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Pete Buttigieg has his sights set on Elizabeth Warren in Iowa

In the first few minutes of his bus tour that began Saturday, Pete Buttigieg said he misspoke. He hadn’t meant to say that the 2020 Democratic primary was a two-person race between himself and Elizabeth Warren.

His message this weekend, however, told a markedly different story.

Buttigieg spent much of his time on his three-day, 330-plus mile bus tour through northern Iowa preaching the need for unity, drawing a not-so-subtle contrast with Warren’s focus on fighting. It’s a new strategy that exemplifies the belief inside the Buttigieg campaign that Warren — whose growing and powerful campaign in the state is seen by Iowa operatives as outflanking former Vice President Joe Biden or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — is the biggest obstacle the South Bend, Indiana, mayor faces over finishing first in Iowa.

Buttigieg, in both conversations with reporters and voters, argued that Warren’s message is divisive, questioned the impact that calls for “purity” will have on both the race for the White House and Congress and decried her “my way or the highway approach.” He denied that he is overlooking Biden and Sanders — calling them “formidable” in the state — but spent far more time this weekend subtly contrasting himself to the Massachusetts senator.

Warren, who also spent the weekend in Iowa, was not mum on this new dynamic, either. She added new lines to her stump speech that accused other nameless Democrats of “running a vague campaign that nibbles around the edges” and trying to “make yourself sound very sophisticated, very smart” by giving up “on big ideas.”

This clash has been building for weeks — and played out on national television during the Democratic debate in October — but this past weekend in the Hawkeye State could provide a preview of how the final three months of the campaign will play out in Iowa.

“Fighting is not enough,” Buttigieg said as his bus rolled between Waverly and Charles City. “And if we get so absorbed in the fighting that it is as though fighting were the purpose, that’s where I think we really get in trouble. If you win the fight, then what?”

This — and a series of other lines Buttigieg worked into his weekend speeches — directly contrasts Warren.

When asked about Buttigieg’s strategy, Warren’s campaign honed in on its own.

“Since the beginning we’ve been solely focused on calling out the corruption, presenting our plans to fix it, and building a grassroots movement in Iowa and across the country to get it done. We’re running a positive campaign committed to listening and organizing — regardless of pundit chatter or process stories,” Jason Noble, Warren’s Iowa spokesman, told CNN.

The senator used her speech before Iowa’s most devout Democratic activists on Friday rally the party around, what she sees, as imperative fights.

“Look, anyone who comes on this stage and doesn’t understand that we’re already in a fight is not the person who is going to win that fight,” Warren said. “Anyone who comes on this stage and tells you they can make change without a fight, is not going to win that fight.”

That, Buttigieg believes, is not accurate — and the mayor spent three days in Iowa subtly pushing back against Warren.

Once he left the state, the mayor’s campaign unveiled Tuesday a new statewide ad with that same message, featuring his Friday night speech: “We will fight when we must fight, but I will never allow us to get so wrapped up in the fighting that we start to think fighting is the point.”

A series of veiled shots

“The premise of my candidacy,” Buttigieg told voters on Saturday in Decorah, is that he is a candidate who is capable of being “bold enough to solve the problems in front of us and capable to unite the American people.”

The next afternoon, during an event in Waverly, Buttigieg said the country needs a president who knows how to “solve these big problems with big answers and do it in a way that unifies, not polarizes, the American people.”

And during a town hall in Charles City later on Sunday, Buttigieg decried the “political warfare we have gotten used to out of Washington” and pledged, as president, to tackle issues important to Democrats by unifying people at the same time.

The trip at times felt like a lengthy veiled shot at Warren.

In between the town halls and rallies, Buttigieg took endless questions from around a dozen reporters crammed onto a blue and yellow bus as the mayor sipped black coffee or dove into a sandwich sitting in a black captain’s chair.

“It’s definitely not unifying,” Buttigieg said about Warren’s message.

On “Medicare for All,” a liberal single-payer health care proposal backed by Warren, Buttigieg said “one of the hazards of these purity tests is they can make things tougher for the very people we are going to need” to pass it.

“Most Democrats don’t want to be kicked off their private plan. And as a matter of policy, I don’t think most people are not wrong to feel that way,” Buttigieg said, adding that it is “going to be a problem if we are telling them they are wrong and it’s my way and the highway.”

Buttigieg has proposed a “Medicare for All Who Want It” health care plan, a more moderate proposal that would offer a public option for Americans to opt into, but keep private insurance available to those who want it.

While both candidates are ascendant in Iowa, they took different paths to this point.

Warren entered the race with a highly touted team that has grown to a point that puts her, in the eyes of many Democrats here, as the person to beat in the February caucuses. Buttigieg entered as a largely unknown candidate with almost no staff in Iowa, but has since caught momentum, raised millions of dollars and stood up an operation in Iowa that boasts more than 100 staffers and 20 offices across the state.

A recent New York Times/Siena poll exemplifies this state of play.

Warren finds herself at 22%, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at 19% and Buttigieg at 18%. It’s one of his best showings to date in an Iowa poll. Former Vice President Joe Biden came in at 17% in the same poll.

Voters considering both Democrats

What was clear during the mayor’s trip through the state was that voters are actively considering caucusing for both Warren and Buttigieg despite their differences.

Sarah Zbornik stood at Buttigieg’s rally in Decorah with her sister, Sue Zbornik, and sister-in-law, Carol Zbornik.

All three women are deciding between Buttigieg and Warren.

“Honestly, it is who is going to be able to beat Trump. I will decide on caucus night,” said Sarah, who was concerned about Buttigieg’s experience and believes Warren may be more prepared on day one.

Sue had a different reaction to the town hall.

“I like her a lot,” she said, “but I’m definitely, after tonight, leaning more towards Pete.”

It was a common refrain throughout the trip. Some Buttigieg supporters in Iowa said they were drawn to the mayor because of his focus on unity.

“He understands that the country is breaking, and that the number one priority has to be finding a way to bring that together,” said Jeff Wilkerson, a faculty member at Luther College. “And I feel like that is not Warren’s message. Her message is to fix some of these other problems no matter what it takes to fix these other problems, but I think he is right, you can’t fix those problems without fixing that we were divided.”

The race, though, remains exceptionally fluid, a fact that campaigns throughout Iowa know as they prepare for the final three months.

Christine Peterson, an English teacher from Mason City, said before the Democratic debate in October, Peterson believed she was “100% in Warren’s camp.”

“She does have a plan, and the fact is that when you have a plan, you want to fight for it,” she said in support of Warren.

But after watching the debate and learning more about Buttigieg, Peterson decided to come out to his Mason City event and is now considering supporting him.

“He really did hit the unification part hard,” she said. “And what I really appreciated was it wasn’t just about unification of the party, but the country and I do think that is a message that a lot of people want to hear.”

Could Warren do that?

“I feel like she could,” Peterson said with a pause, “but she would have to work harder to get there.”

Correction: This story corrects Sanders’ polling number in The New York Times/Siena College poll.

CNN