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Pete Buttigieg picks up the pace in Iowa as impeachment keeps others away

Updated 10:10 AM ET, Fri January 17, 2020

Emmetsburg, Iowa (CNN) - Pete Buttigieg had Iowa all to himself on Thursday. He responded by hitting the gas.

Buttigieg embarked on one of his most frenetic days yet in the Hawkeye State, speeding across the state's snow-covered northern border with Minnesota to pitch his candidacy to both diehard Democrats who are leaning toward caucusing for him and what the mayor calls "future former Republicans," those voters who backed President Donald Trump in 2016 but want to vote against him four year later.

That sprint came at the same time that some of his top competitors for the presidency, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar, were being sworn in to preside over the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, keeping them in Washington and far away from the frozen corn and soybean fields of Iowa.

Buttigieg's pace -- which will continue as the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor is slated to spend four of the next six days in the state headlining at least a dozen town halls and events -- reflects a newfound urgency within the Buttigieg campaign, where the people around him now see success in Iowa as necessary to avoid an earlier-than-expected exit from the Democratic primary. A recent CNN/Des Moines Register poll found the former mayor had slipped in the last two months, despite investing heavily in the state.

"If he does not place in the top two in either Iowa or New Hampshire, or I would argue if he places behind Biden in both of those contests, that will be it," said one source familiar with the Buttigieg campaign's thinking in Iowa, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the campaign. That view reflects the idea that without strong finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, Buttigieg will lack the momentum his campaign is counting on to carry him into future contests.

It was clear on Thursday that Buttigieg was feeling that pressure as he sprinted across the state, looking to imbue his campaign with some of the energy that propelled him into the top tier in the closing months of but has waned in recent weeks.

Buttigieg has landed on a message here in Iowa that highlights his policy positions and personal story in equal measure, with the former mayor telling the story of his campaign from going from an unknown to a top candidate by tying his policy positions as part of that process. But as impeachment heats up in Washington and dominates national news coverage, most of the questions asked of Buttigieg were either about hyperlocal topics, like crop rotation, ethanol and the benefits of rural outreach, or more big picture issues, like his faith and his why he wants to be president.

Buttigieg was not asked about impeachment once during his town halls on Wednesday or Thursday.

'Exhausting to watch'

All of this comes as Warren, Sanders and Klobuchar -- all of whom have also spent considerable time focused on Iowa -- will be required to be in Washington to fulfill their role as jurors in Trump's impeachment trial, taking them off the campaign trail with only weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses.

Buttigieg's only mention of impeachment, which came up unprovoked, was to dismiss the fighting among lawmakers, arguing that Senate Republicans are telling the American people that they "have no power to make sure that there is accountability in Washington."

"It makes it exhausting to watch it, it makes you want to just switch to 'Ellen's Game of Games' or something to just make you feel better about the world than what's going on in Washington," Buttigieg said. "But the great thing is, this is a moment where the power comes back into the hands of the American people. And that entire process begins right here in Iowa, it begins in two and a half weeks, and it begins with you."

That message resonated with voters on Thursday -- especially those Iowans who voted for Trump four years ago.

Melissa Hrdlicka, a 38-year old caretaker for disabled people in Algona who voted for the President in 2016, asked Buttigieg about the economy during his town hall in the small town.

"How do you plan to beat him on the economy?" Hrdlicka asked, reflecting the fact that she backed Trump four years ago because of his economic promises.

Buttigieg replied: "The only economic promise that this President has kept is when he went and passed those big tax cuts for corporations, and all that other stuff about the working man and the forgotten men and women and farmers and workers, we haven't seen a lot come about there."

Hrdlicka told CNN after the event that she "really didn't see the economic changes" that Trump promised and that she thought he would have done more in his first four years.

"I think I am going to sign a caucus card for Pete today," she said. Asked what she would do if Buttigieg didn't win the nomination, Hrdlicka was direct: "I am going to vote for Trump."

Decision time

Buttigieg's campaign is enthused by these supporters, but knows it will take more than just a surge in former Republicans to win the Iowa caucuses. So Buttigieg has begun to put the hard ask on voters here in Iowa, urging them to embrace the next few weeks as decision time.

"I'm talking to the same folks who I saw, maybe six months ago saying, 'OK, you're in my top seven, let's see how you how you do,'" he said on Thursday. "Right now, it's decision time and Iowa has a way of making history."

That urgency comes after Buttigieg's polling here has slipped. The latest CNN/Des Moines Register poll found Buttigieg lock in a tight race with the top four candidates, but down 9 percentage points from in November 2019.

Buttigieg said this week that he knows he has "more hills to climb."

"There is no other campaign that I would want to trade places with right no," Buttigieg said this week. "I believe we have the best ground game in the state and that's going to help a great deal, too."

One reason for that confidence is voters like Craig Giddings, a 65-year old who runs a small, organic farm in Burt, Iowa. Giddings voted for Trump in 2016 -- and then watched the president fail to deliver on his economic promises, he said.

"I am disappointed in Trump," said Giddings, who said that he saw Buttigieg speak in late 2019 and that his "integrity" was the "first thing that grabbed a hold of me."

"It is Pete's integrity," Giddings said on Thursday in Algona. "Trump has no integrity. They are just polar opposites as far as I am concerned. I voted for Trump because he said he was going to drain the swamp and, in my mind, it has gotten a lot worse."

Buttigieg wouldn't entertain whether he has an advantage over voters like Giddings because the impeachment trial has sidelined some of his opponents, but he did argue this week that being in Iowa, and not part of the story in Washington, is the best way for him to rise in Iowa.

"We've advanced to this stage in the race with a message that obviously wasn't based on me having been a household name for or having an office in Washington, DC," Buttigieg said in Newton on Wednesday. "It's about making sure we connect with the lived experience on the ground of the voters who have so much to gain or lose by the decisions that are going to be made in the White House in the years ahead."

He added: "That's been a successful message for us up until now and I think it will be as we move forward."


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