Hillary Clinton's strategy for winning the Democratic nomination is now a fond wish wrapped in a desperate hope.
Her fond wish is to seat the pledged delegates from the rogue states of Michigan and Florida in a way that is advantageous her and damaging to Barack Obama.
Her desperate hope is then to persuade the superdelegates to overturn the will of the pledged delegates and make her the Democratic nominee.
To achieve this, she needs momentum, spin and fear.
Her momentum was dealt a setback Tuesday night when she lost North Carolina, a large state that she had said was going to be a "game changer." (It may turn out to be, but not in the way she had hoped.)
True, Clinton won Indiana, but she no longer has the luxury of split decisions. We are at the endgame, and the results of the final six primaries are pretty predictable: Clinton probably wins Kentucky, West Virginia and Puerto Rico, and Obama probably wins Oregon, Montana and South Dakota.
This outcome almost certainly will leave Obama with a lead in pledged delegates. And it would be hard for Clinton to spin those results as a victory.
This is where fear comes in. Harold Ickes, a top Clinton strategist, told Mark Halperin of The Page on Tuesday that Ickes' main argument when talking to superdelegates is: "We don't know enough about Sen. Obama yet. We don't need an 'October surprise.' And [the chance of] an October surprise with Hillary is remote."
But is it? When Clinton said she came under sniper fire in Bosnia and that turned out not to be true, wasn't that kind of a surprise? And when her soon-to-be-fired top strategist Mark Penn met with the government of Colombia to support a free trade agreement that Clinton opposed, wasn't that a little surprising?
Besides, surprises are often not as damaging as what is already known. The old is often more dangerous than the new Willie Horton and Swift boats were old issues. So if Obama is the nominee, we will hear about Tony Rezko and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; if Clinton is the nominee we will hear about Whitewater and cattle futures trading.
You cannot blame Ickes for playing the hand he has been dealt, but it is a weak hand, and superdelegates, who allegedly are more politically sophisticated than ordinary pledged delegates, are the least likely to be bluffed by it.
I don't think Clinton has any obligation to quit before the last primary, but she must continue to look scrappy and resolute in the weeks ahead and not sad or pathetic.
There is a lot at stake for her that goes beyond the Democratic convention. First, if she doesn't get the nomination this time, she has to exit in such a way as to not damage her political future. If Obama loses the general election this year, he is unlikely to get a second chance in 2012. (The Democrats don't like to renominate losers; the last time they did it was with Adlai Stevenson in 1956, and he lost again.) Clinton could try for the nomination again, but even if she does not run for president in 2012, she is up for reelection to the Senate that year. Or she could run for governor of New York in 2010. Or she might want to become majority leader of the Senate.
She has options, but only if she manages her endgame carefully.
If she becomes known as the candidate who was willing to destroy her party in order to gain the nomination, she is likely to lose not just the nomination but also her political future.