By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
DENVER, Aug. 26 -- Hillary Rodham Clinton's most loyal delegates came to the Pepsi Center on Tuesday night looking for direction. They listened, rapt, to a 20-minute speech that many proclaimed the best she had ever delivered, hoping her words could somehow unwind a year of tension in the Democratic Party. But when Clinton stepped off the stage and the standing ovation faded into silence, many of her supporters were left with a sobering realization: Even a tremendous speech couldn't erase their frustrations.
Despite Clinton's plea for Democrats to unite, her delegates remained divided as to how they should proceed.
There was Jerry Straughan, a professor from California, who listened from his seat in the rafters and shook his head at what he considered the speech's predictability. "It's a tactic," he said. "Who knows what she really thinks? With all the missteps that have taken place, this is the only thing she could do. So, yes, I'm still bitter."
There was JoAnn Enos, from Minnesota, who digested Clinton's resounding endorsement of Barack Obama and decided that she, too, will move on and get behind him. "I'll vote for [Obama] in the roll call," she said, "because that's what Hillary wants."
There was Shirley Love, from West Virginia, who smiled at Clinton's composure, waved a button bearing her name and felt a renewed pang of regret that she had lost the nomination. "She deserves it," Love said. "That's the thing that sticks with you. Even if she can move on easily, that's not as easy for everybody else."
Most delegates agreed that Clinton's impassioned speech marked a step toward reconciliation. The crowd in the Pepsi Center stood to applaud almost every time she mentioned Obama by name.
John Burkett, a Pennsylvania delegate and staunch Clinton supporter, attached an Obama button to his shirt. A New Mexico delegate said the "H" on his shirt will be replaced with an "O" come Thursday.
"She hit it right out of the ballpark," said Terie Norelli, New Hampshire's House speaker. "I've never been prouder of a Democrat than I was tonight." Norelli said the speech made her want to work hard for Obama. "She said it better than I ever could have: Everything I worked for and that she worked for would be at risk if we do anything less."
But Clinton's performance fell far short of the panacea the Democratic Party had desperately hoped for, delegates said. Some worried that, after Clinton's public withdrawal, more voters might defect for Republican John McCain or simply stay home.
"I'm not going to vote for Obama. I'm not going to vote for McCain, either," said Blanche Darley, 65, a Texas delegate for Clinton. Darley wore a button saying "Obamination Scares the Hell Out of Me."
"We love her, but it's our vote if we don't trust him or don't like him," said Darley, who was a superdelegate for Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
Weeping, Dawn Yingling, a 44-year-old single mother from Indianapolis, said that the speech was "fabulous" but that she still isn't going to work for the Obama campaign. "She was fabulous, nothing less than I expected. It's hard to sit here and think about she would have accomplished. We're not stupid -- we're not going to vote for John McCain," she said. But she'll limit her campaigning to a House candidate. "It will take a Congress as well as a president. That's what I can do and be true to who I am."
For Clinton's supporters, it was difficult to accept her speech as the public finale of her campaign, because this moment once held such tremendous potential. Shelby Leary, a delegate from West Virginia, stood to watch a video tribute to Clinton's success as a trailblazer and then chanted "Hillary" for 30 seconds with the rest of the crowd. Anne Price, from Washington state, wore a dozen Clinton buttons and wiped tears from her eyes.
It seemed a particularly resonant moment Tuesday night, which marked both Women's Equality Day and the 88th anniversary of women's suffrage.
"There's no way this night couldn't be emotional," Leary said. "A lot of us loved campaigning for her, and it's hard to watch it end. But after something like this, you have to have an emotional end for people to come to terms with things."
Clinton said Tuesday night that it is Obama's convention. But many of her supporters came here exclusively to honor her. One group traveled from New York and built an impromptu museum commemorating Clinton's historic campaign. Another lighted thousands of candles in a park to symbolize her widespread support.
On Tuesday morning, hundreds of loyalists formed a 200-yard parade and marched through downtown. They shouted into loudspeakers and beat drums, creating a cacophony that echoed across the blocks. As they began marching, some of the supporters chanted, "We want a roll call." Many of them wore their opinions on T-shirts: Country Over Party. Damn, We Wish You Were President. Still Making History. Democrats Left Behind.
At the front of the parade route, one banner summarized their message: Hillary. Who Else?
"A lot of people came here just because they wanted to celebrate Hillary," said Elizabeth Fiechter, a New York City lawyer who helped organize the parade. "We get criticism because there's this idea that the election should move on and just leave her behind. We're not going down that quietly."
The week of festivities for Clinton delegates and supporters started Monday with a meet-and-greet, where some supporters learned that they differ from one another more than they originally thought. The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that only 42 percent of Clinton voters classify themselves as "solidly behind" Obama, and that 20 percent plan to vote for McCain. But in Denver, Clinton supporters sometimes classified themselves as belonging to one of two categories: the sad and the angry.
"It just makes me upset because Hillary would have been the perfect woman to do this job," said Katherine Vincent, from Colorado. "I'm a Democrat first, but it's just difficult to get over."
"I hate Obama so much that I'm going to devote as much time to McCain as I did to Hillary," said Adita Blanco, a Democrat from Edward, Okla., who has never voted for a Republican. "Obama has nothing. He has no experience. The Democratic Party doesn't care about us. You couldn't treat [Clinton] any worse."
Perhaps the best example of the persistent divide in the Democratic Party came after Clinton's speech Tuesday night. The lights went down in the Pepsi Center, and some influential Democrats left downtown for good. They planned to head for the airport and fly home, long before Obama accepts the nomination in a speech at Invesco Field on Thursday night.
Clinton will hold a private meeting with her top financial advisers Wednesday, and many donors plan to leave immediately afterward. Terence R. McAuliffe, Clinton's campaign chairman and the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, also plans to leave before Obama's speech. Many of the women from 18 Million Voices, Fiechter's pro-Clinton group, booked tickets for Wednesday and Thursday because "we really are taking a position of being indifferent to Obama," Fiechter said.
Clinton's delegates inside the Pepsi Center had no choice but to stick around, at least until the end of Wednesday's roll call.
"I wish I could leave," said Straughan, the professor from California. "To be honest, that would make this whole thing a lot easier."
Staff writers Paul Kane, Alec MacGillis and Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.