SOUTH BEND – Mayor Pete Buttigieg says a Democrat running against President Trump should avoid making the campaign all about Trump. But he isn’t ready to say whether he will seek to be that Democrat, the presidential nominee, or perhaps seek a third term as mayor of South Bend. Or do something else.

In an interview in his political headquarters near the County-City Building, Buttigieg set this timetable: Until Nov. 6, he will concentrate politically on helping Democrats win, traveling on weekends for speaking engagements and hosting fundraisers. He expects this week to announce recipients of contributions from his political action committee. Help will go primarily to young congressional candidates (average age, just under 38) with a chance in Republican and swing districts. Then he will “settle on a personal direction by about Thanksgiving and be ready to make that public pretty soon after that.” By then, he said, “I’ll need to tell the community whether I’m seeking a third term as mayor.” He has ample funds and high popularity for reelection. A third term certainly is his if he wants it.

If he decides not to run for reelection, he wouldn’t simultaneously announce a presidential bid or other future endeavor. “Whatever I have to say about South Bend will stand on its own, and then we’ll take things from there,” he said. But he knows he would have to announce quickly, probably by about the end of the year, if he wants to join the presidential nomination race.

Most national political observers regard Buttigieg as a likely presidential candidate – not a front-runner, but a contender already gaining stature through praise from major party figures, including former President Obama.

Buttigieg said the way to counter President Trump, whether now in mid-term elections or in the 2020 presidential election, is to “offer a message that will make sense when he’s come and gone.” In other words, not just an anti-Trump message.

“As shocking and troubling as the actions of this White House have been,” Buttigieg said, “I think the deeper question we have to ask is why people felt so disaffected by the political system that they were prepared to hold their nose and vote that way” for Trump.

“He is a symptom, not a cause,” Buttigieg said. “He’ll (still) be president for, who knows, two years, six years, 24 hours.”

The mayor said Democrats have a message of preserving traditional freedoms and opportunities and expanding economic gains to a middle class that feels left out, especially those in the vast “fly-over” heartland. But he said the positive message can be drowned out by negative battling with Trump.

“I don’t think you can beat him with a message that revolves around him,” Buttigieg said. “I think that was part of where Clinton’s campaign fell short.”

Buttigieg has had key speaking appearances around the nation at statewide party dinners and other events, such as pinch-hitting for former Vice President Joe Biden at a major Democratic event at the Illinois State Fair. He turns down many invitations, however, while still handling duties as mayor. He noted that the city budget is scheduled for a vote Monday and that he still is pushing “a lot of ambitious projects.”

He tells of projects already brought to fruition in his book titled, “Shortest Way Home, One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future.” In a way, it will be a biography of South Bend as well as of the mayor, telling of a Rust Belt city, once portrayed as dying, now drawing national attention for growth and innovation.

He said the book will be in stores early in January. The timing is too late for Christmas sales. Just right, however, if the mayor also is announcing then that he will seek the Democratic presidential nomination.  

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