WATERLOO, Iowa — Mayor Pete Buttigieg raised more money in the most recent quarter than anyone else in the 2020 field and has generated excitement among Democratic donors unseen for a new national political figure since Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign.
Senator Kamala Harris is the first major black female candidate for president in decades and during last month’s debate landed the campaign’s most effective punch so far against former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the leading vessel of the Democratic Party’s centrist wing.
But in a primary with 24 candidates all branding themselves as progressive, Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Harris are squeezed between Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on the left and Mr. Biden in the middle.
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And while the two have firmly ensconced themselves in the first tier of Democratic candidates and have drawn crowds that dwarf most of the competition, they have received a chilly reception from the party’s most committed liberal activists, who question their ideological cores and fear both are insufficiently committed to widespread change.
Dozens of interviews with those gathered at weekend events in Iowa and at the Netroots Nation conference in Philadelphia revealed a landscape of plugged-in advocates deeply skeptical of both candidates’ opaque policy prescriptions and affiliations, even though both drew large and supportive audiences at their appearances.
“In comparison to Trump, everyone looks fantastic,” said Laura Packard, a health care activist from Denver. “But we need someone who progressives are fired up for. Not just who we’re going to vote for, but donate for and knock doors for. That’s how we’ll win.”
Lisa Ross, a forklift factory worker from Grinnell, Iowa, said she thought Democrats who don’t adopt Mr. Sanders’s view on economic and health care policy would not be able to win over the most committed liberals.
“They all claim to be progressive,” Ms. Ross said in Cedar Rapids on Sunday while waiting in line to meet another candidate, Marianne Williamson. “Buttigieg and Kamala, I just feel that they’re going to be corporatists.”
Ms. Warren was the undeniable darling of the Netroots Nation conference on Saturday. The Massachusetts senator was greeted with chants of “War-ren! War-ren! War-ren!” and “We love you, Liz!”
The only leading candidate to speak at the gathering of liberal activists, Ms. Warren received the day’s most sustained applause after proclaiming her administration would investigate immigration officers for mistreatment of migrants.
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Mr. Buttigieg, who rocketed to the campaign’s top tier via an always-available strategy and robust fund-raising, pitches himself as an unconventional choice who would represent a break from what Democrats offered voters in 2016.
“The riskiest thing we could do is to try too hard to play it safe,” Mr. Buttigieg told a crowd of Democrats at a Waterloo union hall on Saturday. “Normal doesn’t work. If we’re selling back to normal, we could lose again.”
But for Mr. Buttigieg the difference emanates from his biography — a 37-year-old gay military veteran mayor of South Bend, Ind. — more than from what he says he’d do as president.
Natalia Salgado, the political director of the Center for Popular Democracy Action, a liberal organizing group based in New York, said candidates putting an emphasis on biography and personality won’t deliver a mandate for widespread change.
“Charisma will get you so far, it’s important, obviously, that’s the sort of thing that can get you to float above the rest, but what is the thing that brings it home?” Ms. Salgado said. “Ultimately a movement cannot be built on something as fragile as another human being.”
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As Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders spent the weekend escalating their mutually beneficial fight over whose health care plan is superior, Mr. Buttigieg refused to say where his health care proposal, which he calls “Medicare for all who want it,” fell on the party’s spectrum.
“I’ll let others decide where to put my dot,” he said, standing beneath a gazebo in downtown Waterloo. “Naturally, I believe my approach is the best one, but it makes sense for there to be a whole range of ways to deal with this.” Asked if he is a progressive, Mr. Buttigieg responded: “Yes, I consider myself a progressive.”
A poll released Sunday from The Wall Street Journal and NBC News found that since February, the number of Democratic primary voters who would prefer a candidate with the best chance of beating President Trump over one who matches their views on the issues had increased to 45 percent from 40 percent, a possible boon to candidates like Ms. Harris and Mr. Buttigieg. Still, 51 percent said they’d prefer a candidate who agreed with them on policy.
At the Netroots conference, attendees said Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Harris remained undefined on the issues.
“Kamala and Buttigieg are on the right side of the fight, but there’s not something you can hang your hat on yet,” said Daniel McCool, a Baruch College lecturer who runs a liberal Facebook group, Blue Revolution, with nearly 40,000 members. “Hopefully after more debates that will change.”
Ms. Harris, who drew large crowds to her campaign events this weekend in New Hampshire, has yet to win over skeptics wary of her early career as San Francisco’s district attorney and California’s attorney general.
She has also irritated advocates for a single-payer health care system by making conflicting comments about whether her plan would eliminate private health insurance.
“I think to walk that fence and try to have it both ways is a cowardly way to go,” said Robin Stone, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Delaware County, Iowa. “I’d rather have you be for something or against it.”
Edward Fischman, a Democratic activist from Maryland who is supporting Mr. Sanders, said in an interview at Netroots that Ms. Harris’s political ideology was particularly hard to understand, though he felt she performed well in the Democratic debates.
“Harris says one thing in big events and backtracks in smaller ones,” he said. “Buttigieg tries very hard not to say anything at all.”
At events across eastern Iowa this weekend, Mr. Buttigieg found himself facing voters pressing him to adopt more-liberal proposals.
Stefanie Mezigian, a disability rights activist from Livonia, Mich., traveled to Iowa to spend the weekend pushing Mr. Buttigieg and other Democratic candidates to back a single-payer health care plan.
“It is the most important issue for me,” Ms. Mezigian said after an animated conversation with Mr. Buttigieg in Waterloo. “I will only support someone who supports Medicare for all.”
He has tried to address the issue, and last week he released a “Douglass Plan” to address racial inequality. Still, black and Hispanic leaders say his campaign has been slow to engage.
“I’m hoping that we get this time on the calendar,” said Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, who said he’s met with every leading Democratic candidate except Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. Biden. “He struggled to diversify his police department, so what is the path to some of these much larger goals?”
Markos Moulitsas, founder of the liberal website Daily Kos, said Mr. Buttigieg’s failure to recruit black police officers — in a community where African-Americans are about a quarter of the population — bodes poorly for how he’d govern as president.
“So you couldn’t get it done as mayor, but you’re going to as president?” Mr. Moulitsas said. “That to me is a little bit offensive.”
The issue followed Mr. Buttigieg to Waterloo. Mayor Quentin Hart, the city’s first black mayor, told Mr. Buttigieg his community was the first in Iowa to require police officers to wear body cameras.
“How’s recruiting?” asked Mr. Buttigieg. “I find it hard to just get people to apply, diverse people, really any, it’s just tough.”
This weekend in Iowa, Mr. Buttigieg was in the most demand at three events where he appeared with a group of second- and third-tier contenders. Laura Hubka, the Howard County Democratic chairwoman, said more than 120 of the Waterloo cattle call’s 300 tickets sold the day she announced Mr. Buttigieg would attend.
“It’s America, right, so they say they like the plans,” Ms. Hubka said. “But then they say, ‘Oh, look at this shiny object over here, wouldn’t it be nice to have this guy?’”
In Cedar Rapids, where a crowd of 1,500 gathered in 90-degree heat on Sunday at the annual Progress Iowa Corn Feed, Mr. Buttigieg was the only speaker to receive a standing ovation. He was alone among the 10 candidates at the event to attract supporters wearing homemade merchandise, a surefire signal of grass-roots enthusiasm.
Yet activists like Mike Carberry, a former Johnson County supervisor who is the director of a local environmental policy firm, said that to him neither Mr. Buttigieg nor Ms. Harris qualified as progressive.
“I’m a proud liberal Democrat and the word progressive has completely lost its meaning,” he said. “They can’t all be progressive.”