You don’t get to pick which war you fight in.

When Cory Booker burst onto the national scene earlier this decade as the do-good mayor of Newark, New Jersey, most thought he was presidential timber. He agreed. Doubtless he believed his best case scenario was landing on the 2016 ticket as Vice President, with a subsequent White House bid of his own.

But by the time Booker joined the Senate in 2013, his odds were lengthening. Questions swirled about his management of Newark — or if he even truly lived there. And by the time Donald Trump seized the White House, Booker became better known for garnering buffoonish headlines — he wasn’t a future president or a thoroughbred. He was ‘Spartacus’.

But here’s what the smart set underestimated: most Americans, including most Democratic-leaning Americans, have never heard of Cory Booker. Wednesday night in Miami was Booker’s first turn round the paddock, a chance to introduce himself to America. He did pretty well.

‘In my community, African Americans have a lower life expectancy because of poorer healthcare. And so where I stand is very clear: healthcare, it’s not just a human right, it should be an American right,’ Booker said.

Booker would still have to execute a viciously effective campaign and put on a burst of speed in the home strait to win his party’s nomination. But unlike other candidates outside the top tier — Steve Bullock, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, or even Beto O’Rourke — there is actually a path for Booker to get out of the pack and nose ahead.

Here’s what it would look like: the albatross of the race, Joe Biden, falters by the South Carolina primary next year. Biden is Booker’s main rival for two pools of power— black votes and Wall Street money. If Biden wins Iowa, I’m of the view that this race is over. The runaway frontrunner’s advantages are too pronounced relative to the field for him to draw first blood, as well.

‘Booker fared well in the debate and he has an opportunity to capitalize on it. Can he? Not sure,’ Larry Sabato, Director of Center for Politics at University of Virginia, told me. ‘But Biden and Harris are fighting with Booker for the African American vote, and so far Biden’s winning.’ Booker rises as Biden falls, although the duo don’t make the most implausible ticket.

On the other hand, if an Elizabeth Warren or a Pete Buttigieg or a Bernie Sanders captures Iowa, and then perhaps New Hampshire, the race changes. Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg will struggle in South Carolina. That’s where Booker comes in. Flash data after last night’s debate showed a surge of interest in Booker, where? The South.

It’s the irony of Democratic primaries: red states enjoy a veto on the nominee. In other words, states that won’t go for the left in the general election nonetheless pick the nominee. African Americans in the South are the evangelicals of the Right. You have to win or at least pacify this contingent. Just ask Bernie Sanders, who despite his genuine best efforts, was battered by the demographic in the 2016 South Carolina primary, dooming his White House bid.

Booker would love to run against a Warren or Sanders, or run a nastier campaign in the South against Buttigieg. He would argue the former group is too far left, and would rake in dough from a Wall Street petrified by the prospect of a hard-left standard-bearer. Cue his answer Wednesday night on Iran: he would not automatically re-enter the old nuclear deal, he said. This may seem an odd stance for a Democratic pol, but it will win him credit with his party’s hawkish, centrist power brokers, such as Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, or Eliot Engel, the House foreign affairs chair, both of whom opposed Obama’s deal. I am a foreign policy journalist: I doubt such a stance will hurt Booker much in his power base, the South, which is reverential of the military.

The New Jersey senator’s politics are not my own. Sanity restored on Iran would be one of the few, salient benefits of a restored Democratic administration. But you don’t have to squint all that hard to see that Booker is saddling up as the dark horse candidate in this year’s Democratic race.