After comeback wins in Texas and Ohio, Clinton hints at 'dream ticket' with Obama, reports CHRIS STEPHEN in New York
JUST when it seemed to be all over, Hillary Clinton's victories in Ohio and Texas have brought the Democratic primary race roaring back to life.
A narrow victory in the Lone Star state and a ten-point triumph in Ohio ensured her bitter scrap with Barack Obama will go on, setting the stage for a ferocious endgame.
"We're going on, we're going strong, and we're going all the way," Mrs Clinton, told supporters in Ohio. "We're just getting started."
But her victories in the two big states and Rhode Island – after 11 consecutive losses – has created a headache for party strategists, who are faced with mounting evidence the primary process has simply exposed deep ethnic and demographic divisions in the Democrats' support.
While the former First Lady has regained momentum in her faltering campaign, she still lags Mr Obama in the number of delegates who have pledged their support. It means the fight could go all the way to the party's convention in Denver in August.
Mrs Clinton hinted yesterday at a possible joint ticket with Mr Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois. "Well, that may… be where this is headed, but of course, we have to decide who's on the top of the ticket," she said. "And I think that the people of Ohio very clearly said that it should be me."
The "dream ticket" would suit officials worried about the damage that could be done to the party by a long and increasingly bitter primary battle. But Mr Obama, who won Vermont on Tuesday night, would be unlikely to accept Mrs Clinton's offer as deputy while he enjoys front-runner status.
Instead, a new round of campaigning stretches out into the spring, including a big primary in Pennsylvania on 22 April. The key issue will be whether Mr Obama can show resilience in the face of the pounding the Clinton campaign is expected to send his way as it seeks to claw back lost ground.
"She's going to throw everything at him, including the kitchen sink, the commode and the wash-hand basin," the Democratic party pollster Phil Noble said. "Then we'll find out what the boy's made of. If he ends up standing tall and looking strong, they're going to say 'that's our boy'."
For Mr Obama, defeats in three of this week's four states came after a series of dents to his once smooth image.
First was the success of a Clinton commercial showing a child sleeping in bed and asking voters who they would rather answer the phone in the White House if a crisis broke at three in the morning.
The other hiccups were self-inflicted. Having campaigned against the North American Free Trade Agreement, he was stung by reports that a campaign manager had told Canadian officials that, in fact, he was not serious.
On the eve of polling, the fraud trial began of one of Mr Obama's fundraisers, Tony Rezko. The senator is not tied to the fraud investigation, but he bought his home from Rezko at a discounted rate, news that hurt his reputation for honesty.
The most significant of these was the campaign advert, because it took aim at the voters' biggest worry about an Obama presidency – whether this comparatively inexperienced senator could handle a world crisis.
Mr Obama insisted yesterday that, with a lead of 130 delegates for the national convention, he remains in the driving seat. "We started 20 points behind in Ohio and Texas – we closed that gap," he said. "We emerged with the same delegate gap, essentially, with which we went in."
That tells only half the story. This week's results came after a sudden drop in confidence in Mr Obama played havoc, again, with pollsters forecasts, because it ate into support in all the groups that the senator had hoped to take for granted.
His lead among white men and women evaporated, and he lost support among the young, in a loss of confidence that, if it continues, could cost him his lead.
It confirms, again, the volatility of America's voters; just six months ago, they were backing Mrs Clinton by a ratio of more than two to one. Now she hopes questions about Obama's competence can lure them back.
The New York senator's plan for victory revolves around duplicating her Ohio victory in four neighbouring states: the so-called Ohio Ring, of Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Each has the same rust-belt profile as Ohio, and if they follow that state in giving her a 54-44 win ration, she can cut Mr Obama's delegate lead to perhaps 90. Chip away some more delegates in the remaining elections, and she may cut his margin to 60. That would be enough to play her ace – the support she has among the party hierarchy.
Thanks largely to the presidency of husband, Bill, Mrs Clinton has a majority among the so-called super-delegates, the 796 party-appointed men and women whose votes will now be vital in the convention.
Never in history have super-delegates gone against the popular vote, and many worry that their own constituencies would turn against them if they did.
But if Mrs Clinton can take a big enough chunk out of her rival's lead, she can present the race as something closer to a dead heat, allowing the majority of "supers" to vote her to victory with a clear conscience.
Mr Obama, meanwhile, is hoping his ship can be steadied with wins this weekend in Wyoming and next Tuesday in Mississippi, the latter a state with a large black community.
MCCAIN'S VICTORY SEALED WITH WHITE HOUSE INVITE
WHILE Democrats prepare for a new round of primary battles, John McCain was yesterday anointed the Republican candidate for 2008 at a lunch with the president, George Bush.
Eight years ago, it was Mr Bush who prevented Mr McCain, 71, from winning the nomination in a vitriolic primary battle.
This time there were warm handshakes and pats on the back from the president, whose low popularity ratings have caused Mr McCain and others to stay away from him during the primaries. Mr Bush said the former Vietnam prisoner of war would be a strong, courageous president who would not "flinch in the face of danger".
Arriving on the White House steps with his wife Cindy, Mr McCain turned to savour the moment. Six months ago he seemed down and out, with low poll ratings and campaign cash so short that he was forced to lay off staff and clean his own office.
But victories in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont finally killed off the challenge of maverick conservative candidate Mike Huckabee, who quit yesterday.
Mr Huckabee, a Baptist minister, was one of the most colourful candidates. But his strong support among Christian evangelists, earned with backing for policies including the teaching of creationism in schools, alienated the mainstream.
"I fought the good fight," he told his staff, quoting the Apostle Paul. "I've finished the race, and I've kept the faith."
Speculation over a vice-presidential candidate has intensified; the front-runner continues to be Tim Pawlenty, the Minnesota governor and a McCain loyalist, but other names suggested include the Florida governor Charlie Crist. Some have also suggested Colin Powell, Mr Bush's former secretary of state and a man who might help Mr McCain win the African-American vote.