It's the aggressive progressives vs. the pragmatic moderates

It's the aggressive progressives vs. the pragmatic moderates
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Is Mayor Pete the candidate to beat in the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination? It’s too early to tell, because the race is still in flux. But South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegThe media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Tulsi Gabbard reacts to Afghanistan report, calls out Pete Buttigieg's McKinsey work Buttigieg surrogate on candidate's past consulting work: 'I don't think it matters' MORE has risen to the top of the polls in the first two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, that elect delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee.

Buttigieg is one of three Democratic candidates who entered the presidential race with little national name recognition but made a strong first impression. The other two are Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisThe media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Krystal Ball: Media turns on Buttigieg, will this end him? Senate Democrats demand Trump fire Stephen Miller MORE (D-Calif.) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas). O’Rourke dropped out after a sizzling start. Harris made a big splash in the first Democratic debate with a blistering attack on the then-Democratic frontrunner, Joe BidenJoe BidenThe media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Top Zelensky aide refutes Sondland testimony The great AI debate: What candidates are (finally) saying about artificial intelligence MORE, but her campaign has sputtered since then.

How did Buttigieg become a big player in the Democratic race while O’Rourke failed and Harris continues to struggle?

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First, Mayor Pete got great early reviews from the great mentioners in the “invisible primary” that unfolds in the Acela corridor well before the candidates meet real live Democratic primary voters.

The Washington Post once called him “the most interesting mayor you never heard of.” Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe mullahs seek to control uncontrolled chaos Poll: Majority of Democrats thinks Obama was better president than Washington Obama urges Americans to get health coverage in new holiday video MORE once included Buttigieg among four Democrats who represented the future of the Democratic Party.

Typical of the buzz was a tweet from Joe ScarboroughCharles (Joe) Joseph ScarboroughScarborough rips GOP over Ukraine conspiracy theories It's the aggressive progressives vs. the pragmatic moderates Scarborough: Trump is either 'an agent of Russia' or 'a useful idiot' MORE reacting to Buttigieg’s appearance on Morning Joe. “Mika and I have been overwhelmed by the reaction @PeteButtigieg got after being on the show. The only other time in 12 years that we heard from as many people about a guest was after @BarackObama appeared on Morning Joe.” 

Buttigieg also has a great story to tell.

He’s the un-Trump. He’s young and smart, and he served with distinction in a war zone.

Buttigieg received degrees from Harvard and from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He served in Naval Intelligence for seven months in Afghanistan, and he received a Joint Services Commendation Medal for his counter-terrorism duty in a combat zone. He was elected to the first of his two terms as mayor of South Bend when he was only 29. He still holds his rank as a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve.

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And by the way, he’s gay and married. He is the first openly gay candidate to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, and he would become the first openly gay president of the United States.

Plus, he’s the kind of outsider who thrives in an environment where Americans still distrust and even hate Washington D.C.

The three candidates leading the national polls – former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate The media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Steyer rolls out 5B plan to invest in historically black colleges MORE (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenThe media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Buttigieg surrogate on candidate's past consulting work: 'I don't think it matters' Steyer rolls out 5B plan to invest in historically black colleges MORE (D-Mass.) have all served as United States senators and are all in their 70s.

Mayor Pete is only 37; Biden had already served in Congress for nine years by the time the mayor was born in 1982. Together Biden and Sanders have done 64 years of hard time in Washington. Buttigieg served in Afghanistan but is unbloodied by gladiatorial combat in “The Swamp.”

For some Democrats, the decades of congressional know-how that Biden and Sanders have is a welcome antidote to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate US sending 20,000 troops to Europe for largest exercises since Cold War Barr criticizes FBI, says it's possible agents acted in 'bad faith' in Trump probe MORE’s lack of political experience. But to many Americans, long service in Washington is still the kiss of death.

In the most recent Democratic debate. Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharPoll: Biden leads Democratic field, Warren drops to third place 'Minor league cities' need new federal partnership The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - Democrats to release articles of impeachment today MORE (D-Minn.) attacked Buttigieg for lacking the national experience to be an effective president. His comeback was “Washington experience is not the only experience that matters. There’s more than 100 years of experience on this stage, and where are we now as a country?”

Well played, Mayor Pete.

The Real Clear Poll averages have Buttigieg in first place in Iowa and New Hampshire, but still stuck in single digits nationally. Can Mayor Pete repeat his success and project that support onto a national playing field?

To become a big player nationally, Buttigieg must demonstrate that he can secure the support of Latino and African American Democrats. Mayor Pete is doing well in New Hampshire and Iowa, where there are relatively few black and brown voters. But he has very little support in the next two contests in Nevada and South Carolina, where there are large numbers of Latino and African American voters. The next wave of states, on Super Tuesday, boast large populations of non-white Democrats.

Buttigieg's opponents have tried to portray him as #MayoPete, the white bread candidate. If the label sticks, Buttigieg will have problems as he spreads his wings nationally. Anywhere from 35 percent to 40 percent of Democratic primary voters or caucus participants nationally will be black or brown.

Nationally, Buttigieg’s future is also dependent on the state of Biden’s campaign and the impact former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael Rubens BloombergTrump campaign exploits Bloomberg News blunder Tim Black: Did Michael Bloomberg lie about stop and frisk? Poll: Trump leads 2020 Democratic candidates in Michigan MORE and his money have on the campaign.

When all is said and done, the race will boil down to two candidates.

One of the finalists, either Warren or Sanders, will emerge as the champion of the aggressive progressives.

The other finalist will represent the pragmatic moderates in the party. Biden and Buttigieg are battling to be the pragmatists’ standard bearer. In the recent Democratic debate, Buttigieg went out of his way to court independents and even Republicans.

Biden’s support has diminished since he formally entered the race. If Biden’s candidacy stabilizes, Mayor Pete will hit a roadblock. If the former vice president’s fortunes continue to decline, Buttigieg will inherit some of his support.

Bloomberg is a late entry. The billionaire businessman has just started a two-week $37-billion national media buy that will make or break him in his quest to be the great moderate hope in the sweepstakes to stop Trump.

There have been five nationally televised Democratic debates, and there’s less than three months before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. But surprisingly few Democrats have made a hard and fast decision about a nominee.

Will Buttigieg break out and gain support beyond Iowa and New Hampshire? Will Bloomberg’s big bucks shuffle the deck? There’s still time for lots of twists and turns in the campaign until the people's choice finally emerges.

Brad Bannon is a Democratic pollster and CEO of Bannon Communications Research. He is also the host of the radio podcast “Deadline D.C. With Brad Bannon,” which airs on the Progressive Voices Network. Follow him on Twitter @BradBannon.