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The End Game: A Delicate Dance

After more than a year of campaigning, the Democratic race will end on Tuesday after Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) run the gauntlet of tomorrow's Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting, Puerto Rico's primary on Sunday and then South Dakota and Montana primaries on Tuesday.

Or will it?

The question of how and when Clinton will decide to end her bid is all the rage among the Washington chattering class. For her part, Clinton -- and her campaign -- continue to insist that a path to the nomination exists for her even as strong signals are being sent that after Tuesday all bets are off when it comes to ending the race.

Three recent examples highlight the attempts by major figures in the party -- both backers of Obama and those still claiming neutrality -- to send a forceful signal to Clinton about the right time to call it quits.

* House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) told the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board that the party "cannot take this fight to the convention," she said. "It must be over before then."

* Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), in a speech on Thursday, echoed that sentiment. "By this time next week, it will all be over, give or take a day," Reid predicted.

* Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), the party's most recent presidential nominee and an Obama supporter, sought to throw water on the convention fight idea in a conference call earlier today with reporters. "In my judgment, this nomination will be decided over the course of the next 10 to 12 days," he said. " I hope that is done in a sensitive and sensible way."

For Obama backers as well as neutral party officials hoping to bring the nomination fight to a peaceful end, much is tied up in defining just what constitutes a "sensitive and sensible way" to bring the contest to a conclusion.

In an ideal world, Clinton would opt out of the race within 48 hours (or so) of the primaries on Tuesday -- offering a full-throated endorsement of Obama followed by the two clasping hands on a stage in some swing state and promising to elect a Democrat to the White House in the fall.

If Clinton decides not to follow that course, however, things could get very sticky.

The New York senator has been adamant about two things as she has seen her chances of winning her party's nod narrow: that she will not leave the race until Obama formally becomes the nominee and that no delegate count that does not fully recognize the delegations from Florida and Michigan will be legitimate in her eyes.

While it's impossible to predict what the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee will decide about the fate of Michigan and Florida tomorrow, it seems unlikely they will fully reinstate the delegates from the two states. If such a decision is made, Clinton will have fodder to remain in the race unless and until Obama reaches the 2,026 or 2,210 delegates -- the two campaign disagree about even this -- necessary to formally become the party's nominee.

Should Clinton decide to stay in the race beyond those few days following the votes next week, the potential for a problem grows far greater. Many within Clinton's orbit -- especially those who fervently support her -- have long believed that Obama and the media have treated her badly in trying to insist the race is over and she should drop out. Any attempt to close out the process if Clinton continues to argue the process should go on runs a real risk of further alienating her not insubstantial base of support.

Pelosi and Reid much walk a delicate line over the next few weeks. Allow Clinton the space to gracefully leave the race on her own terms or, if she appears ready to carry the fight through June, develop some way in which she is essentially forced from the race (a series of superdelegate announcements for Obama, for example) without her feeling as though she is being forced from the race.

It's a conundrum for a party simply hoping to turn its full attention to a general election in which Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) has already been given quite a head start. How people like Obama, Reid, Clinton and Pelosi handle the next two weeks will set the tone for how quickly (if at all) the party can heal its primary wounds and focus on retaking the White House.

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 30, 2008; 3:45 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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