Now in top tier, Buttigieg becomes target of 2020 attacks

INDIANOLA, Iowa — There may be no surer sign that a campaign is gaining traction than when its opponents begin to attack.
And the attacks are beginning to come against South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegBiden's proposals spark phase 2 of supply chain crisis Biden returns restores tradition, returning to Kennedy Center Honors The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Congress avoids shutdown MORE, until now virtually unchallenged in his improbable rise through the crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates.
Polls show Buttigieg rising into the top tier of candidates, alongside some whose political careers began before he was born.
But as his support grows, other candidates still trying to achieve their own breakout moments are beginning to question whether he has the experience to run the nation, or the ability to beat President TrumpDonald TrumpJury in Jussie Smollett trial begins deliberations Pence says he'll 'evaluate' any requests from Jan. 6 panel Biden's drug overdose strategy pushes treatment for some, prison for others MORE.
"We need to nominate a candidate who can appeal to the African American and Latino communities," former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro told The Hill here on Sunday, after warning his party against nominating "what seems like the safe choice."
The polls that show Buttigieg on the rise also show his support comes almost entirely from white Democrats. He has yet to earn an infusion of support among African American voters, and Castro said Buttigieg's record is why.
"Just look at his track record as mayor. He has a bad track record with African Americans on the issues, and he's almost acknowledged as much," Castro said. "It is risky to nominate somebody that cannot appeal to one of our most important constituencies."
Touring Iowa on a campaign bus, Buttigieg acknowledged problems in South Bend. Earlier this year, Buttigieg took several days off the campaign trail to return home after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man.
But on Sunday he pushed back hard against Castro.
"Look, our city has had a lot of challenges, but the black voters who know me best have returned me to office and supported me more the second time around than the first, and I would be happy to walk him around South Bend and introduce him to folks if he'd like to learn how we tackled these really tough issues," Buttigieg told a CNN reporter.
"We've had major challenges, as diverse communities do, around policing and economic inequality, but they're not going to be made better by being used as a political football. These are community challenges that we're facing together," he said.
Several candidates were irked earlier this week when Buttigieg said in an interview with Showtime's "The Circus" that the race for the Democratic nomination was coming down to a choice between himself and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenHillicon Valley — Presented by Connected Commerce Council — Incident reporting language left out of package Exporting gas means higher monthly energy bills for American families Senators turn up the heat on Amazon, data brokers during hearing MORE (D-Mass.).  
"It's naive for him to think that at this point, that the fate of the election has been determined," Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisTop Dem vows party won't let expanded child tax credit expire at month's end Hugh Hewitt pleads with Trump to not endorse Greitens in Missouri Jussie Smollett's final act: How a hate crime hoax became a pitch for jury nullification MORE (D-Calif.) told "Face the Nation." "Just look at history. You might need to review to know that what's happening right now is not necessarily determinative of the outcome."
Buttigieg said Harris was right.
"I think we all know that this is a fluid race, that it's a very competitive race and that anything could happen," Buttigieg told reporters on his bus Sunday.
Buttigieg has shown few qualms about launching his own broadsides in recent weeks, taking particular aim at Warren both on the debate stage and at a major dinner for Democratic activists on Friday in Des Moines.
In debates, he has questioned Warren's "Medicare for All" plan. On Friday, without naming the Massachusetts Democrat, Buttigieg lumped her in with "the political warfare that we have come to accept from Washington, D.C."
"I will never allow us to get so wrapped up in the fight that we start to think the fighting is the point. The point is what's on the other side of the fight," Buttigieg said.
Half an hour later, Warren jabbed right back, suggesting that Buttigieg and others who offer anything less than her progressive platform would lose to Trump.
"Anyone who comes on this stage and doesn't understand that we are already in a fight is not the person who is going to win that fight. Anyone who comes on this stage and tells you they can make change without a fight is not going to win that fight. And anyone who comes on this stage and tells you to dream small and give up early is not going to lead our party to victory," Warren said.
Democratic strategists said the new focus on Buttigieg will grow proportionate to his standing in the polls. There is no point in taking shots at a low-polling candidate, and others like former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) in 2004, then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaContinuing resolutions are undermining Congress' right (and responsibility) to operate Rising costs top concern for Americans: poll Biden Supreme Court study panel unanimously approves final report MORE (D-Ill.) in 2008 and even Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBriahna Joy Gray discusses US's handling of COVID-19 testing Senate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Overnight Defense & National Security — Lawmakers clinch deal on defense bill MORE (I-Vt.) in 2016 only attracted attention from their rivals when they began to gain traction.
"Mayor Pete has started to take the fight to other candidates and was pretty effective in scoring some points against Bernie and Warren in the last debate," said Doug Thornell, a longtime Democratic strategist who worked for Dean in 2004. "I think he is seen as a real threat, so the top tier ahead of him are trying protect what they’ve got and the candidates in tier two are trying to keep him in their ring."
But the Democratic nomination is not conducted on a national basis, and in Iowa, home of the critical first-in-the-nation caucuses, Buttigieg is now running close to Warren, Sanders and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenPharma lobby eyes parliamentarian Demand for US workers reaches historic high Biden to award Medal of Honor to three soldiers who fought in Iraq, Afghanistan: report MORE. In the last three surveys conducted in Iowa, Buttigieg has polled ahead of Biden in two and ahead of Sanders in two, though behind Warren in all three.
Iowa is increasingly becoming must-win territory for a handful of those lower-polling candidates. Campaigning there this weekend, Harris, Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerMaternal and child health legislation must be prioritized now Poll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE (D-N.J.) and Castro all said they were basing their hopes on a strong showing in Iowa.
But, dangerously for them, Iowa Democratic voters look much more like Buttigieg's coalition than states like South Carolina, with its heavily African American constituency, or Nevada, which has a strong Hispanic contingent.
In a New York Times–Siena poll released over the weekend, Buttigieg's coalition is better-educated than average; he earns far more support among voters with a bachelor's degree or more than among those who did not go to college.
In a race that is largely becoming about a candidate's chances of beating President Trump, his deficit among working-class and minority voters is becoming a potent line of attack.
"We lost because people sat out the 2016 election," Castro said. "You have to excite the base of this party, bring new voters into the fold. And if you have a candidate that can't speak to a range of constituencies among Democrats, then we're going to lose this election."