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Ahead Of Iowa Caucuses, Pete Buttigieg's Momentum Slows


We are sitting at Smokey Row, a coffee house in Des Moines, Iowa. Iowans all over the state go to public schools, churches, community centers tonight to choose who they want to challenge President Trump in the 2020 election. There are more Democratic candidates than ever to choose from this year - 11 to be exact. Among them, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg, who joins us now at Smokey Row. Mayor Buttigieg, thanks for getting up early to be here.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Thanks for having me in. Good morning (laughter).

MARTIN: Happy caucus day. So last month, you were leading in the polls here in Iowa. Things, according to those polls, have stagnated a bit. Can you explain what you see as your challenges in the state?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, there are always going to be ups and downs in the polls. But what we see right now is that voters are getting ready - caucus-goers - for their final decision. And the same folks that I would see over the summer or the fall saying things like, that was pretty good, you're in my top seven now - now it's down to decision time.

And even today there are caucus-goers making up their minds. They want to know, of course, that they are choosing somebody who will make a good president, also somebody who can win. I think that the burning priority for so many, not just Democrats but a lot of independents and some Republicans I'm meeting is just find the nominee who can defeat Donald Trump. Our challenge and our opportunity is to prove that mine is the best campaign to do that. And of course nationally speaking, this is the first opportunity to really prove it because we can demonstrate that we have not only the message but the kind of campaign organization to deliver success.

MARTIN: But can you do that without African American support? And I know this question has followed you throughout your campaign. But you have consistently polled at 1% or even 0% with African American voters around the country. And you have faced the critique that you weren't connecting with them. This critique has been ongoing for more than - for a year, since you declared. Why haven't you been able to change their perception of you?

BUTTIGIEG: So the African American voters who know me best in my own community, for example, are supporting me. And many of my most visible supporters here in Iowa are black elected officials. Now, as we move into the South, I think there in particular we see why it's so important to demonstrate that we have a campaign that can go on to win. There is a lot of healthy skepticism. And at a moment like this, no one is feeling the pain of living under the Trump presidency more than Americans of color...

MARTIN: But you point to your...

BUTTIGIEG: ...Their top priority, as I speak to them, so often is to make sure that we have the campaign that can win, which when you're new, you have to demonstrate on the ground in the places where you've been campaigning the most. So our first opportunity to really prove it - not just to tell but to show that we've got the campaign best positioned to deliver that win - that starts right here in Iowa.

MARTIN: Looking forward, if you don't come out on top or in the No. 2 spot here in Iowa, do you keep running?

BUTTIGIEG: We certainly need a good finish here in Iowa, and that's exactly what I think is about to happen. Our organizers are so talented and so fired up. And our volunteers have brought an amazing energy to this. We've got precinct captains everywhere in this state, and we're poised to do well.

MARTIN: So do you keep running if you're not one or two?

BUTTIGIEG: What's that? I'll let pundits decide where the goalposts sit and what percentages amount to what headlines tomorrow. The point is we need a good finish here in Iowa, and that's exactly what we're building in these final hours.

MARTIN: Presidential candidate, former mayor of South Bend Pete Buttigieg, thank you so much for your time.

BUTTIGIEG: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.