Battered by political pundits saying the Democratic presidential primary race is over, Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign toughened its public stance on how long she would continue to battle Sen. Barack Obama for the nomination.
"We do not believe a nominee will be chosen unless or until somebody gets to 2,209 [delegates], which is the number including Florida and Michigan. So if that has happened by June 3, then someone will be the nominee. If that hasn't, then the nomination fight continues," Howard Wolfson, Senator Clinton's communications director, told a Monitor-sponsored breakfast on Friday.
Earlier this week, Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe told NBC's "Today" program that after the last primary on June 3, "This is going to come to a conclusion." He said superdelegates who are party insiders and elected officials "are going to move very quickly," to select a nominee.
"We are not oblivious to the environment in which we are operating. But this is very much like a tennis match," Clinton's chief strategist, Geoff Garin, told reporters at the breakfast. "Sometimes, even when people are down two sets to love and down a couple of games in the third set, they end up winning by the fifth set. So Senator Clinton goes on with the same energy and commitment."
While the aides talked to a room full of reporters, their real audience was the group of uncommitted superdelegates, whose votes are needed to put a candidate over the top in the race for the Democratic nomination.
Although the Clinton aides contend that it takes 2,209 delegates to secure the nomination, Senator Obama's campaign and the Democratic National Committee contend that the number is 2,025, which doesn't include delegates from Florida and Michigan, who currently are barred from being seated at the party's convention because they held primaries earlier than party rules allowed. Clinton won both contests, though neither candidate campaigned in those states and Obama's name did not appear on the Michigan ballot.
The argument that the Clinton team makes is that their candidate would be stronger in the general election. "Senator Clinton, in an outcome that is not certain for the Democratic Party, is in a better position to win the general election than Senator Obama," Mr. Garin said. "There is nothing in that statement that says that Senator Obama cannot win the general election. But if you care about picking the candidate with the best chance to win the general election, we feel very strongly that the data are very clear that Hillary Clinton is the best choice for that."
Mr. Wolfson and Garin offered wavering superdelegates a two-pronged argument. At the top of the ballot, current state polling data show that Clinton would defeat Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, by 42 electoral votes, while the same polls show Obama losing to Senator McCain by 8 electoral votes, they said.
The Clinton strategists also came armed with charts looking at 20 House districts where freshmen Democrats won but which also voted for George Bush in 2004. Clinton defeated Obama in 16 of those 20 districts. Their argument: Clinton would help vulnerable House members more than Obama. Asked about the breakdown of endorsements from those 16 freshmen, Wolfson said that five had so far backed her and four, Obama.
At several points in the session, the Clinton officials implied that the press had not been fair to their candidate. "As I kind of watch what is going on right now, I am reminded of the days when the media – television networks – were chastised for calling the election before the polls closed. I think we have a little of that going on now," Garin said.