AMES, Iowa — South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg returned to the presidential campaign trail in Iowa Wednesday night after baring his teeth in a primary debate that will be remembered for his persistent attacks on his more liberal rivals.
Buttigieg owes much of the goodwill he has generated here to the perception that he has brought civility to the race. So his aggressive turn risks alienating supporters like Lynn Klein from Cedar Falls, who told me last month that she supports Buttigieg because “he is bringing back kindness and compassion to our country and being human again.” But in Ames, where over 900 people crammed into a town hall at Iowa State University Wednesday evening, many of Buttigieg’s fans welcomed the tougher approach.
“It was a good opportunity for him to show people that he can be in charge and go up against Trump and not just be a very glib person with a lot of good ideas,” said Mike McKean, who had traveled 30 miles to Ames from the Des Moines suburbs.
“I like to see that strength from him because he’s always seemed just a little quiet and he’s so intelligent and I want him to speak up,” agreed Margy Howarth from Ames.
Buttigieg provided the debate in Ohio with some of its most memorable moments. He clashed repeatedly with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) over her refusal to frame her “Medicare for All” plan as a tax on the middle classes; and reserved his sharpest response of the night for former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas) during an emotional debate on gun control, saying, “I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal.”
Buttigieg’s campaign clearly sees his debate performance as a win. “Who saw the debate last night?” Jessica Reynolds, an Iowa prosecutor who endorsed Buttigieg at the Ames event and introduced him, asked the crowd. “Didn’t he knock it out of the park?!”
Admitting to being “a little sleep-deprived,” Buttigieg delivered his familiar stump speech with the confidence of a candidate who is very much in the hunt for a strong finish in the crucial first-in-the-nation state and with a war chest to fund that goal.
Perhaps as a concession to the changing nature of the race, Buttigieg has nixed a line he used to include about political infighting. “Right now we send politicians to Washington hoping they’re gonna fight for us and when they get there, it feels like they’re more interested in the part about fighting than they are in the part about us,” he said last month in Dubuque.
Instead, Buttigieg updated a passage about “freedoms” that stretches the term to its philosophical limits. It meandered through a list of freedoms — “the freedom to live a life of our choosing”; “getting the government out of the business of dictating to women what their reproductive health care choices are” (a line that always gets huge applause), “you’re not free if you don’t have health care”; and “the freedom to choose whether you want to be in our public plan or some other plan.”
But he now talks about the risk of denying future generations their “freedom” if Democrats don’t take seriously their fiscal responsibility, a clear bid to draw a contrast between himself and Sen. Warren as a more pragmatic progressive. “Republicans have talked about debt and the deficit for years and then they took power and it turns out they don’t care!” he said to laughs.
Some supporters straining to catch a glimpse of the candidate from a second-floor balcony expressed discomfort about the sharper debate exchanges.
“He did an excellent job but if anything I found that he may have sounded a bit too strident in his aggressive defense of his positions,” said Matthew Ellinwood from Ames. “He plays better when he’s talking to hopes and dreams.”
Rose Martin, also from Ames, conceded that Buttigieg “probably needed to stand more forceful” but said, “I’m like everybody. I want to beat Trump so I don’t want them fighting at each other. And Mayor Pete had seemed to avoid that for a long time.”
After the event, Buttigieg struck a more conciliatory tone. Refusing to answer a question about whether Warren is misleading voters, he told reporters, “I certainly think it’s better to just lay out the facts of a plan and just defend it. That’s what we’re seeking to do with ours, we’re very clear about how ours stacks up and ours is one that can be paid for and I think everybody should be ready to defend their plans.”
Matt McCoy, a Polk County supervisor and former state senator who recently endorsed Buttigieg, watched the debate on Wednesday night at Teddy Maroon’s in Des Moines with fellow Polk County Democrats. Impressed by Buttigieg’s performance, he said, “It was enough of an edge to show people that he was in command and that he would not get pushed around, and I think that people want to see that quality in a leader, that sense of, ‘Hey, this is where I draw the line, this is unacceptable.’”
Speaking to reporters later Wednesday evening, Buttigieg was asked whether he was concerned that it’s getting to be an uglier race. “I don’t think that it has to be ugly when we bring passion to the defense of our views and laying out our messages,” he said. “This is a moment where from a voter perspective, they’re starting to really make decisions, not just figure out who all of us are but figure out which of us is the best answer.”
“So I think you will continue to see those contrasts,” he said.