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Obama's subdued, while Clinton beams

March 4, 2008 | 10:40 pm

Obama lost primaries in Ohio and Rhode Island to Senator Hillary Clinton.

With the Democratic presidential race essentially back to square one, the two contenders for the nod could hardly have delivered more starkly contrasting messages Tuesday night. Nor could they have projected more dramatically different auras.

Hillary Clinton -- having proved that, like her husband, she seems to perform best when she's on the ropes -- beamed in Ohio as she celebrated her impressive victory in that state's primary. She was going to end up with a solid winning margin -- which by itself, she stressed, was enough to propel her on, regardless of what happened in the more closely contested Texas primary. (After she spoke, she eked out a narrow triumph in that state, as well.)

She also was feisty, keeping Barack Obama squarely in her sights. She took a few obligatory pokes at John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, but it was her Democratic rival that was the target of none-too-subtle barb after barb.

Obama had the opportunity to knock Clinton out of the ring going into Tuesday's voting. Instead, Clinton not only kept the fight going, it appears she now has the sense that Obama may not be able to take a punch.

Her unyielding mantra of late -- that Obama is mostly talk, with little substance to back it up -- finally seemed to hit home over the past few days. And she signaled that ...

she'll be pressing that case even more.

Time and again, she gave her adoring crowd a variation of this basic theme: Obama offers speeches, she offers solutions. In case anyone missed the point, she wrapped up her speech with a phrase incorporating Obama's favorite noun, saying she was the one who could turn "hope into reality."

It was a subdued, almost grim-looking Obama who took the stage a few minutes later in San Antonio. There was no preempting her remarks on this night, as he had two weeks ago after thumping her in the Wisconsin primary. Nor was there the bounce in his step that had marked a month's worth of victory speeches he had been giving.

He struck a gentlemanly manner from the start, conveying his congratulations to Clinton on her wins in Ohio and Rhode Island, one of the day's other primaries. And he noted that he had called McCain to congratulate him on officially wrapping up the GOP race.

Obama, in something of a disconnect, then focused his fire on McCain, depicting him as a clone of President Bush. There was almost a wistful quality to the moment -- this is the speech he obviously had hoped to give, the speech that presupposed a Democratic battle that was virtually over.

It's anything but finished, of course, and as Obama finally looked ahead to that reality, the signal he sent out was more muted than Clinton's.

He insisted he would press the argument that his eloquence is anything but empty. And he ended with an anecdote featuring an elderly Ugandan who, he said, is following the campaign closely. "The world is watching what we do here," Obama said, and how the candidates treat one another.

All well and good. But it would seem his more immediate concern needs to be the Pennsylvanians who vote in the party's next major primary, on April 22. You can be sure they're uppermost in Clinton's mind.

-- Don Frederick