The gay, liberal mayor of a small US city in the conservative stronghold of Indiana officially launched his presidential bid Sunday, joining an increasingly crowded field of Democrats competing for their party’s 2020 nomination.

Pete Buttigieg, a 37-year-old Rhodes scholar and Afghanistan war veteran, is the two-term mayor of his hometown of South Bend – a left-leaning enclave in America’s so-called “Rust Belt” region, where local economies have suffered due to the decline of industries such as steel and automobile manufacturing.

Voters in states such as Michigan and Wisconsin helped put Republican US President Donald Trump in the White House in 2016.

Buttigieg, who is credited with helping to revitalize South Bend, has billed himself as an able reformer who can appeal to voters across the political spectrum.

“My name is Pete Buttigieg. They call me ‘Mayor Pete.’ I’m a proud son of South Bend, Indiana, and I am running for president of the United States!” he told a crowd of supporters at a former assembly plant turned high-tech hub in South Bend.

“That’s why I am here, to tell a different story than ‘Make America Great Again'” he added, referring to Trump’s campaign slogan. “This time it’s not just about winning an election. It’s about winning an era.”

The official launch is expected to give his surprisingly robust campaign an additional boost.

So many people showed up for the event that a large crowd was forced to watch it on a giant screen while standing outside in the rain.

“He represents a new generation of Democratic leadership. We love his vision,” said Jenn Watts, 35.

In the three months since he declared an exploratory committee to test a presidential run, Buttigieg has gone from relative obscurity –- forced repeatedly to explain how to pronounce his last name – to attracting large and excited crowds.

He has raised $7 million, more than most other candidates, and risen to third place in the latest polls of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire – the earliest states to vote in next year’s primary elections.

The popular mayor, who speaks eight languages and plays classical piano, has been the focus of countless news stories and profiles.

The fascination has been in no small part due to his background: he would be the youngest, first openly gay, first millennial and first mayor to become president.

– with reporting by AFP