In the saga of Hillary Rodham Clinton's defeat, all roads lead back to the beginning. Back to Iowa.

Before her loss in that state's first-in-the-nation caucuses, which took place Jan. 3, she still looked like the near-certain winner of her party's presidential nomination.

After all, she was one of the best-known women in the world, the former first lady, the senator from New York, and the bearer of the Democrats' number-one brand. In the national polls, she was 20 points ahead of Barack Obama, an upstart senator from Illinois whose campaign had yet to catch fire and whose mantra was easy to belittle.

"Change is just a word, if you don't have the strength and experience to make it happen," Clinton told party activists in Iowa last fall. "We must nominate a nominee who has been tested and elect a president who is ready to lead on day one."

The Clinton-Obama struggle proved to be one of the most dramatic, historic, all-consuming nomination fights of the modern era - a contest between two political trailblazers, a white woman and a black man, that produced record voter turnout week after week.

But for all that transpired, for all of the slipups and surprises, no event had more impact on the eventual outcome than the first one, those Iowa caucuses, in which Clinton finished third behind Obama and John Edwards.

Change that outcome, and everything else changes with it. Had she won there, the mistakes that were waiting to happen - including her campaign's decision to downplay the future caucus states in which Obama thumped her - might not have mattered a whit.

The startling result in Iowa stripped her of the veneer of inevitability and made Obama a star.

And it signaled to African Americans, who had been evenly divided between Clinton and Obama up to that point, that a black man actually might be able to capture the Democratic nomination. If he could win in Iowa, a very white place, they figured, then he could win anywhere.

Most of her black support migrated to him in a flash, providing Obama with a base that was more than a match for hers among women eager for a breakthrough of their own.

This became hugely apparent when Obama routed Clinton in South Carolina on Jan. 26. That primary, during which Bill Clinton first stirred racial feelings with his words, was the true thunderclap of the political season, the clearest sign that her candidacy was in jeopardy.

In the course of the long campaign, thanks to her early pitch emphasizing experience more than what she would do with it, Hillary Clinton wound up looking to many like the candidate of the status quo - a remarkable accomplishment for someone trying to become the first female president in U.S. history.

Starting in late February, as she defied the odds to stave off elimination time after time, she recast herself as the scrappy champion of hardworking, blue-collar Democrats.

Already a hero to legions of women eager to see her break through the ultimate glass ceiling, she won over millions of voters, male and female, with her grit, her fight, and her focus on bread-and-butter issues. In the final three months, she got far more votes in the primaries than did Obama.

But the damage to her chances had been done.

Much of the reason for Clinton's failure rests with her rival. At a time when America seemed to crave a new direction, Barack Obama embodied change with his message, his appearance and his roots. For the most part, he ran a splendid campaign, raising an extraordinary amount of money and campaigning almost everywhere.

And the Clinton brain trust did not. It made a series of strategic blunders that contributed to her defeat - the way it allocated resources, the way it failed to prepare for a long battle, and the sense of entitlement it sometimes conveyed.

To Iowa Democrats, Clinton offered herself as the candidate of experience, 35 years of it, even though she had served only seven years in public office and much of her experience came from being a political spouse.

Obama, in contrast, spoke of "a party that offers not just a difference in policies but a difference in leadership" and a nation that shouldn't spend "the next four years refighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s."

The untried newcomer also reminded Iowans early and often that he, unlike Clinton, had opposed the Iraq war from the start. Had she not supported the war resolution in 2002, it's hard to imagine the Obama campaign ever getting off the ground. In Iowa, Clinton was asked constantly to explain her vote, and whether she regretted it.

The contrast was stark - a fresh and compelling change-figure in Obama against a familiar representative of the past. As it turned out, the change-figure had far more appeal to Iowa's independents and its young people, who came out in droves to support him.

Her defeat in those caucuses put her in a hole from which she never truly emerged, although she seemed to have done so with her dramatic comeback victory in New Hampshire five days later. And being in that hole highlighted the poor decisions already made by her campaign.

One was the choice to downplay the post-Iowa caucus states in favor of those holding primaries.

At first glance, that made good sense; the more-populous primary states had a lot more delegates to offer, and caucuses require a huge organizational effort.

But by virtually abandoning such caucus states as Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota and North Dakota, Clinton let Obama hold her to a draw on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, the day she had announced in advance that she expected to wrap up the nomination.

This result was vitally important because Clinton and company didn't have much of a plan beyond Super Tuesday, which became apparent as the rest of February unfolded.

In a disastrous two-week period, Obama defeated her in 11 consecutive events, among them caucuses in which she wasn't prepared to compete and primaries in which his core supporters - including blacks and upscale whites - were well-represented.

In the process, he amassed a delegate lead he would never relinquish.

One reason the Clinton campaign couldn't recover quickly, despite several campaign-staffing shake-ups, was that it was strapped for cash.

Clinton had matched Obama in fund-raising in the early going by focusing on big donors, those capable of giving the maximum contribution of $2,300 for the primary season. But such donors couldn't give any more when the going got tough; they were maxed out.

Obama didn't have that problem; he had used the Internet to build up a vast base of donors willing to make small contributions, over and over again.

From mid-February on, Clinton was in survival mode, a desperate condition in which she seemed to thrive, even as the demographic breakdown of the race became set in stone.

She developed her own army of small donors. She talked less about her experience and more about her commitment to fighting for middle-class Americans worried about energy prices, health care, home foreclosures, and jobs moving overseas. It was a message in tune with an electorate shaken by a worsening economy and the price of gasoline, which just kept rising.

For weeks, she seemed to live on the edge. A defeat in the Texas primary March 4 would have done her in. And defeat there seemed a real possibility. But she won, also prevailing in Ohio the same day.

Next came Pennsylvania, where she hoped to build on her emerging claim to be the queen of the big-electoral-vote states, the one with the ability to attract votes from the white working class.

She stumbled along the long road to the April 22 primary, saying on several occasions, incorrectly, that she had braved sniper fire when landing in Bosnia as first lady in 1996.

Fortunately for her, though, Obama found himself on an even more daunting path, dealing with the inflammatory words of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and his own comments about "bitter" residents of small towns who were clinging to guns and religion.

Clinton won impressively in Pennsylvania, again fending off elimination. Given the hole she was in, though, her victory did little more than buy her two more weeks, until Indiana and North Carolina on May 6.

She used those two weeks to argue that she had the stronger base within the party, that she had won more of the states critical to winning in November, and that she would be more electable than Obama against Republican John McCain. She had the reappearance of Wright working in her favor as well.

But none of it had any impact on her delegate deficit, little changed since the dark days of February. Her deficit at the beginning of June was almost exactly what it was at the beginning of March.

For all the ground she made up in the popular vote, and for all the turbulence Obama encountered, nothing much changed.

On May 6, her smaller-than-expected win in Indiana, combined with her bigger-than-expected loss in North Carolina, all but ended the race, prompting undeclared superdelegates to start moving to Obama. She soldiered on and could gain no ground, despite landslide victories in West Virginia and Kentucky.

The final outcome might have been different had Michigan and Florida, states she claimed as her own, not broken party rules by holding primaries too early, thereby putting their delegates and her advantage in limbo.

Or if she had deemphasized the "ready on day one" message and moved more quickly to become the fighter for the middle class. Or if her campaign had planned effectively for the long haul.

But none of those things would have mattered had she managed to connect a little better with the caucus-goers of Iowa, back in the days when she still looked inevitable.

Contact senior writer Larry Eichel
at 215-854-2415 or leichel@phillynews.com.