WASHINGTON — Despite Hillary Clinton's big win in Pennsylvania last week, the story of her campaign is often one of mismanagement and missed opportunities, and it raises questions about how she'd organize and run the White House.
"There's a certain style to the campaign, and it shows what we might expect in a Clinton presidency: a lot of viewpoints and a messiness," said James McCann, a political science professor at Purdue University in Indiana.
Whether that's a good or bad trait is in the eye of the analyst. McCann called it "policymaking through trial and error," similar to how Bill Clinton ran his administration, which to many was a big success.
But her campaign tumbled from riches to rags to rebounds — and now to hanging on for dear life. It wasn't supposed to be that way.
Not many months ago, Clinton was the consensus front-runner, with a 30-point lead in national polls, $118 million raised in 2007 and the backing of most Democratic power brokers.
Today she trails Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in convention delegates, campaign cash and the popular vote.
How'd that happen?
Obama proved to be a phenomenal opponent — that's surely one answer. But some critics see Clinton's campaign as a runaway truck that careened from primary to primary in search of a structure that works.
From the time the former first lady announced her White House bid 15 months ago, her strategy was driven by three ideas: Clinton was the inevitable Democratic nominee so everyone should jump on her bandwagon; she had a seasoned team adept at finding and appealing to wide varieties of voters; and she could outraise and outspend all rivals.
"The bottom line is that she went in with a set of assumptions that proved to be false," said John Geer, the editor of the Journal of Politics.
The notion that she was the inevitable winner left a lot of activists cold.
"You got the sense that her attitude was, 'I'm the nominee, so what else are you going to do?''' said Gordon Fischer, a former Iowa Democratic Party chairman.
As the Des Moines lawyer tried to decide on a candidate last year, Clinton would call him occasionally, but when he said that he wanted to go out on a campaign bus for a day, he said, "No one ever got back to me."
Obama's campaign did. Fischer spent a day going to a barbecue with 15 people and six other events. He signed up with Obama in late September.
"No rookie candidate can claim inevitability," said California political strategist Bob Mulholland. "Only a president can."
Clinton's second stumble was trusting advisers who not only bickered openly, but also seemed to lack the strategic vision that a presidential campaign requires.
Until recently, Clinton's top strategist was Washington pollster Mark Penn, the author of last year's book "Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes."
However, 2008 has become the year of the big trend.
Since October, the AP-Ipsos poll has found that roughly 70 percent of Americans think that the country is on the wrong track, thanks largely to frustration over Iraq and the economy. Americans want big change, not micro-measures.
Compounding Clinton's problem was Penn, who's widely perceived as arrogant and awkward with people. "He has the social skills of a mollusk," said William Curry, a former counselor to Bill Clinton.
Kathy Sullivan, a former New Hampshire party chairwoman, agreed: "Every time I saw him on TV, I thought he was losing us voters."
Penn didn't respond to requests for comment.
As the campaign progressed in 2008, Clinton faced a third problem: Her team had expected her to sew up the nomination on Feb. 5, Super Tuesday. It burned through more than $118 million trying to make that happen, spending so furiously that Clinton even lent herself $5 million at the end of January.
But when Obama fought her to a draw that day, Clinton seemed to have no Plan B.
Campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle, a longtime loyalist who'd never run a campaign before, left after Super Tuesday. She was replaced by Maggie Williams, another longtime loyalist who'd never run a campaign.
Meanwhile, Obama ran off 11 straight victories in February, most in races Clinton barely contested, which is how he rolled up his lead in delegates.
In March, chief strategist Penn was forced to step down after he met with Colombian officials to tout a free-trade agreement that Clinton opposed.
Along the way Clinton presented a number of shifting personas. When she was trying to appear inevitable, she ran as the steely would-be commander in chief. After she lost to Obama in Iowa, she turned misty-eyed and emotional just before the New Hampshire primary and won. More recently, she's presented herself as the reincarnation of Rocky, the plucky prize-fighter who never gives up.
"She's had more incarnations than the Dalai Lama, and she's not as well-liked," Curry said.
Still, she managed to rebound and win crucial primaries in Texas and Ohio on March 4, and in Pennsylvania by 9.2 points on Tuesday.
Clinton backers dismiss the February free-fall as ancient history, citing her Pennsylvania win as evidence that she's on the path to the top. While her campaign aides declined requests for comment for this story, her surrogates made her case publicly.
"It was an awesome victory, a landslide in so many different ways," said Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. "You can see the dynamic changing."
Still, the history of campaign turmoil suggests that a Clinton White House might not be a smooth operation.
"Plan B seems to be, 'Fire staff,'" said Craig Allen Smith, a professor of communication at North Carolina State University.
"She's done what many thought was impossible," Curry said. "She's raising her negatives."
(Greg Gordon contributed.)