DECORAH, Iowa — Ask almost any Iowa Democrat, and they’ll tell you: Pete Buttigieg is smart.
He speaks five languages, went to Harvard University and plays the piano, Martha Ludeking, 63, recited, as she watched the presidential candidate take a picture with a fellow Iowan. Lori Lechtenberg, 59, said, “There’s just something about him — he’s intelligent.” When an audience member asked about conditions in Gaza during a campaign stop in Mason City, Mr. Buttigieg began responding in Arabic. The overwhelmingly white audience, largely unaware of what he said, broke into raucous applause.
“He’s a veteran. He’s a Rhodes scholar. He’s everything,” said Bret Van Ausdall, 37. He saw Mr. Buttigieg on Sunday at the fourth stop on his bus tour, a 72-hour whirlwind that prioritized small Iowa counties that had drifted from Democrats in recent elections. “The Ph.D. ratio in this town is insane. We’re science-based. We’re logical people. And he speaks to that.”
Throughout the summer months, Mr. Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., surpassed expectations in fund-raising and national polling, but his success was still dismissed as a temporary blip. He was seen as a flavor of the month in a historically large Democratic field who would eventually be eclipsed by more traditionally qualified candidates — senators, governors, a former vice president.
This weekend, however, Mr. Buttigieg made clear that what was once an upstart campaign could grow into a juggernaut in the all-important Iowa caucuses, just three months away.
Mr. Buttigieg’s critics say he is offering voters feel-good platitudes without a proven track record of electoral success. But his supporters say his vision, and his identity as an openly gay candidate, make him an inherently transformative figure.
He has successfully built a sustainable ground game throughout the state, generating buzz among voters and turning out crowds of several hundred people in towns of just a few thousand. For growing numbers of likely caucusgoers, he is emerging as the moderate front-runner in the race, ahead of even former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. And he is clearly worrying some of his top rivals in the state, like Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has recently started taking implicit shots at Mr. Buttigieg by needling candidates who have teams of consultants and centrist ideas.
National polls still have Mr. Buttigieg firmly behind Mr. Biden, Ms. Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and questions remain over Mr. Buttigieg’s ability to cobble together a coalition diverse enough to win the Democratic primary. But the goal of the bus tour, timed to take place after the same Iowa dinner that famously helped create Barack Obama’s presidential mojo in 2007, was to project Mr. Buttigieg as the closest analogue to Mr. Obama currently in the race.
“The idea of hope may have gone out of style a little bit, but when I look at you, I see it is not out of style,” Mr. Buttigieg said in Des Moines. “Are you ready to leave no question about who has the momentum of Iowa right now?”
He has shot up in the polls in Iowa recently and had a one-point edge over Mr. Biden in a recent New York Times/Siena College poll of Iowa voters, within the survey’s margin of error of plus or minus 4.7 percentage points. Ms. Warren held a slight lead in the poll, while Mr. Sanders came in second, just ahead of Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. Biden.
On Friday, Mr. Buttigieg’s supporters filled a quarter of Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines at the Iowa Democratic Party’s annual Liberty and Justice Dinner — a show of organizing force greater than any other candidate’s. He held a rally for thousands near the arena before the dinner.
In an open press setting, Mr. Buttigieg can flaunt the same political athleticism that is attracting voters in Iowa and was a trademark of Mr. Obama’s, fielding rapid-fire questions from reporters that touch on everything from his previous work in management consulting to his current reading list.
To distinguish himself from his rivals, and Ms. Warren’s promises of fighting for “big, structural change” in particular, Mr. Buttigieg has taken up an increasingly Obama-esque message of unity and civility.
He asks voters to call relatives with different political beliefs, and to talk about things other than politics. He told voters in a county that flipped from supporting Mr. Obama to Donald Trump that political preferences did not define their morality, and he said he welcomed “Republicans of conscience” to join his campaign.
“I just don’t think there’s good and bad people,” Mr. Buttigieg said later, speaking on the bus. “When you vote for this president, particularly when you vote for him a second time, you are at best tolerating bad things and at worst having very bad things drawn out of you. But I don’t think that’s the same as thinking the world is divided into people who are good and people who are bad.”
With this message, and the organization he has now built in Iowa, Mr. Buttigieg is becoming an interesting test case for the post-Obama Democratic Party. Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders pitch a sharp break from the past, and a willingness to ideologically upend the establishment in ways the party has historically resisted. Mr. Biden seeks to offer a steady hand in chaotic political times. But Mr. Buttigieg uniquely plays to the one thing the Democratic electorate has always enjoyed: falling in love with a new political face promising national unity and compromise.
But swapping out the identities and résumés of the two men — not a black, straight senator from Illinois but a gay, white mayor from Indiana — can change the electoral prospects. For Mr. Obama, who was already well-liked in black communities, the path to the Democratic nomination was unlocked in Iowa, helping him centralize black support in South Carolina and in the southern Democratic electorate en route to the nomination. Black support has been the biggest question mark surrounding Mr. Buttigieg’s rise.
A recent Monmouth University poll of likely Democratic primary voters in South Carolina, the early-voting state where the black electorate makes up more than 60 percent of the Democratic vote, found Mr. Buttigieg at 3 percent overall, with just 1 percent support from black respondents. Previous polls have found him at an anemic 0 percent among black voters.
Even more, high-profile missteps and an initial campaign strategy that relied on heavy exposure to white media and donors helped create a reputation that Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign had a blind spot for black community politics. In these communities, where government distrust has been earned over years of disenfranchisement, elite signals such as a Harvard education and a Rhodes scholarship matter less than building relationships with key gatekeepers and validators.
Over the weekend, Julián Castro, the former housing secretary and one of Mr. Buttigieg’s 2020 rivals, criticized his “track record” with black voters. On Monday, Mr. Buttigieg’s senior communications adviser, Lis Smith, forcefully accused Mr. Buttigieg’s critics of being biased themselves.
A police killing in South Bend exposed racial tension in Mr. Buttigieg’s hometown, and black residents have complained of persistent racial inequality during his tenure as mayor. Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign backtracked last month after scheduling a fund-raiser with a lawyer in Chicago who had tried to block the release of footage of the 2014 killing of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager, by a white police officer.
Earlier in his campaign, when Mr. Buttigieg met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington this summer, he flunked a key test among the senior group of lawmakers. When at least three representatives asked why he did not have black supporters from South Bend validating him on the trail, Mr. Buttigieg told them he did not know such signaling was important.
“It was pandering and disingenuous,” said Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio, who has since endorsed Senator Kamala Harris of California.
In the months since, as Mr. Buttigieg has professionalized his once bare-bones operation, he has focused on adding staff that can help him better navigate the black political class.
Brandon Neal, a senior adviser who once worked at the N.A.A.C.P., has helped broker discussions between Mr. Buttigieg and elder civil rights statesmen like Representative John Lewis of Georgia and Harry Belafonte. Beltway operatives like Donna Brazile and Leah Daughtry, both influential figures at the Democratic National Committee, have been conduits who have helped him grow his relationships with the black political class in Washington.
There have been some signs of progress. Mr. Buttigieg was well-received at the recent Congressional Black Caucus Foundation dinner, where he sat at the table of a fellow Midwestern legislator, Representative Robin Kelly of Illinois. Lamell McMorris, a longtime black political consultant with experience at civil rights organizations such as the N.A.A.C.P. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, will soon join the campaign as a surrogate.
Mr. Buttigieg has repeatedly said he believes that as black Democratic voters get to know him, he will win their support.
“I think the way to win black voters, or any voters, is to deserve to win,” Mr. Buttigieg said in Iowa multiple times.
Still, even some Iowa supporters wondered if he was developing a reputation as a candidate for white elites. One white audience member in Mason City asked Mr. Buttigieg what his plan was for winning over black voters, because that would determine his post-Iowa electoral prospects. Another, in Decorah, said his reliance on money from big donors, who skew overwhelmingly white, was pushing her toward candidates such as Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders, who had sworn off such funds.
“Pete screwed up on that one,” said Janet Alexander, 73. “Because that stuff is important. It shows who you’re listening to.”
On the bus tour, Mr. Buttigieg sidestepped a question about why largely white states such as Iowa and New Hampshire get to caucus and vote first.
He smiled and pivoted, saying the four early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — give a good distribution of the Democratic electorate.
Mr. Buttigieg left out another truth: The whitest ones are, to this point, making his candidacy tick.
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