As Pete Buttigieg addressed supporters off a back porch in Marshalltown, Iowa, the Devil was whispering his name. “Pete,” the Devil hissed into a microphone. “You’re sooo smart, Pete.”
Buttigieg ignored the heckler, plowing forward with his stump speech about American decency as his husband Chasten looked on. “Pete,” the Devil whispered. “I want the heartland, Pete.”
The man in the devil costume was Randall Terry, an antiabortion activist. He had traveled to Iowa to torment the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., the early breakout star of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. “There’s never been a poster boy for homosexuals” before, Terry says. “There’s never been a homosexual that you’d go, ‘Wow, I’d be proud of him.’ He’s the guy. That’s why he’s such a threat.”
Four years after the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed his right to marry, Buttigieg has become the first openly gay person to make a serious bid for the presidency. And Terry is hardly the only right-winger worried about the rise of “Mayor Pete.” Buttigieg’s saying that “God doesn’t have a political party” prompted evangelical leader Franklin Graham to tweet that being gay is “something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized.” Concerned by the campaign’s rise, right-wing provocateur Jacob Wohl was recently caught trying to fabricate sexual-assault allegations against Buttigieg to slow him down.
But to some Americans, Buttigieg may just be the man to vanquish America’s demons. In a field of more than 20 candidates—including six Senators, four Congressmen, two governors and a former Vice President—Buttigieg (pronounced Boot-edge-edge) has vaulted from near total obscurity toward the front of the Democratic pack, running ahead of or even with more established candidates and behind only Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
Buttigieg is a gay Episcopalian veteran in a party torn between identity politics and heartland appeals. He’s also a fresh face in a year when millennials are poised to become the largest eligible voting bloc. Many Democrats are hungry for generational change, and the two front runners are more than twice his age.
But Buttigieg’s greatest political asset may be his ear for languages. He speaks eight, including Norwegian and Arabic, but he’s particularly fluent in the dialect of the neglected industrial Midwest. Buttigieg is a master of redefinition, a translator for a party that has found it increasingly difficult to speak to the voters who elected President Donald Trump. The son of an English professor and a scholar of linguistics, he roots his campaign in an effort to reframe progressive ideas in conservative language. “If the substance of your ideas is progressive but there’s mistrust about them among conservatives, you have three choices,” Buttigieg tells TIME, sitting on his living-room couch in South Bend. “One is to just change your ideas and make them more conservative. The second is to sort of be sneaky and try to make it seem like your ideas are more conservative than they are. And the third, the approach that I favor, is to stick to your ideas, but explain why conservatives shouldn’t be afraid of them.”
His platform is “Freedom, Security and Democracy,” which wouldn’t sound out of place coming from a Bush-era Republican yet actually harks back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But in order to maintain his momentum, Buttigieg will have to do more to flesh out those ideas. Unlike many of his opponents, he hasn’t posted any detailed policy proposals on his website. He’ll also have to convince Democratic voters that his experience running South Bend (pop. 102,245) is adequate preparation for running the world’s most powerful country. And he’ll have to make inroads with black and Hispanic voters who have so far appeared unimpressed with his campaign.