LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Hillary Rodham Clinton has an unmistakable bounce in her step these days _ a sense of energy and optimism that somehow belies the daunting challenge she faces in wresting the Democratic presidential nomination from Barack Obama.
"I feel good. We're making progress every day," she told supporters Thursday in Kentucky, which holds its primary May 20. "Wish I could be here for the Derby. ... I hope everyone's going to place a little money on the filly," a reference perhaps to horse Eight Belles and herself.
Buoyed by her convincing win in Pennsylvania's primary April 22, Clinton has been campaigning intensively before Indiana and North Carolina's contests next week. She's greeted by large crowds who respond enthusiastically to her plans for improving the faltering economy, and several polls out this week suggest she would be the stronger candidate to face Republican John McCain this fall, both nationally and in important swing states.
Obama, meanwhile, is still contending with the fallout from the controversy surrounding his former pastor and polls showing a tight contest in Indiana, where he once led.
While Obama has won several superdelegate endorsements this week, including that of former DNC chairman and one-time Clinton backer Joe Andrew, the former first lady has secured a few of her own after weeks of superdelegate drought. On Tuesday, she got a boost in North Carolina with the endorsement of Democratic Gov. Mike Easley, another superdelegate.
All of which has given her advisers at least a glimmer of hope that, after a long period of being thought a sure loser, Clinton has regained enough momentum to persuade uncommitted superdelegates to give her candidacy another look. While it may still be a long shot, advisers believe she is in a stronger position to make that argument now than she has been for much of the primary season.
"There is a settled view among Democrats and in the general electorate that Senator Clinton is the better candidate to have knowledge and leadership to turn the economy around," Clinton strategist Geoff Garin said, noting what he called the former first lady's "continued success and Senator Obama's continued difficulty connecting with blue-collar and middle-income voters, both men and women."
Indeed, Clinton advisers say conversations with uncommitted superdelegates suggest they are concerned about Obama's persistent weakness among some key demographic groups, particularly Catholic and Hispanic voters. In nominating contests so far this year, Clinton has bested Obama among both groups by a margin of 60 percent to 36 percent.
Then there's the Illinois senator's well-publicized tangle with his pastor of 20 years, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama broke with his spiritual mentor earlier this week after Wright made a number of controversial statements to reporters in Washington, including suggestions that the U.S. government had invited the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the U.S. government was capable of planting AIDS in the black community.
The uproar over Wright has thrown Obama badly off message in a week he hoped to regain footing among working-class whites in Indiana and elsewhere. Clinton advisers believe the controversy has further demonstrated their belief that Obama may be too unknown and untested to stand up as the party's nominee.
"In my district, Senator Clinton got 67 percent and I think a large part of that was Jeremiah Wright and those issues. It looks like she's got the momentum," said Jason Altmire, an undecided superdelegate from Pennsylvania.
Clinton strategists also contend that Obama's message of hope and political reconciliation has worn thin in recent months as the tanking economy has become voters' dominant concern. Clinton's emphasis on policy proposals such as her plan to ease home foreclosures has more salience with voters than Obama's theme of mending a broken system in Washington, her advisers believe.
Clinton has tried to cast herself as the champion of the middle class even as she casts Obama as out of touch with the concerns of those voters. For example, she's advocating a summer gas tax holiday _ an idea Obama opposes and one that has been widely panned by a range of influential economists.
Still, Clinton strategists acknowledge the odds still don't favor her.
Obama is ahead in the popular vote, pledged delegates and contests won. She would have to win about 80 percent of the remaining pledged delegates to pull nearly even with Obama _ an almost insurmountable hurdle. And her campaign's efforts to restore the results of Michigan and Florida's disputed primaries have failed.
Her strategists also acknowledge an all-but-certain outcry among black voters _ the Democratic Party's most reliable constituency _ if superdelegates were to back Clinton over Obama if he finishes the primary season ahead in the popular vote and delegate count. But they argue that women could have a similar reaction if Clinton is perceived to be treated unfairly by the process.
Clinton also has real electability problems of her own _ years of baggage from her time as first lady that have led to persistent questions about her honesty and integrity. And little is known about Bill Clinton's post-presidential speaking engagements and business deals that have helped the couple earn more than $109 million since 2001.
In the short term, the New York senator is pressing for a win in Indiana and a narrower-than-expected loss in North Carolina, which has a large population of black and liberal voters. Many observers believe her candidacy could be doomed without a win in Indiana.
The remaining contests through June 3 could include terrain favorable to Clinton, including West Virginia, Kentucky and Puerto Rico. Her campaign is holding out hope that she could bring her popular vote total to within striking distance of Obama while continuing to press for some resolution of the Florida and Michigan contests.
"She's still in the wilderness and in the forest, but the glimmer of sunshine has gotten slightly brighter," Democratic strategist Jenny Backus said. "Her way to the nomination is a way that is dangerous to the Democratic Party because it could open up divisions and separations that would take us generations to rebuild. The people she has to convince to get there are the activists who care about the future of the party more than anyone in the country."
EDITOR'S NOTE _ Beth Fouhy covers presidential politics for The Associated Press.