Campaign’s effects to last even longer

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Every move that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton makes in the final weeks of the prolonged presidential primary shapes her legacy and will determine how united the Democratic Party can be in the fall.

Will voters remember the angry “shame on you” candidate who suggested that Sen. Barack Obama’s chief experience was giving a speech opposing the Iraq war, or the tough, driven Democrat who passionately said she would fight for health care and unify the Democratic Party when the primary season finally ends?

Depends on whom you ask.

Some Obama supporters say their opinion of the former first lady has seriously degraded over the bruising months of the campaign, but many Democrats who a few weeks ago worried that Mrs. Clinton was creating a permanent rift within the party by attacking Mr. Obama now say her scrutiny has made him a better general election candidate.
ANALYSIS

Democrats on both sides of the fight agree that Mr. Obama ultimately will be the nominee.

“Hillary Clinton staying in this race has made him a better candidate than he would otherwise have been battle-tested,” said Steven Grossman, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a superdelegate supporting Mrs. Clinton.

On the campaign trail in recent weeks,Mrs. Clinton has softened her attacks on Mr. Obama’s experience, instead focusing on a promise of unity and blasting the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, as offering little more than a third term for President Bush.

“This has been a tough fight, and I have fought it the only way I know how: with determination, by never giving up, and never giving in,” Mrs. Clinton told supporters last night in Louisville, Ky. “Not because I’ve wanted to demonstrate my toughness, but because I believe passionately for the sake of our country the Democrats must take back the White House.”

Her campaign team also has been quiet lately while Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain trade jabs in speeches.

There’s a lot of speculation about what Mrs. Clinton’s political future holds — a run for New York governor or another White House attempt in 2012 or 2016, a bid for Senate majority leader, vice president or Cabinet member — but Democrats agreed yesterday that she will remain a top fundraiser and key leader for years to come.

Many party members, however, includingDNC member Nancy Dinardo of Connecticut, an uncommitted superdelegate, are troubled by some of the exit poll data showing Democrats divided between the White House hopefuls.

“I had hoped that by the end, one candidate or the other would be able to break into the other’s base of support,” she said, adding that she is optimistic that the party will come together eventually.

Kentucky exit polls taken yesterday showed that only one-third of Clinton voters would support Mr. Obama in the fall, suggesting that he has a lot of work to do to win over her base of support: women and lower-income white voters. He has made headway with Hispanic voters, however, and was winning that demographic in the latest Gallup Poll.

“There’s some hard feelings for activists that are really pushing for one or the other, and if your candidate doesn’t win, it’s hard to go over to the other side,” said Georgia DNC member Richard Ray, president of the state AFL-CIO and a superdelegate who said he will remain uncommitted through the final contests.

He thinks it will work out in the end: “Democrats are known to suck it up for the betterment of the party.”

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