Merrimack, United States: Democratic White House hopeful Pete Buttigieg’s national political background is minimal, but he claims something none of his chief Democratic rivals - or President Donald Trump - can: military experience.

Not since George H.W. Bush three decades ago has the United States had a commander in chief who served in a theater of war.

But Buttigieg, suddenly a frontrunner in the race for his party’s 2020 presidential nomination after a strong showing Monday in Iowa, is telling voters the nation would benefit from having a military veteran calling the shots in Washington.

The 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, put his mayoral duties on hold in 2014 so he could serve as a US Navy intelligence officer in Afghanistan.

He told voters Thursday that he learned a lesson while in uniform that stays with him to this day: “Being in charge is not about being exalted.”

Buttigieg did not mention Trump, but the declaration was a searing indictment of a president who received five deferments from the draft for military service during Vietnam, and who has made much of his presidency about himself.

Trump repeatedly boasts he has been a godsend to US armed forces, increasing stalled Pentagon spending and raising wages for troops.

Buttigieg, speaking to veterans and others at American Legion Post 98 in Merrimack, New Hampshire, the state that votes next in the nominations process, says patriotism is not a uniquely Republican value.

“The flag of the United States and the love of our country do not belong to any political party,” he said.

Buttigieg supporters, including US Marine Corps veteran Maura Sullivan who served as a senior Pentagon official during Barack Obama’s administration, point to their candidate as a prime example of a veteran seeking new ways to serve his country.

“He’s walked in our combat boots. He understands what it is to serve, and to sacrifice,” Sullivan told the Merrimack crowd, which included at least one Purple Heart recipient.

While Buttigieg shows the temperament and judgment to be president, she said, Trump has “disrespected” the very service members he is charged with leading, most recently by minimising the brain injuries suffered by dozens of US troops when Iran fired missiles at bases in Iraq where Americans were stationed.

‘Trust one another’

Buttigieg sees serving in the military as a natural unifier.

When he went beyond the confines of base in Afghanistan, fellow soldiers traveling with him “could not care less if I was a Democrat or Republican, could not care less if I was going home to a girlfriend or to a boyfriend, could not care less what country my father immigrated from,” he told a rapt audience.

“We learned to trust one another even though we came from radically different backgrounds,” he said.

“And that is a touchstone within the community of American veterans that we need today more than ever, because it sounds and feels more and more like Americans can barely hear each other. It’s why we need to lift up that experience.”

Buttigieg would be the first presidential nominee of either US party with substantial military experience since the late Republican John McCain in 2008.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic White House hopeful lagging well behind the leaders, serves in the Hawaii National Guard and deployed multiple times to Iraq and elsewhere.

Buttigieg, like Gabbard, has sought improvements in care for veterans.

In Merrimack he called for suspension of student loan repayments for military families affected by deployments, a halt to deportations of undocumented people who served in the military, and immediately reversing Trump’s ban on transgender Americans in the military.

Veterans groups have taken notice. Last year progressive organization VoteVets endorsed Buttigieg, the first time the group took such a step, saying voters recognize that Buttigieg could “win back the purple areas” where Trump was victorious in 2016.

Buttigieg was virtually unknown on the national stage one year ago, but his story has caught fire.

He deploys calm and reason over bombast, and often explains his policy positions more articulately than rivals Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, who are both more than twice his age.

Biden sought to knock Buttigieg down a peg Wednesday, saying it would be a “risk” for Democrats to nominate a small-city mayor without more substantive experience.

Some New Hampshire voters in Merrimack agreed. Justin Potter, a 75-year-old retiree, said he was “curious” about hearing Buttigieg but left unconvinced.

“I’m worried about the economy, and he really didn’t do anything at all to satisfy me on that,” he told AFP.