South Bend, United States: When Pete Buttigieg declared his candidacy for US president, he was greeted with a roaring cheer and the drip, drip, drip of a leaky roof in a former auto plant.
The 37-year-old — who has catapulted from relative obscurity to third place among Democrats in the latest polls — spoke in front of thousands on Sunday in the cavernous Studebaker complex in his hometown.
The roof was a reminder that the entire plant has been abandoned and decaying for decades.
But just steps from where Buttigieg gave his speech was a far different scene — gone were rusted roofs and broken windows.
Instead, that section of the complex had been redeveloped into gleaming new offices for high-tech companies.
Studebaker is one of the young mayor's proudest success stories — and an example of where he wants to take America's Rust Belt.
"There is a myth being sold to industrial and rural communities: the myth that we can stop the clock and turn it back," Buttigieg said in his speech.
Fed up blue-collar workers voted for then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016 largely on his promise to revitalise American manufacturing and return their towns to their former glory.
But Buttigieg is now trying to win over those same voters with a competing vision.
"That's why I'm here today. To tell a different story than 'Make America Great Again,'" he said, invoking President Trump's campaign slogan.
"It's time to walk away from the politics of the past, and toward something totally different."
A growing city
"Mayor Pete", as he's affectionately called, is proposing to do for America what he has done for South Bend.
The city managed to reverse decades of decline and attract new development and investment. Its population has grown slightly every year since 2013, two years after Buttigieg became mayor.
The labor force has grown, unemployment has declined, and wages are up, according to a report by Indiana University.
The changes inspired Gillian Shaw, a New Jersey native, to remain in South Bend after she completed her studies at nearby University of Notre Dame.
She co-founded a healthcare technology company that is located in the Studebaker building.
"I moved here the same year that Pete was elected mayor," she said. "And I have seen just the revitalisation of this city, and I love it and I want to be part of it."
These are no small achievements for a town Newsweek in 2011 called one of America's 10 dying cities.
"The mayor was able to create a sense of optimism," said South Bend-based political science professor Elizabeth Bennion of Indiana University.
The question before voters will be whether Buttigieg has shown enough results in his hometown to steer the world's biggest economy.
Like the Studebaker plant, South Bend is an unfinished project. Its streets are mixed with new development and buildings that look barely used, if not vacant.
Indiana University forecast that South Bend and surrounding areas will grow in 2019, but at "a fairly modest rate".
Bennion said the city "continues to face many of the same challenges of other urban cities", including high poverty and homicide rates.
Buttigieg also will have stiff competition for the hearts of Trump voters.
Eighteen Democrats have already declared they are running for their party's nomination to face Trump in 2020.
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota also is claiming the Middle America mantle, saying she can speak to swing voters.
Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, is aiming squarely for the Rust Belt. The democratic socialist polls twice as well as Buttigieg and last week traveled to Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — all states where blue-collar workers narrowly handed Trump the presidency.
And then, there is Joe Biden. The former vice=president during the Barack Obama administration is widely expected to declare his candidacy soon.
"A lot depends on what Biden does," because the former vice-president appeals to the same voters Buttigieg is courting, said Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University.
"I would think that if Biden enters in, that's going to be somebody who will be a very serious competitor to Buttigieg," Beck said.
'Does he have longevity?'
So far, Buttigieg has captured voters' imagination with a carefully-crafted narrative: a results-oriented mayor, a married gay man who talks earnestly about his religious faith, a Rhodes scholar and an Afghanistan war veteran.
Recent polls in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire show Buttigieg in third place behind Biden and Sanders. In just three months, he has raised $7 million in donations.
The political rise has been so swift that staffers have struggled to keep up. When Buttigieg delivered his campaign launch speech, he had no speechwriter to assist him. None had been hired yet.
"He's caught the fancy of the moment," said G Terry Madonna, who directs the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.
But Madonna added: "Does he have longevity? That's the key."
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Updated Date: Apr 16, 2019 08:31:13 IST