Democratic strategists and leaders say Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s refusal to drop out of the presidential nominating race has enhanced her leadership role in the party and strengthened her prospects for another run for the White House.
They say it makes political sense to stick it out until the last primary is over and all the nominating votes have been counted - running up her popular vote total and delegate count on the scoreboard before ending her candidacy on a high note.
“I’m not convinced we have heard the last of her as a presidential candidate,” said Ohio Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern, though he did not rule out a come-from-behind surge in the closing days of the race that theoretically ends June 3.
Political soothsayers say that in four to eight years, Mrs. Clinton, now 60, will still be younger than the presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, who is 71.
Democrats acknowledged she would be in a position to collect a lot of political IOUs by raising money and campaigning for her party’s candidates in the fall.
“Whatever the outcome of the 2008 election, it is by no means obvious that her presidential prospects have been permanently dashed,” said William Galston, President Clinton‘s White House domestic policy adviser and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“If she decides to pursue executive office, either for itself or as a steppingstone to the presidency, the governorship of New York may present an opportunity at some point,” Mr. Galston said.
Others point to her successful performance in big-state primaries, her vote totals, more than 17 million at last count, and nearly 1,800 delegates they say has only enlarged her political heft and stature in a party with few political heavyweights.
“Why not hang in there? She has a lot of delegates, a lot of votes. What’s she got to lose? She is not going to be marginalized, and now she has a lot of political power based on the number of delegates and Democrats who voted for her,” said veteran campaign strategist Hank Sheinkopf.
As a result, he expects her to play a major role in the general election on behalf of the likely Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, and helping her party win additional seats in the House and Senate.
“She can bring out a lot of voters, and she will certainly help Democrats pick up congressional seats. She is a valuable piece of the Democratic power base and has energized her party,” Mr. Sheinkopf said.
Constantly peppered by questions about why she remains in the race when faced with Mr. Obama’s nearly 200-delegate lead, the New York senator says she still has a chance to win and owes it to her supporters, especially women, who have stood by her now-underdog campaign since she entered the race as its front-runner.
“I am running because my parents did not raise me to be a quitter,” she wrote Monday in a New York Daily News column. “I am running for all those women … who are energized for the first time and voting for the first time.”
Democrats also say Mrs. Clinton’s enlarged influence in the party could lift her into the Senate’s leadership ranks.
“If she decides to spend the remainder of her public career in the Senate, she could either put herself on the formal leadership track or dedicate herself to becoming the Ted Kennedy of the 21st century - a master legislator and conciliator,” Mr. Galston said.
Party members, meanwhile, cautioned that her eventual exit from the race must be handled with kid gloves.
“The Democrats need her voters to turn out, so it is important that she remains part of the electoral campaign and that her voters do not feel she has abandoned them,” Mr. Sheinkopf said.
“It is important that she leave on her own terms, and that there is no bitterness and that the electorate tied to her be made to feel very much at home.”