Democrat Buttigieg looks to Trump counties in New Hampshire as key to victory

CLAREMONT, N.H. (Reuters) - Pete Buttigieg began making his final case in New Hampshire over the weekend for why he is better placed to win over voters who backed President Donald Trump in 2016 than his top rivals for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

FILE PHOTO: Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at a campaign town hall meeting in North Conway, New Hampshire, U.S., January 3, 2020. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Sitting at or near the top in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire and backed by a big campaign war chest, the former Midwestern mayor is betting his moderate politics will lure disaffected voters in counties Trump flipped and propel him to victory in the pivotal early primary states.

Buttigieg’s latest four-day swing marked his 15th trip to New Hampshire, where he has racked up more campaign stops than other front-runners vying to challenge Trump in November, according to event tracking websites.

He is counting on a strong finish in next month’s voting in Iowa and New Hampshire – two states with large white and rural populations – to boost his support in more diverse states like South Carolina and Nevada and beyond.

The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has focused more than his chief rivals on historically Republican counties and those that Trump flipped from Democratic support in the 2016 election.

The strategy has won him what appears to be the first countywide endorsement from a Democratic Party county chairman in New Hampshire for the 2020 White House race.

Carroll County Chairman Knute Ogren told Reuters on Sunday he was formally backing Buttigieg due to his moderate politics, military background and deep religious views. Ogren said no other candidate has visited Carroll County, which Trump won, more than Buttigieg.

“He’s a practical politician and he’s smart. I believe Democrats have unfairly been viewed as anti-religious and unpatriotic, and Pete shows that’s not true,” Ogren said.

Crisscrossing the state in recent days, Buttigieg was greeted by voters who identified themselves as Republican but said they were supporting his candidacy.

In the struggling manufacturing city of Claremont, Buttigieg noted his prior visit there for a town hall hosted by conservative news network Fox News drew derision from some in his party. President Barack Obama won Claremont by more than 20 percentage points in both 2008 and 2012 before Trump carried it in 2016.

“I will represent you no matter what cable television you watch,” Buttigieg said Saturday at the city’s high school.

Judith Kaufman, chairwoman of the Democratic Party in Sullivan County, which includes Claremont, said too many Democratic candidates were spending time in more affluent towns and cities, ignoring hurting cities like Claremont.

No other candidate has visited the county more than Buttigieg, said Kaufman. She recently sent an email to all the candidates inviting them to speak, noting former Vice President Joe Biden had yet to visit.

“I think he’s making a big mistake not coming here,” she said.

A CBS News/YouGov poll released on Sunday showed Buttigieg in fourth place in New Hampshire, trailing U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, Biden and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren. The poll showed him tied with Sanders and Biden for first place in Iowa.

Buttigieg raised $24.7 million in the final months of 2019, putting him behind only Sanders, who raised $34.5 million.

Sanders sent a fundraising note to his supporters on Saturday, accusing Buttigieg of using “insurance industry talking points” to scare seniors, rural voters and union workers off Sanders’ Medicare for All plan that would eliminate private insurance. Buttigieg calls for a more robust public option but preserving private insurance.

“Most Americans, including most Democrats, favor a plan like mine, and I don’t think they are wrong,” Buttigieg said in response to a reporter’s question about the criticism.

Claremont resident Ray Gagnon, 71, attended one of Buttigieg’s weekend events but said he had not yet committed to the candidate.

“The truth is this was once a union, Democrat town, and not every Democratic candidate can take it back. Can Pete? I think he offers one of the best chances,” Gagnon said.

Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Tom Brown