Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg’s struggle to appeal to African American voters may be his biggest challenge in the presidential primary, which will become even more acute as the race moves from lily-white states to more diverse states such as Nevada and South Carolina. Lost in the conversation, however, has been whether Hispanic voters — a growing share of the electorate and a key voting bloc in Nevada and several Super Tuesday states — will be attracted to Buttigieg’s campaign. On Thursday in Las Vegas, Buttigieg showed remarkable ability to connect with a young, Hispanic audience.

At the town hall put on by the League of United Latin American Citizens at the College of Southern Nevada, Buttigieg was on his game. For one thing, he was able to push back on lack of “Washington experience” as a deficit for him. He argued, "You know, I’ve heard some people say that, you know, my experience is not relevant because you have to have Washington experience in order to become a president. But some of those same voices are among those who voted to confirm Kevin McAleenan as the [Customs and Border Protection] head who presided over, for example, the horrifying conditions that children were kept in, and we have to look at what kind of judgment that experience has brought.”

He also made clear his health-care plan, Medicare for all who want it, will be a major issue and a major weapon against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “I’m thinking, for example, of the culinary workers here in Nevada who fought so hard, those strikes, and those negotiations to get excellent health-care plans. Who are we to tell them that they have to give up those plans?” He then went after the super-aggressive supporters of Sanders who have abused and bullied union leaders. “I was especially upset to see that union leadership was being attacked for standing up for their workers,” he said. “I’m going to listen to workers who say that they want to be able to keep their plans, and that is a way for us to address the problem because I believe the public plan that my administration will create will be so good that eventually everybody will want it anyway.”

For Buttigieg, health care has become a major way to differentiate himself from Sanders and remind Democrats of Sanders’s ideological rigidity. “I’m not willing to force [Medicare] on people. After all, if I’m right, everybody will choose it. . . . And this is just one example of an issue where we have this 'my way or the highway' politics that suggests to people that, you know, if you’re not with me, you must be against me. If you’re not for the revolution, you must be for the status quo.” He added, “I think most of us don’t see ourselves in that picture, because the truth is there’s a strong American majority insisting on empowering workers and delivering health care, insisting on reforming our immigration system and common-sense solutions to gun violence. We right now could actually be unifying, not dividing the American people around these issues.”

Buttigieg also endeared himself to the crowd as he lapsed into Spanish, one of the languages in which he is fluent. With a fleet of all-white candidates, Buttigieg’s ability to communicate directly and personally with Spanish-speaking voters is no small thing.

The highlight of his appearance, however, came toward the close of the question-and-answer period, when a student in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program asked him if Buttigieg would extend the program. Instead of giving a wonkish answer, he gave an empathetic one: “I want you to know that I see you as an American — that you belong to this country as much as anybody," he said. As the crowd applauded, he added, “I think everybody here supports you, too. And as you point out, you’re not only contributing to your community, you’re a taxpayer, too, and it is one of the reasons it is so important to secure the benefits of citizenship for you.” He continued, “So yes, in the meantime, we must reinstate and establish DACA protections. But this is also why we must no longer have this hanging over your head. … Being a student is demanding enough without the distraction of the pressures you are experiencing, wondering whether your place in your country — and again, I view this as your country — is secure.” His theme of “belonging” can be a powerful issue for him going forward.

When asked about policing in the African American community, he was better prepared than he has been in the past, laying out all the things he did accomplish:

Let me share some of the steps that we took in my city. One of the things that we did was to make sure that more information was made transparent — publishing down to the incident what was happening with use of force. And as a result, use of force fell over time when it came to policing in our city. Another step that we took, that I took, was to make sure that racial minorities were represented greater than the share of the population in our community on the civilian board that makes the decisions over public safety in our city. Another step that we took was to have a series of action-oriented gatherings and meetings to change policies on everything from training, to recruiting, to the use of force, to body cameras — inviting everybody from my strongest critics to people who had been involved in policing all along, elected and community leaders, to come to the table.

He conceded that we have “a long way to go in my city, in every city and in this country, but I will be a president who understands — not from debating, not from voting on things or calling from things, but from having to actually make these advances — what is at stake and the difference that the right kind of federal leadership can make in ensuring that our criminal legal system finally becomes one that is worthy of being called a justice system for everybody.” This issue is not going away, but Buttigieg at least appears more sure-footed in his response.

In short, Buttigieg — who is often slammed for being too robotic or cerebral and for lacking rapport with nonwhite voters — showed he has, contrary to the snarky coverage, improved as a candidate. Showing more empathy and speaking Spanish, Buttigieg demonstrated he can win over Hispanic voters. Whether he can translate that appeal to the polls will become clearer on the Feb. 22 caucus and beyond.

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