Barack Obama was looking to regain his stride just five days before the crucial Pennsylvania primary after a debate in Philadelphia on Wednesday night that saw him repeatedly deflecting criticism on side issues.
His campaign team voiced its frustration with the encounter that dwelled on issues such as his ties to his controversial former pastor and his failure to wear patriotic flag pins on his lapel. The debate left Mr Obama looking less inspirational and more flat-footed. "We talked about the stuff that consumes insiders in the political community, and that was unfortunate," his strategist David Axelrod said yesterday.
Both Mr Obama and Hillary Clinton have packed schedules, criss-crossing the state in search of votes before Tuesday. The latest polls show the race tightening with a Mrs Clinton's one-time 20 percentage point lead narrowing to 5 or 6 points. A loss for her in Pennsylvania could kill off her candidacy.
The Philadelphia Daily News gave Mr Obama its endorsement yesterday, a day after he received the backing of the rock troubadour Bruce Springsteen. Tonight, Mr Obama will address an outdoor rally on Independence Mall in the so-called City of Brotherly Love.
Polls released by ABC News and the Washington Post showed a large majority of voters were concerned about Mrs Clinton's trustworthiness. However, last night her camp voiced satisfaction with Wednesday's debate. "We feel good about it, if Senator Obama is unable to win Pennsylvania, it will show once again he is having problems winning the big swing states," noted Howard Wolfson, her communications director.
Before the cameras at the National Constitution Centre, Mrs Clinton repeatedly sought to exploit recent stumbles by Mr Obama, particularly his suggestion during a closed fund-raising event in San Francisco that poorer voters are "bitter" and therefore "cling" to things like religion and guns. Mr Obama acknowledged he had "mangled" his words and sought to rephrase them. The atmosphere on the stage was tense and Mr Obama appeared uncomfortable and unable to summon much folksiness.
Nor did he take the bait when moderators reminded Mrs Clinton of her embellishments regarding a trip to Bosnia in the 1990s amidst alleged sniper fire. "I'm embarrassed by it," she admitted. Mr Obama gave her a pass. "I think Senator Clinton deserves the right to make some errors once in a while."
Mrs Clinton remains intent on highlighting her opponent's flaws, hoping at this late stage to persuade voters – and still undecided super-delegates – that he would fare worse than her against Republican John McCain in November.
Referring to the many slings and arrows she has survived in the past, she said: "I have an opportunity to come to this campaign with a very strong conviction and feeling that I will be able to withstand whatever the Republicans send our way." But she briefly undermined her argument when asked if Mr Obama could nonetheless beat Mr McCain by replying, "Yes, yes, yes."
Articulate she may be, but the risk remains that she has turned off some voters with her attacks on Mr Obama. The latter repeatedly implied that she was practising a brand of politics based on "pointless distractions". He said: "What's important is to make sure we don't get so obsessed with gaffes we lose sight that this is a defining moment in our history."