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Capitol Ideas: Buttigieg escapes leader's bull's-eye during debate

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during the U.S. Democratic presidential candidates debate Wednesday at the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta. The debate aired on TV after impeachment hearings. Buttigieg, considered by some polls to be the front-runner in Iowa, was not targeted for criticism by his rivals. The impeachment hearings may have tempered the desire of Democrats to go on the attack during the debate. (Reuters)
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during the U.S. Democratic presidential candidates debate Wednesday at the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta. The debate aired on TV after impeachment hearings. Buttigieg, considered by some polls to be the front-runner in Iowa, was not targeted for criticism by his rivals. The impeachment hearings may have tempered the desire of Democrats to go on the attack during the debate. (Reuters)

Unlike the leaders who preceded him, Pete Buttigieg did not face the firing squad during last week’s presidential debate.

Perhaps that was partly because of the impeachment proceedings and their polarizing effect on Americans.

Whatever the case, Buttigieg’s latest surge in the Democratic presidential primary has made him the front-runner in the race in Iowa, according to several recent polls, including one by the gold standard: Ann Selzer’s Iowa Poll for the Des Moines Register and CNN.

But unlike previous leaders in the race — Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, in particular — Buttigieg did not face hostility from his fellow candidates during last week’s debate in Atlanta.

Biden and Warren, during separate debates, clearly were targeted on some issues by the other candidates. Buttigieg largely escaped such treatment.

There were some thinly veiled references to experience and needing to build coalitions of support that include black voters. Both probably were raised with the intention of highlighting some perceived weaknesses of Buttigieg, but they were done in an understated way. They were nothing like the attacks Biden and Warren faced in previous debates.

Sure, eventually Buttigieg had to confront a foreign policy broadside by Tulsi Gabbard. But that was extremely late in the debate, and it appears unlikely the back-and-forth did anything to damage Buttigieg.

So why, despite taking the lead in Iowa in recent polls, did Buttigieg get out of the debate without a scratch? Why didn’t the other candidates, especially those looking to make a jump in the polls, offer more pointed criticism?

One thought is the impeachment proceedings may have tempered any Democrat’s desire to go on the attack during the debate.

Evidence offered through myriad testimonies during the impeachment proceedings was compelling, but polls have showed the proceedings have done little to change the minds of Americans. In other words, most Americans are dug into their political trenches, and the impeachment hearings that dominated the TV airwaves last week likely only further fanned the flames of political rhetoric and partisan feelings across the country.

Perhaps that’s why most of the Democratic presidential candidates chose to avoid a contentious approach during the debate — which was televised in the evening after a day full of broadcast impeachment hearings. Perhaps those candidates felt with the nation already politically over-caffeinated, that a raucous debate would only turn off potential voters. Perhaps they felt a softer tone was needed in impeachment’s wake.

No matter the reason, it was interesting to see Buttigieg get the debate equivalent of a front-runner’s hall pass.

Harkins to be honored

Tom and Ruth Harkin will be honored at Progress Iowa’s annual Holiday Party.

A new award — the Ruth and Tom Harkin Hero Award — will be established in honor of the longtime Democratic senator from Iowa and his wife. The award will be given annually to “an elected official in Iowa who promotes progressive values,” the group said in a news release.

“We all have the ability to make positive, progressive change, from the county level all the way to the U.S. Senate,” Ruth and Tom Harkin said in a statement provided by Progress Iowa. “We are humbled and honored to receive this award from Progress Iowa and are pleased that it will recognize great work that is too often overlooked.”

Both Harkins will speak at the event, which is scheduled for 6 p.m. Dec. 19 at Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines. Tickets, which are $11, can be purchased online through the Hoyt Sherman Place website or Ticketmaster.

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The event also may feature remarks from representatives of the presidential candidates who qualify for the December presidential debate.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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