Elizabeth Warren rose in the Democratic presidential nomination race on policy strengths but in recent months her campaign slipped into political quicksand, overshadowed by two rivals: one a radical populist, the other more moderate.
On Tuesday, the 70-year-old Massachusetts senator, a combination of ebullient campaign trail charm and schoolmarmish determination, suffered her worst setback yet, a multi-state thrashing at the polls by fellow candidates Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden.
With 18 of 50 statewide contests complete -- 14 of them on Super Tuesday -- Warren placed first or second in none of them, including her home state of Massachusetts, a clear embarrassment.
Onetime nomination rival Andrew Yang, a tech entrepreneur who quit the race last month, weighed in on Twitter: "Elizabeth Warren deserves to be doing better than this."
Her transparency about her campaign's costly health care plan may have spooked voters. Perhaps her debate stage evisceration of Michael Bloomberg made her appear too strident, as critics claimed.
Some may have rejected her about-face on accepting donations from deep-pocketed political groups. Or are Americans just not ready to elect a woman president?
There are several possible reasons why Warren surged into the top tier of candidates last summer only to flounder at the voting booth for the past month.
Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics pointed to one of the clearer hypotheses: she was squeezed from both sides.
"Warren got crowded out by Sanders to her left and more moderate candidates to her right, to the point where I don't think she had much of a constituency beyond some high-end suburban voters," Kondik said.
Campaign manager Roger Lau said Wednesday that Warren was taking time to "assess the path forward."
But by most measures her candidacy is dead.
Sanders revealed that he spoke with Warren on Wednesday but did not say whether he asked for her endorsement.
The Washington Post reported the two camps were in early discussions about possibly joining forces in the event Warren drops out of the race.
But in a sign Warren is awkwardly perched between her two rivals, her allies were also in talks with Biden's team about a possible endorsement, the daily said.
Ideology vs details
Warren's unusual silence Wednesday contrasted sharply with the enthusiastic chants of "Dream big! Fight hard!" that have echoed through her rallies.
The former Harvard law professor cut her teeth on the 2008 financial crisis, guiding president Barack Obama towards creation of a consumer protection agency to help weather the recession.
Her experience as a number-crunching people's advocate helped project her early image as a can-do policy wonk.
"I have a plan for that," she said at rallies, where she pushed proposals for everything from tackling the climate crisis to investing in rural America, rather than focusing like a laser on making 2020 a referendum on Trump.
"Bernie has these broad ideological brush strokes. Warren said she has specifics," Tobe Berkovitz, associate professor of advertising at Boston University and a longtime Democratic media consultant, told AFP.
"If you're very specific, sooner or later you're going to have to explain it."
A case in point is Medicare for All. While Sanders has been vague about what his plan for a government-run health system would cost, Warren announced her estimate: an eye-popping $20.5 trillion over 10 years.
Cries of fiscal overload followed.
She also faced a backlash when she and Sanders exchanged strong words this year. Warren criticized him for telling her privately that he believed a female nominee could not defeat Trump.
"She couldn't figure out a way to attack Bernie and really go after his voters, who were part of her potential base," Berkovitz said.
Pundits have theorized that Warren does not have the "electability" of a Biden or Sanders.
But feminist writer Jessica Valenti, who has described the "misogynist condescension" she has received for supporting Warren, said gender bias is playing a role in the race.
"Don't tell me this isn't about sexism," Valenti wrote in an essay on Medium.
There are also intangible qualities at play in politics, beyond a well-oiled campaign operation or relentless ground game, that can make or break a candidate.
Voters "want someone they think is in their corner, is going to fight for them, and is authentic," Berkovitz said.
Trump and Sanders managed to convey that to voters, he added, but "Warren didn't."