In the cold days of early January, when Hillary Rodham Clinton's war chest still overshadowed Barack Obama's, I got an unexpected e-mail.

It was from Michelle Obama and was obviously sent to many folks, but was deftly done to feel personal. She talked about new hope around her husband's candidacy in the aftermath of Iowa. If it was to continue, the campaign needed help. She asked for a donation.

I made the list because I'd logged onto the Obama site to look for events to cover as a journalist, so this was a glimpse into how the campaign made its pitch.

I expected a request for $1,000, or at least $100. Obama was at a sudden peak, and this was the time to pounce. But the e-mail did not ask for $1,000.

It asked for $25.

There was a blue click-point to make it easy to follow through. The e-mail ended with Michelle Obama saying, "Check out these photos from events around New Hampshire." The campaign dropped in recent shots of folks in enormous lines to hear Obama.

At first, with Clinton known to be raising $1 million a pop at fundraisers, I thought the $25 request was naive. But it proved a brilliant way to connect with an enormous following.

As we now know, those tiny donations have swamped Clinton, whose old-money campaign is deeply in debt.

She has tried to duplicate Obama, lately beginning her primary speeches by asking new supporters to go to HillaryClinton.com.

But Obama already has more than a million addressees that can be tapped for a few dollars each with the push of a button — in e-mails that often contain video from speeches he gave only a few hours before. It shows an impressive mastery of the Internet.

Early on, Obama and his people understood that the Web is a key part of running for president today. Clinton did not. She relied on the old path of getting big dollars from a few. He outflanked her by getting small dollars from many — and even deploying some as precinct volunteers.

It has gotten me thinking about the reason Obama eclipsed the "inevitable" candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

In a phrase, time passed her by.

There are strategic explanations, too, of course. Her campaign ignored caucus states, wrongly saw "experience" as more resonant than "change" and felt so overconfident that she had no plan after Super Tuesday.

But those things reflect a mindset that's out of touch. She felt it was enough to be the biggest brand name in the Democratic Party, with a huge war chest and veteran political backers. It seemed an unstoppable machine.

But while machines can perhaps still deliver a mayor or governor, they can't be relied on to deliver a president, especially at a turning point in American history.

This seems to be such a point.

Clinton didn't see it.

Frankly, I didn't see it, either, perhaps for a similar reason. Like Clinton, I'm a baby boomer, and it's the conceit of our generation that we assume we're still the greatest demographic force.

But we're not anymore. Those coming up behind us have shown it's the beginning of their time, and to them Clinton symbolized yesterday.

She who 16 years ago challenged the old guard has become the old guard.

Older folks — central to the Clinton coalition — are still a factor. It's not as if Obama swept them aside. His victory so far is a narrow one.

But older folks are less likely to work precincts, or find HillaryClinton.com, let alone be on an e-mail list giving $25 every few weeks.

Clinton also has support among working-class voters, who embrace her experience. But Obama has tapped into a slightly bigger following that yearns for inspiration and feels a unifier will get more done in Washington than a fighter.

There are other factors that could still turn this race. And the next. The polls say that John McCain, the 71-year-old presumed Republican nominee, may well prevail in November.

But as for how Obama came from nowhere to pass Hillary Clinton, well ...

It wasn't just that he out-strategized her, raised more money, used technology better and picked the more timely theme.

It's that all those things say something about time having passed her by.


Contact Mark Patinkin at [email protected].