Joe Biden’s disappointing finish in the Iowa caucuses has rattled his donor base and lowered his cash reserves.
In New Hampshire – the next state to vote in the primaries to pick a Democratic Party candidate to run against President Donald Trump – Mr Biden insisted he had a “good night” in Iowa.
This was despite trailing the top moderate candidate, former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg and the leading progressive, Bernie Sanders, according to initial returns from 62% of precincts.
Mr Biden was running fourth, close to Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who just days ago polled in single digits.
That leaves some establishment Democrats, including some Biden supporters, questioning his contention that he will reclaim clear front-runner status in the race against Mr Trump once the primary fight moves beyond overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire to more racially diverse electorates.
And it is a reminder of how Mr Biden’s previous presidential campaigns never advanced beyond Iowa.
“If he came in fourth, yeah, that could hurt,” said Bill Freeman, a Biden donor from Nashville, Tennessee, who added that he had not even considered such a possibility before Monday’s caucuses.
“That’s a bad night, no matter how you spin it.”
Most precarious for Mr Biden is that some of the would-be donors he could win over with a strong showing are giving new looks to Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor whose strategy of sitting out the four early nominating states is pegged to the possibility that Mr Biden falters.
Mr Bloomberg, one of the world’s wealthiest men with a net worth approaching $60 billion, is not asking for money. He is simply looking for support that could cut off financial lifelines to Mr Biden, whose campaign reported just $9 million (£6.9 million) cash on hand to start the year.
That is money Mr Biden needs to remain competitive with Mr Buttigieg, as well as Senator Elizabeth Warren and Mr Sanders, who have raised massive sums from small-dollar online contributors who have been far less generous to Mr Biden.
Alex Sink, a Democratic donor who hosted Hillary Clinton in the 2016 race, said many donors are holding back, waiting to see how Mr Biden does.
They are also keeping an open mind about Mr Bloomberg, whose campaign asked Ms Sink last week to attend an event in Tampa.
“I was anxious to do it because, like so many others, I’m curious and interested and worried about who our candidate will be and how we are going to beat Trump,” she said.
“Most of my friends don’t know yet who they are voting for.”
Biden aides have said for months that he did not have to win in Iowa or on February 11 in New Hampshire because he was better positioned in Nevada’s February 22 caucuses, South Carolina’s February 29 primary and a slate of March 3 primaries with more than a third of the Democrats’ national delegates at stake on a single day.
That never meant, however, that Mr Biden could sustain a bad showing in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The approach was also an expensive one, requiring deep campaign reserves to finance advertising and staffing in Nevada, South Carolina and delegate-rich states such as California and Texas.
But Mr Buttigieg and Ms Klobuchar have their own challenges if they hope to displace Mr Biden as the presumed establishment favourite.
Does (Joe Biden) have infrastructure in South Carolina to win four out of the seven congressional districts?
They both have negligible support among non-whites and Ms Klobuchar especially has far more financial obstacles than Mr Biden.
Clay Middleton, a South Carolina Democrat who worked for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Cory Booker’s now-suspended presidential campaign, said that Iowa does not have to bury Mr Biden but that he and every other candidate faces a delicate path trying to amass delegates.
“The conditions are not the same now,” Mr Middleton said, referring to when Mr Biden dropped his 2008 bid after Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses.
“But again, does he have infrastructure in South Carolina to win four out of the seven congressional districts, and does he have the infrastructure in Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, as part of his Super Tuesday strategy? That’s the real test.”