The Democratic presidential contenders battled all the way to the last primary in the nation and for Hillary Rodham Clinton, Montana turned out to be the last stand.

Although Clinton pointedly refused to concede Tuesday night, rival Barack Obama had gathered enough delegates to justify his claiming the title of presumptive nominee.

As it is, she ran a remarkable and historic campaign against the equally remarkable and historic candidacy of Obama. But, depending on the grace of her ultimate exit strategy, Clinton may emerge as a political figure far stronger than when she went in: defined as a leader, defrosted as a person and determined as a campaigner to an astounding degree.

A different choice than she had envisioned

History still remains within her reach, not just in the future but potentially in this general election as the first female vice president. But clearly the version she most wanted was not within her grasp.

She tacitly acknowledged as much in a passionate and nostalgic speech at Baruch College in New York City. She congratulated Obama and his campaign "on the extraordinary race they have run," thanked her staff and the "18 million" people who voted for her and pledged to keep their faith "whatever path I travel next."

What for weeks was increasingly apparent to many observers finally seemed to become -- at least publicly -- apparent to Clinton on Tuesday, five months to the day from her loss in the Iowa caucuses. On one of the wildest days of a roller-coaster primary season, within the space of a few hours the Clinton campaign veered from denying reports that she planned to acknowledge that Obama had the delegates to win the nomination to Clinton letting it be known that, if asked, she would be open to a vice presidential spot on Obama's ticket.

A fittingly unpredictable ending

Fittingly, it was a surprising end to a campaign that has brimmed with the unexpected since the former First Lady threw her hat in the ring on Jan. 20, 2007.

Few might have predicted that the upper-middle-class child of Park Ridge, Ill., Wellesley College graduate and Yale-educated lawyer would be embraced by less educated and blue-collar voters. Fewer still might have imagined the once prim Clinton emerging as the beer-drinker's candidate -- bellying up to an Indiana bar to toss back a shot of Crown Royal with a beer. And fewer yet might have predicted that Clinton, who once claimed that she and former President Bill Clinton were targets of "a vast right-wing conspiracy," would dominate votes in the most conservative corners of many primary states.

Equally surprising to many was the melting of her ice queen image during one of the most protracted Democratic primary campaigns in history. There was her unexpectedly deep belly laugh, described as "the cackle," by some, including Jon Stewart who compared it to that of the Wicked Witch of the West. There was her teary moment in a Portsmouth coffee shop, which some called calculated but others credited with her victory in New Hampshire.

"You know, some of us put ourselves out there and do this against some pretty difficult odds," she said on that damp-eyed day in Portsmouth. When it came to her campaign, few can question the truth in that.