Pete Buttigieg is done waiting.
After rising from relative obscurity earlier this year, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor has found his campaign steadily atop the second tier candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary, but consistently unable to break into the top tier with former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
With just over 100 days until the Iowa caucuses, Buttigieg and his team of advisers have decided they can’t wait on a front-runner to fade away and believe that now – with pointed ads and aggressive debate performances – is the time to make their move. The goal is to peel support away from a cash-strapped Biden and present a more moderate alternative to the liberal views of Warren and Sanders.
To do that, the mayor – whose rise was centered on the need for comity within the Democratic Party and an intense focus on how to beat President Donald Trump, especially in his native Midwest – is beginning to take on his Democratic rivals with pointed critiques.
“We are at another level where we need draw distinctions and differences with other candidates,” Mike Schmuhl, Buttigieg’s campaign manager, told CNN. “A lot of people are drawn to Pete because he is civil and decent and kind. That’s who he is. But elections are about choices and they are about differences and they are about distinctions.”
Buttigieg, in an interview with CNN, said he still believes in “kindness” and will continue to be the person many of his supporters were drawn to early in the campaign. But he added that this moment in the race is not a time to acquiesce to others.
“Sometimes we need to make sure nobody confuses kindness for weakness,” he said.
Going on the attack
The clearest sign of this Buttigieg evolution came in the CNN/New York Times debate earlier this month. Buttigieg squared off with Warren on how she would pay for “Medicare for All,” Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard on her views on war in Syria and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke on mandatory gun buybacks. But his campaign – at events and in paid media – had been signaling this change in the weeks leading up to those moments on the debate stage.
Buttigieg, according to data collected by CNN, has spent more than $6.3 million on digital ads, including multiple ads that take on his Democratic opponents who back Medicare for All, the single-payer health care plan that Buttigieg says fails to offer choice to American voters. Buttigieg is also set to spend more than $500,000 on television ads in Iowa in the next two weeks.
And, here in Las Vegas, days after his debate performance, Buttigieg kept up the pressure on Warren, slamming her for not answering how she would pay for Medicare for All. While Sanders, who wrote the bill, has acknowledged the plan would raise taxes, Warren dodged the question during the debate. (She has since promised to release a plan in the coming weeks that explains how she would pay for the proposal.)
“Will taxes go up for your Medicare for all who want it? Yes or no,” a voter asked Buttigieg at his East Las Vegas rally, referring to the mayor’s more moderate health care plan.
The mayor smirked and replied.
“Good question, because not everyone has been answering this question,” the mayor said in a clear knock against Warren. He went on to explain that the Medicare for All Who Want It plan would be paid for by rolling back the corporate tax cuts Trump passed and savings from the federal government negotiating drug prices.
Minutes before that rally, Buttigieg succinctly laid out his argument against candidates like Warren in an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “Being bold doesn’t have to be divisive.”
This plan is not without risks. Buttigieg’s newfound aggressiveness has made him a newly favorite target of his opponents, with some claiming he is either a corporate politician willing to change his positions for campaign donations or a poll-tested candidate who is willing to change positions for political expediency.
People close to Warren’s campaign have accused Buttigieg of being “too corporate” and just as evasive on paying for his health care plan as Warren. They have charged that, in a move for political expediency, he has backed away from supporting Medicare for All.
O’Rourke has said Buttigieg is too “calculating” and poll tested on guns, a charge that Buttigieg dismissed before the debate as the former congressman trying to stay relevant.
And Julián Castro’s campaign has rebuked the mayor on immigration, saying Buttigieg was moderating his views on decriminalizing crossing illegal border crossings. Buttigieg faulted those calling for such a plan during the October Democratic debate; months before, at the first debate, he praised such plan.
“Mayor Pete goes from making an impassioned (sic) case for decriminalizing border crossings (which he says is the ‘basis for family separation’) in debate one, to adding it to his list of policies he calls ‘purity tests’ in debate four,” Castro spokesman Sawyer Hackett tweeted this month. “Who’s the real Pete?”
Buttigieg on Wednesday dismissed charges of moderating on liberal policy, telling CNN that he has been “consistent” in his views and that the “left-right framework is less and less useful in understanding this race.”
Lis Smith, Buttigieg’s spokeswoman, said the South Bend-based campaign welcomes the focus.
“There was a clear and visible uptick towards Pete from our opponents after the debate,” Smith said. “That, to us, signaled strongly that he had made the most effective contrast of any candidate during any of the debates.”
Some of that is backed up by Buttigieg supporters here in Nevada, who cheered the Democrat’s debate performance, including when he rhetorically asked the audience at the start of his rally, “Did I do OK?”
“I think a lot of people have gotten very tired of the rhetoric and the promises and the pie in the sky, unicorn flying over the rainbow,” said Mary Figueras, a 61-year old Las Vegan who decided to support the mayor a month ago.
MJ Erani, a Buttigieg supporter who began backing him in January, agreed.
“In the third debate, I think he kind of got lost,” she said. “And while I don’t need that additional sort of aggressiveness, it seemed like he got a lot more attention and I didn’t seem to be negative attention.”
But among undecided voters who attended one of Buttigieg’s events here in Nevada, the reviews were not as unflinchingly positive.
“He was good. I think he can do it without trying to be overly aggressive,” said Enrique Diaz, a 65-year old retiree who likes the mayor but hasn’t decided to commit to him. “If you go on offense, it shows for me he has a lack of confidence… like he needs (to do) something. He doesn’t need anything because he’s very smart, very articulate, very good.”
Jesus Sy, a 63-year old retiree who stood waiting for Buttigieg to speak with Diaz, echoed that sentiment.
“He doesn’t seem to be a naturally aggressive person,” Sy said.
And Matthew DeFalco, an undecided 30-year old Democrat, was even blunter.
“It wasn’t bold to me,” DeFalco said of Buttigieg’s debate performance. “What that was, to me, was more unproductive. It was fighting.”
“Everyone has a different plan in this race for how we should approach this problem. But we shouldn’t be attacking each other in that way,” said DeFalco, who unsuccessfully ran for Henderson City Council in 2017. “It just felt unproductive.”
Buttigieg’s direct tone is more striking when considering the mayor used some of his earliest appearances and debate performances to slam party infighting. At the third Democratic debate, Buttigieg said a spat between Biden and Castro was “unwatchable.”
“This reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington,” he said at the time.
But on Tuesday in Las Vegas, the mayor defended the forcefulness of his debate performance, telling CNN that he was not worried it was going to dissuade undecided voters from backing him.
“I think this a season for contrast delivered respectfully,” he said. “Whenever I draw a contrast with a competitor its always going to be about policy, it’s going to be about substance.”
CNN’s Vanessa Yurkevich, Donald Judd and David Wright contributed to this report.