Democrats Observe A Fragile Cease-Fire

The battle for the Democratic party's presidential nomination continued Tuesday as Oregon and Kentucky primary results flowed in.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama will return to Iowa tonight to celebrate another milestone in his long and sometimes bitter battle against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who shows no signs of dropping her effort to convince party leaders that she would be a stronger Democratic nominee for president.

But the reality is that both sides have declared an effective cease-fire as they prepare to bring the party together for a general-election campaign against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Obama (Ill.) has moved rapidly in the past 10 days to shift away from daily sparring with Clinton (N.Y.) and to begin a general-election debate with McCain that presents a fresh set of tests for his candidacy. His aides insist that he is mindful of doing nothing to suggest impatience with Clinton or to signal that she should end her candidacy before she is ready.

Clinton is soldiering on toward June 3 and the end of the primary season, and perhaps beyond, realistic about the seemingly insurmountable odds but far from giving up. Her campaign indicated yesterday that she would travel to Florida, probably tomorrow, to continue making her argument that the invalidated primaries there and in Michigan must be included to give the nomination process legitimacy. Adding the Florida and Michigan results would also move her closer to her goal of being able to claim an edge in the overall popular vote in the primaries.

But while she presses forward, aides say she is determined neither to be pushed from the race prematurely nor to be seen as doing anything to damage Obama's prospects of winning in November if he emerges as the nominee. Her campaign team believes that is the best way to bring the party together as quickly as possible once the nomination contest is over.

Her advisers say that a major reason she does not want to be pressured out of the race is that she believes it will be easier to bring her supporters over to Obama once the primaries are over if they think she was able to finish the nomination battle on her own terms.

Obama is favored to win the Oregon primary today, and Clinton is an even stronger favorite to win the Kentucky contest. But Obama will not celebrate primary night in either of those states. Instead, he has chosen to be in Iowa, where his victory in the caucuses in January turned the Democratic race upside down. There, at a rally in Des Moines, he is expected to declare that he has secured a majority of the pledged delegates currently eligible to attend August's Democratic convention in Denver.

Obama and his advisers insist the event will stop short of a declaration that he has won the nomination. But it will be seen as another signal to superdelegates to climb aboard his bandwagon as quickly as possible.

The celebration, however, has rankled the Clinton campaign and the candidate herself. They see it as a highhanded effort to embarrass her and to generate renewed calls from others in the party for her to quit the race before anyone has achieved a genuine majority of pledged delegates and superdelegates.

In a signal of how fragile the detente between the two sides is, the Clinton campaign sent out a tart memo yesterday under the name of communications director Howard Wolfson calling the Obama rally in Iowa "a slap in the face of millions of voters in the remaining primary states and to Senator Clinton's 17 million supporters." Then, in language tying the Obama campaign to the Bush White House, the memo continues: "Premature victory laps and false declarations of victory are unwarranted. Declaring mission accomplished does not make it so."

Bill Burton, an Obama spokesman, insisted that the Iowa rally would not be a declaration of mission accomplished. "Are we declaring that we've won the nomination? No." he said. But he called the expectation that Obama will secure a majority of the pledged delegates today "an important moment" that deserves a celebration.

The Clinton campaign memo would have been seen as commonplace a few weeks ago, when Obama and Clinton were in heated and often negative competition. Instead, the memo stood out -- in part because it represented a departure from the tone and rhetoric of her campaign since votes were counted in Indiana and North Carolina.

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