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Mayor Pete has caught Republicans’ attention

In this April 1, 2013, photo, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, left, speaks to South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg following a Dyngus Day event in South Bend. Democratic presidential candidate Buttigieg blasts Vice President Mike Pence's religious conservatism. But before he decided to run for president, the mayor's tone toward Pence was more muted. The two once had a cordial relationship.

One way to know you’re picking up political traction is when opposing partisans begin to take notice — when you are no longer ignored. That is the prelude to 2 p.m. Palm Sunday when one of the most unlikely presidential campaigns kicks off in South Bend.

That’s when Mayor Pete Buttigieg officially joins some 20 Democrats seeking to take on President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. Buttigieg is now showing up, sometimes in double digits, in state and national polls. In several surveys he trails only septuagenarian front-runners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. He’s been a piping hot commodity on the cable and network talking head circuit.

Last Sunday on NBC's Meet The Press and at the LGBT Victory Fund brunch less than an hour later, Buttigieg got the attention of Republicans. In discussing his sexuality, Buttigieg told the Victory Fund, “It’s hard to face the truth that there were times in my life when, if you had shown me exactly what it was inside me that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife. If you had offered me a pill to make me straight, I would’ve swallowed it before you had time to give me a sip of water."

In retrospect, he said, his marriage to his husband Chasten has moved him closer to God. And it brought him in proximity with the political battle lines involving Pence, a longtime foe of same-sex marriage. “That’s the thing that I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand,” Buttigieg said. “That if you have a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my Creator.”

That has now fully placed "Mayor Pete" on the Republican radar. Pence explained Thursday on CNBC's Squawk Box, "He said some things that are critical of my Christian faith and about me personally, and he knows better. We had a great working relationship. He knows me.” Second Lady Karen Pence weighed in, saying, “Well, it’s kind of funny, because I don’t think the vice president does have a problem with him, but I think it’s helping Pete get some notoriety by saying that about the vice president.”

Indiana Republican Chairman Kyle Hupfer added, "These attacks contradict the relationship he shared with Vice President Pence when Pence was governor of Indiana — and also fly in the face of the positive statements Vice President Pence has made about Buttigieg over the years. Now that Buttigieg is spending more time in Washington, D.C., Iowa and New Hampshire and neglecting his day job in South Bend, it seems that some of his recent statements have become detached from reality. Buttigieg has decided that it’s now more politically expedient for him to drag that relationship through the mud with personal attacks. As Hoosiers, we know that’s wrong.” Hupfer added that it contradicts a long-time Buttigieg call for political "civility."

It's true, when the two were executives in Indiana, they appeared to have a warm working relationship whether it was on economic development projects such as the Studebaker complex, or during the Dyngus Day festivities. During the 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act controversy that essentially ended Pence's 2016 presidential aspirations, Buttigieg was relatively quiet and didn't join the thunderous wave of criticism.

Pence spokeswoman Alyssa Farah added, “The last time we recall Pence even mentioned @PeteButtigieg was in 2015, after news that Pete came out, Pence said: “’I hold Mayor Buttigieg in the highest personal regard. I see him as a dedicated public servant and a patriot.’”

Politics is a game of contrasts, and Buttigieg must compare himself to Trump and Pence. The three are about as different as you can be in politics.

New York Magazine's Andrew Sullivan observes, “Trump would be the oldest president in history at 74; Buttigieg would be the youngest at 39. Trump landed in politics via his money and celebrity after years in the limelight; Buttigieg is the mayor of a midsize midwestern town, unknown until a few weeks ago. Trump is a pathological, malevolent narcissist from New York, breaking all sorts of norms. Buttigieg is a modest, reasonable pragmatist, and a near parody of normality. Trump thrives on a retro heterosexual persona; Buttigieg appears to be a rather conservative, married homosexual. Trump is a coward and draft dodger; Buttigieg served his country. Trump does not read; Buttigieg does. Trump’s genius is demonic demagoguery. Buttigieg’s gig is careful reasoning. Trump is a pagan; Buttigieg is a Christian. Trump vandalizes government; Buttigieg nurtures it.

“To put it simply,” Sullivan adds, “Mayor Pete seems almost designed to expose everything that makes the country tired of Trump.”

The Wall Street Journal's Gerald Seib adds that the “Buttigieg candidacy, in short, is a sign that the political system is at an inflection point, and voters are prepared to think outside the box.”

To which the mayor told Seib, “I’ve bet a lot on that premise.” Seib added, “Put another way, as different as the two men are in most every way, Candidate Buttigieg might not exist without the example of President Trump, who shattered expectations and all the old paradigms in 2016.”

So as Mayor Pete declares his candidacy on Palm Sunday, the battle has already been enjoined.

Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol. The opinions are the writer's.

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Porter County Government Reporter

Senior reporter Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.