Can Pete Buttigieg jump from South Bend mayor to the White House?
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- When South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg formed a presidential exploratory committee back in January, he was considered a long shot, at best, for the Democratic Party nomination.
But two polls released last week have Buttigieg surging to third place in both Iowa and New Hampshire, two key early voting states.
The 37-year-old is behind only former Vice President Joe Biden, who still hasn't officially announced he’s running, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, in the crowded field of nearly 20 democrats.
He's also raised more than $7-million and gotten well-beyond the 65,000 individual donations to qualify for the Democratic National Committee's primary debate stage.
While Mayor Pete does have plenty of buzz right now, he still has to answer the key question: can a relatively unknown young candidate make the jump from being mayor of a mid-size mid-western city all the way to the White House?
"It has never happened before but that doesn't mean he couldn’t be the first. We're in an era in politics when all the traditional bets are off," said Rick Klein, ABC News National Political Director.
Klein admits he is just as surprised by the swift rise of the South Bend mayor as everybody else, though he adds Buttigieg’s lack of serving in congress, or a governor's office may still be a handicap.
"Look there would be voters who would be concerned about his lack of experience. There are also going to be voters who are very excited about the fact that this is someone who represents a different generation. He talks about his military experience, that sets him apart from most of his rivals including Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden," Klein said.
Those two political veterans are twice as old as Mayor Pete. Is age and advantage or disadvantage for the mayor?
"He has a great answer for it about how the older generations have kind of screwed things up enough so maybe it’s time for a millennial to take over," Klein said.
Longtime South Bend political columnist Jack Colwell agrees.
“I think he is overcoming that problem of age and I think it’s now becoming a plus," Colwell said.
Colwell has covered local politics for some 40 years. He has watched the Harvard-educated, Rhodes Scholar become the youngest mayor ever of any American city with more than 100,000 people at age 29.
Colwell believes changing demographics may now help Mayor Pete on a national level.
"If the percentage of younger voters is up, that enhances his chances too because they will tend to vote for someone of their own generation," Colwell said.
Colwell maintains there are similarities between Buttigieg and a certain young, untested Senator from Illinois who shocked everyone by winning the White House in 2008.
"Everybody was saying with [Barack] Obama it's too soon to run for president just as they're saying with Pete. They were saying with Obama: 'He needs to run for another term in the Senate, he needs a little more experience in Washington.' But he knew the time was there, the time was right," Colwell said.
Both Colwell and Klein say the underdog from South Bend could conceivably pull off the unthinkable.
"I think it’s fair to say he had the best first quarter of any of the Democratic candidates that includes Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren. All these people that had national platforms and national name recognition on the national stage for decades in some cases, Mayor Pete beat them all in a lot of ways. He beat them in the fundraising game he beat them in the expectations game and he is the buzziest candidate at this moment the democratic field," Klein said.
Whether that buzz lasts and can be turned into actual primary votes remains to be seen.