By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
NEW YORK "What does Hillary want?"
Hillary Clinton put the question to her supporters here Tuesday night, moments after her opponent, Barack Obama, clinched the Democratic presidential nomination.
What Hillary did not want to do was to concede defeat. "I want the nearly 18 million Americans who voted for me to be respected, to be heard," she told her fans, who answered with cheers of "Denver! Denver!" and "Yes she will!"
The campaign was over, and Obama had locked up the nomination after a flood of more than 40 superdelegates announced their support for him throughout the day. But in the Baruch College gymnasium here (the "Bearcat Den"), Clinton spoke as if she were the victor.
She and her husband and daughter took the stage, smiling, clapping and bopping to the beat. She said nothing about losing the nomination, instead thanking South Dakota for giving her a victory in Tuesday's balloting: "You had the last word in this primary season!" This, she said, confirmed that she had won "more votes than any primary candidate in history."
Clinton congratulated Obama -- not for winning the nomination, but for running an "extraordinary race." She recognized Obama and his supporters "for all they accomplished."
It was an extraordinary performance by a woman who had been counted out of the race even when she still had a legitimate chance. Now she had been mathematically eliminated -- and she spoke as if she had won.
Though some might think her remarks self-delusional, Clinton wasn't kidding herself; earlier in the day, Clinton had told lawmakers privately that the race was over and she would consider being Obama's vice president. Her public defiance reflected a shift in the balance of power that came with Obama's victory. Now that he had won the race, he would need to woo Clinton if he wanted to prevail in November.
"Obama has work to do," the outspoken Clinton adviser Lanny Davis told reporters in the hallway outside the gymnasium here. "Senator Clinton can't do it for him."
Obama's aides had done their best throughout the day to build excitement for his clinching of the nomination. "Obama needs 41 delegates to secure the Democratic nomination," Obama spokesman Dan Pfeiffer announced in an e-mail he sent out at 6:56 a.m.
It was the beginning of a day-long water torture for Clinton, as Obama aimed, by day's end, to reach the 2,118 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.
For Obama, however, it wasn't a pretty way to clinch. He had won only six of the last 14 contests, and Tuesday night he lost South Dakota, too, where he had been heavily favored. Now that the party had partially accepted results from the Florida and Michigan primaries, Clinton could claim with some justification that she had received more votes than Obama.
And so the limping nominee needed to be carried across the finish line by the superdelegates whose support Pfeiffer announced throughout the day: a Michigan congresswoman, a Massachusetts superdelegate, one from Mississippi, two from Michigan, one from the District of Columbia, two from California, one from Florida, three from Delaware. "Twelve delegates from the nomination," Pfeiffer announced. Then 11, then 10.
The rush of the opportunistic superdelegates toward the inevitable nominee only worsened what was certain to be an unhappy day for the Clintons, who had arrived at their Westchester home at about 3 a.m. after an awkward last day of campaigning in South Dakota. Bill Clinton had flown into a rage and called a reporter a "scumbag." At her last event in South Dakota, Hillary had lost her voice in a coughing fit. Somebody had seen fit to play an inappropriate John Fogerty tune before she took the stage: "It ain't me, it ain't me. I ain't no fortunate one."
On Tuesday evening, the crowd began to assemble at Baruch College in Manhattan for Clinton's non-concession speech. The scene was made to look festive: The Clinton campaign ordered 70 boxes of Domino's pizza for the press corps, and set up a cash bar for its fundraisers, or "honored guests." The honored guests were not in a partying mood, however. One older woman pointed at a reporter accusingly and said: "He is the one who destroyed our heroine!"
A crew from "The Daily Show" joined the party, and, hoping to keep Clinton in the race, struck up a cheer of "Four more months!"
Such an outlandish thing seemed almost plausible among the Clinton backers in the hermetically sealed Baruch gym. Below ground level, there was no cellphone or BlackBerry reception, and there was no television playing in the room. That meant that they could not see the network projections showing that, while Clinton had won South Dakota, Obama had won enough delegates to clinch the nomination. Instead, they listened to Tom Petty's "Won't Back Down."
Just before Obama officially clinched, the Clinton campaign issued a press release as if it were still in the middle of a nominating battle. "Wyoming Automatic Delegate Backs Hillary," the e-mail said. It didn't include the name of the brave superdelegate.
Terry McAuliffe, the campaign chairman, took the stage and read the full list of Clinton's victories, from American Samoa to Massachusetts. Introducing Clinton, he asked: "Are you ready for the next president of the United States?"
This brought laughter from the reporters in the back of the room, but Clinton induced the crowd to boo the "pundits and naysayers" who would have run her from the race. "I am so proud we stayed the course together," she told her backers, who interjected cries of "We believe in you!" and "Yes, we will!"
Only obliquely did Clinton refer to the fact that she had, in fact, lost the nomination. "The question is: Where do we go from here?" she said. She would figure that out "in the coming days," she said, but "I will be making no decisions tonight." The crowd in the Bearcat Den erupted in a sustained cheer. She referred her supporters to her Web site, as she had after many a primary night victory.
For a candidate who had just lost the nomination, she seemed very much in charge.
That must be what Hillary wants.