Washington (CNN)On Wednesday night, the onetime king of 2020 buzz — Beto O’Rourke — flopped on the national debate stage. Tonight, the current buzz king — Pete Buttigieg — gets tested for the first time in a major way on that same debate stage — and will do everything in his power to avoid bombing like Beto.
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Thursday night’s presidential debate comes at a very difficult time for the youthful mayor of South Bend, Indiana. After an absolutely meteoric rise in the presidential race — polling suggests he’s in the lower end of the lead pack — Buttigieg has been faced with a major problem at home: the officer-involved shooting of an African-American man, who later died.Buttigieg has effectively put his presidential campaign on hold as he tries to deal with the fallout from the shooting, which has included protests and an extremely contentious town hall in which black residents of South Bend demanded action from the mayor.Getting ready for your first national debate is one thing. Doing so with a major crisis still bubbling back at home is another. It’s hard to believe that Buttigieg did the same sort of debate prep — or is in the same sort of frame of mind — as he would have had this shooting and the resultant firestorm not occurred.
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Of course, he’ll get no sympathy for the challenges of the last few weeks on the debate stage tonight. Aside from former Vice President Joe Biden, the clear front-runner for the 2020 Democratic nod, Buttigieg will be the most closely watched candidate onstage. Read MoreIs he all foam and no beer? (Hat tip, Amy Klobuchar.) Is there substance behind the sizzle? That’s a conversation that was going to happen no matter how O’Rourke performed on Wednesday night. But with O’Rourke’s flop, there will be even more attention paid to whether Buttigieg has the depth to go the distance in this race.The Point: Buttigieg comes into this debate under less than ideal circumstances. Regardless, the stakes for him remain extremely high. And no one is grading him on a curve.