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Pete Buttigieg Keeps Going In Iowa

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg stood out during the last presidential debate. He's now trying to turn that moment into a bump in the polls, focusing most of his attention on Iowa.

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Transcript:

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Pete Buttigieg is fine-tuning his pitch to Democratic voters, and it sounds more moderate. That change was evident during the last Democratic presidential debate, when the South Bend, Ind., mayor pushed back hard on policies he sees as too liberal. Here he is taking on Senator Elizabeth Warren.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything except this. No plan has been laid out to explain how a multitrillion-dollar hole in this "Medicare for All" plan that Senator Warren is putting forward is supposed to get filled in.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Scott Detrow went to Ames, Iowa, to see how Buttigieg's message is being received.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Pete Buttigieg's strong debate performance seemed to respark a bit of the national buzz around his candidacy that had faded over the summer. But in Ames, there were plenty of signs that in the first state to weigh in on the 2020 nomination, that buzz never really left.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUTTIGIEG: By the way, for folks who can't see me, let me hear you just so we can appreciate that you're here.

(CHEERING)

BUTTIGIEG: Thank you.

DETROW: So many people had crammed into an atrium on the Iowa State campus that many in the crowd were stuck on the second-floor balcony.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUTTIGIEG: Thank you for being here with my disembodied voice. And it's a good problem to have, but I really...

DETROW: As Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders battle for the progressive vote and former Vice President Joe Biden is appearing a bit more vulnerable in the polls and fundraising than he's been for most of the year, there's a lane opening for a more moderate and centrist candidate like Buttigieg - not that Buttigieg appreciates the label. Here's what he said when I asked him if he's a moderate.

BUTTIGIEG: I consider myself progressive. I also consider the framing a little irritating, to be honest.

DETROW: He points to big reforms he's pushing for, like getting rid of the Electoral College and expanding the size of the Supreme Court. But he's been emphasizing those things less lately, and as he campaigns in Iowa, he does sound pretty moderate.

Buttigieg talks a lot about reaching out to people he disagrees with.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUTTIGIEG: We can't love America if you hate fellow Americans. Love of country means remembering our country is made of people.

DETROW: He's making a real effort to reach out to religious voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUTTIGIEG: We see what they're doing to take food away from hungry children in the federal budget or the way they're treating families at the border. It's time to ask, whatever happened to, I was hungry, and you fed me; I was a stranger, and you welcomed me? People of faith have a choice, and they do not have to choose this White House and the actions that they're doing.

DETROW: And the most high-profile fight he's picked with other candidates is on health care. Buttigieg warns the single-payer health insurance plan pushed by Warren and Sanders isn't popular when voters realize it could come with higher taxes and fewer options. Buttigieg was backing Medicare for All before, even earlier in this campaign. He says he's still in favor of the idea but that his proposal, where an optional government plan coexists with private insurance, is an easier way to get there. That contrast is the theme of one of the TV ads he's been running in Iowa for more than a month now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUTTIGIEG: Now, others say it's Medicare for All or nothing. I approve this message to say the choice should be yours.

DETROW: Those TV ads are the big difference between Buttigieg and the other candidates banking on a strong showing in Iowa to vault them into the top tier of contenders. He's got more than $30 million in the bank right now, far more than New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Still, riding across the state in an RV, Booker told Iowa Public Radio he's ready to make a run in the final months before the caucuses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CORY BOOKER: We had one of the best organizations on the ground here in Iowa. People have called it one of the two best - of us and Senator Warren. We lead the field in endorsements from local activists and elected officials.

DETROW: California Senator Kamala Harris is also zeroing in on Iowa as she tries to stop a long fade in the polls. Both Booker and Harris are, of course, U.S. senators. So are the other top-polling candidates, along with a former vice president. Buttigieg is the millennial mayor of Indiana's fourth-largest city. But President Trump never held office before being elected, and Buttigieg is trying to frame his time as mayor as a more accountable form of executive experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUTTIGIEG: In a world where there's no such thing as an alternative fact - 'cause if there's a hole in the road or somebody's not getting safe drinking water, you don't get to call that fake news. They're going to show up in your office or corner you at the grocery store and remind you of it.

DETROW: Buttigieg likes to say in his rallies that the United States can't go back to normal after Trump because normal wasn't working. Perhaps a sign that normal is out, maybe for good, would be if Iowa caucusers (ph) end up rallying behind a small city's mayor who, if elected, would be the youngest president in U.S. history.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, Ames, Iowa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.