DUBUQUE, Iowa – Pete Buttigieg finds himself in a place that he could hardly have contemplated when he began running for president a year ago: He likely cannot finish lower than second in the Iowa caucuses if he wants to advance in the Democratic presidential nominating campaign.
But less than two weeks before the first preferences of the 2020 presidential campaign are recorded, that's the narrow path he is navigating as his strong campaign organization, competitive poll numbers and wildly successful fundraising meet a reckoning moment.
Can he now meet lofty expectations, or is he relegated to the category of candidates with exceptional promise only to come up short?
“I’m not sure a win is necessary, but he’s got to be in the top two, I would think, to have any chance of moving on,” said Joe Trippi, campaign manager for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign.
Each of the top four candidates in Iowa faces his or her own version of the challenge. But the 38-year-old former mayor of a midsize Midwestern city, presenting himself as the worthiest Democrat to stand against President Donald Trump, faces a particular burden of proof, and now the very plausible potential of a top finish in the first nominating state.
Buttigieg told supporters Wednesday he's within striking distance, but stopped short of predicting victory. Still, advisers say finishing lower than second makes the lift heavier in next-up New Hampshire, where he is well-positioned.
“I'm not going to create a goal post. But what I will say is we've got to do well here in Iowa because it's our first opportunity to actually demonstrate, versus say, that we're able to win an election,” Buttigieg told reporters after a rally in Dubuque.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, whose team early on said nothing below a second-place finish in Iowa would suffice, could finish lower and still move on, given his campaign's high hopes of winning in South Carolina, where his lasting relationship with African American voters makes him the favorite.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren could take disappointing Iowa finishes to New Hampshire, where they have regional followings, and try to quickly cancel out the first contest. Sanders, and less so Warren, also have more online donors who can sustain them through a setback.
And then there's the possibility that new caucus reporting rules, which tighten the typically long, often-complicated process of in-person preference sessions, could give a combination of candidates bragging rights.
But for Buttigieg, who needs convincing validation in a field of better-known rivals to move on, it's a different calculation.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘Who is more risky?'” Trippi said.
Buttigieg, who would be the first openly gay president, faces risks not unlike Obama, who was the first African American president. Dean did, too, as voters questioned his gravitas to take on a wartime incumbent Republican president in George W. Bush in 2004. A month before the Iowa caucuses that year, Dean was on magazine covers and considered a favorite. Instead, he flamed out.
“By winning Iowa or finishing second, Pete can overcome those doubts within the rest of the Democratic Party," Trippi said. "Anybody who worried about whether the country was ready for the first black president, those worries vanished when Obama won Iowa.”
Buttigieg is also doing well in New Hampshire. Campaign aides say a top finish in Iowa would lead to a competitive New Hampshire.
But danger lies ahead for Buttigieg. He polls very low among African American voters, who make up roughly two-thirds of the electorate in the South Carolina primary.
And while the half dozen strategists who have advised top-tier Democratic candidates in Iowa say Buttigieg doesn't have to win, several say finishing behind Biden would be trouble.
“If Buttigieg can beat Biden, and Klobuchar, it sets him up to be a real alternative to Sanders and Warren," the two most progressive candidates in the top tier, said Jennifer Psaki, an Obama campaign alumna who served in the White House and State Department. “And that’s key for him moving forward.”
It is that primary within the primary dynamic that is shaping the race.
“He has to beat Biden in Iowa to keep this going in a serious way," said David Axelrod, an architect of Obama's 2008 victory. “The predicate of his race has always been he’s a younger, more contemporary, sturdier alternative to Biden in the center-left lane. If Biden does better than him, it kind of destroys the predicate.”
Buttigieg's rise in Iowa has been unlikely but steady, beginning with early summer interest from activists such as suburban Des Moines Democrat Becky Steinfeldt. She was captivated by Buttigieg's performance during a CNN town hall, and then later introduced him to her neighbors in her Adel living room.
From there, the campaign undertook the low-cost effort to build a network, with similar believers calling through their social networks, while Buttigieg spent last spring and summer raising $50 million, money he used to build an organization with a staff of 130.
Three months later Buttigieg finds his four Senate rivals trapped in Washington for the impeachment trial. He is going to spend at least 10 days in Iowa in the run-up to the caucuses.
One of his campaign forays was his third trip north along the banks of the Mississippi River, drawing larger crowds than any of his rivals on a trip through counties won by Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016.
Speaking to a large crowd in Dubuque on Wednesday, he seemed to acknowledge the need to be a top finisher.
He told the crowd that they had helped him build "a movement that has us taking our place alongside the best-known names in American politics and on track to win the Iowa caucuses."
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