COLUMBIA — Gillian Lugbill's visit to South Carolina's capital city for the NCAA men's basketball tournament took a detour into 2020 presidential politics Saturday when she heard Pete Buttigieg was appearing at a downtown banquet hall.
Lugbill said she was impressed by the South Bend, Indiana mayor's intelligence and thoughtfulness after watching him on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Wednesday.
"He seems that rather than just saying something, he'll find a path to get there," said Lugbill, a University of Virginia fan from Richmond who was among the more than 200 people crammed to see Buttigieg.
"He makes me feel like he's going to put this country back where it needs to be and moving forward where you're taking care of people," she said.
Buttigieg, the youngest of the 15 announced 2020 Democratic candidates at age 37, attracted a large millennial crowd to hear him speak about reversing the nation's anger by opening opportunities. They include offering health insurance for all, allowing workers to unionize and ending laws that suppress voting.
"Democracy is on the ballot in 2020," he said.
Buttigieg said Democrats need more younger leaders who understand racial and social justice as well as more leaders from Republican-dominated states.
"We cannot continue to be regarded as a party that is only for the deepest blue communities," he said. "There is written nowhere that a state like South Carolina or Indiana or anywhere else has to be conservative forever."
Buttigieg, who took military training in Columbia before deploying to Afghanistan with the Navy Reserve, said Republicans are not willing to tackle the security issues caused by climate change, computer hackers and white nationalists.
"White nationalism is a deadly threat that has claimed lives as far away as New Zealand and as close to home as Charleston," he said. "So let’s do something about that."
During his introduction, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin praised Buttigieg for his ability to explain complex issues in clear ways. Buttigieg noted that Benjamin is leading the U.S. Conference of Mayors: "One of us actually became a president so far."
Buttigieg would be the first openly gay presidential nominee, which led Michael Moore to drive 14 hours from New Haven, Conn.
"I grew up in a time when it was illegal to get married. I went through conversion therapy," said Moore after having his photo taken with Buttigieg. "To be a gay person in the day I grew up was impossible. So to see him running for president, everything has changed."
Buttigieg drew an enthusiastic but mostly white crowd in Columbia. He has to overcome being a relative unknown in a state where African-Americans cast a majority of Democratic ballots.
"It's quantity time," he told reporters before heading to a campaign stop at Clinton College, a historically black school in Rock Hill. "We've got to reach out to as many people and as many places as we can."
Scott Hogan, who ran James Smith's Democratic campaign for South Carolina governor last year, said Buttigieg needs to keep coming to the Palmetto State to win over voters.
"I think you've got to show up everywhere and you've got to show up often," said Hogan, who knows Buttigieg from working in Indiana politics. "And I think Pete, starting with lower name ID than the rest, I think he's doing it right."
Corey Collins, a biology major at the University of South Carolina who lives in Summerville, came to see Buttigieg a day after attending a presidential campaign event for former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke on campus.
Collins said both candidates were charismatic, but Buttigieg provided more depth on issues such as expanding the number of justice on the Supreme Court.
"Beto is great and he knows how to work a crowd, but I didn't take much away from what his plans are," Collins said. "Whereas with Pete and everything I have heard him say, he specifically addresses what he would do and why."