Have you noticed something? All that Beto-mania, that quasi-inexplicable adoration for former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), has given way to a predictable frenzy over Democratic Mayor Pete Buttigeg of South Bend, Ind. After a boffo showing at his CNN town hall on March 10 right through to his truly inspiring presidential announcement speech on Sunday, it seems everywhere I turn folks are raving about the devoutly Christian married gay naval intelligence veteran educated at Harvard and Oxford universities.
I could have had told you this was going to happen. Oh, wait, I did way back in January when folks were frothing over Beto and former vice president Joe Biden. Actually, according to the polls, people are still excited about Biden’s possible entry. But I digress.
As “Mayor Pete” ascends ever higher in the polls, popular regard and fundraising, there are four hurdles I’m keeping an eye on to see if he can clear them to sustain the magic he seems to have captured. Two of them are easy, but there is one looming that will tell us a lot about him.
The first hurdle is going to be no problem: the June debate. As we have seen, Buttigieg fields any question with a thoughtfulness and directness that feel authentic. On a stage with rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, he will more than hold his own on articulating policies and a vision to lead a post-Trump America.
The second hurdle is also going to be easy: fundraising. The once-little-known mayor is outraising people who have been on the national stage for years. Buttigieg raised an impressive $7 million in the first campaign-finance reporting period. His announcement speech alone brought in $1 million within four hours of his rainy debut.
The third hurdle is tougher than it may seem right now: Can he take a sucker punch? Buttigieg is not afraid of a fight. Just look at his scrappy back-and-forth with fellow Hoosier Vice President Pence over the former governor’s embrace of President Trump and his anti-LGBTQ record. And I’m sure Buttigieg will be able to handle incoming from fellow Democrats and other progressives taking aim at him. It’s the sucker punch from Trump I’m wondering about.
Trump is a moral void who couldn’t care less about decency, decorum, convention or rules. Nothing is off limits to the man who gleefully adds rhetorical sewage to our political discourse through the sewer that is Twitter. He hands out sophomoric nicknames and repeats them incessantly like all insecure bullies. That he is wilfully putting the life of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) at risk with yet another incendiary post is more proof that there is no floor to Trump’s depravity. How Buttigieg responds to a rain of low blows from the president about him, his husband or anything related to either of them could erode the candidate’s standing in the eyes of voters. See the entire 2016 Republican presidential primary field for evidence of the damage.
The fourth hurdle will take a little longer to discern if he’s cleared it: authenticity. One of the main driver’s of Buttigieg’s appeal is how authentic he appears in word and manner. But something always — and understandably — happens to the dark-horse candidate who bursts into the top tier. Slowly, but surely, the higher they climb, the more their authenticity gives way to caution. Their answers become more cautious. Their manner becomes more cautious. Their events become more cautious. Their interactions with the press become more cautious until there are no more interactions at all because protecting a hard-fought lead becomes paramount.
Buttigieg is already a reserved personality, so it might be hard to detect any kind of shift in his demeanor. But if Buttigieg in the fall is the same Buttigieg we’re talking about today, he will have cleared that last hurdle. Then we’ll see if he can make it through tape for the nomination.
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