Clinton Ends Primary Season With an Unanswered Question

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed supporters in New York, where she congratulated Barack Obama, and said she was committed to uniting her party. Video by AP
By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

NEW YORK, June 3 -- For 16 months and 14 days, she had been a presidential candidate. For six years before that, a senator and candidate-in-waiting. So now, as her campaign ended in defeat Tuesday night and Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared before her supporters, the question was what she would do next.

But, characteristically measured and noticeably upbeat, Clinton did not explain her next move when she addressed her supporters in the dingy basement gym at Baruch College. If her speech seemed a valedictory, she did not say she was ending her campaign. If she lavishly praised Barack Obama -- who "inspired so many Americans to care about politics and empowered so many more to get involved" -- she did not endorse him.

"Now the question is, where do we go from here? And where we need to go as a party," Clinton said. "It's a question I don't take lightly. This has been a long campaign, and I will be making no decisions tonight."

A woman of goals, Clinton was selecting her next target, considering her options -- and striving, still. Her audience, a small but select core of donors and New York supporters, urged her to go all the way to the convention -- shouting "Denver! Denver!" -- and their ambition for her was reflected onstage.

She gave a strong, strikingly selfless speech, recalling the working-class voters -- nurses, farmers, teachers, miners -- she met on the road during the campaign, and promising to work for them in terms that rang even more true in the absence of a campaign ahead.

"You know, I understand that a lot of people are asking, 'What does Hillary want?' " she said halfway through her speech here. Emphasizing each word, as if to make light of the question, Clinton repeated, "What does she want?"

"Well, I want what I have always fought for in this whole campaign. I want to end the war in Iraq," she said. "I want health care for every American. I want every child to live up to his or her God-given potential . . . and I want the nearly 18 million Americans who voted for me to be respected, to be heard."

She continued: "I have an old-fashioned notion, one that's been the basis of my candidacy and my life's work, that public service is about helping people solve their problems and live their own dreams. This nation has given me every opportunity, and that's what I want for every single American."

During a long, tense flight home from South Dakota on Monday night, Clinton sat quietly with her husband at the front of her campaign plane. Her aides and reporters warily kept their distance.

But Tuesday night, it hardly seemed like an end to a losing campaign. Clinton's aides walked the crowd sharing exit poll numbers from South Dakota -- where, after doggedly campaigning while everyone asked her about her plans to drop out, she won. When the returns for Montana came in later, she had lost there, but for now she basked in her second victory in three days, after Puerto Rico.

But victories in two out of three primaries neatly captured the paradox she faced as she prepared to depart the campaign with more populous states in her win column and, by her count, more popular votes.

"So many people said this race was over five months ago in Iowa," she said, "but we had faith in each other. And you brought me back in New Hampshire, and on Super Tuesday and in Ohio and in Pennsylvania and Texas and Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, Puerto Rico, and South Dakota. I will carry your stories and your dreams with me every day for the rest of my life."

As for the future, she said that "in the coming days, I'll be consulting with supporters and party leaders to determine how to move forward with the best interests of our party and our country guiding my way."

Ever the good pupil, Clinton mentioned her Web site the way advisers spent months begging her to do. "This has always been your campaign, so to the 18 million people who voted for me and to our many other supporters out there of all ages, I hope you will go to my Web site, at HillaryClinton.com," she said, soliciting suggestions for her next move.

Her campaign staff played mood music, the loudspeakers blaring Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" again and again. The audience got the hint; even the microphone check, a few minutes before she arrived, elicited applause. And when the event was over, in the ladies' room, one woman cried while another said it was the best speech she had ever heard Clinton -- nearly an ex-candidate -- give.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company