Buttigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses

Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Buttigieg rolls out endorsements from South Bend officials Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE is surging in the 2020 primary, capitalizing on a Democratic Party wrestling with its political identity. 

In a year when Democrats are struggling to choose between a string of septuagenarian candidates, strategists say the 37-year-old South Bend, Ind., mayor has become an alternative choice, tapping into a desire for a fresh face in Washington. 

Democrats are also battling over how far left to go in the primary, but Buttigieg may be a candidate who appeals to centrists without turning off liberals.

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Political observers and strategists say this appeal is one of the main reasons Buttigieg, who is a veteran and also gay, has been surging toward the top of polls. 

“He’s trying to be the Goldilocks ‘just right’ candidate in between everyone,” said Democratic strategist Eddie Vale. 

When Buttigieg announced his candidacy, the chance of him winning the nomination seemed like a long shot. 

Voters didn’t know much about him and couldn’t pronounce his name. He had a staff of four, including an intern. Some news organizations wouldn’t add him to their primary graphics.

Less than a year later, Buttigieg has a staff of 469 people, what pundits call a commanding presence at town halls and a rash of good headlines. 

“I think one of the biggest factors not getting enough attention is they're doing a really good job campaigning,” said Vale. “They’re doing lots of events [and] interviews.”

It’s “definitely possible” Buttigieg could win the nomination, Vale said, because “his rise is coming from a good foundation, not just a viral moment.”

Buttigieg has emerged as an alternative to Joe BidenJoe BidenNew York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Graham invites Giuliani to testify about recent Ukraine trip Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications MORE and most political observers see the Indianan as pulling votes from the former vice president. But he also appears to be winning over supporters from other candidates, including some to his left.

“As far as I can tell, he's taken a little away from everyone,” said Democratic strategist Michael Trujillo. 

A Monmouth University poll in Iowa released this week found Buttigieg winning 22 percent of likely caucusgoers compared with 19 percent for Biden, 18 percent for Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump executive order aimed at combating anti-Semitism stirs up controversy Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE (D-Mass.) and 13 percent for Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders 'outraged' after MLB threatens to cut ties with minor league teams Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE (I-Vt.). 

Buttigieg has gained 14 points since August, the last time Monmouth surveyed caucusgoers. Biden lost 7 points while Warren lost 2 points in the survey and Sanders gained 5 points. 

“There’s no doubt about it — as the primary cycle continues, Mayor Pete’s appeal is only growing,” said Democratic strategist Lynda Tran. “The latest poll certainly puts the wind at his back heading into Iowa.”

Buttigieg’s fundraising has propelled his campaign. He raised more than $19 million in the third quarter, beating some of his competitors and becoming the candidate Hollywood A-listers have most supported with their checkbooks. 

Buttigieg does face some hurdles — particularly his low support among black voters. It is difficult to imagine he will win the nomination unless he can improve his standing with African Americans.

In South Carolina, where Biden performs particularly well because of his strong support among black voters, Buttigieg ranks sixth, according to an average of polls in South Carolina conducted by RealClearPolitics. 

Aware of his weakness with black voters, the Buttigieg campaign made a $2 million ad buy in the state Thursday, hoping to build support. In the first radio ad, Buttigieg highlights his time as a naval intelligence officer in Afghanistan contrasting it with President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE's reality television career. 

In the spot, he also pledges "to do something about gun violence, to tackle systemic racism wherever we find it until your race in this country has no bearing on your health, or your wealth, your life expectancy or your relationship with law enforcement." 

Buttigieg's age and lack of experience could also weigh him down, Democrats say, particularly in a campaign season where the party’s voters are locked in on finding the candidate who can defeat Trump.

“If Donald Trump wasn’t a factor, he would easily be the front-runner. He’s young, very smart and dynamic,” the Democratic strategist said. 

Some voters might not feel comfortable nominating a candidate who is only 37 years old. 

The youngest president ever elected to the office was John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE, who was 43 when he took the oath of office.

Former President Obama was one of the younger presidents elected in the United States. But he was about a decade older when he took office than Buttigieg is now. 

“I don’t know if I feel comfortable voting for someone younger than me. I think that's a confusing dilemma for me,” Trujillo said, adding that other voters may feel the same way. 

Trujillo said Buttigieg also hasn’t been scrutinized the way other candidates have so far. 

“He has the appeal because he really hasn’t been under the microscope,” Trujillo added. “Once the bright lights are on you, things get a little bumpier. 

But more than anything, Buttigieg will have to prove his electability against Trump. 

“I like what he stands for a lot, but I have my doubts about whether he can beat him,” one major Democratic donor said. “I don’t see how the mayor of South Bend Indiana ends up winning.”