Politics & Government

Out of money, Clinton's only options risk her party's unity

Sen. Barack Obama delivers his North Carolina primary victory speech on Tuesday.
Sen. Barack Obama delivers his North Carolina primary victory speech on Tuesday. Todd Sumlin / Chalotte Observer / MCT

WASHINGTON — Broke and politically battered, Hillary Clinton has few options left as she vows to fight on for a Democratic presidential nomination that appears to be slipping rapidly from her grasp.

Tuesday's disappointing results left her falling farther behind in delegates and the popular vote, her campaign on financial life support and time running out to find a way to stop rival Barack Obama from taking the nomination.

Clinton revealed that she lent her struggling campaign $6.4 million in recent weeks — $5 million on April 11, $1 million on May 1 and $400,000 on May 5.

"The loans are a sign of Senator Clinton's commitment to the race," campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson said, adding that she might lend more if necessary.

It might become necessary — as there were no signs of money pouring into the campaign as it did after she won the Pennsylvania primary two weeks ago. Then, the campaign issued bulletins boasting of $10 million in contributions coming in overnight; Wednesday, aides said they didn't even check.

She's now reduced to pursuing two potentially divisive options that could hurt the party: Magnify the racial fault line in the party by stressing Obama's inability to win white working-class voters and press the party to change its rules and seat unsanctioned delegations from Florida and Michigan at the national convention in August.

Both are designed to convince superdelegates — party officials and insiders who can vote however they choose — that they should ignore Obama's lead in delegates won in state voting and swing the nomination to her, even at the palpable risk of alienating the party's most loyal constituency, African-Americans, who've voted for Obama in overwhelming numbers.

Clinton herself was undeterred by Tuesday's results — she lost North Carolina by 14 points and eked out victory in Indiana, where she'd been favored, by only two points — or by a new round of calls for her to step aside and support Obama to unify the party and help it rally for the fall campaign against Republican John McCain.

"I'm staying in this race until there's a nominee," she said Wednesday.

In a conference call with reporters, Clinton campaign strategist Geoff Garin and other top aides explained why they saw good news in Tuesday's results to justify a continued campaign and how they thought she still could wrest the nomination away.

In Indiana, they said, Clinton managed a narrow win despite being outspent by Obama, who spent $300,000 at the last minute to buy ads on Chicago TV to boost turnout by supporters in northwest Indiana.

Even in North Carolina, Garin said, the Clinton campaign was bolstered because it won the white vote by 24 points. He said Clinton was gaining among whites from the time she lost that bloc in neighboring Virginia in February.

"When we began in North Carolina," Garin said, "we were running exactly even with white voters in North Carolina ... and ended up winning a very significant win of 24 points among those voters."

He said that whites, particularly working-class voters, will be a swing voting bloc in the fall and that Clinton could hold them better than Obama could.

"The results last night strengthened the case that she will be the strongest candidate for the Democratic Party in November," Garin said. "It allows us to go on."

Neutral Democrats said stressing the racial fault line risks aggravating the party's internal division.

"There is some danger in that; it further racially polarizes the campaign," said Democratic strategist Peter Fenn.

"The argument that 'I'm more electable because I get the white guy' seems flawed," added Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist in California. "If for some reason the superdelegates did give it to Hillary after everything that's taken place, she would have difficulty getting the African-American vote. So it might end up that he can't get the white vote and she can't get the black vote."

Clinton aides also will press to seat delegates from Florida and Michigan, where she won unofficial and uncontested primaries.

The Democratic National Committee had stripped the two states of delegates long before the voting because each scheduled its primary early in defiance of party rules.

Clinton will support a proposal to get the party's rules and bylaws committee on May 31 to recommend that the delegations be seated regardless of the party rules. That would add 58 pledged delegates to Clinton's column, aides said, and narrow Obama's lead.

Even if the committee — and the larger credentials committee, which would hear any appeal — did seat Florida's and Michigan's delegations, Clinton wouldn't overcome Obama's lead under any foreseeable scenario with six small primaries remaining through June 3.

And party officials would have to weigh the costs of changing the rules — both on this year's election and on future elections.

First is the risk of backlash from Obama supporters.

Second is the likelihood that the party would lose control over its primary calendar.

"They've got to be very careful," Fenn said. "They've got to look beyond even the November elections. If they say to Michigan and Florida, no problem, do whatever you want, what is going to happen in 2012? The message would be that chaos reigns, whatever you want to do, go ahead and do it. It would make the Democrats look like a bunch of idiots."

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