FORT DODGE, Iowa — Pete Buttigieg is just a few minutes into his first official campaign stop when a sharp, angry voice interrupts his applause lines.
“Mayor Pete! Mayor Pete!” shouts a middle-aged man, emerging from a corner of a Lions Club here in western Iowa. “You betray your baptism!”
The shouting goes on for a few minutes until the man, who rails against abortion, is removed and the room calms down.
“Coffee after church gets a little rowdy sometimes,” Buttigieg says. He adds that the protester believes he’s acting “in line with the will of the creator. I view it differently.”
Welcome to the big stage.
That the 37-year-old mayor of a modest Indiana city, South Bend, is drawing the attention of protesters and sparring with Vice President Mike Pence speaks to his improbable rise in the early stages of the Democratic presidential primary.
Buttigieg, a Rhodes scholar and Afghan war veteran, has gone from obscurity to the candidate with perhaps the strongest burst of momentum so far, vaulting ahead of many more established figures.
As the gay, millennial mayor visited Iowa this week for his first tour as a declared candidate, he presented himself as a generational change agent focused resolutely on the future, not on a rose-colored past that is never coming back.
“Greatness isn’t going to come from dredging it up out of some impossible ‘again,' ” he told supporters Wednesday morning, drawing a direct contrast with President Donald Trump. “There is no such thing as an honest politics that is based on the word again. The only way that we can cultivate what makes America great is to look to the future, and not be afraid of it.”
Buttigieg spoke from a deck in a supporter’s backyard in Marshalltown, telling the crowd that the event had to move from the living room because interest grew so fast. It was a similar story a day earlier, when he drew an estimated 1,600 people to a Des Moines rally, among the largest the area has seen so far, as Buttigieg built on rising poll numbers, media buzz, and surprisingly strong fund-raising.
That sudden attention also drew anger. After Tuesday’s protest one man shouted “Sodom and Gomorrah!” at the Des Moines rally, and on Wednesday another one came to a quiet Marshalltown street dressed as the devil, intoning taunts over a microphone.
“When you’re in politics at this level," Buttigieg told reporters, “you’re going to see the good, the bad, the ugly — and the peculiar."
His level demeanor and ease impressed a number of Democrats. More than one compared him to Barack Obama or John F. Kennedy. Far from seeing his youth as a liability, they were drawn to it.
“I love his age,” said Teresa Hood, a 62-year-old para-educator from Clare, Iowa. “I want to see young blood in the Democratic Party. I want to see young blood in Washington. I’m quite frankly tired of old white men running the country.”
Deb Kelleher, who attended the same event in Fort Dodge, had the same reaction.
“I liked Bernie Sanders and I like Joe Biden a lot and I heard them speak, but they’re old,” said Kelleher, 67. “I mean they’re older than me. I just want new ideas and somebody with a positive message.”
Even Buttigieg is surprised by his early rally. He said he expected to spend this month “proving that we deserved some place in the conversation.” Instead, as his navy-and-gold campaign signs still aim to teach people how to pronounce his name (“BOOT EDGE EDGE,” they read), he’s also racing to build the kind of campaign staff that can catch up with his surge.
A Monmouth University poll released this week found Buttigieg with 9 percent support among Iowa Democrats, trailing only Biden and Sanders. A St. Anselm College poll in New Hampshire had Buttigieg in similar position there. And he raised $7.1 million in campaign money in the first three months of the year, ranking fourth among Democratic contenders, while spending just $700,000, among the least, according to a New York Times analysis.
Having established a foothold, Buttigieg now faces the task of turning momentum into something more permanent, or joining the ranks of presidential flashes who burned bright for a moment, then faded.
“I’ve never seen somebody go from being an asterisk to being a top-tier candidate so fast,” said Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic consultant and professor at the University of Southern California. “He’s so comfortable with himself in an interview. He is so conversant with the issues.”
Shrum later added, “He’s actually already there with one of the biggest challenges in presidential politics: He has a framework for what he wants to say. Hillary Clinton never had that framework."
Buttigieg’s identity melds with his vision of an evolving country: His husband, Chasten, features prominently in his campaign and joined him Wednesday morning in Iowa. At the same time, he presents himself as a Midwestern technocrat who understands how to sell progressive ideas to the heartland.
“If nothing else, I represent something a little different,” Buttigieg said.
Wearing a blue tie and white shirt with rolled sleeves, he stressed how members of his generation will inherit climate change and economic inequality, arguing that they should therefore be the ones empowered to handle those problems.
Yet his speeches were relatively light on policy, a cause for pause among some Democratic listeners.
Buttigieg attempted to distinguish himself by emphasizing reforms to how the country elects presidents, chooses Supreme Court justices, funds campaigns, and draws congressional districts.
“Our democracy is fraying at the seams. You could argue that the challenge of our times is whether in the 21st century we’re going to be able to tackle the issues before us with the current system that we’ve got,” Buttigieg said.
He has endorsed a popular vote for president, rather than the Electoral College, and changing the makeup of the Supreme Court, so that there would be five Democratic and five Republican justices who would then choose five more, and wants a nonpartisan way of drawing congressional districts. All would be extremely difficult to turn into law, but Buttigieg argued that other policy fixes will also face extraordinary obstacles without such dramatic change.
Republicans have pointed to those plans to argue that Buttigieg is cloaking a radical agenda within his professed Midwestern pragmatism.
“Pete Buttigieg has made it abundantly clear that Iowans and other heartland states should take a back seat to cities like New York and Los Angeles as he supports the abolishment of the Electoral College,” said a Republican National Committee statement.
Having made an early mark, Buttigieg argued that he has gained enough traction to be more than a momentary jolt.
“We’ve gone I think long enough now that you can’t just call this one moment,” he said. “But I’m under no illusion that that’s the same thing as having an organization it takes to win.”
He’ll have to prove he can make the next step.