Clinton ponders next move in marathon race

WASHINGTON - The race all but over, Hillary Rodham Clinton is determining how to end her historic candidacy with her dignity intact and future secure.

It's not an academic question, since rival Barack Obama is expected to secure enough delegates this week to claim the Democratic presidential nomination. The former first lady and New York senator is said to be considering a range of options, including dropping out of the race and endorsing Obama, suspending her candidacy to be available in the outside chance he stumbles or carrying her fight to the convention.

Clinton picked up 38 delegates in winning Puerto Rico's primary by a sizable margin Sunday, but Obama gained 17 delegates there, pushing him closer to the 2,118 necessary to seize the nomination. The last two contests in their marathon primary - South Dakota and Montana on Tuesday - offer just 31 delegates, not enough to put Obama over the top.

The nomination rests with the superdelegates, the prominent Democrats who can vote their choice at the August convention in Denver.

Advisers to both Clinton and Obama predict the some 200 uncommitted superdelegates will move quickly this week in making their choices. Democratic leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are eager to see the party united after the epic, nearly half-year primary battle and are loath to see a protracted fight to the convention. That group includes some of Clinton's most stalwart supporters, who have reluctantly concluded that it's time to move on.

"It does appear to be pretty clear that Senator Obama is going to be the nominee," said Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor and a national co-chairman of Clinton's campaign. "After Tuesday's contests, she needs to acknowledge that he's going to be the nominee and quickly get behind him."

But Clinton herself on Sunday argued a case for staying in the race and even trying to capture Obama's own delegates. Flying on the plane with her was Kevin Rodriguez, a Virgin Island superdelegate who switched from Clinton to Obama and then recently back to Clinton again.

"One thing about superdelegates is that they can change their minds," she said aboard her plane in Puerto Rico before taking off for South Dakota.

She also said she is not committed to accepting the new 2118 delegate threshold for winning the nomination. "That's a question we will be considering," she said.

She continued to argue that she leads in the popular vote count - the way she counts it - and said "I have put together a much broader coalition" of voters than Obama.

The decision Saturday by the party rules committee to seat disputed delegations from Michigan and Florida at half strength extinguished the former first lady's last, slender hope of slowing Obama's march to the nomination. Clinton won both states' primaries, but their results were voided because their early primaries violated party rules. Obama's name wasn't even on the Michigan ballot.

The committee, which includes several Clinton backers, rejected her argument that the contests were legitimate and the delegations should be recognized in full. It was a tacit acknowledgment by party insiders that Obama was poised to secure the nomination and that it was time to rally around his candidacy.


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