WASHINGTON - The Democratic nomination is now Barack Obama's to lose.
After 10 consecutive defeats — including a heartbreaker in tailor-made Wisconsin on Tuesday — Hillary Rodham Clinton can't win the nomination unless Obama makes a major mistake or her allies reveal something damaging about the Illinois senator's background. Don't count her out quite yet, but Wisconsin revealed deep and destructive fractures in the Clinton coalition.
It's panic-button time.
That explains why Clinton's aides accused Obama of plagiarism for delivering a speech that included words that had first been uttered by Deval Patrick, the Massachusetts governor and a friend of Obama. The charge bordered on the hypocritical — Clinton herself has borrowed Obama's lines — and by itself was unlikely to have an impact on the race.
Clinton claimed Tuesday that reporters, not her campaign, pushed the plagiarism story line. That is not true.
The Clinton camp hopes to produce other instances of rhetorical theft and show a pattern of bad behavior. The danger for Obama is anything that undercuts his image as a candidate who rises above politics. Something like this might work to Clinton's advantage: Obama is backtracking on a pledge to abide by spending caps in the general election, and his explanation is bogus.
Obama is undeniably raw. Less than four years removed from the Illinois Legislature, he stands at the brink of the Democratic nomination and will soon go one-on-one in debates with a tough and savvy former first lady. The odds of a misstep are low but not impossible for these reasons: Clinton will grow increasingly negative; Obama faces more scrutiny as the new front-runner; his performance in multi-candidates debates was uneven; and the charmed Illinois senator has never faced political crises.
Should Obama stumble in the next two weeks, does he know how to recover?
Clinton certainly knows how to bounce back. She helped her husband, Bill, recover from near-death experiences during his White House run and rebounded herself after a thumping in Iowa.
But her rival has won the most states, earned the most pledged delegates and has all the momentum. Clinton needs to win Ohio and Texas on March 4 — then Pennsylvania in April — to narrow Obama's lead among pledged delegates. Only then could she argue with a straight face that a majority of the nearly 800 free-roaming "superdelegates" should back her over Obama.
"Both Senator Obama and I would make history," the former first lady told supporters Tuesday night. "But only one of us is ready on Day One to be commander in chief, ready to manage our economy and ready to defeat the Republicans. Only one of us has spent 35 years being a doer, a fighter and a champion for those who need a voice."
Only one of them can win, and it doesn't look good for her.
"The chances of Obama doing something that's going to cause a major problem are about as low as her doing something that will turn it around," said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, who is not tied to either campaign. "When you start pressing to come back, it's usually the person who's behind who makes the mistake."
Ignore the Clinton advisers who argue that Wisconsin was just a bump on the road en route to the tell-all March 4 primaries. Listen instead to the message sent by her ragged coalition:
Obama led among whites (widely among white men), moderates and those earning less than $50,000, all bastions of Clinton's past strength. Obama and Clinton split the vote among women, erasing her one-time advantage.
Demographically, Wisconsin was a warm-up for Ohio: nearly 90 percent of Tuesday's voters were white; about 40 percent earn less than $50,000 annually; nearly 60 percent have no college degree; and half are over 50 years old — all demographics that have tended to favor Clinton.
In a sign of desperation, the Clinton camp floated the idea of poaching delegates that Obama earned via elections. While allowable under Democratic National Committee rules, the tactic would likely divide Democrats along racial lines and set the party back decades.
It would be the ultimate act of selfishness and foolishness. Even Clinton must realize there is little she can do to win the nomination. She can only help Obama lose it.