Buttigieg deflects rival candidates attacks, but appeal to black voters still an open question

ATLANTA — Pete Buttigieg was prepared for rival attacks onstage at the party’s fifth debate, but the event highlighted his lingering weakness in connecting with black voters, a crucial constituency for winning the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, strategists say.

While polls show the South Bend, Indiana, mayor surging in Iowa ahead of the first-in-the-nation caucuses on Feb. 3, his support among black voters has remained stubbornly low. In South Carolina, which hosts a Feb. 29 primary, the electorate is as high as 60% black. Former Vice President Joe Biden, having campaigned in South Carolina for decades over his three presidential runs, is the undisputed leader statewide — and particularly among African American voters, while Buttigieg, 37, barely registers in the single digits.

Even Buttigieg’s otherwise strong debate performance Wednesday, including a smackdown of Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard over her meeting with Syrian strongman Bashar Assad, leaves him in the hole trying to woo black voters.

It’s Buttigieg’s “real Achilles heel,” said Aaron Kall, University of Michigan’s director of debate. “Buttigieg name-dropped former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and discussed his faith to try and reach out to black voters, which have been elusive to his campaign.”

Mo Elleithee, executive director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service and a spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign, said while the number of attacks against Buttigieg was fewer than expected, he deflected them “masterfully,” including those aimed at highlighting his limited appeal to minority Democrats.

“That is his biggest challenge in this race,” Elleithee told the Washington Examiner. “He’s going to have to spend a lot more time on the trail in the black community in direct conversation with black voters.”

Still, Buttigieg may benefit from verbal errors of others on race-related issues. Biden on Wednesday mistakenly claimed he had earned the support of the country’s only African American female senator, overlooking California Sen. Kamala Harris, with whom he shared the debate stage. The 36-year Delaware senator, 77, tried to correct himself, insisting that he meant the first black female senator, a reference to Carol Moseley Braun, a Democrat who represented Illinois from 1993 to 1999.

Buttigieg’s most pointed exchange during the fifth debate in Atlanta occurred with Gabbard, both of whom have military experience, over his comments last weekend about being open to “security cooperation” with Mexico to fight drug cartels. And he clashed with Klobuchar, an opponent for the centrist contender lane, over her assertion that the pressures of a small-town mayor were not the same as the rigors presented by the Oval Office, claiming his rise in the polls and stellar fundraising record would not have happened had he been a woman.

Not surprisingly, Buttigieg’s spokeswoman and strategist Lis Smith talked up her candidate’s debate performance.

“@PeteButtigieg took on attacks from: @KamalaHarris @TulsiGabbard @amyklobuchar and won every exchange hands down,” Smith tweeted, referring to the senators from California and Minnesota, as well as the outgoing congresswoman from Hawaii, respectively. “There is no candidate in this race more centered and focused on the American people than Pete is.”

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Author: Washington Examiner