WASHINGTON — She had everything going for her. The most famous name in politics. A solid lead in the polls. A war chest of at least $133 million.
Yet Hillary Clinton now finds herself struggling for political survival, her once-firm grasp of the Democratic presidential nomination seemingly slipping away.
Barack Obama, for one thing, a uniquely gifted speaker with a face that appeals deeply to the Democratic Party. He also had a better-organized campaign.
But Democrats say that Clinton, whose central theme is her readiness to be president, also made blunder after blunder. She chose an inexperienced campaign manager, crafted a message that didn't match the moment, fielded poor organizations in key states and built a budget that ran dry just when she needed money most.
"She got outmaneuvered," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist who isn't aligned with any of this year's candidates. "Her campaign allowed her to be outmaneuvered on several fronts."
"To think that someone named Clinton with $130 million could end up here is amazing," another neutral Democratic strategist said. He spoke only on the condition of anonymity to permit more candor, as did many party insiders quoted here who dare not offend the still-powerful Clintons.
Clinton isn't out of it yet. Aides this week dismissed talk of mismanagement and mistakes and said that she can fight back in Ohio and Texas on March 4 and in Pennsylvania on April 22, and win the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in August.
"People have made the mistake of writing off Senator Clinton before," campaign spokesman Phil Singer said.
Yet it's undeniable that the New York senator has fallen awfully far awfully fast.
One factor is Obama, an Illinois senator.
"You've got to give credit to Barack Obama. He is a once-in-a-generation politician," Mellman said.
His soaring rhetoric and uplifting message of a more civil, less divisive politics as the key to such goals as better health care has inspired Democrats since he seized the spotlight at the party's national convention in Boston in 2004.
Also, his race strikes a chord in Democrats who hunger for the chance to nominate and elect the first African-American president, arguably a stronger ideal for some than electing the first woman.
Yet Democratic strategists and insiders think that Clinton could have bested Obama so far had she run a better campaign.
Some key points:
Clinton ran most of last year on her experience, at one point surrounding herself with party icons from the past, such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
It was a strategy designed for wartime, presenting her as a tough, experienced leader in the mold of Margaret Thatcher, someone who could be trusted to keep the country safe.
But that made her look rooted in the past, even part of the status quo, as Obama cast himself as the voice of a new generation. Young people surged to his rallies, and helped give him his first big win, in Iowa.
"Everybody has known for a year at least that if you trade experience for change, people want change over experience 2-1. Why they put themselves on the short end of that, I don't know," said one Democrat who worked on John Kerry's 2004 campaign. "It was a bad choice."
Though she later answered Obama's rise in the polls by changing her message to say she had the experience to deliver change, this Democrat called it "too little too late."
Said a Democrat who worked on Al Gore's 2000 campaign: "A message based on experience was not going to work in that environment. It was doomed to fail."
IOWA AND THE CAUCUS STATES
Starting with Iowa, Clinton was out-hustled and out-organized in almost every state that had caucuses rather than primaries.
Her aides and surrogates criticized caucuses as unrepresentative because it's harder for voters to attend the town hall-like meetings than it is to vote in primaries. As Obama rolled up win after win, they tried to dismiss caucus results as less important than primaries.
"They seemed to give up on organization," one Democratic strategist said. "To lose every caucus but Nevada is to say we do not care about organization.
"Should he have won Idaho? Is that his demographic? No. Should he have won Maine? No. Places like Idaho and Maine were much more Clinton's demographic. But she had neither the organizational strength nor the strategy to lock down these places."
Clinton strategist Harold Ickes denied that the campaign ceded the caucus states to Obama. Instead, it chose to allocate limited resources to different places.
"Every campaign has the allocation-of-resources issue," he said. "And in the context of the resources that we had, the delegates at stake . . . we allocated our resources as we did. You know, we certainly did not cede anything, but . . . those were the factors that were at play in those decisions."
Clinton's one burst of momentum — after wins in New Hampshire and Nevada — ended in South Carolina.
"It was a terrible campaign," said a senior South Carolina Democrat who supported Clinton.
"There was never any concept of how South Carolina should be addressed in terms of identifying voters and getting them out. The skill set of people in the Clinton campaign was pretty low, and there was no central guidance or direction. They had plenty of resources; money wasn't a problem. They just didn't execute."
Worse, Bill and Hillary Clinton hit Obama heading into the South Carolina primary in terms that struck many African-Americans as racially charged.
On the day of the primary, for example, Bill Clinton appeared to dismiss Obama's victory in a state with a large black population by noting that Jesse Jackson had won there, too. That was true. But Clinton had to skip over the 20 years of white winners in South Carolina to settle on Jackson. It was as if he were saying, "a black winner here doesn't matter, because only blacks voted for him."
Well into the campaign in Virginia weeks later, elder statesmen such as Doug Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor, were still smarting over the Clinton tactics. Clinton went on to lose Virginia in a 64-35 percent landslide.
"They blew up in South Carolina," said a white Democrat who worked in the Clinton White House. "It changed everybody's perceptions of them."
Short of cash as the race turned toward the Super Tuesday voting Feb. 5, Clinton lent her campaign $5 million. Even as some wins Feb. 5 helped her raise $15 million, she lost ground to Obama and appeared to lack a clear strategy for how to compete after that.
She seemed to write off Virginia, for example, and didn't even comment on her loss that night, Feb. 12, by almost 30 points.
In Wisconsin, which voted Tuesday, she was outspent 4-1 and pulled out a day early to head to the next contests, in Ohio and Texas. She lost Wisconsin by 17 points.
Even looking ahead to Pennsylvania, which she considers a must-win for her comeback, Clinton aides failed to file a full slate of delegates for that April 22 primary. While they can file them later, the oversight was hardly the sign of a well-oiled machine.
Many of Clinton's TV ads featured her talking about the issues, standard fare.
But the ads struck one Democratic consultant as a mistake, since Obama's ads also feature excerpts from his speeches. Airing the similar ads invites a comparison of the two candidates' speaking styles at the very time she's been trying to downplay her disadvantage.
"They suck," the consultant said. "The truth is he's a better speaker. He has a better speech. They don't want a side-by-side comparison, but they're making it."
Clinton recently replaced her campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, with Maggie Williams, who served as her chief of staff when she was first lady.
Doyle got mixed reviews.
"It does seem odd to have someone at the top of the organization who has no campaign experience," one strategist said. "Bill Clinton had people who had run campaigns. Patti and Maggie were there by virtue of their personal loyalty, not their campaign experience."
But another Democrat said Doyle was singled out unfairly for blame, as often happens in Washington when a politician stumbles.
"Every decision that was made — whether it was spending or the message or what states to invest in — was a collaborative process," the other strategist said. "It's unfair to Patti to blame her. It was a ministerial position."
(William Douglas contributed to this article.)