Barack Obama on Thursday, February 21 skipped largely unscathed through a vital debate with Democratic foe Hillary Clinton, on a day of drama which saw likely Republican nominee John McCain deny having an affair.
Senator Clinton was vying to revive her staggering White House quest after Obama reeled off 11 straight wins in nominating contests, as the rivals clashed ahead of a do-or-die primary showdown in Texas and Ohio on March 4.
She scored points by saying her life's traumas had nothing on the travails faced by ordinary Americans every day, and warmly said she was "honored" to be on the same stage as her rival.
But Obama appeared to avoid the sort of gaffes that Clinton needed to provoke, as she seeks to break his momentum which has shattered the aura of inevitability which once cloaked her campaign.
Pressing home her claim that Obama is a man of words, not action, Clinton directly confronted her rival over claims he plagiarized rhetoric from a high-profile backer of his campaign.
"If your candidacy is going to be about words, then they should be your own words. That's, I think, a very simple proposition," she said, drawing cheers and some boos from the audience at the University of Texas.
"Lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in, it's change you can Xerox," the New York senator said, ripping off her rival's campaign slogan.
But Obama rejected accusations that he had stolen from speeches by Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick - one of his supporters - as "silly season" politics.
In a cheeky aside, he also defended his soaring speeches, joking : "I've got to admit, some of them are pretty good."
In her strongest moment, at the end of the debate, Clinton addressed Americans directly in an emotion-tinged answer, to a question on what single event had hewn her judgement.
"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."
"The hits I've taken in life are nothing compared to what goes on every single day in the lives of people across our country," she said, relating her visit to wounded servicemen at a new hospital.
And in a generous tribute to the man who is threatening to sink her hopes of becoming the first woman president, Clinton said: "You know, no matter what happens in this contest, ... I am honored to be here with Barack Obama. I am absolutely honored."
Even Clinton's husband, former president Bill Clinton, admits she must win Texas and Ohio to keep her quest alive, as she trails Obama significantly in the party's nominating delegates with more than half of state contests in the books.
The story about McCain's alleged links to 40-year-old lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, when he last ran for president eight years ago, landed like a bombshell in the Republican race.
With his wife Cindy standing by him, the Arizona senator rebutted the suggestion of a romantic liaison with Iseman in a hastily called press conference following the publication of a New York Times article.
"Obviously I'm very disappointed in the article. It's not true," said McCain, 71, pledging to press ahead and win the last few delegates he needs for the Republican nomination.
But the daily stood its ground. The article cited unnamed sources as saying McCain advisors were convinced "the relationship had become romantic" between the senator and Iseman.
Asked if he had had an extramarital relationship with Iseman in the run-up to his doomed 2000 campaign, McCain replied tersely, "No."
McCain also denied extending improper favors to companies represented by Iseman when he was chairman of the Senate commerce committee.
Hours before the Democratic debate, there was more woe for Clinton, with new polls showing she and Obama tied in Texas and her lead down to seven points in Ohio.
Laying out their differences during the debate, Obama said that as president he would be prepared to meet without preconditions with Cuba's next leader; Clinton said she would withhold the carrot of an immediate meeting.
"I think it's important for us to have direct contact, not just with Cuba, but I think the principle applies generally," Obama said, stressing that intense preparation should precede any such talks.
Clinton said an early offer of a presidential summit "undermines the capacity for us to actually take the measure of somebody like Raul Castro or (Iranian president Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad."