The race all but over, Hillary Rodham Clinton is determining how to end her historic candidacy with her dignity intact and future secure.
It's not an academic question, since rival Barack Obama is expected to secure enough delegates this week to claim the Democratic presidential nomination. The former first lady and New York senator is said to be considering a range of options, including dropping out of the race and endorsing Obama, suspending her candidacy to be available in the outside chance he stumbles or carrying her fight to the convention.
Clinton won Puerto Rico's primary by a sizable margin Sunday, but Obama gained delegates there, pushing him closer to the 2,118 necessary to seize the nomination. The last two contests in their marathon primary — South Dakota and Montana on Tuesday — offer just 31 delegates, not enough to put Obama over the top.
The nomination rests with the superdelegates, the prominent Democrats who can vote their choice at the August convention in Denver.
Superdelegates to move quickly
Advisers to both Clinton and Obama predict the some 200 uncommitted superdelegates will move quickly this week in making their choices. Democratic leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are eager to see the party united after the epic, nearly half-year primary battle and are loath to see a protracted fight to the convention. That group includes some of Clinton's most stalwart supporters, who have reluctantly concluded that it's time to move on.
"It does appear to be pretty clear that Senator Obama is going to be the nominee," said Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor and a national co-chairman of Clinton's campaign. "After Tuesday's contests, she needs to acknowledge that he's going to be the nominee and quickly get behind him."
The decision Saturday by the party rules committee to seat disputed delegations from Michigan and Florida at half strength extinguished the former first lady's last, slender hope of slowing Obama's march to the nomination. Clinton won both states' primaries, but their results were voided because their early primaries violated party rules. Obama's name wasn't even on the Michigan ballot.
The committee, which includes several Clinton backers, rejected her argument that the contests were legitimate and the delegations should be recognized in full. It was a tacit acknowledgment by party insiders that Obama was poised to secure the nomination and that it was time to rally around his candidacy.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has been neutral in the contest, said as much in a statement praising the decision immediately after it was announced.
"I look forward to an historic convention focused on defeating John McCain in November and putting a Democrat in the White House," Pelosi wrote.
An appeal may be in the works
Still, the Clinton team signaled she might consider an appeal of the Michigan decision because the committee awarded the delegates based on a complicated formula devised by the state Democratic Party that did not reflect the votes as they were cast in the disputed Jan. 15 primary.
Clinton's top delegate hunter Harold Ickes, a Rules Committee member, said Sunday the committee had "hijacked" the vote. But he stopped short of saying she would make good on the threat to push the case forward.
"She'll be consulting with people, and she'll be making a decision later on," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Indeed, observers believe Clinton is simply trying to keep all options open until Obama is declared the winner, at which point she'll reassess.
"I think it's a position the campaign is taking until the primaries are over. Until then, I don't think it can be seen as anything more than posturing," said Don Fowler, a Clinton supporter and Rules Committee member who voted for the Michigan compromise.
Even if she were to press for a change to the Michigan decision, Clinton would still lack the delegates necessary to secure the nomination — a point made by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Clinton supporter.
"I don't think we're going to fight this at the convention," Rendell said on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday. "Because even were we to win it, unless it's going to change enough delegates for Senator Clinton to get the nomination, then it would be a fight that would have no purpose."
The popular vote argument
Publicly, Clinton and her campaign surrogates are using the reinstatement of the Michigan and Florida delegations to renew their claim that she is leading Obama in the popular vote — a debatable point since the popular vote was never tabulated in four caucus states and she includes the rogue contests in Michigan and Florida. But they believe some uncommitted superdelegates could be persuaded by the argument, along with her long-standing contention that she would be a stronger candidate against McCain in November.
"We have what it takes to get to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the general election," Clinton said at a victory rally in Puerto Rico Sunday.
But privately, her aides have said Clinton's run is over and it's simply a matter of when it becomes formal. And after maintaining a respectful distance in the final weeks of the campaign, Obama campaign aides have begun to reach out to their counterparts on the Clinton campaign in hopes of pulling together and ameliorating hard feelings.
"You've got two very very strong candidates with a lot of committed supporters competing vigorously for a long time," Obama strategist David Axelrod said. "Of course there are strong feelings. It would be weird if it were any other way."