Rising Buttigieg could face attacks
As front-runners tussle, rest of pack tries to break out
Democratic presidential candidate faces tough test in debate as rivals try to stall his momentum.
ATLANTA — Pete Buttigieg’s dramatic rise from little-known Indiana mayor to a leading Democratic presidential candidate faces its toughest test Wednesday, with rivals poised to lob debate-stage attacks in an effort to stall his momentum.
The debate in Atlanta marks the first time Buttigieg will face other White House hopefuls as an undisputed member of the top tier.
The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, gained significant ground in recent months in Iowa, which holds the nation’s first caucuses in February. He is bunched at the top of most polls in Iowa with candidates who have much longer political resumes: former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Some surveys are beginning to show him taking a more convincing lead in the race.
Buttigieg still faces plenty of hurdles to clinching the Democratic nomination, particularly winning over black and other minority voters. But his Iowa rise means he could come under fire from his rivals like never before.
“Anytime a candidate pops up above the pack, there’s a vigorous effort to vet them,” said Democratic strategist Zac Petkanas. “Buttigieg is going to have to prove that his recent rise is not just a flash in the pan.”
Biden, Warren and Sanders have all faced similar scrutiny in previous debates, and those attacks did little to change the trajectory of the race.
The debate will unfold at a moment of uncertainty about the Democratic field, with some in the party, particularly donors, worried there’s no one positioned to defeat President Donald Trump. Former President Barack Obama took the unusual step last week of warning the party against moving too far to the left.
Speaking to that anxiety, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick entered the Democratic race last week. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, is openly flirting with a bid.
Neither Patrick nor Bloomberg will be onstage Wednesday.
With less than three months before voting, much of the nation’s political attention would typically be focused on the primary. Instead, the focus is on the impeachment inquiry against Trump.
Hours before the debate, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, will testify before Congress in an appearance that will be closely watched for new evidence that Trump pressured leaders in Ukraine to find damaging information about Biden.
Some campaigns have privately questioned whether a debate against the backdrop of impeachment would have much effect. Still, for the candidates at the bottom of the polls who face increasingly dire prospects, nothing provides the opportunity for a breakout moment like two hours of exposure on national television.
“We’re at the phase in the campaign where voters are beginning to make decisions, and they’re beginning to see which of these candidates can go up against Trump and which can serve as president,” said Jesse Ferguson, who worked for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016. “This is the time period where people start making decisions and locking in, regardless of what’s going on in Washington.”
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker faces especially intense pressure. He’s yet to meet the Democratic National Committee’s polling requirements for the December debate, and his campaign acknowledges that he needs to capitalize on the national spotlight.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar offered the model last month by repeatedly calling for a “reality check” on Warren and her sweeping progressive agenda. Klobuchar’s campaign said the subsequent few days were her best fundraising period yet. But it still hasn’t shown up in national or most early state polls.
For California Sen. Kamala Harris, it’s the first debate since cutting her operation in New Hampshire, the first primary state, and concentrating on Iowa. Like Klobuchar, Harris has qualified for the December stage but needs more than the minimum polling performance to make any serious play for the nomination.
That trio of senators could see Buttigieg’s resume as a prime target, with his political experience limited to running a city of about 100,000 residents.
The Buttigieg campaign expects the scrutiny and has taken an increasingly tough posture. The mayor was noticeably more aggressive during the October debate, joining Klobuchar with a more moderate argument against Warren’s and Sanders’ policy pitches for single-payer government health insurance, among other ideas.
The debate airs on MSNBC from 9 to 11 p.m. EST.
Preparations continue for the fifth Democratic presidential debate, hosted by The Washington Post and MSNBC, during which 10 hopefuls will state their cases Wednesday night.