Buttigieg expanding early state efforts as he gains ground in White House bid

(This November 4 story corrects Nevada staff totals in paragraph 12. U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren has at least 50 staff and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders has at least 70 staff.)

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Democratic presidential contender Pete Buttigieg is poised to tap into his deep financial resources to boost operations in several early-voting states in coming weeks, joining other top-tier candidates in the race to Super Tuesday in March.

The planned hiring and office openings in Nevada, South Carolina and California will put Buttigieg on more equal footing with his top rivals, U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, came into the race as a lesser-known, less-funded candidate seeking the nomination to take on Republican President Donald Trump in November 2020.

His campaign is betting a strong finish in the Iowa caucus on Feb. 3 will help quell questions about whether he is ready for the big stage, and persuade reluctant black and Hispanic voters to give him a second look.

Buttigieg, 37, has invested heavily in Iowa from the start. His campaign has more than 100 staffers and 20 offices in the state, among the most of any candidate.

A New York Times/Sienna poll released on Friday shows him surging in Iowa, sitting in third place at 18%, slightly ahead of Biden and slightly behind Warren and Sanders. Nationally, he does not fare nearly as well, averaging around 8% in polls.

“If he wins, or finishes strong in Iowa, you will see the national polls flip on a dime. And he doesn’t need the national polls to raise money,” said Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University Polling Institute.

“He needs to win or outperform in Iowa for these other states to matter,” Murray added.

FILE PHOTO: Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at campaign town hall meeting at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire, U.S., October 25, 2019. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

Buttigieg finished the third quarter with $23.4 million in campaign cash on hand, ranking third behind Warren and Sanders at $25.7 million and $33.7 million, respectively. Biden had $8.9 million, forcing his campaign to abandon a promise to reject support from political action committees.

The South Bend mayor’s campaign now is preparing to pour money into building a more robust multi-state effort.

“We’ve built a competitive, long-term organizing infrastructure to secure the nomination next year,” said Chris Meagher, a spokesman for the campaign.

In Nevada, which holds its caucuses on Feb. 22, the Buttigieg campaign said it is planning to expand its staff of 36 to inch closer to Warren and Sanders, who have at least 50 and 70 staff members, respectively. Biden has 40 staff members in the state, his campaign said.

One key hire for Buttigieg will work on labor outreach in Nevada, where about 14% of workers are union members.

More hires also are planned soon in South Carolina, where a staff totaling about 40 people will be among the highest of any Democratic presidential team there.

Buttigieg so far is receiving almost no support among African Americans, suggesting his bid could tumble as the contest moves to more diverse states after Iowa and New Hampshire, which holds its primary on Feb. 11.

The campaign last month hired Abe Jenkins, a well-known African American organizer, as political director in South Carolina. Two organizers are focused on the state’s black colleges, where younger voters may have fewer reservations about Buttigieg being the first major openly gay Democratic candidate for president.

Buttigieg in September was among the first candidates to hire a state director in California. He has five paid staff, with plans to boost those numbers and open his first offices, according to the campaign.

California moved up its primary voting from June to March 3, giving the large, expensive state a more significant role in the 2020 nominating contest. California is one of 14 states holding nominating contests on so-called Super Tuesday.

Sanders has the largest presence in the state with 22 staff members and five offices. Biden has five staff members, while Warren has a state director but is still hiring additional staff, their campaigns said.

Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Bill Berkrot