A day before Barack Obama could snuff out her White House dreams, Hillary Clinton and her troops waged a fervent attempt to wind back the doomsday clock ticking on her campaign.
Her last-minute rescue bid came after a grim month for the 60-year-old one-time Democratic front-runner, reeling from Obama's stunning hot streak of 11 straight nominating victories.
Defeat in Ohio and Texas Tuesday, would leave her facing the humiliating prospect of ejection from the race, and dash her hopes of a Clinton restoration -- all at the hands of a man she sees as short of presidential mettle.
The Clinton campaign has been mired in a strange limbo for days.
In a bid to lift the mood at last weekend, Clinton ditched her press pack and secretly flew to New York to guest star on fabled "Saturday Night Live."
But even that appearance seemed laced with melancholy, Clinton was asked by her television impersonator how her campaign was going: "very, very well," she said sweetly, but then snapped the punchline: "Why, what have you heard?"
Late Sunday night, Clinton, no stranger to dire political battles, even betrayed a rare hint of letting fate take its course.
"I intend to do as well as I can on Tuesday, we will see what happens after that," the former first lady confided to reporters on her campaign plane.
Her comments were stripped of election eve bravado, compared with the defiance she showed before her last potential waterloo -- the New Hampshire primary, where she won a famous comeback victory.
As she spoke, Clinton sipped a drink -- perhaps expertly poured by one of her travelling buddies, Ted Danson, suave barman Sam Malone on hit comedy "Cheers," along for the ride with wife and longtime Clinton friend Mary Steenbergen.
But just hours later, the hard charging, never-say-die Clinton of yore was back, saying she was just "warming up."
On a mere three hours sleep, the former first lady showed up at a Chrysler Jeep car plant, dispensing donuts and coffee to workers from her core blue-collar support base before they clocked on.
Next, she barnstormed through an early morning press conference, rebuking the media for its supposed crush on Obama, and raising the bar by saying the only measure of success in Tuesday's contests was victory.
Later, at a rally in Texas, reporters covering Clinton were guided to a filing center in a boys locker room, close to several urinals: aides joked the venue was not a pithy comment on how the campaign views its press coverage.
While all had seemed dark the day before, with Obama edging ahead in polls in Texas, and eroding her leads in Ohio, several fortuitous events, gave Clinton's team the opening it had been seeking for days.
First, reports said an Obama chief economic advisor had met a Canadian consular official in Chicago who said the Illinois senator's attacks on a key North American free trade pact were mere election rhetoric.
The Obama campaign quarrelled with the intepretation of the Canadian official.
But the saga boosted hopes in the Clinton camp she could woo any wavering voters in economically bereft Ohio, where the phrase "free trade" is an expletive.
There was more embarrassment for Obama on Monday.
His long-time friend and fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko went on trial on charges of bribing public officials, and using political contacts to demand kickbacks from businesses.
While Obama is not accused of any wrongdoing, it was another chance for Clinton aides to hammer his squeaky clean image.
Clinton aides also tried to sketch scenarios which would allow her to stay in the race on Wednesday, in a pre-emptive strike against a stream of expected calls from the Obama camp for her to fold her campaign.
"I think this has been a roller coaster race," Clinton's top strategist Mark Penn said.
"Every time people try to foreclose it, the voters come back and say, 'Just wait a minute here. We want to have our say.'"
While refusing to predict victory, the aides appeared to be framing a rationale for her to parlay a more likely win in Ohio, with a close contest in Texas as evidence of "buyers remorse" among Democrats.
But given tight opinion polls in the two states, even morale-boosting wins for Clinton would fail to trim Obama's clear lead among nominating delegates who will formally annoint the nominee at August's party convention. (AFP)
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