- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2008

RAPID CITY, S.D. | The political endgame to the Democratic presidential nomination race began in earnest Monday, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton shedding staff but arguing that electability - not the delegate count - is “the most important question,” and Sen. Barack Obama pledging to meet her “at a time and place of her choosing.”

Mrs. Clinton, making a mad dash across South Dakota in a last-ditch pitch for votes, said she leads the popular vote, and therefore deserves to be deemed the winner - an argument that resonates with Democratic voters in a new Fox 5/The Washington Times/Rasmussen Reports poll.

The poll shows only 13 percent of Democrats think superdelegates should base their selections on who leads the elected delegate count. More than 60 percent say superdelegates should follow the popular vote or who they think will make the best president.

Mrs. Clinton framed the end of the primaries as the start of “a new phase in the campaign,” even as Mr. Obama campaigned instead in a swing state to focus on the general election.

“After South Dakota and Montana vote, I will lead in the popular vote. Senator Obama will lead in the delegate vote,” Mrs. Clinton said, adding that she will spend the coming days making her case to superdelegates, who are a select group of elected officials and party activists.

“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,” she said. “We have a very strong case to make that I am the best positioned to take back the White House and put this country on the right track.”

Disclosing a conversation he had Sunday night with Mrs. Clinton, a confident-sounding Mr. Obama said: “I told her that once the dust settled, I’m looking forward to meeting with her at a time and place of her choosing.”

When pressed for details, he responded: “We’ve still got two more contests to go, and I’m sure that there will be further conversations after Tuesday.”

Mrs. Clinton is more than 150 delegates behind, and Mr. Obama needs fewer than 40 to clinch the party nod.

He said Monday that he thought he would become the presumptive nominee sometime between “Tuesday and Wednesday.”

“We feel good about the number of superdelegates that we have been accumulating, and my sense is that between Tuesday and Wednesday that we’ve got a good chance of getting the number that we need to win the nomination,” he told reporters while campaigning in Michigan.

As speculation swirled that Mrs. Clinton would quickly suspend her campaign after expected losses in the final two primaries Tuesday in South Dakota and Montana, she made clear Monday that she is not quite ready to do so.

Mrs. Clinton picked up a few superdelegates Monday while Mr. Obama earned at least six endorsements. Of those, one was from Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina. He is the House’s third highest ranking Democrat and highest ranking black member of Congress.

Mr. Clyburn told the Associated Press that he has started to phone the state’s superdelegates to ask them to get behind Mr. Obama. He announced his endorsement more than four months after Mr. Obama won the Democratic primary in South Carolina.

The senator from Illinois is counting on the many superdelegates who have long planned to pick a candidate once the primaries end. Even Clinton advisers expect Mr. Obama to cross the threshold as early as Wednesday.

For his part, Mr. Obama appeared gracious, even as he began speaking of his foe in the past tense, praising her for the “extraordinary race that she’s run.”

Mr. Obama told voters in Troy, Mich., on Monday that his rival “is an outstanding public servant,” promising, “she and I will be working together in November,” and drawing loud applause in the high school gymnasium.

He quickly turned to attacking the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

“He is running for George Bush’s third term,” Mr. Obama said, adding that neither Republican has been “tending to the issues here in Michigan.”

He said the men “fought to extend the war that has cost us thousands of precious lives” and have done nothing to help the sagging economy.

The day started with tears and cheers for Mrs. Clinton, who arrived an hour late at her first campaign event in Rapid City. As hundreds packed the streets and cheered, one woman broke into sobs as Mrs. Clinton pulled up in her black sport utility vehicle.

“Don’t get discouraged. Keep the faith,” Mrs. Clinton told the woman. “We’ll follow through.”

Other supporters were more combative, with one woman yelling, “Hang in there, keep on fighting.”

Inside the restaurant, women encouraged her, too. “You’ve got to stay in, you’ve got the popular vote,” one said. “Thank you, thank you,” Mrs. Clinton said.

The road appeared all uphill for the senator from New York - a shoo-in for the nomination just months ago. South Dakota and Montana on Tuesday hold the last primaries of the Democratic contest, but Mr. Obama is favored to win both, and they carry just 31 delegates.

After trumpeting her own campaign’s popular vote count that discounts Mr. Obama’s caucus victories, the former first lady sought to ramp up the value of Tuesday’s vote. “What South Dakota decides [Tuesday] will have a big influence on what people decide going forward,” she said.

“I’m just very grateful that we kept this campaign going until South Dakota could have the last word,” she said, drawing cheers from several hundred supporters who waited hours for the candidate, who arrived nearly an hour late for her first stop of the day.

Rumors and odd anecdotes emerged one on top of another on the campaign buses - a second one was added as reporters flew in to catch what one dubbed the “trail of tears tour” through the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Instead of attending an election evening event in South Dakota or Montana, Mrs. Clinton headed home to New York, where Tuesday night she will appear at what the Clinton campaign dubbed an “election night celebration.” Mrs. Clinton is to huddle with former President Bill Clinton and top advisers at her home in Chappaqua to watch the early returns and discuss their next step, one Clinton aide said.

Some Clinton staffers on the road were told they could go home or head to Northern Virginia where the candidate has her headquarters, according to some sources. One report said campaign employees were directed to file their expense reports quickly - which some took as a sure sign the senator will soon drop out.

Mrs. Clinton also let go of some staffers after the May 20 contests - because staffers already were on the ground for the final three primaries and there was nowhere left to go.

In addition, some top staffers were jetted to Puerto Rico in what was seen to be one last fling in the sun. Still others speculated a joint appearance by the two candidates could occur tomorrow in Washington, when they are both in town for Senate votes and speeches to the same group, or Wednesday evening, when they will both be in New York City.

“I wish I could tell you something, but I’ve got no idea myself,” one Clinton staffer said with a wan smile Monday.

Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee in South Dakota said Mrs. Clinton would not announce an end to her campaign Tuesday night. Aides said she planned to consider all options until Mr. Obama secured the 2,118 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.

Mrs. Clinton’s advisers spent Monday calling supporters and uncommitted superdelegates, asking them to hold off on declaring their preference until after Mrs. Clinton made a decision.

Mr. Obama told reporters he also was speaking to superdelegates and reminding them that he is showing he is “competitive in critical swing states like Michigan.”

“That’s why we’re here today,” he said.

Top adviser Harold Ickes said Mrs. Clinton most likely would not appeal a ruling by the Democratic Party rules committee seating the delegation from a disputed primary in Michigan, AP reported.

Still, the political wind seemed to be shifting. Mr. Clinton dropped a hint Monday that the end might be near for his wife’s campaign. “I want to say also that this may be the last day I’m ever involved in a campaign of this kind,” Mr. Clinton told supporters in South Dakota.

Mrs. Clinton took a 90-minute drive midday to a school in Yankton, S.D., where several hundred packed the small auditorium to see the candidate. But in what was an odd - and perhaps prophetic - choice, the speakers blared the popular rock song “There Goes My Hero.”

*Sean Lengell and Donald Lambro contributed to this report from Washington. Ms. Bellantoni, traveling with the Obama campaign, reported from Waterford, Mich.

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