By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS  – When you factor in where Pete Buttigieg was a year ago – poised as a potential Dennis Kucinich or Alan Keyes of presidential politics – and where he is today, poised as a top-tier candidate after what appears to be a virtual tie in the Iowa caucuses (Buttigieg had a 26.2% to 26.1% lead over Bernie Sanders with 100% of precincts reporting late last night), the pertinent question is whether the sky, or 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., will be his limit.

From a Hoosier perspective, “Mayor Pete” has already eclipsed the late Sens. Birch Bayh’s (13%) and Richard Lugar’s (4%) presidential campaigns in their 1976 and 1996 Iowa caucus runs. He has outlasted and out-raised Sen. Evan Bayh and Vice President Dan Quayle in their 2008 and 2000 presidential excursions.

“Official, verified caucus results from state of Iowa, they’re not complete but the results are the majority and they show our campaign in first place,” Buttigieg said at a rally at Laconia, N.H., minutes after the results began coming Wednesday. “We don’t know all of the numbers but we know this much, the campaign that started a year ago with four staff members, no name recognition, no money, just a big idea; a campaign that some said had no business even making this attempt, has taken its place at the front of this race to replace the current president.”

Buttigieg continued, “No matter what happens next, this much is undeniable: That fact represents an astonishing victory for this campaign, this candidacy and this vision you have all been a part of. This validates the message that connects the urban, the rural, and suburban communities, that we can reach out to Democrats, independents and even some future former Republicans ready to bring change to this country.”

Iowa was key in the inevitable “electability” question for Buttigieg. He needed to demonstrate he could win in a Midwestern state, and conspicuously targeting Republicans dovetailed into his emerging narrative that he can go toe-to-toe with President Trump.

Tuesday night’s Iowa meltdown essentially deprived the former South Bend mayor of the polling bump the caucus winner would get. But he overcame Sen. Bernie Sanders’s pitchfork brigades, stands to feast on moderate lane supporters of the swooning Joe Biden in the next few weeks, and faces the unprecedented wealth of a fellow former mayor in Michael Bloomberg. Biden said in New Hampshire on Wednesday, “I’m not going to sugar coat it. We took a gut punch in Iowa.”

Take into account the extensive ground game he has laid in the Super Tuesday state of California, and the notion that Buttigieg has the potential to become the first Hoosier to win a Democratic presidential nomination is not particularly far-fetched.

Buttigieg has already made history, becoming the first openly gay major party presidential contender to make it into the top tier campaigns. That he made his late Iowa campaign push in a series of Obama-to-Trump counties in mostly rural portions of the Hawkeye State is equally impressive and portends an evolving electorate. Buttigieg has targeted what he calls “future former Republicans,” who have the ability to vote in New Hampshire next Tuesday.

William Saletan writing in Slate, observed, “Several candidates, including Biden and Klobuchar, have promised to beat Trump by building a coalition that reaches beyond the left. But in Iowa, Buttigieg proved that he can put together that kind of coalition. He won decisively among caucusgoers who called themselves ‘somewhat liberal’ — a segment that represented more than 40% of attendees — and he tied Biden for the lead among moderates. Among independents, he trailed Sanders but outpolled Biden.” 

As of Wednesday morning, Buttigieg was winning 60 of Iowa’s 99 counties. Sanders had 18 counties. Biden had seven. With 96.94% of Iowa results filed, Buttigieg had  26.2%, Sanders at 26.1%, Elizabeth Warren was 18.2%, Joe Biden at 15.8% and Amy Klobuchar at 12.2%. Buttigieg had a four delegate state equivalent lead. 

NH supposedly Sanders country

The Granite State is expected to be friendly territory for Vermont’s Sanders and Massachusetts’ Warren, but Sanders’ army of supporters did not create what many had projected to be a record caucus turnout. In a continuation of movement picked up in last night’s WBZ/Boston Globe/Suffolk University tracking poll, it’s another day of good results in New Hampshire for Buttigieg (CBSBoston). Sanders continues to lead the field with 25%, but Buttigieg is closing in with a 19% showing, his best yet in this poll. Buttigieg is up 8% from last week. Biden dropped three points from last night to 12%, and Warren is holding steady at 11%. Looking deeper into the crosstabs, Buttigieg appears to be siphoning voters away from Biden in a couple of key areas. He’s up by 4% among women while Biden is down by 4%, with a similar scenario among registered Democrats, a crucial demographic for Biden. 

A Saint Anselm College Survey Center had Sanders and Biden at 19%, followed by Buttigieg at 14%, and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar at 11%.

On Thursday, Buttigieg will sit down with “The View,” hold a conversation with New Hampshire veterans, join CNN for a live town hall, and appear on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” On Friday, he will step onstage for the ABC/WMUR Democratic Primary debate. On Saturday, Buttigieg will speak at the “Our Rights, Our Courts” forum, host GOTV rallies in Keene and Lebanon, and join the McIntyre-Shaheen “100 Club” event. And on Saturday, the former South Bend mayor will host GOTV rallies in Nashua and Dover.

Sanders had a $5 million-to-$3 million TV ad edge over Buttigieg, according to MSNBC. Politico reported that Sanders raised $25 million on January, prompting Buttigieg to schedule several fundraisers in the coming week.

Buttigieg told the Manchester Union-Leader, “I recognize I am competing with not one but two New England senators from states touching New Hampshire. We recognize this is a competitive challenge but I think that the independent nature that is so important here in New Hampshire also allows us to prove once again that this is a campaign that can bring in many different kinds of people across the spectrum and form the coalition that can defeat Donald Trump.”

Winning the spin

Buttigieg is clicking on several key attributes that should take him into Super Tuesday in a little less than a month. His communications guru Lis Smith continues to land the candidate on the talk shows. He was the only contender to make the full round on last Sunday’s shows (sans Fox News Sunday, though he did a town hall with that network earlier in the week).

While he was the fifth candidate to enter the dead air space after the Iowa caucus debacle was realized around 11 p.m., he made Wednesday morning headlines, declaring, “Because tonight, an improbable hope became an undeniable reality. So we don’t know all the results, but we know by the time it’s all said and done, Iowa, you have shocked the nation because by all indications, we are going on to New Hampshire victorious.”

Politico reported that he was winning the post-Iowa spin game; for the second straight day, Buttigieg captured the limelight, at one point choking back tears during a nationally televised news conference where he seemed to acknowledge the triumph of ascending to this place in a presidential primary without specifically saying so. If his lead holds, Buttigieg will have accomplished a phenomenal feat, catapulting from little-known mayor with an unusual name to a formidable national figure who would go on to edge out some of the most recognizable names in Democratic politics.

“If you watched all the speeches last night with the sound down, you would say Mayor Pete won and gave a victory speech and everyone else gave a regular speech,” Iowa consultant Jeff Link told Politico. “It just looked like a victory speech, the crowd was fired up, he was fired up, he was energetic.”

That contrasted with poorly attended Biden rallies and Sanders’ cranky demeanor. Axios reported Wednesday, that Buttigieg sees a moment to overtake Biden with an electability message after the scrambled Iowa results left some top Biden supporters distraught. If the partial results released yesterday by the Iowa Democratic Party had been trumpeted Monday night instead of being delayed by the app snafu, Buttigieg would have been a national sensation. Instead, Buttigieg’s kinda-victory declaration before results were out – which his rivals’ surrogates criticized as presumptuous and shady – was drowned out by the macro story of the Democrats’ embarrassing disaster.”

If Buttigieg answered some of the electability questions surrounding his candidacy, Biden fired this salvo at Sanders: “If Sen. Sanders is the nominee ... every candidate in our party will have to carry the label he’s given to himself, Democratic socialist. You’ve already seen what President Trump will do with that. Donald Trump is desperate to pin the socialist label of socialist, socialist, socialist, on our party. We can’t let him do that.” Biden also said of Buttigieg, “I have great respect for Mayor Pete and his service to this nation. But I do believe it’s a risk, to be just straight up with you, for this party to nominate someone who’s never held an office higher than mayor of a town of 100,000 people in Indiana.”

That didn’t work so well in Iowa.

Hogsett to file Pete’s paperwork

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and Pete for America volunteers will submit over 8,300 signatures to officially place Pete Buttigieg on Indiana’s Democratic primary ballot at the Indiana Secretary of State’s office at 11:45 a.m. today.