Buttigieg’s rise positions him as top target at 5th debate

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 17: Democratic presidential candidate, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during the Nevada Democrats' "First in the West" event at Bellagio Resort & Casino on November 17, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Nevada Democratic presidential caucuses is scheduled for February 22, 2020. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

ATLANTA — Pete Buttigieg’s rise in the Democratic presidential primary makes him a prime target at Wednesday’s debate as the four candidates now bunched at the top seek to distinguish themselves with less than three months until voting begins.

The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has gained significant ground in recent months in Iowa, which holds the nation’s first caucuses on Feb. 3. But with top-tier status comes added scrutiny, as the other front-runners discovered in four previous debates throughout the summer and fall.

Former Vice President Joe Biden had to swat back criticism of his past work with segregationist Senate colleagues and his support of some unpopular Obama administration policies. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has faced weeks of tough questions about her support for a “Medicare for All” universal health insurance plan, and Bernie Sanders has been forced to prove he has the stamina for the race, especially after the 78-year-old’s heart attack in October.

Buttigieg could face pressure to demonstrate that he can woo black and other minority voters and that his experience running a city of only about 100,000 residents is enough to qualify him for the White House.

“Anytime a candidate pops up above the pack, there’s a vigorous effort to vet them,” said Democratic strategist Zac Petkanas. “Buttigieg is going to have to prove that his recent rise is not just a flash in the pan.”

Previous attacks against Biden, who turned 77 on Wednesday, Warren and Sanders failed to reshape the race — but the trio likely will face their own share of criticism on the debate stage in Atlanta, even if Buttigieg gets a disproportionate amount of attention.

Medicare for All has dominated the primary and could again be a top topic after Warren, 70, released plans to raise $20-plus trillion in new government revenue on universal health care. But she also said implementation of the program may take three years — drawing criticism both from moderates like Biden and Buttigieg, who think she’s trying to distance herself from an unpopular idea, and Sanders supporters, who see the Massachusetts senator’s commitment to Medicare for All wavering.

Senior officials in Biden’s campaign said before the debate that Buttigieg’s relatively thin resume can underscore their candidate’s deep experience. Buttigieg’s campaign counters that he’s ready, noting the mayor was more aggressive during the October debate.

Biden aides also said the former vice president is likely to continue drawing distinctions with Warren and Sanders, the original architect of Medicare for All, over health care. They argue that Warren is vulnerable to criticisms of vacillating in a primary whose unifying priority is finding a nominee who can beat President Donald Trump, more so than health care.

The debate does in fact come amid uncertainty about the Democratic field, with some party donors worried no one is positioned to deny Trump a second term. Former President Barack Obama even warned last week that the party against moving too far to the left.

Speaking to that anxiety, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick entered race last week. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the ex-New York City mayor, is openly flirting with a bid — though neither will be onstage Wednesday.

The Georgia backdrop for the debate, featuring the cycle’s first all-female moderator team, may be fitting for such doubts since Democrat Stacey Abrams was narrowly defeated in the gubernatorial race last year — raising Democratic hopes of winning the state in 2020. Democrats scored big recent wins in Louisiana’s and Kentucky’s gubernatorial races, and winning candidates there shied away from ambitious policies like Medicare for All.

Hours before the debate, Buttigieg released two additional tax returns from his time working at consulting firm McKinsey showing that he earned $80,397 in 2007 and $122,680 in 2008. He had previously released his 2009 to 2018 returns.

The field’s latest faceoff also comes as Washington is consumed by the impeachment inquiry against Trump, who is accused of pressuring leaders in Ukraine to uncover damaging information on Biden. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told House impeachment investigators Wednesday that he worked with Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine at the “express direction” of the president and pushed a “quid pro quo” Trump wanted.

The top Democrats running for president support Trump’s impeachment, leaving little room for disagreement. But Biden has long argued that Trump is most nervous about the prospect of running against him in 2020.

There are seven more Democrats without promising polling who will just be hoping for the chance to shine before a prime-time debate audience.

“We’re at the phase in the campaign where voters are beginning to make decisions, and they’re beginning to see which of these candidates can go up against Trump and which can serve as president,” said Jesse Ferguson, who worked for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker faces especially intense pressure. He’s yet to meet the Democratic National Committee’s polling requirements for the December debate in California, and his campaign acknowledges that he needs a big night.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar offered the model last month by repeatedly calling for a “reality check” on Warren and her sweeping progressive agenda. Klobuchar’s campaign said the subsequent few days were her best fundraising period yet. But it still hasn’t shown up in most polls.

For California Sen. Kamala Harris, it’s the first debate since cutting her operation elsewhere to concentrate on Iowa. Like Klobuchar, Harris has qualified for the December stage but needs more than the minimum polling performance to make any serious play for the nomination. In the most recent debates, she has criticized Trump more than her fellow Democrats, a strategy she may employ again.

Another possible Warren-Biden clash, meanwhile, could grow out of the former vice president’s railing about “elitism” after Warren decried candidates running consultant-driven campaigns with safe ideas that weren’t ambitious enough.

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