LOS ANGELES — Pete Buttigieg appeared to smother Beto O’Rourke in the early stages of the presidential primary, captivating viral media attention and surging in primary polls just as O’Rourke stalled.
Now comes Round Two, as the two youthful Democrats, in need to regain a step in the primary, began tangling over guns.
The spat — which gained air on cable TV over the weekend and spilled into this week — pits two fresh-faced, telegenic candidates facing a transitional moment in their campaign. Buttigieg, who’s plateaued in national polling, is looking to assemble a campaign in keeping with the staggering $25 million he raised last quarter. O’Rourke, who’s languished in low single-digit support, is trying to recapture his early mojo with a passionate crusade to curb gun violence.
Following a debate last week at which O’Rourke called for mandatory government buy-backs of assault weapons, Buttigieg was asked on CNN if O’Rourke was “playing into the hands of Republicans.”
“Yes,” Buttigieg answered.
“We have agreement among the American people for not just universal background checks, but we have a majority in favor of red flag laws, high capacity magazines, banning the new sale of assault weapons. This is a golden moment to finally do something because we've been arguing about this for as long as I've been alive. When even this president and even Mitch McConnell are at least pretending to be open to reforms. We know that we have a moment on our hands. Let's make the most of it and get these things done.”
“Well, shit,” O’Rourke responded, hours later, tearing into candidates he said are “triangulating, poll-testing, focus-group driving their response,” adding that “Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell pretending to be interested in something that is literally a life-or-death issue … is simply not enough.”
Then, after Trump said this week that he would not consider a universal background checks bill passed by the House, the Texas congressman rubbed it in.
“Exactly,” O’Rourke said, when asked during a campaign stop on Tuesday about Trump’s spurning of Democrats on gun control. “And Pete even admitted that Trump was only pretending, so why would you change your position, or moderate your position to meet someone who’s only pretending half way.”
Asked in South Carolina about O’Rourke’s recent criticisms, Buttigieg said Tuesday he’s “focused on what we can do right now, because I don’t think we can wait.” He also said he “could care less” how Republicans might react to gun control reforms and that he’s “talking not just about politics, but about governing” and “what we can do right now.”
Buttigieg has “consistently” supported background checks on gun sales, an assault weapons ban and red flag laws, said campaign spokesman Chris Meagher.
O’Rourke isn't the only Democrat supportive of mandatory buy-backs. Kamala Harris said on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show on Monday that a buyback program is a “good idea,” and Cory Booker supports such a proposal.
But O’Rourke is pressing the case for buy-backs most forcefully, and the opportunity to draw a contrast with Buttigieg is especially significant to his campaign. O’Rourke and Buttigieg are battling to be the choice of voters seeking a generational change. They are also young, white men who lean less heavily on their resumes than on their biographies and next-generation appeal.
It’s not clear what effect this sparring might have on their polling. A CNN national poll last week found O’Rourke at 5 percent, while a Morning Consult survey on Monday had him at 4 percent, just 1 percentage point behind Buttigieg. But in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday, O’Rourke failed to register above 1 percent, while Buttigieg rose to 7 percent.
But the back-and-forth may ultimately help both candidates as they struggle for oxygen in a primary dominated by the three top-polling candidates.
“Pete’s trying to, and has been all along, positioning himself as a pragmatic progressive. …Beto has become a missionary for a cause, to stop gun violence, which is really admirable [but] the politics of that, and Beto knows this, are more complicated than that,” said David Axelrod, who served as chief strategist for President Barack Obama. “In this fight, it probably serves both their purposes.”
It’s also a reminder that “Beto was going to be the ‘next generation’ candidate, and Pete usurped that space, so it’s not surprising to see this back-and-forth,” Axelrod added.
Watching O’Rourke and Buttigieg’s sparring, one Democratic strategist involved with another presidential campaign scoffed, “Isn’t this like the Spiderman meme, where the two spider men are pointing at each other?”
“They’re just two very similar characters trying to carry a very similar space in this battle,” he added.
O’Rourke’s supporters privately acknowledged their glee in the reemergence of headlines featuring their candidate’s name alongside Buttigieg’s. Many O’Rourke loyalists still grouse about the day this spring when Buttigieg, gently chiding O’Rourke for his habit at the time of standing on chairs and tables, told a crowd in New Hampshire, “I heard the way you ingratiate yourself to voters is to stand on things, so I found this park bench here.”
And they know that slicing into Buttigieg could help O’Rourke’s cause now.
“The reality is that Buttigieg has been thought of in a higher tier or strata than O’Rourke … and there’s usually very little value in punching down,” said Chris Lippincott, a Texas-based consultant who ran a super PAC opposing Sen. Ted Cruz in O’Rourke’s near-miss Senate campaign last year. “[But] O’Rourke has elevated his idea and his campaign with this policy proposal, and that will force other candidates to respond.”
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who's endorsed Buttigieg, said the Indiana mayor is "doing his best to deescalate the confrontation” because “he wants to stay focused on the bigger picture.”
“Ninety-eight percent [of the time] Pete and Beto agree,” Beyer said. “It’s a difference between what’s possible in the near term, the next two years, and what’s possible over 10 years or more.”
It’s also a stylistic contrast “between a mayor, whose main emphasis is on figuring out really specific, concrete things to advance the ball and a legislator, who is speaking in, perhaps, more aspirational terms,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who endorsed Buttigieg over his fellow Texan.
Gun control activists are split on whether mandatory buy-back programs would prove as effective as other reforms like background checks and red flag laws. But a spokesman for Everytown for Gun Safety told Fox News that though “presidential candidates are talking about a number of policies to address gun violence in America,” background checks and a federal red flag laws “need to be the Senate’s first priorities.”
O’Rourke drew newfound attention after the mass shooting at a Walmart in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, including for his mandatory buy-back proposal.
Democratic strategist Mathew Littman, a former Biden speechwriter who works on gun reform issues, said Democrats should “start on the areas that we agree upon” on gun control, including universal background checks and “red-flag” laws.
But Littman, who now backs Kamala Harris in the primary, said O’Rourke is “getting a lot of attention now that he hadn’t been getting previously.”
“He’s staked out a position in the Democratic primary that is a little bit different than everybody else’s,” Littman said, “and he’s benefiting from it.”