Hoping to avoid a summer-long bloodbath for the Democratic presidential nomination, some party leaders such as Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen have urged a convention of superdelegates in June, after the caucuses and primaries are over.
The idea sounds exotic, but recent public declarations and Politico interviews with top Democratic officials have made clear that something like what Bredesen proposed is already underway — not with a big meeting but with an intensifying series of exchanges among party elites.
The early voting in this virtual convention is bad news for Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her hope that Democratic leaders will settle the nomination is starting to come true — with Barack Obama so far emerging as the beneficiary.
After a 10-day slog of self-inflicted wounds and fatalistic headlines for Clinton, these party elders are clearly tilting against her hopes for keeping the nomination contest open indefinitely.
The Democrats’ virtual convention is taking place publicly, with statements like the remarkable comment by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that Clinton should get out now, and semi-publicly, with background comments made by top operatives to the media.
It is taking place also in private entreaties by e-mail or phone — the modern equivalent of smoke-filed rooms — as advocates for Obama urge an early end to the race and Clinton backers plead for time and warn about his general election vulnerabilities.
This weekend Clinton vowed to push on, perhaps for several more months, in hopes of an eventual victory at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in late August. This means her main strategic imperative, in addition to winning the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, is to slow and, if possible, reverse the parade of Democratic luminaries in recent days urging that the contest be wrapped up by spring rather than stretching into summer.
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The dynamic shows another way that Clinton’s strategy is working — once again with different consequences than she wants.
Clinton is succeeding, many party operatives believe, in exposing Obama's potential general election vulnerabilities, concerns that would be amplified considerably if she scores a convincing win in Pennsylvania.
But the general effect of these doubts — at least so far — has been to inspire unease with her continued campaign, rather than second-guessing about Obama's front-runner status.
Some Clinton backers such as commentator and former consultant James Carville dismiss these anxieties, saying there is little danger from an intramural contest and that Obama, even if he does emerge as the nominee, should be prepared for far rougher stuff from Republicans in the fall.
Former President Bill Clinton told California Democrats convening in San Jose this past weekend to “chill out” and that continued competition is a “good thing” for the party’s prospects in November.
But it is clear that Hillary Clinton’s run of luck in recent days, including her own stumbles over an exaggerated account of a visit to Bosnia as first lady, has not helped her cause in playing for time.
Clinton retains a lead among the superdelegates, who — because neither she nor Obama will likely win enough elected delegates to clinch the nomination — will determine the outcome.
But the restlessness of party leaders has become unmistakable in recent days. So, too, has been the premise — sometimes unstated, sometimes explicit — that it is Clinton’s ambitions rather than Obama’s that would have to yield in the name of party unification.
In a recent Politico interview, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) reiterated his stance that hewill not take sides in the primary race. But he added that he believes that by early June all the superdelegates should come to a decision on whom to pledge their vote.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, meanwhile, set an unofficial deadline of July 1.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that something "will be done" to resolve the race before the convention.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she is confident a decision will be made "before the convention," so Democrats can go in unified.
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), an Obama supporter and a former general chairman of the party, told National Journal that party leaders need "to stand up and reach a conclusion."
Another Obama backer, 2004 Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), said on ABC’s “This Week”on Sunday: “I think the superdelegates ought to decide early, perhaps earlier than July. … Every day gives John McCain the opportunity to build momentum for the general election.”
Describing the mood in Washington, a top Democratic strategist who supports Clinton said: “There’s a little bit of a deathwatch going on. Instead of, ‘Who’s going to win?’ the chatter is, ‘How’s it going to unfold?’”
The strategist added: “There is general panic among Democrats. The big question is: Does she walk to the door, or is she shown to the door?”
The reason some Democrats believe Clinton needs to be escorted from the race is not that they dispute her claims that the race is agonizingly close. It is that they see few scenarios in which she can finish the primary calendar ahead in elected delegates or the popular vote. By this logic, denying the favored candidate of African-Americans — the party’s most loyal constituency — if Obama is ahead could rupture the party.
Clinton is not moved by these claims. Close advisers to her emphasized over the weekend that she is going nowhere — not simply as a matter of politics but of personal temperament. Like her husband, she is constitutionally averse to quitting.
What’s more, her public argument that she is the more electable candidate is only a pale version of her private thoughts and those of Bill Clinton. They firmly believe that Obama is unready to face a general election or, if he wins, a presidency that would follow.
For now, her party is hoping that the public pressure on her to step aside will create a backlash that will further fire up her most zealous supporters, especially women.
“The more she can let this threat hang over the process, the more leverage she has,” a former Clinton administration official said.
On Friday, Obama was talking about the nomination race in the past tense. “There are some people who felt like: God, when is this thing going to be over?” he said at a Pittsburgh rally. “It’s like a good movie that’s lasted too long. But the truth is that this has been a great campaign, a great primary season. It’s been hard, it’s been tough.”
But wary of the possibility that pushing Clinton out could backfire, he has begun saying calmly that she’s free to stay in as long as she likes.
And she may take her time, vowing in a Washington Post interview on Saturday to stay in as far as the convention: “I know there are some people who want to shut this down and I think they are wrong.”
A senior adviser to Clinton argued at length that the race is still very much in play.
“The press corps seems to have it in their mind that this race is done,” the adviser said. “Either you guys can’t count or you want it done.”
The adviser asserted that the campaign is gaining traction with its argument that Obama would have electabiliy problems in the fall and might weaken other Democrats running on his ticket.
“It is our read that many of the remaining superdelegates are increasingly concerned about whether or not — as attractive a candidate as he is, as strong as a spokesman as he is — is this guy going to be carrying our district? I don’t think many candidates are looking forward to the Republican ad where ... his minister is saying, ‘God Damn America.’
“People are making [individual] calculations,” the adviser added. “They don’t know which way to jump.”
In the past 10 days, however, Clinton has steadily lost ground. Democrats’ private grumblings became public warnings.
It started March 21, when New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson — who was appointed to two Cabinet posts by Bill Clinton — endorsed Obama after holding off when it would have helped him most, right before the Hispanic-rich Texas primary.
Three days later, in what some Obama strategists believe may eventually be seen as the death blow, Clinton had to admit she had repeatedly exaggerated when claiming to have landed in Bosnia under sniper fire as first lady. It was an unnecessary gilding of the lily, tainting video of her in a military setting that otherwise would have been very positive.
In another indignity, Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), who had vowed to remain neutral, joined the Obama bandwagon on Friday.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) did the same on Sunday.
This gathering momentum has forced the Clintons into Hail Mary arguments, causing even some confidants to wonder about their logic or real aims. Bill Clinton recently pointed out that she was ahead in the popular vote in primaries, as opposed to caucuses — essentially saying she’s ahead in contests she has won.
“They’re trying everything, and nothing is sticking,” said a Clinton family adviser. “It is possible she’s trying to leverage all this into a spot on the ticket.”