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SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Reuters) - Wins in Ohio and Texas have given Hillary Clinton new hope and ensured that the suspense of her riveting battle with rival Barack Obama for the U.S. Democratic presidential nomination will stretch on for weeks.
As Obama coasted to victory in 11 straight nominating contests in February, pundits had begun to predict he might be on verge of wrapping up the nomination fight against Clinton, the New York senator who was once the overwhelming favorite to win.
"Until this victory, there was a very good chance that Clinton would drop out of the race," said Jennifer Palmieri, a political analyst at the Center for American Progress who advised former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.
The hard-fought duel now moves to contests in Wyoming and Mississippi, where Obama is seen as strong. But Clinton will hope to make another stand on April 22 in Pennsylvania, a large state that like Ohio is home to many struggling blue-collar workers and older voters who supported her on Tuesday.
Even though Clinton picked up victories in three out of four nominating contests on Tuesday, Obama is still likely to retain an overall lead in the number of pledged delegates to the August national convention that will pick the nominee.
That means Clinton may have to rely on "superdelegates" -- party insiders and elected officials who can vote for anyone they want -- raising the chances of a damaging dispute within the party over how the nominee should be selected.
Lacking delegates, part of Clinton's strategy is likely to be convincing the party that she would be the best candidate against Republican nominee John McCain in big "battleground states" like Ohio that are likely to decide the November election.
"You know what they say: As Ohio goes, so goes the nation. Well, this nation's coming back and so is this campaign," an exuberant Clinton told a rally in Columbus, Ohio, as she celebrated her victory.
Obama, who would be the first black U.S. president, and Clinton, who would be the first woman U.S. president, are vying to run against McCain, who on Tuesday established himself as the presumptive Republican nominee after his one remaining rival, Mike Huckabee, dropped out.
In addition to her wins in Ohio and Texas, Clinton won Rhode Island while Obama scored a victory in Vermont. Rhode Island and Vermont are both small New England states while much larger Ohio and Texas were viewed as big prizes by both Clinton and Obama who spent weeks shuttling between the states.
"I think Obama is still in the driver's seat but in the past several days, he's been back on his heels," said Calvin Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Obama found himself on the defensive in recent days as Clinton hammered away at him on national security and on trade.
The New York Democrat launched an ad last week aimed at raising worries about what she says is Obama's lack of experience on foreign policy.
The ad depicted sleeping children and cut to a red phone ringing in the White House with a narrator ominously asking if the person answering that phone is "tested and ready" to handle a foreign policy crisis.
Clinton also criticized Obama as inconsistent on the North American Free Trade Agreement, a deal that many in Ohio blame for job losses.
Obama has said he wants to renegotiate the treaty but came under attack after a memo surfaced that seemed to suggest one of his advisers played down that pledge to Canadian officials. Obama insists the adviser did not deviate from his message that he wants changes to the trade deal.
With polls in the last few days showing the Illinois senator and the former first lady running neck-and-neck in Ohio and Texas, Obama seemed to be making a conscious effort not to appear overconfident.
When a supporter in Ohio on Sunday referred to him as "Mr. President," Obama told him the phrase had a nice ring to it but "we've got a lot of work to do. It depends on what Ohio does."
By on Tuesday afternoon, even before Texas and Ohio results were known, Obama suggested to reporters that he was bracing for a long fight.
Noting Clinton's reputation for tenacity, Obama said, "we're just going to make sure we work as hard as we can as long as it takes."
While bruised by her string of losses last month and struggling to keep pace with Obama's fundraising, Clinton poured all of her resources into the races in Ohio and Texas -- contests that came to be seen as Clinton's do-or-die moment.
Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, had suggested it was vital for her to win both states.
While some Democrats worry a protracted fight could prove divisive for the party and leave whoever wins the nomination in a weakened state, Palmieri said it might do the opposite.
"Whoever wins will come out of this battle-scarred and battle-tested," she said. "There is a saying -- whatever doesn't kill you will make you stronger."
Writing by Caren Bohan; Editing by Stuart Grudgings