Clinton fights on despite tall odds

Party strategists say Democratic contest is effectively over

Election 2008

May 08, 2008|By Paul West and Matthew Hay Brown | Paul West and Matthew Hay Brown,Sun reporters

WASHINGTON -- Low on funds and slipping further behind Barack Obama in the presidential contest, Hillary Clinton tried to inject new enthusiasm into her campaign yesterday just hours after escaping defeat in the Indiana primary.

Clinton held a hastily arranged town hall meeting in West Virginia, where she vowed to go on. An absence of public events on her schedule had prompted news media speculation that she might be preparing to quit the race.

Obama, meanwhile, took a day off with his family in Chicago, while leading supporters publicly called on undeclared superdelegates to endorse him and bring the nomination fight to a close.

Democratic strategists not connected to either candidate said the campaign was likely to continue through the final primaries June 3. But they also said the nomination race was effectively over, after Obama's double-digit victory in North Carolina and Clinton's near-defeat in Indiana, where she won by 1 percentage point.

Former Sen. George McGovern, the party's 1972 nominee, announced that he was switching his allegiance from Clinton to Obama and called on her to leave the race.

But Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, an Obama supporter who spoke to reporters in a conference call arranged by the campaign, said it would be "inappropriate and awkward and wrong for any of us to tell Senator Clinton when it is time for the race to be over."

Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who is not working in the presidential campaign, said Clinton's continuing presence in the race "isn't by itself hurtful" to Obama, "as long as she doesn't attack him overtly and turn this into a negative campaign against him."

He said that Obama might actually be helped by her decision to keep going, because it would be "a lot worse" for Obama if Clinton stopped campaigning and she won anyway in West Virginia on Tuesday, where she leads by nearly 30 percentage points in some polling.

Clinton told reporters in Shepherdstown, W.Va., that she was "staying in this race until there's a nominee, and I am obviously going to work as hard as I can to become that nominee."

Outraised and outspent by Obama, her campaign is reported to be deeply in debt. Aides said Clinton had lent herself an added $6.4 million to keep the campaign afloat over the past month, bringing the total amount she has given her campaign to more than $11 million.

Obama's campaign used the news of Clinton's loan to make a fresh fundraising pitch.

"We need to show that the voices of more than 1.5 million ordinary people donating whatever they can afford are more powerful than one person giving more than $11 million to their own campaign," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe wrote in an e-mail to supporters.

Clinton delivered a televised plea for new online donations in her election-night speech in Indianapolis. A similar appeal after her victory in the Pennsylvania primary two weeks earlier brought in $10 million in just 24 hours, aides said at the time.

There were no similar claims of post-Indiana fundraising success, however, and a campaign spokesman indicated that Clinton might put more money into the campaign in coming days.

She and her husband reported earning more than $109 million over the past eight years, and the amount she has lent her campaign was less than her income from book royalties and her salary as a senator from New York, a spokesman said.

Aides said she would continue to draw on assets jointly held with her husband as needed. Clinton called the loans "a sign of my commitment to this campaign. It's a sign of how much I believe in what we're trying to do."

Clinton met with superdelegates on Capitol Hill later in the day, aides said, trying to keep them from jumping to Obama and convince them that she would be the party's stronger nominee in the fall.

But Obama supporter Janet Napolitano, the governor of Arizona, said it was "time for the superdelegates to begin bringing this process to a close and announcing their preferences."

To clinch the nomination, Obama would need to pick up about one-third of the 220 undeclared superdelegates - elected and party officials who are free to choose either candidate.

Three more superdelegates declared their support for Obama yesterday, but his campaign indicated that it might be mid-June, after the final primaries, before enough superdelegates announce their support to give the Illinois senator the votes needed to be assured of the nomination.

None of the undeclared superdelegates in the Maryland congressional delegation budged this week. By one estimate, about 60 House Democrats, many of whom don't want to offend large numbers of their constituents by taking sides, have yet to commit to Obama or Clinton.

Rep. John Sarbanes of Baltimore said the latest primary results "suggest that we may be getting to some closure" and "we'll see how things pan out over the next few weeks."

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin said uncommitted superdelegates are being lobbied "in a more aggressive manner," and he expects the pressure to become heavier in coming days. But he said he was unlikely to make an endorsement before the first week of June.

Obama had "a big day" in this week's primaries, said Cardin. "Combined with the story on Senator Clinton's money - that's more of an insider issue than it is to the public - but you're talking about the superdelegates, it's a factor."

Some Clinton superdelegates have wavered in their support and a few have switched sides, particularly those with large black constituencies, but Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger said he has no plans to abandon Clinton.

"In our business, one of the worst things you can do is to break a commitment," said the Baltimore County congressman. "You break a commitment, you really lose respect with your peers."

paul.west@baltsun.com matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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