But­tigieg emerges in Iowa as al­ter­na­tive to Bi­den

South Bend mayor gains as mod­er­ate with polls and fundrais­ing

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - BY BILL RUTHHART

DECORAH, Iowa — Deb Tekippe spent much of this year con­vinced she would sup­port Joe Bi­den in his 2020 bid for pres­i­dent, but the more she has seen of him on the stump in Iowa and in de­bates on tele­vi­sion, the less con­fi­dent she has be­come.

So, on a re­cent rainy evening she found her­self crammed up against the bleach­ers in Decorah’s high school gym­na­sium to see South Bend Mayor Pete But­tigieg. She came away in­trigued.

“I was all in for Joe Bi­den, but now I’m won­der­ing what hap­pened with him, you know? It’s ob­vi­ous that he’s fad­ing,” said Tekippe, 63, a re­tired nurse who now says she won’t caucus for Bi­den and is strongly con­sid­er­ing But­tigieg. “Pete is on his way up. There is a lot of en­thu­si­asm for him, and there are so many peo­ple who re­ally want to be­lieve in their can­di­date, and you have to see him in per­son to see how im­pres­sive he is.”

Tekippe’s ex­pe­ri­ence re­flects the new re­al­ity in Iowa: But­tigieg has emerged as the ma­jor al­ter­na­tive to Bi­den among mod­er­ate

vot­ers the for­mer vice pres­i­dent has counted on as the bedrock of his cam­paign in the first-in-then­ation caucus state.

A new Quin­nip­iac Univer­sity poll re­leased Wed­nes­day found But­tigieg in sec­ond place in Iowa, a sin­gle per­cent­age point be­hind Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren, and ahead of Sen. Bernie San­ders in third and Bi­den in fourth. That fol­lowed a re­cent New York Times/Siena Col­lege poll that had But­tigieg with slightly more sup­port than Bi­den in the state, plac­ing him third be­hind the more lib­eral War­ren and San­ders.

The Mid­west­ern mayor not only has caught Bi­den in the polls, but his cam­paign is bet­ter funded, has drawn larger and louder crowds at events, and has shown signs of a more ef­fec­tive ground op­er­a­tion in a state where the for­mer vice pres­i­dent is mak­ing his third bid for the White House. The ques­tion re­mains whether But­tigieg can turn that mo­men­tum into per­ma­nent sup­port ahead of the first-in-the-na­tion Iowa cau­cuses on Feb. 3.

His ad­van­tages were on full dis­play in re­cent days as the top 13 can­di­dates in the field flocked to Des Moines for the state Demo­cratic party’s an­nual fall fundrais­ing din­ner, an event so large this year that it drew more than 13,000 peo­ple to the down­town sports arena.

There, But­tigieg’s sup­port­ers made up about one-quar­ter of the crowd, giv­ing their can­di­date the loud­est ap­plause of the night. Bi­den had the small­est group of sup­port­ers among the ma­jor can­di­dates — with the ex­cep­tion of San­ders, who drew around 1,000 peo­ple to a rally out­side but didn’t buy tick­ets for sup­port­ers in­side.

The en­thu­si­asm gap be­tween Bi­den and But­tigieg was even more ev­i­dent in the hours be­fore the main event.

More than 2,300 peo­ple stood in a steady rain for a But­tigieg rally in a down­town plaza where Grammy Award-win­ning singer­song­writer Ben Harper per­formed, and the can­di­date gave a speech and thanked the “Barn­storm­ers for Pete,” a group of die-hard sup­port­ers that trav­els the coun­try to boost the mayor’s can­di­dacy.

“Well, friends, this is what it feels like when you re­al­ize you are def­i­nitely go­ing to be the next pres­i­dent of the United States!” But­tigieg, 37, said to a loud roar from the pon­cho-clad crowd mo­ments be­fore he led them in a march through down­town to the arena. “This is what it feels like to build a move­ment. This is what it feels like to in­sist on change.”

A block away and a few min­utes later, Bi­den, 76, wel­comed his sup­port­ers in a con­ven­tion cen­ter ball­room that re­mained a quar­ter empty. About one-third of the crowd sat on fold­ing chairs in an ac­ces­si­bil­ity seat­ing sec­tion filled with se­niors as the lo­cal cover band Pork Tor­na­does played to lit­tle ap­plause.

Harold Schait­berger, the long­time pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Fire Fight­ers, and for­mer sec­ond lady Jill Bi­den talked longer than the can­di­date, who gave an un­usu­ally short five-minute speech. Bi­den spent most of it telling the story of how he asked his wife to marry him five times be­fore she said yes and thank­ing the fire­fight­ers union, which has en­dorsed his cam­paign.

“This is all about you, all about you get­ting peo­ple in­volved in the cau­cuses. It’s hand-to-hand,” Bi­den said from the stage. “Get in­volved di­rectly in the cam­paign. Be­come precinct cap­tains, if you’re not. Vol­un­teer to make phone calls, knock on doors. Ladies and gen­tle­men, it all starts in Iowa on Feb. 3, and we’re go­ing to win Iowa.”

As the crowd filed out, cam­paign aides held fists full of tick­ets for the big din­ner, many of them pre­sum­ably for the six up­per-deck sec­tions of the arena that Bi­den’s cam­paign had pur­chased tick­ets for but ended up empty. Gi­ant stacks of free, white T-shirts that read “Ridin’ with Bi­den” also went un­claimed while in the room next door, But­tigieg sup­port­ers who couldn’t score tick­ets filed into an “over­flow” watch party.

“Am I dis­ap­pointed there were shirts left on a ta­ble? No, be­cause I don’t think that re­flects the ac­tual op­er­a­tion,” Schait­berger said as he came to Bi­den’s de­fense the next day at a fish fry in Cedar Rapids. “En­thu­si­asm is im­por­tant, but so is com­mit­ment.”

So far, both cam­paigns have more than 20 of­fices and in ex­cess of 100 paid staffers in the state, but Schait­berger pre­dicts that Bi­den’s ground game will turn out loyal Iowans likely to at­tend cau­cuses while im­ply­ing But­tigieg’s new­found sup­port is more fickle. He dis­missed the South Bend mayor as the “fla­vor of the mo­ment” and ac­cused him of bus­ing in hun­dreds of peo­ple from In­di­ana.

In the 2008 pres­i­den­tial race, Bi­den made a sim­i­lar ac­cu­sa­tion when then-Sen. Barack Obama gave a soar­ing speech at the Des

Moines din­ner and flexed his cam­paign’s or­ga­ni­za­tional mus­cle by draw­ing the largest and loud­est crowd to the event. Bi­den nee­dled Obama by wel­com­ing that sec­tion of the hall with a “Hello, Chicago.”

In the end, though, it turned out the ju­nior sen­a­tor from Illi­nois did, in fact, have the strong­est grass­roots op­er­a­tion in Iowa, one that launched him to­ward the pres­i­dency.

“Yes,” Schait­berger grudg­ingly agreed with a smile. “Yes, he did.”

‘They will vote for Joe’

With less than three months un­til the cau­cuses, the state of play in Iowa re­mains fluid. The Times/ Siena poll found 65% of Iowa vot­ers who picked a top can­di­date still could be con­vinced to caucus for some­one else. The Quin­nip­iac poll, taken in the days be­fore and after the Demo­cratic din­ner, placed that num­ber at 52%.

Both polls con­cluded the race is a wide-open, four-can­di­date con­test — with the front-run­ning quar­tet in a sta­tis­ti­cal dead heat.

The Times/Siena poll found War­ren lead­ing with 22% of the vote, fol­lowed by San­ders with 19%, But­tigieg with 18% and Bi­den with 17%. Quin­nip­iac had War­ren lead­ing with 20%, fol­lowed by But­tigieg with 19%, San­ders with 17% and Bi­den with 15%. The next clos­est can­di­date in both polls was Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar col­lect­ing around 5%.

Polls are lit­tle more than a snapshot in time, but this lat­est one re­in­forced a trend of Bi­den fall­ing back to the pack after months of be­ing con­sid­ered the front-run­ner. They also em­pha­sized the show­down be­tween Bi­den and But­tigieg for the party’s more cen­trist vot­ers.

For ex­am­ple, the Quin­nip­iac poll found that vot­ers who iden­tify as “mod­er­ates and con­ser­va­tives” made up 50% of likely cau­cus­go­ers, and among them, But­tigieg re­ceived 19% sup­port and Bi­den 18%. Among the 24% of vot­ers iden­ti­fy­ing as “some­what lib­eral,” War­ren led with 29%, fol­lowed by But­tigieg with 24%. Of the vot­ers who con­sider them­selves “very lib­eral,” San­ders fin­ished with 32% to War­ren’s 30%, ac­cord­ing to the poll re­sults.

So far, Bi­den has re­mained the leader in more wide­spread na­tional polls, where vot­ers are fa­mil­iar with his his­tory as vice pres­i­dent but per­haps are not tun­ing in as closely to the race as vot­ers in early states. He trails, how­ever, in fundrais­ing, end­ing the last quar­ter with about $9 mil­lion in cash on hand com­pared with $34 mil­lion for San­ders, $26 mil­lion for War­ren and $23 mil­lion for But­tigieg.

Dur­ing a re­cent stop in Maquoketa, Bi­den stood in front of bales of hay and a few pump­kins, and read off a pair of teleprompt­ers as he gave a speech to a small group of about 100 cau­cus­go­ers gath­ered in a metal barn at the Jack­son

County Fair­grounds.

Us­ing teleprompt­ers for such an in­ti­mate set­ting is un­usual — par­tic­u­larly in Iowa, where vot­ers wel­come spon­ta­neous in­ter­ac­tions with can­di­dates — but it re­flected ef­forts from Bi­den’s staff to keep him from wan­der­ing off mes­sage. His speech in­cluded some not-so-sub­tle jabs at But­tigieg.

“The next pres­i­dent is go­ing to in­herit a di­vided na­tion and a world in dis­ar­ray. It’s go­ing to re­quire some­one who can truly unite this na­tion at home, and some­one who can com­mand the re­spect of world lead­ers on day one,” Bi­den said. “There’s not go­ing to be a whole lot of time for on-the-job train­ing.”

After the speech, Bi­den took ques­tions, in­clud­ing one on health care from Su­san Reighard, who said she owes thou­sands of dol­lars in med­i­cal bills after un­der­go­ing a surgery. Bi­den must have had But­tigieg on the brain, be­cause in his re­sponse, he used the mayor’s catch­phrase of “Medi­care for All Who Want It” to de­scribe his own plan.

Reighard, how­ever, didn’t no­tice and said af­ter­ward she never was on But­tigieg’s “band­wagon.” She ar­rived to the event un­de­cided but left back­ing Bi­den after hear­ing him ex­plain his plan would add a so-called pub­lic op­tion to of­fer cov­er­age to more peo­ple while com­pet­ing with pri­vate in­sur­ance.

“I like his char­ac­ter. I’ve al­ways re­spected him,” said Reighard, 58, a sub­sti­tute teacher and for­mer nurse. “And him be­ing able to beat Trump is a big part of it. We can’t have an­other four years like this. It’s just crazy.”

Farther north in Dubuque, Dan Corken cited sim­i­lar rea­son­ing for why he’s spent the last sev­eral weeks knock­ing on doors for Bi­den in the north­east cor­ner of the state.

Corken, who at­tended a Bi­den rally at Lo­ras Col­lege and once coached the women’s bas­ket­ball team there, called Bi­den the “one can­di­date who can unite this coun­try” and said But­tigieg “needs more sea­son­ing.” In ex­plain­ing why he sup­ported Bi­den, he noted how he has a va­ca­tion home in Wis­con­sin near Lake Geneva and de­scribed work­ing a Demo­cratic booth at the county fair there this sum­mer. “All the farm­ers there just kept walk­ing by us like we had the plague. It scares me,” said Corken, 69. “Bi­den is the right per­son at this time that we need to bring peo­ple to­gether, what­ever his lim­i­ta­tions are with his style.”

Bi­den has been gaffe-prone on the cam­paign trail, has given un­even per­for­mances in the tele­vised de­bates and has had trou­ble stay­ing fo­cused on his cam­paign mes­sage at times. Corken re­called see­ing Bi­den in Dubuque right after he an­nounced his cam­paign and said, “he was all over the place. You could barely track what he was say­ing.”

“He’s rusty, and he’s up against some re­ally good de­baters,” he said. “But it’s one thing to be a good de­bater and an­other thing to be a good gov­er­nor.”

‘This guy is surg­ing’

In nearly 50 in­ter­views at cam­paign events in 10 Iowa cities and towns over the course of six days, vot­ers re­peat­edly cited Bi­den’s stage pres­ence and de­bate per­for­mances as rea­sons they were will­ing to con­sider other can­di­dates.

At a War­ren event in the cen­tral Iowa town of Grin­nell, Mary New­ton said she had nar­rowed her choice to the Mas­sachusetts sen­a­tor and But­tigieg while she had grow­ing doubts about Bi­den.

“Bi­den has slipped. We’ve seen him a cou­ple times. I think he’s a great guy, but I think Trump would tear him apart,” said New­ton, 63, who lives in the nearby town of New­ton. “He makes a lot of lit­tle mis­takes, and I guess that’s OK, but Trump is go­ing to jump all over those lit­tle mis­cues. I like him, but there’s just too much bag­gage there, I think.”

Though few vot­ers brought it up, Bi­den and his son Hunter Bi­den cur­rently are at the heart of the on­go­ing U.S. House im­peach­ment in­quiry into Trump, who has been ac­cused of hold­ing up mil­i­tary aid to Ukraine while pres­sur­ing its pres­i­dent to launch an in­ves­ti­ga­tion aimed at harm­ing the for­mer vice pres­i­dent’s po­lit­i­cal prospects.

Many cau­cus­go­ers cited But­tigieg’s de­meanor and back­ground as much as his cam­paign plat­form in weigh­ing whether to caucus for him over Bi­den. The ris­ing mil­len­nial’s bi­og­ra­phy is bet­ter known now than when he launched his cam­paign from nearob­scu­rity six months ago in an old Stude­baker fac­tory in his home­town: Har­vard grad, Rhodes scholar, vet­eran of the war in Afghanista­n, two-term mayor and first openly gay pres­i­den­tial can­di­date from a ma­jor party.

In con­trast to Bi­den, But­tigieg rarely gives any­thing but con­cise, tar­geted an­swers to ques­tions and fre­quently lands well-re­hearsed lines that reem­pha­size his mes­sage of of­fer­ing gen­er­a­tional change while unit­ing a na­tion. There were no teleprompt­ers on his re­cent three-day bus tour across north­ern Iowa, which mostly fo­cused on coun­ties that had been won by Obama but then voted for Trump.

That in­cluded a stop in the north­ern Iowa town of Waverly, were Jim Vow­els stood in the back of Waverly-Shell Rock High School’s cafe­te­ria. The room was so packed that the crowd of more than 500 stretched down a pair of hall­ways where vot­ers craned their necks to get a look at the pres­i­den­tial hope­ful.

Vow­els said he started out back­ing Bi­den but now isn’t so sure, and he’s also look­ing at But­tigieg and Klobuchar. He said the most im­por­tant fac­tor to him is who can beat Trump.

“How would you de­bate Don­ald Trump?” Vow­els asked But­tigieg dur­ing the town hall. “He’s such a mean, non­fac­tual de­bater who makes a lie sound like a truth. If you’re on a stage with him, how will you com­bat that?”

But­tigieg re­sponded by con­tend­ing that many of Trump’s ar­gu­ments against Democrats won’t work with him, an an­swer that also in­cluded a ref­er­ence to the pres­i­dent hav­ing re­ceived a med­i­cal ex­emp­tion from mil­i­tary ser­vice in Viet­nam after be­ing di­ag­nosed with bone spurs in his feet.

“He’s go­ing to say so­cial­ism this, so­cial­ism that, but I come from the heart­land. … He’s go­ing to say swamp this and swamp that, but I don’t go to work in Washington.

I’m right here in the Mid­west,” But­tigieg said. “And, of course, I’m happy to have a de­bate over the dif­fer­ence be­tween his ap­proach to be called to serve in the mil­i­tary and mine.”

The crowd roared with ap­proval, and Vow­els said he loved the an­swer, would keep read­ing But­tigieg’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy and con­tinue to do his home­work. But he made it clear he’s wor­ried about Bi­den in a matchup with the pres­i­dent.

“Trump lives by the motto that if you don’t have the facts and you don’t have the truth, you just speak louder and beat your fists on the ta­ble,” Vow­els said. “I want some­one who is so sure that they don’t fold or let Trump get to them, and I’m not sure Joe can han­dle that. Can he stand there and not get mad, not make a mis­take and say some­thing he won’t re­gret later? I don’t know.”

In Decorah, re­tired min­is­ter Wayne Elling­son said he was sur­prised when he ar­rived early at the high school to find a line of peo­ple three blocks long wait­ing in the rain to get good spots near the stage for But­tigieg’s rally. Af­ter­ward, he said he was taken aback by the raw en­thu­si­asm and en­ergy of the event, which drew more than 1,000 peo­ple to a town of less than 8,000.

Elling­son, too, is try­ing to de­cide among Bi­den, But­tigieg and Klobuchar. All three, he said, hold sim­i­lar views on health care and other im­por­tant is­sues, and for him the de­ci­sion will come down to who has the most mo­men­tum. For now, he said, But­tigieg is in the lead.

“Bi­den was my guy at the very be­gin­ning, but he’s faded in the back­ground a lit­tle bit,” said Elling­son, 71. “I’ve been out to see a num­ber of ral­lies for the other can­di­dates, but they don’t have any­where near the en­thu­si­asm that Pete has.”

After at­tend­ing a But­tigieg rally in a mid­dle school cafe­te­ria in Ma­son City, Misty Gomez cited But­tigieg’s abil­ity to con­nect with a new gen­er­a­tion of vot­ers as the rea­son she’ll caucus for him in Fe­bru­ary.

“With Pete, he just has this hope in him, this fresh­ness, this ex­cite­ment that is hit­ting us,” said Gomez, 42, who works in a den­tal of­fice and lives in the small town of Kensett. “He’s got youth on his side.”

In dozens of in­ter­views with vot­ers con­sid­er­ing cau­cus­ing for But­tigieg, Gomez was the ex­cep­tion, not the rule. Most said they had been ea­ger to hear But­tigieg speak, had him on their short list of can­di­dates but were un­will­ing to fully com­mit.

Ted Craw­ford per­son­i­fies this care­ful ap­proach.

He lis­tened in­tently as But­tigieg spoke in the Ma­son City cafe­te­ria. It was not the first time he’d heard the mayor de­liver a speech.

In Au­gust, Craw­ford and friends at­tended the Demo­cratic Wing Ding din­ner in Clear Lake, and he told the Tri­bune then that he was ten­ta­tively sup­port­ing Bi­den, but had taken no­tice of rous­ing speeches by But­tigieg and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

“If tonight were the caucus, I’d prob­a­bly sup­port Bi­den, but I’m very, very im­pressed and it’s mov­ing more to a toss-up for me. Pete is tremen­dously in­tel­li­gent, he’s fo­cused, he’s ed­u­cated, he’s got great charisma and great lead­er­ship,” said Craw­ford, 69, a re­tired teacher who lives in Ma­son City. “And al­though I have grow­ing con­cerns about Joe Bi­den, I’m still not sure about Pete’s electabil­ity. But this guy is def­i­nitely surg­ing, so we’ll see.”

BRIAN CASSELLA/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Pete But­tigieg speaks at a rally be­fore the Iowa Demo­cratic Party Lib­erty & Jus­tice din­ner on Nov. 1.

BRIAN CASSELLA/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE PHO­TOS

South Bend Mayor Pete But­tigieg and hus­band Chas­ten (wear­ing a BOOT EDGE EDGE cap) march with sup­port­ers be­fore the Iowa din­ner.

For­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den speaks at the Iowa Demo­cratic Party’s fundrais­ing din­ner in Des Moines. It drew more than 13,000 peo­ple.

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