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Clinton's Endgame

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton listens to a question from a reporter on her campaign plane after her primary day celebration in San Juan, Puerto Rico June 1, 2008. (Associated Press)

By Dan Balz
The suspense went out of the Democratic race weeks ago. The drama continues, thanks mostly to Hillary Clinton. By sometime this week, the Democratic nomination race is expected to come to an end. Barack Obama will claim the 2,118 delegates needed to secure the nomination and Clinton -- well, that is the question?

She has vowed to stay in the race until someone reaches the magic number. Obama hopes that will come soon after Tuesday's primaries and the question then will be whether Clinton is forced out by a chorus of Democrats or leaves the race on her own terms.

Whenever she seems on the verge of resigning herself to the inevitable, she then suddenly turns defiant -- or at least determined to make her case one more time to the superdelegates in whose hands the nomination remains.

The machinery of the Democratic Party has now coalesced around Obama, a dramatic role reversal over the past 17 months. Clinton began as the establishment candidate and is now on the outside looking in. Obama began as the outsider, the insurgent, and is now the toast of the establishment.

If any further evidence of this shift were needed, it came Saturday. Obama saw his nomination hastened by a behind-closed-doors deal of the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee that settled disputes over Michigan and Florida in a way that did nothing to derail Obama's route to victory.

The most important outcome of Saturday's Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting was to render Michigan's primary illegitimate, a huge blow to Clinton's popular vote strategy.

The allocation of delegates agreed upon by the committee bore no resemblance to the popular vote in the state.

Sen. Carl Levin, in an exchange with Clinton senior adviser Harold Ickes, debunked the idea of trying to use the results of the primary to determine how the delegates would be apportioned. "You're calling for a fair reflection of a flawed primary," Levin said.

Without Michigan's votes, Clinton's argument of winning the popular vote beings to crumble. The Real Clear Politics calculations of the popular vote give Obama the lead under all scenarios, except the inclusion of Michigan. The latest figures show Obama leading by 24,524 votes. That includes both Puerto Rico and, now, Florida, whose primary results were blessed by the Rules and Bylaws Committee on Saturday in the compromise that seated that state's delegation.

Obama approaches his historic victory coasting but hardly in a dominant position. Since Ohio and Texas, he and she have split 10 contests. She won three of those -- Puerto Rico, Kentucky and West Virginia -- by more than 35 points each. Since Ohio and Texas, she has won about 30 more pledged delegates than Obama.

Obama's delegate advantage has grown because he has won more superdelegates over this period, though they have come in trickle, not a flood. How quickly he accumulates more superdelegates over the next days will determine how quickly he reaches the magic 2,118 and presumably how quickly she decides to end her candidacy.

He is certainly a weaker candidate than he was three months ago, thanks to the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., his infamous "bitter" comments and losses in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky that raised questions about his ability to attract working class votes.

But is she the stronger candidate for the general election, as she has argued in this closing stretch of the nominating battle? By her measuring sticks, she makes a powerful case, outlined in a mailing to superdelegates last week.

Her argument is based on both the primaries and current general election polls. She claims to have won the states that count most in a general election, states like Ohio and Pennsylvania (no Democrat in the modern era has lost both primaries and gone on to win the nomination).

She cites none other than Karl Rove to argue that she would begin a general election campaign against John McCain with a stronger electoral vote base than would Obama. Obama's campaign counters with claims that he has strength in swing states -- Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin -- where she does not. But are wavering superdelegates listening to these arguments?

What Clinton's argument about being the stronger general election candidate ignores is what her nomination would do to the Democratic Party. A Clinton nomination at this point would tear the party apart. The anger that was expressed at Saturday's DNC rules committee meeting by supporters of Clinton would be dwarfed by the backlash against her from Obamaland if, somehow, he were not the nominee.

That is the choice ahead for Clinton over the next days. Whenever it comes to Hillary and Bill Clinton there is always some unpredictability. But her friends are confident she eventually will yield to the numbers and, as she has pledged, wholeheartedly get behind the nominee of the party and work for a Democratic victory in November. The party hierarchy that once was controlled by the Clintons hopes that will come soon.

By Web Politics Editor  |  June 2, 2008; 12:40 PM ET
Categories:  Dan Balz's Take  
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