By James Oliphant
MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa (Reuters) - Four years ago, Donald Trump campaigned in small towns like Marshalltown, Iowa, vowing to restore economic prosperity to the U.S. heartland.
In his bid to replace Trump in the White House, Pete Buttigieg is taking a similar tack. The difference, he says, is that he can point to a model of success: South Bend, Indiana, the revitalized city where he has been mayor since 2012.
The Democratic presidential contender has vaulted to the congested field's top tier in recent weeks, drawing media and donor attention for his youth, history-making status as the first openly gay major presidential candidate and a resume that includes military service in Afghanistan.
But Buttigieg's main argument for his candidacy is that he is a turnaround artist in the mold of Trump, although the Democrat does not expressly invoke the comparison with the Republican president.
“I’m not going around saying we’ve fixed every problem we’ve got,” Buttigieg, 37, said after a house party with voters in Marshalltown. “But I’m proud of what we have done together, and I think it’s a very powerful story.”
Critics argue improving the fortunes of a Midwestern city of 100,000 people does not qualify Buttigieg, who has never held national office, for the presidency of a country of 330 million. Others say South Bend still has pockets of despair and that minorities, in particular, have failed to benefit from its growth.
Buttigieg has told crowds in Iowa and elsewhere that his experience in reviving a struggling Rust Belt community allows him to make a case to voters that other Democratic candidates cannot. That may give him the means to win back some of the disaffected Democratic voters who turned their backs on Hillary Clinton in 2016 to vote for Trump.
Watching Buttigieg at a union hall in Des Moines last week, Rick Ryan, 45, a member of the United Steelworkers, lamented how many of his fellow union workers voted for Trump. The president turned in the best performance by a Republican among union households since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Ryan said he hoped someone like Buttigieg could return them to the Democratic fold.
“He’s aware of the decline in the labor force in America, not just in Indiana or Des Moines or anywhere else,” Ryan said. “Jobs are going overseas. We need a find to way to bring that back."
Randy Tucker, 56, of Pleasant Hill, Iowa, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said Trump appealed to union members "desperate for somebody to reach out to them, to help them, to listen to their voice."
Buttigieg could do the same, he said. "In my heart right now, he's No. 1."
PAST VS. FUTURE
Buttigieg stresses a key difference in his and Trump's approaches.
Trump, he tells crowds, is mired in the past, promising to rebuild the 20th century industrial economy. Buttigieg argues the pledge is misleading and unrealistic.
Buttigieg says his focus is on the future, and he often talks about what the country might look like decades from now.
"The only way that we can cultivate what makes America great is to look to the future and not be afraid of it," Buttigieg said in Marshalltown.
Buttigieg knows his sexual preference may be a barrier to winning some blue-collar voters. But he notes that after he came out as gay in 2015, he won a second term as mayor with 80 percent of the vote in conservative Indiana.
Earlier this month, he announced his presidential bid at the hulking plant in South Bend that stopped making Studebaker autos more than 50 years ago. After lying dormant for decades, the building is being transformed into a high-tech hub after Buttigieg and other city leaders realized it would never again attract a large-scale industrial company.
“That building sat as a powerful reminder. We hoped we would get back that major employer that would fix our economy,” said Jeff Rea, president of the regional Chamber of Commerce.
Buttigieg is praised locally for spurring more than $100 million in downtown investment. During his two terms, unemployment has fallen to 4.1 percent from 11.8 percent.
But a study released in 2017 by the nonprofit group Prosperity Now said not all of the city’s residents had shared in its rebound. The median income for African-Americans remained half that of whites, while the unemployment rate for blacks was double.
Regina Williams-Preston, a city councilor running to replace Buttigieg as mayor, credits him for the revitalized downtown. But she said he had a "blind spot" when it came to focusing on troubled neighborhoods like the one she represents and only grew more engaged after community pressure.
"He understands it now," she said. "The next step is figuring out how to open the doors of opportunity for everyone."
'ONE OF US'
Trump touts the fact that the United States added almost 300,000 manufacturing jobs last year as evidence he made good on his promise to restore the industrial sector. But that growth still left the country with fewer manufacturing jobs than in 2008.
The robust U.S. economy is likely the president’s greatest asset in his re-election bid, particularly in states he carried in 2016 such as Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. He won Buttigieg's home state by 19 points over Clinton in 2016.
Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Democratic Party in Polk County, Iowa, said Buttigieg would be well positioned to compete with Trump in the Midwest.
“People love the fact that he’s a mayor,” said Bagniewski, who has not endorsed a candidate in the nominating contest. “If you can talk about a positive future, and if you actually have experience that can do it, that’s a compelling vision in Iowa."
Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, Ohio, which faces many of the same challenges as South Bend, agreed.
"He’s one of us," Whaley said. "That helps.”
(Reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney)