Sen. Barack Obama’s historic quest for the Democratic presidential nomination appeared near an end Tuesday, as the Illinois senator inched closer to the magic delegate math needed to clinch victory and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton signaled that her once seemingly invincible campaign was coming to a close.
Clinton’s intentions on the final day of primary voting caused widespread confusion Tuesday morning, as aides seemed to contradict each other about whether she would formally concede and end her candidacy after votes come in from South Dakota and Montana.
What Clinton seems to be set on pursuing is a two-step concession strategy. First, and likely Tuesday evening in a speech at New York’s Baruch College, she will concede that Obama has won the delegate race.
Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe said Tuesday morning that once Obama gets the majority of convention delegates, "I think Hillary Clinton will congratulate him and call him the nominee."
But that doesn’t mean Clinton will concede defeat, acknowledge Obama as the undisputed nominee or formally end her campaign – and spokesman Howard Wolfson flatly denied a published report that Clinton would leave the race Tuesday night.
Instead, Clinton seems likely to leave a shell of a campaign in place for an undetermined period, as she speaks out on issues and continues to make the case to superdelegates – and to delegates, who don’t actually cast their votes until August - that she is the stronger general election nominee.
Clinton may be able to exert influence on Obama on specific issues or to position herself as his potential vice presidential nominee - a possibility she pointedly did not rule out during a call Tuesday with the New York congressional delegation.
Clinton herself explained her position Monday in Yankton, S.D.
"Tomorrow is the last day of the primaries and the beginning of a new phase in the campaign. After South Dakota and Montana vote I will lead in the popular vote and Senator Obama will lead in the delegate count," she said. "The voters will have voted and so the decision will fall to the delegates empowered to vote at the Democratic Convention. I will be spending the coming days making my case to those delegates. Their responsibility not only to the Democratic Party but to our country is to vote for the candidate who is best able to lead us to victory in November and best prepared to lead our country into the future."
Obama, meanwhile, could wait and watch as the party’s shyest superdelegates raced into his column. By late afternoon, Tuesday's endorsements left him within single digits of the 2,118 needed to put him over the top, according to Politico's count. Nearly 200 superdelegates have yet to make an endorsement, but most are expected to rush to Obama within hours or days. One of the most high profile: former President Jimmy Carter said he would endorse Obama after polls close Tuesday.
The Associated Press, based on its projections of delegates Obama would earn Tuesday night as well as private and public commitments by superdelegates, declared that Obama had already effectively clinched the nomination.
“Now, as the nominating process comes to an end, it is time to unite behind Barack Obama, who will be our Democratic nominee for the White House,” said Michigan superdelegate Debbie Dingell, a Clinton ally on seating her state’s delegation. “He will lead our party to victory in November, carrying Michigan for the Democrats by running a campaign focused on bringing change to working families.
Still, the Obama campaign was leaving nothing to chance. "We're still working the phones and we're still talking to people ... so we'll certainly have to wait until a little later tonight to see what the final tally is, but we certainly feel good waking up this morning," Robert Gibbs, Obama's spokesman, tld CNN Tuesday.
Clinton campaign officials said they were also continuing to court superdelegates, but McAuliffe said they would unlikely to pursue a fight over the weekend DNC compromise over unsanctioned delegates from Michigan.
"I don't think she's going to go to the credentials committee," he said on NBC's "Today" show.
As the drama of the day swirled around Clinton – whose husband, perhaps fittingly, was embroiled in yet another finger-wagging flap with the media (a critical profile in Vanity Fair) in the hours before the final votes were cast – Obama and Arizona Sen. John McCain prepared to pivot to the general election.
McCain planned a prime time speech Tuesday night in a New Orleans suburb that aides advertised as a fall campaign kick-off. In prepared remarks, McCain welcomed Obama to the general
election race. "This is, indeed, a change election. ... But the choice is between the right change and
the wrong change, between going forward and going backward."
Obama planned to end his evening with a rally in St. Paul, Minn. – in the arena where the Republican National Convention will be held in September.