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Detroit — Presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg of Indiana touted his Midwest roots and general election prospects Sunday in Detroit, pledging to reach out to “Republicans of conscience” if he wins the Democratic primary.

Speaking at a small-donor fundraiser in Detroit ahead of this week's presidential debate, the South Bend mayor stressed the importance of winning back voters in Michigan and other industrial Midwest states who helped send GOP President Donald Trump to the White House in 2016.

“The message to them is, ‘The president of the United States thinks you’re a sucker,’” Buttigieg said. “He thinks he can get you to think the biggest problem in your life is political correctness, when the biggest problem in your life is you’re not getting paid enough.”

Buttigieg, a 37-year-old combat veteran whose husband is a Traverse City native, led all Democratic presidential candidates in second quarter fundraising from Michigan donors. But he had not campaigned in the state until this month, when he held a Saugatuck fundraiser and joined nine other candidates at a national NAACP forum in Detroit.

In his roughly half-hour speech at The Fillmore, Buttigieg called for a “new conversation” about freedom, security and religion, suggesting Democrats should not back off issues Republicans have attempted to own.

Voters guided by religious faith need to know “that they have a choice,” Buttigieg said. “That choice does not require you to support someone who puts children in cages and tears families apart,” he said, referencing controversial immigration policies under Trump.

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Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttitieg speaks at his Grassroots Event at The Fillmore in Detroit. The Detroit News

He’s set to take the debate stage Tuesday night in Detroit as a moderate foil to Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who are competing for similar voters as favorites of the progressive left.

Former Vice President Joe Biden will debate Wednesday night against Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and seven other Democratic hopefuls.

Buttigieg on Friday unveiled a “rising tide” economic proposal he said would empower American workers by establishing a $15 per hour minimum wage, expanding labor protections to “gig economy” workers at companies like Uber and ending so-called right-to-work laws in Michigan and other states that prohibit contracts making union dues a condition of employment. 

The mayor, who has struggled to connect with black voters, also noted his new plan to combat “systemic racism” in the United States while accusing Trump of stoking racial tensions by urging four congresswomen of color to “go back” to where they came from, including Michigan native U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit.

Trump wants voters to be “distracted by his racism” because Democrats are stronger on the issues, Buttigieg argued. “While we were rightly condemning that” last week, those same four congresswomen helped the House pass $15 minimum wage legislation “that we desperately need,” he said.

Buttigieg hosted the “grassroots” fundraiser just down the street from the Fox Theatre, where CNN will host the Democratic debate this week. The cable station was broadcasting live from a parking lot outside Comerica Park, while the Fox marquee and Hockeytown Café are already aglow with debate logos.

Rashid Faisal of Detroit, a 50-year old education administrator for the Old Redford Academy district, said he is still assessing options in the Democratic primary but likes what he’s heard from Buttigieg.

“At this point, in terms of articulating a position, I think he’s probably heads above most,” said Faisal. “He’s just a very rational person about issues, and I like that. Not swayed by the emotion of things, but what’s best for the American people.”

His wife, 48-year-old entrepreneur Christie Faisal, is all in on the South Bend mayor and appreciates that his tone is “not angry” in a time of divisive politics. Their 7-year-old daughter also is a fan.

The Faisal’s credit Buttigieg for taking a measured approach on issues like college tuition. While some Democrats are calling for a free system for all Americans, Buttigieg thinks that kind of program should be limited to students from low- and middle-income homes.

“It sounds great, ‘free college,’ but I think it makes sense that not everybody should be paying for billionaires,” Christie Faisal said.

Buttiigieg superfan Kelly Doak, 38, made the trip from her home in Columbus, Ohio, and was first in line outside the Fillmore after arriving in downtown Detroit at around 1 p.m. She also attended a Buttigieg fundraiser last weekend in Saugatuck.

The Indiana mayor knows how to speak to Midwesterners in a way 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton did not, Doak said.

“When Hillary was campaigning, it was a very coastal message, and it seemed like she didn’t speak to what was going on in the Midwest,” she said. “The DOW has no impact on my daily life, and I just saw a lot of union people who voted Democratic who just could not get on board with her message.”

Connor Berdy, a 24-year-old who is running for the Warren City Council as the first openly gay candidate in Macomb County history, said “it’s far too early” in the presidential primary to back a single candidate but is “rooting” for Buttigieg.

“I think his best attribute is that he can connect to people, especially people who don’t affiliate with the Democratic Party,” Berdy said. “I think Democrats have the right idea, it’s just who’s our right champion that’s going to sell it to enough people and get the most people excited. And I think that’s one of his strongest suits.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

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