Washington From Iowa in January through South Dakota and Montana in June, Barack Obama has enjoyed one of the great rides in American political history, breaking precedents and setting records along the way. It has been an extraordinary journey, magnified, not diminished, by the gritty, resilient performance of his main rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton. On that journey he has given Americans the gift of a new and hopeful chapter in our troubled racial history.
The two props that made it possible for this freshman senator, with far more meager governmental credentials than most of the other dozen candidates running in both parties this year, to capture the Democratic nomination, are clear.
One is his oratory. He was by far the most compelling speaker. He capsulized his message of hope and change brilliantly at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines last fall, and recycled that speech all the way to the end. And the other is his fundraising and voter-turnout organization that dazzled his rivals with its discipline and efficiency, despite going into this with minimal experience.
None of the establishment Democrats, not even Clinton, who had all the advantages going in, could match him in these regards, and the results showed.
But for all those achievements and all those advantages, Obama limped into the nomination as a vulnerable and somewhat diminished politician. After winning 11 primaries and caucuses in a row, his magic touch seemed to depart him. He lost the knack of winning the heart of the Democratic coalition, working families that look for help in meeting the economic challenges of their everyday lives. White, Hispanic, middle-aged or older, they had strong associations with Clinton and many questions about the commitments that lay behind Obama's sweeping, reformist generalizations.
What Democrats are just beginning to figure out is that John McCain is positioned to compete with Obama for the votes of the many Americans who are eager to put the hyper-partisanship of the past eight years behind them and witness a Washington that finally begins to address the nation's challenges.
But anyone who is realistic must recognize that forging fresh agreements in Congress and the interest-group-dominated capital will take an exceptionally strong president. Since early March, Obama has not looked like that president. Once his streak stopped, his only significant win came in North Carolina. He lost Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky and, on Tuesday, South Dakota - states where he didn't get that working-class vote.
In the last weeks, Obama visibly retreated. It is rare that you see a presidential candidate - let alone a man headed for nomination - back off from the contest to the extent Obama did. Instead of the frenetic schedule he had kept for months, Obama made a minimum of appearances in the final states, as if relying on his momentum to carry him through. That he lost all but one of the major tests was no surprise.
But the retreat spread further. Over the last two months, Obama has in slow stages backed away from his 20-year association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, first criticizing some of his statements but clinging to their friendship, then strongly condemning those words and finally severing his ties to Wright's former church.
The net result has been to smudge one of the main clues voters had been given to Obama's fundamental values and beliefs, and to create a new aura of mystery about this man.
You could even characterize as a retreat the clever strategy the Obama forces devised for last weekend's meeting of the Democratic National Committee's rules committee, a strategy that closed down Clinton's last hopes of overcoming him. Obama could have stood on principle. He was in full compliance with the rules that were written in advance of the campaign, and he could have insisted that she also play by the rules. Instead, he backed off and gave her a meaningless gift of delegate votes.
Obama still has great gifts and substantial assets. So the first imperative at this point is to stop retreating and regain the initiative - starting with a clear assertion of his absolute right to choose his own running mate and not be pressured into a decision by the Clintons or their friends.
Like Ronald Reagan at the Republican National Convention in 1980, having the wisdom to reject the plot to install Jerry Ford as his vice president, this is the big-time decision that could define a leader and lead to a victory.