ImageDemocratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama are coming down to the "end game" of the primary season. Following the Wisconsin primary (which Mr. Obama won handily - his 11th win in a row) and just preceding the crucial March 4th primaries in Texas and Ohio (which Mrs. Clinton must win to stay in the running), the race is virtually tied.

At this writing,  Mr. Obama appears slightly ahead of Mrs. Clinton in "pledged" delegates (+145), while Mrs. Clinton has the edge in so-called "super" delegates (+73). (A candidate wins pledged delegates in proportion to the votes he won in a state's primary. Super delegates are free agents who can choose the candidate they prefer, without restrictions.)

Analysts say the Clinton campaign originally expected to have the nomination sewed up after the Super Tuesday primaries (Feb. 5th). John Edwards is gone, but Mr. Obama is not quite the "lightweight" Mrs. Clinton expected. Instead, he gained strength as time went on. His soaring rhetoric electrifies large crowds and draws more support. Some of the Democratic "old bulls" - e.g., Edward Kennedy, Chris Dodd - have endorsed him. Previously committed super delegates are cooling to Mrs. Clinton. Political insiders expect her to throw in the "kitchen sink" to keep from being submerged by the Obamawave. Some Democrats tremble at what this might mean.

Being the experienced pol she is, Mrs. Clinton believes she can pull strings and manipulate enough super delegates to turn the final count in her favor. The Clintons are experts at this. She also wants delegates from Florida and Michigan to be included in the official tally.

The latter move is controversial because Mrs. Clinton originally agreed with the other candidates that the Florida and Michigan delegates should not be counted - as punishment for holding their primaries on an early date not approved by the DNC. Neither Mr. Obama nor Mrs. Clinton campaigned in Florida and Michigan. Mr. Obama's name did not appear on the Michigan ballot, but Mrs. Clinton's name remained on both ballots. Consequently, she now declares herself the "winner" of both states and demands that those delegates be included in her totals.

To this observer, disenfranchising Florida and Michigan always seemed an obtuse move by the party - elevating process over democracy. These are, respectively, the fourth and eighth most populous states in the nation. Excluding them from this important primary contest would seem ill advised, to say the least. Wouldn't Democrats (of all people) want those votes to count?

The Obama side probably signed the agreement in good faith, but they failed to account for the Clintonian "triangular" strategy. In classic fashion, Mrs. Clinton was initially for the exclusion, but turned against it when it suited her purposes. Now she loftily preaches, "count every vote" - Democrats' rallying cry in Florida, 2000 - while Mr. Obama is left to argue for barring delegates.

But in this "sharp dealing", Mrs. Clinton has been too clever by half. Ditto for using sweet inducements and veiled threats to draw super delegates to her side. Both strategies will fail because Mrs. Clinton is forgetting the first principle of election-stealing, just as Richard Daley forgot it in Florida, 2000 - i.e., Elections must be stolen in the dark of night, not in the daylight. Richard Daley (The Elder) always held back his Cook County votes until the wee hours, after all other Illinois precincts had reported. When he saw the totals, he made sure that his candidate had a winning margin. (Ballots were taken to the homes of Daley-machine cronies for "safekeeping".) Historians generally agree that JFK won the 1960 election because of this Daley tactic.

If Mrs. Clinton wins the nomination via her bold, daylight attempt to reverse the Florida/ Michigan deal, her victory will be Pyrrhic. She will have split the Party. Outraged Obama supporters will say she "stole" it. They might stay home on Election Day - handing the presidency to the Republican candidate. The super delegate stratagem could do similar damage because delegates don't use secret ballots. The whole world will know how each one voted, and there will be endless questions about what was offered in return for which votes. Democrats outsmarted themselves by setting up this system. They never expected the supes to actually choose a candidate - or, if they did, they didn't think it through. 

The Democratic delegate-construct is a recipe for a brokered convention when two candidates are nearly tied at the end. In their zeal to be "fair", Democrats have made it difficult for a clear winner to emerge. For populist reasons, Democrats scorn the "electoral" model of giving all of a state's delegates to the candidate with the most votes. With certain exceptions, a candidate wins delegates only in proportion to his primary-vote share. He might carry a state decisively - say, 67-33 - but the loser still gets one delegate for every two of the winner's. This makes it harder to roll up a commanding lead, as in the current race.

At this juncture, Mr. Obama is riding a wave of popularity that threatens to engulf the once "inevitable" candidacy of Hillary Clinton. This smart, attractive, unflappable black man is the most articulate candidate since Ronald Reagan and the most magnetic Democrat since John Kennedy. His message of hope, change and boundless possibilities resonates with young people who don't really comprehend his leftist agenda and don't realize how bad things were before the Reagan/post-Reagan era quintupled the GDP, vanquished inflation, and raised the stock market twelve-fold. Mr. Obama's hope/change/let's-do-it quasi-spiritual message scatters Mrs. Clinton's wonkish policy dogma like a strong wind blowing papers spilled from a briefcase.

Hillary Clinton's long campaign has morphed from a joyous chorus of "one more river to cross" into a long, tedious climb up a mountain that just keeps gettin' higher. She is a smart, well-turned-out woman, but she is no match for the sex appeal of the brilliant young orator who has come out of nowhere to derail her "coronation" procession. Young people are deserting her in droves. Her "solid" black base has gone to Barak Obama. She is left hanging onto Hispanics, older women and true believers who hope for the Second Coming of Bill. But these will not be enough. I may yet be proved wrong, but I think she is finished, within sight of the goal.

There is a poetic justice about what has happened to Mrs. Clinton. One is bound to ask: was she really the best the Democratic Party had to offer the American people? Looking at it objectively, many Democrats might say, "probably not". Were Hillary Clinton not the wife of a bad-boy ex-president, it is doubtful that she would be where she is now. Many Democrats who are (or have been) state governors might reasonably have been considered. Their solid records could have made them serious candidates, but they were eclipsed by Mrs. Clinton's name and fame - by her bright wardrobe, her peroxide hair and her preternaturally wrinkle-free face.

The 2008 Democratic race is a contest of imagery, not substance. Mrs. Clinton projected an image of bright femininity - ready to tackle the big problems stupid men just couldn't handle. She is a cinematic creation - like those idealized movie-images of female cops or attorneys made to look tougher, smarter, bolder, more caring, etc. Her "experience" and credentials are a mirage. Rush Limbaugh and others note that she has never managed anything successfully.

Against a field of serious executive experience, Mr. Obama could not have competed. But against a female image-candidate, he could. And he has. Of course, his credentials for the presidency are no better than Mrs. Clinton's, as Bill Clinton has proclaimed until he is close to turning blue. The media argue endlessly about whose credentials are better, but it's a silly debate. The contest is all about image, and Mr. Obama is ahead there. He is as green as spring corn, but the electorate might well pick him for the job. They have done it before. The irony is that the last one of his ilk - deliriously chosen on the basis of nebulous "change" - was Bill Clinton.

As a first-ever woman in a serious run for the White House, Mrs. Clinton has gone far. For a time, she was the darling of her party. But, in a perverse quirk of fate, another darling - the first-ever black man to make a serious run for the White House - has flashed past and snatched the prize. At the 10-yard line, with nothing but the goal line in front of her, Mrs. Clinton has been knocked off her feet. The gods of politics are often capricious and sometimes cruel. This was one of those times. I almost feel sorry for her.