Carl P. Leubsdorf: Early patterns in race for Democratic nomination

Though the first Democratic debates are nearly two months away, and the first actual contests won't take place for more than nine months, some early patterns are beginning to develop in the party's sprawling, unpredictable presidential race.

Even before declaring his candidacy, which he did via video Thursday morning, former Vice President Joe Biden has maintained his place as the leading establishment candidate, despite a run of negative stories. Sen. Bernie Sanders has solidified his position as the favorite of the party's left wing. And Sen. Kamala Harris gained the support of a key black leader, Bakari Sellers in South Carolina, where she hopes a large minority electorate will make her a major player before the race reaches her home state of California.


Among the others, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, both a bit harder-to-classify ideologically, seem to be competing for the role of leading “new face,” often the path to becoming a potent player in Democratic races. But the two are pursuing vastly different strategies.

Mr. O'Rourke, 46, is seeking to replicate his Texas 2018 Senate campaign in which he visited all 254 counties and came closer than any recent Democratic hopeful to breaking the quarter century Republican stranglehold on statewide offices. In the past month, his campaign says, he visited 63 cities, drove 3,791 miles and took 476 questions at town hall events from potential supporters.


Since his campaign began with a glowing interview in Vanity Fair magazine and a burst of news coverage, he has favored in-person events over cable news interviews and televised town halls.

Mr. Buttigieg, meanwhile, is pursuing the opposite strategy. He is appearing on as many media outlets as possible, Matthew Yglesias wrote in Vox, prompting Politico's Jack Shafer to conclude that, “Like Molly Bloom in his favorite novel, Ulysses, he can't stop saying ‘yes' — to media invitations.” The exposure seems to be helping him. Recent national Morning Consult and Monmouth polls, plus a Gravis poll in Iowa and the Granite State Poll in New Hampshire, all show him jumping into third place, behind the far better-known Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders. He raised $7 million from 76,000 donors in the first three months, less than Mr. Sanders, Ms. Harris and Mr. O'Rourke but impressive for someone whose highest elective office has been mayor of a city of 102,000.

The 37-year-old Mr. Buttigieg's new celebrity was on display last week when he returned to Iowa, where he previously had drawn modest but friendly crowds. This time, more than 1,000 turned out for a Des Moines event that attracted national attention for the gay mayor's succinct put-down of an anti-gay demonstrator.

Some Democrats and analysts are comparing him favorably with Mr. O'Rourke, whose poll standings have plateaued in the single digits, though he did raise $9.4 million from 218,000 donors. Asked by Chuck Todd on MSNBC's “Meet the Press Daily” if Mr. Buttigieg had started to “out-Beto” O'Rourke as the exciting, younger candidate, prominent liberal Democratic leader Markos Moulitsas declared the Texan had “become a complete non-entity” in the race, a judgment Todd challenged by noting “he's got plenty of money” so “be careful there.”

Mr. Buttigieg was asked about his lack of specific policy proposals during a recent CNN Town Hall in New Hampshire, replying that it's more important now for Democrats to express their values than drown voters in “minutiae.” Mr. Buttigieg “has had a remarkable run,” cautioned CNN analyst David Axelrod afterward. “But he's going to have to turn the page now and get to the next act.”

Still, the former Obama adviser noted, the Democratic race has only reached Mile 2 of a 26-mile Marathon. Next year's results will show if Mr. O'Rourke's lower key, long-term approach was wiser than Mr. Buttigieg's higher visibility immediacy.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: