SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Pete Buttigieg, the young Midwestern mayor whose presidential bid has been an unlikely early focus of attention from Democratic voters and donors, kicked off his campaign on Sunday and proclaimed his hometown’s revival was the answer to skeptics who ask how he has the “audacity” to see himself in the White House.
At a rally inside a partly rebuilt factory, once owned by the automaker Studebaker and now being turned into glass-sheathed offices for tech and other businesses, Mr. Buttigieg said, “I ran for mayor in 2011 knowing nothing like Studebaker would ever come back, but that we would, our city would, if we had the courage to reimagine our future.”
Mr. Buttigieg, a 37-year-old Rhodes Scholar and veteran of the war in Afghanistan, would represent a series of historic firsts if elected: the youngest president ever and the first who is openly gay.
Though he is a political progressive, Mr. Buttigieg’s main message is that he represents the claim to leadership of millennial Americans, those who will be on “the business end” of climate change and left to clean up messes that current leaders have made of health care, immigration and exorbitantly priced education.
Mr. Pence, a former Indiana governor who has worked with Mr. Buttigieg, responded in an interview that aired Friday on CNN, “I hope that Pete will offer more to the American people than attacks on my Christian faith.”
Mr. Buttigieg has presented an unconventional public profile.
Videos showcasing his assorted talents have been online hits, including him speaking in Norwegian and playing piano with the singer Ben Folds and the South Bend Symphony. His husband, Chasten Buttigieg, has regular social media posts that present the couple as the face of a new and rising American generation. By some measures, his candidacy has generated more social media interest than any other 2020 Democratic hopeful.
Once considered the longest of long shots, he has seen a surge in fund-raising and in polls. His campaign reported raising $7 million in the first quarter of the year, a more than respectable figure. Last week, polls of Iowa and New Hampshire showed Mr. Buttigieg trailing only Bernie Sanders and Joseph R. Biden, Jr., and ahead of better-known candidates including Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke.
As he ascends from flavor-of-the-month to widely visible contender for the Democratic nomination, Mr. Buttigieg’s record as a two-term mayor is beginning to come under scrutiny. Apart from his biography — he has credentials from Harvard, Oxford and McKinsey consulting — Mr. Buttigieg’s candidacy rests on his claim of reversing economic free-fall in South Bend, once an industrial powerhouse that in 2011 was named by Newsweek one of America’s top 10 “dying cities.”
Today, businesses and pedestrians have returned to parts of downtown, including the new offices in the former Studebaker factory.
Not everyone has benefited from the city’s post-recession growth. Some black and Hispanic residents, who comprise 40 percent of the population, feel left out.
“It’s hard for me to say this is a turnaround city,” said Regina Williams-Preston, who is running in municipal elections to replace Mr. Buttigieg.
“We’re all excited about what’s happening downtown — the black community, poor folks, Hispanic people,” she said. But prosperity has not flowed equally. “Over half the people in our community who are working — it’s their dollars that you’re investing — are not feeling a return on their investment.”