Less than three weeks after his stunning victory in the Iowa caucus, Barack Obama is facing a clear loss of faith from voters in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
He didn't just lose this weekend's Nevada caucus: he was thoroughly outflanked by Hillary Clinton. She won more than twice as many Latino voters – a key demographic – and attracted more union votes, even though the biggest unions officially support Senator Obama. Not only did the Clinton campaign put him on the ropes, it routed John Edwards, who plummeted to less than 4 per cent of the vote and must seriously question how long he carries on in the race.
Mr Obama now faces the steepest of political hills if he is to survive Super Tuesday on 5 February. For now, he remains well ahead in South Carolina, where Democrats vote next Saturday. But his support is weak among white voters there, as it is in the South generally. The shifting momentum of the primaries battle risks losing him a lot of African Americans as well as they retain a residual affection for all things Clinton.
Without a thumping victory in South Carolina, Mr Obama will be ill-equipped to reverse the emerging trends for Super Tuesday, where he trails Senator Clinton in the two biggest states, New York and California, and has no major advantage in the others aside from his home state, Illinois.
So why the shift in momentum? Antonio Villaraigosa, the Mayor of Los Angeles, who was in Nevada to campaign for Ms Clinton, had one explanation: "All three candidates are very attractive, but she's the one who stands the best chance of winning in November. I'm worried the Republicans would just rip Obama apart, especially on national security."
Many rank-and-file voters who attended the caucuses appeared to agree – seeing in Hillary Clinton a woman with the toughness and the determination to face down the Republican attack machine and strong-arm Congress into enacting a presidential agenda.
Whether or not they like her realpolitik approach – the reason many Democrats distrust or dislike her – has become only a secondary consideration.
Mr Obama demonstrated a marked lack of toughness on the campaign trail in Nevada, never more so than during last Tuesday's televised debate, when he gave an honest answer to the question of what his greatest weakness was. He was, he said, terrible with paperwork, and then looked hurt when the others held his answer against him.
Nobody doubts he is a sincere guy, but that may no longer be a plus point, especially since his campaign pitch appears so long on inspiring rhetoric and so short on substance.
"By promising 'new politics'," The Boston Globe wrote yesterday, "Obama has staked a claim on the passions of Democratic voters. But there are signs his cry for change may be sounding hollow or, worse, like a typical political slogan."Reuse content