Hillary, inexorably on the wane


Behold these case studies of clinical denial...

Britney Spears, last December: "My sister's not pregnant."

John McCain, in January: "Any recession is psychological."

Hillary Clinton, last night: "I win, he wins. I win, he wins. It's so close!"

Some of Hillary's spinners embarrassed themselves even more, talking in public about how they were "delighted" and "happy" with the latest primary results that, at least by the measurements of empirical reality, put her candidacy on life support. Hillary herself insisted on talking about the future - "these next primaries are another test" - as if she really has the ability to breathe on her own, but it's quite conceivable that the unpledged superdelegates and Clinton donors could essentially pull the plug once they have fully digested these Tuesday night tidbits:

1. By slaughtering Clinton in North Carolina and neary beating her in the wee hours in Indiana, Barack Obama racked up an overall net gain of 215,000 popular votes. That tally erases her Pennsylvania victory margin, and restores the roughly 700,000-vote deficit that she was stuck with prior to the April 22 primary. Her odds of emerging in June as the overall popular-vote winner (a bragging-rights measurement that she dearly needed) have now gone from improbable to virtually nil.

2. Her squeaker win in Indiana, combined with her landslide loss in the more populous North Carolina, means that she will slip farther behind in the overall pledged-delegate competition. Combining both states, the early indicators are that Obama has netted roughly 12 more pledgees. The Clinton people, while wooing superdelegates, had been vowing to cut their pledged deficit to less than 100 by the end of the primary season. But now Obama has dug them a deeper hole at two minutes to midnight.

3. On the psychology/perception front, Obama's performance last night foiled the Clinton argument that she owned the momentum and that the frontrunner was inexorably fading. In the midst of his worst campaign weeks, with the Jeremiah Wright flapdoodle still fresh, he actually improved his overall standing among white voters. The exit polls indicate that he got 40 percent of the white vote in red-state Indiana, which was three points higher than his showing in Pennsylvania, and six points higher than in Ohio. His North Carolina white percentage (37) matched Pennsylvania, and was three points higher than Ohio. And winning North Carolina erases the Clinton argument that Obama can't notch a big state (NC ranks 10th in U.S. population).

4. Unpledged superdelegates want to see some clear evidence that voters view Clinton as the more electable and more appealing candidate, despite Obama's frontunner status. Neither race last night supplied that kind of evidence. In the North Carolina exits, Obama was deemed more electable in November by a margin of 16 percentage points; in Indiana, he prevailed on that question by five points. Meanwhile, on the key issue of character baggage, Clinton lost again. In Indiana, only 53 percent of the voters said she is trustworthy; Obama got the nod from 68 percent. In North Carolina, only 49 percent said she is trustworthy; Obama was deemed trustworthy by 71 percent. And in both states, more voters said that Obama, not Clinton, was the Democratic candidate who best shares their values - a finding that, again, suggests he has weathered the Wright episode.

The way things now stand, Obama could well clinch first place, among all pledged delegates nationwide, with his expected win in Oregon 13 days from now. At this point, it strains credulity to believe that Democratic donors will be stoked to finance Hillary's onward trudge this week into West Virginia (where no doubt she will support a summer tax holiday for miners).

It also strains credulity to believe that Democratic party apparatchiks will agree to give Clinton an artificial boost by awarding her pledged delegates in Michigan, where Obama had removed his name from the ballot of a meaningless primary. Most importantly, it strains credulity to believe that the fence-sitting superdelegates are going to deny the nomination to the candidate who, barring a documented revelation that he is an alien from a hostile planet, is now demonstrably poised to finish out the primary season with the most pledgees and popular votes.

I suspect that the Clintons know all this, despite her display of public denial. Never mind her rhetoric last night about soldiering on ("It's full speed onto the White House"). What mattered most was her elegiac tone. Having hoped for a blowout Indiana win and a squeaker loss (or even upset win) in North Carolina, she knew that the night had gone badly.

And her husband clearly recognizes the lay of the land. He stood behind Hillary last night looking as if he'd been smacked with a two-by-four. The visual of Bill meant more than anything she had to say. The end of an era was in his eyes.