By Shailagh Murray and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
TROY, Mich., June 2 -- On the eve of the final two primaries of a five-month marathon, Sen. Barack Obama stood poised to wrap up the Democratic presidential nomination, while Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton weighed whether to stay in the race in hopes of delaying what appears to be an inevitable outcome.
Obama is optimistic that he will be able to claim victory Tuesday evening at a gathering in St. Paul, Minn., with superdelegates preparing to rally to his candidacy on the eve of the day's contests in South Dakota and Montana and push him past the threshold of 2,118 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.
Clinton sent mixed signals about her plans throughout the day Monday. As her campaign recalled field staffers to New York, one adviser indicated that she would suspend, but not end, her campaign within days. But the candidate herself said she will continue to argue to the group of party insiders who will hold sway over the final outcome that her strong showing in recent contests demonstrates that she would be the more electable candidate in November.
"Tomorrow is the last day of the primaries and the beginning of a new phase in the campaign," Clinton said in Yankton, S.D., before she prepared to depart for a Tuesday-night rally in New York. "After South Dakota and Montana vote, I will lead in the popular vote and Senator Obama will lead in the delegate count. The voters will have voted, and so the decision will fall to the delegates empowered to vote at the Democratic convention. I will be spending the coming days making my case to those delegates."
Party leaders worked behind the scenes to establish an outcome that would limit the long-term damage from the protracted and divisive campaign, hoping to provide a quick and graceful exit for Clinton and clear the path for the first African American presidential nominee.
On Capitol Hill, three uncommitted senators, Tom Harkin (Iowa), Thomas R. Carper (Del.) and Ken Salazar (Colo.), met Monday to discuss a "quick conclusion" to the Democratic race, but Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) privately urged them to delay any announcement until the final votes have been counted, according to multiple Democratic sources.
But prominent Democrats predicted that members of Congress would unite around Obama's candidacy before week's end, and Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.), the highest-ranking African American in the House leadership, plans to announce his support for Obama on Tuesday. And indications were that others, including Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana, would endorse Obama after the votes come in from their state. Governors from the opposing camps also floated the idea of a joint event in the coming days to show their support for the front-runner.
Campaigning Monday in Michigan, a key November battleground, Obama said he considers Clinton a valued ally in his general-election contest against Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive GOP nominee. Clinton ran "an outstanding race," Obama told a packed crowd in this middle-class suburb of Detroit. He vowed, "She and I will be working together in November."
At a later stop in Waterford, Obama recounted for reporters a telephone conversation he had with Clinton on Sunday in which he congratulated her for winning the Puerto Rico primary. He said he told her that "once the dust settled, I was looking forward to meeting her at a time and place of her choosing" to talk about the campaign's next phase. In the meantime, he added, "we've still got two more contests to go."
Obama said he also told Clinton that "there aren't too many people who understand how hard she's been working." He added: "I'm one of them, because she and I have been on this same journey together."
As Clinton made a final push for votes across South Dakota, her advisers said her options ranged from dropping out Tuesday night and endorsing Obama to making a final effort to convince uncommitted superdelegates that she would be a stronger rival to McCain.
Another, according to senior Clinton advisers, is what they dubbed the "middle option," for Clinton to suspend her campaign, acknowledging that Obama has crossed the delegate threshold but keeping her options open until the convention in late August. Advisers said she is looking at historical precedent while weighing her recent victories, including her landslide win in Puerto Rico, in trying to sort out what to do.
Clinton has been angered by recent calls for her to quit, her advisers said, and the "soft landing" of suspending her campaign would allow her to move ahead on her own terms.
Speaking to reporters in Sioux Falls, S.D., spokesman Mo Elleithee was unequivocal, saying that Clinton intends to spend the next several days "making the case to undecided delegates" and adding: "She's in this race until we have a nominee. She expects to be that nominee."
But it was clear that Monday's final lap was bittersweet for the Clintons. Supporters greeted her outside a Rapid City diner with rapturous praise and encouragement, along with some tears. "Keep fighting!" one woman urged the senator from New York. Another woman, Margaret Dimock, sobbed as she told Clinton about lifelong medical problems that have left her uninsured. "Don't get discouraged. Keep the faith," Clinton said, instructing her staff to take down the woman's name and address.
Former president Bill Clinton sounded wistful before an audience in Milbank, S.D. "This may be the last day I'm ever involved in a campaign of this kind," he told supporters. "I thought I was out of politics, till Hillary decided to run. But it has been one of the greatest honors of my life to go around and campaign for her for president."
The day also had moments that underscored the struggles the high-profile former first couple have endured in the campaign. At his stop in Milbank, Bill Clinton also launched a tirade against Vanity Fair writer Todd Purdum, who recently published a sharply critical article about his post-White House conduct. He called Purdum "sleazy" and a "scumbag" in comments to a reporter for the Huffington Post, a liberal Web site, leading a spokesman for the candidate to issue an apology.
"President Clinton was understandably upset about an outrageously unfair article, but the language today was inappropriate and he wishes he had not used it," Clinton aide Jay Carson said in a statement.
Obama campaign officials, meanwhile, held out hope that the senator from Illinois would be able to cross the finish line when the polls close in Montana on Tuesday evening, and that superdelegates would then be ready to come forward in large numbers.
He expects to pick up about 20 pledged delegates in Tuesday's primaries, leaving him roughly two dozen superdelegates short of the 2,118 mark. Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), an Obama supporter, told reporters in the Capitol on Monday afternoon that she had spoken to 10 undeclared superdelegates since Sunday and that they all understood that the race was likely to be over Tuesday night.
"They think this competition is about to wind down," McCaskill said. "Yes, they will be committing, and yes, they will be committing before sunset tomorrow."
One advantage to a wave of superdelegates moving to Obama early on Tuesday is that it would allow him to clinch the nomination with the pledged delegates awarded through voting in the evening as opposed to relying on the support of superdelegates, who are largely elected officials and party insiders. That would also allow Obama to deliver an unambiguous victory speech at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, where Republicans will hold their national convention in September.
If not Tuesday, Obama aides are confident that the nomination will be secured Wednesday or Thursday, as party leaders begin to close ranks around Obama. Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean have all urged a speedy end to the contest after voting is concluded, and many of their colleagues expect them to lead the way in preventing a prolonged standoff.
"There are a lot of superdelegates who are waiting for the last couple of contests, but I think that they are going to be making decisions fairly quickly after that," Obama told reporters in Waterford. "My sense is that between Tuesday and Wednesday, that we've got a good chance of getting the number that we need to win the nomination."
The Obama campaign is also organizing a Thursday-night rally in Northern Virginia. For the moment it has been billed as a typical event, but it could turn into a major spectacle featuring numerous party luminaries, depending on the events of the next few days.
There were unmistakable signs that Democratic leaders already are closing ranks. In their meeting Monday, Harkin, Carper and Salazar mapped out a strategy for possibly endorsing Obama as a group, and they planned to meet again Wednesday with the 18 other Senate Democrats who remain on the sidelines.
"A lot of us just feel that the sooner that this thing comes to a close, that we have a nominee, the better off everyone's going to be in our party," Harkin said.
Staff writer Paul Kane in Washington contributed to this report.