WASHINGTON (AFP) — Hillary Clinton's White House quest, now on life support, was anchored on a lifetime of political experience, but she found her message trumped by Barack Obama's soaring call for hope and change.
While Obama's theme was key, his gradual acceleration away from his rival, and success in weathering crises, has been underpinned by a shrewd delegate building strategy and a staggering fundraising operation.
Post mortems are already starting on Clinton's campaign, and she is facing rising calls to quit the race, after she could only match Obama's crushing win in Tuesday's North Carolina Democratic primary with a squeaker victory in Indiana.
Early on, her team bet that Americans, angry over a botched war in Iraq, the fumbled response to Hurricane Katrina and fearing a recession, yearned for competence and a mastery of policy forged by Clinton's decades in politics.
Obama, now close to claiming the Democratic nomination, however, enraptured a new generation of young voters, dominated the African-American vote and appealed to affluent whites, with a crusade for political renewal.
Clinton 's choice of experience as the rationale of her campaign, did make some sense, given that she could hardly run as an insurgent outsider after having already called the White House home.
But it left her vulnerable to damaging questions over whether experience as first lady was relevant to the presidency.
Obama found a weak spot by questioning whether experience or judgment matters more, bringing up her vote to authorize the war in Iraq.
By definition, her chosen message meant looking backwards, breaking a cardinal Clinton family rule -- that elections are about the future, not the past.
Clinton's frequently changing slogans meanwhile suggested internal drift at times in her operation. Obama never strayed from the two words "hope" and "change" that defined his campaign.
By the time Clinton had settled on the highly effective current persona of a gritty never-say-die fighter refusing to admit defeat, she was too far behind for it to be decisive.
Obama's camp clearly outwitted Clinton in organization, picking up nominating delegates in states far from the beaten Democratic track, often in caucuses, while Clinton looked for a knockout in big, traditional primaries.
"The Obama campaign was strategically shrewd," said Julian Zelizer, professor of history at Princeton University.
"They saw how the caucus system worked and they saw how this proportional voting system worked, where they could lose (a state) and still win delegates," Zelizer said.
Clinton's team was slow to match Obama's deployment of manpower and resources in caucus states that often do not vote Democratic in general elections.
"If you took away the caucuses, she would have won," said Zelizer. "It's very puzzling."
Obama also outwitted Clinton in the crucial fundraising stakes, as he built a staggering grass roots movement of donors, many of them giving less than 100 dollars, to whom he could return time and time again.
More than 1.5 million people joined the Obama crusade, many contributing online, and will provide a source of almost limitless general election cash should he, as expected, win the nomination.
Clinton relied on a more traditional network of campaign donors, and many quickly gave the maximum 2,300 dollars in primary contributions.
Therefore, she was never able to match Obama in advertising, and in some cases he tripled or quadrupled her ad buys -- a huge handicap in key states.
The Clinton campaign struggled all along to adequately answer the question of how Bill Clinton would fit into a Hillary Clinton White House.
The former president lurched between being a liability and an asset for months, igniting firestorms with purple-faced rages but stumping effectively among those who still see him as a hero.
Hillary Clinton also struggled to find a way to showcase her personal warmth, often on show behind the scenes, on the public stage. So much so that when she teared up before the New Hampshire primary in January, many cynics thought it was a deliberate ploy.
Though it looks like she will lose the primary race, Clinton's campaign did include some notable successes.
Despite her reputation as a polarizing character, she is now unarguably a historic figure, having taken a political career further than any other woman in US history.
She also won millions of votes, and bonded with women voters and core blue-collar Democrats, who saw their own economic struggles mirrored in her refusal to accept defeat.
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