NASHUA, N.H. (AP) — For much of the year, Pete Buttigieg has glided through the Democratic presidential campaign, raising stunning amounts of money, impressing many with his calm eloquence and gaining ground in early voting Iowa.
Now he is starting to pay the price of success.
New to national politics, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is facing much sharper scrutiny after last week’s presidential debate when he pointedly challenged Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and struck clear contrasts with others.
In the days since, Buttigieg has come under criticism for being too cozy with powerful tech industry giant Mark Zuckerberg, a classmate at Harvard, and faced renewed questions about his ability to attract African American voters, a vital bloc of the Democratic base.
Just as Warren’s recent ascent was met by confrontation during last week’s debate in Ohio, it may be Buttigieg’s turn. With two city election victories and one spectacular statewide defeat in Indiana to his name, he is in for an examination like he has never faced.
“I guess we’re doing well because it seems like there’s a little more heat coming toward us,” Buttigieg told reporters after a campaign stop in New Hampshire on Thursday.
Within days of his last debate performance, the attacks began.
Buttigieg and his senior aides quickly convened to discuss how a former Chicago city attorney who tried blocking the release of footage of the fatal police shooting of a black teenager, Laquan McDonald, ended up on the host committee for a Buttigieg fundraiser in Chicago last week.
The death stirred months of protest and ended in an officer’s conviction for second-degree murder. But the failure by Buttigieg’s team to screen more closely was an untimely reminder of the officer-involved shooting of a black man in South Bend, which raised anew questions about his light support among African Americans.
Buttigieg removed the lawyer, Steve Patton, from the event’s co-sponsor list and was returning his campaign contributions.
Mike Schmuhl, his campaign manager, was asked to establish a more thorough protocol to review contributions and the donor list — of roughly 600,000 — for other possible issues, according to a Buttigieg campaign adviser.
For his part, Buttigieg declined to address how he had prepared for more scrutiny.
“Like any campaign, we make sure that we anticipate any attacks that might come our way,” Buttigieg said Thursday. “The more we succeed, there will be more pressure. But we’re ready for that.”
They “would be foolish” not to have conducted a thorough review of all aspects of Buttigieg’s record, “because they have the resources,” said David Axelrod, senior adviser to former President Barack Obama.
“The last thing you want to do is learn things from your opponents. You want to anticipate these things and deal with them before they come out, not after.”
So far, Axelrod said, the “stories that have come out have not been hits to the main engine,” Axelrod said, “but they’ll keep coming.”
Although Buttigieg did name a staffer to review donors and supporters over the summer, Patton’s check came before that and slipped through then-smaller staff. Still, Buttigieg said at a University of Chicago forum last week that it should not have happened, “especially as somebody who is a mayor of a city that has had a lot of anguish over police-community relations.”
His political opponents have also begun circulating opposition research about him, including the leaked results of a South Carolina focus group conducted in June by Buttigieg’s campaign, which showed Buttigieg’s sexuality — he is the first openly gay, serious contender for his party’s presidential nomination — to be a deterrent to his support among African Americans, a key constituency in the first Southern primary next year.
And Monday, Bloomberg News published a story stating that Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder and CEO who has come under bipartisan criticism on the platform’s political speech policy and handling of private information, and his wife had recommended Buttigieg staff hires to the campaign’s digital analytics.
Big tech has become a fraught subject in the 2020 Democratic nominating campaign. Warren has proposed breaking up Facebook and other major tech companies and has taken aim at Zuckerberg’s policy of not fact-checking political ads that run on the platform.
Buttigieg’s campaign staff said that his levelheadedness will serve him if the attacks intensify.
He spent the summer building up staff and volunteer networks in Iowa and New Hampshire, fueled by the $25 million in second-quarter fundraising — the best in the Democratic field for the period — and a robust $19 million in the third quarter.
He has traveled to Iowa, home of the first 2020 nominating contest, drawing large, motivated audiences as he challenged Democrats with a message of ending the “crisis of belonging” he says has been stoked by President Donald Trump.
In the most recent debate, he flashed a combative side, taking aim at Warren’s failure to detail how she would pay for a government-finance, single-payer universal health care program.
Buttigieg had telegraphed the moment for weeks, having suggested that Warren, who led in a recent Iowa poll, had been “evasive” on whether her proposal would raise taxes on all Americans.
But he followed up with more impromptu disagreements with Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s criticism of U.S. policy on Syria and, even more notably, to former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke questioning his mettle to confront the gun lobby.
The next day, the money flowed. More than $1 million in 24 hours, aides said.
That same day in Iowa, Story County Attorney Jessica Reynolds introduced Buttigieg to an audience of 900 on Iowa State University’s campus, saying, “Who saw the debate last night? Didn’t he knock it out of the park?”
Even Buttigieg, who is fond of saying the race is less about the debate stage than a candidate’s values, couldn’t resist noting, “I think my debate performance was pretty good,” prompting a burst of cheers.