CARROLL, Iowa — Pete Buttigieg took the stage at a CNN presidential town hall last March in his first major appearance as a relatively unknown candidate, the openly gay mayor of a small Midwestern city. Host Jake Tapper began with a pressing question: was his name pronounced Boot-edge-edge or Buddha-judge?
“Either way gets you there,” he told Tapper.
Buttigieg is now far past that phase of his campaign. The former mayor of South Bend, Ind., earned rave reviews for that town hall performance, which helped propel him to become a surprising contender for the Democratic nomination, polling among the four candidates bunched at the top in Iowa and New Hampshire. Few people in the early voting states stumble over his name anymore.
But, in a way, Buttigieg’s have-it-both-ways answer to that first question was telling. Over the past 10 months, he has evolved from a wunderkind on whom many pinned their progressive dreams to a more traditional moderate, presenting his ideas in a way designed to attract conservative and middle-of-the road voters. Yet, he leaves the door open for those who want someone with a more liberal agenda but worry such a candidate can’t beat President Trump.
“We can’t listen to the voices that are telling us we’ve got to choose between listening to our head and listening to our hearts,” he told a room of about 300 people in Carroll on Saturday night. “That we’ve got to choose between unity and boldness. That we’ve got to choose between winning and governing.”
Buttigieg seemed to be emphasizing what he said about his name back in March — “Either way gets you there."
His moderation is appealing to older and more conservative voters in Iowa, where Buttigieg has been making frequent stops in such communities as Carroll in the western, more Republican, part of the state.
But his move toward the middle has angered many young progressives, some of whom have taken to protesting at his events and demanding refunds on their campaign contributions because of outrage over his ritzy fund-raisers. Last month, #RefundPete was trending on Twitter.
Because of the perception that he has become more moderate, Buttigieg has lost the support of some older progressives as well. They accuse him of opportunism, of trying to seize an opening for a moderate alternative to Joe Biden when the former vice president’s campaign appeared to be faltering.
“Early on, he sounded very progressive but as I was working with him, he became more and more incremental,” said Linda Butler, 68, a retired pastor who said she volunteered for Buttigieg in the past. She canvassed last weekend for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in Cedar Rapids.
“He wants the same things that Bernie does. He does. But the way he wants to do them — incrementally ‘and take your time,’ I don’t have time. I want it now. We don’t have time,” she said.
The Iowa caucuses next Monday are crucial for Buttigieg. He jumped to the polling lead there in the fall but has slipped in recent weeks. Real Clear Politics’ average of the latest polls shows him third behind Sanders and Biden. If Buttigieg does not perform well here or in New Hampshire, where polls show him second, his path forward becomes much more difficult. He continues to struggle with voters of color and is polling a distant fifth in South Carolina, the fourth early voting state and a place where the majority of Democrats are Black.
In Iowa, Buttigieg has held town halls in places like Orange City, where last year a religious activist was fined for burning the library’s LGBTQ children’s books. He also appeared Sunday on a Fox News town hall in Des Moines, a move his campaign explained in an e-mail to supporters by saying “we can’t afford to write off voters.”
On Saturday evening, Buttigieg spoke in a hotel ballroom in Carroll, which is in a county that voted narrowly for Obama in 2008 but two-to-one for Trump in 2016. His campaign said that Buttigieg has visited 23 of the 31 counties in the state.
“Let’s put it this way,” said Martin Snyder, 60, a corn and soybean farmer from just north in Breda, who came to the Buttigieg event. “This is more Democrats than I’ve seen in a long time in one place.”
People in Carroll said Buttigieg would need to appeal to a more socially conservative crowd to win votes here. A local pastor asked about his faith, because she said she is tired of “being portrayed as if I’m a Democrat I must be anti-Christ.”
The room clapped when Buttigieg said, “I belong to a faith tradition that says an awful lot about the Christian obligation to look out for the marginalized.”
Many people who attend Buttigieg’s town halls say they are still undecided. Some say they like Sanders, a far more progressive candidate, but they think that Buttigieg is a safer choice because he could draw what he calls “future former Republicans.”
“Who is the Republican Party willing to work with is what I keep thinking,” said Leila Masinovic, 19, of Waterloo, at a recent Buttigieg stop in Cedar Falls.
Buttigieg is careful not to shame those who might have never caucused for a Democrat. “Perhaps there are some [Republicans] with us," he said in Carroll. “And you are more than welcome to join this movement because we’ve all got to get this done together.”
Buttigieg campaign officials say that while some voters see him as a practical choice, others are genuinely excited about his candidacy.
At the CNN town hall last March, Buttigieg touted his idea for “Medicare for all who want it,” a more incremental version of the government-backed universal health care supported by liberals Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren and a scaled-back position of his own views in the past.
He also described his age (he just turned 38) as an advantage, reminding the young audience in Austin, Texas, that he belongs to the generation that witnessed the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, sent soldiers like him to the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the one that will suffer the most from climate change.
But even back then, he threaded the needle carefully. “That is not just a concern for our generation, it’s a concern that calls on us to build an alliance among generations to try to make sure that the future really is better than the past and you don’t get that by promising to turn back the clock,” he said.
Despite being the youngest candidate in the race, Buttigieg does not poll well with young voters. Only 0.6 percent of voters age 18 to 29 said they would vote for him, according to the most recent national poll, conducted by Emerson College polling. Conversely, among voters ages 50 to 64, nearly 12 percent said they would vote for him.
That dynamic was at play at a party in downtown Dubuque, where Buttigieg supporters gathered to watch the Jan. 14 Democratic debate. Tom Hanna, 72, said he backs Buttigieg because he seems smart and well-spoken and offers a shot at unifying the country.
"I firmly believe that intelligence has been decaying in our country and Pete is bringing it back," Hanna said.
But sitting next to him, Hanna’s daughter, Hillary, 28, was less enthusiastic. She would caucus for Sanders but doesn’t want to be let down like in 2016, she said. For her, Buttigieg seems like a more practical choice, if an uninspiring one.
“He’s like that nice after-dinner drink. I can’t have too much but I need something,” she said.