WASHINGTON — Five months to the day after it started, voting in the Democratic presidential primaries will end Tuesday night with Barack Obama inches short of the nomination.
The last vote of 35 million-plus will be cast in Montana sometime around 10 p.m. EDT, and it will start the final hours of the historic clash between Obama and rival Hillary Clinton for the last unelected delegates with the power to put one of them over the top. All signs point to an Obama victory, perhaps as early as Wednesday.
The Illinois senator Monday was within 44 delegates of reaching the 2,118 needed to clinch the nomination after five more unelected super delegates came out for him.
Clinton, the New York senator, appeared all but mathematically eliminated.
She was 201 delegates short of the prize, with 243 delegates either uncommitted or still to be decided, according to the Associated Press count. The remaining delegates include 31 to be elected Tuesday in Montana and South Dakota and 157 unelected super delegates who haven't committed to Clinton or Obama.
That means Clinton faced the almost insurmountable task of winning either 83 percent of the remaining delegates or winning over some super delegates who've committed to Obama. She pointed to one who switched to her over the weekend, but only one.
Confident of victory, Obama planned to mark the end of the long primary campaign with a rally looking ahead to the general election in St. Paul, Minnesota, at the site of this year's Republican National Convention.
Clinton was heading home to New York for a Tuesday appearance before supporters. Her campaign sent its advance teams home, unsure of her plans past Tuesday.
Former president Bill Clinton spoke what sounded like a valedictory Monday for his wife's campaign.
"This may be the last day I'm ever involved in a campaign of this kind," Clinton told a campaign rally in South Dakota. "I thought I was out of politics, till Hillary decided to run. But it has been one of the greatest honors of my life to go around and campaign for her for president."
A national co-chairman of her campaign, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, said flatly that it was over.
"It does appear to be pretty clear that Senator Obama is going to be the nominee," Vilsack told the Associated Press on Sunday. "After Tuesday's contests, she needs to acknowledge that he's going to be the nominee and quickly get behind him."
Clinton herself pressed ahead, however, arguing that she's won more popular votes nationwide than Obama and therefore is the stronger candidate for the fall campaign.
In an e-mail to supporters, Clinton Monday made one more pitch to push up her popular vote total.
"Every vote we receive in South Dakota and Montana will help us add to our popular vote total. Every vote helps us make our case that I am our party's strongest candidate in November.
"Nearly 18 million people have stood with us — the most votes cast for a candidate in the history of presidential primaries in either party. We've defied the skeptics and answered an important question: Which candidate best represents the will of the people?"
Clinton also aired a new ad touting the 17 million-plus votes she's received in the primaries, speaking to primary voters in Montana and South Dakota but also to remaining super delegates.
She has more popular votes than Obama if she counts all the votes cast, an edge of 17.9 million to 17.7 million.
However, she gets her edge in Michigan, where she was on the ballot and got 328,000 votes, and Obama wasn't on the ballot and therefore got no votes. Uncommitted finished second in Michigan with 238,168 votes.
Michigan's was an unsanctioned, renegade primary. The Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee on Saturday voted to seat delegates from the state, but to also give some delegates to Obama that were elected as uncommitted delegates.
Allocating a similar share of the Michigan popular vote to Obama gives him the lead in the nationwide popular vote, 17.961 million to 17.916 million, and that margin is likely to widen after the Montana and South Dakota primaries Tuesday.
Ultimately, however, that's only a political argument to the super delegates.
The Democratic nomination is decided by who won more delegates in contests decided state-by-state and congressional district-by-congressional district. The nationwide popular vote doesn't matter.
In what could be a bitter irony for Clinton, it's somewhat similar to the 2000 presidential election, when Democrat Al Gore won the nationwide popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote, and the presidency, to Republican George W. Bush.