Buttigieg stirs up 2020 race with pitch as Trump's polar opposite

Michael Mathes
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Democratic presidential hopeful Mayor Pete Buttigieg (C) gets a fist bump from a child at Polly's Pancake Parlor in Franconia, NH, on November 10, 2019, as he continues the 4-day bus tour of the state

Democratic presidential hopeful Mayor Pete Buttigieg (C) gets a fist bump from a child at Polly's Pancake Parlor in Franconia, NH, on November 10, 2019, as he continues the 4-day bus tour of the state (AFP Photo/JIM WATSON)

Franklin (United States) (AFP) - Pete Buttigieg is criss-crossing New Hampshire on a mission: to convince voters that a 30-something smalltown mayor with an unapologetically moderate message is the Democratic Party's best shot at ousting President Donald Trump.

"Folks are usually looking for the opposite of what they just had, and I would argue that I'm as opposite from this president as it gets," Buttigieg told AFP late Saturday on his blue-and-yellow coach as it rolled towards his fifth campaign event of the day.

On a four-day bus tour through The Granite State, the millennial mayor of South Bend, Indiana is seeking to win over voters by positioning himself as an articulate pragmatist with equal parts realism and vision.

Buttigieg hopes the formula will win out over experienced frontrunners twice his age.

The 37-year-old has seen his stock rise substantially in Iowa, the state that votes first next February in the party nomination race.

In New Hampshire, which votes second, the verdict is still out, and Buttigieg is pouring time and resources into the small New England state to convert voters.

"We're seeing growing support in Iowa and we believe that we can recreate that here," campaign manager Lis Smith said Sunday as Buttigieg greeted supporters at a diner in Littleton.

In town halls and barn parties, Buttigieg has repeated his goal of unifying a divided nation after Trump's polarizing presidency.

It won't come through radical and costly ideas, he stressed, but policies that reflect more realistic advances and fiscal restraint to address issues like health care and climate change.

"I'm running to be the president who can stand on the rubble that day when the Trump presidency is finally behind us, pick up the pieces and guide us toward a future where we are dealing with those problems together," Buttigieg voters crammed into a barn in New Hampton.

- Technocrat dreaming big -

He exudes a calming sense of reason, and unlike his main competitors -- former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders -- Buttigieg rarely raises his voice while campaigning.

He is a technocrat who dreams big and looks to inspire a broad swath of voters, even though he readily acknowledges he can't satisfy everyone.

"The thing I like about Mayor Peter is the fact that He's not too far left, he's not too far right," said Michael McLeod, an undecided voter in his fifties who is leaning towards Buttigieg.

"He's in the middle of the road about healthcare (and) the climate change issue" as well as student debt, McLeod adds.

In a historically crowded field, it is Buttigieg, from a down-on-its luck Midwest manufacturing city, who surprisingly has risen toward the top tier, leapfrogging better-known candidates like Beto O'Rourke, the fresh-faced ex-congressman from Texas who has already dropped out.

As Buttigieg's campaign rises, Senator Amy Klobuchar, a moderate, and her more progressive Senate colleagues Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have seen their bids stall despite years of higher visibility.

Voters voice respect for Buttigieg's record as a military veteran who served in Afghanistan, and as a mayor making executive decisions.

He occupies the same centrist lane as Biden, the frontrunner whose shaky performance in debates, stale campaign appearances and advanced age have caused many here to re-evaluate their support.

- 'Leadership is leadership' -

Biden, 76, "doesn't have my heart," acknowledged T.J. Thran, a 25-year-old video producer who expressed appreciation for Buttigieg's articulate delivery and appeal for inclusion.

But he worries that as the first gay American to launch a viable presidential campaign, Buttigieg might turn off some working-class voters.

"I believe love is love and leadership is leadership," Thran said at Buttigieg's Lebanon town hall, where some 1,400 people showed up.

Voters at Buttigieg events said his sexuality played little part in their decision-making. But many said they fret over rapid, overwhelming change.

Retiree Paul Elkins of Moultonborough is wary of Warren's Medicare for All universal health care plan, which she projects would cost some $20.5 trillion.

"She's a little bit too far -- or a lot too far -- left for me. And I find that Mayor Pete is a more moderate candidate," Elkins, 62, said at the barn rally.

Defeating Trump is a top priority, but with "somebody that's too far left, that may not happen," he added.

Buttigieg's bus took him through picturesque towns like Franklin, where he toured local businesses working towards a rejuvenation after years of economic atrophy.

"Reminds me of home," Buttigieg said.