For days leading up to Wednesday’s Democratic debate, Pete Buttigieg and his team tried to figure out what was about to hit them. With the mayor on the rise in early state polling, it was time for him to be treated like a front-runner onstage, they figured, and that probably meant he’d face real heat from his opponents for the first time this campaign. Prepping in Las Vegas and then Atlanta, they thought the inevitable criticisms would focus on three potentially vulnerable areas for him: his lack of support with black voters (which he’s been struggling to answer for), his lack of experience (“The guy was born, in political terms, six months ago,” one prominent Buttigieg supporter told me before the debate), and the mysterious nature of his postcollege corporate work for McKinsey (he released two years’ worth of tax records hours before the debate to try to preempt some of the questions).
But then, for two hours on Wednesday night, the field held off.
Kamala Harris looked like she was previewing a swipe at Buttigieg when she dismissively repurposed Buttigieg’s assertion that Trump’s eventual departure from the White House would be “a tender moment in the life of this country.” (Harris said, “There is no question that in 2020, the biggest issue before us, until we get to that tender moment, is justice on the ballot.”) But she then passed on an easy chance to criticize his African-American outreach stumbles, noting that he’d apologized for an embarrassing mistake involving a stock photo from Kenya. Soon after it looked like Cory Booker’s turn, but he also let Buttigieg mostly off the hook by leaving his name out of an indirect jab: “I have a lifetime of experience with black voters, I’ve been one since I was 18. Nobody on this stage should need a focus group to hear from African-American voters,” an apparent allusion to yet another story of Buttigieg’s clumsy efforts. Even Amy Klobuchar, who’s been one of the most critical voices of Buttigieg’s inexperience, demurred when asked early on to expand on those criticisms.
It took until the closing stretch of the evening in Georgia for Klobuchar to finally go there — “I have won statewide, and mayor, I have appreciation for all your good work as a local official,” she said, “I also have actually done this work, I think experience should matter” — before Tulsi Gabbard unexpectedly swooped in with a critique of a recent Buttigieg quote about military cooperation with Mexico.
It was hardly the Buttigieg pile-on the candidate’s team, and the media, was expecting.
That’s because his opponents are still trying to figure out what kind of front-runner he is.
A few hours before the debate, a senior Joe Biden campaign official insisted that Buttigieg’s voters in Iowa were far from locked in for the mayor, and that they were still eminently winnable for the former vice-president because even sympathetic Iowans were not yet convinced Buttigieg could ultimately beat Trump. The mayor’s current strong standing, in other words, is not necessarily sustainable in the eyes of some of his competitors, who are waiting to see if it crumbles on its own before they force the issue and accidentally give Buttigieg an extra moment or two in the spotlight — like Gabbard ended up doing in the night’s final moments. “@PeteButtigieg has been the best debater in the previous debates. So what do you do to not give him a moment for writers to write about? You don’t attack him. You don’t treat him as a surging candidate,” tweeted Michael Ceraso, Buttigieg’s former New Hampshire state director, before that exchange. “Smart play by all the candidates.”
And while many of the other candidates entered the debate hoping Buttigieg would be knocked down a peg, few of them saw any individual incentive to be the one to actually do it — and risk turning off crucial voters and donors who are currently on Buttigieg’s side and view him very favorably. Asked earlier in the day if Biden would take on the issue of Buttigieg’s youth, which would appear to be an obvious line of attack for the longest-tenured pol in the field, another of his senior staffers said it was unlikely: All contrasts onstage would probably be implicit. “There is an inherent comparison there,” the aide said.
Campaigns, though, do not revolve solely around debates, and Buttigieg and his opponents alike now still expect him to come in for a round of real-time vetting.
In South Bend, his team is still working on figuring out what potential lines of attack his rivals might take within the three general vulnerabilities they’ve identified, now that the scrutiny-free stage of his campaign is over. “The campaign did not want a target on its back,” said one wired-in Buttigieg ally, a political veteran with experience with multiple presidential campaigns. But, he said, this moment in the sun was always coming: “It was always genuinely my belief he was way undervalued by the market because people were driven by national polls, and there was this narrative that Joe Biden is a decent guy who will not alienate working-class whites and that is the way to defeat Donald Trump. And it sort of overlooked, How is Biden when he has to interact with other human beings?”
Buttigieg has said he is trying to get released from a nondisclosure agreement with McKinsey, which would allow him to explain the true nature of his work for the consulting giant that has a history of contracting with dubious clients, both domestically and abroad. For now, said another (hopeful) Democrat close to the Buttigieg camp, “It’s hard to hit him with an integrity question — he doesn’t have a long record and he comes across as a good dude.” Yet the candidate has found no easy answer but to release tax returns disclosing his income — an attempt to deflect attention to Elizabeth Warren’s corporate law work hasn’t really worked. In the meantime, opponents will continue to raise questions about what’s essentially a glaring unknown on his short résumé.
And his answer to Klobuchar’s experience knock onstage was effective — “Washington experience is not the only experience that matters, there’s more than 100 years of Washington experience on this stage, and where are we right now as a country?” the 37-year-old said, before talking about his deployment. Even those close to him think he may need more than that, though none of them are sure what that should look like, or how to accomplish that without detracting from the central premise of his campaign: that he represents a generational change.
Perhaps his biggest challenge, though, is not an incoming line of attack, but a more fundamental issue: his meager support among black voters, who make up a huge portion of the Democratic primary electorate after the first two states vote.
It’s not the kind of issue that can be solved with a convincing debate-stage retort, Buttigieg’s allies acknowledge, though his rivals’ apparent willingness to talk about it on the campaign trail, if not the nationally televised stage, shows no signs of abating. So the urgency of his problem is only growing.
Buttigieg didn’t start building up a meaningful presence in South Carolina, the first state in the primary process where black voters represent a majority of the electorate, until late summer and early fall, and he is now figuring out what it will take to try to make a respectable showing there in February. He’s been stuck at zero percent support among the state’s black voters, but in the coming weeks he will likely spend considerable time in South Carolina trying to change that, multiple Democrats briefed on strategic conversations predicted.
In the view of the optimists in the mayor’s newly ballooning orbit, much of the other knocks on him come from jealousy and frustration. (“It’s the same dynamic that existed among the insiders about Obama in ’07,” one Buttigieg donor said to me before the debate.) This concern is the real one.