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Chasten Buttigieg emerges as Mayor Pete's secret weapon

Chasten Buttigieg has emerged as a star in the Democratic primary, becoming a key part of his husband Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegLGBTQ voters must show up at the polls, or risk losing progress Buttigieg says it's time to 'turn the page' on Trump administration Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus cases surge in the Midwest; Trump hits campaign trail after COVID-19 MORE's campaign and helping the South Bend, Ind., mayor stand out in a crowded field.

The 29-year-old junior high school humanities and drama teacher from Michigan not only functions as a sought-after campaign spokesman and adviser, but he is also helping humanize the first openly gay major presidential candidate in a country that legalized same-sex marriage only four years ago.

But as Pete Buttigieg, 37, becomes a major contender for the nomination, questions are emerging about whether he and his husband will have the same appeal in more conservative parts of the country as they do with Democratic primary voters.

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"The bigger question is if he were to win the nomination how voters in key states who might not know any married gay couples and be uncomfortable with their relationship may react, and I think that remains to be seen," said Tim Miller, former communications director to Jeb Bush and a GOP strategist.

For now, as Pete Buttigieg, also widely known as Mayor Pete, has surged in the Democratic polls, so has the attention lavished on Chasten Buttigieg, who took a leave from the Montessori Academy to join him on the campaign trail.

Though Pete Buttigieg is not the first gay candidate to seek a party’s presidential nomination — Fred Karger ran in the Republican primary in 2012 — he is widely seen as the first with a genuine shot at winning.

And he has done so by making his biography as a gay Christian millennial, Rhodes scholar and veteran of the war in Afghanistan a key part of his campaign.

The couple speak openly about their relationship, including how they met through a dating app, their first date and their marriage in 2018. They also have two dogs, Buddy and Truman, and Pete Buttigieg has talked about eventually having kids.

Chasten Buttigieg now introduces his husband at some stops and also branches out on his own, including addressing the Human Rights Campaign in Houston and visiting the Ali Forney Center, a shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth in New York.

Pete Buttigieg’s husband also has seen his social media following surge and now counts over 100,000 followers on Instagram and around 300,000 followers on Twitter — more than some 2020 presidential candidates such as Reps. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanNow's the time to make 'Social Emotional Learning' a national priority Mourners gather outside Supreme Court after passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lincoln Project hits Trump for criticizing Goodyear, 'an American company' MORE (D-Ohio) and Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellGraham says SC people of color can go anywhere in the state but 'need to be conservative, not liberal' President Trump, Melania Trump test positive for COVID-19 House in near-unanimous vote affirms peaceful transfer of power MORE (D-Calif.).

That visibility is unusual for a spouse or partner at such an early stage in the primary process, let alone a gay couple that remains one of the youngest in the Democratic field of more than 20 candidates.

"It's still very odd for me to see that the most normal-looking couple or the least fretful ... is the gay couple in the race," said Mark Rom, associate professor at Georgetown's McCourt School of Public Policy.

No other Democratic contender has seen their partner or spouse play such a visible part in the campaign, though they have made brief cameos, including Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBiden defends his health plan from Trump attacks Progressives blast Biden plan to form panel on Supreme Court reform Biden endorses Texas Democratic House candidate Julie Oliver MORE’s (D-Mass.) husband in an Instagram video. Meanwhile, actress Rosario Dawson has talked about dating Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDemocratic senators unveil bill to ban discrimination in financial services industry Obama endorses Espy in Mississippi Senate race Durbin says he will run for No. 2 spot if Dems win Senate majority MORE (D-N.J.).

But strategists say that having Chasten Buttigieg play such a big role brings youth and authenticity to his husband's campaign, providing an advantage in a Democratic party where some are hungering for a fresh alternative to former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenMore than 300 military family members endorse Biden Five takeaways from the final Trump-Biden debate Biden: 'I would transition from the oil industry' MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden defends his health plan from Trump attacks Progressives blast Biden plan to form panel on Supreme Court reform Sanders: Progressives will work to 'rally the American people' if Biden wins MORE (I-Vt.), the two septuagenarians currently leading in the Democratic primary polls.

"Chasten brings an authenticity to the campaign that is really valuable — particularly with his online presence," Miller said. "He interacts like a normal millennial human online, not like a stilted or scripted pol, and there's a lot of appeal to that. In some ways, his persona reflects onto and humanizes Pete, who is more straight-laced and political in his communications."

Strategists also say that Chasten Buttigieg has an added advantage, helping Pete Buttigieg stand out at a time when some Democratic primary voters are wary of nominating a straight white male in a rapidly diversifying party.

"It reminds Democratic primary voters that he is gay, which is a plus. It helps distinguish him from other white males in the race," said David Barker, a professor of government at American University, about how Chasten Buttigieg helps Pete Buttigieg's campaign.

However, whether such openness will be accepted by older and more conservative voters should Pete Buttigieg clinch the nomination remains in doubt, even as a number of LGBTQ lawmakers have been elected in recent years, including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D) from the traditionally red state of Arizona.

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Pete Buttigieg this month openly feuded with Vice President Pence over Pence's stance on LGBTQ issues and gay marriage.

"Being married to Chasten has made me a better human being because it has made me more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware and more decent," he said in a widely quoted speech at the LGBTQ Victory Fund's annual brunch earlier this month.

"My marriage to Chasten has made me a better man. And yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God," he added, prompting applause.

Pence has opposed legalizing gay marriage, something he says stems from his Christian faith. 

Most recently, Buttigieg was attacked by Franklin Graham, son of the late preacher Billy Graham.

"Mayor Buttigieg says he’s a gay Christian. As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized. The Bible says marriage is between a man & a woman—not two men, not two women," Graham tweeted on Wednesday.

Still, some strategists dismiss the prospect that Pete Buttigieg, along with Chasten Buttigieg, might suffer because they are gay, noting that many conservatives opposed to same-sex marriage would probably not vote Democratic anyway.

Instead, they encouraged the Buttigiegs to continue being open about their relationship.

"Pete Buttigieg is a wunderkind, but at the core of it all is authenticity. His appeal is that he is young and smart, of course, but he is leading with his full self," Democratic strategist Don Calloway, CEO of Pine Street Strategies, said.

"They are young, handsome and happy and in love, so their relationship is an asset to the campaign, much like it would be for a straight couple," he added.