By Michael Martina
ALGONA, Iowa (Reuters) - Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is touting his centrist political outsider status in a final push to win over Iowa swing voters, an urgent task as he seeks to pull ahead of rivals in a tight race for the first state nominating contest.
In a rush of campaign events around Iowa this week ahead of its Feb. 3 caucuses, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, positioned himself as a refreshing alternative to other candidates with long records in Washington such as former Vice President and longtime U.S. Senator Joe Biden.
“When folks ask me why is a mayor running for president whose city isn’t even one of the biggest cities in the country, my answer is always: That’s the point. We need more voices like that in Washington right now,” Buttigieg said on Wednesday to loud applause from a crowd of more than 700 people in Cedar Falls.
Peeling away votes from fellow moderate Biden is critical for Buttigieg, who needs a strong showing in Iowa to overcome weaker nationwide support, particularly with black voters.
Biden, 77, has shown renewed strength in recent Iowa opinion polls, while Buttigieg has lost much of the edge he enjoyed late last year. Buttigieg, who turns 38 on Sunday, also has less name recognition than his other top Democratic rivals, U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, who represents Iowa's neighbouring state of Minnesota.
As Buttigieg seeks to pull ahead in the tight race for the nomination to challenge President Donald Trump in November, his strategy includes aggressive outreach to swing voters who backed Trump in 2016 after supporting Democratic President Barack Obama.
The campaign said a new series of digital ads launched on Thursday focussed in part on two-dozen Iowa counties that flipped from voting for Obama to Trump.
Buttigieg has modified a Trump campaign pitch that political elites have ignored the struggling industrial Midwest. Buttigieg touts his record as a two-term mayor from the heartland as evidence he understands its needs.
At a Mason City rally on Wednesday, Allan Kingery, 56, wore a camouflage Trump 2020 hat and said he was leaning towards voting a second time for the president. But Buttigieg, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2014 as part of the Navy Reserve, had caught his attention.
“I liked his views on the United States and patriotism,” said Kingery, who works at an egg processing plant.
'BIG BET ON IOWA'
A senior Buttigieg campaign official told Reuters this month that they were looking to show Trump voters a “better way." Buttigieg has more than 30 campaign offices and about 170 staffers in Iowa. Winning there would make him more competitive in states where he is less well-known.
“We’ve placed a big bet on Iowa," the official said. “There is a lot of enthusiasm for Pete’s candidacy, but at the same time, we’re going up against big name Washington insiders with lots of contacts."
Buttigieg is struggling among black voters, an important Democratic bloc. A national Washington Post-Ipsos poll this month showed him with just 2% support from Democratic black voters nationally, far behind Biden's 48% and Sanders' 20%.
Trump's impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate could offer Buttigieg a chance to get a closer look from Iowa voters while rivals Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar serve as jurors in Washington. It will also allow him to draw another contrast with Biden, whose son's business interests in Ukraine have been scrutinized by Trump and other Republicans.
Larry Hurto, 68, a Sanders supporter from Newton, Iowa, said Buttigieg's message resonated with many voters - including him. Hurto said he would happily vote for Buttigieg if he becomes the Democratic nominee.
"I have heard so many people saying they are sick and tired of business as usual," Hurto said. "Caucus-goers might think that Klobuchar, Biden and the other Washington people are part of the problem and so are looking for someone like Mayor Pete."
(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and David Gregorio)