Washington (AFP) - As the votes trickle in from the Iowa caucuses, the first contest in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Joe Biden appears headed for a fourth-place finish, a lackluster showing he described as a "gut punch."
If the results hold, it would be a disappointing performance for the former vice president making his third run for the White House.
Biden has consistently topped the national polls since jumping into the crowded Democratic field and most surveys give him the best chance against President Donald Trump in November's presidential election.
But the 77-year-old former senator from Delaware has failed to generate the fund-raising numbers or the enthusiasm levels of his rivals for the top spot on the Democratic ticket.
With 71 percent of the Iowa vote reported, Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is in the lead, closely trailed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, making his second charge for the nomination in four years.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is next followed by Biden and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.
While Sanders and Warren represent the left-wing of the Democratic Party, Buttigieg, Biden and Klobuchar have been fighting for the center.
That battle has seemingly been won -- for the moment, at least -- by the 38-year-old Buttigieg, a complete unknown on the national political stage a year ago.
Buttigieg may have been helped to some extent by the fact that Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar have been largely off the campaign trail for the past two weeks, stuck in Washington attending the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
But Biden had the same advantage as Buttigieg of an open field in Iowa and ended up significantly underperforming polls that had him neck-and-neck with Sanders going into Monday's caucuses in the midwestern farm state.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virgina, said it was too early to count Biden out but his performance in Iowa was definitely a setback to his hopes of winning the nomination.
Biden acknowledged as much during a town hall on Wednesday in New Hampshire, which holds the next contest in the Democratic race on February 11.
"I'm not going to sugarcoat it," Biden said."We took a gut punch in Iowa."
But he vowed to stick it out.
"This isn't the first time in my life I've been knocked down," Biden said."I'm not going anywhere.And I'm counting on New Hampshire."
Sabato is not bullish on the former vice president's chances in the Granite State, where the latest polls give Sanders a solid lead.
"He's probably going to lose New Hampshire," he said.
"And then Nevada?" Sabato asked of the western state which holds caucuses on February 22. "I just don't know."
"The union people in Nevada will maybe go to Biden but Hispanics don't seem that excited about him," he said."They're more excited about Sanders."
Sabato said Biden will need a victory in New Hampshire or Nevada to build some momentum going into the primary on February 29 in South Carolina, a state he is favored to win with strong African-American support.
"Maybe he can find a way to survive in viable form long enough to win South Carolina and then he gets a boost into Super Tuesday," Sabato said, when 14 states hold primaries.
"But then he's facing Michael Bloomberg there and everybody else," Sabato said of the former New York mayor and billionaire who is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising."Bloomberg is really cutting into his support."
Biden's fund-raising has lagged behind Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg and a lack of enthusiasm is noticeable at his rallies compared with those of other candidates who draw larger and rowdier crowds.
"This is a Joe Biden presidential campaign all over again," Sabato said.
"He's had two of them and he did miserably the other two times," he said of 1988 and 2008, when Biden lost bids for the Democratic nomination to Michael Dukakis and Barack Obama respectively.
"The point is how do you fix that?" Sabato asked."Everybody says that he might be able to beat Trump but you have all these other alternatives that get Democrat activists' blood flowing."