Throw out the poll numbers, the fundraising figures, the ad wars, even the delegate math: On Tuesday, the challenge for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is no more and no less than survival.
Texas and Ohio headline four states that vote on Tuesday, and while the Clinton dynasty/legacy isn't on the ballot, it isn't very far removed from it, either. Anything other than a clear victory for Clinton (though what that means is already subject to debate) will heighten calls for her to cede the Democratic nomination fight to Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
For Clinton, the big contests are must-wins -- period, the end. After 11 straight losses, her campaign is running out of states to slow Obama's momentum, and running out of explanations for why Obama's victories shouldn't matter.
Even overwhelming Clinton margins on Tuesday are unlikely to significantly trim Obama's delegate lead, which stands at 110 coming into the day, according to ABC's delegate scorecard.
That makes this one of those days where spin and perceptions will count as much as the votes themselves. Victory will be in the eyes of the beholder -- and not all behold equally.
"The big question: What constitutes a 'win'?" Jackie Calmes writes in The Wall Street Journal. "If the New York senator gets large majorities of the popular vote in both states, she will clearly keep fighting for the Democratic nomination, at least until the next major primary in Pennsylvania on April 22. If she loses both, she will face tremendous pressure to drop out of the race. The latest polls suggest, however, that the outcome is likely to be muddier than either of those scenarios."
"The more decisive the outcome, the easier her choice," John Harwood reports in The New York Times. "Should Mr. Obama sweep all four contests, her hopes will plainly be extinguished. Should she carry Ohio and Texas -- as her husband, former President Bill Clinton, said she must to retain a shot at the nomination -- she will no doubt fight on to the next big battle, on April 22 in Pennsylvania, and, perhaps, all the way to the convention in Denver. Trickier to handicap would be a split decision."
Keep an eye on a tiny subset of voters -- the undecided superdelegates. It's those party leaders' interpretation of momentum and electoral feasibility -- in short, whether they consider Clinton's Tuesday performance a "win" -- that will determine whether she can continue to stay in the race.
ABC's George Stephanopoulos reported on "Good Morning America" Tuesday that Clinton is "not going to give up so long as there's a realistic path to the nomination," but added that those close to Clinton say she's "realistic about the necessity of getting out if she does lose today."
"If she loses both, I think there's no question that she will be getting out of the race," Stephanopoulos said. "If she wins Ohio and loses Texas, I think it will be very difficult for her to go on. . . . But I think if it's close, she may find a way to stay in."
(If it's a close call, does anyone doubt that Clinton will find something -- anything -- to point to as a hopeful sign?)
By the numbers: Democrats on Tuesday will award 370 delegates, the largest batch up for grabs in any one day other than Super Tuesday. The two big prizes are Ohio, where the tattered industrial base gives Clinton an edge going in, and Texas, where the diverse demographics (and bizarre delegate selection rules) may favor Obama.