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Starting Gate: Big Win, No Gain For Clinton

It's telling that on the night Hillary Clinton took one more bow in the spotlight of a big win in the West Virginia primary, Barack Obama was winging his way to the state of Michigan to begin smoothing over bruised feelings in preparation for the general election. Speaking even louder was the fact that he wasn't coming off a campaign day in the primary state but from Missouri - another fall battleground state.

Such is the state of the Democratic primary contest as it approaches the final five contests on the calendar. Clinton continues an increasingly quixotic effort to somehow gain a nomination all but beyond her grasp while Obama runs a parallel campaign aimed a reinforcing the inevitability of his nomination and uniting the party while at the same time gearing up for the campaign to come.

While Clinton's decisive West Virginia win doesn't wipe out that dynamic or change the overall direction of a race that is lurching toward an end, it won't help Obama with that second part of his task. And there are continuing signs which, if not a threat to his ability to win the nomination, can't be comforting for him or his party.

The split within the Democratic Party reached new highs Tuesday. According to CBS News exit polls, 74 percent of Clinton voters said they would be dissatisfied with Obama as the nominee. While that number has grown in recent contests, it represents the highest yet. In Indiana a week ago where Clinton won a tight contest, 62 percent of her voters said they would not be satisfied with Obama.

More troubling for Democrats in the general election, 59 percent of Clinton's voters in West Virginia said they would either vote for John McCain in November or sit out the election altogether. And 61 percent said she would have the best chance to defeat McCain. The state, and its five Electoral Votes, has gone with the winner in the last four presidential elections.

Clinton has argued that despite Obama's overall lead in delegates won, in the popular vote and in endorsements from the party's superdelegates, she appeals to a broader coalition for the general election. "I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on," Clinton said in an interview earlier this week in which she singled out "white Americans" and insisted there is "a pattern emerging here."

It's a pattern Clinton may tempted to point to again after West Virginia, where she won 69 percent of the white vote on her way to a huge victory. But there are several factors that should dampen the urge to draw large conclusions about the meaning of the results. The makeup of the primary electorate could hardly have been better for her with large numbers of the kinds of voters that have made up her coalition throughout the process: women, whites, older voters, those at lower-income levels and those with less than a college education.

The Clinton name is well-remembered in a state the former president carried twice and Obama spent only a token amount of time and effort there, gaining some distance from a blowout loss for his otherwise surging campaign.

Even as Clinton rolled up large vote totals, she made precious little gain in the race for delegates. In the week since winning North Carolina and narrowly losing Indiana, Obama picked up the support of 27 superdelegates - nearly as many as the 28 pledged delegates at stake in West Virginia. So, despite a big win, Clinton isn't making any headway on her delegate deficit.

Expecting a loss, the Obama campaign today rolled out a series of endorsements, the biggest of which came from former Democratic National Committee chair Roy Romer. The former Colorado governor, who had remained strictly on the sidelines throughout the primary campaigns, gave voice to something many party leaders have said in recent days. "The math is controlling," Romer told reporters. "This race I believe is over, Senator Obama has accumulated a lead in delegates chosen by primaries, caucuses and superdelegates that cannot be overcome."

Romer, like most all Obama supporters, was quick to insist that nobody is pushing or bullying Clinton to get out of this race. Any suggestion of that could cause more damage to Obama's November prospects than an embarrassing loss in West Virginia. So sensitive to that dynamic is the campaign that Obama himself left a congratulatory message for Clinton Tuesday evening, according to CBS News.

And what does Clinton want in this endgame? It's one of the remaining mysteries of the primary campaign. Does she want to remain a viable option for Democratic leaders in case Obama stumbles on the way to Denver in August? Is she seeking some influence over specific policies or even the opportunity to continue the campaign as Obama's running mate?

In her victory speech Tuesday night, Clinton insisted she remained in the race to win and made a direct plea to the party leaders who will eventually decide this race, saying, "I am in this race because I believe I'm the strongest candidate." No doubt she and her campaign will find plenty of evidence in the West Virginia results to press that case - but no mathematical evidence that would make it easy for those superdelegates to overturn Obama's lead.

The campaign turns next to Kentucky, where Clinton is expected to do well and Oregon, where Obama is favored. Even a split decision in those states next Tuesday will likely give Obama a majority of the pledged delegates up for grabs this year and perhaps give him a chance to claim victory. But like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and other states before it, West Virginia raised more questions about his ability to win among the white, blue-collar voters who've kept Clinton in this race. Questions he'll need to find ways to answer as he turns his attention to the November race against John McCain. (This analysis was originally published on Tuesday, May 13 on