By BRIAN A. HOWEY

MICHIGAN CITY – Ted Kennedy whiffed on the question of why he was running for president way back in 1980. Hillary Clinton could never sum up the overall rationale for her candidacies in 2008 and 2016, beyond it was her turn and it was time for a female president.

And Joe Biden this past week? He was asked the question in Iowa and responded, “I think it’s really, really, really important that Donald Trump not be reelected. Could I die happily not having heard ‘Hail to the Chief’ play for me? Yeah, I could.” 

Out on the campaign trail, the rationale goes something like this: He’s running to save the soul of America, as he said during his campaign kickoff video. He seeks to restore the middle class in an era where artificial intelligence and off-shoring jobs has crimped its vision of an expansive American dream. And, Biden wants to unite the country.

New York Times reporter Mark Leibovitz puts the rationale into this context: “Remarkably, after all this time, Mr. Biden stumbles to come up with a clear answer.” 

So, there is an emerging sense that Biden’s frontrunner status is built on name recognition and the perception that he can defeat President Trump without the frilly free-stuff-for-the-masses trappings that has tended to describe the leftward Democratic presidential field. The Quinnipiac Poll last week had Biden defeating Trump 54-38%. But even on this front, there is data that Trump is at Hooveresque historic vulnerability. That same Quinnipiac Poll had Trump confined to 40% support or lower, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg led 49-40% in a head-to-head with the president.

Last night, Biden appeared to have a blood vessel burst in his left eye while participating in CNN’s town hall on climate change. A broken blood vessel in the eye, also known as a subconjuctival hemorrhage, can be caused by several things, including high blood pressure, bleeding disorders, blood thinners, or even excessive straining. But it brings on the specter of health problems dogging the 76-year-old candidate’s campaign.

Thus, at the Labor Day milepost, the opening for Pete Buttigieg is tied to the fate of the frontrunning Biden. If the former vice president and current gaffe-machine loses his grip on the rationale as the logical challenger to embattled President Trump, then a nomination lane that seems obscure and extremely narrow now opens up for the other four top-tier candidates, including Indiana’s Mayor Pete.

Buttigieg has one huge attribute at this stage of the race: He raised a whopping $25 million from a significantly gay donor base in the second quarter FEC report. That’s the proverbial double-edged-edged sword. He went from a mayor who just happened to be gay, to a gay candidate who kissed his husband on stage at the April South Bend campaign kickoff. And then husband Chasten became a social media star in his own right. The problem is that this show didn’t play well in South Carolina, where 61% of that critical state’s electorate is African-American. Given their evangelical backgrounds, many of those voters take a dim view of gay candidates.

Mayor Pete has a race problem. The Charleston Courier and Post polling has seen Buttigieg go from zero support with black voters, to then 6%, and back to 2% this summer.

Buttigieg became the so-called “flavor of the month” in May when he began registering in double digits in several state and national polls. But after the June police-action shooting in South Bend, he has faded into the mid-single digits. It’s enough to station him at the tail end of the so-called “top tier” of candidates that includes Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. It’s qualified him for the single-stage Sept. 12 debate in Houston. But Sanders and Warren and are drawing big, enthusiastic crowds, and Warren seems to be best positioned to take advantage of an opening if the perception of a weakened, drift-and-gaffe Biden becomes prevalent.

Buttigieg’s race problem goes beyond South Carolina. On Aug. 21 on the south side of Chicago, Buttigieg drew an overwhelmingly white audience in a historically black African-American neighborhood. At one point during the rally, he acknowledged the disparity: “Find the people who don’t look like most of you in this room and let them know they have the chance, not just to support this campaign, but to shape it.” 

Buttigieg’s race dilemma finds its roots in Indiana, where he has yet to pick up a significant endorsement. He fired the black South Bend police chief in his first year in office, saw his police force fall into single digits on the minority-hiring front when the city is 26% black, then came the June police-action shooting of a black man by a white officer, triggering a couple weeks of protests and emotional meetings that played out on the national stage. Any chance of appealing to black voters appeared to be in jeopardy following that sequence. During the first presidential debate, Buttigieg when pressed on the disparity between his city’s police force and the population confessed, “Because I couldn’t get it done.”

“If he couldn’t corral a 100-member police department, how will he corral the Defense and State Departments,’’ said Len Gleich, who heard the mayor in Hanover, N.H., to the New York Times.

The mayor hasn’t been endorsed by an African-American South Bend councilman or woman, or anyone in the Indiana General Assembly’s Black Caucus, or anyone from the NAACP or the Urban League. It is a gaping hole in a traditional Democratic resume. Buttigieg leapfrogged over the creation of an Indiana base, going from mayor to DNC chair candidate, and now a presidential contender without the normal ribs of traditional home-state support. 

Buttigieg responded to the police-action shooting by meeting with the Rev. Al Sharpton, with black parishioners in Charleston, and came up with the “Douglass Plan” to address what he calls “historic and ingrained” racial divisions afflicting the nation.

The mayor has resources to try and position for the proverbial lightning strike if Biden falters. He’s opening up 20 Iowa field offices in 20 days with 100 staffers, and another 14 in New Hampshire. “Labor Day for us is really going to be a turning point,” said Buttigieg campaign manager Mike Schmuhl. “It’s when we’ll flip the switch.” 

Buttigieg noted on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” today that a field office opening in Iowa City drew 800 people.

So, the switch has been flipped and Buttigieg will attempt to position for an opening. The odds are against him, but this is the era of Trump, when anything is possible and anything can happen. But without a tide of African-American support, the Buttigieg campaign looks more like a cabinet post audition than a presidency in the making.

Buttigieg’s climate plan

Mayor Buttigieg’s presidential campaign released an innovative plan to bring Americans together behind urgent action to address the threat of climate change and meet the greatest challenge of our time. Buttigieg’s plan channels all of our energies into a national project—one that unifies every American, from big cities to rural communities, around this urgent threat and seizes the tremendous opportunity of a new era of climate action. “For too long Washington has chosen denial and obstruction as we’re faced with the imminent catastrophic effects of climate change,” said Buttigieg. “But the timeline that compels us to act isn’t set by Congress, it’s being dictated by science. Climate change impacts not only our coasts, but also farmers, small businesses, homes, and communities across our country. My plan ensures that no community is left behind as we meet the challenge of our time with the urgency and unity it demands.” The Buttigieg campaign puts the climate plan’s price tag between $1.5 trillion and $2 trillion. The mayor’s plan tackles the climate change crisis head on: Build a clean electricity system with zero emissions and require zero emissions for all new passenger vehicles by 2035; transition all new trucks, buses, ships, and planes by 2040, and all industrial, manufacturing, and agriculture by 2050, to net-zero emissions. Buttigieg touted his plan at a CNN town hall Wednesday night.