Democratic debate: Pete Buttigieg targeted by primary rivals

South Bend, Indiana mayor on backfoot after joining front runners for presidential ticket

Ten leading Democratic presidential candidates largely avoided attacking each other in a televised debate on Wednesday night, though their differences were laid bare on such issues as healthcare and taxation.

With less than three months to go until the Iowa caucuses – the first electoral contest of the Democratic party's nomination process – Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was seen as among the front runners for the first time, but faced criticism from rivals on a range of issues during the debate in Atlanta.

Mr Buttigieg topped a CNN/Des Moines Register poll published earlier this week, with 25 per cent support among likely Iowa Democratic caucus goers – significantly more than Elizabeth Warren, the US senator from Massachusetts, at 16 per cent, and both Joe Biden, former US vice-president, and Bernie Sanders, senator from Vermont, at 15 per cent. Other polls have also shown a surge of support for Mr Buttigieg in both early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

The 37-year-old mayor, a Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar who served in the US military in Afghanistan, used last month's debate to draw clear lines between himself and Ms Warren, whose levels of support built steadily throughout the summer before dipping in recent weeks as she campaigned on a platform of "Medicare for all", which would effectively eliminate private health insurance in the US.


On Wednesday Cory Booker, the US senator from New Jersey and former leader of Newark, quipped that he was the other Rhodes Scholar mayor on the stage. Mr Booker, who like Mr Buttigieg has positioned himself as a centrist, also sparred with Ms Warren over her plans for a wealth tax, which would tax wealth over $50 million at 2 per cent a year. He said such a tax would be "cumbersome" and had "been tried by other nations" before being scrapped.

Mr Buttigieg – who was elected mayor of South Bend, a city of a little more than 100,000 people, in 2011 – has raised huge sums of money despite being the youngest candidate in the field. He had more than $23 million cash on hand, at the end of the third quarter, trailing only Mr Sanders and Ms Warren in terms of the size of his war chest.

Standard for women

In Wednesday's debate Amy Klobuchar, the US senator from Minnesota, was asked about her earlier comments that a woman with Mr Buttigieg's experience would not have made the debate stage.

Ms Klobuchar said Mr Buttigieg was “qualified to be on this stage”, but added: “Women are held to a higher standard, otherwise we could play a game called name your favourite woman president.”

"If you think a woman can't beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day," she said, referring to the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives.

Later in the debate, Ms Klobuchar went after Mr Buttigieg’s limited CV, saying: “I think experience should matter.”

Mr Buttigieg replied: “Washington experience is not the only experience that should matter. There’s over 100 years of Washington experience on this stage, and where has that gotten us as a country?”

The South Bend mayor later sparred with Tulsi Gabbard, the US congresswoman from Hawaii, who questioned whether he had the experience required to be commander-in-chief. Mr Buttigieg replied he had better "judgment" than Ms Gabbard, who met with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad while in Congress.

Critics remain sceptical that Mr Buttigieg will be able to win over black voters, especially in the early primary state of South Carolina, where more than half of Democratic voters have historically been African-American.

Mr Buttigieg, who has faced criticism for his firing of a black police chief in South Bend, is polling at just 6.5 per cent in the state, according to RealClearPolitics. Focus groups have also suggested that Mr Buttigieg, who is gay and married, may struggle to win over churchgoing, socially conservative voters black voters in the south.

On Wednesday Mr Buttigieg defended his record as mayor, and said he welcomed “the challenge of connecting with black voters who don’t yet know me”.

Black voters

Many of the leading Democratic candidates used Wednesday's debate location in Atlanta as an opportunity to reach out to black voters. On Monday Mr Buttigieg visited Morehouse College, a historically black university in the capital of Georgia; Mr Sanders will hold an event at the same college on Thursday. Ms Warren will have her own rally at Clark Atlanta University, another historically black college, on Thursday.

Despite plateauing levels of support and persistent questions about his candidacy, Mr Biden (77) remains the favourite among African-Americans. A poll published earlier this week from Quinnipiac University and the University of North Florida showed the former US vice-president enjoyed the backing of 44 per cent of black Democratic voters in South Carolina.

On Wednesday Mr Biden, who is prone to gaffes on the campaign trail, said he had been endorsed by the "only" African-American woman elected to the US Senate, prompting laughter from California senator Kamala Harris, who pointed out that she was the second African-American female senator.

Eighteen Democrats are competing for their party's nomination to take on Donald Trump in next year's US presidential election, not including former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is still weighing entering the race.

The 10 participants in Wednesday's debate qualified based on polling and fundraising requirements set by the Democratic National Committee. Candidates will need to cross a higher threshold to qualify for next month's debate; only Mr Biden, Mr Buttigieg, Mr Sanders, Ms Warren, Ms Klobuchar and Ms Harris have qualified so far. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019