Dems see lane to Buttigieg victory

Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegSunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate Sunday shows preview: Delta concerns prompt CDC mask update; bipartisan infrastructure bill to face challenges in Senate Chasten Buttigieg: DC 'almost unaffordable' MORE can win the Democratic nomination for president, top party strategists say, as long as he can capitalize on his growing media attention and early grass-roots efforts in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

Buttigieg has become an early primary sensation, coming out of nowhere to be seen as a real contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.

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Rivals are taking him seriously, and even a second-place finish in Iowa — where he held events Tuesday —  could give the South Bend, Ind., mayor a significant boost, say Democratic strategists closely following the jockeying among candidates.

“If he has a strong showing in one or both of those states, it's a game-changer,” Lynda Tran, a founding partner at 270 Strategies, said of the contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. 

Another strategist backed that sentiment, saying Buttigieg “needs to dig in” in Iowa and New Hampshire “and allow his ever-growing grass-roots effort to send the loudest message.”

“If he does well in those early states, even if he comes in second, it’ll cause a domino effect with the other states,” the strategist said.

Once a dark horse candidate with a surname few could pronounce, Buttigieg has soared in the polls in recent weeks, bypassing, at least in some polls, previously better-known political figures and candidates such as Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenStaff seeks to create union at DNC America's middle class is getting hooked on government cash — and Democrats aren't done yet California Democrats warn of low turnout in recall election MORE (Mass.) and Cory BookerCory BookerWomen urge tech giants to innovate on office return Human rights can't be a sacrificial lamb for climate action Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines MORE (N.J.). 

That success is critical in a crowded Democratic race with 19 candidates, and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries FDA aims to give full approval to Pfizer vaccine by Labor Day: report Overnight Defense: Police officer killed in violence outside Pentagon | Biden officials back repeal of Iraq War authorization | NSC pushed to oversee 'Havana Syndrome' response MORE expected to join them.

More and more people are hearing his name — and learning to pronounce it. The political website fivethirtyeight.com said he was the second most-mentioned candidate on cable news last week.

Since officially announcing his candidacy on Sunday, the openly gay Buttigieg has appeared on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow” show to talk about the difficulty of remaining in the closet into his 30s.

Smaller interviews have gone viral.

After the fire at Notre Dame in Paris on Monday, Buttigieg — who knows seven languages — spoke to a reporter in French.

The clip of Buttigieg speaking with French news outlet BFM TV had been viewed nearly 3 million times as of Tuesday morning.

“To the people of France, I would like to say that Notre Dame Cathedral was like a gift to the human race. We share in the pain, but we also thank you for this gift to civilization,” he said to the channel, according to a Business Insider translation.

An Emerson poll out this week showed Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries Briahna Joy Gray: Voters are 'torn' over Ohio special election Shontel Brown wins Ohio Democratic primary in show of establishment strength MORE (I-Vt.) in first place with 29 percent from Democrats, followed by Biden at 24 percent.

Buttigieg, while significantly behind those two candidates, came in third place with 9 percent — a dramatic uptick for the mayor that put him ahead of Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisKamala Harris and our shameless politics Pelosi: House Democrats 'ready to work with' Biden on eviction ban Meghan McCain predicts DeSantis would put Harris 'in the ground' in 2024 matchup MORE (D-Calif.) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas), who are also battling to get to the top tier.

Two polls last week in Iowa and New Hampshire also showed Buttigieg in third place behind Biden and Sanders in those two critical states. 

Buttigieg has aced an initial test of the crowded primary, winning attention and dollars for his campaign. 

The mayor raised $7 million for his campaign in the first fundraising quarter, $1 million of which was in the first 24 hours of his campaign announcement, according to his campaign. He also hasn’t spent much of the money yet, allowing him to invest in early state infrastructure.

Democrats do warn that Buttigieg’s upward trajectory will be difficult to maintain without the right strategy.

The days between now and the first Democratic debates on June 26 and 27 will be critical.

“The transition from phenom to leading candidate is a delicate path, and you want to time it right — some strong debate performances, holding your own in tough interviews, a couple of early state wins — that could help him rack up sustained momentum, prominent endorsements and a path to victory,” said Ben LaBolt, a Democratic strategist who served as a spokesman for former President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama limiting birthday party to family, close friends amid COVID-19 concerns Azar regrets Trump didn't get vaccinated on national TV Franklin D. Roosevelt's prescient warning MORE.

It remains to be seen whether Buttigieg can win over the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire — an electorate that trends over 50.

“They’re more focused on experience in those states,” said one strategist.

But Chris Lehane, a veteran of presidential campaigns said the lesson from the last two presidential cycles in 2016 and 2008 is that voters “are looking for disruptive candidates defined as nonestablishment, not same old same old.” 

“Pete checks all of those boxes and then to win he has to show he can put together a campaign which from a prescriptive sense can be broken down into three M’s: message, mobilization and money,” said Lehane.

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University said winning the primary shouldn’t be seen as a stretch for the 37-year-old mayor.

“Not out of this world at all,” Zelizer said.

“Think Jimmy Carter 1976, Iowa and New Hampshire. Or more recently think Barack Obama in 2008. Both were unknown candidates, both faced major, well known, established, inevitable opponents and both won,” he said.