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WASHINGTON - From the snowy wastes of Iowa to the stony edifice of legendary presidents carved on South Dakota's Mount Rushmore, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have come a long way.
Making a second home out of their charter jets, living on a diet of rushed meals and adrenaline, the Democratic White House contenders are reaching the end of the longest, costliest and most scintillating primary battle yet.
The nominating marathon is reaching a finishing line of sorts as voters in Montana and South Dakota prepare to cast their ballots in a race that, against all expectations, has come down to the wire.
Either way, history is in the making as a major US party prepares to select an African-American or a woman as its nominee for the world's most powerful job.
To get to his virtually impregnable lead, Obama has confounded the pundits who said a one-term senator with an exotic name and mixed-race heritage could never beat the legendary Clinton machine. He has done it despite some missteps, including his remark that "bitter" working-class voters cling to guns and religion, and the racially toxic outbursts of turbulent preachers in his former Chicago church.
But, by the admission of her own aides, Clinton underestimated the Obama threat, especially in caucus states where on-the-ground organisation counted for more than brand-name recognition.
Obama's battling draw and his 11 wins in a row after, left Clinton with a Herculean task to overhaul his lead in delegates and in cash.
Just as the "God damn America" sermons of Obama's former pastor exploded on television Clinton too grappled with embarrassment in a political era where no video tape stays hidden in the vaults for long. Top of the list was her unfounded claim that she scurried across the tarmac of a Bosnian air base under sniper fire during a 1996 trip as first lady.
While Obama triumphed in Iowa, Clinton came back in New Hampshire in January after a misty-eyed moment in a coffee shop. That set a pattern of the two trading blow for blow with no knock-out punch. And so on to the big skies of Montana and the badlands of South Dakota, and perhaps all the way to the Democrats' August convention for a prime-time civil war over the right to take on Republican John McCain in November. - Sapa-AFP