Pete Buttigieg has not been central to any of the Democratic presidential debates so far this year. That's likely to change tonight.
Buttigieg — the South Bend mayor who rose from more-or-less nowhere this past spring, slipped back a bit in the summer, and now looks like a front-runner for the Iowa caucuses — is coming into the fifth primary debate amid a resurgence. The top three national polling leaders have been consistent for months: Joe Biden, followed by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Buttigieg is now explicitly arguing that he should be considered right up there with them, in one instance even saying he's now part of a two-person race with Warren.
The debate is also being held in Atlanta, a city with a strong black population, days after another state poll (this one in South Carolina) shows Buttigieg getting 0% support from black voters. If this is going to be a debate where Buttigieg cements his rise, he's got a lot of pressure on him to prove why voters outside Iowa should hear him out.
And for the first time in one of these debates, nine other candidates will have an incentive to focus specifically on keeping Buttigieg down.
It's been obvious for months that some of Buttigieg's competitors don't love the idea that they're being outshone by a 37-year-old mayor of a city with a population of just over 100,000. (Biden and Kamala Harris in particular took issue with Buttigieg's "two-way" race comment.) Buttigieg has been game to go after other candidates in debates so far — he spent a good deal of the last one attacking Warren over her health care policy, particularly on how she'd fund Medicare for All (she now has a proposal for how to do that).
The things to watch for are how other candidates decide to push back against Buttigieg's rise, who'll be the candidate(s) to do it, and how Buttigieg'll respond. In the top group, Biden appears the most likely to try go after Buttigieg, for a few reasons (including Sanders and Warren generally trying to avoid starting intra-party skirmishes with people who are not billionaires or were national officials in the Bush years). Buttigieg is openly gunning for Biden's supporters and his place as the moderate in the primary who can call back to Barack Obama. In the lower tier...it could be basically anyone who feels super frustrated to see the attention and support Buttigieg is getting.
Buttigieg, a complete unknown to voters just a few months ago, is still introducing himself nationally, especially to nonwhite voters. He's still trying to define his brand of moderate and of generational change — and make his case for why he actually has a chance against Donald Trump. He's still trying to prove that a millennial mayor belongs on stage next to senators and a former vice president. On Wednesday, he'll likely be doing so under unusual pressure.
How much these debates have mattered so far might depend on your personal taste in long rows over health care policy. The debates this year, FiveThirtyEight found, have not really had much of an impact on the horse-race polling.
The best debates should at least be interesting. Pete Buttigieg may not be the candidate most likely to win in February or March or November, or the candidate most likely to "win the debate" tonight. But he should at least be the most interesting candidate on stage.