Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Clinton Pledges to Fight On Despite Split Primary Result

Yana Paskova for The New York Times

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton took the stage on Tuesday night in Indianapolis. More Photos

Published: May 8, 2008

With her hopes for new political momentum deflated by Tuesday night’s primary results and signs of mounting financial problems, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton nonetheless vowed Wednesday to fight on and started her campaign for the May 13 primary in West Virginia, while her advisers huddled privately to assess her options.

Damon Winter/The New York Times

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton with Senator Evan Bayh and Bill and Chelsea Clinton at a rally in Indianapolis. More Photos »

“I’m staying in this race until there is a nominee, and obviously I’m going to work as hard as I can to become that nominee,” Mrs. Clinton said at a news conference in Shepherdstown, W.Va., where she flew in a last-minute change of plans Wednesday. But in private, pressure on her to end her candidacy was clearly intensifying.

In a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning, three top officials in the Clinton campaign acknowledged that even if all the delegates from disputed primaries in Michigan and Florida were seated at the Democratic convention, Mrs. Clinton would still not have enough delegates to clinch the presidential nomination. Phil Singer, a spokesman for the campaign, estimated that in such a best-case scenario, Mrs. Clinton would still be about 100 delegates short.

This suggests that the campaign has now determined that one of the major avenues to the nomination is almost certainly closed off, and that if Mrs. Clinton intends to press on anyway, she will have to look elsewhere, most likely to an appeal to the superdelegates, as party leaders and elected officials who get automatic seats at the national convention are known. But Mr. Singer also said that the campaign intends to pursue the Michigan and Florida issue when the Democratic rules committee meets on May 31.

Highlighting the difficulties Mrs. Clinton has had in financing her high-spending battle with Senator Barack Obama, officials of her campaign also disclosed on Wednesday that she has lent her campaign more than $6 million over the last month. She did so, they said, in three installments: $5 million on April 11, $1 million on May 1, and $425,000 on May 5. Earlier, as her campaign was facing challenges around the time of the Feb. 5 primaries, Mrs. Clinton and her husband had extended a separate $5 million loan to the campaign.

Mrs. Clinton is willing to put more money into her campaign going forward, said Terry McAuliffe, her campaign’s chairman. “Senator Clinton has anted up and is fighting on,” he said. Other advisers said in interviews that her campaign is deep in debt and nearly broke, raising questions about what kind of campaign she can afford now. “It’s a sign of my commitment to this campaign, a sign of how much I believe in what we’re trying to do,” Mrs. Clinton said when asked about the loan during the news conference in West Virginia. Despite the accumulation of discouraging signs, campaign officials continued to assert, at least in the conference call with reporters, that they believe the nomination can still be won. “We think the results last night strengthen the case that she will be the strongest candidate for the Democratic Party in November,” said Geoff Garin, the campaign’s top strategist.

A major topic of Mrs. Clinton’s meetings on Wednesday, her advisers say, will be how, and whether, the campaign can raise significant new sums at a time when she has relatively little momentum and when so many donors have already contributed the maximum amount allowed by law. Mrs. Clinton has a fund-raiser scheduled in Washington on Wednesday night and one in New York in honor of Mother’s Day on Saturday.

Hassan Nemazee, a finance chairman for Mrs. Clinton, declined to say exactly how much the campaign raised in April, but he said it was the campaign’s second-best month, which would put the amount raised at somewhere between the $35 million she collected in February and the $20 million she raised in March. The Obama campaign has not yet released his totals for April.

Political pressures on Mrs. Clinton to withdraw are also growing: Former Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, the 1972 Democratic nominee and a well-known supporter of Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy, announced on Wednesday that he was switching his endorsement to Mr. Obama and that Mrs. Clinton should drop out of the race because it had become mathematically impossible for her to win the nomination.

“I respect him, and he has a right to make whatever decision he makes,” Mrs. Clinton said when reporters asked her about Mr. McGovern’s shift. But she argued both that she would still be the party’s best choice to face Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, in November, and that her remaining in the primary race will not damage the Democrats’ chances.

“This is a dynamic electoral environment,” she said. “What matters is what strength you have going into the general election.” She added: “If we had the rules the Republicans had, I’d be the nominee. We have a much more complicated process. We’re in the middle of it, toward the end of it.”

But the primary results Tuesday night from Indiana — a narrow victory for Mrs. Clinton — and North Carolina — a decisive one for Mr. Obama — widened Mr. Obama’s lead in pledged delegates, and gave him new ammunition as he seeks to persuade Democratic leaders to coalesce around his campaign.

In North Carolina, Mr. Obama gained 17 more delegates than Mrs. Clinton did, according to a projection that both campaigns agree on. In Indiana, Mrs. Clinton gained four more than Mr. Obama. Together, they leave Mr. Obama with a lead of 172 pledged delegates with six contests remaining.

“We can see the finish line here,” David Plouffe, the Obama campaign manager, said Wednesday.

Though advisers to Mrs. Clinton said that she had no intention of dropping out of the race, even some of her most optimistic supporters were measured in their comments about how well-positioned she was to continue running.

“It’s hard to answer that question,” said Alan Patricof, another of Mrs. Clinton’s national finance chairmen. “I think she’s committed to going forward, but it’s hard to know she is the one to make the decision about what she does. And a lot of us have trust and faith in her to make the best decision.”

Senior aides to Mrs. Clinton said she was still confident that she had a chance to capture the nomination by winning some of the final six primaries and persuading uncommitted superdelegates that she can perform better against Republicans than Mr. Obama can.

“This candidacy and this campaign continue on,” Howard Wolfson, Mrs. Clinton’s communications director, told CNN on Wednesday morning. “We do have to do well in the remaining contests,” he acknowledged, describing West Virginia, where she is expected to win as handily as she did in neighboring Ohio and Pennsylvania, as “a critically important swing state.”

In winning North Carolina by 14 percentage points, Mr. Obama, whose campaign had been embattled by controversy over the incendiary remarks of his former pastor, recorded his first major primary victory in nearly two months. He won the Guam caucuses on Saturday, but split the territory’s delegates evenly with Mrs. Clinton.

His campaign was preparing to open a new front in his battle with Mrs. Clinton, intensifying the argument to uncommitted superdelegates that he weathered a storm and that the time had come for the party to concentrate on the general election.

The Obama campaign planned to announce a handful of new superdelegate commitments on Wednesday afternoon. Aides said the list would grow in the coming days, including some superdelegates who planned to switch their loyalty, though people were reluctant to do so out of respect for Mrs. Clinton.

“It would be inappropriate, awkward and wrong for us to tell Senator Clinton when the race should be over,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who supports Mr. Obama and is assisting the recruitment effort for superdelegates on Capitol Hill, during a conference call with reporters. “This is her decision. This is only her decision. We are confident she will do the right thing for the Democratic nominee. We are confident she will unite the party.”

In Washington, Mrs. Clinton was scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon with uncommitted superdelegates in the House of Representatives. Mr. Obama is set to hold a similar meeting on Thursday.

One question is whether senior Democrats whom the candidate and her husband trust will ask her to consider quitting the race — politically savvy elected officials like Gov. Edward Rendell of Pennsylvania or Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey, or friends with wide connections in the Democratic Party, like Vernon Jordan or Robert Rubin.

“I wouldn’t be surprised at all if a Rendell or a Vernon Jordan was prepared to weigh in with the Clintons, because the path to the nomination is just looking tougher for us,” said one top fund-raiser for Mrs. Clinton and longtime friend of the couple, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe his mood and that some other fund-raisers.

“Many of us thought she had to win both Indiana and North Carolina to show that she could pull off surprises now, in order to pull off the biggest surprise of all — winning the nomination despite being behind right now,” this fund-raiser added. “And she didn’t.”

Some independent political analysts said it is almost certain that, with 50 primaries and caucuses concluded and only 6 left, the Clintons and their closest supporters would at least discuss whether she should continue to battle Mr. Obama. Doing so may only weaken him further if he emerges as the nominee, and tarnish him in potential swing states that still have primaries to go, like West Virginia, while also hurting Mrs. Clinton’s chances of being selected as his running mate.

“The campaign may go on, but the contest is now over: Obama is the Democratic nominee for president,” said Robert Shrum, a Democratic strategist who was a senior adviser to the Gore and Kerry presidential campaigns. “Now the decision for her is how she wants to end this.

“The people who have her best interests at heart, they would now say to her, ‘You ought to really think about not protracting this, because you will only look selfish in the weeks to come,’ “ Mr. Shrum said. “Her Pennsylvania win bought her permission to go on. But then her narrow victory in Indiana and this smashing defeat in North Carolina — there is no rationale for her to continue.”

One Clinton adviser called the North Carolina loss in particular “a very significant turning point” because Mrs. Clinton, the former president and some of their advisers had become so excited about their prospects of a surprise victory there. Instead, Mr. Obama won the state by about 15 percentage points.

Two Clinton advisers acknowledged Tuesday night that the campaign mishandled expectations for the North Carolina primary by raising the possibility of a close race or even a narrow Clinton victory there. They chose to allocate millions of dollars to the state, send key operatives there and devote whole days of Mrs. Clinton’s time and her husband’s. One of the advisers said they probably could have spent half the time and money there and won roughly the same result.

Given the sharply limited resources of the Clinton campaign, competing so hard in North Carolina only took away from the Indiana operation; the very narrow result there denies her kind of the bragging rights and momentum that she enjoyed after her victory in Pennsylvania two weeks ago.

Both Mrs. Clinton and President Clinton had moments over the last two weeks when they thought a surprise victory in North Carolina might be possible, the advisers said. In any case, though, she had to compete for popular votes and delegates there because she trails Mr. Obama in the overall totals on both counts, they said.

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Clinton advisers also said that the candidate and her team would discuss her political message, and whether her signature issue over the last two weeks — a proposal to suspend the federal gas tax this summer — was worth extending to the campaigns in West Virginia and Kentucky.

While some advisers said that the message helped make Mrs. Clinton more popular with working-class and financially struggling voters, some analysts said that it angered Democrats in Washington who dislike the gas tax idea, and that it was too small an issue to run on credibly. (Mr. Obama opposes the gas tax relief, calling it a gimmick.)

“In 1976, Ronald Reagan had a big principled argument to continue against Gerald Ford, built around d├ętente and economic policy, and in ‘80, Kennedy had a big principled argument about health care and economic policy,” said Mr. Shrum, who worked on the Kennedy campaign. “What is her big principled argument against Obama? The gas tax holiday?”

Perhaps more than anything, the Clinton campaign’s money problems — a recurring headache during the primary season — appear to be her most immediate challenge, according to several fund-raisers and advisers.

After spending heavily during the six-week race in Pennsylvania, and then over the last two weeks in two states, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign is believed to be close to broke again, not to mention millions of dollars in debt, advisers say.

Her campaign has been particularly successful raising money online in the hours and days after primary night victories, often bragging about the financial tallies in frequent e-mail blasts. Mrs. Clinton, in her televised primary night remarks Tuesday, did make a pitch to supporters to donate quickly on her Web site, even giving its address.

Shortly after midnight Wednesday, she also sent an e-mail to donors asking for money. But this solicitation was briefer than previous ones, and the tone was more of gratitude for earlier help than of enthusiasm for the contests ahead.

Jonathan Mantz, the campaign’s finance director, said Wednesday afternoon that money has been coming in over the Internet at a “pretty rapid clip,” but he did not have specific figures available.

“We’ll have the money to compete in these upcoming states,” he said.

Still, for anyone wondering if she wanted to continue running, her advisers pointed to her schedule for Thursday: She has campaign events scheduled in West Virginia, South Dakota, and Oregon, which all have nominating contests over the next four weeks.

Her advisers acknowledged, though, that Thursday’s events could be canceled if her plans changed.

Jeff Zeleny, Michael Luo and Katharine Q. Seelye contributed reporting.

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