Ron DeSantis claimed he got what he came for in Iowa after defying late polling predictions to claim second in the state.
The Florida governor argued the result proved he still belonged in the Republican race to beat Donald Trump.
But the 45-year-old staked everything on Iowa’s caucuses, which kicked off the contest, and if he couldn’t win here, it is unlikely he can win anywhere.
Mr DeSantis trails Mr Trump nationally by 50 points. He finds himself low on money and with no path to victory in the next three states to vote.
New Hampshire, where Nikki Haley is leading among its more moderate electorate, goes next.
Then comes Nevada, where the state GOP has tweaked the rules to strongly favour the front-runner, Mr Trump.
Next is South Carolina, home to Ms Haley, and where Mr DeSantis is polling a distant third.
He must also battle low staffing morale. The DeSantis effort spent $34 million (£26.9 million) in adverts and knocked on close to a million doors in Iowa.
And yet he trailed Mr Trump by 30 points and barely fended off Ms Haley, who only became a serious contender in the Midwestern state late last year.
The result has called into question Mr DeSantis’s reason for being in the race.
He ran to the hard Right of Mr Trump, pushing a six-week abortion ban and other staunchly conservative positions at the cost of his chances in later voting states.
It was all in search of the Evangelical voters who crowned Iowa’s victors in 2008, 2012 and 2016. But two-thirds of the Christian-right backed Mr Trump on Monday night.
The former president won 51 per cent of the state’s total Republican voters – more than Mr DeSantis and Ms Haley combined.
One major donor, Dan Eberhart, told The Telegraph the governor was “definitely still in the hunt”. But many others have since abandoned him.
When his political obituary is written, Mr DeSantis may go down as one of the most underwhelming candidates in recent history.
He could not have had a better starting point. He remade a critical purple state into a Republican utopia with a landslide 2022 re-election in Florida.
And he appeared to combine Mr Trump’s shrewd understanding of waging culture wars with a more traditional political pedigree, as a Navy veteran with an Ivy League education and a telegenic wife.
But he struggled to convert the early enthusiasm and a huge war chest into real support.
His wooden public performances and staffing mismanagement take a portion of the blame.
Mr DeSantis himself pointed the finger at the “Praetorian Guard of the conservative media”, which he claimed was shilling for Mr Trump. Ultimately, it was a fundamental strategic blunder that cost him.
He gambled on winning the “MAGA” base by attempting to out-Trump Mr Trump. He discovered that replicating the former president’s success takes more than simply mimicking him.