FRANKLIN, N.H. – Pete Buttigieg was talking about climate change to about a dozen reporters on his campaign bus Saturday when the presidential candidate leaped out of his captain’s chair to look out the picture window at a burning building.
“Oh!” he exclaimed. “That is a very large fire.”
Then his attention was drawn to a boy who had been watching the Franklin firefighters’ controlled burn turn away from the fire to point at Buttigieg’s passing blue and gold bus.
“I thought, if this bus is enough of an attraction to pry the eyes of a 10-year-old off of a burning structure surrounded by firefighters, we know that we’ve generated a little bit of excitement,” Buttigieg later told a gathering of about 50 supporters at a home in Madison.
After the TV cameras and notepad-toting reporters had squeezed into the living room, Buttigieg explained he was crisscrossing New Hampshire with the news media in tow to “really show, versus tell, the importance of transparency as a value at a time when we’ve got a White House that doesn’t even do press briefings anymore.”
His bus had rolled into New Hampshire after two trips through Iowa, where he has climbed into the top tier of polls. A Quinnipiac University Poll of New Hampshire Democrats released Monday likewise showed Buttigieg among the top four candidates in the crowded field
On board for much of the tour through all of the state’s 10 counties were a rotating batch of local, national and international reporters taking advantage of what Buttigieg referred to as the “radical access” to his campaign. More than one reporter said they had gone through all the questions in their notebook during the trip.
The Indiana mayor’s availability to the media – a strategy initially born out of necessity for the largely unknown politician – is one reason he has vaulted over more established candidates in the Democratic field. In fact, a New York Times article on how Buttigieg is "annoying" his rivals with his success was one of the first topics reporters raised on the second day of the four-day trip.
“I’m not going to get into the inside-baseball stuff,” Buttigieg responded, adding: “I get that I’m coming from a nontraditional place.”
But was he surprised by the comments from some of the other campaigns?
“It’s a competition,” he said with a shrug. “But it’s just not where my focus is.”
Buttigieg had been pressed the day before on why he doesn’t allow the media into his fundraisers, as former Vice President Joe Biden does.
That’s a question for staff, he demurred.
In fact, during the New Hampshire trip, Buttigieg made a detour without the media entourage to a fundraiser in Providence, Rhode Island.
On other topics, Buttigieg fielded dozens of questions over many hours in between ducking into his back office on the bus for private calls or to work on a Veterans Day speech.
What did he think when Biden started calling his own health care plan, Medicare for All Who Want It, a term Buttigieg coined?
“Well, it’s a very effective way to describe my plan,” Buttigieg said. “I’m not sure that my plan and his plan are exactly the same.”
Is his approach to issues like health care more palatable to voters than the calls for structural change coming from Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders?
“What I see is an attempt to address these problems that could be addressed with less cost and less upheaval,” he said.
What’s his favorite hymn? The Welsh hymn "Bryn Calfaria," or Calvary Hill, which he says is best in the original Welsh.
What kind of stress dreams does he have? It’s the last day of a school semester and he doesn’t even know what classes he was supposed to have been attending. (Turns out most reporters on the bus have that dream, too.)
Buttigieg got multiple versions of recurring questions that have been asked about his campaign: Why isn’t he attracting more support from African Americans? Has he shifted his positions since entering the race to sound more moderate? Why doesn’t he talk more about his time at the consulting firm McKinsey? What mistakes did he make in handling problems within the South Bend Police Department? How can he beat President Donald Trump when the only elections he has won have been two mayoral races in a not-large Democratic city?
In between, Buttigieg hopped on and off the bus for well-attended town halls, campaign organizing meetings, walking tours of downtowns he said reminded him of the revitalization efforts in his own South Bend, and a stop at a solar-powered brewery where he sampled a Mai Tai-inspired beer.
“It was good,” he told reporters when he had resettled into his swivel seat on the bus, right ankle resting on the left knee. “It had, like, a beginning, middle and an end.”
'Straight Talk Express' for the social media era
A stuffed dog he picked up at a shop in Franklin that sells locally made products found a home on the bus, as did a basket of fudge and other treats personally delivered by Pat Provencher, a superfan from New Hampton. When she’s not baking for Buttigieg or attending a barn party for him, the senior citizen keeps an eye on Facebook so she can respond to any negative comment she sees about her favorite candidate.
The bus is modeled after the “Straight Talk Express” that Arizona Sen. John McCain first rode in his unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination in 2000.
But in the age of social media, it’s more of a high-wire act – both for the candidate and for the news media.
When a reporter incorrectly quoted Buttigieg as criticizing the “failures of the Obama era” instead of the “failures of the old normal,” the comment went viral before it was fixed. Buttigieg then tweeted that he appreciated the reporter’s “swift and honest correction.”
Buttigieg also took in stride the blowback he received on social media for “cutting up his cinnamon roll into small pieces and eating it like a CHICKEN WING.”
“Twitter will hate anything I get,” Chasten Buttigieg, Pete’s husband, said when perusing what is billed as the “world’s longest candy counter” during a stop at Chutters in Littleton. (Twitter, in fact, loves Chasten.)
Biggest misconception about Mayor Pete?
In addition to the omnipresence of social media, Buttigieg’s bus is also very different from the original Straight Talk Express in tone and temperament. McCain reveled in his rebel persona, enjoyed ribbing reporters and didn’t hide his quick temper.
Buttigieg, the erudite son of university professors, is contemplative and careful.
He said the biggest misconception about him is “I guess the idea that I don’t get angry.”
“There’s been an idea that because I don’t emote in the same way as some others that I’m not passionate," he said. “Just because it’s a slower burn doesn’t mean it isn’t a kind of passion.”
But he gave the nonpersonal answer of “injustice” when pressed to describe what makes him angry.
Any regrets about the 'just in case' letter?
He did submit to a deep dive into his personal history: How old he was when he started to feel different? What was the path of his religious journey? And has he revisited the “just in case” letter he wrote to his parents before he deployed to Afghanistan as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve in 2014 – an experience that he has said made him realize he needed to come out as gay when he returned so he could live a full life.
“It’s funny to think that I wrote that trying to project a sense that I didn’t have any resentment over missing out on things when what I was missing out on then was now the most important thing in my life,” he said of his marriage to Chasten.
Does he regret not having included in the letter that he was gay?
“No,” Buttigieg said. “It’d be weird to have something that I was only willing to have people know if I was dead.”
One question related to his sexuality that Buttigieg didn’t want to address was whether he expects to see at Thanksgiving a brother-in-law who has been public about his opposition to same-sex marriage.
“I think that part of my Thanksgiving will stay off the record,” he said politely but definitively.
One of the only times he showed discomfort with a line of questioning was when pressed on his ambition and whether achievement is important to him.
“Um…yeah,” he said, before elaborating – after a prompting – that everyone gets only one turn in life so it’s important to make it count.
“Watching you write is a little unnerving,” he said with a nervous laugh as the reporter scribbled the answer into her notepad.
“You are, like, literally on the couch right now,” interjected Lis Smith, his senior adviser who devised the media access strategy.
Acknowledging his unease, Buttigieg explained that “I never really, like, dug into that on a bus full of reporters before.”
“But, by all means,” he added, “go on.”
Mayor record: Pete Buttigieg casts himself as tech-oriented pragmatist
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pete Buttigieg's 2020 campaign bus tour promises radical access