SALT LAKE CITY — Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg rallied several thousand Utahns crowded into a downtown event venue, offering praise for Sen. Mitt Romney’s lone GOP vote to remove President Donald Trump and telling them that he’s the candidate who can deliver that verdict.
Buttigieg, wearing a white dress shirt with rolled-up sleeves and standing before a huge American flag on the stage at The Union, invoked faith as a way to take on Trump.
“Doesn’t it make sense dealing with a president who likes to cloak himself in religion — I mean, this president, right — don’t you think he ought to be called to account by a nominee who is not afraid to remind fellow believers that God does not belong to a political party?” Buttigieg asked to a surge of cheers and applause.
He described himself as “a person of faith who also understands that this country and its Constitution belong to people of every religion and of no religion equally.” Buttigieg also cited his military experience as a contrast to the president, who received a draft deferment from serving in the Vietnam War.
“This is our only chance to defeat this president. The Senate was not prepared to do its duty,” Buttigieg said as someone in the audience yelled, “Mitt Romney.” He said he and the senator “disagree on all kinds of things,” but Sen. Mitt Romney “was more concerned with his relationship with his conscience and with his maker” than with the GOP.
“If he was the only one, doesn’t that say more about what’s become of the Republican Party in Washington today?” Buttigieg asked. “Here’s the good news. The Senate may have been the jury then, but the verdict is up to us now and we get the last word. ... That’s why so much depends on us choosing the right Democratic nominee.”
He said his vision for bringing together the country is shared by Democrats, independents and a “striking number of future former Republicans” in a speech that ended with answering questions submitted by the audience, including how to end bigotry and divisiveness.
Replacing Trump in the White House would be a start, Buttigieg said.
For Jean Jensen of Park City, Buttigieg represents “something young and new and fresh,” just as John F. Kennedy did in 1960, the first time she and her husband, Jim, voted. “Even though we’re old,” Jim Jensen added. “I don’t know what it is, but there is the feeling there.”
Jeff Case of Pleasant Grove said what he liked about Buttigieg was his pragmatism.
“He makes a lot of sense” and will appeal to Utahns, Case said. “I think there is a lot of fear for the (Vermont Sen.) Bernie Sanders side that’s very progressive and very left-leaning fiscally. I think people will be very excited here to have someone like him. ... I think Utahns are very pragmatic and they want a very pragmatic candidate.”
While Sanders easily beat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Utah’s 2016 Democratic caucus vote in 2016, University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said the state’s decision to switch back to a presidential primary election may make the race more competitive this year.
That should help a candidate like Buttigieg, Burbank said, who made a quick stop in Utah on his way from Nevada, which holds its presidential caucus on Saturday, to make a pitch to a broader and likely more moderate base of Democrats than voted in 2016.
“This ought to be a state where he should be a relatively appealing candidate,” Burbank said of Buttigieg.
Buttigieg told the Deseret News he saw “how much energy there is” among Utah Democrats when he spoke at a party event several years ago “and I have a lot of affinity as an Indiana Democrat for red-state Democrats who are about to make a big decision going into Super Tuesday.”
He said he can’t compete with the money being spent in Utah by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has already spent more than $2 million on advertising here because “I don’t have the resources of a billionaire. But what I have are 2,000 committed volunteers around the state.”
Asked about whether he could support a compromise between LGBTQ rights and religious liberty, as envisioned by proposed legislation from Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, Buttigieg said, “when it’s about hurting people and discriminating against them, then I think we have to draw a line.”
He said the Equality Act already passed by the U.S. House does just that and that he is not familiar with Stewart’s legislation. “I believe strongly in religious liberty. But that does not mean that it’s OK to discriminate and hurt people just because you’re using religion as your reason,” Buttigieg said.
“As a person of faith, I consider it very important to be able to practice my own religion, too. But I would never invoke it as a reason to perpetrate housing discrimination,” he said, comparing it to freedom of speech not extending to allowing someone to yell fire in a crowded theater.
Sanders and Bloomberg both made an effort to drew attention to their campaigns in Utah Monday. Bloomberg announced he’s coming back to Salt Lake City Thursday, and Sanders supporters held a “barnstorm” event for volunteers hours before Buttigieg took the stage.
“Our people-powered grassroots network of support is unparalleled by any other campaign and it’s a huge part of why we’re doing so well,” said Sanders’ regional press secretary Kolby Lee. He said Sanders will announce he’s opening an office in Utah with paid staff later this week but has “no definitive plans” to visit before Super Tuesday.
Nor does former Vice President Joe Biden, who many believe needs strong finishes in Nevada and South Carolina to stay in the race. Utah supporter Scott Howell, a former state Senate minority leader, said Biden “is still ‘Fightin’ Joe.’ He is not going to give up,” but needs to come to Utah “just to reassure all the voters that we’re doing OK.”
Howell said there’s “a major appetite” for Biden in Utah, but said Buttigieg is connecting with Utahns despite “the elephant in the room,” his sexual orientation. “That is a big issue for people to get ahold of in Utah, unfortunately. I think it’s wrong. I think we should just judge them by who they are. ... You have to give the guy credit.”
Trump’s reelection campaign warned about Buttigieg’s impact on Utah in a statement.
“Pete Buttigieg’s vague platitudes can’t hide the fact he is a failed former mayor that would kill Utah’s booming economy with higher taxes and an extreme climate agenda,” Trump Victory spokeswoman Samantha Zager said.