AUSTIN, Texas, Feb 22 (Reuters) – Was it a pivotal moment that could change the campaign, or the swan song of a candidate who may be nearing the end of her U.S. presidential bid?

Hillary Clinton’s concluding statement in a televised debate on Thursday drew a standing ovation from the audience and plaudits from analysts.

But some said her words — which touched on her personal trials while complimenting her rival, Barack Obama — came too late in a contest that has largely turned in his direction.

Obama, a senator from Illinois, has surged into front-runner status in the dash to become the Democratic nominee after 10 straight wins in the state-by-state nomination process.

Clinton, a senator from New York, has pinned her hopes on decisive wins in Texas and Ohio, which hold their contests on March 4, and aimed to slow his momentum at the debate.

The two engaged in a mostly civil discussion that covered their positions on Cuba, health care, and the war in Iraq.

When asked at the end to name a crisis that had tested their leadership, Obama talked broadly of his life story.

But Clinton responded with an apparent reference to the sexual scandal that led to the impeachment of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and a national discussion about the state of their marriage.

“Well, I think everybody here knows I’ve lived through some crises and some challenging moments in my life,” she said to applause from the crowd at the University of Texas.

“But people often ask me, ‘How do you do it?’ You know, ‘How do you keep going?’ And I just have to shake my head in wonderment, because with all of the challenges that I’ve had, they are nothing compared to what I see happening in the lives of Americans every single day.”

She went on to describe in emotional terms the disabled soldiers she had recently met and then said she was “honored” to be sharing the stage with Obama, the first black candidate to have a real chance of winning the Democratic nomination.

“It was a good moment for her, she conveyed a message about America and she connected with the audience, and perhaps the viewers,” said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

“For her supporters, moments like those reveal why much of the criticism of her candidacy and personality are simply not true.”

END OF THE ROAD?

Clinton’s advisers portrayed her closing comments as a turning point.

“It was the moment she retook the reins of this race and showed women and men why she is the best choice,” Howard Wolfson, her communications director, said in a statement.

But the timing was poor. After losing a string of contests to Obama over the last several weeks, she is running neck-and-neck with him in Texas, according to some polls, a state in which she previously had a commanding lead.

“It is a good moment for her that comes very late in the game — probably too late,” Zelizer said. “She doesn’t have momentum, she doesn’t have enough money, and most importantly she doesn’t have the numbers on her side.”

Clinton seemed to acknowledge her critical position.

“Whatever happens, we’re going to be fine. You know, we have strong support from our families and our friends,” she said, looking at Obama sitting next to her. “I just hope that we’ll be able to say the same thing about the American people, and that’s what this election should be about.”

For undecided voter Haley Pollock, 24, that was an admission that the former first lady could fail.

“I think that she’s starting to realize that it’s a lot more feasible that she’s going to lose than it was before,” Pollock told Reuters at a rally after the debate.

Clinton senior adviser Mark Penn denied the comments meant she knew the race was over.

“Not at all. She’s said consistently she’s in this to win,” he said.

The Obama campaign, stung by Clinton’s accusations of plagiarism after Obama used a friend’s lines in a speech, suggested that her closing words were stolen from John Edwards, who dropped out of the race last month.

“Clinton’s ‘best moment’ someone else’s line?” spokesman Bill Burton said in an e-mail to reporters.

It followed with a quote attributed to Edwards at a debate on Dec. 13: “All of us are going to be just fine no matter what happens in this election. But what’s at stake is whether America is going to be fine.”

By Jeff Mason (Feb 22, 2008)

(Additional reporting by Claudia Parsons; Editing by Eric Beech)
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters “Tales from the Trail: 2008” online here)