In a Crowded Field, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke Stake Out Similar Turf

NASHUA, N.H. — The question was the same: Why should you be the Democratic nominee for president?

The answers helped illustrate why Beto O’Rourke is stalling and Pete Buttigieg is surging in the first months of the campaign.

“So, for whatever reason, the president has trained the focus of this country on the border, on immigrants, on asylum seekers, on our connection with the rest of the world,” Mr. O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman, told a reporter last week after meeting with New Hampshire voters at a coffee shop near the Maine state line. “That’s where I live, that’s where I’m raising my kids, that’s the community I represented, those are the stories that I can tell that are profoundly positive and part of the larger conversation in this country, the larger story of America.”

A few hours later, speaking to employees at a yogurt company closer to the Massachusetts border, Mr. Buttigieg made his case.

“Americans tend to look for the opposite of what we just had,” he said, citing the Democratic strategist David Axelrod’s maxim that voters seek a “remedy, not replica” of the incumbent president. “Sometimes we feel tempted to try to just put up the mirror image of what’s there. I think what we need is something that’s completely different. If nothing else, I’m completely different than this president.”

Applause washed over Mr. Buttigieg, the openly gay mayor of South Bend, Ind., whose sound bites, seemingly ripped from a “West Wing” script, have made him a viral sensation among liberals.

In a Democratic race filled with voters who say they are hungering for a next-generation candidate, the contest between Mr. O’Rourke, 46, and Mr. Buttigieg, 37, is emerging as something of a parallel primary, with many voters attending events for both of them and, in some cases, agonizing over which one to support.

With well-established figures like Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. either already in the race or preparing to enter it, and an array of women and nonwhite candidates offering their own forceful contrasts to President Trump, neither of the two younger men may emerge as the party’s standard-bearer. But it is unlikely that as the nominating contest moves past the early-voting states next year, there will be room for two white men under 50 who present themselves as mainstream progressives.

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Both men are fresh faces in a party that often covets newness, and each is difficult to pin down on policy, hailing from neither the establishment nor the insurgent wing and centering their appeal in biography as much as ideology.

Mr. O’Rourke arrived on the national scene first, breaking fund-raising records in his unsuccessful Senate bid last year. After entering the presidential contest in March, he raised more than $9 million in under three weeks, and he has sought a foothold in the race with sweat equity, holding more than 100 events across 12 states in just over a month.

But as he demonstrated when asked what is perhaps the central question for any would-be president, his rhetoric has been more impassioned and improvisational than completely thought through. He can still sound like someone who spent much of the last two years running for a Senate seat and only recently decided to aim for the presidency, building an organization and devising a message as he goes.

Unauthorized T-shirt salesmen set up tables outside his events and some attendees sport his hipster black “BETO” buttons, a testament to the celebrity he won while losing in Texas. But Mr. Buttigieg has zoomed past him in early-state polls and is starting to draw larger crowds in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Recent surveys in the two early-nominating states show Mr. Buttigieg vaulting into the double digits in a field of nearly 20 declared candidates. In some cases he trails only Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders.

The first votes are still more than nine months away, and Mr. O’Rourke has ample opportunity to regain momentum. But even some of the attendees at his events who were clad in Beto gear said they were unsure how to choose between him and Mr. Buttigieg.

“I don’t know if I could,” said Maggie Corey, a graduate student in Boston who came to see Mr. O’Rourke at a town hall last week in Nashua, N.H. “I don’t know.”

More ominous for Mr. O’Rourke were the verdicts from those dedicated New Hampshire primary voters who had also seen Mr. Buttigieg on his last visit to the state and said they were more taken with the mayor.

“I really like Pete,” said Joseph Imhof, a technology worker from Nashua, describing him as “the most likable guy.”

Rob Penttinen, a Nashua postal worker, was even more effusive about Mr. Buttigieg: “The guy speaks in paragraphs, not just sentences. He’s a dynamic guy when you see him.”

Mr. Buttigieg demonstrated his dexterity again at a made-for-CNN event in New Hampshire on Monday, concluding that there was no upside in responding to an attack from a Trump administration official likening him to Jussie Smollett, the gay actor who was accused of staging a hate crime.

“I’m not a master fisherman, but I know bait when I see it, and I’m not going to take it,” he said, drawing cheers from an audience of college students.

The personal and ideological profiles of Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. O’Rourke are similar, and each draws crowds that are unusually youthful for this early in the race in New Hampshire. But their differences are striking and may ultimately determine who has staying power.

[Read more: Will age matter for Democrats in 2020?]

Mr. Buttigieg is more willing to confront other candidates, and his party more broadly, in ways that could resonate with moderate Democrats and perhaps some of the independents who can vote in either primary here.

Speaking to high school students in the backyard of a Nashua-area state representative the day after Mr. O’Rourke was in town, Mr. Buttigieg lamented that his party was not sufficiently worried about deficits and suggested that Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders were two sides of the same coin.

Voters wanted to “blow up the system” in 2016, Mr. Buttigieg said. “Which could lead you to somebody like Bernie and it could lead you to somebody like Trump. That’s how we got where we are.”

In an interview, Mr. Buttigieg said Mr. Sanders’s left-wing proposals were no longer as provocative as in 2016 — “people were refreshed by the novelty of that boldness” — and expressed skepticism that a self-described democratic socialist in his late 70s could win a general election.

“I have a hard time seeing the coalition ultimately coming together there,” he said.

(Responding to the critique, Faiz Shakir, Mr. Sanders’s campaign manager, trumpeted the senator’s populist record and said his “unifying progressive agenda” made him “the best-positioned candidate to defeat Donald Trump in the general election.”)

When asked about Mr. O’Rourke, Mr. Buttigieg said he didn’t see himself “as competing against any one” of his Democratic rivals. But he added that he is an “executive in an industrial Midwest turnaround community” and has “deployed military experience,” all ways he differs from the former El Paso lawmaker.

[Read more: Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy is more about storytelling than policy details.]

Many New Hampshire Democrats cited Mr. Buttigieg’s sexual orientation as part of what excited them about his candidacy. But two voters here said sorrowfully that they were skeptical a gay man could be elected president.

“Obviously, much of the country will have trouble with his gayness,” said Jim Kelly, a Dover resident, after seeing Mr. O’Rourke at a coffee shop in Somersworth, N.H.

Mr. Kelly added that he liked both candidates. “Buttigieg seems to be a little more thoughtful in his approach,” he said, “and Beto obviously exhibits a lot more energy.”

Each candidate, though, faces a similar challenge: expanding their support beyond the mostly white, largely affluent progressives who have already rallied to their sides.

Both have drawn heavily white audiences to their first appearances in South Carolina, another early-voting state, where the 2016 primary electorate was over 60 percent black. But some in the party believe Mr. O’Rourke will find it easier to broaden his appeal to voters of color.

Word of Mr. Buttigieg’s clash with a black former police chief in South Bend has already spread among African-Americans, said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster. He observed that Mr. O’Rourke had no similar vulnerability.

“Those little issues that come up, that one has and one doesn’t, could make a difference,” Mr. Belcher said.

Making his first campaign visit last week to Virginia, one of the “Super Tuesday” states voting on March 3, Mr. O’Rourke drew a crowd that included Hispanics, Asian-Americans and African-Americans at a town hall-style meeting in Alexandria.

“He is very open and very adamant about speaking about people that don’t look like him,” said Andrea Carrasquero, an American University student who came to the event, citing Mr. O’Rourke’s bilingual stump speech.

But in New Hampshire, the Betomania was dwindling.

“There’s apparently a Texas saying: All hat, no cattle,” said Judy Dunbar, a retiree from Milford, N.H. “He just seems to talk a better game than he plays.”

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