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Buttigieg momentum slows after swift rise

After a meteoric rise in the 2020 race, signs are emerging that Pete ButtigiegPete Buttigieg'Biff is president': Michael J. Fox says Trump has played on 'every worst instinct in mankind' Buttigieg: Denying Biden intelligence briefings is about protecting Trump's 'ego' Biden's win is not a policy mandate — he should govern accordingly MORE’s momentum may be stalling out.

The South Bend, Ind., mayor’s polling numbers have remained relatively flat in recent weeks, hovering between 4 and 7 percent in most surveys. And he has started facing tougher questions during public appearances, including about his struggle to build a following among black voters and his handling of a police-involved shooting in his hometown.

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To be sure, Buttigieg still finds himself in a strong position. He closed out the second quarter of the year with a nearly $25 million fundraising haul — the most of any candidate — and more than $22.6 million in the bank.

Still, his waning momentum in the polls points to a new challenge for the 37-year-old mayor: transitioning out of his role as an ascendant newcomer and into that of an established top-tier contender.

“He has a very dedicated and passionate floor and a core of voters and donors and supporters,” Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist, said. “But there is no question that he has work to do.”

“He has to make a stronger case and show that he can go outside of this space to a bigger and more diverse audience,” Reinish added.

Indeed, Buttigieg’s rise in the presidential race has been driven by white, college-educated voters drawn to his aspirational vision and youth.

But at the same time, he has struggled to build a significant following among black voters, with many polls showing his support near zero.

A Monmouth University Poll of likely Democratic primary voters in South Carolina released on Thursday put Buttigieg in fifth place overall, with 5 percent in the state.

Among black voters, however, he took only 1 percent support, a setback in a state where black people make up more than 60 percent of the primary electorate.

Sean Shaw, the Democratic nominee for Florida attorney general in 2018 and a Buttigieg ally, acknowledged that the South Bend mayor has work to do when it comes to winning the support of black voters, especially in early primary states such as South Carolina.

“That’s clearly one of the reasons I’m here,” said Shaw, who is campaigning with Buttigieg in South Carolina this weekend. “We’re doing a bunch of listening tours around the state to engage black voters where they are.”

But Shaw dismissed the notion that Buttigieg’s campaign has stalled, pointing to his outsize fundraising numbers and top-five spot in most polls. He predicted that the mayor will continue to rise as more voters become familiar with him.

“It’s a name ID deal at this stage,” Shaw said. “He’s got to get his name out there. He’s running against senators, he’s running against governors, he’s running against former vice presidents, and he’s the mayor of South Bend, Ind.” 

That his support is lagging among black voters is not lost on Buttigieg, who in recent weeks has begun speaking more frequently about race and inequality, especially after the fatal shooting last month of Eric Logan, a 54-year-old black man, by a white South Bend police officer.

He has addressed the shooting often in recent weeks, including at a presidential debate in Miami last month, during which he conceded failure in his efforts to hire a more diverse police force in his hometown.

And he has since rolled out a wide-ranging proposal to “dismantle racist structures and systems” in the United States, dubbed the “Douglass Plan” after the 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

That proposal was among the first detailed policy plans unveiled by Buttigieg, whose earlier days on the campaign trail were defined more by sweeping calls for generational change and mending political divisions than granular policy prescriptions.

His latest plan, released on Friday, calls for national paid family leave, a minimum wage of $15 an hour and the expansion of collective bargaining rights.

Together, the proposals underscore Buttigieg’s effort to break into the policy realm at a time when other candidates, such as Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThomas Piketty says pandemic is opportunity to address income inequality The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation Disney laying off 32,000 workers as coronavirus batters theme parks MORE (D-Mass.), have used such policy rollouts to boost their candidacies.

“What he’s trying to do now is he’s trying to add more substance,” Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist, said. “He came across as a nice guy — very personable. But he needs to build out his program and his policies.”

Multiple Democratic strategists and operatives pointed to former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) as a sort of cautionary tale for Buttigieg.

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O’Rourke rose to political stardom last year during his closely watched bid to unseat Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO'Brien on 2024 talk: 'There's all kinds of speculation out there' Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol MORE (R) in Texas, only to stumble after launching a presidential campaign.

“I think basically what could happen to him is the same thing that happened to O’Rourke. They had their time in the sun. They built up a lot of public excitement and free media attention,” Bannon said. “But both of them were personality driven rather than policy driven.”

Bannon noted, however, that Buttigieg “did raise a ton of money, and he is clearly the fifth-ranking candidate with 20-something people in the race.”

Buttigieg will face another test of his candidacy on Tuesday, when he will face off against nine other candidates, including Warren and Bernie SandersBernie SandersIn defense of incrementalism: A call for radical realism Thomas Piketty says pandemic is opportunity to address income inequality Trump will soon be out of office — but polarization isn't going anywhere MORE (I-Vt.), in the second round of Democratic primary debates.

Reinish said the debate stage offers the mayor an opportunity to renew his momentum in the race.

“Over the next couple of debates, he needs a moment. He was good in the last one, but he didn’t pop,” Reinish said. “I think that he would have a refreshed burst of attention around him if he were to have a moment.”