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Pete Buttigieg Races To The Finish In Iowa With Most Competitors Stuck In Washington

Pete Buttigieg speaks during a campaign event in Ames, Iowa, on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. He talks to Here & Now about crisscrossing the state before the Iowa caucuses. (Rebecca F. Miller for Here & Now)
Pete Buttigieg speaks during a campaign event in Ames, Iowa, on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. He talks to Here & Now about crisscrossing the state before the Iowa caucuses. (Rebecca F. Miller for Here & Now)

If a presidential candidate gets enough momentum out of the Iowa caucuses, they can become hard to beat.

That's exactly what Democratic candidate and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is hoping for. Buttigieg, along with former Vice President Joe Biden, are the only two top tier candidates who are not planted in Washington this week for the impeachment trial of President Trump.

As a result, Buttigieg barnstormed the state on Wednesday, holding five town hall meetings in a single day.

After a year of campaigning, Iowa is now just four days away — and Buttigieg says he's ready. A year ago this month, Buttigieg kick-started his bid for president with little name recognition and an exploratory committee with only four people, he says.

Now, he says his campaign's feeling "electric" energy.

"We’ve come to this point where now in a few days, we will have an opportunity to not just tell but show our ability to mount the campaign organization that could go on to defeat Donald Trump," he says. "So it’s exciting. It’s intense."

Buttigieg is the first choice candidate among 16% of likely caucusgoers — trailing behind Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders — according to a Monmouth University poll out Wednesday.

He says he's still working to build enthusiastic support with black voters, especially in Iowa — a state that is more than 90% white. A recent Washington Post/Ipsos poll showed the former mayor winning 2% among black Democratic-leaning registered voters.

"One thing that we can do in Iowa, where the minority community is smaller but is energized and activated, is to demonstrate the breadth of our reach here," he says. "And of course, we need to carry that into other states, especially as we look to the west in the south."

In the competitive field, the 38-year-old Afghanistan veteran stands out because of experience considering his age and his status as a Washington outsider, he says.

There's only one shot to defeat Trump in the general election, he says, and he believes he can accomplish that.

"I’m not running because I’m interested in being president someday," he says. "I’m running because this moment calls for what I have to offer."

Interview Highlights

On building a relationship with black voters in South Carolina

"Well, you know, the relationship that I have has obviously been formed over months rather than decades. So there’s stiff competition among voters who want to have a very pragmatic sense of a candidate who can win. But I do believe that we have what it takes in order to be competitive in South Carolina and in the other early states, too."

On gaining trust with black voters, his sexual orientation and name recognition

“I don’t think it’s fair to pin homophobia or any phobia on one community. We know we’ve had the challenge of introducing ourselves to voters who are rightly skeptical after a sense of having been taken for granted by even or especially democratic politicians and it’s one of the reasons why candidates, including African American candidates, struggle to break out of the single digits among black voters in the south. But I also believe that when we have an opportunity to demonstrate our ability to win, and the first chance to do that of course on the ground is right here in Iowa, that opens up whole new possibilities for us in the south too.”

On being the youngest candidate in the field

"When you’re young and run for office, it’s not unusual to be patted on the head and told you are the future. But this election for me is not only about the future, it’s about the present. It’s about where we are right now and the fact that right now is our chance to defeat Donald Trump, that we only get one shot and that every time my party has actually won in the last 50 years, it’s been with a nominee who represented something new, a new generation, a voice from outside Washington and generally somebody who is new on the national scene, too. We’ve got to make sure that we’re prepared to win and prepared to govern."

"I would point to the experience I have. I’m certainly the youngest candidate running for president right now. But also, I’d argue the experience of guiding the transformation of a so-called Rust Belt city, the exact kind of community that our party has struggled to connect with. Even though we have the better policies, that’s the experience that's going to be pretty useful in the Oval Office as well as running for president. And also, I think it’s a good time for somebody who actually knows what it is to be sent into war on the orders of a president to be in the situation room."

On whether it was right for President Trump not to retaliate for the Iranian airstrikes on bases where U.S. troops were stationed, now that we know 50 troops suffered traumatic brain injuries

"We know that de-escalation is the key to next steps with Iran, but we also know that it turned out to be incorrect, that nobody was impacted or injured by those attacks. Being anywhere near the blast zone of a ballistic missile is very serious, and the fact that the president turned around and said that these were not serious injuries or conflated TBI [traumatic brain injury] with headaches, is just one more example of why we need somebody in that office who actually has some sense of the experiences and the dangers that our people in uniform face."

On what his response to the Iranian missile attacks would have been

"The biggest response is to make sure that we are safe on the road ahead. Remember, we still got troops deployed across the Middle East and they are vulnerable not only to direct attacks from Iran like that one but the effective of proxy warfare, which is actually Iran’s preferred method of engagement. It’s a very 21st-century challenge that’s not going to have easy answers, but requires that we’re not only making sure we do what’s necessary from a force protection perspective and a deterrence perspective, but engaging our partners and allies in the international community who share our goal of peace and stability in the region."

On what his plan is after the Iowa caucuses

"You can expect us to head right to New Hampshire as soon as the Iowa caucuses are complete. We feel very strong energy on the ground there as well. We’ve got fantastic support and need to make sure I'm there to close the deal with New Hampshire voters and then look to the road ahead through Nevada, South Carolina and onward."

Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson will broadcast out of Iowa on Jan. 30 and 31. Follow along on hereandnow.org and Twitter.

Alex Ashlock produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’Dowd. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.