Pete Buttigieg is making his move in the Democratic race, sharpening his presidential campaign messages with a dire warning that the party’s far-left wing is deepening the country’s political divide by infuriating middle-of-the-road voters and thereby could throw the election to President Trump.
The 38-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, emerged as a consensus winner from the fourth presidential debate, where he hammered home his argument that the way voters view the national debate in the Midwest differs vastly from the perspective of Democrats such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts who are driving hyperpartisan agendas.
“This is not just about who has the best policy — although of course, I believe my policy plans are the right ones for America,” Mr. Buttigieg said Wednesday on CNN. “This is going to be about who is going to be able to pick up the pieces and move the country forward after the Trump presidency comes to an end.”
Mr. Buttigieg said the party should be concerned about getting sucked into purity tests at the expense of pursuing policies that could get written into law.
“When we know that by the time the Trump presidency ends, one way or the other, we’re going to be even more divided, even more polarized, even more torn apart by politics than we are right now,” he said. “That means being able to fight is not enough. We’ve got to be able to unite as well.”
Since making a big splash early on in the race, Mr. Buttigieg has focused on raising money and building out his ground game in the early primary states.
He has positioned himself as the best moderate alternative to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who has faded in the polls and seemed like an afterthought in Tuesday’s debate.
The approach is starting to pay off in Iowa.
Mr. Buttigieg is sitting at 12% in the Real Clear Politics average of Iowa polls, putting him within striking distance of Ms. Warren at 23%, Mr. Biden at 19% and Mr. Sanders at 16%.
David Yepsen, a former Des Moines Register political reporter who covered the Iowa caucuses for decades, said Mr. Buttigieg’s performance Tuesday should help him solidify his support.
“He’s always performed better than the early polls were showing,” Mr. Yepsen said. “The race is starting to take shape, and he’s got a good, smart campaign. He’s always attracted good crowds, particularly of younger people. He’s got an excellent ground organization.”
Mr. Buttigieg, who is openly gay, still has his work cut out for him — particularly with black voters, who have been slow to warm to him and who make up the majority of the Democratic primary electorate in South Carolina, the third contest in the primary race.
He is banking on the idea that Obama-like breakthroughs in the Iowa caucuses could change that political dynamic.
The mayor has decided that going after Mr. Biden is not the best way to seize the more conventional liberal lane, but by distancing himself from Ms. Warren and the far-left proposals of other rivals.
“With Bernie and Elizabeth fighting it out for the left-hand lane, the centrist lane is a bit more crowded,” Mr. Yepsen said. “But if Biden continues to fade in the center, Mayor Pete will have some appeal.”
His message also is resonating with some Republicans.
Mr. Buttigieg is calling out Ms. Warren for refusing to say — unlike Mr. Sanders — that taxes will be raised on the middle class to pay for a “Medicare for All” system and suggesting the far-left vision that is powering her campaign can appear divisive to middle-of-the-road voters.
“Not only is it important to have yes or no answers to yes or no questions at a time when people are so frustrated with Washington-speak, but also there’s still been no explanation for a multitrillion-dollar hole in this plan,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “I have a lot of respect for Sen. Warren, but last night she was more specific and forthcoming about the number of selfies she’s taken than about how this plan is going to be funded. And that’s a real problem, especially when there’s a better way to deliver health care coverage to everybody.”
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is backing Ms. Warren, also signaled that Mr. Buttigieg could start catching more flak from his left flank. It blasted out an email highlighting past tweets in which Mr. Buttigieg voiced his full-throated support for Medicare for All.
Lis Smith, a senior Butitgieg adviser, said the campaign was getting a post-debate bounce.
“Between website traffic and small-dollar contributions, this is one of the biggest days of this campaign,” she said in a Twitter post.
Bryce Smith, chairman of the Dallas County Democrats in Iowa, said Mr. Buttigieg is likely siphoning support away from Mr. Biden.
“I think for every drop in Biden, it is a gain in Buttigieg,” Mr. Smith said. “Pete is more progressive on issues because of his age and what he has lived through. But I’d also say that if you put Joe Biden in a 38-year-old body in today’s world it would be very much like Pete Buttigieg.”
He said Mr. Buttigieg’s bid is stirring up memories of Barack Obama’s rise in the 2008 Democratic primary race.
“People draw a lot of commonalities between Barack Obama circa 2007 and Peter Buttigieg in 2019 — not just because of their age and newness to politics, but in general the way they try to build up momentum and the promise of hope and change and a different future,” he said. “I think that resonates with a lot of Iowans.”