WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) – John McAnear, a 77-year-old Air Force veteran, stood in an audience of hundreds in suburban Des Moines with an oxygen tank at his side, wheezing as he implored Pete Buttigieg to protect the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Democratic presidential hopeful offered a respectful, if perfunctory, “thank you for serving” and skipped any attempt to bond over their mutual military service. Instead, Buttigieg offered a list of proposals to fix the VA.
Of the many ways the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is different from his better-known rivals, there is this: his ingrained emotional restraint in a show-all-tell-all era.
“You don’t really get the warm fuzzies from him,” said Lisa Ann Spilman, a retired Air Force officer who attended Buttigieg’s event. “But I really like how intelligent and down to earth he is.”
As Buttigieg, whose campaign appears better positioned organizationally in Iowa and financially overall than former Vice President Joe Biden’s, attempts to climb into the top tier of Democrats, voters will be taking a measure of him in all ways, including whether he can make the kind of personal connection they have come to expect, at least since Bill Clinton showed he could feel their pain.
Buttigieg chafes at being labeled an emotionless technocrat, and his supporters cite his intellectual agility as his main draw, particularly against someone like President Donald Trump, whose strained relationship with the truth is so frequently on display.
In a candidate debate Tuesday, Buttigieg showed rare outward fire, pointedly challenging Sen. Elizabeth Warren on her health care plan and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke on gun control. “I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal,” Buttigieg said to O’Rourke.
“I don’t mind being a little professorial at times,” Buttigieg acknowledged in a conversation with reporters last month. He added, “Sometimes I think I’m misread because I’m laidback. I’m misread as being bloodless.”
But to describe him as wooden or mechanical gets it wrong. Upbeat in his trademark white shirt with sleeves half-rolled, Buttigieg projects energy and youthful diligence.
He’s not a fiery podium speaker like Sen. Bernie Sanders. He isn’t given to big hugs or open self-reflection, like Biden and Warren.
In interactions with voters, Buttigieg’s style is evolving. During a late summer stop in southeast Iowa, he noted his mother-in-law “is alive because of the Affordable Care Act,” but he moved on without describing her illness or asking if his audience had similar experiences.
It’s notable because Buttigieg is trying to frame his message around empathy in what he calls the nation’s “crisis of belonging.”
And it does not always work. When the question turned to cancer at the Iowa State Fair, he said before discussing his plans, “Cancer took my father earlier this year, so this is personal,” skipping over any elaboration of the pillar Joe Buttigieg was to his only child.
When the questioner noted her family’s loss, he said politely, “I’m sorry. So, we’re in the same boat,” and then turned to a discussion of research.
Buttigieg’s mother, Anne Montgomery, says in boyhood her son was fun, curious, literate and multitalented but “a reserved person.”
“It’s been a part of his life for a long time,” she said in an Associated Press interview.
What Buttigieg suggests is his tendency to “compartmentalize” has been a liability for some other candidates, most notably for the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, Michael Dukakis.
He offered an almost programmatic answer when asked during a nationally televised debate if he would support the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered.
Dukakis, who lost in a landslide, acknowledges today that he “botched it” and that his answer fed the narrative that the pragmatic, policy-oriented Massachusetts governor was emotionless.
Buttigieg, Dukakis told the AP, is warm and thoughtful, “but he also happens to be very, very bright, and that, I think, is the biggest part of his appeal.” Dukakis has endorsed his home state senator, Warren.
“He’s not a typical politician,” said Kelsie Goodman, an associate principal for a Des Moines area high school who first saw Buttigieg at an event last month. “And he’s an intellectual judo master.”
As the campaign progresses, there are signs Buttigieg is becoming more comfortable opening up.
At an outdoor event at Des Moines’ Theodore Roosevelt High School last Saturday, he ignited laughter and cheers for his answer to a question about how he would approach debating Trump.
“We know what he’s going to do, and it just doesn’t get to me. Look, I can deal with bullies. I’m gay and I grew up in Indiana. I’ll be fine,” he deadpanned.
In a rare personal revelation, he told reporters on a bus ride across northern Iowa that he dreads the thought of his husband, Chasten, being subjected to the cruelties of modern politics.
“Another agonizing feeling is to watch that happening to someone you love,” he said. “At least if it’s happening to me, I can go out there and fight back.”
Still, what Buttigieg’s most vocal advocates praise as his coolness so far seems to be doing little to dampen views of him in Iowa, where he has invested heavily in time and money in hopes of a breakthrough finish. In a September CNN/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll, 69% of likely Iowa caucus participants said they viewed Buttigieg favorably, second only to Warren.
Where Buttigieg clearly connects personally is along the rope line with supporters and when the merely curious meet him after he leaves the stage.
In these moments, he has met people who describe their own stories of stepping out of the shadows, as Buttigieg did coming out as a gay man in 2015. Buttigieg regularly mentions Iowa teenager Bridgette Bissell, who described the courage she took from meeting him to announce she was autistic.
Similar moments, Buttigieg says, prompted him to build his campaign around repairing Americans’ sense of connectedness.
In Waterloo recently, local organizer Caitlin Reedy introduced Buttigieg to hundreds at a riverside rally, explaining that she was drawn to him by having experienced the uneasiness of sharing her diagnosis with diabetes.
Leaning forward in his chair on the bus the next day, Buttigieg said the campaign was teaching him how people – feeling left out racially, ethnically, culturally, economically – yearn to connect.
“Where it comes from is going through the process of understanding that you’re different,” he said, “and then understanding that that’s part of what you have to offer.”
“Join me in picturing that kind of presidency,” he told more than 600 in Waterloo, “not for the glorification of the president, but for the unification of the people.”