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Pete Buttigieg, the young and openly gay Midwest mayor, finds a voice in crowded Democratic presidential field

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., answers questions from supporters during a sold-out fundraising event at Bar Lubitsch in West Hollywood on Thursday. (Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post)

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Pete Buttigieg — the mayor of South Bend, Ind., who is running for president — won’t wear his dress jacket, not when he appears on national television for a town hall meeting, not for photo shoots, not even at a fundraiser here in a Russian-themed bar where he’s mingling with such celebrities as comedian Billy Eichner and Olympic diver Greg Louganis.

“There’s a side controversy over that question,” Buttigieg said in an interview. No less a figure than David Axelrod, the top strategist for the past two winning Democratic presidential campaigns, has been privately urging the 37-year-old to look more grown-up by wearing a jacket on the campaign trail.

“I don’t know,” Buttigieg said, hesitating as if embarrassed by how contrived his next thought might sound. “I just feel more comfortable with my sleeves rolled up.”

The Navy veteran with a hard-to-pronounce name, from a city small enough to fit every resident in a college football stadium, seems to be winning the argument at the moment. Weeks after declaring his interest in challenging President Trump, he has become, if not exactly well-known, a subject of interest for many Democratic voters, buoyed by a breakout performance at a CNN town hall on March 10.

His moment came just days before another youthful candidate, former congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas, grabbed the spotlight by announcing his entrance into the race.

Buttigieg downplayed the impact of a rival fresh face joining the fray, joking that he has the “white Episcopalian gay veteran” lane to himself.

“It’s not worth the energy and effort to try to game out what the others are doing,” Buttigieg said. “Maybe if there were like three people running. But when there’s like 20, you’re not running against any one of them. You’re running against the house. Especially me.”

Buttigieg has trouble even breaking into many polls, so his rise should not be overstated. But the buzz that’s surrounding him, at least for now, reflects how fluid, unpredictable and fractured the Democratic race has become, without a clear leader and with various candidates attracting attention at different times and for different reasons.

Even in a Democratic field full of nontraditional candidates, Buttigieg stands out in many ways. A military veteran who deployed to Afghanistan, he is openly gay, and his husband, Chasten, maintains a lively Twitter presence. He would be the youngest president in history. No mayor has ever ascended directly to the presidency, let alone from a city of about 102,000.

Buttigieg is also one of the few Democratic hopefuls from a state carried by Trump. Central to his message is the case that he knows how to appeal to Republican voters whom, he says, Democrats have too often ignored.

The CNN town hall attracted 22,000 donors to his undeclared campaign in 24 hours, his staff said. On Saturday, his campaign announced it had cleared the 65,000-donor threshold necessary to earn a spot in the Democratic debates scheduled to start in June. Two prominent Democratic donors, whom his campaign declines to name, reached out as well, advisers said.

He plans to double his campaign staff from 20 to 40 “in a matter of days,” and his team is narrowing down options for a bigger South Bend headquarters — perhaps an entire floor of a downtown high rise.

“In some ways it seems fantastical that a 37-year-old openly gay mayor from South Bend can even be in this conversation,” said Axelrod, who is neutral in the Democratic primary race. “These donor types are pretty flinty eyed, but they want to be passionate about their choices.”

Many Democrats praised the way Buttigieg went after Vice President Pence, a vocal religious conservative, describing him on CNN as “the cheerleader of the porn star presidency.”

“Is it that he stopped believing in scripture when he started believing in Donald Trump?” Buttigieg asked.

The mayor says he claims no artifice. “I am not skilled enough or energetic enough to craft a persona. I just have to be who I am and hope people like it,” Buttigieg said. “I think people in our party tie themselves up in pretzels trying to be more electable.”

He fields questions differently from most other candidates, leaning on numbers and context and maintaining a noteworthy willingness to answer “yes” or “no.”

Buttigieg also shows a facility with Twitter. When Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks chief executive who’s considering an independent run for president, said he’d spent more time with the military than anyone running, Buttigieg was quick with a facetious response highlighting his time in the Afghanistan war zone.

“I remember a Green Beans Coffee at the exchange at Bagram, and a decent espresso machine run by the Italian NATO element at ISAF HQ,” he tweeted, referring to the Afghanistan mission. “But I don’t recall seeing any Starbucks over there.” Schultz apologized.

In his recent memoir, Buttigieg credits his rhetorical approach partly to his education, including four years at Harvard University and two at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes scholar.

“In the community of people running around Harvard in suits with handkerchief scarves, he was definitely not in that category,” said Massachusetts state Sen. Eric Lesser (D), a Harvard classmate and longtime friend. “He always had a fairly understated style. He wasn’t a table banger.”

Some of Buttigieg’s ideas are un­or­tho­dox, though he’s not alone in the Democratic field in that regard. He is outspoken about his desire to abolish the electoral college, for example, and has suggested a Supreme Court composed of 15 justices, including five who would be appointed by the other 10. Both ideas would probably require a constitutional amendment.

Buttigieg often argues Democrats should not cede the word “freedom” to Republicans, citing his marriage as a way the government gave him freedom to pursue his rights.

“He says things that I’m thinking, that no one else is doing,” said Carrie Clifford, a 47-year-old actor and writer who lives in Los Angeles. “I’m like, ‘Oh, that makes a lot of sense. Why aren’t we doing that?’ I haven’t felt that way in a while.”

Some of Buttigieg’s positions are more in line with other Democrats. He supports the Green New Deal promoted by liberals in Congress, saying it’s a good start in tackling the climate crisis. He backs a single-payer health-care system, though he says private insurance companies should play a role. He opposes the Trump administration’s tough approach to immigration.

Some Democrats say privately Buttigieg may not be prepared to be president, given his youth and that he’s never served in national or even statewide office. (Buttigieg is a decade younger than O’Rourke and was not born when former vice president Joe Biden was first elected to the Senate.) Trump’s tenure, they say, has soured Democrats on the notion of inexperienced candidates jumping into the presidency.

Buttigieg responds that, having been South Bend mayor since 2012, he has longer government experience than Trump and more executive credentials than Pence, who was Indiana’s governor for four years.

As mayor, Buttigieg said, he’s had to solve everyday problems and cannot get away with spinning them.

“You can’t walk down a street and have someone point out a pothole and say, ‘There’s no pothole there,’ ” said Buttigieg’s senior adviser Mike Schmul, a high school friend who also ran his mayoral campaigns.

Buttigieg claims his administration has filled 365,000 potholes during his eight-year tenure.

Still, a strong record on potholes is not a traditional steppingstone to the presidency. Some wonder if his long-shot bid is an attempt to boost his profile and perhaps win a Cabinet post, rather than a genuine effort to reach the White House.

“I’ve never believed in running for office so you can eventually run for some other office,” Buttigieg said. “Especially not this office.”

As he navigated the fundraiser at Bar Lubitsch in West Hollywood on Thursday, his informal style was on display. He took pictures with Louganis, told Eichner he’d talk to him later and joked about how more people are recognizing him.

“I saw the town hall meeting he conducted. I loved what he had to say about very important issues that are important to me — not just LGBT issues but so much more,” Louganis said. “Education, health care, the environment. He checks off so many boxes for me that are near and dear to my heart.”

As he worked the rooms filled with potential donors, Buttigieg didn’t even have a staffer carrying a jacket just in case.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced on Jan. 23 that he would join the 2020 presidential race, and TV hosts have difficulty pronouncing his name. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)