Dem. Debate Recap: 'Rhodes Scholar Mayors' Stand Out, Buttigieg Touts Local Experience

Democrats sparred on a number of policy issues in Atlanta Wednesday, but Mayor Buttigieg won the night for emerging from the debate unscathed.

By Malachi Barrett

Pete Buttigieg was expected to be the main target for presidential candidates seeking to knock off the South Bend, Ind., mayor after he experienced a surge in early primary states, but conflict didn’t seem to shake him during the fifth Democratic debate.

Democrats sparred on a number of policy issues in Atlanta Wednesday, but the top tier of the primary took a backseat to other candidates looking for a bump to continue their struggling campaigns. University of Michigan Director of Debate Aaron Kall said U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., had strong performances, but Buttigieg won the night for emerging from the debate unscathed.

Coming into the debate it was all about Buttigieg, it was his time to face a lot of scrutiny and it was really surprising that it didn’t happen until the last five minutes,” Kall said. “I thought he handled himself well."

Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, said Booker also had a strong night, capitalizing on an important opportunity to gain some traction.

Two of the top criticisms focused on Buttigieg’s inexperience and his perceived inability to connect with African American voters. Buttigieg, 37, would be the youngest person ever elected president.

Booker hit Buttigieg for lacking the experience necessary to be president, while Klobuchar said a woman with his qualifications wouldn’t be on the debate stage. Buttigieg said his outsider perspective is beneficial, as is his experience in communities Trump is appealing to -- namely white, working-class Midwest communities.

Washington experience is not the only experience that matters,” Buttigieg said. “There’s more than 100 years of Washington experience on this stage, and where are we right now as a country?”

Buttigieg has failed to gather significant support from black voters, which could spell trouble for his campaign in states like South Carolina even though he’s doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire. Buttigieg said he will “welcome the challenge of connecting with black voters” and compared their experience to his own experience as a gay man.

“I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country,” he said.

Turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate, and seeing my rights expanded by a coalition of people like me and people not at all like me, working side by side shoulder to shoulder, making it possible for me to be standing here wearing this wedding ring in a way that couldn’t have happened two elections ago lets me know just how deep my obligation is to help those whose rights are on the line every day, even if they are nothing like me in their experience.”

Kall said the comparison of personal experiences was an interesting tactic.

Baker said Buttigieg’s sexual orientation may be a sticking point for socially conservative, church-going black voters in southern states.

The most heated moments came toward the end of the night, when U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, accused Buttigieg of wanting to send troops into Mexico to fight drug cartels. Buttigieg seemed stunned by the statement and said Gabbard was being misleading.

Baker said the exchange had Buttigieg “seething," which wasn’t typical for the debates so far.

Meanwhile, Buttigieg positioning himself as an outsider who can fix a broken system reminded Kall of Trump’s similar pitch during the GOP primary in 2016.

Now the question is if (Buttigeig) can take that success and move it out more nationally, especially with more diverse voting crowds,” Kall said.

Booker said black voters want “authentic connections” with candidates, and argued he is in the best place to understand their needs.

“I have a lifetime of experience with black voters,” Booker said. “I’ve been one since I was 18.”

Booker said former Vice President Joe Biden’s stance on keeping recreational marijuana illegal shows he doesn’t understand how certain issues that affect minority communities.

At a recent Las Vegas event, Biden said he doesn’t support legalizing marijuana because studies don’t prove it’s not a gateway drug, but does want to decriminalize marijuana and supports states’ ability to legalize it.

I thought you might’ve been high when you said it,” Booker said.

Booker is having a hard time picking up support among black voters, who are largely in Biden’s camp.

Though Kall said Booker had several strong moments, his campaign remains in question. Booker used his closing comments to plead with supporters to help him qualify for the next debate in California.

“There really has to be an earth-shattering moment to get people from the lower tier into that top tier,” Kall said.

The top tier of candidates -- Biden and U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. -- largely went under the radar Wednesday.

Baker said he was surprised to see Biden act as a “bystander” for much of the debate. The former vice president, who also celebrated his 77th birthday Wednesday, had a few gaffes that marred his performance again.

“He was watching what was going on but he really wasn’t participating, and his verbal faux pas were disturbing," Baker said.

Warren, in particular, didn’t face much scrutiny after being subjected to various criticisms of her “Medicare for All” plan during the last debate.

Part of that may be due to the different content of questions posed from the all-female cast of moderators Wednesday, Kall said. Topics like abortion rights and paid family leave received more attention than previous debates.

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