Pete Buttigieg makes star turn in town hall spotlight

(CNN) — Pete Buttigieg’s sharp attacks on a former home-state political rival temporarily shifted the spotlight away from better-known candidates in the 2020 Democratic presidential field and onto one of its least-known contenders.

Buttigieg entered Sunday’s CNN town hall as a longshot — sitting at 1% in Iowa and New Hampshire, recent polls have shown. He’s such an unknown that how to say his Maltese last name is still a common question. When moderator Jake Tapper asked Buttigieg which of two options was the correct pronunciation (“BOOT-edge-edge” or “buddha-judge”), Buttigieg said either option worked and that at home, he just goes by “Mayor Pete.”

At the close of the hour-long town hall on Sunday — his first extended appearance with a national television audience — Democrats were saying they wanted to hear more from the former Rhodes Scholar and Afghanistan veteran.

Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has long been seen as a political talent in Indiana — but one without a natural next step to take. He lives in a heavily Republican congressional district and in a state where Democrats are longshots — a reality Buttigieg learned during a 2010 bid for state treasurer.

He ran for chairman of the Democratic National Committee in late 2016 and early 2017, but — facing the reality that Tom Perez and then-Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison were the only contenders with a chance of winning — dropped out on the day of the election, before any ballots were cast.

Since then, Buttigieg has quietly built his national profile, becoming a mainstay at US Conference of Mayors events and traveling frequently to early-voting states.

During the town hall Sunday, Buttigieg was critical of President Donald Trump but saved his toughest barbs for Vice President Mike Pence, whose four years as governor of Indiana overlapped with Buttigieg’s tenure as mayor.

The night’s most memorable moment came when Buttigieg was asked whether Pence would be a better president than Trump. He said he used to think so, but is no longer sure.

“How would he allow himself to become the cheerleader for the porn star presidency? Is it that he stopped believing in scripture when he started believing Donald Trump?” Buttigieg asked. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

The comment was direct and combative for Buttigieg, but his calm delivery seemed to blunt the attack.

“His interpretation of scripture is pretty different than mine to begin with,” Buttigieg said. “My understanding of scripture is that it’s about protecting the stranger and the prisoner and the poor person and that idea. That’s what I get in the gospel when I’m at church and his has a lot more to do with sexuality.”

His performance earned him rave reviews from Democrats.

“Without a doubt, we need to hear more from @PeteButtigieg on a national stage,” tweeted Jess O’Connell, a former Democratic National Committee CEO and former executive director of EMILY’s List.

“I have rarely seen a candidate make better use of televised Town Hall than @PeteButtigieg is on @CNN tonight. Crisp, thoughtful and relatable. He’ll be a little less of a long shot tomorrow,” tweeted David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Barack Obama and a senior political commentator at CNN.

Amanda Litman, a former Clinton aide who co-founded the group Run for Something — which helps first-time candidates — tweeted: “I’m still not sure if Pete Buttegieg (sic) should be president yet but nearly every answer he gives (and his entire book!) is an argument for why young people can & should run for local office. He makes it sound fun, meaningful, and totally doable.”

On Sunday, Buttigieg argued his youth — at 37, he’s among the youngest candidates in the field — gives him a stake in the outcomes of policy challenges like combating climate change. He also touted having more military experience than anyone elected president since George H.W. Bush.

“I have more years of government experience under my belt than the President. That’s a low bar. I know that. I also have had more years of executive government experience than the vice president,” he said. “I get I’m the young guy in the conversation, but experience is what qualifies me to have a seat at this table.”

Sensing that he had seized the moment, Buttigieg’s campaign blasted out a fundraising email 20 minutes after the town hall concluded. Its subject line: “Pete on CNN.”

“We think America would like to see more of Pete’s clarity, kindness, energy, and authority in our political discourse,” the email said.

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