Buttigieg emerges as new threat to Biden after debate

Joe BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE faces a new threat from South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Gabbard, Buttigieg battle over use of military in Mexico MORE, who is fresh off an eye-opening debate performance and positioning himself to be a top contender for the support of centrist Democrats if the former vice president falters.

Buttigieg has emerged as a fundraising powerhouse and will enter the final stretch before the Iowa caucuses in February flush with cash. Buttigieg has more than $23 million in the bank, compared to only $9 million for Biden, a shockingly low number for a front-runner.

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The Buttigieg campaign says it raised $1 million from tens of thousands of donors in the hours after Tuesday’s debate concluded.

Recent polls of Iowa show Buttigieg on the rise. The mayor has picked up 4.5 points in the past month in the RealClearPolitics average, and a Firehouse-Optimus survey released this week found him in third place at 17 percent in the Hawkeye State, within striking distance of both Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE (D-Mass.), at 25 percent, and Biden, at 22 percent.

And Buttigieg has stepped out as a fighter for moderate Democrats who feel marginalized by the left, putting him in direct conflict with Biden in the battle for centrist primary voters.

Buttigieg has aggressively gone after Warren over her “Medicare for All” proposal, accusing her of being evasive about how she’d pay for it. And he’s clashed with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) over his mandatory gun buyback plan, which Buttigieg describes as an unrealistic and divisive proposal at a time when Congress might otherwise be able to achieve incremental gun safety reforms.

The sum total has some Democrats envisioning something that seemed unlikely only a few weeks ago – a race for the nomination that comes down to Warren or Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE (I-Vt.) on the left, with an opening for Buttigieg to supplant Biden as the party’s centrist standard-bearer.

"He really did stand out in this debate," said Robert Zimmerman, a top Democratic donor. "He presents a challenge to Biden." 

Biden is far from done.

Despite a string of uneven debate performances and attacks from President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE, Biden has remained steady near the top of the field, even as Warren has climbed and as Washington insiders have braced for his collapse.

Nationally, Biden has maintained his lead atop the RealClearPolitics average at 29.4 percent, followed by Warren at 23.4 percent and Sanders at 15.4 percent. Buttigieg is a distant fourth place nationally at 5.6 percent.

The former vice president is angling for the lead against Warren in most polls of Iowa and New Hampshire, and he appears to have a firewall in South Carolina, where black voters have propelled him to a commanding lead of 20 points or more in most polls over the Democratic field.

Still, Democrats believe a generational contrast could work in Buttigieg’s favor as Biden, 76, faces questions about his age. The 37-year-old military veteran went a long way to putting questions about his inexperience to rest at Tuesday’s debate, where he flashed his foreign policy chops to argue in favor of a U.S. presence in the Middle East.

Now Biden’s sudden cash crunch, coupled with Buttigieg’s clear momentum in the race, has Democrats at least entertaining the notion that the South Bend mayor could seize the centrist mantle from Biden.

“It definitely seems like his campaign has made the strategic decision to turn into that lane harder with some of his rhetoric and attacks on other candidates to position himself as the Biden alternative," said Democratic strategist Eddie Vale.

"If Biden falters, if Buttigieg can pick up his voters, and if he can keep outraising Biden, it's possible, but there are a lot of ifs still. Buttigieg has gotten a lot of good coverage from this positioning but it's still an open question of if that will translate into movement in the polls, especially among Biden's diverse support." 

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The progressive left has taken notice of Buttigieg’s rise and is seeking to blunt his momentum, a sign that liberals view him as a potential threat.

Medicare for All has emerged as the core issue in the Democratic primary, and liberals are furious over the contrasts Buttigieg is drawing between himself and Warren and Sanders.

Ahead of the debate, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which backs Warren, warned Buttigieg not to attack Warren on Medicare for All.

But the Buttigieg campaign released an ad in Iowa on the day of the debate warning that Warren and Sanders wanted to “force” voters to abandon their private insurance plans.

At the debate, Buttigieg accused Warren of equivocating on the central question of whether taxes would go up on the middle class to pay for Medicare for All.

In an interview on CNN on Wednesday, Buttigieg said Warren had been “more specific and forthcoming about the number of selfies she’s taken” than how she’d pay for Medicare for All.

“Mayor Pete’s constant attempts to tear down progressive priorities is more likely to please big CEO donors and lobbying firms than Democratic voters,” said Charles Chamberlain, the chairman of the liberal group Democracy for America.

Buttigieg was also aggressive at the debate in an exchange with O’Rourke, who is advocating for a mandatory gun buyback program.

Buttigieg sees the path to gun reform running through broad voter support for universal background checks and has argued that a mandatory buyback program would create an unending political war with voters who are uneasy about government overreach.

O’Rourke accused Buttigieg of being “limited by the polls and the consultants and the focus groups.”

“The problem isn't the polls, the problem is the policy," Buttigieg responded. "And I don't need lessons from you on courage, political or personal."

Some Democrats warned that Buttigieg risks tarnishing his image by going too hard after his rivals.

“Pete made his move last night,” said Andrew Feldman, a Democratic strategist. “He was strong in some answers, but weaker in how he delivered his new ‘Pete on the attack’ approach. He’s not seen to be this attack dog, a lot of people like him for his Midwestern charm, so we’re yet to see how that will play out. A lot of people have been drawn to him because they like his cool, calm and collected approach.”

But at the moment, the Buttigieg campaign is basking in positive press after many in Washington anointed him the winner of Tuesday night’s debate.

Robert Wolf, a top Democratic donor, is among those who viewed Buttigieg as the night’s big winner.

"He had an amazing debate," Wolf said. "The more people get to know him, the more they like him."