ELKADER, Iowa — As Joe Biden’s bus cruised through the rolling hills and farmland of northeastern Iowa, what seemed like a friendly crowd waited inside a reception hall. It was an older, Democratic audience, and many in this rural area that swung from Barack Obama to Donald Trump said they were looking for a more moderate voice to lead the party in 2020.

Yet a significant swath had someone else in mind: Pete Buttigieg.

“We have to attract some of the independents and maybe a few Republican voters,” said Darryl Syverson, 72, echoing one of Biden’s themes. But, he added, “I also think we might need a younger generation.”

A short time later, Biden arrived and was introduced by John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, who hailed Biden’s experience. He recounted how they had served together 24 years in the Senate and have been friends even longer.

The contrast between the 77-year-old Biden’s credentials and the youth of Buttigieg, 37, has become a fault line for Iowans who prefer centrist options and are considering who can win back key states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin in the general election.

Rarely has there been such a gap in the defining features of two competitors vying for a similar slice of the electorate. Both argue they can reach moderate voters. But Biden could become the oldest president ever elected, and Buttigieg the youngest.

Interviews with almost 40 voters and party officials here consistently broke down among those who felt comfort with Biden’s familiarity and others seeking a fresher option.

Syverson was considering Biden but leaning toward Buttigieg. The South Bend., Ind. mayor has emerged as the Democrats’ new front-runner in Iowa, which on Feb. 3 hosts the first nominating contest. Biden, once in first place there, has fallen into a three-way scrap for second.

“The reason why people have gone primarily to Buttigieg, honestly, away from Biden, is that Buttigieg is new and kind of inspiring in a way, whereas Biden, people already know what he is,” said Brian Bruening, Democratic chairman in Clayton County.

Experience vs. excitement

Bruening and other party leaders and voters described how Buttigieg has dazzled Democrats with his eloquence and organization, peeling supporters from Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Iowa leader until recently.

"There’s a fair amount of people who are supporting Buttigieg who are afraid of having another John Kerry-type candidate, the elder statesman sort of person who doesn’t inspire anybody and there’s no turnout,” said Bruening, who, like all county chairs interviewed, said he has not chosen a candidate.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks with Marjorie Costigan, of Elkader, Iowa, during his "No Malarkey" bus tour at Johnson's Reception Hall in Elkader, Iowa, on Dec. 6.
JESSICA REILLY / AP
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks with Marjorie Costigan, of Elkader, Iowa, during his "No Malarkey" bus tour at Johnson's Reception Hall in Elkader, Iowa, on Dec. 6.

Two days later, Kerry endorsed Biden and joined him on the former vice president’s “No Malarkey!” bus tour. In Elkader, the former secretary of state told about 200 listeners: "There has never been a moment when it’s more important to have a president who comes to the table with experience,” especially on global leadership.

Biden spoke in grave tones and recounted achievements that go back years. “People say, ‘You’ve been around a long time, Joe.’ That’s why I’m running, because I’ve been around a long time," he said to chuckles. “No, not a joke.”

“I’ve known every major world leader personally in the last 40 years, and they know me,” he added.

As Biden spoke, Kerry stifled several yawns and glanced at his fingernails.

‘What does he actually believe?’

Throughout Iowa over the weekend, Democrats frequently said they were prioritizing a candidate who could win swing voters.

Some genuinely favor moderate policies, while others who called themselves liberal said a centrist is more likely to win.

Robin Cecil caucused for liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016, but is now “100% for Pete.” Cecil, 54, of Cedar Rapids, said she feared that big liberal plans will “turn a lot of people off, and we can’t risk it right now.”

In Buttigieg, she saw “a fresh, new voice.” Biden? “I’ll vote for him if I have to.”

Pete Buttigieg speaks during a campaign stop at the Danceland Ballroom Davenport, Iowa, on Saturday.
Meg McLaughlin / The Dispatch - The Rock Island Argus
Pete Buttigieg speaks during a campaign stop at the Danceland Ballroom Davenport, Iowa, on Saturday.

Other Democrats countered it would be too much for Buttigieg to leap from a city of 100,000 to leader of the free world, and echoed Biden’s new ad touting his global stature.

“He’s a statesman. He’s somebody that can get us back on the world stage and lead by example,” said Dave Schneider, 54, of Marquette, who was undecided.

Buttigieg also faces questions about whether he has the substance to back up his sparkling speeches, said Nathan Thompson, the Democratic chairman in Winneshiek County.

“You know what you’re getting with Joe Biden, and people know that he’s not an eloquent speaker, but they trust that he’s going to do a decent job,” Thompson said. "Younger people are actually put off by [Buttigieg]. I think people see him as kind of fake, or just sort of a striver, so I think there’s some questions. What does he actually believe?”

‘We haven’t seen much of him’

Thompson and other county officials, however, praised how Buttigieg has showered attention on Iowa personally, and rated his ground operation one of the best. Staffing is critical in a state of vast open spaces and long-distance drives.

Several Democrats said they began supporting Buttigieg after he shined at a town hall months ago in Elkader, which Biden visited Friday.

“I feel like [Biden’s] campaign is just now getting started,” said Karen Pratte, the Democratic chair in nearby Allamakee County. “We haven’t seen much of him.”

Obstacles ahead

Buttigieg’s move to the front in Iowa has coincided with a slide for Warren after he and others attacked her Medicare for All stance as politically toxic.

“I’m afraid that’s not going to be a popular issue for the majority of the country,” said Elaine Hughes, 73. She was planning to support Warren, and still likes the senator, but is looking again at others.

Buttigieg has overtaken Warren, with 25% of likely Iowa caucus-goers naming him their top choice in mid-November, up from 9% in September, according to a survey by preeminent Iowa pollster Ann Selzer. Biden’s first-choice support, meanwhile, was down to 15% from 32% last December, continuing a decline in every poll Selzer has conducted.

Buttigieg’s rise was reflected at his rally Saturday at Cornell College, near Cedar Rapids. Gone were the “Boot-Edge-Edge” placards showing how to pronounce his surname. Now, the blue and gold signs just said “Pete.”

Some of the roughly 1,000 there compared his composed speaking style, and their excitement, to Obama, even though Biden has claimed the former president’s legacy.

“I would be happy as a clam if it ends up being Biden. I’m more excited about Mayor Pete,” said Joe Coffey, 48. “It kind of reminds me a bit of Obama in some ways. There is a bit of hope.”

Inside, Buttigieg argued that every Democrat to win the presidency in recent decades has been someone new “who was calling the nation to its highest values, and was not seen as a creature of Washington. And someone who represented a new generation of leadership.”

Pete Buttigieg's climb in the Iowa polls began in mid-September.
Meg McLaughlin / The Dispatch - The Rock Island Argus
Pete Buttigieg's climb in the Iowa polls began in mid-September.

The comparisons to Obama, however, only go so far, because Buttigieg barely registers with black voters. That means he and Biden have very different routes to the nomination, and different stakes in Iowa.

Buttigieg is counting on strong showings in largely white Iowa and New Hampshire, the first states to vote. But unless he can expand his appeal, his momentum could hit a wall in South Carolina and other southern states with large African American electorates.

For Biden, black voters are the backbone of his support. If he can merely stay competitive in the first two states, his campaign believes, South Carolina can catapult him.

And the two also must contend with the more liberal Sanders (who has rebounded) and Warren, whose rise and fall shows how fluid the race remains.

As did Warren, Buttigieg now faces increased scrutiny.

Liberal critics have zeroed in on his time working for the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and have questioned the sources of his vast campaign funding.

“I still think he’s too vague,” said Buzz Pounds, the chairman in Iowa’s Delaware County who supported Sanders in 2016 but is neutral this year. “Buttigieg’s critiques of the left positions are a little too much like Republican talking points.”