TIME

The New Guy

How Pete Buttigieg became a surprise contender in the 2020 Democratic primary

AS PETE BUTTIGIEG ADDRESSED SUPPORTERS off a back porch in Marshalltown, Iowa, the Devil was whispering his name. “Pete,” the Devil hissed into a microphone. “You’re sooo smart, Pete.”

Buttigieg ignored the heckler, plowing forward with his stump speech about American decency as his husband Chasten looked on. “Pete,” the Devil whispered. “I want the heartland, Pete.”

The man in the devil costume was Randall Terry, an antiabortion activist. He had traveled to Iowa to torment the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., the early breakout star of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. “There’s never been a poster boy for homo sexuals” before, Terry says. “There’s never been a homosexual that you’d go, ‘Wow, I’d be proud of him.’ He’s the guy. That’s why he’s such a threat.”

Four years after the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed his right to marry, Buttigieg has become the first openly gay person to make a serious bid for the presidency. And Terry is hardly the only right-winger worried about the rise of “Mayor Pete.” Buttigieg’s saying that “God doesn’t have a political party” prompted evangelical leader Franklin Graham to tweet that being gay is “something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized.” Concerned by the campaign’s rise, right-wing provocateur Jacob Wohl was recently caught trying to fabricate sexual-assault allegations against Buttigieg to slow him down.

But to some Americans, Buttigieg may just be the man to vanquish America’s demons. In a field of more than 20 candidates—including six Senators, four Congressmen, two governors and a former Vice President—Buttigieg (pronounced Boot-edge-edge) has vaulted from near total obscurity toward the front of the Democratic pack, running ahead of or even with more established candidates and behind only Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

Buttigieg is a gay Episcopalian veteran in a party torn between identity politics and heartland appeals. He’s also a fresh face in a year when millennials are poised to become the largest eligible voting bloc. Many Democrats are hungry for generational change, and the two front runners are more than twice his age.

But Buttigieg’s greatest political asset may be his ear for languages. He speaks eight, including Norwegian and Arabic, but he’s particularly fluent in the dialect of the neglected industrial Midwest. Buttigieg is a master of redefinition, a translator for a party that has found it increasingly difficult to speak to the voters who elected President Donald Trump. The son of an English professor and a scholar of linguistics, he roots his campaign in an effort to reframe progressive ideas in conservative language.

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