By Anne E. Kornblut and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 29, 2008
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton pushed back hard yesterday against calls for her to withdraw from the presidential race, with aides saying she remains more determined than ever to remain in the contest until the end of the primary season.
Allies of Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) have sought to increase pressure on Clinton (N.Y.) to drop out of the race in recent days, arguing that, because of his lead in pledged delegates, her only path to the Democratic nomination lies in a divisive campaign that drags to the party's convention Aug. 25-28 in Denver. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) yesterday offered what may have been the starkest challenge to Clinton from a prominent Obama supporter, saying in an interview with Vermont Public Radio that she should avert a potentially bloody and ultimately futile battle by stepping aside.
Uncommitted Democratic leaders also stepped up their demands for a speedy resolution to the fight, arguing that the party cannot afford to be distracted from targeting the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, in a round of television appearances, sought to calm increasingly anxious Democrats by setting a target date of July 1 for concluding the nominating process.
"We don't want this to degenerate into a big fight at the convention," Dean said on ABC. Saying it "would be nice" to have the nomination settled by July 1, a month after the last votes in the Democratic contest are cast on June 3, Dean said completing it sooner would be "all the better."
The internal Democratic tumult over the battle, now in its 14th month, is the latest challenge for Clinton. Her best hope for victory lies in extending the process until she can overtake Obama in the popular vote. She hopes to make strides in the 10 remaining contests, the biggest of which are Pennsylvania on April 22 and Indiana and North Carolina on May 6.
Yet since winning the mega-prize state of Ohio on March 4, Clinton has given no signal that she is considering dropping out. Campaign advisers said the pressure has only hardened her resolve and has created a backlash among supporters who feel she is being unfairly attacked.
To counter the impression that Clinton is prolonging the race, her campaign has begun describing what they say is a pattern of trying to force her to "the sidelines" every time she appears on the verge of victory. In an e-mail to her supporters, Clinton asked: "Have you noticed the pattern?"
"Every time our campaign demonstrates its strength and resilience, people start to suggest we should end our pursuit of the Democratic nomination," she wrote. "Those anxious to force us to the sidelines aren't doing it because they think we're going to lose the upcoming primaries. The fact is, they're reading the same polls we are, and they know we are in a position to win."
At a rally in Indiana yesterday, Clinton raised the prospect of quitting in front of more than a thousand enthusiastic supporters.
"There are some people who are saying, 'You know, we really ought to end this primary, we just ought to shut it down,' " she said at a high school near South Bend.
"No!" the crowd shouted back.
Clinton continued: "There was a poll the other day that said 22 percent of Democrats wanted me to drop out and 22 percent wanted Senator Obama to drop out. And 62 percent said: Let people vote."
But other recent polling has found Democrats' appetite for the extended campaign beginning to wane. A Pew Research Center survey released this week found 44 percent of Democratic voters believed the extended campaign fight is a "good thing" for the party, down from 57 percent in late February.
Responding to a comment from Obama that the Democratic primary race was like a good movie that had gone on too long, Clinton replied: "I like long movies."
Calls for her to withdraw only lead to "a greater determination," Clinton spokesman Jay Carson said. "When the punditocracy has declared her dead, voters have said, 'Hold on just a second.' It has happened three times. And three times, she has proven them wrong."
Although Pennsylvania is favorable terrain for Clinton, who has the backing of the popular governor, Edward G. Rendell, Obama announced that he had won the endorsement of the state's Democratic senator, Robert P. Casey Jr. Casey does not bring the kind of political machine Rendell does, but he is a moderate Democrat and a household name. Casey will join Obama on a bus tour across the state this weekend.
Obama also launched a new ad in Pennsylvania, using a gas-station backdrop to declare: "Exxon's making $40 billion a year and we're paying $3.50 for gas. I'm Barack Obama, and I don't take money from oil companies or lobbyists and I won't let them block change anymore."
This drew an e-mail blast from Clinton's team, which accused him of "false advertising." Her aides said Obama's presidential campaign has received more than $160,000 from oil and gas companies -- including $8,400 from Exxon Mobil and $12,370 from Chevron last month. Two oil-company chief executives have also acted as Obama fundraisers.
But as Obama's campaign was quick to note, he does not accept donations from corporate political action committees or lobbyists. The contributions flagged by Clinton's side come from individual executives and employees in the oil industry. An Obama spokesman accused her of "negative and misleading tactics" and said the energy legislation the freshman lawmaker voted for -- derided by Clinton aides as "the Dick Cheney energy bill" -- raised taxes on oil companies.
Obama made an appearance on an episode of ABC's "The View" and suggested for the first time that he would have left his church over comments made by the pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., if Wright had not retired first. "Had the reverend not retired and had he not acknowledged that what he had said had deeply offended people and were inappropriate and mischaracterized what I believe is the greatness of this country, for all its flaws, then I wouldn't have felt comfortable staying there at the church," Obama said in the appearance, which was taped Thursday and aired yesterday.
Staff writer Howard Kurtz contributed to this report.