WASHINGTON — What happened to Hillary Clinton?

Last fall, she was the “inevitable” nominee whose “machine” would raise scads of cash and push her to an early victory. She demonstrated poise and knowledge in debates, and party leaders lined up behind her, fearful of missing her fast-moving train.

But this narrative was flawed from the beginning. Her campaign has suffered from profound organizational failures, small mistakes that took on larger import, and miscalculations that have put her in a position where to survive, she must defeat Barack Obama in both Texas and Ohio next month.

The major flaw in the early story line is that there never was a Clinton machine in the sense of a well-populated organization skilled at turning out votes. Clinton campaigns have always been top-down operations focused on message and media. The Clintons have never lived in a world of precinct captains.

Obama, by contrast, was shaped by his early work as an organizer for the Industrial Areas Foundation and his political life in Chicago, a place where people still talk about ward committeemen and harbor memories of something that was called “The Organization.”

While the Clintonites dispensed large amounts of cash on polling, media and the other accoutrements of a modern campaign, Obama combined postmodern online savvy with old-fashioned organizing.

His respect for organization paid off in states that select delegates through caucuses rather than primaries. In the 11 caucus states so far, Obama has won 247 delegates to 128 for Clinton, and the difference between those two numbers is roughly comparable to Obama’s overall lead in delegates.

The Clinton campaign has a point when it argues that the upscale people who support Obama are more likely to go to caucuses than Clinton’s less-affluent fans on the night shifts. But in many caucus states, painstaking work gave Obama enormous margins that allowed him to win a delegate premium under party rules.

Organizing costs money, and it’s now clear that Obama not only spent his cash more shrewdly, he also adapted better to the new world of political fundraising.

Obama took Howard Dean’s online achievement of 2004 and jumped it forward a couple of generations in size and sophistication. Obama now has a vast pool of small contributors giving him modest amounts over and over, much as churchgoers regularly drop donations onto collection plates. And he has tapped a group of fundraisers well adapted to the new rules that restrict six-figure soft money gifts.

In addition to the Clinton camp’s original sins, there were also the mistakes that typically happen in long campaigns. After performing almost flawlessly in the 2007 debates, she offered a convoluted answer during an Oct. 30 encounter to a question about driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. That single lapse proved to be a costly error.

Then came the large miscalculation in how Bill Clinton should be deployed.

As long as he spoke positively about his achievements and his wife’s abilities, the former president aroused warm nostalgia. But when he went after Obama, especially in South Carolina, Clinton turned off even longtime friends and helped consolidate the African-American vote behind Obama. South Carolina was Hillary Clinton’s Waterloo, and the numbers tell the story: Before South Carolina, national polls gave her leads as high as 15 to 20 points; by Super Tuesday, her advantage was almost gone.

Her larger problem, which she must solve if she is to best Obama in the March 4 primaries, is reflected in her struggle to find a message, a purpose and a voice suited to the disoriented mood in American politics bred by the frustration of the later Bush years.

Obama is inspirational, of course, but in a particular way: His message has been constant since his boffo Nov. 10 speech at an Iowa Democratic dinner. He is less specific about policies than he is in describing the frustrations voters feel — with Bush, with Washington, with divisiveness, with partisanship. His consistent promise is not to pass a detailed program, but to change the mood and style of politics.

Clinton has offered experience and some well-thought-out policies. That might be enough in a different year. But when it comes to a larger theme, her campaign has been all over the lot.

You can tell a campaign has difficulty establishing a message when its slogans keep changing. In recent weeks, the Clinton campaign has featured one banner after another: “Big Challenges, Real Solutions,” “Working for Change, Working for You,” “Ready for Change, Ready to Lead” and “Solutions for America.”

Obama has stuck confidently with the slogan “Change You Can Believe In.” Clinton must either get voters to stop believing in the change Obama promises, or make them an alternative Big Offer that they can believe in more.

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

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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