WESTERVILLE, Ohio - Battle-scarred but not beaten, a resolutely optimistic Hillary Clinton raced across Ohio yesterday on a frenetic trek that her campaign had not imagined, pleading for votes to keep her quest for the presidency alive.
"One thing you know about me - I am not afraid to get into a fight on your behalf," the New York senator told thousands of supporters at a gymnasium in this Columbus suburb. And when the people of Ohio need help, "I will move heaven and earth to get it done," Clinton said, her voice raspy from a nonstop campaign schedule ahead of tomorrow's critical nominating contests.
A fight was not what the Clinton campaign had expected at this stage of the race. As recently as November, Clinton told a TV interviewer that she had not even contemplated the possibility of losing.
But with opinion polls for tomorrow's primaries showing rival Senator Barack Obama neck-and-neck with Clinton in Texas - and not far behind her in Ohio - Clinton once deemed the inevitable Democratic nominee is battling hard in the final hours to remain a viable contender for the Oval Office.
Borrowing a strategy former President Clinton used during his final campaigning days in 1992, the senator is on the trail nearly around-the-clock, jetting to Texas to deliver a pointed national security message and busing between Ohio towns with promises of better economic times. Her campaign is holding events in all of Ohio's 88 counties, canvassing and calling tens of thousands of people who party officials believe will turn out in record numbers tomorrow.
On the stump, Clinton is fiery, focused, and seemingly unperturbed by the string of 11 straight losses she suffered in last month's primaries and caucuses.
Nearly shouting at times to make her points, she has been attacking Obama as an orator without substance, while presenting herself confidently as the one person running who is ready to take the "call at 3 a.m." at the White House to deal with a national security crisis.
"I don't want anybody in Youngstown taking a leap of faith on me," Clinton told an audience at a high school, underscoring what she calls Obama's lack of experience.
"You've had too many broken promises, too many disappointments, too many people running for office who have come here and told you what they thought you wanted to hear. Too many beautiful speeches that, when the lights were turned off and the cameras were gone, didn't produce any change for you."
Obama, in his own campaign event in Westerville yesterday a few hours after Clinton's appearance, sought to counter her attack, saying he was the one who had demonstrated effective judgment in opposing the Iraq war from the outset while she had voted to authorize Bush to go to war.
The Clinton camp is also heartened by a $35 million influx in campaign contributions in February, a total announced last week.
About 200,000 of those who gave are new donors, said spokesman Doug Hattaway, suggesting that she is still winning over voters.
But despite Clinton's professed optimism and apparent determination, her supporters and staff are frustrated and worried about Obama's rise, and outside analysts see trouble for her in both delegate-rich states. A Reuters/C-SPAN/Houston Chronicle poll released yesterday showed Obama leading Clinton in Texas, 47 percent to 43 percent, and Clinton besting Obama in Ohio by a single percentage point, 47 percent to 46 percent.
Clinton, who speaks dismissively of Obama's star appeal for some voters, made a last-minute appearance on "Saturday Night Live," and yesterday announced endorsements by actresses Melanie Griffith and Eva Longoria Parker.
There is palpable anger among some of those attending her rallies; a Clinton supporter in Westerville waved a sign that urged voters not to let the media and its "Boy Crush" prevent Clinton from securing the nomination. The mood at her rallies is energized, but not celebratory, as supporters anxiously urge one another to get out the Clinton vote.
"I'm very worried about it," said Carol Warren, 70 and retired, after watching Clinton in Westerville. "I think Obama has charisma for some of the people. He doesn't have it for me. I'm looking for experience," she said.
Backers of Clinton - who once talked only about the excitement they felt at the thought of her presidency - now openly consider the possibility that she might not make it. "You've got to go for your goal," said Meaghan Connors, a 29-year-old lawyer in Dallas. But "we need to see what happens on Tuesday. It's her decision."
Clinton, too, seems less certain of her chances of late. Rallies that once sounded like valedictory speeches have morphed into impassioned personal pleas for votes.
At the start of her campaign, Clinton often used the phrase "when I am president" to describe what her administration would be like. But Clinton has abandoned "when" for "if" as she asks for support.
"If you give me your vote on Tuesday, I promise you, I will work for you every day," Clinton told supporters at the Youngstown high school gymnasium rally.
Faced with ever-tightening polls in Ohio and Texas, the Clinton camp has been lowering expectations for their candidate. Clinton advisers have cast her as the new underdog, and say the four states that cast votes Tuesday - Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island, and Vermont - are "must wins."
And while Ohio, with its Clinton-loyal base of low-income voters, is considered a stronger venue for her, state director Robby Mook played down a Columbus Dispatch poll released yesterday showing Clinton ahead 56 percent to 40 percent over Obama.
"I hope it's right," but "it's sort of sketchy," because the poll did not include independent voters, Mook said, and they are eligible to vote for Democrats in Ohio.
Making her closing argument to voters, Clinton contended that her experience makes her better qualified for the job, urging voters not to be wooed by personality.
But the experience-vs.-personality argument "only works among the convinced," said John Zogby, an independent pollster. "Those who aren't convinced, aren't convinced because they don't like her," Zogby said in a phone interview.
The Clinton campaign says it will keep fighting for the nomination - even if the senator does not win both Texas and Ohio, as former President Clinton suggested last month was necessary.
Hattaway, asked if Clinton had to win both Texas and Ohio to stay in the race, said, "the answer, technically, is no," because the delegate count is still likely to be fairly close between the two contenders.
However, Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said Clinton would have a hard time making the case for staying in the race if she loses both states.
"I think you can find a scenario, but if you lose Texas, it gets down to a low probability," Buchanan said. "There are ways to make it happen" - such as convincing enough superdelegates to hand her the nomination - "but probably, it would be to the detriment of the party," he said.