PETERBOROUGH — Long beyond the humbler days of his exploratory committee testing the waters at the Orchard School in Alstead, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg had the Peterborough Town House packed more than half an hour before his Wednesday night rally.
The South Bend, Ind., mayor engaged the audience in a collective visualization, calling on them to imagine the day after President Donald Trump leaves office.
For “Mayor Pete,” 37, that day would hopefully be his first in the Oval Office — now a plausible possibility for the first openly gay candidate to launch a serious presidential bid in either major party.
The millennial Hoosier has been polling in third place in Iowa, and fourth in New Hampshire as well as nationally, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average.
His campaign has also amassed more than $50 million in individual donations, making him the most successful fundraiser in the Democratic primary from the last quarter from April through June.
That haul has allowed Buttigieg to expand his staff and buy ads when other campaigns are already facing tough financial decisions. U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, for example, will be laying off some staffers and shuffling others to Iowa from other early-voting states, with the exception of South Carolina, according to a memo obtained by POLITICO on Wednesday.
The flush pockets of the Buttigieg team were noticeable after sunset at the Peterborough Town House, with staff and volunteers in tow, along with a full riser for the media and an in-house film crew patrolling the grounds — leaps and bounds from his low-budget operation that first came to the Monadnock Region in February.
“It’s certainly been a real transformation, and it’s inspiring,” Buttigieg said in an interview for Pod Free or Die, The Sentinel’s politics podcast. “You know, we started this thing with literally four people in a room in January, and now it’s grown to a movement — we’ve got more than half a million contributors, we’ve got hundreds of staff and so many organizers and volunteers right here on the ground in New Hampshire.”
Buttigieg has also racked up some prominent local endorsements, most recently from Cheshire County Sheriff Eliezer “Eli” Rivera.
One of those early Buttigieg supporters, former state senator and gubernatorial candidate Mark Fernald of Sharon, got the applause going with an analogy contrasting Mayor Pete with President Trump.
“Donald Trump is the poison in our politics,” Fernald said. “Pete is the antidote. He is young and energetic. He’s fact based.”
Then Buttigieg took the stage to his signature walk-up song, “High Hopes” by Panic! at the Disco.
Although he has been more critical of opponents in recent weeks — particularly the second and third best-polling candidates in the race, U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — Buttigieg has emphasized his only qualms are over policy, such as how health care reform could affect the deficit.
Buttigieg’s plan, “Medicare For All Who Want It,” would allow Americans to stay on their private insurance plans if they wish, but also establish a public option paid for by repealing the 2017 Trump tax cuts and allowing the U.S. government to negotiate over prescription drug prices.
But beyond the nitty gritty of politics, voters who came to see Buttigieg Wednesday generally praised his style as much as his substance.
Mark Ferrin, 69, of Keene, skipped the Sanders rally at Keene State College and took the half-hour drive east of Mount Monadnock to see Buttigieg.
“I’ve seen Bernie enough, and I had not seen Pete, so I wanted to get a different perspective, and it was nice to hear about his passion and compassion,” Ferrin said.
As a retired pastor, Ferrin said he also admires how Buttigieg campaigns on his Christian faith in addition to his service in Afghanistan as a naval intelligence officer.
“The military and his faith, to me his faith is important ... I appreciate that he’s not afraid to talk about that,” Ferrin said. “And his marriage [to his husband, Chasten] which is important that he can talk about that [in the context of] faith, you know, because a lot of people are afraid to talk about their faith.”
While neither element is necessarily central to Buttigieg’s identity as a candidate, he elaborated in the podcast interview on how Americans compartmentalize the nation’s military service abroad, and what that means to him as a veteran.
“It used to be that there was a sense of participation in the military for people of all walks of life, from every part of the country,” Buttigieg said. “Now, it almost feels like really having a personal stake in war and peace is outsourced to a tiny proportion of Americans who shoulder all of that burden.”
A potential solution, Buttigieg said, would be his national service plan, which would build on programs like AmeriCorps by expanding the number of positions from 75,000 to 250,000, allowing Americans to opt in and receive additional benefits, such as student-debt forgiveness — which is already part of AmeriCorps and some other federal programs, but on a smaller scale.
The goal would be to create a network of more than 1 million national service members by 2026.
“There’s a way to create that same experience I had of getting to know people different from me in a deployment without everybody having to go to war in order to get there,” Buttigieg said.
Future challenges facing the nation, such as climate change, could also be mitigated by mobilizing young people to get experience in environmental work through the programs, he added.
Before heading out, Buttigieg made sure to pay homage to Doris “Granny D” Haddock.
Haddock, a longtime Dublin resident who died at the age of 100 in 2010, gained nationwide acclaim for her campaign finance reform advocacy. This culminated in a 14-month odyssey, with Haddock walking across the continental United States from Jan. 1, 1999, through Feb. 29, 2000.
“Democracy isn’t just a system, it’s a set of values,” Buttigieg said. “I don’t have to tell the state that gave us Granny D how important it is that we stand up [for] those values.”