How the loser loses, it has been said, will go a long way to determining whether the winner of the Democratic presidential nomination can win in November.
Now, all eyes are on Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose path to the nomination – already steep heading into Tuesday's primaries – got significantly steeper after losing North Carolina to Barack Obama by almost 15 points and winning Indiana by less than two. She has few options, with funds scarce and the delegate math virtually impossible. On Wednesday, Clinton aides revealed that she had lent her campaign $6.4 million over the past month.
Senator Clinton's last best hope, analysts say, is for some factor to intervene that makes Senator Obama appear unelectable to superdelegates – Democratic elders and elected officials – who will decide the outcome.
"She's hoping for lightning to strike," says Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who is not working for either campaign.
Clinton has promised to compete in the remaining six primaries, all relatively small states, plus Puerto Rico. But if the largely conciliatory tone in her speech Tuesday night is any guide, she may well have already turned a corner in her approach to the race.
"The Clinton campaign and the Clintons themselves understand the dynamics of this," says Peter Fenn, another unaligned Democratic strategist. "They are absolutely committed to victory in November. They know how important this election is for the country. She has a future as a senior senator from New York, and maybe other things."
Bill Clinton's legacy is another factor, now intertwined with the fact that his wife appears set to lose the nomination to an African-American. He knows that some campaign comments deemed racially charged have damaged his once golden image among black Americans, who were his staunchest supporters during his impeachment ordeal.
"He doesn't want that to last," says Mr. Fenn. "He doesn't want to be the ex-president that everyone is turning away from."
Speculation is growing over whether an Obama-Clinton ticket is in the offing. There are significant reasons for that not to happen: Obama could feel suffocated by having a two-fer vice president – in effect, both Clintons. Obama has campaigned on the theme of change, and a return of the Clintons to power would mitigate that. Hillary Clinton's high negative ratings – and the virulent attacks she inspires – are also something Obama would not want on his ticket.
But given the striking demographic split the Democratic primaries have produced, with Obama winning better-educated, wealthier, younger, and black voters and Clinton winning older, working-class white and Hispanic voters, a "unity ticket" may be the obvious way to bring the two pieces together.
Clinton aides said Wednesday there had been no internal discussions about either quitting the race or joining an Obama ticket.
For now, though, Team Clinton is sticking with Plan A, trying to win the top spot for Hillary. In a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning, Clinton aides outlined a three-pronged strategy for continuing their fight: a big victory in West Virginia (May 13) and the other remaining contests, seating Florida and Michigan's delegations at the national convention in proportion to Clinton's victories in those disputed contests, and convincing a large number of undecided superdelegates that Clinton is the strongest candidate against Sen. John McCain in November.
But those remain steep challenges. Clinton spokesman Phil Singer acknowledged that even if the Michigan and Florida results counted toward the nomination, Clinton would pick up a net of 58 delegates and still be nearly 100 delegates behind Obama in the overall delegate count.
The two states had not finished allocating delegates at press time, but Obama has widened his overall lead, with 1,840.5 delegates compared with Clinton's 1,688, according to Associated Press reports Wednesday morning. To win the Democratic nomination, a candidate needs 2,025 delegates, excluding Michigan and Florida. Only 452 remain up for grabs. If Michigan and Florida delegates are included in the final total, a candidate will need 2,209 delegates to win the nomination.
Meeting about Michigan and Florida
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) stripped Michigan and Florida of their convention delegates when they violated party rules by scheduling their primaries too early. DNC chair Howard Dean has promised that the delegations will be seated at the convention, but the conflict has yet to be resolved. The issue will be front and center on May 31, when the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee meets.
On the conference call, Clinton aides rejected the idea that her pursuit of enough superdelegates to reverse Obama's lead in pledged delegates – those won via primaries and caucuses – amounted to a "nullification strategy."
"That says some delegates count more than others," said Howard Wolfson, her communications director. "They are not undoing anything. They are casting their votes. All we are doing is suggesting that the process ought to play through."
Clinton aides also said a set of recent personal loans to her campaign were not a sign of fundraising trouble, but a reflection of her dedication to the campaign.
"The loans are a sign of Senator Clinton's commitment to the race, and a commitment to being able to compete with Obama on TV," said Mr. Wolfson.