COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Democratic voters here love Mayor Pete, but they may be penalizing him because he’s gay.
It’s not that they hold it against Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, but they fear the rest of the country may not be ready for a 37-year-old, married, openly gay man to sit in the White House, so they are reluctant to help him win the party’s presidential nomination.
“Pete Buttigieg is interesting to me, but, honestly, he is probably not electable, and the last thing I want is Donald Trump in office,” said David Cline. “I do believe his sexuality is an issue for folks, which is too bad.
“He is extremely articulate, and he is spot on in regards to faith and justice,” the 64-year-old said. “I think people probably think he is a little too young. My hope is that he stays in for the future.”
His comments dovetail with the findings of a Quinnipiac University Poll that found most voters are open to electing a gay president, but a majority also doubt their fellow countrymen are. Just 36% told the pollsters they see it happening.
Mr. Buttigieg has been one of the surprises of the campaign season. He has surged from the low single digits in national polling to as high as 10% in June and has since settled to about 6% in the Real Clear Politics average of polls.
Voters who are intrigued by Mr. Buttigieg talk more about his public persona than his policies. He is a military veteran, Harvard University graduate and Rhodes scholar, and a midsized city mayor who isn’t afraid to talk about his husband, Chasten, his Christian faith and his ability to connect with Americans in Trump territory in the Midwest.
At an AARP forum here last month with Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Mr. Buttigieg was the only one to receive a standing ovation after his performance on stage.
“It just blew my mind,” said Bill Grove, who attended the event and is weighing whether Mr. Buttigieg is electable. “He talked about his husband and he talked about his mother-in-law like, ‘No big deal,’ and it isn’t to me, and I am sitting here in 2019 thinking, ‘We’re really entertaining this guy?’ “
Still, Mr. Buttigieg, who came out as gay in 2015, will have to do more to seal the deal for many voters.
Mr. Grove said he is watching Mr. Buttigieg’s standing in South Carolina, where his polling struggles have been attributed to black voters’ opposition to same-sex marriage.
“I think he is the new JFK — I really do,” Mr. Grove said. “You know, of course, us old folks, conservative folks, probably some of us likely can’t get by his gayness, but being he is the only vet in the bunch, I think that ought to carry him some.”
CNN reported Tuesday that Mr. Buttigieg met a woman who said she also shook hands with another Kennedy, Robert, in 1968.
“So you’re good luck?” Mr. Buttigieg said.
“Not really — he was shot a month later,” she replied.
Barack Obama faced his own challenge in 2008 when he had to overcome the sentiment that a black candidate couldn’t win. His victory in the Iowa caucuses, a heavily white electorate, was a major factor in convincing Democratic voters elsewhere that his race wasn’t an insurmountable obstacle.
Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Buttigieg zeroed in on Iowa. He told voters at the state fair Tuesday that politics have changed, and Democrats won’t beat Mr. Trump by promising a return to normal.
“It doesn’t work that way. There isn’t a ‘back to normal,’ ” he said. “We have to build a future that is better than the past, and I’d say the best way to do that is to begin with leadership that is the opposite of what we have now, and that’s where I come in.”
Pressed on whether his sexuality and age could hurt his campaign, Mr. Buttigieg said in an interview with Axios last month that he is focused on “where I want to lead this country.”
“People will elect the person who will make the best president,” he said. “And we have had excellent presidents who have been young. We have had excellent presidents who have been liberal. I would imagine we’ve probably had excellent presidents who were gay — we just didn’t know which ones.”
Mr. Buttigieg said statistically it is “almost certain” that there has been a gay president but his “gaydar” isn’t strong enough to assess who it was.
His first foray into national politics came in a well-regarded but failed bid for the Democratic National Committee’s chairmanship in 2017.
A little over two years later, he has turned into a fundraising juggernaut, raising $24 million in the last quarter — more than any of his Democratic rivals.
He also has received rave reviews for his performances in the first two debates, where he refused to join far-left calls for free college tuition and “Medicare for All” universal health care coverage while signaling support for providing health care to illegal immigrants. He also acknowledged that he has struggled to solve problems of racial tension that has plagued his police department.
He has built a reservoir of goodwill in Iowa, where the corn kernel poll at the state fair showed him with 16% of the total among Democrats — good enough for a second-place tie with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and 8 points behind former Vice President Joseph R. Biden.
Lora Kracht, of Des Moines, said this summer that she came away impressed after catching up with Mr. Buttigieg at a scholarship ceremony for LGBTQ high school students.
“He spoke so eloquently — it was just a breath of fresh air,” the 52-year-old said after casting her kernel for him. “He could string sentences together with beautiful words, and it made sense and it was little sound bites of this or that or the other thing. So I had confidence in his intellectual ability and in his thought process and just in his care and compassion for humans.”
Ms. Kracht said she is also interested in Ms. Warren but that “some of the people around me” would probably be more apt to pull the lever for a gay man than a woman in a presidential race.
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