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All Over but the Shouting

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.V. -- They say it's all over but the shouting. Fortunately, Hillary Clinton does that part very well.

"Next Tuesday will be one of the most important elections in this entire process!" she told a rally here, the day after her loss in North Carolina and her narrow win in Indiana all but sealed the Democratic nomination for Barack Obama.

"I personally believe that West Virginia is one of those so-called swing states Democrats need to win in the fall!" proclaimed the candidate who has been all-but eliminated.

"I want to start by winning it in the spring to lay the groundwork for a victory in November!" said the woman whose candidacy has been pronounced dead on national television by, among others, George Stephanopoulos and Tim Russert.

"I hope next Tuesday you will give me a chance to be your president!" she told the crowd of several hundred at the old city hall building downtown here.

The audience cheered, except for a couple dozen Obama supporters who waved signs and heckled her. But even some of the faithful said they could read the writing on wall - or on their cable news screens.

"It's pretty obvious," said Ken Martin, waving Clinton posters and wearing brown overalls. "She fought a good fight." Martin said he's hoping Obama will make Clinton his vice presidential runningmate. "We're gonna fight it out in the state for her, get a good win for her," he said, but the race is over - "unless there's some kind of unforeseen event."

Clinton sure knows how to pick her locations. For her hastily scheduled appearance in West Virginia - her bid to show her resilience and defiance - she chose a spot made famous as a hospital for the severely wounded.

Shepherd University's white brick McMurran Hall was under construction as Shepherdstown's town hall in 1862, when the battle of Antietam overwhelmed the city with thousands of wounded; with no place left to go, the bloody and the maimed occupied the still unfinished building -- a bit of history now celebrated in plaques on the front lawn, where supporters listened to Clinton's speech.

A better choice for Clinton might have been Harper's Ferry, just a few miles from here and a monument to brave but futile struggles. It was there, in 1859, that the anti-slavery rebel John Brown captured the federal armory -- only to be captured, tried and executed.

The signs of a last-minute event were everywhere. Security was minimal, and problems with the sound system gave the Clinton staff fits; it didn't help that one of the men working the sound system wore an Obama T-shirt.

"I'm not turning it inside out," he said, when Clinton supporters protested. In the back of the crowd, a camera riser collapsed with a huge crash, sending bodies, coffee and cameras flying. "Metaphor?" a reporter asked as he picked himself off the ground? "Metaphor," confirmed another.

In the crowd, a few of the Clinton faithful held out hope. "I think she can pull it off --- she can still do it," said volunteer Dan Frost, carrying a clipboard and trying to sign up Clinton supporters. "We're getting quite a few" new supporters, he reported. His total: five.

But others could not conceal their disappointment. Was it all over? "I hope not, I hope not," said Lucy Smith, an older woman from the Women's Democratic Club here. Though plastered with Clinton stickers, her face wore a look of concern. "We had a good eight years under the Clinton's," she reminisced.

Though the Obama campaign, officially, was practicing good sportsmanship, it had no control over Obama supporter Carol Dunleavy, waving an Obama sign at the Clinton gathering. "We got it locked up after last night," she said. "I do think she should drop out. She should do it graciously. She should do it soon."

When Clinton gave her victory speech in Indiana Tuesday night, there was still hope that she had scored a solid victory in the state, thereby keeping her candidacy alive. But in the wee hours, her victory shriveled to a near draw. And Clinton aides, if they slept at all, awoke to brutal judgments about her prospects, compounded by more damaging news that she had been forced to lend her campaign more than $6 million, to no avail.

"Stick a Fork in Her - She's Done," recommended the New York Post, calling Indiana a "shroud" for Clinton.

"This nomination fight is over," said Clinton man-cum-ABC Newsman George Stephanopoulos.

"We now know who the Democratic nominee is going to be," submitted NBC's Tim Russert.

"For the Clintons, this is the night the music died," proposed MSNBC's Pat Buchanan.

The Washington Post had Clinton's own aides condeding "it would be difficult."

Word spread overseas. "It would take a miracle for her to win," concluded the Times of London.

But Clinton's advisers fought back with a morning conference call full of graveyard whistling. "Another beautiful day in downtown Arlington!" began Howard Wolfson, from Clinton headquarters. Had the candidate even discussed dropping out? "No," Wolfson said.

Clinton, famously late, continued the practice today, arriving a half-hour after her scheduled start time. Before she stood on the steps of the old city hall, an aide sought to whip up enthusiasm by telling the assembled reporters that Rep. Heath Shuler had just endorsed Clinton. "I am so proud of her victory last night in Indiana," Chelsea Clinton, the warm up act, told the crowd.

Several hundred Clinton supporters cheered from the lawn and the street. A heckler waving an Obama sign shouted at the candidate: "Down With the Monarchy!" The shouting continued through Clinton's speech.

"I'm happy to be here in West Virginia and excited about next week!" she told the throng. "We were very excited about our come-from-behind victory in Indiana. We came from about eight or so points behind to win."

Clinton betrayed her changed status by skipping many of her usual barbs at Obama, trading those in for policy talk about gas prices, "cellulosic" fuels, healthcare, national service and education ("I don't believe in narrowing the curriculum").

The clock in the tower above McMurran hall struck one o'clock after Clinton finished. Minutes later she reappeared from a side door and walked between some air conditioning equipment to address the assembled reporters. She spoke as if nothing had changed Tuesday night.

"It's a new day, it's a new state, it's a new election," she said cheerfully, as Chelsea stood smiling in the background. She seemed unruffled - and without irony - when she reported that "I feel really good coming off our victory in Indiana."

She said she would seek to have the Democratic Party's rules and bylaws committee this month reinstate the outlawed Florida and Michigan delegations that support her -- and "if people are not satisfied with that, they go to the credentials committee" at the convention, she threatened.

"I'm not ceding any vote now," she said. "I'm staying in this race 'til there's a nominee" who receives 2,210 delegates -- a figure that assumes inclusion of the Florida and Michigan delegations. "We will continue to contest this election and move forward."

CBS radio's Mark Knoller asked if she was putting a Democratic victory at risk. "I just don't believe that," she said. "This is a dynamic electoral environment." Venturing into the speculative, she added: "If we had the rules that the Republicans have, I'd already be the nominee."

The $6 million she loaned her campaign? "It's a sign of my commitment."

Any plausible path to victory? "We're going to work hard here in West Virginia," she said. "Then it's on to Kentucky, Oregon and the rest of the contest."

Clinton smiled and waved off any further questions. "Getting on the road again," she explained.

By Dana Milbank  | May 7, 2008; 2:20 PM ET
 
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