WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton Friday denied she was contemplating defeat for her White House bid, after she paid a wistful tribute to Barack Obama which some observers saw as an admission of possible failure.
Reeling from her Democratic rival's 11 straight wins in nominating contests, Clinton fought back against the perception that her performance Thursday in a high-stakes debate in Austin, Texas, had a valedictory tone.
"I intend to win, obviously. I'm working very hard, and Ohio and Texas are critical states," the New York Senator said in an interview with ABC News, referring to two do-or-die nominating contests on March 4.
Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain meanwhile was back on the campaign trail in Indiana, a day after denying suggestions sparked by a New York Times report that he had an improper relationship with a female lobbyist.
Clinton was asked on CBS whether the debate marked the beginning of the end of her campaign, and replied "of course not" and promised her legendary fighting spirit was not waning.
But on NBC, Clinton declined to say she would carry on if she loses in Ohio and Texas, states which even her ex-president husband admits she must win.
In a moment of grace and humility in the final seconds of the debate, Clinton departed from her policy-heavy script, and mused on the future, in comments which drew a standing ovation.
She recalled how she had visited a hospital for grieviously wounded combat veterans, and how their struggles, and those of ordinary Americans were the fuel for her political career.
"You know, the hits I've taken in life are nothing compared to what goes on every single day in the lives of people across our country.
"That's what gets me up in the morning. That's what motivates me in this campaign."
Clinton also paid generous tribute to her rival, in a moment seen by some commentators as a admission that her quest to be the first woman president could fall short.
"You know, no matter what happens in this contest -- and I am honored, I am honored to be here with Barack Obama. I am absolutely honored," she said, and reached out to shake his hand.
"Whatever happens, we're going to be fine. You know, we have strong support from our families and our friends.
"I just hope that we'll be able to say the same thing about the American people."
Clinton's camp attempted to use the moment to create the same effect as her tearful episode in New Hampshire, seen as helping her to win the key primary there in January.
"What we saw in the final moments in that debate is why Hillary Clinton is the next president of the United States," her spokesman Howard Wolfson said in a statement.
"Her strength, her life experience, her compassion. She's tested and ready. It was the moment she retook the reins of this race and showed women and men why she is the best choice."
Campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe also emailed a YouTube video clip of the episode to Clinton supporters.
But Obama's campaign also pounced, accusing Clinton of using statements similar to remarks by former Democratic candidate John Edwards, as they hit back at claims that Obama had plagiarized speeches.
Most pundits agreed that Obama escaped unscathed from the debate, which Clinton had hoped to use to dramatically slow his momentum.
Hours before the Democratic debate, there was more woe for Clinton, with new polls by the Washington Post and ABC News showing she and Obama tied in Texas and her lead down to seven points in Ohio.
Matthew Dowd, a former adviser to President George W. Bush said Clinton failed to provide a show stopper moment.
"Every day that the news is being dominated by John McCain's troubles is a bad day for Hillary Clinton," Dowd said. "And every day that's a bad day for Clinton is a good day for Barack Obama."
The story about McCain's alleged links to 40-year-old lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, when he last ran for president eight years ago, landed like a bombshell in the Republican race on Thursday.
With his wife Cindy standing by him, the 71-year-old Arizona senator rebutted the suggestion of a romantic liaison with Iseman in a hastily called press conference following the publication of a New York Times article.
The article cited unnamed sources as saying McCain advisors were convinced "the relationship had become romantic" between the senator and Iseman.