Phil Gramm's struggling presidential campaign has been struck a heavy, perhaps mortal, blow by his unexpected defeat at the hands of Pat Buchanan, the commentator and former Reagan speechwriter, in the Louisiana caucuses - the first votes which count in the chase for the 1996 Republican nomination.
Yesterday victor and vanquished headed back to Iowa, where the first major contest of the season takes place on Monday. But the credibility of Mr Gramm's bid for the White House has taken a hammering after his 62-38 per cent loss to Mr Buchanan, in a state next door to his home base of Texas, and where just a few weeks ago he had been predicting a clean sweep of the 21 convention delegates at stake.
Instead, 13 of them went to Mr Buchanan, proof of what he called "a new movement of conservatism, sweeping across the country." Such claims may be a trifle exaggerated after an event which was ill-organised and spurned by the other major candidates and attracted a derisory 30,000 voters, just 7 per cent of Louisiana's 450,000 registered Republicans.
But in American politics, it is results, not turnout, which count. However hollow, Mr Buchanan's win on Tuesday evening positions him as the leading conservative challenger to Senator Bob Dole and the publisher Steve Forbes, whose outsider image and massive negative advertising onslaught against Mr Dole have catapulted him into second place in the field.
But for Mr Gramm, survival is now the name of the game - in other words to finish at least in the top three in Iowa before the make-or-break New Hampshire primary on 20 February, where polls suggest he needs a miracle to break out of single figures. Mr Gramm is already short of money. Failures in Iowa and New Hampshire could drive him from the contest.
Though the immediate beneficiary was Mr Buchanan, who won overwhelmingly among poorer and religious right Republicans in Louisiana, the man who gains most may well be Mr Dole who, like Mr Forbes and the former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander, did not campaign there out of deference to Iowa's traditional kick-off role in the presidential voting season.
Of all the claimants to the conservative vote, it was the supposedly well-organised and well-funded Mr Gramm who worried the Senate majority leader far more than Mr Buchanan, considered ultimately unelectable. Now, says the Dole campaign press spokesman, Nelson Warfield, the Texas Senator's White House aspirations have been "boiled and peeled like a Louisiana crawfish."
Compounding Mr Gramm's miseries was his absence this week from a Senate vote on an agriculture bill of much importance to farm states such as Iowa. The measure failed to pass by a single vote - which will not enhance his prospects in Monday's caucuses.
Meanwhile, every sign is that as the key early tests approach, the loyalties of likely Republican voters are more fluid than ever. A new poll in Iowa shows Mr Dole ahead of Mr Forbes by 22 per cent to 14 per cent, but with a startling 42 per cent undecided. In New Hampshire the two men are neck- and-neck. However, both Mr Buchanan and Mr Alexander are beginning to creep closer.
In both states the pattern is similar, with voters unenthusiastic about Mr Dole but increasingly irritated by Mr Forbes's relentless attack advertising, a central prong of a campaign on which he has already lavished $15m of his own money. Unlike the multi-millionaire publisher though, Mr Dole simply must win Iowa, a farm state close to his native Kansas and in which he won 38 per cent in his last bid for the Presidency, in 1988.