By one important measure – pledged delegates – Sen. Barack Obama looks set to seal the deal for the Democratic presidential nomination on Tuesday. But don't expect an outright declaration of victory from the Illinois senator just yet.
More likely, say campaign officials, he will simply assert that he has won the majority of delegates awarded by primaries and caucuses, without saying the nomination has been decided. Polls indicate that Senator Obama should win Tuesday's Oregon primary by a comfortable margin, while Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton will win the Kentucky primary by an even bigger margin, perhaps 25 to 30 points.
That outcome would be more than enough for Obama to win the 17 pledged delegates his campaign says he needs to ensure a majority, not including those from Michigan and Florida, who remain under dispute. To lock in the nomination, Obama must win over more of the superdelegates, the party leaders and elected officials who may back whomever they wish. In recent weeks, superdelegates have been breaking overwhelmingly in Obama's favor.
Obama's low-key approach reflects the reality of his next challenge – to woo Senator Clinton's supporters and reunite the Democratic Party. With the nomination well within reach, he does not need to put any overt pressure on Clinton to drop out of the race. By all indications, she will compete in the three remaining contests after Tuesday – Puerto Rico, Montana, and South Dakota – which conclude June 3. The Democratic Party's Rules and Bylaws Committee will meet to settle Michigan and Florida on May 31, but party leaders have promised that resolution will not overturn the result of the primaries.
And so, barring something unforeseen, Obama will be the nominee. But Clinton, analysts say, has no reason to fold her tent before the final primaries. She is showing her mettle, and keeping faith with her legions of fans. She is also keeping her rhetoric largely positive toward Obama.
"I have a sense that she wants to be president and wants a future, and there's really one path for her to take – and that's a path of full cooperation," says independent pollster John Zogby.
Another reason for Clinton to remain a candidate is financial. The longer she stays in the race, the easier it is for her to keep asking donors for funding – and help retire her debt. This year, she has loaned herself more than $16 million to keep her campaign running. There has been talk that the well-funded Obama may even be willing to pay off some of her debt to ease her departure, but Obama officials say she has not asked and they have not offered.
Major Democratic figures are watching Clinton's rhetoric closely in the remaining days of primary season. As long as she keeps it positive, voices such as former Vice President Al Gore are likely to remain silent in the endorsement game. But there's no guarantee that, if the rhetoric gets testy, Mr. Gore won't jump in. Last week, former presidential candidate John Edwards deflated the Clinton campaign, which had just won a 41-point victory in West Virginia, by endorsing Obama.
"If it's just lip service [from Clinton] about unifying, there could be an avalanche of [major Democrats] saying, 'Enough,' " says independent pollster Del Ali.