Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Clinton's apparent admission of defeat is the best chance she has of saving her troubled presidential campaign
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Maybe it was her finest campaign moment to date. The candidate's guard dropped; the carefully honed policy statements were cast aside, and Hillary Clinton spoke not from her head but her heart – poignant and wistful, as if in graceful acceptance of a fate that could no longer be avoided.

"No matter what happens in this contest, I am honoured to be here with Barack Obama. Whatever happens, we're going to be fine." The words were simply part of her closing remarks in the latest of 19 Democratic candidates' debates, whose collected transcripts must now rival War and Peace, in length if not in quality.

But for an instant at least, they seemed to be rounding out not just a debate, or even an entire presidential campaign, but what what one US magazine cover has already proclaimed "The Fall of the House of Clinton". Hillary herself was concerned enough to correct any misunderstanding that she did the round of the network TV shows the next morning, insisting that the fight went on, and she intended to win it. Yet, oddly, that seeming admission of failure the previous evening could contain the seeds of an impossible victory.

A year ago, of course, when she officially entered the race, none of this was in the script. "Super Tuesday" on 5 February was supposed to be the moment her victory became inevitable. Instead, she barely split that day with Obama, and has since lost 10 state primaries and caucuses in a row.

What went wrong? In a nutshell, almost everything – from poor organisation and ill-judged allocation of resources, to a failure to plan seriously after Super Tuesday, and a fatal underestimation of Obama and what he represents. As a result, the concession-that-wasn't could become reality in as few as nine days' time. But as Lawrence "Yogi" Berra, baseball legend and America's most quoted man, has observed, "It ain't over till it's over."

It ain't. On 4 March, Ohio and Texas hold their primaries. As none other than Bill Clinton publicly admits, a loss in either one of them would doom her. But victories, however close, in both would change the dynamic of the race.

For what they are worth, the most recent polls put her narrowly ahead in Ohio, and a hair's breadth in front in Texas (even though Obama has been catching up in both). If she survives, the next big test is on 22 April, when Pennsylvania is the last "mega-state" to vote. There, too, Clinton holds a clear, albeit shrinking, lead. Were she to win, the race would be back to virtual level pegging. The real question therefore is not whether she can prevail, but how she can prevail.

Thus far everything she has tried has failed. She has extolled her experience, how eight years as First Lady and eight years as a highly regarded senator would enable her to take command. At which point, however, cut to Obama and Iraq, the ultimate political four-letter word for the Democratic primary electorate. What value is experience, if it led Hillary to vote for the 2003 invasion?

From the outset, she has courted women, blue-collar workers, older voters and Latinos, as obvious elements of a majority Clinton coalition. Now members of all four constituencies are deserting in droves to her rival.

She wheels out Bill Clinton, the most accomplished campaigner of his generation, on her behalf. But Bill has seemed a mite off his game. He projects nothing so much as a sense of family entitlement to the highest office in the land. The result has been a dose of Clinton fatigue. Does the public want a rerun of the Clinton-era culture wars? The answer, it would seem, is no.

Obama, it is true, cannot match her crisp command of the issues. But, like her husband, Hillary resembles the star pupil in the front row, whose hand is always the first to shoot up. But given the small differences on broad policy between two talented candidates, the contest revolves more around personality.

That is why her attacks on Obama have flopped. His race and message of reconciliation make him a tricky target. Her worst moments have followed her most aggressive ones. In South Carolina, she laid into his ties with the "slum landlord" Antoin Rezko, a Chicago real estate dealer and former Obama fundraiser who now faces corruption charges. Instead, her heavy loss there was arguably the turning point of the entire campaign.

On Thursday, she was at it again, taking aim at allegations of petty plagiarism against Obama, deriding his slogan of "Change You Can Believe In" as "Change You Can Xerox". Groans and boos in the debate's audience and, doubtless, in millions of living rooms, told their own story.

So what is to be done? One hope is that her opponent trips up, by self-inflicted gaffe (unlikely), some lurid scandal (no sign of one yet), or by an accident of timing. The Rezko trial, for instance, which could provoke fresh scrutiny of the developer's ties with Obama, is set to start on 3 March.

And if none of this happens? Clinton could press on, relying on the support of the 800-odd unpledged super-delegates to get to the magic mark of 2,025, even if Obama wins the overall popular vote in the primaries. She could even force a credentials battle over disqualified delegates from Michigan and Florida. But the price would be a row that would split the party and probably destroy its chances in November. Democrats too have their men in grey suits – including one Al Gore, who knows a thing or two about close election races – to tell her enough is enough.

So, as she stares into the abyss, perhaps only one option is left. In New Hampshire seven weeks ago, a flash of frailty and raw emotion saved her. Now, letting slip the sadness of imminent defeat may offer the slenderest hope of victory.