CONWAY — The question looms over every presidential candidate trying to make inroads with South Carolina's Democratic voters, but Paul Smith actually asked it.
The crowd had come to hear Pete Buttigieg unveil his plan to improve America’s response to natural disasters. But Smith just had to know.
"Can you tell me, specifically, the biggest policy difference between you and Vice President Biden?" Smith asked.
Nervousness rippled through the audience of about 200, causing many to shift in their foldout seats or, in the case of one woman, let out an awkward laugh.
Buttigieg answered the question, but then pivoted to what has been the foundation of his presidential bid, both in South Carolina and elsewhere: That he's someone different.
"Every time (Democrats) won, it's been when we put forward someone with a new set of ideas who was not overly connected to Washington and typically somebody who stood for a new generation," he said, prompting applause and slow nods from those who came to hear him speak on a warm September morning.
"On the other hand, every time that we have tried so hard to play it safe, that we put forward the person with maybe the most familiar face but also the most time in Washington; every single time we've done that — going back to Hubert Humphrey, we've come up short."
In the crowded 19-person field of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, Buttigieg is very much unlike the rest of the pack: He's 37. He's gay. And he's new at this.
His campaign is banking on South Carolina voters not only being OK with that, but also gravitating toward him because of it.
The Biden alternative?
In South Carolina, where Barack Obama's former vice president polls higher here than in any other early state, many voters at Buttigieg events say they see the Midwesterner as the young, moderate alternative to Biden.
"I love Joe, but he's too old," Peg Zieche, of Columbia, said. "I love Elizabeth Warren, too, but she's 70. And I think we really just need a clean slate. There are so many hard feelings and so many entrenched views. We need to give people a reason to vote and to hope."
Looking ahead to 2024, she added, "Can you picture any one of the 70-year-olds running against Nikki Haley?"
John Dabrowski, who wore a ballcap that said "Make Red Hats Wearable Again," said the South Bend, Indiana, mayor is what he's been looking for as a dissatisfied Republican voter in the 2020 cycle.
"He's a selfless servant," the Pawleys Island resident said. "And the more conversations I have with people about 'Mayor Pete,' the more Trump supporters even are liking his policies and his ideas. I think we just have to give someone an opportunity to not have to go too far to the left."
Dabrowski said he refuses to vote for President Donald Trump due to his tone and what he sees as "bullying tactics." He also holds that Biden is never going to be his candidate.
"I have a hard time with Biden. I'm not an ageist, but I want a president that's going to make policies that they will be here to see what happens," Dabrowski said.
In an effort to boost Buttigieg's standing among South Carolina voters, the Buttigieg campaign will be conducting a major outreach effort this weekend.
The two-day blitz includes making 50,000 phone calls to South Carolina voters and holding 38 events across the state, where organizers and volunteers plan to knock on doors and urge people to commit to voting for Buttigieg in the Feb. 29 presidential primary.
The campaign also plans to open a new field office in Charleston on Sunday, their third in the state. Next week, there are plans to open a fourth in Greenville. The other two offices are located in Florence and Columbia.
It’s all part of a larger long-term strategy in the first-in-the-South primary state, according to Buttigieg’s South Carolina state director Jarvis Houston.
"Voters across South Carolina are still getting to know Pete and his vision and leadership for how to tackle the urgent problems facing our state and our country," Houston said.
In both South Carolina and national polling, Buttigieg, who was elected mayor in 2011 and re-elected in 2015, consistently lands in the top five behind Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and California Sen. Kamala Harris.
According to the results of an Oct. 1 poll from Winthrop University, Buttigieg was polling at 4 percent among Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters in South Carolina. Compare that to Biden's 37 percent and Warren's 17 percent. Biden and Harris garnered 8 percent and 7 percent of support, respectively.
Asked how he sees South Carolina fitting into his campaign strategy, Buttigieg said he would be hiring more staff and making more visits to the state. He also indicated he sees the state as key to his momentum if he does well in Iowa and New Hampshire.
"Making sure that we do well in South Carolina is really key as the race moves toward Super Tuesday," he said.
Struggling with black voters
Among African American voters, who make up about 60 percent of Democratic presidential primary voters in South Carolina, Buttigieg is struggling to gain traction.
He acknowledged that fact in May after holding a town hall in North Charleston. Though the U.S. Census Bureau estimates African Americans account for roughly 47 percent of the population in the city, the crowd looking back at him was mostly white.
That's part of his greater hurdle. A Monmouth University poll in July found 68 percent of likely Democratic African American voters in South Carolina had either no opinion on Buttigieg or had not heard of the mayor whose last name has been spelled out phonetically on campaign posters and buttons to help people remember. It's pronounced "Boot-edge-edge."
A recent Winthrop Poll of Democrats in South Carolina amplified the glaring struggle.
When pollsters read the list of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates and asked respondents who they would be most likely to support in the state's Democratic primary, not one of the African American voters polled said Buttigieg.
He is aware of where he needs to be but hopes his policy moves can help. In an August interview with The Post and Courier conducted nearly one month after launching his Douglass Plan to "dismantle racist structures and systems" in the United States, Buttigieg affirmed his commitment to speaking about issues impacting African Americans, whether he's meeting with black faith leaders or speaking to a mostly white audience in the South.
"Part of it is to speak with a consistent voice," he said.
The Douglass Plan, named for black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, includes 10 different proposals to address and rectify racial inequalities by making changes to America's health, education and criminal justice systems.
Referring to the water issue in Denmark, S.C., which is disproportionately impacting communities of color, Buttigieg said, "These issues can't be treated as a specialty issue. ... For me, it's consistent with everything else."
He continued, "There is this false choice that has been presented whether or not to talk about kitchen table issues or whether to talk about race, as if black and brown voters don't have kitchen tables, too."
He's also trying to make sure his South Carolina team reflects the diversity of the state. Out of the 32 paid South Carolina staffers, 12 are black, 11 are white, four are Hispanic or Latino, and four are Asian.
For Dara Brown, a 42-year-old African American woman from Cayce, it was Buttigieg's words and approach that captured her attention.
She likes pragmatism, and she said she's also interested in hearing more from Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Brown recently started volunteering for Buttigieg because she said he appeals to her humanity.
She cited the moment when she first saw Buttigieg speak. At the end of his North Charleston town hall this spring, she was crying.
"I don't remember what he said or what question he was giving a response to," Brown said. "The sincerity was real, palpable and it made me feel safe."