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Options dwindling for Clinton

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s loss in North Carolina Tuesday night, combined with a tight race in Indiana, where the counting was continuing deep into the night, did nothing to improve her chances of securing the Democratic presidential nomination.
Image: Hillary Clinton election event at the Murat Center in Indianapolis.
Volunteers prepared giant balloons spelling “Hillary” for an election event Tuesday night at the Murat Center in Indianapolis.Damon Winter / The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

In this case, a split was not a draw.

Despite narrowly winning Indiana, while losing North Carolina, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton did not fundamentally improve her chances of securing the Democratic presidential nomination. If anything, Mrs. Clinton’s hopes for overtaking Senator Barack Obama dwindled further on Tuesday night.

For Mr. Obama, the outcome came after a brutal period in which he was on the defensive over the inflammatory comments of his former pastor. That he was able to hold his own under those circumstances should allow him to make a case that he has proved his resilience in the face of questions about race, patriotism and political mettle — the very kinds of issues that the Clinton campaign has suggested would leave him vulnerable in the general election.

Beating Mr. Obama in Indiana, a state he had once been confident of winning, was an achievement for Mrs. Clinton. But it was hardly the kind of strong victory she posted in Pennsylvania and Ohio. And when paired with his comfortable victory in North Carolina — which Mr. Obama pointedly described in his victory speech as “a big state, a swing state” — it hardly seemed enough for Mrs. Clinton to convince so-called uncommitted superdelegates to rally around her candidacy.

Her showing in the two states did not permit Mrs. Clinton to cut into Mr. Obama’s lead in pledged delegates or his overall lead in the popular vote.

Indeed, Mr. Obama may have widened his delegate lead over Mrs. Clinton, an outcome with mathematic and political resonance.

The result was so tight as to deprive her of the kind of clear-cut victory that would make it easy for her to fend off calls for her to drop out, raise money and campaign on into West Virginia in advance of a primary there next Tuesday where her campaign is confident of doing well.

A more populist voice
In the last several weeks, Mrs. Clinton, seizing on the campaign’s new focus on the weakening economy, seemed to find new energy and a more populist voice. She ran hard on a proposal to suspend the federal gasoline tax, an idea that Mr. Obama scorned. As she battled away, Mr. Obama struggled to explain his relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and his apparent inability to appeal to blue-collar voters. Polls suggested that Democrats were starting to develop doubts about the strength of his candidacy.

In short, Mrs. Clinton could not have asked for a better second chance to turn this campaign around and to make her central case to superdelegates: that Mr. Obama was a damaged general election candidate who would get swallowed up by the Republican Party.

Yet she was unable on Tuesday to build her base of support substantially beyond the white, working-class voters who had sustained her for the last month. That will not be lost on the superdelegates, the elected Democrats and party leaders who will ultimately decide this fight.

And the superdelegates are where the fight is moving: after 50 nominating contests, there are only 6 left, with just 217 pledged delegates left to be elected, not enough to get either of them over the 2,025 threshold necessary to win the nomination.

Mr. Obama’s aides said Mrs. Clinton would have to win close to 70 percent of the remaining pledged delegates and superdelegates to win the nomination, a shift in the campaign’s trajectory that would seem possible only if some big development came along to hurt Mr. Obama.

What's changed?
“Unfortunately for her, the math reasserts itself,” said Carter Eskew, a Democratic consultant not affiliated with either candidate. “I don’t think this changes very much of anything”

Mrs. Clinton made clear in her speech that she would “go forward in this campaign,” noting that she had won a state where Mr. Obama had once expected victory and asserting that she remained close to Mr. Obama in the popular vote and delegates.

With few states left, she and her aides said they would step up their efforts to count the disputed results in Florida and Michigan, where the states held contests in defiance of Democratic Party rules. If Mrs. Clinton can win the battle to have the delegations from those two states seated at the conventions on the basis of the vote there, she could greatly reduce Mr. Obama’s lead in pledged delegates.

But neither candidate actively campaigned in Florida or Michigan, and Mr. Obama did not appear on the Michigan ballot.

Still, in a sign of where the Clinton campaign is going, her aides are asserting that the winner will need 2,209 delegates, not 2,025. That higher number reflects the full inclusion of Florida and Michigan, which held their primaries before the date permitted by the Democratic Party.

The goal of the Clinton campaign here is not just to get the delegate votes counted but also to get superdelegates to consider the popular vote Mrs. Clinton won in those two states; in some calculations that would put her over the top. The party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee is meeting in Washington at the end of the month to vote on an effort by the Clinton campaign to permit the seating of the delegations.

“We’re going to argue that it’s going to take 2,209 to get to the magic number,” said Howard Wolfson, one of Mrs. Clinton’s chief strategists. “We’re going to argue that Florida and Michigan need to be seated full-strength.”

The other big hope for the Clinton campaign is making the argument that Mr. Obama would suffer against Senator John McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee. The exit polls gave Mrs. Clinton ammunition in that regard: half the Democrats who voted in Indiana and North Carolina said Mr. Obama’s association with Mr. Wright was very or somewhat important.

And in Indiana, for example, less than half of Mrs. Clinton’s supporters said they would support Mr. Obama in a general election, while one-third said they would vote for Mr. McCain. About one-fifth of Mr. Obama’s supporters in Indiana said they would vote for Mr. McCain in a general election should Mrs. Clinton get the nomination. Many of those Democrats can probably be expected to stay with their party in the end, but the figures suggest the intensity of the passion dividing Clinton and Obama supporters at the moment and the challenge facing the eventual nominee in uniting the party.

John M. Broder contributed reporting from Indianapolis, and Marjorie Connelly from New York.

This article, Options Dwindling for Clinton, first appeared in Wednesday editions of .