Don't Expect Clinton to Quit Before Superdelegates Decide

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2008

How will the Democratic nomination battle end?

At a time when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton faces ever longer odds in her quest to deny Sen. Barack Obama the nomination, that question has become increasingly important to the candidates and the party. Will it end happily or unhappily? Will the loser go graciously or bitterly? Will the Democrats end up united or divided?

Clinton has vowed to stay in "until there is a nominee," but even with six primaries left on the calendar, the party is beginning to coalesce around Obama.

Still, from Clinton's campaign, there is no talk of bringing the race to an end anytime soon. From her vantage point, she has in recent weeks won Ohio as well as the popular vote in Texas, Pennsylvania and Indiana. Obama won Mississippi and North Carolina. She has won critical battleground states and, in her view, is holding the constituencies vital to Democratic hopes of winning in November. Why not stay in until the end?

She also believes that the competition with Obama has produced record turnout, a surge of new registrants for the Democratic Party and a cadre of now-seasoned organizers who will be paying dividends for years to Democratic congressional and gubernatorial candidates. Her advisers are realists, but some genuinely think it is still possible to win -- not probable by any means but not out of the question.

Party strategists sketch out at least three scenarios for a possible end to the Clinton campaign.

The cleanest envisions Clinton suddenly deciding the race is over and, for the good of the party, deciding to suspend her candidacy. That could happen after next week's primary in West Virginia, which she is expected to win easily, or the following week, when she is expected to win Kentucky and Obama is favored to win Oregon.

Obama said that after the May 20 primaries, he may be able to claim a majority of the pledged delegates and, therefore, the nomination. That could put pressure on her to quit, though her advisers are not buying Obama's arithmetic.

The messy scenario would see Clinton continuing her campaign all the way to the Democratic National Convention in Denver in late August -- arguing that she would be the stronger nominee against Sen. John McCain -- and mounting challenges before the party's credentials committee over the seating of Michigan and Florida delegates.

At this point, neither the clean nor messy endgame seems likely -- to strategists in either campaign or to other Democrats watching the race. Clinton vowed to stay in the race but also has pledged that, if it is clear Obama has the nomination sewn up, to support him and work to unify the party and defeat McCain.

That suggests the third scenario, that the race will not end until June 3 or soon after. Given what she said Wednesday about staying in until there is a nominee, and given the likelihood of rapid movement of superdelegates to Obama once the primaries are over (if not before), Clinton could declare the race over at that point.

A fourth scenario envisions Clinton being forced suddenly to suspend her campaign because she is out of money. Already she and her husband have lent the campaign more than $11 million. In addition, the campaign as of April had reported debts of about $10 million.

Obama advisers are watching and waiting. They are concerned that Clinton appears ready to continue challenging his strength against McCain. Inside the Obama camp, there is consensus that she should be given time to ease down from the intensity of recent months and to make a transition to more positive campaigning.

They do not want to do anything to antagonize her by calling for her to get out or by questioning her motives for staying in. But they are reluctant to sit back in the face of attacks, and they are not happy with some of the things she has said in the past few days.

So as settled as the outcome of the Democratic race may seem by the delegate math, it is far from over in the potential consequences for the candidates and the party.

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