By Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 25, 2008
Trailing in delegates while her debt continues to grow, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is aggressively campaigning in the final three contests of the primary season in the hope of seizing a victory in the overall popular vote from Sen. Barack Obama.
The effect of such a victory -- and the question of whether Clinton hopes to leverage it into the No. 2 spot on the Democratic ticket or simply leave it as a historical marker -- is less clear. "One hundred percent of her energy is on the popular vote," a senior adviser said. "The only thing she can control is how hard she works and what effort she puts into the remaining three contests. She wants to end this with as many votes as she can."
The pursuit of the popular vote sent Clinton to South Dakota on Friday, then back across the country to Puerto Rico yesterday. It also helps explain the sometimes-contradictory rhetoric she used last week -- on one evening highlighting party unity, and on the next, defiance and determination to continue running hard against Obama.
"Whatever happens, I'll work as hard as I can to elect a Democratic president this fall. The state motto of Kentucky is, 'United we stand, divided we fall,' " Clinton said after Tuesday night's victory. Her address in Louisville was interpreted by some as a sign that she is contemplating her post-campaign stance as Obama moves closer to the requisite number of delegates.
Yet the next day, with renewed vigor, Clinton compared her effort to seat delegates from Florida and Michigan to the abolition of slavery -- a sharp about-face that two advisers said reflects the difficult, emotional nature of this stage of the race for the candidate.
Clinton's sense of urgency about seating the delegates from those states, of course, is also rooted in her desire to move ahead in the popular vote. The Democratic National Committee sanctioned both states for moving their primaries up on the calendar in violation of party rules. Although neither candidate campaigned in Florida, Clinton ran up a big margin over Obama there, and she won the Michigan primary after Obama removed his name from the ballot.
After the two split primaries in Oregon and Kentucky last Tuesday, Obama held a lead of about 400,000 votes, according to various estimates, but counting the raw totals from Florida and Michigan would vault Clinton ahead of him. She hopes to close the gap further with what her campaign expects to be a big win in Puerto Rico's primary next Sunday.
Still, her aides struggled to explain what she hopes the popular-vote victory will yield. On Friday, they beat back rumors that she is negotiating to be Obama's running mate. "Totally false," senior aide Howard Wolfson said of a report that she is in formal talks with the Obama team over conceding. David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, called the same reports "laughable."
Members of the Clinton inner circle said that as the campaign has dragged on, her group of confidantes has grown smaller. One senior adviser normally privy to major decisions said it is unlikely that anyone beyond campaign manager Maggie Williams and attorney Cheryl Mills is having concrete discussions with Clinton about her strategy going forward.
Democratic officials aligned with Clinton continued to say that the race is not over and that she has every right to remain in, despite the long odds.
"Most of the time when you're five runs behind going into the bottom of the ninth, you don't prevail, but I've never seen the Dodgers walk off the field," Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said. He said he still hopes she will "load the bases, hit a grand slam and then load the bases," but that to do so would require taking the fight well past June.
"If Clinton wins, it won't be until the convention," Sherman said. "It's more likely than not that Obama will wrap this up in June."
A decision about the fate of delegates from Michigan and Florida could come Saturday, when the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee is scheduled to meet. If either side is dissatisfied with the outcome, the matter will move on to another subcommittee and could take until the end of June to resolve. The final primaries of the year, in Montana and South Dakota, will be held on June 3.
Clinton has stated repeatedly that she will not drop out unless Obama picks up enough delegates to become the nominee. In her calculus involving the results of Florida and Michigan, that figure is 2,210, rather than the 2,026 number the Obama campaign is using.
The Clinton campaign has adopted an unyielding public stance heading into the Rules and Bylaws Committee's meeting, insisting that all delegates from Michigan and Florida be seated, with full voting rights, and that the results be strictly allocated on the basis of the primary results and by DNC rules. By their calculations, such a resolution would give her a net gain of 111 pledged delegates.
Obama leads by about 190 delegates, so even the most favorable outcome would still leave Clinton well short of her rival. Under more likely resolutions, her net gain would be 56 delegates or in the neighborhood of 30 delegates. The 30-member rules committee includes 13 members who have endorsed Clinton and eight who have endorsed Obama. While those backing Clinton are inclined to support her position on Michigan and Florida, they are not prepared to march in lockstep with the campaign.
Don Fowler, a former DNC chair, said: "I would be inclined to support what the campaign wanted, but there are limitations." Fowler disagreed with the rules committee's decision to bar the two delegations from being seated at the convention, but said, "Even I would assert that there has to be some kind of retribution, some kind of sanction."
Clinton also appears to have hurt her case by comparing the cause of seating the delegations with the abolition of slavery and the disputed election in Zimbabwe (not to mention her invocation, on Friday, of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy to explain why she is still in the race). Knowledgeable Democrats said those comments have played poorly with the very people she needs most right now, superdelegates and members of the rules committee.
James Roosevelt Jr., who is co-chair of the rules committee, said he hopes the panel will agree on a resolution at its meeting next weekend. If Clinton is dissatisfied, her recourse would be take her fight to the Credentials Committee, which takes possession of the issue on June 29.
Even Clinton advisers doubt the fight will go that long but do not rule it out. "If the committee comes up with a solution that doesn't honor the results of the primaries, there is a strong chance it goes to Credentials," said one top adviser, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.