This is a torturous month of what-ifs for Hillary Clinton and her still substantial number of followers. First, they have to wonder if the Democrat-friendly media that helped her for so long may have doomed her by refusing to follow a John Edwards adultery story that could have given her the Iowa win that Barack Obama used as his nomination springboard. Instead, Hillary and her followers will have to make do with a Tuesday night convention speech the week after next. But she could have accepted the nomination that Thursday night if only she had followed the instincts of discarded communications director Mark Penn, cast aside for a lobbying controversy no one cared about.
What she and her handlers should have cared about was the wisdom of his advice, laid bare in an upcoming issue of The Atlantic Monthly.
It details numerous e-mails that reveal the depth of the internal squabbling that stalled the Clinton campaign. But a larger question looms: What if she had followed Mr. Penn's inclination to focus strongly on voter unease with Barack Obama's far-flung upbringing and resulting lack of mainstream American values?
"His roots to basic American culture and values are at best limited," Mr. Penn wrote in March 2007. "I cannot imagine America electing a president at a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and values."
(And they say Democrats and Republicans can't agree on anything.)
He continues: "Let's explicitly own 'American' in our programs, the speeches and the values ... he doesn't."
Predictably, those now tasked with paving the way for an Obama ascendancy are awash in contrived indignation. "It's an appeal to prejudice. I think it's ugly," frowns Democratic consultant Bob Shrum. "If Hillary Clinton had done that, she would permanently besmirch her reputation, her legacy and her place in American politics."
Or she might have been delivering a Thursday night convention speech.
In state after state, primary voters who like their presidents to cleave to their country's roots and culture gave Mrs. Clinton victories that almost allowed her to rally.
Had she been more aggressive in this regard, I believe she would have won. Now, her torment will be complete, as John McCain uses exactly that strategy to reveal Mr. Obama as insufficiently woven into the tapestry of the nation he seeks to lead.
And it will work.
Along the way, there will be more of the same prattling that such criticism is unfair, even racist. But after candidates tell you their views on health care or oil prices - every word changeable with the wind - you arrive at the vital questions: What kind of person is this candidate? Does he cherish the things I cherish? In which ways is he like me? Or not?
One of the ways Mr. Obama differs from most Americans is his breezy indifference for the nation, which may extend, at times, to active distaste. The flag pin as Kryptonite, failing to place his hand over his heart for the national anthem in Iowa - these are symbolic, but symbolism means something.
They reveal a man who gladly tolerated two decades of America-bashing in his church and even worse among his friends and associates. It is, in fact, more relevant than any position paper you might find at his Web site.
Even when he attempts to praise America, it is in terms of his magical ability to lift it from a mediocrity imposed by less lofty predecessors.
John McCain will use such observations to beat Barack Obama in November. If Hillary Clinton had summoned the nerve to do the same, she would be addressing the convention crowd 15 days from now instead of 13.