As is often the case, Politico nicely summed up the conventional wisdom going into the fifth presidential candidates’ debate in Atlanta:
Pete Buttigieg will take the stage at Wednesday’s debate as a serious threat to the top Democratic presidential candidates for the first time. And that makes the debate a serious threat for him …
“Everyone’s going to come for Pete. There’s a target on his back — no question about it. That’s what happens when you jump in the polls,” said Jon Soltz, executive director of VoteVets, a progressive group that backs veterans for office but hasn’t endorsed in the presidential primary.
Buttigieg, after all, has been surging in Iowa and New Hampshire polls, and is reportedly drawing support from the previous candidate-on-fire Elizabeth Warren, while cutting off oxygen to a passel of low-polling candidates who are yearning to be the centrist alternative to Biden. And Biden himself has to fear that the shadowy but powerful group of donors and opinion leaders who have been frantically looking for a Plan B to his own self will decide Mayor Pete will work just fine.
But nobody other than Tulsi Gabbard — at the very end — went after Buttigieg at all. Indeed, while you can make a case that Warren or Klobuchar or Booker or Sanders did better than Buttigieg in Atlanta, he did just fine (He also did fine in his tangle with Gabbard) and the expected pile-on just didn’t happen.
Why didn’t anyone but Gabbard go after him? In my own article on Buttigieg’s “moment,” I wondered if he was peaking too soon, particularly in Iowa — a question that might be lingering in the minds of his rivals. Perhaps a couple of state polls wasn’t enough to convince them that Petementum is real. It’s also possible that his perpetual and well-documented problem in attracting nonwhite support makes his candidacy seem less formidable, and making him a less inviting target. Even if he does well in the heavily white Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s quite possible he will have trouble carrying that momentum over to South Carolina and other southern, northeastern, and midwestern states, not to mention California.
Mayor Pete’s improbably successful campaign is improbably floating above the fray — at least for now. But if Buttigieg’s poll standings stay aloft heading toward the end of the year, the odds of him escaping the December debate in Los Angeles without taking fire from every direction will be low. And as the Iowa Caucuses grow nigh, if Buttigieg is barnstorming across that state as his senatorial allies are stuck in an impeachment trial in Washington, they may wish they had taken him down a notch earlier.