But after Thursday’s Democratic debate, Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., became the new candidate to beat in the Democratic primary just weeks before voting begins in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Buttigieg, 37, took blows from both the progressive and moderate sides on the debate stage. Unlike other candidates who fit more neatly into an ideological lane, Buttigieg is dangerous to his rivals because he cuts into everyone’s support.
“He’s hurting a wide variety of candidates, which is why he’s taking incoming from all sides,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
Voters are attracted to his varied biography that has a little bit of something for everyone: a veteran, a Midwestern mayor, a Rhodes Scholar and a young gay man who could make history if he becomes president.
“He can be everything to all voters,” Murray said.
“You can’t pin him down ideologically, but you can also paint your ideologically on him. He’s kind of like a cypher that you can project onto him what you want. And that’s what is making him appealing to voters.”
Buttigieg became the human piñata Thursday because he has the potential to box out other White House hopefuls in Iowa or New Hampshire before the primary moves to a more diverse electorate in Nevada and South Carolina.
“He’s the linchpin,” Sue Dvorsky, a former Iowa Democratic Party chairwoman, told Politico. “He’s the linchpin because he’s in the middle.”
Buttigieg’s rise in Iowa and New Hampshire coincided with a loss of support for liberal Warren and moderate Biden.
In one of the most heated moments on the Los Angeles debate stage, Warren suggested that Buttigieg’s judgement is compromised by taking money from wealthy donors at fancy fundraisers. “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States,” Warren said, citing a recent lavish fundraiser in Napa, Calif.
Buttigieg was ready for the attack and countered that Warren welcomed money from traditional fundraisers as a senator and just transferred all that cash to her presidential campaign.
“You know, according to Forbes magazine, I’m literally the only person on this stage who is not a millionaire or billionaire,” Buttigieg said. “This is the problem with issuing purity tests you yourself cannot pass.”
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is running on her appeal to moderate Midwestern voters, took swipes at Buttigieg for not having the experience needed to beat President Trump. She alluded to his failed bids in 2017 to chair of the Democratic National Committee and in 2010 to be Indiana state treasurer.
“We should have someone heading up this ticket that has actually won, and been able to show that they can gather the support that you talk about,” Klobuchar said.
Buttigieg countered with his mayoral election success. “If you want to talk about a capacity to win, try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80 percent of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana.”
But Klobuchar dug in. “If you had won in Indiana, that would be one thing,” she responded. “You tried, and you lost by 20 points.”
The debate fireworks come after Buttigieg shot up to the top of the polls in Iowa, which holds the first caucuses Feb. 3.
His support is at 22 percent, followed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (20 percent), Biden (19 percent), Warren (16 percent) and Klobuchar (6 percent), according to Real Clear Politics’ polling average.
In New Hampshire, Buttigieg is clawing to the top for the Feb. 11 primary.
Sanders is leading at 19 percent, followed closely by Buttigieg (18 percent), Biden (14 percent) and Warren (13 percent).
The Sanders team, which paved the way with a strong grassroots-funded campaign in 2016 and again for 2020, also took a shot at Buttigieg.
Jeff Weaver, a Sanders adviser, sported a “PetesWineCave.com” T-shirt to the debate. The domain redirects to Sanders’ campaign fundraising page, which raised a whopping $1 million alone on debate day.
Sanders’ campaign made sure to note the Vermont independent had his best single-day haul by shunning “big checks in wine caves” and by refusing “cash from billionaires and CEOs.”
However, Jane Lynch, who co-hosted another fundraiser for Buttigieg, defended billioniares in wine caves and the actress accused Warren of engaging in “class warfare.”
There are challenges ahead for Buttigieg in Nevada and South Carolina, since he’s struggled to appeal to non-white voters.
Biden, who has strong support among African Americans, is leading in South Carolina at 35 percent, with Buttigieg at 8 percent, according to the Real Clear Politics average.
For his part, Buttigieg is courting grassroots donations on social media in the wake of his new frontrunner status and anticipating more friendly fire.
“I think as the race gets more competitive, for better or for worse, we can expect more of that,” he told reporters after a campaign stop in Las Vegas Friday.
“But the most important thing is to continue driving our message about what America is going to need, why I believe I would be the best nominee to defeat Donald Trump — but also, critically, the best president for the era that’s got to come afterwards. And we’ll continue to defend our message, our campaign, and my record.”