Ris­ing But­tigieg could face at­tacks

As front-run­ners tussle, rest of pack tries to break out

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Bill Bar­row

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.

JOE RAEDLE/GETTY

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.

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