By James Oliphant
ATLANTA (Reuters) - Democratic presidential candidates' united front against Republican President Donald Trump amid public impeachment hearings and their restraint in battling one another had an unexpected beneficiary on Wednesday night: rising White House contender Pete Buttigieg.
Surging in the polls in early voting states Iowa and New Hampshire, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, had been widely expected to face a barrage of attacks during the Democratic presidential debate about his thin political resume and his problematic relationship with African-American voters, a key Democratic constituency.
That largely did not happen. When questions came his way, Buttigieg parried the thrusts in a way likely to sustain the momentum his campaign has been seeing over the past several weeks, analysts said.
“He had a really good night,” said David Brock, a longtime Democratic operative and founder of the Super PAC American Bridge, which supports Democratic candidates. “He had never been more under the microscope than he had been tonight.”
One easier-than-expected debate performance, however, will not lessen the challenges Buttigieg, who has never held statewide or federal office, will face in trying to wrest the Democratic nomination from more experienced hands such as former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Democrats are vying for the right to take on Trump in the November 2020 election.
The debate was overshadowed by the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry against Trump, which generated a wave of criticism toward the president from the candidates on stage and seemed to instill a new sense of civility within the field.
As a result, Buttigieg, who remains an unknown to many Democratic voters, did not take the fire that many expected.
Buttigieg has been gaining support from younger, college-educated white voters, particularly in Iowa, but has had an uneasy relationship with the African-American community in Indiana that has translated to difficulties with black voters nationwide.
He has been criticized by the black community in South Bend, where he fired the city’s first black police chief in 2012 and faced protesters earlier this year after a police officer shot a black man.
When asked directly about his struggles making inroads with black voters, Buttigieg talked about his Christian faith and his own journey as a gay man.
"I do have the experience of feeling like a stranger in my own country, turning on the news and seeing my own rights coming up for debate," Buttigieg said.
'BREAK DOWN BARRIERS'
Brock said Buttigieg's invocation of his faith may help him down the road in reaching those voters who have eluded him.
Donna Brazile, the African-American Democratic strategist and former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, agreed. “We know you have a big heart," she said on Twitter. "Tell it. Talk about your faith. And the actions that you have taken to break down barriers.”
Still, he had his detractors on stage. Clearly referring to Buttigieg, U.S. Senator Cory Booker, an African-American, said: “Nobody on this stage should need a focus group to hear black voters.”
On Thursday, Buttigieg is scheduled to address a breakfast in Atlanta of the National Action Network, the advocacy group founded by civil rights activist Al Sharpton.
While polls have shown Buttigieg gaining strength in Iowa and New Hampshire, the primary calendar then flips to nominating contests in states with more diverse electorates such as Nevada and South Carolina where Buttigieg has not been polling well.
In a briefing with reporters before the debate, aides to Biden, who enjoys solid support from the African-American community, said the onus was on Buttigieg and other candidates such as Sanders and Warren to prove they could make the same connection.
For the moment, at least, Delacey Skinner, a Democratic strategist who frequently works with congressional candidates, said Buttigieg did what he needed to do given his new status as a top-tier contender and his relative lack of experience.
"He was successful tonight, not only in answering the questions, but in how he came across," Skinner said. "Buttigieg looked and sounded like a potential president. That's what he needed out of tonight."
(Reporting by James Oliphant; Additional reporting by Simon Lewis; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Peter Cooney)