Ten Democrats vying to be their party’s candidate for US president took the stage in Atlanta for a televised debate on Wednesday, with Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, seen as among the front runners for the first time.
Mr Buttigieg, 37, topped a CNN/Des Moines Register poll published earlier this week, with 25 per cent support among likely Iowa Democratic caucus goers — significantly more than Elizabeth Warren, the US senator from Massachusetts, at 16 per cent, and former US vice-president Joe Biden and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, at 15 per cent.
With less than three months to go until the Iowa caucuses — the first electoral contest of the Democratic party’s nomination process — other polls have shown a surge of support for Mr Buttigieg, a former McKinsey consultant, in the Midwest. An average of Iowa polls compiled by the website RealClearPolitics shows Mr Buttigieg in the lead at 21 per cent.
The Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar, who served in the US military in Afghanistan, used last month’s debate to draw clear lines between himself and Ms Warren, whose levels of support built steadily throughout the summer before dipping in recent weeks.
He attacked Ms Warren over her “Medicare for all” plan, which would effectively eliminate private health insurance. He is running on a platform of “Medicare for all who want it”, which would include a public option for healthcare but allow people to keep their private insurance.
the number of candidates vying for the Democratic party’s nomination for US president
Mr Buttigieg — who was elected mayor of South Bend, a Midwest city of a little more than 100,000 people, in 2011 — has positioned himself as a centrist and raised huge sums of money despite being the youngest candidate in the field.
He had raised more than $50m, and had more than $23m cash on hand, at the end of the third quarter, trailing only Mr Sanders and Ms Warren in terms of the size of his war chest. His campaign has invested heavily in grassroots efforts in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But critics remain sceptical that Mr Buttigieg will be able to win over black voters, especially in the early primary state of South Carolina, where more than half of Democratic voters have historically been African-American.
Mr Buttigieg, who has faced criticism for his firing of a black police chief in South Bend, is polling at just 6.5 per cent in the state, according to RealClearPolitics. Focus groups in recent weeks have also suggested that Mr Buttigieg, who is gay and married, may struggle to win over churchgoing, socially conservative voters black voters in the south.
Many of the leading Democratic candidates used Wednesday’s debate setting in Atlanta as an opportunity to reach out to black voters. On Monday Mr Buttigieg visited Morehouse College, a historically black university in the capital of Georgia; Mr Sanders will hold an event at the same college on Thursday. Ms Warren will hold her own rally at Clark Atlanta University, another historically black college, on Thursday.
Despite plateauing levels of support and persistent questions about his candidacy, Mr Biden, 76, remains the favourite among African-Americans. A poll published earlier this week from Quinnipiac University and the University of North Florida showed the former US vice-president enjoyed the backing of 44 per cent of black Democratic voters in South Carolina.
Eighteen Democrats are competing for their party’s nomination to take on Donald Trump in next year’s US presidential election, not including former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is still weighing entering the race.
The 10 participants in Wednesday’s debate qualified based on polling and fundraising requirements set by the Democratic National Committee. Candidates will need to cross a higher threshold to qualify for next month’s debate; only Mr Biden, Mr Buttigieg, Mr Sanders, Ms Warren, California senator Kamala Harris and Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar have qualified so far.