Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren have been debate targets of rival 2020 Democrats at candidate face-offs in recent months. Now, it may be Pete Buttigieg’s turn.
The Atlanta debate on Wednesday, sponsored by the Democratic National Committee, offers opponents of the South Bend, Indiana, mayor a chance to take him down a peg after some polls have shown the 37-year-old surging. His rise, less than three months out from the first nominating contests, the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3 and the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 11, have moved him closer to the top tier of 2020 Democrats, which includes Biden, the former vice president, Warren, a Massachusetts senator, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
A Monmouth University poll released this week found Buttigieg leading the rest of the Democratic field in Iowa, with 22% support in the state, a 14-point increase since the same poll was conducted in August. A RealClearPolitics average of primary polls put his support at 19.7% support in Iowa, a statistical tie with Warren, who sits at first with 20%.
“There’s no question he’ll receive attacks in the upcoming Democratic debate. Biden was the target in the first debate and Warren last time,” Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan, told the Washington Examiner. “The polls are important, but the amount and kind of attention Buttigieg gets will kind of serve as an accurate representation of what the candidates really think of him.”
Despite relatively low national polling, Buttigieg’s campaign has one of the largest war chests of any Democrat running for president, with nearly $23.5 million. That money has surely made other Democratic campaigns nervous, as Buttigieg just announced a $2 million ad buy in South Carolina, which hosts a Feb. 29 primary.
Reports have surfaced that a number of Democrats find Buttigieg particularly irksome, citing his lack of experience but impressive funding. This week, the New York Times reported that Biden mockingly greeted Buttigieg with, “Hello, Mr. President,” in “a voice dripping with condescension.”
Candidates’ pent-up frustration about Buttigieg’s rise may emerge on the debate stage Wednesday, Kall said.
“There may be some personal disdain between the other candidates and Pete Buttigieg. The could release some of the deeper feelings the candidates have,” Kall said. “Buttigieg needs to be aware of what could happen. Warren and Biden weren’t prepared for attacks by other candidates, and both of them suffered as a result.” Kall said.
Buttigieg may be able to thrust and parry the expected jabs to his advantage, Kall said.
“The attacks could be somewhat positive for Buttigieg. He doesn’t have the accompanying issue like healthcare, like Warren did,” Kall said about rivals’ criticism of Warren’s “Medicare for all” plan, which would effectively eliminate private health insurance in favor of a government program. “Attacks would just be about his age and inexperience, his polling with black voters, or racial issues in South Bend. Those are definitely serious things, but he should prepare like that’s going to be the case even if it doesn’t happen.”
Already, liberal groups are signaling that Buttigieg’s rise won’t come without extensive scrutiny from the Left. Justice Democrats, the left-wing group that helped fund the rise of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, released a statement Wednesday attacking Buttigieg’s position on “Medicare for all.”
“Buttigieg was for ‘Medicare for all’ before he was against it,” said Waleed Shahid, spokesman for the group. “He realized he was never going to beat Warren and Sanders as a progressive. He got scared of the fight. He realized he could raise tons of cash from corporate executives in the pharmaceutical and insurance industry.”
Some Democrats, however, cautioned that any attention on Buttigieg could backfire and raise his profile.
“The Democrats don’t want to give Buttigieg the oxygen he needs to vault into the top tier. I think he’s still somewhat of an outlier, despite the poll in Iowa,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley. “I think Democrats need to think long and hard about whether they want to really give this guy the kind of attention he wants.”
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