Hillary Rodham Clinton
Elise Amendola  /  AP
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton shakes hands at a bakery Sunday in San Juan.
NBC News and msnbc.com
updated 6/1/2008 8:58:56 PM ET 2008-06-02T00:58:56

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton won Puerto Rico’s Democratic presidential primary by a substantial margin Sunday, NBC News projected. But Clinton’s newly defiant campaign against her own party leaders may have been blunted by low turnout in the island territory while her rival edged ever closer to the nomination.

Puerto Rico, once a political asterisk in presidential contests, was seen as Clinton’s last best electoral chance as she tries to build a case that she has won more actual votes during the primary season than her rival, Sen. Barack Obama.

Clinton’s campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, pushed that case strongly Sunday in an argument directed at unpledged party officials known as superdelegates.

“She continues to win these primaries. It’s extraordinary,” McAuliffe said in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. “She keeps running it up, and I think it shows Hillary’s strength for the fall.”

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a prominent supporter of Obama, maintained that “the important thing is the contest between Senator Obama and Senator John McCain.”

“That is what will really unify the Democratic Party and bring us victory in November,” she said in an interview with MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann.

At a rally in San Juan late Sunday afternoon, Clinton thanked Puerto Rican Democrats for “this show of overwhelming support” and vowed to fight on in primaries Tuesday in Montana and South Dakota.

Obama congratulated Clinton at a rally in South Dakota, but did not otherwise refer to the Puerto Rico results, which were expected to have little impact on the delegate race.

Low turnout
Election officials said turnout was extremely low, perhaps 400,000 out of nearly 3 million registered voters. So while polls showed Clinton holding a lead, she was likely to win a majority of the commonwealth’s 55 delegates but not get a huge influx of popular votes.

“Even though there is some enthusiasm, you cannot compare this with a general election in Puerto Rico,” said former San Juan Mayor Hector Luis Acevedo, the local representative of the Democratic Party.

Acevedo said the primary was organized in just fewer than 100 days, after the Democratic National Committee approved a switch from a caucus to a primary.

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Clinton campaigned hard in Puerto Rico, spending several hours Saturday on the back of a pickup truck in a salsa-blasting, 40-vehicle caravan through the outskirts of San Juan. In a sign that her supporters were unwilling to give up, an outside group financed by her labor backers bought $150,000 worth of television ads on the island promoting her views.

The group, the American Leadership Project, was also spending $300,000 on ads in Tuesday’s primary states of Montana and South Dakota, where Obama is deemed the favorite. Clinton planned to campaign Monday in South Dakota.

Statehood debate hung over vote
Puerto Rico’s politics is dominated by two local parties, known as red and blue, divided over the issue of statehood.

Along those lines, Clinton often referred to “bringing red and blue together,” but Puerto Rico Senate President Kenneth McClintock, co-chairman of her campaign, said the local parties would not be working to get out the vote because there was no political benefit.

“The State Elections Commission has put very little advertising, contrary to what they usually do," he McClintock said. “We’ve had some factors against us.”

In addition, the smaller Partido Independista, which advocates full independence for the island, held a public protest of the vote Sunday in San Juan. It discouraged followers from participating in the contest because the commonwealth does not have a vote in the general election.

Video: Russert previews final primaries Acevedo and McClintock both said that even if local voters were not interested in the outcome, the attention that had been paid to Puerto Rico by the candidates and the national press would help the islands.

“The Puerto Rican voter and the Puerto Rican citizens will enjoy more benefits, more attention, more friends in the Senate of the United States no matter who wins,” Acevedo said. “We will have more attention to our problems and to the solutions than we will have had if we not have this primary in Puerto Rico.”

Clinton was winning roughly two-thirds of the votes in the U.S. territory as she continued a strong run through the last primaries that came too late to make a dent in Obama's overwhelming delegate lead.

Obama closes on delegate target
In defeat, Obama gained 17 delegates, leaving him 47 short of the 2,118 needed to become the first black presidential nominee of a major U.S. political party, according an Associated Press count.

Aides predicted the 46-year-old first-term Illinois senator could clinch the nomination as early as this week. Montana and South Dakota close out the primary season on Tuesday.

Campaigning in Mitchell, South Dakota, Obama said he was confident the party would unite, and praised Clinton in terms usually reserved for a vanquished rival. He told supporters that she would be "a great asset when we go into November" — the general election battle against Republican John McCain.

Obama has a total of 2,071 delegates in The Associated Press count, including the 17 from Puerto Rico. He also gained the support of two superdelegates — top party officials and lawmakers free to vote for any candidate — during the day.

Clinton has 1915.5, including 38 from Puerto Rico.

There are 31 delegates combined at stake in Montana and South Dakota. Obama's high command sounded confident that enough superdelegates were poised to quickly declare their support and deliver him the nomination.

Obama's confidence reflected the outcome of Saturday's meeting of the Democratic Party's Rules and Bylaws Committee. Before an audience that jeered and cheered by turns, the panel voted to seat disputed delegations from Michigan and Florida, but give each of the 368 delegates only one-half vote rather than the full vote sought by the Clinton campaign.

It was a compromise that did no harm to Obama ’s near-claim to the nomination, but it infuriated the Clinton camp and prompted new threats to carry the fight to the August convention.

“This decision violates the bedrock principles of our democracy and our party,” the Clinton campaign said in a joint statement from Harold Ickes and Tina Flournoy, two of her advisers.

Clinton aims for popular vote
Saturday’s party meeting did strengthen one of Clinton’s key arguments for staying in the fight. In seating the Michigan and Florida delegates, party leaders tacitly acknowledged her popular vote dominance in those states.

By including the Michigan and Florida results, Clinton can claim to have won the most popular votes since the primaries and caucuses began in January. Both states were punished by the DNC for moving up their contests in violation of party rules, and the party had refused to recognize the votes. The candidates did not campaign in either state, and Obama withdrew his name from the Michigan ballot.

NBC’s Mike Memoli and Ron Allen, in San Juan, and Athena Jones, in Mitchell, S.D.; msnbc.com’s Alex Johnson; and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Will Clinton fight on?

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