MANCHESTER, N.H. — Elizabeth Warren often says she has wended a “twisty-turny’’ path through life, telling crowds she is a onetime college dropout and a divorcee who became a presidential candidate.
Now, any path the Massachusetts senator can cut to the Democratic nomination could be just as convoluted, as she and her advisers face the possibility of leaving the first two states without a win or even a second-place finish.
“There’s lots of folks who are going to talk about what’s not winnable, what can’t be done, and definitely who can’t do it,’’ Warren said as she launched a wave of canvassers here on Saturday afternoon. She added, “I’ve been winning un-winnable fights pretty much all my life.’’
Warren’s third-place finish in Iowa on Monday deprived her of a boost ahead of the first-in-the-nation primary Tuesday in New Hampshire, a place where her progressive rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, has a core of devoted supporters. Polling shows Warren trailing him and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg here, raising the specter of another third-place finish — or worse — right out of the gate in the 2020 race.
But the candidate and her campaign are neither panicking nor shaking up their strategy to launch her back into the scrum at the very top of the race. In the week before the New Hampshire vote, that strategy left Warren on the peripheries of the media spotlight — even at Friday’s debate — that was trained on Sanders, Buttigieg, and the floundering campaign of former vice president Joe Biden.
Instead, the Warren campaign has suggested that winning the primary in her neighboring state is not essential to her path to victory — raising the eyebrows of some of her rivals — and is pointing instead to her expansive nationwide organization.
Last month, Warren’s campaign manager, Roger Lau, sent out a memo that called early states like Iowa and New Hampshire “just the beginning,’’ and emphasized how the campaign is already building infrastructure in states like Michigan. More recently, Warren and her supporters have sidestepped specific questions about the importance of winning Iowa or New Hampshire for her nationwide ambitions, even though she invested heavily in both.
“I don’t know frankly what Iowa showed us at all,’’ said Maura Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general and a Warren supporter, in Manchester on Friday night. “She’s working her tail off here, but I think it’s important to note that this is a campaign that is really set up strong in 31 states.’’
The emphasis on Warren’s vast operation may be a sign of a coming attempt to capitalize on the wide and unsettled field, notching delegates as other candidates rise and fall in an attempt to emerge eventually as a consensus candidate.
It is a strategy laid out in a campaign sign spotted recently in Warren’s Seacoast field office: “Outwork, out-organize, out-last.’’
While Warren’s New Hampshire supporters suggested her campaign could go the distance no matter what happens on Tuesday, backers of other candidates were looking for a potentially painful blow.
“We see her name in the papers a lot. . . . She was in New Hampshire a lot campaigning for Hillary [Clinton],’’ said Steve Shurtleff, the Democratic speaker of the New Hampshire House, who supports Biden. “So I think people really expected her to do very well in the New Hampshire primary. And coming in third in Iowa, if she comes in third or fourth in this race, I think it could have an impact on her campaign.’’
For Warren, there are no guarantees. Sustaining a staff of more than 1,000 around the nation is expensive, and her campaign already canceled advertising last week in an apparent acknowledgment of money concerns. Without a primary win to give her a boost — and fund-raising that comes with it — the campaign could face considerable financial strain.
What’s more, Warren’s showing in Iowa — in which she outperformed her polling numbers, but still trailed two other rivals — demonstrated the limits of a ground game that even rival campaigns described as the strongest in the state.
“She’s been the most disciplined candidate. They have had the best organization, the best digital, they really have been the better campaign,’’ said Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic campaign operative, “but they continue to find out it’s not as easy as it looks.“
Warren arrived in New Hampshire early Tuesday morning, slept for 90 minutes, and then hit the campaign trial. But what she and her staff initially described as a “tight, three-way race at the top’’ soon gave way to something different as caucus results were released: A tie between Buttigieg and Sanders, with Warren following 8 points behind in state delegate equivalents.
The chaos of the caucuses blunted the impact of the two leaders’ apparent success, but it also sucked up the oxygen as Warren stuck to the tried-and-true, policy-heavy strategy that has undergirded much of her campaign.
Biden sought to revive his candidacy after his devastating fourth place Iowa finish by highlighting the risks of nominating Buttigieg or Sanders. At the same time, Sanders and Buttigieg battled over the question of which of them had actually won.
Meanwhile, Warren sought to hover above the fray.
At a campaign event in Nashua on Wednesday, her campaign distributed signs saying “Unite the party,’’ reflecting her bet that she can eventually bring supporters of other campaigns under her wing — but only if she stays out of the intra-party fight now.
But other candidates — especially Buttigieg — are also pitching themselves as potential uniters in chief, and Warren’s brand as a crusading Democrat makes it hard for some voters to buy her unity pitch.
“I think her plans, the way she presented them, turned off a lot of the population, including me — they’re very expensive, maybe a little too extreme,’’ said Bob Huntley, an independent voter who attended Warren’s event in Nashua but said he was more interested in candidates like Buttigieg, Biden, and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Other voters who saw Warren speak said she changed their minds about her.
“She’s very progressive for me,’’ said Sheila Vara, 66, a teacher who saw her on Tuesday in Keene. “Everything that I saw offered, from energy to words to her deep knowledge and her passion, has swayed me.’’
Democrats in New Hampshire say Warren’s campaign organizers have been working since early last year, and praised her detailed ground game here — just as they did in Iowa. But they also said Buttigieg has made significant gains.
Buttigieg notched considerable victories in rural Iowa counties, according to what the state party has released so far. Warren, however, won only Johnson County, home to the University of Iowa, yet still managed to come in third overall, which her backers there said was a positive sign.
“You are the second and third choice of a lot of folks in the race,’’ said Iowa state Senator Zach Wahls. “Even though it’s not a sexy outcome, I think it shows she’s got staying power.’’
Warren’s struggle to grab headlines last week extended to Friday night’s debate. She seized less speaking time than the top three candidates — Sanders, Biden, and Buttigieg — as well as Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. It was an unusually quiet showing for a candidate who has claimed the most speaking time at four previous debates.
Speaking on MSNBC afterward, Warren said she leaves debates thinking, “I want to do a good job for you, for all of the people whose lives could be touched by those plans. And I just didn’t say enough, didn’t fight hard enough, didn’t tell you how bad I want this and how good we could make it if we just come together.’’
By Saturday, however, Warren had returned to a signature rallying cry, one that she rarely deploys on the campaign trail. Speaking in front of hundreds of volunteers, she recalled how Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell silenced her on the Senate floor three years ago when she was quoting Coretta Scott King to object to the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be attorney general.
He used a phrase that she seized on and made famous: Nevertheless, she persisted.
“Mitch McConnell said those words that a lot of women put on T-shirts, a lot embroidered onto pillows, a lot have had tattooed on their bodies,’’ she said, to a roar from the crowd.
The groundswell of that moment stood in some contrast to the position she finds herself in now. But even her opponents said it was too early to write her off.
“She’s a very strong candidate and she’s from next door,’’ said Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to Sanders.
“I don’t count Elizabeth Warren out ever.’’
Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.