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The Collapse Of Hillary

It was only a few months ago that American was laughing at Hillary Clinton’s absurd sense of inevitability. Remember the “Saturday Night Live” sketch in which Hillary (as played by Amy Poehler) smugly cracked that Democrats would support their nominee “no matter who she may be”? It’s been a few weeks since that inevitability collapsed--the South Carolina blowout was probably the tipping point. But it was only last night that Hillary finally acquired the odor of a loser.

Broadly speaking, Wisconsin should have been her turf. The state is an overwhelmingly white, working class bastion. (OK, a moment’s pause for demographics: 55 percent of last night’s electorate had less than a college degree, while 40 percent earn less than $50,000.) These are her people. They went his way. Obama has now won nine contests in a row, in most every part of the country. That, despite the way the Clintons have played most every card imaginable, some more explicitly than others: inexperience, age, electability, race, drugs, Rezko, Exelon, and now plagiarism. Polling that showed a close vote among late deciders, plus a recent uptick in her national polls, suggests that final line of attack may have had an effect. But does anyone think that sort of micro-critique will give her the broad margins she needs in Ohio and Texas to close the delegate gap?

Meanwhile, with every win, Obama makes more sense. He is no longer a leap of faith but a real winner. And what once seemed a major threat to his chances--uncertainty about the role of his race--has faded away. It was Obama’s great luck to preface the March 4 votes in Ohio and Texas by winning without enough black voters to make for a storyline about a racial divide.

Conversely, Hillary has been completely stripped of what was once her greatest asset: inevitability. Many of her early supporters believed the Clinton machine was virtually invulnerable. Mark Penn had mapped the electoral matrix. Her press team operated with the flawless efficiency of a Secret Service detail. Bill had telepathic powers over fellow Democrats. But none of it has worked so far. And if none of it has worked until now, why should it work on March 4--which even Hillary’s defenders call her last stand? And why should voters in those states expect it to work in November? (And even if the media has at times been unfair to Hillary, well, cracking the national media’s bizarre code is part of being a successful politician.)

It’s hard to see what hope remains for her. Maybe the Clintons can crank up their attacks on Obama one more notch. But that would risk further damaging their already shaky reputation with large segments of the Democratic Party--especially among the new generation of Democrats who will be around longer than the fading 1990s establishment.

Now, Hillary’s last hope may be that voters in Ohio and Texas will be in a contrarian mood. Perhaps, after hearing for the next week that it is now Barack Obama who is inevitable, and Hillary who is doomed, they will feel the same sympathy that New Hampshire did, and hand the Clintons one last reprieve. For old time’s sake.

It’s a longshot, to be sure. It’s also a great irony: The woman once mocked for her inevitability may only have the specter of defeat left to save her.

--Michael Crowley