Democratic presidential contender Pete Buttigieg enters Wednesday night's primary debate as a candidate on the rise -- but with the attention and surging poll numbers, he can expect plenty of heat from the rest of the field.
He says he's ready.
Once the longest of long-shot hopefuls, he's now firmly in the top tier of candidates, thanks to a recent surge in polling in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states that kick off the nominating calendar.
Mo Elleithee, the founding executive director of Georgetown University's Institute of Politics and Public Service and a Fox News contributor, expects Buttigieg “to be one of the big storylines” coming out of the debate.
“In every single debate so far, the person who came in as the front-runner or with momentum has faced serious incoming,” noted Elleithee, a senior spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign who later served as communications director for the Democratic National Committee.
“In each one of them, the person in the crosshairs stumbled,” he emphasized. “And so the question for Buttigieg is, now that he’s that guy, how does he handle the incoming?”
Veteran Democratic consultant and communications strategist Lynda Tran said Buttigieg “is on the rise, and that means he should anticipate the other candidates on stage this week to set their sights on his campaign.”
The 37-year-old candidate is the youngest in the large field of Democratic White House hopefuls – and Tran spotlighted the “generational contrast” between Buttigieg and the other top-tier contenders, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who are all in their 70’s.
“Look to the upcoming debate to see the top tier of candidates try to turn his youth and fresh take into a vulnerability,” said Tran, who ran communications for the Obama-era grassroots group Organizing for America and was a founding partner of the communications firm 270 Strategies.
The debate also comes as Buttigieg faces increased media attention for his lack of support in polling among black voters, who make up around 20 percent of the Democratic presidential primary electorate.
The debate’s being held in Georgia's largest city and capital – which is home to a large and vibrant African-American community. Elleithee said Buttigieg “has got to begin show soon that he can get some traction with black voters and this is a good opportunity for him to do that.”
“He would do himself a lot of good to come out tonight and find some way to connect with black voters in a real way,” he suggested.
Tran looked to the candidate’s numerous policy proposals, saying that Buttigieg’s “newly minted status at the top of the polls in Iowa also offers an opportunity for the mayor to discuss his expansive ideas about how to govern the nation.”
Buttigieg likely won’t be the only candidate with a mark on his or her back.
“I suspect that Warren’s going to be the other main target of attacks tonight,” Elleithee predicted. “Her Medicare-for-all plan has proven to be a major target. So she’s going to continue to be pushed on it. In the last debate, she was pushed on it. She stumbled. She then came out with details and now those details are going to be fair game.”
Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota were the two candidates who took on Warren over her government-run single-payer health care proposal at last month’s debate.
And Elleithee said “if there’s going to be any real fireworks tonight, I think the thing to look for will be Buttigieg versus Warren on this issue. They have both emerged as sort of the standard-bearers of the two sides of the Medicare-for-all debate, that has sort of become a proxy issue for this bigger discussion about the direction of the Democratic Party. “
But Tran said Warren should be able to take the heat.
“I expect Senator Warren will continue to take swings from others on stage around the costs of her health care proposal — but if the previous debate matchups are any indicator of how she will respond, I don’t see her being ruffled by the attention,” she predicated.
As he has at every debate to date, Biden will also be in the spotlight. Although he’ll likely not face the scrutiny he weathered in the first three debates – when he was the unrivaled front-runner – Elleithee stressed that “Biden’s going to need to have a good night. He’s still in good shape but he’s slipped a bit in the early states. He’s got to stop the slide.”
And Tran noted that “as before, voters will have their eyes on Vice President Joe Biden to see how he manages questions about his experience — the good and the bad — and his reaction to the impeachment hearings currently underway.”
Tran also highlighted that she’s going to “be on the lookout” on whether Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang have breakout moments.
“Both have delivered strong performances in the past rounds of debates, albeit without surging in the polls as a result. But they both bring unique perspectives to the stage and it’s not too late to shift the dynamics heading into Iowa,” she explained.
Elleithee’s got his eye on Sen. Kamala Harris of California, a one-time top tier contender who’s seen her White House bid plummet this autumn.
“She’s got to see if she can claw her way back in,” he said.
And he pointed to Klobuchar, “who keeps having steady debate performances that haven’t translated into significant support in the polls. She’s inched up a little bit. She had a very good debate performance last time. Can she replicate that and this time turn it into some sort of real bump in support.”
Fox News’ Andres del Aguila and Tara Prindiville contributed to this report