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The first time Rod Drenkow, Waverly’s Ward 3 councilman, caucused in 1976, he was a 22-year-old Augustana College student in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

On caucus night, Jan. 19, 1976, Drenkow drove to Hull, a town in northwest Iowa of about 2,000 residents, where he resided, and put all of his efforts behind the candidacy of Birch Bayh, a U.S. senator for Indiana.

Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter won that night, garnering 27.7%, twice that of Bayh. But Drenkow never forgot the spark that night ignited in him then.

So he has caucused every single time since.

Just two days before his 66th birthday, on Sunday, Drenkow got to introduce South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a Democratic candidate he has already committed to caucus for.

“He is really impressive,” Drenkow, a lawyer and business owner in Waverly, told Waverly Newspapers, summing up the gist of his introductory remarks on Sunday. “I always look for somebody who is a moderate, has some very workable solutions and being not just aspirational, but actually having reasonable solutions that have a chance of actually being done.”

With fewer than 100 days before the Feb. 3, 2020, caucuses, about 600 community members — mostly from Bremer County, but some from Iowa City, Decorah and even farther — packed the cafeteria-turned-auditorium at Waverly-Shell Rock High School on Sunday afternoon to hear Buttigieg make his case for the Democratic nomination, and ultimately, for the White House.

The size of the crowd and its spirited response to Buttigieg’s speech and to the question-and-answer interaction that followed, appeared to be in congruence with the most recent polls suggesting that Mayor Pete is becoming a contender to be reckoned with in Iowa.

In a recent New York Times/Siena College Iowa poll, Buttigieg is in third place among likely caucus goers with 18% of respondents picking him as their first choice. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren leads with 22%, followed by independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at 19%, and former Vice President Joe Biden was fourth with 17%. The margin of error is +/- 4.7 percentage points, meaning those four candidates are in a statistical tie.

When pollsters extended the questioning to second choices, Buttigieg had a total support of 31% of caucus goers. Warren led with a total support of 47%, followed by Sanders with 34%, and Biden had support of just 28%.

Real Clear Politics, meanwhile, has Buttigieg in second place in its averages of all polls. He sits at 17%, trailing Warren, who has 22.3%. Biden has 15.7%, followed by Sanders at 15.3%.

In Waverly, Buttigieg’s stance on issues energized the crowd. His middle-of-the-road approach to healthcare — in which Medicare is one of the options consumers can pick — appealed to prospective caucus goers. So did his positions on the climate crisis, his advocacy for an engaged foreign policy, immigration and innovation of infrastructure and technology, among others.

Buttigieg said as president, on the first day after the election, he would work to unify a polarized nation.

“The toughest thing for us to do as a country is what comes next,” he said. “The sun is going to come up over a country that is going to be even more bitterly divided, even more torn up over politics than we are right now. We’re going to be polarized… everything we’ve been through, everything we’re about to go through, we’re going to be so exhausted from fighting, and yet, we can’t just lay back exhausted because all these issues that helped us get to this point are still going to be crying out for action.”

He called immigration “the lifeblood of this country.”

“It’s got to be structured — we got to make sure we manage it in the right way, but that’s why we gotta make sure we fix the set-up we have right now that puts way too much of a squeeze on lawful, legal immigration and then act surprised that we have so many undocumented immigrants,” he said. “We’ve got to normalize that — we’ve got to have a pathway to citizenship — and we’ve got to have a dramatically more humane approach.”

Those comments were met with applause.

As Buttigieg made his remarks, his messages clearly resonated with the audience.

But it is when he opened the floor for questions — and especially when he answered every single one of them directly — that the crowd appeared to embrace him.

A question about school safety from a sixth-grader, elicited this response:

“I can remember what I was worrying about in sixth grade, and it was not life or death in my own school building,” Buttigieg said. “You should not have to even worry about that. It’s our job — and by us, I mean anyone old enough to vote — to fix that and worry about that so you don’t have to.

“So on behalf of all adults, I’m sorry you even have to think about that when you go to school everyday, but since you do, here’s what we’re going to do about it: First of all, we need universal background checks to make sure that, without exception, we can check on whether somebody has any business being near a firearm. Right now, there’s a whole bunch of loopholes. One of them is, if the background check doesn’t come back in time, they just sell you the gun — this is what happened in Charleston.

“Imagine as an employer, if you were hiring somebody, and the background check took a little bit longer than you thought and you just said, ‘Well, let’s just hire him anyway.’ No! You make sure that you’ve done homework. So that’s one thing we’ve got to do.

“Another thing we’ve got to do is ban the sale of these types of assault weapons… in the first place. I trained on this type of weapons — they have no business anywhere near your school.

“The third thing we can do is what are called Red Flag Laws. That means that if a family member or somebody knows that somebody else has a gun, who has a serious risk of harming themselves or somebody else, through due process, there is a way to make sure that they don’t have access to a weapon — it’s called an extreme risk protection order…

“If we do all of these things at the same time, this is completely compatible with the 2nd Amendment by the way. The Second Amendment recognizes that there’s still limits — I mean, you can’t have a nuclear weapon, right?… Within the Constitution, we’re allowed to draw a line somewhere. What I’m saying is that we’ve got to draw the line a little bit tighter so that when you go to school everyday, you can worry about sixth grade things and not about gun policy.”

When an audience member posed what she said was her “favorite” interview question she asks of job applicants, whether Buttigieg can point out to a situation where he chose what was right versus what was “expected,” he opened up about his coming out.

“The decision to come out was not expected, it was not a battle of right versus wrong, but it felt like a battle inside me because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said. “For the bulk of my adult life, there have been two things that I’ve done professionally — serve in the military and serve in elected office, neither of which is known for being super compatible with being out and thankfully the law advanced so I could serve openly in the military.

“But, if your voters decide to fire you because of who you are, then it is what it is. And so, when I reached the point in my life where I knew in my heart that I just needed to come out, it happened to be an election year. I will never forget the look on my campaign manager’s face — I said, ‘Hey, I’m going to do something that’s going to make your job a little more complicated.’

“And there was no way to know what the political consequence was going to be, but what I knew was that I had to, and what I found was that I also, even though I did it for personal reasons, even selfish reasons — I just wanted to start dating and have a personal life — the effect that it had was that a lot of people saw that and realized that they weren’t alone and, talk about God having a sense of humor… This thing that I thought might mean the end of my career wound up being one of the things that gave me the chance to do the most good.”

Buttigieg’s candor and his plainspeak appealed to Nadine Vogt, a recent Iowa transplant from Ohio, who attended Sunday’s event in Waverly, the third time she had heard Buttigieg speak.

“He is a breath of fresh air,” she said. “He is articulate and he is one of my favorites, he is an impressive guy.”

However, Vogt added that she has not committed to anyone for the caucus, yet.

“It’s far too early,” she said, noting the opportunities for political engagement that Iowa provides.

Drenkow, the Waverly councilman, who is a Buttigieg loyalist, offered this perspective after the speech:

“Honestly, Pete Buttigieg is the most impressive presidential candidate that I have ever seen,” he said. “If you take every single candidate for president for the last 40 years, Pete Buttigieg would be head and shoulders above them. He is just that impressive. The way he solves problems, he is someone who wants to embrace all the ideas that all people have, not just a small group of people.”

Reporter Eric VanSickle also contributed with this story.