SOUTH BEND – Mayor Pete, though on the defensive over what he called “a mess” in his own city, survived the first round of Democratic presidential debates. He suffered a dip in the polls, a significant dip, but not a disastrous one for someone who started as a long, long longshot.
 
Others fared worse under the pressure. Look at Beto O’Rourke, falling toward the point of elimination, and Joe Biden, plummeting from a huge lead to his new position as a shaky front-runner.
     
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg will continue as a significant contender at least through the first series of primaries next year. That’s guaranteed by his amazing fundraising success, with over 400,000 donors big and small, and $24.8 million raised in the past three months. He has funding to go on with a national campaign as others drop out with nothing left to finance a realistic effort.
     
OK, Mayor Pete stays significant and is sure to continue as a contender.
     
How significant? How far?
     
If he is seen in the role of a humble piñata, with political activists taking swings at him as the national news media conclude that he really isn’t that popular or effective as a mayor, his significance and the length of his race as a serious contender will lessen.
     
But he also needs to be transparent about what did or didn’t happen in a controversial shooting in South Bend as he seeks to increase paltry support from African-Americans in those national polls.
     
It’s a difficult path.
     
Buttigieg could prove to be one of the sharpest debaters if he can get off the defensive. You don’t win debates or nominations playing defense.
     
He won praise from many commentators for his quick, direct answer – no excuses or distractions – for why the number of blacks on the South Bend police department dropped to just 6%. Why no improvement? “Because I couldn’t get it done,” he said.
     
The mayor was attacked during the debate by Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, who at age 38 was seeking to knock out another young contender, Buttigieg, 37.
     
“Why didn’t you fire the chief?” Swalwell demanded. “You’re the mayor.”
     
Buttigieg wisely avoided wrangling with Swalwell over police policies on body cameras and recruiting. He just stared at Swalwell with what Chris Cillizza of CNN described as a “death stare.”
     
Swalwell and others among the cast of 20 debate candidates with little or no chance have nothing to lose by attacking contenders ahead of them in the polls.
     
Unfortunately, the Democratic rules for the next round of debates July 30-31 in Detroit provide again for 20 candidates. After that, tougher criteria for participation will give more time for candidates seriously seeking the White House and cut those just seeking attention or book sales.
     
Most of the national polls after the Miami debates show Buttigieg at 4%, in fifth place. All showed Biden really slipping and Kamala Harris surging. The respected Quinnipiac College poll showed these percentages: Biden, 22, down eight points. Harris, 20, up 13 points. Then came Elizabeth Warren, 14; Bernie Sanders, 13; Buttigieg, 4.
     
Buttigieg likely could have hit a higher percentage if he had been able still to talk of his city as in resurgence rather than defending how he was handling “a mess.”
     
Still, at the start of the year, how many pundits would have predicted that the mayor of South Bend, then unknown nationally, would rank higher in the polls than the mayor of New York? Higher than the much-hyped O’Rourke? Higher than senators such as Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota? Way higher than Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York?
     
It’s too early. Also, too late. Too early to predict a presidential nominee. Too late already for some who can’t sustain 1%. 

Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.