Just as the imperfect Patriots got whacked by the Giants in the Super Bowl, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s march to the Democratic presidential nomination has been sacked by a combination of hubris, poor game-planning and an out-of-nowhere opponent on a roll.

A cumulative 0-8 against Barack Obama in Democratic nominating contests over the past week has left Sen. Clinton, D-N.Y., lagging Obama in the delegate count and erased any lingering doubt that Sen. Obama, D-Ill., is the front-runner for the nomination.

The former first lady’s no-contest losses in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia continued a streak of unmitigated bad news, underscoring the impression that the Clinton campaign is staggering toward collapse.

How did the former all-but-nominated candidate, who has been preparing for this campaign for her whole life, get into this mess?

Here’s the breakdown:

“IT’S MY TURN”

Clinton’s run-as-the-incumbent, “Rose Garden” strategy has left her flat-footed and unable to make the midgame adjustments necessary to combat Obama. Too many insiders and pundits have assumed for too long that Clinton’s nationwide organization, money and Democratic Party contacts would simply carry the day. Now that this isn’t working, what’s Plan B? Clinton tried to sit on her lead before she had built much of one. It’s not as if she can reinvent herself; we know her all too well. What if all those uncommitted superdelegates she is banking on decide to break for Obama while there’s still time to board the glory train?

THE OBAMA HOSANNA

Nobody saw it coming, and nobody believed it was happening even after Obama continued to out-raise Clinton in campaign donations and started winning in places like Iowa and Nebraska, states not exactly known for their high concentrations of African-American voters. While some Clinton backers say Obama is winning mostly in smaller caucus states while she is taking the big fish like California, Obama lately has been running the table more smoothly than Fast Eddie Felson, and Clinton is gasping to keep up. Most chilling for Clinton: There has been no buyer’s remorse about Obama among voters; the more he looks like the nominee, the bigger the Democratic turnout is for him.

“BILLARY” FATIGUE

Maybe it wasn’t such a hot idea to send Bill Clinton into South Carolina and, in effect, remind everybody that if they elect Hillary, the former president comes as part of the package. His finger-wagging, race-tinged campaigning there killed whatever momentum Hillary had gained from her surprise win in New Hampshire and left voters recalling the nasty, vindictive Clintons of old.

THE SYSTEM

Sure, Clinton is winning in big-delegate states like New York, New Jersey and California, but because of the Democrats’ proportional allocation plan, Obama is picking up big numbers of delegates even when he finishes second. And the more the Clintonistas talk about Hillary’s “firewalls” in Ohio and Texas, which vote March 4, the more they sound like Rudy Giuliani discussing his “Sunshine Strategy.” We all know how that worked out.

“WE’LL WIN, BABY; DON’T WORRY”

Even after her recent drubbing, some politicos continue to believe that Clinton will win out. Part of their reasoning: Democratic superdelegates (elected officials and party honchos, for the most part) eventually will flock to her out of fear that Americans simply aren’t ready to elect the first black president, no matter how uplifting he is. Maybe some of Clinton’s advisers have been telling her the same thing. Someone needs to issue a wake-up call. Which Democrat wants to be the one to go into a room with Barack and Michelle Obama and tell them, “It ain’t your year, kids”? Forget about it.


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