Friday found that three black Democratic officials in South Carolina said Buttigieg’s campaign misleadingly promoted them as explicit supporters. In a press release outlining the campaign’s “Douglass Plan,” the campaign listed Tameika Devine, a Columbia City councilwoman, Rev. Ivory Thigpen, a state representative, and Johnnie Cordero, who chairs the state party’s Black Caucus, as top supporters, which they contended was vague or misleading. They also used a stock photo of a woman from Kenya to illustrate the plan, a move that his campaign said was unintentionally done by a contractor. Still, when asked about the photo, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) said: “I’m sure someone agrees that was a big mistake. He’s going to have to answer for that.” On Monday, a Quinnipiac University poll in the Palmetto State only highlighted that problem: Buttigieg earned less than 1 percent of support with black voters in the state.
During the first debate in June, Buttigieg faced early questions for an issue unraveling in South Bend, where a white police officer shot a black man. The moment in Miami helped expose broader problems for the leader back home and led several prominent national lawmakers to question his commitment to African American voters, a loyal constituency for the Democratic Party.
And some Democrats are still waiting for him to course-correct. “Par for the course,” one member of Congress told The Daily Beast when asked about Buttigieg struggling to gain traction with African-American voters. “Does not surprise me at all. He continues to offer only lip service to black folk.”