WASHINGTON — Humor me while we conduct a little thought experiment. Imagine that Barack Obama lost 10 states in a row. Imagine that he now trailed Hillary Clinton substantially in the number of Democratic primaries and caucuses won, in total votes cast, in pledged convention delegates, in the overall delegate count, in fundraising and in the ineffable attribute called mojo. Imagine that Obama was struggling, at this late hour, to come up with the right message. What would the conventional wisdom say?

That it was over, of course. That Obama was toast. That staking everything on the March 4 primaries in Ohio and Texas was a starry-eyed hope, not a plan, and that it was time to smell the coffee.

Whenever Obama faced reporters, he’d have to answer tough questions. Why was he carrying on, knowing that he’d have to win by unrealistically large margins in all the remaining states to catch up? Didn’t it worry him that relying on the superdelegates — the Democratic establishment, basically — to hand him the nomination could divide and weaken the party? Wasn’t he concerned that Republican John McCain has such a head start in unifying his party and plotting his general election campaign?

The above, you will have noticed, is an accurate description of where Clinton stands right now. Yet nobody is forcing her to respond publicly to those painful questions. The reason is obvious: She’s Hillary Clinton, and history suggests it’s foolish to count out a Clinton until the last dog dies.

But history can be a deceptive guide — and the Clinton campaign’s failure to recognize that fact may be what finally dooms her candidacy.

From Obama’s solid victory in the Iowa caucuses through his blowout victories in Wisconsin and Hawaii, the Clinton campaign has never acted as if the brain trust seriously entertained the notion that she could actually lose. The Clintons and their advisers knew, better than any Democrats, how to win the presidency: Just consult the history books.

“Listen, Hillary is going to be the nominee,” campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe told reporters the day after Iowa, as if the result were just a clerical error.

By the time the campaign realized that Obama was more than a nuisance, he had become a nemesis. When Obama began mesmerizing voters with his simple but powerful message — change, hope, empowerment — Clinton’s pollster-guru, Mark Penn, responded with slogan after slogan that sought to marry the words “change” or “hope” with Clinton’s basic theme of “experience.” Slogans had always worked in the past; surely they would work again.

Sigh. To this day, I’m not sure the Clinton campaign understands that no focus-tested slogan is going to have the elemental resonance of “Yes, we can” (Obama’s homage to Cesar Chavez) or “Change the world.” Hasn’t anybody on the Clinton team ever read Joseph Campbell on the power of mythic narrative? And while we’re on the subject of message, what genius decided it was a great idea to demonize hope?

Some missteps would have been hard to foresee — chief among them the decision to deploy Bill Clinton, whose ham-fisted intervention in South Carolina is seen by some campaign insiders as the beginning of the end, or at least the end of the beginning.

But it’s stunning that the battle-tested Clinton machine allowed itself to be outsmarted and outhustled at the arcane science of winning delegates in caucuses. And it’s even more surprising that the campaign has been so careless with its money that it now is resigned to being outspent anywhere and everywhere.

Most striking of all, to me, is that the campaign still can’t settle on what kind of candidate Hillary Clinton should be. Does she now have to go negative, or should she try to hitchhike on the hope express? Does she project steely resolve or reveal human vulnerability? The campaign wants to convince voters that they don’t know who Obama really is — and also insists on fitting Clinton with a new persona every week.

Meanwhile, just about every analyst who has done the math predicts that unless Obama makes some huge blunder, it’s highly unlikely that Clinton can catch up in pledged delegates. It is also unlikely that the superdelegates will dare overturn the verdict of the primaries and caucuses.

Yes, we’re dealing with Hillary Clinton, whose picture ought to be in the dictionary beside the word resilient. But after losing 10 in a row, she can’t avoid facing — and we can no longer avoid asking — those unwelcome questions about whether she does her party more harm than good if she stays in the race until the convention.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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