By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – Mayor Pete is sizzling. He’s the hottest thing in American politics these days and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Mayor Buttigieg officially launches his Democratic presidential campaign in downtown South Bend.

But being “hot” nine months before the first caucuses and primaries can be seen as one of the first steps toward ascending power, or the proverbial flash in the pan as Herman Cain, Gary Hart, John Connally, Ross Perot and John Edwards can attest.

Unlike the aforementioned presidential wannabes, Buttigieg has yet to nudge into anything close to frontrunner status. Beyond the Emerson College Iowa poll that had him at 11% and trailing only Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the coming Buttigieg candidacy is a mostly single-digit enterprise at this point. Morning Consult Poll on Tuesday had the national race with Joe Biden leading with 32%, Bernie Sanders 23%, Kamala Harris 9%, Beto O’Rourke 8%, Elizabeth Warren 7%, Buttigieg 5%, Cory Booker 4%. Buttigieg was at 1% in mid-March and 3% last week. A Saint Anselm College Survey Center poll in New Hampshire  released Wednesday had Buttigieg at 10.7%, trailing Biden at 23% and Sanders at 15.6% (and ahead of Warren).

If anything, he’s made the cut with the talking heads commentariat, earning praise from New York Magazine’s Andrew Sullivan to the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib. And he appears to be closing in on a top-third echelon in the sprawling Democratic field approaching 20 candidates.  

Perhaps significantly, Buttigieg is now drawing fire from Hoosier Republicans after his “Meet The Press” and LGBT Victory Fund comments last weekend had him crossing rhetorical swords with Vice President Mike Pence. Buttigeig was asked about President Trump and God, with Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo engaging in predestination by recently saying that “God” wanted Trump to become president. Buttigieg responded, “It’s something that really frustrates me because the hypocrisy is so unbelievable. Here you have somebody who not only acts in a way not consistent with anything I hear in Scripture and church, where it is about lifting up the least among us and taking care of strangers, which is another word for immigrants, and making sure you’re focusing your effort on the poor. But also personally how you’re supposed to conduct yourself, not chest-thumping and ‘look at me,’ but humbling yourself before others.”

Later that morning, he described his personal struggle with his sexuality before the Victory Fund. “If me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade,” Buttigieg said. “And that’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand. That if you got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me – your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”

Hupfer responds

That brought Indiana Republican Chairman Kyle Hupfer into the fray for the first time. “These attacks contradict the relationship he shared with Vice President Pence when Pence was governor of Indiana – and also fly in the face of the positive statements Vice President Pence has made about Buttigieg over the years,” Hupfer said. “Now that Buttigieg is spending more time in Washington, D.C., Iowa and New Hampshire and neglecting his day job in South Bend, it seems that some of his recent statements have become detached from reality, especially when it comes to Vice President Mike Pence. After years of maintaining a positive, working relationship with Vice President Pence, Buttigieg has decided that it’s now more politically expedient for him to drag that relationship through the mud with personal attacks. As Hoosiers, we know that’s wrong.” 

Hupfer added that prior to becoming a potential presidential contender, Buttigieg spoke for years on the need for more civility in politics. “These unhinged, mean-spirited attacks from Buttigieg on Vice President Pence are a complete reversal from the relationship they shared while they both held public office in Indiana,” Hupfer said.

Alyssa Farah, spokeswoman for Vice President Pence, tweeted on Tuesday, “Since some are asking: The last time we recall Pence even mentioned @PeteButtigieg was in 2015, after news that Pete came out, Pence said: “I hold Mayor Buttigieg in the highest personal regard. I see him as a dedicated public servant and a patriot.”

Indiana Republicans also noted when then-Gov. Pence and Buttigieg broke ground on a major overhaul of the former Studebaker facilities in South Bend, funded largely through a state grant. Pence said at the time, “I especially want to mention to you today, particularly, South Bend, Indiana, is so blessed to have an energetic, innovative, forward-looking, creative mayor in Pete Buttigieg.” 

So if nothing else, Buttigieg has gotten the attention of Hoosier Republicans. The reality is that anti-Trump/Pence rhetoric will fuel Buttigieg’s candidacy for a Democratic constituency. 

Others on the right are taking notice as well. Conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt observed of Buttigieg on “Meet The Press”, “This was another hurdle crossed for Mayor Pete. I’ve been following him very closely. He worries me from a Republican standpoint. I’ve always said Donald Trump is the very best interview in America because he holds the attention of the audience. And he remains the very best interview in America, but I think Mayor Pete may give him a run.”

Fox News host Laura Ingraham observed, “As they did with Obama, the media is attempting to take a novice with limited experience and wrap him up in a warm, fuzzy personal narrative.” She warned voters not to be “fooled by the carefully curated public image. The ‘cool fact’ that ‘cool Pete’ speaks seven languages doesn’t change that socialism doesn’t work in any of them.” 

Gerald Seib wrote in his WSJ column that the “Buttigieg candidacy, in short, is a sign that the political system is at an inflection point, and voters are prepared to think outside the box. ‘I’ve bet a lot on that premise,’ Mr. Buttigieg said in an interview. Put another way, as different as the two men are in most every way, Candidate Buttigieg might not exist without the example of President Trump, who shattered expectations and all the old paradigms in 2016.”

Inflection point and contrast

Andrew Sullivan describes in New York Magazine a potential showdown along the lines that Indiana mayors described to HPI last week: “Trump would be the oldest president in history at 74; Buttigieg would be the youngest at 39. Trump landed in politics via his money and celebrity after years in the limelight; Buttigieg is the mayor of a midsize midwestern town, unknown until a few weeks ago. Trump is a pathological, malevolent narcissist from New York, breaking all sorts of norms. Buttigieg is a modest, reasonable pragmatist, and a near parody of normality. Trump thrives on a retro heterosexual persona; Buttigieg appears to be a rather conservative, married homosexual. Trump is a coward and draft dodger; Buttigieg served his country. Trump does not read; Buttigieg does. Trump’s genius is demonic demagoguery. Buttigieg’s gig is careful reasoning. Trump is a pagan; Buttigieg is a Christian. Trump vandalizes government; Buttigieg nurtures it.

“To put it simply,” Sullivan adds, “Mayor Pete seems almost designed to expose everything that makes the country tired of Trump.”

It underscores what Purdue President Mitch Daniels told HPI late last year, that Americans have a tendency to go in a completely opposite direction from one election cycle to the next.

Age and socialism

And that concept is what makes 2 p.m. Sunday in South Bend a potentially significant milepost in the 2020 presidential race. Many Democrats are hearing that their nominee will really matter if they want to end Trump’s political career, particularly if they want to rebound in rural America.

Sen. Sanders’ socialist agenda, built on his Wednesday proposal of a robust “Medicare for All” campaign cornerstone, would give President Trump his ideal matchup. Sanders’ $18 million first quarter haul means he will be a force in Iowa, New Hampshire and then California on Super Tuesday. That’s the state where Buttigieg or Sen. Kamala Harris might represent a retaining wall against a potential barrel-roll into socialism.

Biden is the current polling frontrunner and along with Sanders sets up the critical JFK-inspired generational contrast with Mayor Pete. 

Washington Examiner columnist Byron York explains, “Voters are clearly open to older candidates. President Trump, born June 14, 1946, is the oldest president ever to take office, 70 years old on inauguration day, a few months older than Reagan when he took power. And of course, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, born Oct. 26, 1947, who, had she won, would have been the same age as Reagan, 69, upon taking office. Americans elect a president with the understanding that he or she might serve eight years. If that were the case with a President Sanders, he would be 87 years old on leaving office, and a President Biden would be 86.

“There’s no doubt both are vigorous men,” York adds. “But having a president pushing 90 would be a new experience in American politics. According to actuarial tables maintained by the Social Security Administration, the life expectancy of a 70-year-old man is 14.30 years, enough time to serve two terms and move on to physical decline. The life expectancy of a 78-year-old man is 9.33 years, enough to last two terms and not a lot more. The life expectancy of a 79-year-old man is 8.77 years, barely enough to make it out of the White House.”

Beyond generational and religious contrasts, Buttigieg will use his South Bend backdrop Sunday to highlight his experience. Perhaps the question asked most often to this point is whether the mayor of a 100,000-population city is capable of handling the demands of the presidency.

Buttigieg made clear Sunday morning that South Bend will become a campaign metaphor. “There’s the sense we’ve really changed the story for our city,” Buttigieg told moderator Chuck Todd. “I think that’s something the country needs to hear because you’ve got a president who’s telling anybody from a community like mine, be it an industrial community or a rural community where people (are) growing up, means getting this message that success means you have to get out. 

“He’s telling us the greatness is in the past; we’ve got to stop the clock and turn it back,” Buttigieg said of Trump and his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” The mayor added, “I’m out there making the case that South Bend is living proof that good politics is not one based on the word ‘again.’”

“There’s so much work to do in a community,” Buttigieg said, describing his city. “People know it’s home to Notre Dame. They might assume it’s a wealthy, homogenous college town. We’re a city that was devastated by the loss of industry, especially when the auto factories left in the 1960s.” That was a reference to the 1963 collapse of Studebaker and the loss of companies like South Bend Troy, South Bend Watch, South Bend Lathe Works, AlliedSignal and more job loss at Bendix and Honeywell.

“When I took office there were arguments as to whether we were a dying city,” Buttigieg said. “Our poverty rate is too high, but it’s down. We’ve cut unemployment by more than half and we’ve been able to change the trajectory of the city to where we’re growing in terms of population and in investment we haven’t seen in a generation. It’s not like all of our problems are solved.”

Buttigieg is preparing for a contrast not only with 70-something Democratic frontrunners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, but President Trump, who won Indiana with a 19% plurality in 2016. Todd asked the mayor, “Are you a capitalist?” after Trump has invoked his opposition to “socialism” that began with his State of the Union address last winter.

Buttigieg responded, “Sure. America is a capitalist society, but it’s got to be democratic capitalism and that part is really important. It’s slipping away from us. When capitalism comes into tension with democracy, which is more important? I believe democracy is more important. When you have capitalism capturing democracy, when you have a regulatory capture where powerful corporations are able to arrange the rules to their benefit, that’s not real capitalism. If you want to see what happens with capitalism without democracy, you can see it very clearly in Russia. It turns into crony capitalism and that turns into oligarchy.

“I know the temptation especially from the commentariat is to align everybody as dots on a spectrum,” Buttigieg said of his potential electability. “That’s not how most voters think. Think of the number of voters mathematically in St. Joseph County, Indiana, who must have voted for Obama and Trump and Mike Pence and me. There’s a lot more to this than an ideological analysis, especially with the ideology in our country so scrambled, having a president who doesn’t even have an ideology, just a style, undertaking a hostile takeover of the Republican Party.”