Rebuffing associates who have suggested that she end her candidacy, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has made it clear to her camp in recent days that she will stay in the race until June because she believes she can still be the nominee — and, barring that, so she can depart with some final goals accomplished.
Mrs. Clinton has disagreed with suggestions, made directly to her by a few friends recently, that her continued candidacy was deepening splits within the Democratic Party and damaging Senator Barack Obama’s chances of emerging as a formidable nominee. She has also disputed the notion that she was unintentionally fostering a racial divide with white voters in some states overwhelmingly supporting her.
Rather, in private conversations and in interviews, Mrs. Clinton has begun asserting that she believes sexism, rather than racism, has cast a shadow over the primary fight, a point some of her supporters have made for months. Advisers say that continuing her candidacy is partly a means to show her supporters — especially young women — that she is not a quitter and will not be pushed around.
Campaigning in New Hampshire and Indiana this year, Mrs. Clinton endured taunts from passers-by who questioned her abilities because she is a woman and mocked her husband’s affair with a White House intern. Yet Mrs. Clinton has also benefited from the strong support of white voters in many states, including some who have said that race was a factor in their support.
Campaigning with his wife in Kentucky on Tuesday, former President Bill Clinton also weighed in, saying he believed there had been “moments of gender bias” in the campaign, though he added that he thought people had become more comfortable with the idea of a woman in the White House.
And in her victory speech in Louisville, Ky., on Tuesday night, Mrs. Clinton made a pointed appeal, telling her supporters she would keep campaigning until there was a Democratic nominee — “whoever she may be.”
Mrs. Clinton is also focused on some tangible goals by staying in the race: she believes that racking up more victories, delegates and votes will give her and her supporters more leverage this month at a Democratic National Committee rules meeting to advocate for seating the delegates from the unofficial primaries in Florida and Michigan.
“There is not yet a Democratic nominee, and she will continue until every voter has a say in the process, including Florida and Michigan,” said Guy Cecil, the campaign’s political director.
Referring to the three remaining primaries, Mr. Cecil said: “We have thousands of volunteers in South Dakota, Montana and Puerto Rico who are making calls and knocking on doors to get the vote out. The people they are talking to want to participate and be heard.”
Mrs. Clinton’s advisers also say that her popularity could lead Mr. Obama to fold some of her policy positions — like universal health insurance — into his platform, though they discounted the notion that her staying in the race was part of a larger bargaining strategy.
While Mrs. Clinton believes that winning the nomination is a long shot at this point, she is also staying in the race because, in her experience, electoral politics can be a chaotic and unpredictable enterprise, scandals can emerge from nowhere, and Mr. Obama’s candidacy could still suffer a self-inflicted or unexpected wound. Picking up more primary votes and superdelegates could only strengthen her position if the party wants or needs to find an alternative to Mr. Obama.
‘She is a class act’
As for concerns that her continued campaign might exacerbate party divisions, Mrs. Clinton is convinced that if and when she quits, her camp would quickly coalesce around Mr. Obama, advisers say — so much so that any Democratic ill will would fade within days.
“I think in the end, when South Dakota and Montana go last and have their final result, she will sit back and see whether a win can be achieved or not — and if not, she is a class act and will do the class thing and get on board with the Democratic ticket,” said Jay Jacobs, a Democratic leader on Long Island and a superdelegate and top fund-raiser for Mrs. Clinton.
Mr. Jacobs said he believed that Mrs. Clinton could still win, and that she should fight on to June if she believed she could win.
Other associates disagreed. One longtime friend and adviser, Roger Altman, an official in the Clinton Treasury Department, recently urged Mrs. Clinton to consider leaving the race, people familiar with their conversation said. He said that racial divisions were worsening and that her huge white vote in West Virginia last week could make it harder to view Mr. Obama as unifying.
Mrs. Clinton does not believe that a racial split will be a legacy of the nomination fight, her aides say — especially if Mr. Obama wins, as he could point to victories in states with largely white populations, like Colorado, Iowa and Washington.
Some Clinton aides say she is expecting a particularly big vote on June 1 in Puerto Rico, given her strong support among Hispanics. Howard Wolfson, her communications direction, said campaign aides were “optimistic” about Puerto Rico.
Mrs. Clinton also wants to increase her popular vote total in hopes that if a small margin separates her and Mr. Obama, it may be enough to sway some uncommitted superdelegates to support her at the last minute.
“Superdelegates who are committed to her are telling her to stay the course,” said Harold Ickes, a senior adviser to Mrs. Clinton. “And there are some uncommitted superdelegates who are for her but not ready to come out — and they want her to stay the course and see this through.”
‘The strongest candidate’
Mr. Ickes added, “And there are other uncommitted superdelegates who want to wait until June to judge the strongest candidate.”
Clinton aides insisted that Mrs. Clinton was not thinking too seriously about positioning herself as Mr. Obama’s running mate. They say she knows, from her husband’s experience, that a decision about a running mate involves many factors.
But amassing a strong popular vote, and going out on some high notes, would help Mrs. Clinton emerge from the long nomination battle on better footing, aides say. And making herself an appealing vice-presidential prospect — or setting herself up to run again in 2012, if Mr. Obama should lose, or perhaps 2016 — is not altogether out of the question.