It seems like only a few days ago, right after Hillary Rodham Clinton's big win in Pennsylvania, that Margaret Hamrick was on the phone with one of her bank customers, rejoicing at what appeared so possible -- a woman, at last, in the White House. Hamrick wasn't supposed to talk politics on work time, but the enthusiasm for Clinton was infectious.
So what has happened, exactly? she wonders now, in the sort of bewildered voice that sometimes takes over after a car accident.
"It looks pretty bleak," Hamrick said at a crafts fair here. "It's sad that it's got to turn out that way. I wish it didn't."
Hamrick, 51, is part of a female army that is watching a dream fade with the Clinton campaign, a page of history that might not get written now after all.
Women like Hamrick can't get over the irony that Sen. Clinton (D-N.Y.) seems to have lost her race with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) right when she looks to be at the height of her game. Clinton is expected to trounce Obama in West Virginia tonight, after which she'll doubtless bound onto a stage in Charleston to roaring cheers, bobbing signs and a sea of hats.
It is sure to look like a victory in every sense, except one: Few people believe that a Clinton victory here would alter the arithmetic that seems to be guiding Obama to their party's presidential nomination.
Two candidates are vying for the same moment in history. For every point of pride welling up in those who hadn't thought they might see a black man become president, there is a counterpoint of disappointment for those who thought it was finally a woman's turn.
Many of the faithful insist she can still pull this out. Remember how the punditocracy had all but written her campaign's obituary after the Iowa caucuses in January? Yet there she was, resurrecting herself in New Hampshire, Ohio and Texas.
Now, though, their faith is fraying.
"She could turn it around -- I hope," Mary Beth Jester, 41, of Morgantown, equivocated, walking across the parking lot of an IHOP with her two big sisters -- three coal miner's daughters, all for Clinton.
Jester unwrapped the cellophane from a pink pack of Misty cigarettes and lighted up. "Frankly, I think she's got more" -- let's just say chutzpah -- "than Obama," Jester said, uttering the line she likes to give when people respond to her button: "I'm For Hillary/Ask Me Why!"
During a long day of campaigning Monday, Clinton put on a determined demeanor, despite her $20 million in campaign debt and superdelegates streaming Obama's way.
She strolled through Biscuit World restaurant in downtown Charleston to chants of "Hill-ar-y," shaking hands with the mostly female, over-50 voters who are the backbone of her support. "She's just an itty bitty little thing!" one of them chirped.
Evelyn Keener, 90, of Charleston, brought a book for autographing. "I think Hillary is the smartest woman in the world," she declared, her campaign button urging "You Go Girl."
Clinton sat at her table for a while. "We're going to keep on going as long as we have people like you helping us," Clinton vowed hoarsely.
Campaigning Monday, Clinton talked about gas prices, food prices and soaring college tuitions, attacking President Bush more than Obama. Her audience was filled with women like Donna Miller, 50, of Logan, who supports two children on the $15,000 a year she earns at Wendy's.
Miller came to Clinton's afternoon rally at a Logan middle school the minute her shift ended, still in her brown-and-green uniform. "My dad was a Marine for 30 years, and we're not quitters," she said, confiding her worry that the Clinton campaign is in trouble.
At the end of a long day Monday, Clinton headed back to Washington to sleep in her own bed, and was scheduled to return to West Virginia tonight for a post-election party.
"I doubt Hillary will be sad. This isn't her first rodeo," said Bethany Blair, 29, of Grafton, a cosmetologist who is still deciding which candidate to support. "I am more sad for her supporters than for her. They put their heart into it."
There was a sense of melancholy, or worse, undercutting the excitement of meeting Clinton in the flesh. Plenty of voters said they would vote for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- or not at all -- if Clinton's name wasn't on the November ballot.
"I probably won't vote," declared Darlene Payne, 51, a coal miner's wife and mother of three from Buckhannon. She thinks McCain is a Bush copy, and she doesn't like Obama. "He thinks he's better than everybody else. He don't impress me."
But not all the women here mourned the possible passing of the first viable female presidential candidacy. Cecilia Donato, 51, of Mannington, who works in a county clerk's office, voted early for Obama.
"Her negative campaigning is what did it, I think. What really turned me was that 3 a.m. phone call ad," she said. "Obama is a clean slate. He doesn't owe anybody anything."
Nellie Seese, 69, of Salem, has been a nurse's aide, housecleaner and volunteer firefighter -- the prototype of a Hillary supporter. But she's behind Obama, too.
"In the beginning, I was all for a woman running. But then, after I listened to her for a while, I didn't approve. She lies, point-blank -- and her husband, I really don't care for him . . . the way they went against Obama because of that preacher," she said, shaking her head.
Many were reluctant to consider the prospect that the nomination fight was ending. But when pressed, they said they didn't believe they could vote for anybody else, despite the calls for party unity. And to many, a so-called dream ticket with Clinton in the vice presidential spot is no comfort.
"I'm going to write in Hillary on the ballot," Jester said outside the IHOP, crushing her half-smoked cigarette. "I want to see a woman in there before I see a . . . " She stopped, and her sister finished the sentence with: "a man of color."
At virtually every event Monday, at least one woman echoed the refrain: "I never thought I'd see a woman get this far."
That's what Keener, 90, thinks, too. "There's 12 other countries that have woman presidents; why can't the U.S.?" she said from her Biscuit World booth. "That's what I want to see before . . . " -- she paused to rephrase her thought -- "in my lifetime."
When it was time to leave, Keener burst through the Secret Service scrum like a linebacker, her gray head bumping the officers' biceps, to give the candidate a goodbye hug.