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'She Could Accept Losing. She Could Not Accept Quitting.'

'Transformative Experience'

The Post's Dan Balz assesses the final months of Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign.Editor: Ed O'Keefe/washingtonpost.comFootage: Ed O'Keefe, Jacqueline Refo, Francine Uenuma/

From the beginning, Clinton counted on women to deliver her victory. She described in virtually every speech how she was struck by two kinds of people at her events: women in their 90s who were born before women were allowed to vote, and parents "lifting their little girls and their little boys onto their shoulders and whispering, 'See, you can be anything you want to be.' "

Later in the campaign, some female staff members suggested taking that line out of her speech, fearing it was no longer true. "We have to stop saying that; we've proven the opposite," one woman argued.

Clinton refused -- she kept saying the line, right through Tuesday -- but privately she complained about a litany of incidents that she felt were proof of continued sexism. Why, she asked her advisers, did it seem that any racial bias was met with public outrage, but sexist comments were treated as jokes?

In an interview with The Washington Post last month, Clinton described some of the media coverage of the race as "deeply offensive to millions of women" -- a remark that aides later said they worried came across as self-pitying, but that was sincerely felt.

"She started to see gender inequity in a more profound way than she ever has," one top adviser said.

In that way more than any other, the adviser said, the campaign was a "totally transformative experience" for Clinton. She concluded that "there is a lot more sexism than racism," the adviser said. It was a difficult sentiment to square with the results in the later states, as white men voted for Clinton in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky and South Dakota. But it lingered.

It was in that context that NARAL Pro-Choice America, the prominent abortion rights group, delivered one of the harshest blows of the campaign, endorsing Obama on the same day that former senator John Edwards of North Carolina did. NARAL's act hurt Clinton and her staff: They felt it was a betrayal of her life's work, an unnecessary and unjustified slap that would make little difference in the race anyway.

When Nancy Keenan, NARAL's president, called Wolfson to tell him about the decision, he lost his temper and yelled at her for her lack of respect.

It was clear: Clinton was losing. Each day brought an unhappy reminder. When she made a remark about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in a meeting with the board of the Argus Leader newspaper in South Dakota, it provoked a hailstorm of criticism -- even though she had said it before. The reaction infuriated Clinton, who believed that, after a late effort to court the news media, she was not given the benefit of the doubt.

After Clinton won West Virginia, that state's senior senator, Robert C. Byrd, endorsed Obama. Her traveling press corps shrank. She sounded by turns liberated and frustrated, according to people who worked with her closely and talked to her regularly.

"The superdelegates and elites kept drifting away, but the working class became more and more enthusiastic about her," Penn said. "She had truly become the president for the invisibles that she talked about all campaign, starting in New Hampshire."

Clinton told her advisers that one reason she was committed to staying in was out of loyalty to those supporters, and her belief that they could be rallied to Obama more easily if she was allowed to finish the campaign on her own terms.

During the campaign's final weekend, in Puerto Rico, she went dancing and drinking, spending an entire sweltering afternoon on the back of a flatbed truck, caravanning through dingy neighborhoods. It was easy to forget -- for a little while, anyway -- that thousands of miles to the north, the Democratic National Committee was meeting to decide whether to seat delegates from Florida and Michigan, Clinton's last hope of changing the delegate equation in a significant way.

That meeting in Washington brought a final rejection by the party insiders who once had been seen as her natural constituents, as the Rules and Bylaws Committee voted to seat the two delegations but give the delegates half a vote each. The Michigan compromise in particular was seen by the campaign as a slap in the face.

On Monday night, the Clintons flew back to New York after a long day of campaigning in South Dakota, a state she would win on the day Obama clinched the nomination. On the plane ride home, they sat in the front row, and no one dared talk to them. One aide said the tension in the front cabin -- visible to reporters in the back -- was painful to endure.

Another member of the inner circle described Bill Clinton as coming "unhinged" in the final hours, raising his voice in phone calls with superdelegates, constantly revisiting his wife's options for staying in the race. "He keeps asking me, 'What about so-and-so? What about so-and-so?' " the supporter recalled, saying the former president wanted constant updates on superdelegate moves.

What had been steady movement toward Obama was about to become an irreversible stream, so strong that moments after the polls closed on Tuesday night, Obama had more than the 2,118 delegates needed to secure the nomination. Yesterday, Clinton signaled that she would withdraw by week's end.

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