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The Pete Buttigieg pile-on revealed: he is no political messiah | Richard Wolffe

There’s nothing like the season of goodwill and holiday cheer to turn a collegial bunch of presidential candidates into a political episode of The Purge. The fire may be delightful but the polls outside look frightful.

And so, six weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the baby-faced savior of intellectual Democrats and Norwegian novelists found himself visited by three wise old senators bearing booby-trapped gifts.

Mayor Pete had it coming in this last Democratic debate of the year. You can’t see your star rising over Iowa – while styling yourself as the second coming of Barack Obama – and expect to be welcomed like the spiritual leader you think you are.

Recent polls suggest that the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, (population: 102,000) has enough of a lead in Iowa (population: 3.2 million) to upset the establishment candidates trying to become president of the United States (population: a bit bigger than both).

This is troubling in many ways. Mostly because the entire dynamic of the Democratic contest is based on the truth universally held that Joe Biden will surely flame out in the early months of the new year.

There are good reasons to think otherwise, and people surely predicted the same about Donald Trump. But to hell with good reasons and goodwill. Christmas is around the corner and the contest for second place is getting cutthroat.

For most of the first hour of the exceptionally long debate on Thursday night, the most dangerous threat to any of the candidates was inducing narcolepsy across an unsuspecting nation. Then Elizabeth Warren – who so often is the bright spark on stage – set the pseudo-populist fire raging by attacking Pious Pete for holding closed-door fundraisers with wine-swilling wealthy types.

“So the mayor just recently had a fundraiser that was held in a wine cave full of crystals and served $900-a-bottle wine. Think about who comes to that,” Warren said, raising a nightmarish vision of a room full of fans of fancy glass. “He had promised that every fundraiser he would do would be open door, but this one was closed door. We made the decision many years ago that rich people in smoke-filled rooms would not pick the next president of the United States.”

It has long been true that the Pete For America campaign has been feistier than Pete. But cometh the hour, cometh the Feisty Buttigieg.

At first, Indiana’s most famous mayor made the case that he needed the big bucks to take on the bigly impeached president. But the wine cave forced him to reconsider a more direct riposte.

“You know, according to Forbes magazine, I am literally the only person on this stage who is not a millionaire or a billionaire,” he zinged. “This is important. This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass.”

At this point Pete’s aides high-fived and unleashed all the emails and social posts they had pre-prepared for this moment. However, the exchange wasn’t half as smart as the mayor thinks he is.

Yes, he can counter-punch. But he turned a political debate about pay-to-play into a personal attack on personal privilege. This is not great territory for the Rhodes scholar from Harvard who worked for McKinsey. It took him a second swipe at Warren to get to the heart of the matter: that her populism may not be entirely authentic.

“I do not sell access to my time,” Warren replied. “I don’t do call time with millionaires and billionaires.”

“Hold on a second. Sorry, as of when, Senator,” asked the mayor. “Your presidential campaign right now as we speak is funded in part by money you transferred, having raised it at those exact same big-ticket fundraisers you now denounce. Did it corrupt you, Senator? Of course not.”

Such are the distortion fields of running for president in the era of Bernie and Donald. Populism has long been recognized as fundamentally fraudulent going back to Plato’s Republic, but that doesn’t stop its success.

Warren’s campaign may have stalled because at heart she isn’t really a Bernie-style populist and can’t make either the math or the rhetoric work. Or it may have stalled because Democrats don’t want their own Trump-style limpet mine.

Which is how we end up examining the character of a candidate whose greatest electoral victory amounted to less than 11,000 votes in the fourth-largest city in mighty Indiana.

Based on his debate performance, the good mayor isn’t quite the political messiah his supporters believe him to be. It took another supposedly nice Midwesterner to peel back Mayor Pete’s layers.

Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator currently languishing in single digits in the Iowa polls, could only stomach so much of the mayor’s anti-Washington posturing. She reached breaking point when he tried to make the case that his position on immigration was based on his professor father’s struggles coming from Malta, rather than “something formed in committee rooms in Washington.”

“While you can dismiss committee hearings, I think this experience works. And I have not denigrated your experience as a local official. I have been one,” Klobuchar said, warming up. “I just think you should respect our experience when you look at how you evaluate someone who can get things done.”

“You actually did denigrate my experience, Senator, and it was before the break, and I was going to let it go, because we got bigger fish to fry here,” said an aggrieved Buttigieg.

“Oh, I don’t think we have bigger fish to fry than picking a president of the United States,” said the Minnesota Viking.

At this point, our cool collected mayor broke the emergency glass and reached for his military service. This apparently makes his commitment to the Constitution greater than anyone’s. “That is my experience,” he said. “And it may not be the same as yours, but it counts, Senator. It counts.”

It counts as a bit desperate, to be honest.

At one point in the Pete pile-ons, some of the candidates – among them Klobuchar – said that the arguments were a distraction that only helped Donald Trump.

They were wrong. The arguments among the second tier only helped Joe Biden, who pretended to turn around and walk off stage during all the talk about wine caves and crystal.

Back in the real world of Trumpian Twitter, Sarah Huckabee – the former “White House press secretary” now supposedly running for Arkansas governor – mocked Biden for helping children overcome stuttering, as he has done.

“I’ve worked my whole life to overcome a stutter,” Biden tweeted. “And it’s my great honor to mentor kids who have experienced the same. It’s called empathy. Look it up.”

Huckabee said that was “commendable” and deleted her tweet. It was only a small exchange, far away from the debate stage: a pinprick in this political cycle. But it said more about the year ahead than any amount of wrestling with South Bend.

This is Biden’s contest to lose and he isn’t yet losing.