By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 2, 2008
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, June 1 -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) won the Puerto Rico primary comfortably on Sunday, claiming perhaps her last triumph in the race for a Democratic presidential nomination that increasingly appears to be out of her reach.
In a telephone interview with The Washington Post after her victory by a 2 to 1 ratio over Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), Clinton stressed that she will press forward through the final contests of the primary season on Tuesday, brushed aside the idea that she was searching for an exit strategy, and said she will continue to weigh both her immediate- and longer-term options in the race.
Asked whether she will challenge a Democratic National Committee ruling on Saturday awarding Obama some disputed Michigan delegates even though his name did not appear on the state's ballot, Clinton said she had not yet decided. In her victory speech Sunday afternoon, Clinton again claimed triumph in the overall popular vote in the primaries and held out hope that she would still see a reversal of fortune.
"I have four words for you: Te quiero Puerto Rico" ("I love you, Puerto Rico"), Clinton said shortly after the polls closed at a rally where hundreds of supporters packed into a seaside resort to catch a glimpse of the candidate.
The setting underscored the distance Clinton had traveled since her defeat in Iowa five months earlier: falling from front-runner to long shot, spending tens of millions to campaign in dozens of states and winding up in a Spanish-speaking territory that cannot vote in the general election.
Clinton seemed to relish campaigning on the island over the weekend, watching from a distance as the DNC dealt her campaign a potentially decisive setback in its decision to seat renegade delegates from Michigan and Florida.
But Obama, campaigning in South Dakota, spoke as if the DNC ruling were the final word and he were poised to become the nominee -- a position he is preparing to take more fully later this week as he approaches the new delegate threshold of 2,118. Obama said he had called Clinton to congratulate her on the Puerto Rico victory, describing her as someone who would play a prominent role in helping him win the general election against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
"She is going to be a great asset when we go into November to make sure we defeat the Republicans," Obama told a crowd at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D.
Clinton won a minimum of 38 delegates in the Puerto Rico vote, compared with at least 17 for Obama. A count late Sunday by the Associated Press gave Obama an overall total of 2,071 delegates to Clinton's 1,915 1/2 , which would leave Obama roughly 47 delegates shy of being able to claim a majority.
In the phone interview, Clinton said she had "no idea" what her timetable will be for deciding whether to appeal the DNC ruling on Michigan.
"I don't know yet -- we'll consider that. And I'll talk to my supporters to try to determine that in the future," Clinton said. "We reserve the right to do it. But I haven't made a decision yet."
During the interview, she spoke most extensively about the case she intends to make with renewed vigor over the next few days: that superdelegates should pay extra attention now to her contention that she is winning the popular vote and to the fact that she has performed so well in recent contests.
If she was moving toward a departure from the race, Clinton did not hint at it, and as her plane prepared to take off from Puerto Rico, she came to the back of the campaign plane to remind reporters that her delegate situation may not stay as grim as it looks. "One thing about superdelegates is they can change their minds," she said.
Clinton also knocked down reports that her husband, former president Bill Clinton, is pushing for Obama to make her his vice presidential pick. "I do not believe that is happening," she said in the earlier interview. "It's not -- you know, I'm not aware of it."
Clinton parried questions about both the undercurrents of the campaign and tactics, and she chose to emphasize her plans to move forward. She declined to elaborate on earlier remarks she had made about some of the sexism she had encountered during the race, saying that while she had "a lot of thoughts on the subject" she would rather not discuss it at the moment.
"Let's come back to that another time," she said.
She also said she was unsure how much of her own money she had put into the race, although the figure is believed to be well over $20 million. "I don't have it off the top of my head," she said.
Asked what mistakes she has made in of the campaign and what lessons she has learned, Clinton demurred, saying, "Oh, I have not had time to think about that."
"I am focused on winning the nomination," she said. "I am thrilled by my big victory today in Puerto Rico. More people have woken up and gone to the polls and voted for me than anybody in the history of presidential nominating campaigns. So I'm going to stay focused on what is the business at hand, which is making my case to the delegates, and there'll be time, oh, way in the future to consider the campaign, because it's still very much alive and ongoing."
Tuesday's Montana and South Dakota primaries will mark the last day of voting before the Democratic National Convention in August. Obama plans a major rally that night in St. Paul, Minn., his latest attempt to turn the page from the primary season to the general election and one that will take place in the venue where McCain is slated to claim the GOP nomination in September. But Clinton and her advisers seemed to indicate that they are not quite ready to give up.
Clinton launched an ad in South Dakota and Montana called "17 million," highlighting her contention that she has won "more votes than anyone in the history of the Democratic primaries."
"Some say there isn't a single reason for Hillary to be the Democratic nominee," the narrator of the 30-second ad says. "They're right. There are over 17 million of them."
The figure of 17 million votes is up for debate: Clinton surpasses Obama in the popular vote only if none of the "uncommitted" ballots cast in Michigan count toward his total and all of the votes in Michigan are counted toward hers. That is problematic, especially after Clinton adviser Harold Ickes acknowledged at the DNC meeting on Saturday that the Michigan contest was flawed.
But there were also hints on Sunday that Clinton may simply be seeing the race through until every contest has concluded. Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Ickes struck a less combative tone than he had at the DNC meeting, saying that campaign advisers "haven't decided yet" whether to pursue an appeal and that he had not yet discussed the subject at length with Clinton. "Obviously this will be a big decision," Ickes told host Tim Russert.
At her victory rally, Clinton, thanking her Spanish-speaking supporters, also praised the Democratic front-runner and struck a tone of unity.
"Our two campaigns have turned out record numbers of new voters, determined to chart a new course for America," Clinton said. She did not question Obama's ability to win the election as she has in the past, nor his legitimacy in asserting that he is nearing the finish line to claim victory in the nomination. But she urged superdelegates who have not yet picked a candidate to consider her merits -- an argument that seemed as relevant to the vice presidential choice as to the nomination itself.
Clinton repeatedly said that she has won the popular vote. "The people have spoken, and you have chosen your candidate," she said. She said she has won the states that will be important battlegrounds in the general election, a case that she has made many times in the past but that she now hopes will persuade undecided superdelegates to turn her way.
Speaking directly to the superdelegates, Clinton said: "I do not envy the decision you must make, but a decision has to be made. And in the final assessment, I ask you to consider these questions: Which candidate best represents the will of people who voted in this history election? Which candidate is best able to lead us to victory in November? And which candidate is best able to lead our nation as our president in the face of unprecedented challenges at home and abroad? I am in this race because I believe I am that candidate."
In Puerto Rico, Clinton won voters across the board -- both men and women and voters in each age, education and income category, according to a CNN exit poll of Democratic primary voters.
Obama narrowly beat Clinton only among the voters holding a favorable view of Puerto Rico Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila (D), who endorsed the senator from Illinois. But only 34 percent of voters have positive views of their embattled governor, and Clinton outpaced Obama by 4 to 1 among those who have negative views of the governor.
Overall, Clinton's victory of better than 2 to 1 in Puerto Rico is in line with how she has done among Hispanic Catholics across primaries so far -- 69 percent to 29 percent. Among all Hispanics, Clinton outpaced Obama 61 to 35 in all previous contests with exit polls.
One factor in Clinton's big victory may have been the continued popularity of her husband. More than eight in 10 Democratic voters said they have favorable views of Bill Clinton, and the former first lady won these voters by greater than 3 to 1.
Race appears to have limited impact. Thirty-one percent of voters said race was important in their vote, matching the previous high, in Mississippi. But those who said race was part of their voting calculus were somewhat less likely to vote for Clinton than were those who said race was not a factor.
As it has been stateside, the economy was the top issue for Democratic voters in Puerto Rico, with 6 in 10 calling it the country's most pressing issue. Iraq was a distant second at 25 percent, but Obama did better among such voters than among those calling the economy or health care a priority. More than 8 in 10 voters said they disapprove of the war in Iraq.
About 8 in 10 said Clinton could improve life on the island; only half said so of Obama. Six in 10 said Puerto Rico should be a state; 35 percent said it should remain a commonwealth, and 4 percent want it to be an independent country.
Polling director Jon Cohen in Washington and staff writer Keith B. Richburg, traveling with Obama, contributed to this report.