Jason Nichols: Here's why we should all pay attention to Mayor Pete Buttigieg's campaign

While Democratic candidates scurry for attention in a crowded field, making bold proposals in hopes of capturing the imagination of the large anti-Trump electorate, one seems to have found the fastest trajectory from obscurity to the top tier.

Enter South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg; he is everything that President Trump is not.

While Trump has spent his entire adult life in Manhattan penthouses, Mayor Pete is from a post-industrial city in America’s heartland. Trump is capricious, Buttigieg is even-tempered and intellectual. As a veteran, he knows the cost of war firsthand, and his husband Chasten has charmed the public like a young Michelle Obama.

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He remains a longshot to win, but being a popular Midwestern mayor -- a region Democrats desperately need to reclaim -- he could very well end up on this Democratic ticket as a running mate.

Buttigieg isn’t the perfect candidate, but the entire field can learn important lessons from his ascent.

Many Democratic candidates have been paying attention to the rise of 29-year-old Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The media has been obsessed with her, and her legions of fans defend her from even the slightest critique to the most scathing criticism.

Any politician would long for that kind of loyal support, and important right-wing media personalities troll her, which only adds to her legend. Her toughness and devotion to her values are attractive to Democrats who think the party has not held firmly enough when dealing with right-wing bullies in government and the media.

However, these candidates need to recognize that there can only be one AOC. She skillfully exposes what amounts to AOCDS (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Derangement Syndrome) and swats away criticism with the social media dexterity solely possessed by someone born after cassette tapes were obsolete. Her snarky clapbacks make all of us on the left want to post a field goal emoji. She has bulldogged her way through Congress and the media while simultaneously managing a celebrity profile.

No one in this field has that kind of loyal following, except for Sen. Bernie Sanders, and he has an equal amount of haters within the party.

Mayor Pete, on the other hand, uses the lost art of charm and optimism. Voters want a bold candidate with an uncompromising devotion to justice and equity, but they want her or him to come across as optimistic and positive. Candidates don’t have the luxury of telling people the world is going to end in 12 years. They must tell them how we are going to better our society by making it cleaner, healthier, and safer.  

Mayor Pete successfully evades questions about what our marginal tax rate should be, instead focusing on the larger principle of everyone paying their fair share.

Buttigieg has had a minor and rather tamed public spat with Vice President Mike Pence, a fellow Hoosier. Besides that, Buttigieg has not focused on Trump specifically. He’s yet to earn a nickname from the president. Instead, the country is focusing on how to pronounce his surname (boot-edge-edge).

Thus far, Buttigieg’s mild-mannered approach has worked, as only frontrunners Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Beto O’Rourke have raised more money.

Buttigieg is not squeaky clean. He made errors in an effort to redevelop the predominantly black and Latino north and west sides of South Bend -- mistakes that he admits and tried to fix.

However, if he can convince people that he is a problem-solver and bring back the optimism that Barack Obama tapped into in 2008, he will be formidable. He doesn’t have a morsel of Obama’s once-in-a-generation charisma or movie star good looks, but he has the energy, intellect, and listening skills of the former senator from neighboring Illinois.

The entire Democratic field needs to recognize that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez does not need a twin; she needs a counterpart, a yin to her yang.  

While she and her fellow freshman women in Congress bluntly remind us of the intersection between the moral, ethical, and policy failings of the current administration, whomever the nominee is needs to remind us that there is a brighter future ahead, complete with a fair immigration system, living wages, a clean environment, and an improved health care system.

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The nominee doesn’t need to call out President Trump or dumpster dive into his world of petulant Twitter barbs. Her or his compassion, intellect, and thick skin will do it for him.

Buttigieg, thus far, has taken that road less traveled, without becoming a feckless centrist (yet). Mayor Pete is measured and intentional and that is currently beating audacious attempts to claim headlines. He’s skipped several spaces to near the front of the line. The other candidates should take notice of his apparent strategy.