South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg launched his Democratic primary campaign to another tier of plausibility in October’s debate by attacking proposals by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren as unrealistic and burdensome while presenting himself as a sharp, practical problem-solver. He’s since jumped to the lead in Iowa polling and pushed Warren into a defensive reassembly of her position on single-payer health coverage, demonstrating that the front-runner positions that she, Sanders, and former Vice President Joe Biden occupy are not necessarily safe.
Iowa’s caucus is still more than two months off, though, and some Democrats may still be skeptical of a 37-year-old candidate who has never held a higher position than “mayor of South Bend, Indiana” and who is currently polling at zero percent with black voters in South Carolina. It seems likely, too, that almost all of Buttigieg’s rivals in the race, for various reasons, would love to help those skeptics kick-start the scrutiny process on Wednesday night in Atlanta.
Here are the participants in the debate, ranked in order of least to most likely to say something cutting to Mayor Pete that induces excited murmurings of “Damn,” “Wow,” and “Did he/she really just go there?” in the live audience and on Democratic couches across the country.
10. Andrew Yang. You could make a case that Yang, who founded a test-prep business and then ran a tech nonprofit, is just as accomplished a youthful overachiever as Buttigieg is, and that his visionary-style policy ideas are more interesting than the mayor’s. Yang probably isn’t going to say that Wednesday, though, because he’s shown no interest in confrontation in prior debates and has little reason to sacrifice his fun/quirky campaign brand by being an ass.
9. Tom Steyer. Though Steyer is a billionaire who’s bought his way onto the stage with saturation-level ad spending, his platform is built on class-traitor outrage toward the control that corporate interests have over the Democratic Party. So it’s possible that he’ll take a shot at Buttigieg’s passion for high-dollar fundraisers. But given how few viewers support Steyer or even know who he is, such a shot would not be likely to cause injury.
8. Cory Booker. It is a sign of how effectively Buttigieg has disrupted this race that we’re only at item eight on this list and we’re already into the group of people who have really good reasons to be annoyed by him! Booker, who was the mayor of a much larger city than South Bend and is now a senator, was honing his inspirational next-generation Democrat persona when Buttigieg was still in college. Speaking of which: Booker and Buttigieg were both elite-college undergrads and Rhodes scholars, but only one of them gets regularly described in the press as a genius. Booker has assiduously projected positivity and uplift during this campaign—a choice that, hypothetically, one would make if one wanted to keep open the possibility of being a running mate for Biden or Sanders or Warren—and a direct attack on Buttigieg would undermine that effort. Still, the New Jersey senator has been loose and frank enough in his demeanor during prior debates that you could see him doing some light eye-rolling or sarcastic commentary at Indiana Boy’s expense.
6 (tie). Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. Buttigieg’s position in Iowa is a serious threat to both Biden and Warren’s paths to the nomination, and his candidacy rebukes theirs both implicitly (in Biden’s case, insofar as Buttigieg is pitching himself as a younger Biden) and explicitly (see: Warren and the last debate). Both, however, are trying to sell themselves as potentially history-changing figures capable of building a broad coalition; getting into a nasty exchange with a younger candidate who’s still only polling at 8 percent nationally would not be the best way to do that.
5. Kamala Harris. Apply the experience/persona/ambition frustrations that Booker has above, then add in that Harris at one point looked like she might be Biden’s most serious challenger but has since fallen such that she’s closer in the polls to John Delaney than she is to Sanders or Warren. Also, Harris’ biggest moment in the campaign so far came when she attacked a white male front-runner over his inept handling of a racial issue. Pete! Watch yourself!
4. Pete Buttigieg. Imagine being 37 years old and getting called a phony pipsqueak by as many as six current or former United States senators on live television. This could happen to Pete Buttigieg on Wednesday, and similar situations have crushed more experienced candidates than he. I’m 37 right now and if a senator criticized me on TV, I’d start crying! Senators, stop being so mean!
3. Tulsi Gabbard. Gabbard’s signature move as a national figure is denouncing Cold War–style American military imperialism. Buttigieg’s service in the armed forces, and his belief in the righteousness of the American cause, is a key part of his candidacy; these viewpoints already collided when he and Gabbard argued about Syria at a previous debate. Though the Hawaii congresswoman has denied that she plans to run in the general election as a maverick spoiler candidate, her policy positions (Bernie-like on domestic policy, Rand Paul–like on foreign affairs) and Fox News appearances suggest otherwise. Buttigieg, meanwhile, is guiding his campaign ever closer to the establishment-Democrat orthodoxy she’d be running against. To me, that says: More fights a-brewin’.
2. Bernie Sanders. Sanders, of all the candidates in the primary, is the one who has the longest record of conveying authentic loathing for the ideologically fungible, personality-heavy, donor-friendly style of campaigning that Buttigieg embodies. Sanders, of all the candidates, is the one who swears in public most frequently. Sanders, of all the candidates, is the only one who is an elderly Vermont curmudgeon with little inclination or incentive not to speak his mind, and at the last debate, he was the candidate who delivered a fantastically articulate evisceration of Biden’s entire career in what seemed to be an off-the-cuff moment of annoyance. Bernie Sanders will getcha!
1. Amy Klobuchar. Klobuchar, a Minnesotan, was supposed to be the aw-shucks heartland candidate who could beat Donald Trump because she understands white people who strap deer carcasses to the roofs of their cars while they’re buying chewing tobacco at 7-Eleven. Her temper is notorious, and the New York Times, citing “witnesses,” has reported that “a simple mention of Mr. Buttigieg’s name during a conversation in the Senate chamber between Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Ms. Klobuchar was enough to make Ms. Klobuchar extremely agitated.” There’s also just enough time left before voting starts for a surge by a candidate who could simultaneously leverage fears about Warren and Sanders’ electability, Buttigieg’s inexperience, and Biden’s over-experience—a candidate like a 59-year-old three-term senator from a purple state. If the Klobuchar Express is ever going to leave the station, it’s going to do so Wednesday, by running over Pete Buttigieg.
Have fun out there, everybody!