Since then, over the past two weeks, Senator Obama has gone on a tear, winning 10 straight primaries and caucuses, and forcing Senator Clinton's back to the wall. Obama now leads the former first lady by almost every conceivable measure – total delegates, total popular vote, national polls, and finances.
What happened? On Clinton's part, her straits represent a massive failure of planning and organization, analysts say. Her campaign operated on the assumption she would have the nomination effectively locked up with the 22 contests on Feb. 5, and it spent accordingly. The lack of a Plan B has left her scrambling for cash and organizing late in the post-Super Tuesday contests.
That this is happening to the Clintons – until this campaign, a team skilled like no other in Democratic politics in running and winning elections – has left the political world dumbfounded. But even the senator's supporters see how one faulty, central assumption can lead to disaster.
"If an entire campaign strategy is framed around the belief that a particular date will be decisive, and if in the face of contrary evidence you find it difficult to abandon that assumption, then it's possible to be very smart and experienced and still be caught short," says William Galston, a former senior adviser to President Clinton who backs Hillary Clinton's campaign.
Obama, in contrast, has put together a team that appears to work well together, and has fashioned and executed a game plan skillfully, Mr. Galston says.
"People are going to be writing about his campaign for a long time, as a textbook of how to take advantage of changing circumstances – and to leverage your strengths while muting your weaknesses," says Galston, now a senior fellow of governance at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The stark contrast in how the campaigns have unfolded raises an inevitable question: Do they indicate how each of the candidates would operate as president? For Clinton, whose own husband is telling voters she has to win both Texas and Ohio on March 4 to remain viable, the question is acute. As she vows to voters that she would be ready to lead the nation from Day 1, are they noticing the failings in the largest enterprise she has ever run?
Probably not. At the same time, Obama's skill in putting together a team, and foreseeing and planning for a long campaign, may not tell the public much about how he would operate as president. After all, every president has arrived in the Oval Office after demonstrating some skill as a candidate and an organizer, but American history is littered with failed presidencies.
Ultimately, astute planning takes a candidate only so far. In Obama's case, analysts say, his ability to tap into the national zeitgeist and articulate an appealing message is central to his success so far.
"This election is going to be something akin to the election of 1980, when the mood was sour and there was malaise in the country," says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University in Washington. "Ronald Reagan offered hope, and Obama's offering hope – it doesn't have to be like this, he's saying."
Still, no one is counting Clinton out. If Obama stumbles badly in either of the two pre-March 4 debates – one Thursday night (after Monitor deadlines) and one next Tuesday – momentum could swing back to her. But she can't count on that. There's also the possibility that, as Obama's momentum continues toward the nomination, enhanced press scrutiny will produce stories that hurt his candidacy. Again, that's not something Clinton can count on.
Her campaign's game plan starts with her winning in the three most delegate-rich states left to vote – Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania (whose primary is April 22). In a conference call Wednesday with reporters, top adviser Harold Ickes asserted that, in that case, at the end of the primaries in June, neither candidate would have enough pledged delegates to secure the nomination, and that Clinton would win enough of the remaining "automatic" or superdelegates to become the nominee.
While Clinton currently leads among superdelegates, there's no guarantee that those who remain uncommitted will go to her, especially if voters in their states or districts have backed Obama.
On the fundraising front, Clinton is caught in a bind. Her January numbers paled in comparison to Obama's. He reported raising nearly $37 million, about $5 million more than previously reported for the month, and spent $31 million. Clinton raised about $15 million and loaned herself $5 million, while spending $29 million.
Obama is raising about $1 million a day. Clinton's numbers for February are not available, but her campaign says she is raising what she needs to remain competitive. Still, in politics, money follows the winner, and her 58 percent to 41 percent loss in Wisconsin on Tuesday didn't make for the best sales pitch.