Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke’s feud boils over at the Democratic debate

The feud between South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke boiled over on Tuesday during the Democratic debate.

The disagreement between the two, which began in the wake of the September debate, centered on conflict over a mandatory assault weapons buyback, a policy that O’Rourke has touted but struggled to fully explain. While O’Rourke has argued that a buyback would help curb gun violence, Buttigieg has previously called it a “shiny object” and did not hold back from reiterating this argument again on Tuesday.

“Congressman, you just made it clear you are don’t know how this is actually going to take weapons off the streets,” the mayor said Tuesday, suggesting that O’Rourke was pushing for a “purity test” instead of more pragmatic policy. “If you can develop the plan further, I think we can have a debate about it. But we can’t wait.”

In response, O’Rourke argued that he does in fact have a plan and that beyond buybacks, he supports other gun reforms, like red flag laws and universal background checks. O’Rourke also worked to make the case that aggressive reforms are the best way to serve the 40,000 annual gun violence victims and countless activists he says he is advocating for.

However, when pushed on how he would implement a mandatory assault weapons buyback on Tuesday, O’Rourke stopped short of explaining how he would confiscate weapons from people who refrain from voluntarily turning them in to law enforcement.

Instead, he tried to flip Buttigieg’s attack on its head: “Let’s … lead and not be limited by the polls and consultants and focus groups,” he said.

The mayor responded forcefully by noting that he didn’t need a lecture from O’Rourke.

“The problem isn’t the polls, the problem is the policy,” he said. “I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal.”

The exchange between the two lawmakers was the most high-profile back-and-forth they’ve had on the subject of gun control, and it was one of several instances in which Buttigieg argued a rival’s policies were too extreme and overly vague. Buttigieg took the same route earlier in the debate when he confronted Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the subject of Medicare-for-all and argued that she was pushing a more progressive idea instead of focusing on other proposals that could also help expand health care coverage.

On both subjects, O’Rourke and Warren responded to the mayor by saying their focus on more ambitious policies was intended to be a stronger and more effective response to the respective issues of health care coverage and gun control. Warren argued that Buttigieg’s health care proposal, something he’s been referring to as Medicare-for-all-who-want-it, was actually only accessible to those who could afford it. O’Rourke, too, argued that more aggressive measures like a buyback would be necessary to curb gun violence.

The spirited discussion on the two topics marked moments where Buttigieg sought to differentiate himself as a moderate option and frame himself as a foil to other candidates onstage. Polling steadily in the middle of the pack, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, Buttigieg needed a strong performance in Tuesday’s debate to further carve out a niche for himself.

Taking on O’Rourke — and Warren — was apparently part of that strategy.