Paul Greenberg

A couple more landslide victories like the one Hillary Clinton scored in Puerto Rico over the weekend, and all would have been lost. Because even if she collected the lion's share of the delegates at stake, Barack Obama picked up just enough of them to inch him closer to victory. No longer a sprint, his campaign has become a slog.

Even an undramatic victory is still a victory. In Puerto Rico, for example, Miss Hillary's blow-out - she got 68 percent of the popular vote compared to her rival's 32 percent - netted her 38 delegates while Barack Obama picked up only 17. But that was enough to leave him only 47 short of the now magic number: 2,118.

Barack Obama could have lost Tuesday's primaries in both Montana and South Dakota, and still come out with enough elected delegates to persuade enough unelected superdelegates finally, finally to put him over the top. In short, the more Hillary Clinton won, the more she lost.

The Obama campaign was already putting out the word that now is the time for superdelegates to get behind his lumbering bandwagon, however much it's slowed down, and provide the final push across the finish line - if they expect to get any of the goodies. Or as a less than subtle e-mail from Obama Central to the superdelegates put it: "A number of people have reported that various members intend to endorse after the last primary. Those members need to understand that they won't get any visibility from that." Principle, shminciple, what counts is Visibility - which must be the latest euphemism for patronage and pull.

For Barack Obama, the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination is ending not with a bang but a whimper. He's preparing not for a victory lap but just a trudge across the finish line. How different from his streak of wins back in the spring, when he was still Mr. Wonderful. Now he's running less on momentum than inertia.

If and when this young but no longer glamorous senator gets that final delegate, of course he'll celebrate it with all the fanfare he can drum up. But it just won't be the same. For the bright shining star has become a slowly collapsing one. At this point, it may be all over but the forced smiles, the joint poses and ritual incantations of party unity. The magic's gone. Routine has set in.

For Barack Obama, it's been a long year's journey to anticlimax - the result of a front-loaded system out of sync with ever fluid public opinion. It is not a satisfying system, or much of a system at all when you throw in split delegations, elections that may or may not count, rigged rules, and the final decision being made by superdelegates who were never elected themselves.

What a contrast with the way presidential campaigns were once decided, with one ever more decisive primary following another to a grand climax - from little New Hampshire in February to crucial California in June.

Instead, this year's Democratic presidential nomination may have been largely decided before much of the electorate had a chance to see how each candidate reacted under the pressures of a long campaign with all its unforeseeable developments.

The moral of the story: Decide early, repent at leisure.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.