As we approach Super Tuesday, Barack Obama has been surging all week - closing the enormous gap he once faced in most key states. But his momentum has yet to carry him over the top. Hillary Clinton still clings to leads, sometimes narrow, in the bulk of the states in play.
Of the 10 states with reliable and recent poll data, Hillary leads in eight, although by razor-thin margins in California, Alabama, Missouri, Connecticut and New Jersey. Only in New York, Massachusetts and Tennessee does her lead seem secure.
How did the Clinton machine falter so badly? And will the trend for Obama continue?
Every election is, at some level, a simple conversation between the two camps. Obama began the campaign by saying he was new; Hillary replied that he was inexperienced. Obama answered that he was a voice for change - and that was the state of discussion leading up to Iowa.
Then, after losing Iowa and almost failing in New Hampshire, the Clintons basically panicked and played the race card - injecting it into a contest that had been colorblind.
While Hillary emphasizes in every speech that she could be the first woman president, Obama had rarely mentioned race. He ran for th e Democratic nomination like a Republican black - never summoning victim status and avoiding racial remarks entirely.
Had the Clintons shut up and let the black voters of South Carolina do their talking for them, the block African-American vote there for Obama would've brought the race issue home to undecided white voters, triggering a pro-Hillary backlash. But they couldn't keep quiet. Their oh-so-subtle racial innuendo (for which I doubt they thought they would get caught), philosophizing about the relative roles Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson in achieving civil rights, landed them in the hot water.
With nothing else new to say, Hillary, in effect, countered Obama's message of change by saying "You're black." When Bill compared Obama to Jesse Jackson, the point was obvious.
But Obama parried with great skill in his victory speech in South Carolina by stipulating that the election was about overcoming divisions and coming together as a nation.
That brilliant move left the Clintons flat-footed.
Hillary's performance in the week after South Carolina was scripted and prosaic - a mere repetition of her rhetorical lines from the past. Like a juke box, she played poll-tested golden oldies all week - hoping we'd all sing along with her choruses.
It's been as if the Clintons, lacking dirt to throw, had nothing to say.
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