Editor’s note: This column has been updated to reflect the results of Tuesday’s elections.

ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. — The primaries in North Carolina and Indiana, which gave Barack Obama a decisive push toward the Democratic nomination, were wrapped in two ironies.

The first: Hillary Clinton found a compelling voice and a plausible strategy only after she had squandered her chances of winning the nomination without a divisive struggle over superdelegates and convention rules. It took a series of defeats to galvanize her campaign and help her put forward a better self.

The second: Clinton’s embrace of a gas tax holiday endowed Barack Obama with a sense of purpose and a burst of energy at precisely the moment when his battered campaign seemed lethargic and reactive. Standing up to a proposal that even many Clinton supporters saw as pandering allowed Obama to revisit his most successful days as a fresh voice uninhibited by Washington’s habits.

It is the second of these ironies that turned out to be decisive. The gas tax debate allowed Obama to push aside the stories about Jeremiah Wright and to demonstrate his ability to stand up to Clinton, and by extension, to John McCain.

Obama’s victory speech was another step in this process. It was a forceful condemnation of “efforts to distract us from the issues that affect our lives by pouncing on every gaffe and association and fake controversy.” It sounded like his first address of the general election campaign.

Yet even though she fell short, the new Clinton has been a wonder to behold. In the 1990s, Hillary and Bill Clinton were trashed by their enemies as elitist, Ivy League, McGovernite liberals — i.e., exactly the way Clinton’s people are eviscerating Obama.

Over the last month, Clinton pushed aside that past and emerged as a working-class hero who gets knocked down, always gets up, and thus won a favorable comparison with Rocky Balboa from her leading supporter here, North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley.

The new Hillary would not have been possible if her original front-runner strategy had worked. She could only become the underdog if the voters made her one and could only cast herself as a fighter if she had to fight. Nothing became her so much as hardship.

Geoffrey Garin, Clinton’s pollster, argued that as a fighting underdog, she became “a far more appealing candidate to a far broader range of voters.” A well-connected supporter saw Clinton becoming a better orator offering a stronger case. “She used to offer this annoying list of issues,” this supporter said. “Now, she offers a message and an argument — that you need a fighter like her to undo all the damage the Republicans have done.”

Bill Clinton learned lessons, too, campaigning as a happy warrior in appreciative country towns. Barbara Allen, the former North Carolina Democratic chair and a Clinton supporter, said the former president’s emphasis on “the small places, places people don’t normally get to at election time” squared with Hillary’s emphasis on the forgotten voter. Although his efforts failed to stop the Obama tide in North Carolina, he helped her eke out her narrow victory in Indiana.

And then there was the hangover from Clinton’s overconfident front-runner strategy: Her failure to organize effectively in caucus states and in the primaries after Super Tuesday more than explains Obama’s lead going into Tuesday’s contests of somewhere between 135 and 140 delegates. Obama earned a 132-pledged-delegate lead over Clinton in the caucus states alone, and 73 more in the primaries held two weeks after Feb. 5th. She found herself in a hole her campaign dug for itself. This meant she had no room for poor showings.

Things had been looking grim for Obama until Clinton joined McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, in endorsing the gas tax holiday. Sure, voters usually back Santa Claus, even if he’s offering only 30 cents a day. But by running hard against the temporary tax break and calling it a typical Washington gimmick, Obama put substance behind his claim that he’ll tell voters what they need to hear. For the first time in weeks, the old Obama was back, talking about something other than his former pastor and bitter voters. And it worked.

Obama has suffered real damage and Republicans are less fearful of running against him than they were earlier this year. But Obama has also shown an ability to withstand a severe battering. He was tougher than Clinton thought he was, and he may prove just as tough against McCain.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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