For months, frustration and resentment have swelled between Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. The bad vibes burst open big time during Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate, a night when each candidate was eager to be rid of the other as quickly as possible.
“Are you — are you trying to say that I'm dumb?” Klobuchar wondered aloud as she interrupted a slashing attack from Buttigieg, who was refusing to let slide the Minnesota senator’s recent inability to identify the president of Mexico. “Or are you mocking me here, Pete?”
Klobuchar then emphasized her electoral success, presenting herself as a “proven winner” who could take on President Donald Trump and contrasting herself with Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who lost badly in his only bid for statewide office.
“If winning a race for Senate in Minnesota translated directly to becoming president,” Buttigieg shot back, “I would have grown up under the presidency of Walter Mondale.”
It was a combative night between the race’s two Midwest moderates, who stood next to each other on the Las Vegas debate stage and spent much of their time in their own one-on-one rancor.
Buttigieg entered with a clear goal, campaign aides told BuzzFeed News. He intended to keep up his criticisms of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (an independent democratic socialist) and land some hits on former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg (a former Republican) while running up the middle as the only true consensus-building Democrat in the race. He did both.
His secondary goal: Neutralizing Klobuchar, who after a surprisingly strong third-place finish in the New Hampshire primary has emerged as a threat to him.
Both appeal to centrists and block the other’s path to advancing in the primary field. But they face a tough stretch of caucuses and primaries, starting this week in Nevada, where voters of color — a demographic neither polls well with — will be a much larger factor than they have been to this point.
“The exchanges with Klobuchar were an opportunity for him to successfully make the case that judgment matters more than DC experience on the big debate stage — and he effectively countered the criticisms that have been levied in the past month: that candidates with DC experience are more qualified to be president,” said one Buttigieg campaign official.
It’s a feud long in the making. Klobuchar said last fall that a woman with Buttigieg’s résumé — being mayor of Indiana’s fourth most-populous city is the extent of his political experience, though he’s also an Afghanistan War veteran — would not have qualified for the early debates. At the last debate, Klobuchar was Buttigieg’s most persistent critic, again framing her Washington experience as a positive and Buttigieg’s dismissiveness toward her as naive.
“But what you said, Pete, as you were campaigning through Iowa, as three of us [senators running for president] were jurors in that impeachment hearing, you said it was exhausting to watch and that you wanted to turn the channel and watch cartoons,” Klobuchar said at the New Hampshire debate. “It is easy to go after Washington, because that's a popular thing to do. It is much harder ... to lead and much harder to take those difficult positions, because I think this going after every single thing that people do because it's popular to say and makes you look like a cool newcomer, I just — I don't think that's what people want right now. We have a newcomer in the White House, and look where it got us. I think having some experience is a good thing.”
After landing the Mondale line Wednesday — Mondale, for the record, won the Democratic nomination in 1984 though was soundly defeated that November — Buttigieg returned to his critique of Klobuchar’s Washington experience.
“If you're going to run based on your record of voting in Washington, then you have to own those votes, especially when it comes to immigration,” Buttigieg said during an extended exchange on the issue. “You voted to confirm the head of Customs and Border Protection under Trump, who is one of the architects of the family separation policy. You voted to make English the national language. Do you know the message that sends in as multilingual a state as Nevada to immigrants?”
Klobuchar replied wryly: “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete.”
After several interruptions from Buttigieg, she defended her work on immigration issues. “You know what, Pete? If you could let me finish, since I've been in the arena. Ted Kennedy asked me to work on the first immigration bill. We were able with President Bush to at least get that bill to a vote.”
Klobuchar found a momentary ally in her clashes with Buttigieg.
“Can I just defend Senator Klobuchar for a minute?” Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts interjected after the exchange on Mexico’s president. “This is not right. I understand that she forgot a name.”
“Missing a name all by itself does not indicate that you do not understand what's going on,” Warren added. “And I just think this is unfair.”
On a night when most anticipation was focused on Bloomberg’s first appearance on the debate stage, the Buttigieg–Klobuchar confrontations did not escape notice. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews pressed both candidates about them in post-debate interviews.
“He decided he’s going to try to go after me,” replied Klobuchar, who joined Matthews first. “That’s fine. But I wish he would have been accurate when he did it.”
Buttigieg, who appeared later, countered that he was “focused on getting our message out.”
“I just thought it was important,” he said, “for us to debate the Washington record.”