By Dana Milbank
Thursday, May 8, 2008
SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. They say it's all over but the shouting. Fortunately, Hillary Clinton does that part very well.
"West Virginia is one of those so-called swing states Democrats need to win in the fall!" she told a rally at the old City Hall here, the day after her loss in North Carolina and her narrow win in Indiana all but sealed the Democratic nomination for Barack Obama.
"I want to start by winning it in the spring to lay the groundwork for a victory in November!" said the woman whose candidacy has been pronounced dead by George Stephanopoulos and Tim Russert.
"I hope next Tuesday you will give me a chance to be your president!" announced the person who lent her campaign $6 million to keep it afloat.
Cheers rose from the audience of several hundred on the lawn and in the street, but even some of the faithful said they could read the writing on their cable news screens. "It's pretty obvious," said Ken Martin, waving Clinton posters and wearing paint-speckled overalls. "She fought a good fight."
The surroundings were appropriate. For this, her bid to demonstrate her resilience in the next primary state, she chose a landmark identified with the severely wounded. Shepherd University's McMurran Hall was under construction as Shepherdstown's town hall in 1862 when the Battle of Antietam flooded the city with wounded; with no place to go, the maimed used the unfinished building as a hospital.
There were signs, too, of disarray. Security was minimal (the event had been scheduled as a solo appearance for Chelsea), Obama posters were prominent in the crowd, and the sound system, operated in part by a man wearing an Obama T-shirt, had problems. A camera riser collapsed, sending bodies, coffee and cameras flying -- and providing the press corps with a fresh metaphor.
When Clinton gave her victory speech in Indiana on Tuesday night, there was still a chance that she had scored a solid win in that state, thereby keeping her candidacy viable. But in the wee hours, the victory shriveled to a near-draw, and Clinton aides awoke to brutal judgments about her prospects.
"This nomination fight is over," said Stephanopoulos, the Bill Clinton aide-cum-ABC newsman.
"We now know who the Democratic nominee is going to be," submitted NBC's Russert.
"Stick a Fork in Her -- She's Done," recommended the New York Post.
And Matt Drudge celebrated with a headline announcing: "Hillary having trouble finding superdelegates who will meet with her . . . 'No one wants to see her today.' "
But Clinton's advisers fought back with a morning conference call. "Another beautiful day in downtown Arlington!" began Howard Wolfson, from Clinton headquarters. How about all the obituaries? "Thankfully for us, the punditocracy does not control this nominating process," he answered. Any talk about dropping out? "No. No discussions" was the entirety of Wolfson's response.
In the crowd here in Shepherdstown, a few of the Clinton fans wanted to believe. "I think she can pull it off -- she can still do it," said volunteer Dan Frost, carrying a clipboard and trying to sign up supporters. His total: five. Nearby, an opportunistic Obama canvasser carried her own clipboard.
Though the Obama campaign, officially, was practicing good sportsmanship, it had no control over supporter Carol Dunleavy, who waved an Obama sign at the Clinton event. "We got it locked up after last night," she said. "She should drop out. She should do it graciously. She should do it soon."
When the famously tardy candidate arrived half an hour late, she was greeted by cheers mixed with some heckling from people waving Obama placards. "Down with the monarchy!" shouted one.
Chelsea Clinton, the warm-up act, went for a spin. "I am so proud of her victory last night in Indiana," she declared.
Her mother quickly expanded on the theme. "We were very excited about our come-from-behind victory in Indiana," she told the West Virginians, who vote on Tuesday. "We came from about eight or so points behind to win." But she made an implicit acknowledgment of her reduced prospects: She skipped her usual attacks on the likely nominee, moving right to the policy talk about gas prices, "cellulosic" fuels, health care, national service and education ("I don't believe in narrowing the curriculum").
The clock in the tower above McMurran Hall tolled as Clinton worked the crowd. She ducked into the Civil War hospital and emerged through a side door, walking between some air-conditioning units so she could address the assembled reporters.
She spoke as if Tuesday night had not happened. "It's a new day, it's a new state, it's a new election," she said cheerfully, as Chelsea stood smiling in the background. "I'm not ceding any vote now," she said. "I'm staying in this race till there's a nominee."
She said she would seek this month to have the Democratic Party's rules committee reinstate the outlawed Florida and Michigan delegations that support her -- and she threatened to appeal that ruling if it goes against her.
Even then, does she have a path to victory? "We're going to work hard here in West Virginia," she said. "Then it's on to Kentucky, Oregon and the rest of the contest."
Clinton smiled and waved off further questions. "Getting on the road again," she explained.