SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) - Rising Democratic star Pete Buttigieg was in San Francisco Thursday evening, telling a sold-out audience his first priority as President would be "fixing democracy", which he says is being "twisted". The mayor of South Bend, Indiana is surprising many pundits with his polling and fund-raising strength.
Among Democrats in Iowa, he is third behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Nationally, he polls fifth, tied with Senator Elizabeth Warren. And Buttigieg hasn't even formally declared yet.
"I'm definitely the only left-handed, gay, Maltese-American, Episcopalian veteran in the race," said Buttigieg, to laughter from the crowd at the Commonwealth Club forum.
Buttigieg is often asked how stands out in a crowded field, and he is quizzed about his youth, at age 37.
"I would argue, cheeky as it sounds, as the youngest guy in the conversation, that my experiences are unusually relevant for what the moment is calling for," he told KTVU.
His background is unique: Rhodes Scholar, married gay man, a mayor who revived a declining city, and a Navy Reserves veteran, serving as a Lieutenant in Afghanistan or seven months.
"In my vehicle, when we went outside the wire, we learned to trust each other with our lives," he told the audience, "all different backgrounds and no one cared if I was going home to a boyfriend or a girlfriend, or what country my father immigrated from. They just wanted to know if i could do my job, and that's all I wanted to know about them too."
Buttigieg believes his performance as mayor - and the executive experience he gained- prepare him for the Oval Office.
He is a progressive, but hammers on practical solutions over ideology. He is concerned that technology, re-shaping the labor market, leaves too many working people behind.
"We're going to make America great again, that's what we hear, but what does that mean?" he posed.
"It means rather than move forward, you don't have to change, you can stay in the past, but that is a lie. No good policy ever revolves around the word "again".
Buttigieg also cautioned Democrats against too much sniping- at each other or President Trump- because it shifts the focus from who really matters, the voter.
"The more we can convey that we understand the problems and challenges people face, and provide them with answers and solutions, the better off we'll be," he declared.
At the same time, though, Buttigieg says Donald Trump should not get a pass on what Buttigieg calls a "divisive, ugly brand of populism."
"He should not have come anywhere near the presidency," Buttigieg told reporters before his appearance."He is there because Americans were upset and because many people who had no illusions about his character went in and voted for him anyway, almost as a vote to burn the house down."
As for Democrats repeating the mistakes of 2016?
"Well I think we'd better not underestimate Trump because it's completely possible for him to win again," Buttigieg told KTVU.
Traveling with Buttigieg is his husband of one year, schoolteacher Chasten Glezman.Buttigieg notes he disclosed his sexual orientation midway through his mayoral re-election campaign, and won resoundingly with 80 percent of the vote.
South Bend is where he plans to formally launch his candidacy, but the date and details remain under wraps.