Pete Buttigieg: White House hopeful in 2024? Or 2052?

Jerome CARTILLIER
Out of contention for the White House, Pete Buttigieg has gained a public profile that could bode well for his political future -- if he can broaden his appeal beyond a largely white voter base (AFP Photo/JIM WATSON)

Washington (AFP) - Pete Buttigieg, the fresh-faced former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, burst spectacularly onto the US political stage with his presidential bid.

While he is officially out of contention for 2020, the 38-year-old military veteran has gained a public profile that could bode well for his political future -- as long as he can broaden his appeal beyond a largely white voter base.

"Almost nobody knew my name, and almost no one could pronounce it," Buttigieg joked in recalling the launch of his primary campaign last April. By the time he ended his run on Sunday night, he was known across the nation as "Mayor Pete."

The first openly gay candidate for the United States' top office, Buttigieg nudged out veteran progressive Bernie Sanders by a whisker in the Iowa caucuses, opening up a political horizon far beyond the mayorship of his hometown, which he led for eight years.

"You have the sense that this was not the end for Pete but the end of the beginning," said David Axelrod, one of the architects of Barack Obama's victory in 2008.

In his speech announcing he was dropping out of the White House race, Buttigieg promised to do everything he could to make sure the country has "a Democratic president in January," making clear he still intended to weigh on the contest.

Clearly positioned in the "centrist" wing of the Democratic Party, he walks a political line close to that of former president Obama.

Occupying the same territory, Obama's former vice president Joe Biden appeared poised to receive precious endorsements from both Buttigieg and fellow centrist Amy Klobuchar, who also pulled out Monday and announced outright she was backing Biden.

But Biden is 77, and many doubt that if successful he would serve more than a single term.

- 'No personal fortune' -

Educated at Harvard and Oxford before being recruited as a McKinsey consultant, Buttigieg makes no secret of his ambitions, a trait that has drawn mockery from some of his detractors.

For now Buttigieg, who likes to remind audiences that he started out with "no personal fortune," has no political mandate, his mayorship having expired in January.

He has not said what he plans to do next, but if a Democrat defeats Trump on November 3, he can reasonably expect his pick of cabinet jobs.

Running for the House of Representatives or the Senate in the 2022 midterms could prove trickier, as Indiana is a very conservative state, whose governor was Mike Pence until he was tapped as Trump's vice president.

And if he still harbors national ambitions, the road to the top remains a long one.

His decision to throw in the towel in Democratic primaries came three days after he came in a distant fourth in South Carolina. One result stood out clearly there: exit polls carried out by NBC showed he had only won just three percent of the African American vote.

He had failed to convince this traditionally Democratic-voting segment of the population that he fully understood their struggles, past and present.

Without this significant constituency, his political horizons appear constrained.

Yet at a time when the Democratic race is starting to resemble a smackdown among three septuagenarians -- Sanders, Biden and Mike Bloomberg -- some are already asking whether the youthful Mayor Pete plans another crack at the White House.

In his speech to supporters Sunday night, the crowd chanted "2024! 2024!" -- drawing the hint of a smile but no response from the ex-candidate.

While the political landscape of the coming decade remains unclear, for Buttigieg there is one certainty: time is on his side.

As was drily noted by Washington Post political reporter Matt Viser, "Pete Buttigieg would still be younger than almost all of the candidates left in this race if he ran for president in the 2052 election."