Hillary Clinton roared back into contention for the Democratic presidential nomination last night, with a convincing win in Ohio and a narrow – but psychologically crucial – victory in the Texas primary.
It was an astonishing comeback for the former First Lady and one-time frontrunner whose presidential aspirations had been hanging by a thread in the wake of 11 consecutive primary and caucus victories chalked up over the past month by her rival, Barack Obama.
She may not have entirely seized back the momentum in the race – she remains behind in the nominating delegate count, and also in the overall popular vote – but she certainly succeeded in halting Senator Obama's own momentum, which had seemed well-nigh unstoppable until just a few days before yesterday's contests.
Mrs Clinton had to win both big states on what had been dubbed a second Super Tuesday, and she did – even if she looked set to lose a second, simultaneous caucus contest in Texas and with it the overall delegate count in the Lone Star State.
She also won handily in tiny Rhode Island. Senator Obama, meanwhile, trounced her in Vermont. In a busy political night, John McCain also clinched the Republican nomination by delivering the coup de grace to last of his rivals, the evangelical preacher and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
Three out of four victories, including the two big ones, were more than enough for Mrs Clinton to enjoy her most triumphant night since her come-back-from-behind victory in the New Hampshire primary almost two months ago. Smiling broadly from ear to ear, she appeared before her supporters in the Ohio capital of Columbus in a blizzard of ticker tape.
"For everyone who's ever been counted out but refused to be knocked out," she said, to cheers and applause, "and for everyone who has stumbled but stood right back up, and for everyone who works hard and never gives up, this one is for you!"
She began to make a case her campaign is likely to hammer home over the next few days – that she can deliver where it counts, in big states like New York and California and, now, Texas and Ohio. Ohio, in particular, she characterised as a bellwether for both the primaries and the general election.
"It's a state that knows how to pick a president," she said. "And no candidate in recent history, Democrat or Republican, has won the White House without winning the Ohio primary."
Her argument was not entirely fair – the main reason nominees have tended to win the Ohio primary is that, in the past, it has fallen too late in the electoral calendar to be significant – but her elated supporters lapped it up anyway.
Even Mrs Clinton's detractors acknowledged that her sheer tenaciousness has seen her through when many had been prepared to write her off as the also-ran in the nomination race.
She did it largely with a barrage of negative campaigning against Senator Obama, characterising him as light on substance and unprepared to take on the presidency's awesome responsibilities, and also with a helping hand from her friends in the entertainment industry, who helped make her case that she was the victim of media bias and given too little credit for her achievements.
In the crucial last 48 hours before the election, she exploited a meeting between one of Mr Obama's advisers and the Canadian consulate in Chicago to make him look insincere in his criticisms of free trade. She also ran a deliberately heartstring-tugging advert showing children sleeping peacefully in their bed and a phone ringing somewhere in the White House auguring a national security crisis. She, like the voiceover in the advert, repeatedly asked voters at her final rallies who they would rather have answer that phone.
Mr Obama did his best to answer each of these criticisms and redirect them back at his opponent, but the attacks clearly threw him off his stride and gave her the lion's share of the positive media coverage in the closing hours of the campaign. Exit polling showed that Texas voters who made up their minds in the last three days broke roughly 63 per cent to 37 per cent for Mrs Clinton. Last-minute decision-makers in Ohio broke for her by a similar margin.
The big, unanswerable question is how this dynamic will play out from here. The Clinton campaign clearly hopes it can convince the voters in Wyoming (voting on Saturday), Mississippi (next Tuesday) and Pennsylvania (April 22) that it has found the crucial chink in Senator Obama's armour and can now expose him as a man unready to take on the world's most powerful political job.
The Obama campaign, by contrast, is hoping her negative approach will take the trajectory it did in January, when it helped her win the popular vote in the Nevada caucus but then landed her in a world of trouble in South Carolina, where Bill Clinton's racially insensitive dismissals of Mr Obama lost her the black vote - not only in South Carolina but in every susbsequent race. In other words, it helped her in the short term but ended up doing her more harm than good.
One sign of hope for Mr Obama is that voters in Ohio told exit pollsters they did indeed think that Mrs Clinton had been too negative. Senator Obama himself alluded to the tone of the campaign in an address he gave to his supporters in San Antonio. "The world is watching what we do here. The world is paying attention to how we conduct ourselves," he said. "What will we they see? What will we tell them? What will we show them?"
Senator Obama chose to give his address before the Texas primary result came in. Rather than dwell on his inability to finish off Mrs Clinton, as his campaign had hoped he could, he directed many of his remarks on his differences with the Republicans and the key issues likely to dominate not the primaries but the general election.
Mr Obama said he had telephoned Senator McCain to congratulate him on winning the Republican nomination – a line designed to give himself the aura of the presumptive nominee.
Still, Mr Obama was under no illusions that the fight against Mrs Clinton is far from over. "What my head tells me is that we've got a very sizable delegate lead that is going to be hard to overcome," he told reporters. "But, look, she is a tenacious and determined candidate, so we're just going to make sure we work as hard as we can, as long as it takes."Reuse content