White House hopeful Buttigieg thrives in debate but doubts linger

Michael Mathes
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Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has emerged as a top-tier candidate, and during the November 20, 2019 debate faced questions about his thin political resume

Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has emerged as a top-tier candidate, and during the November 20, 2019 debate faced questions about his thin political resume (AFP Photo/SAUL LOEB)

Washington (AFP) - After a strong debate showing, Pete Buttigieg cemented his status as a genuine White House contender. But with no national experience, minimal black support and as the youngest Democrat running, the openly gay 37-year-old must still win over doubters.

The military veteran and millennial mayor of South Bend, Indiana showed at the fifth Democratic debate Wednesday he has the policy chops to take on skilled politicians with decades of Washington experience, along with the outsider status that rivals President Donald Trump's.

Buttigieg also displayed a talent for absorbing criticism during two hours of discussion in Atlanta that was largely staid -- given it occurred on a day of dramatic impeachment hearings -- but did include combustible exchanges.

He remains in fourth spot in national polling but has moved the needle in early voting states, taking the lead in Iowa, less than three months before nomination ballots are first cast there, and gaining in New Hampshire.

Frontrunner Joe Biden occupies the same moderate lane as Buttigieg, and the two counterbalance liberal rivals Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, arguing that America is not ready for the economic upheaval that could result from their revolutionary proposals.

But while Biden, the 77-year-old former vice president and longtime senator, has more experience on the global stage than any debate rivals, he is also a creature of the very Washington "swamp" Trump repeatedly vilifies.

Buttigieg largely succeeded in turning that to his advantage as he jabbed establishment politics.

"Washington experience is not the only experience that matters. There's more than 100 years of Washington experience on this stage, and where are we right now as a country?" he asked.

"I would argue we need something very different right now."

The 10 candidates debated policy. But they clashed over who would be better positioned to defeat Trump at the ballot box -- a deliberation over the elusive issue of electability.

When congresswoman and military veteran Tulsi Gabbard directly challenged his shallow national record, the perpetually unruffled Buttigieg shot back in a fiery demeanor he rarely reveals, suggesting he can turn the passion up a notch when required.

Where that fervor is clearly lacking is among African-Americans, who heavily favor Biden. (Buttigieg received a humbling zero percent support from black voters in South Carolina in a recent Quinnipiac University poll.)

- 'Toe-to-toe' -

African Americans form a critical Democratic constituency, and Senator Kamala Harris, the only black woman in the race, may have been signaling Buttigieg's lack of black support when she invoked president Barack Obama.

"We've got to re-create the Obama coalition to win," she said.

Buttigieg responded that he welcomed "the challenge of connecting with black voters in America who don't yet know me," and highlighted how his own discrimination as an openly gay American man has helped him empathize with minorities.

He also played up his roots in the Midwest, where the industrial belt backed Trump in 2016.

"We need somebody who can go toe-to-toe who actually comes from the kinds of communities that he's been appealing to," Buttigieg said.

Overall, the debate appeared to be a "win" for Buttigieg, Professor David Barker, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, told AFP on Thursday.

But "it remains to be seen whether he can convince enough voters that being mayor of a small college town really constitutes enough experience to be president."

As a rising star, Buttigieg was expected to have a larger target on his back.

But the attacks were mild, and Biden himself held his fire, perhaps because he doubts the sustainability of the challenger's sharp rise.

Biden repeated his argument that he offers the best chance to defeat Trump. But the Democratic elder statesman appeared to give more fuel to critics who say he is past his prime.

His opening remarks were unsteady, and he committed an unforced error when he claimed he has support from the "only" African-American woman ever elected to the Senate.

"The other one is here," said Harris, raising her arms and laughing.

As in previous debates, Biden had "some good moments but some really embarrassing ones as well," Barker said.

"If he does eventually win this nomination, he will have limped across the finish line to do so."