ALTHOUGH Barack Obama won by a landslide Tuesday in the North Carolina presidential primary, Hillary Clinton maintained that her victory in Indiana meant that the Democratic contest isn't over - never mind that her margin was unexpectedly slim. Indeed, she doubled down; her campaign chairman said she was prepared to kick in even more of her own money. At some point, though, the battle is over, and Clinton's grit starts to look like denial.
Obama, whom this page endorsed in the Democratic primaries, is winning the nomination fair and square. While Clinton expected to convert her early advantages into an across-the-map victory on Super Tuesday, Obama recognized that he was in a battle for delegates and invested money and time accordingly. As he racked up delegates with lopsided victories in February, Clinton made bad personnel and financial decisions, and ran through campaign themes at dizzying speed. Now her path to the nomination relies on counting a fatally flawed Michigan primary in which Obama wasn't even on the ballot - and on bending party rules to thwart its first African-American nominee.
And even that politically toxic step would not be enough. Clinton's victory scenario also depends on persuading superdelegates that Obama will make a weak candidate in the fall campaign. And the furor over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's inflammatory former pastor, did expose a potential weakness on the part of the Illinois senator.
But Clinton has huge liabilities of her own - just not ones that her Democratic rivals can raise politely.
While Obama, by and large, has run an upbeat campaign touting his own merits, Republicans would be quick to remind voters that politics Bill-and-Hillary-style has a pungent downside: not just the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but campaign donors in the Lincoln bedroom, the 11th-hour Marc Rich pardon, and sundry other scandalettes. Even on the Democratic campaign trail, Bill Clinton sometimes hurt his wife's prospects. In the fall, even more clouds would gather: Who is donating to the former president's foundation? What role might he play in her administration?
At the heart of the Clintons' political mythology is their ability to thrive amid setbacks that would defeat other politicians. Clinton still seems well positioned for upcoming contests in Kentucky and West Virginia. She can run more negative ads. She can max out her donors and force Obama to do the same. She can fight on to the convention - if party luminaries will tolerate it, and maybe even if they won't.
Clinton's resilience and determination are impressive. But the delegate math is now inexorable, and it favors Barack Obama.