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For Clinton's backers, Obama on the sidelines

Supporters of Hillary Clinton essentially established their own convention in Denver — one in which Sen. Barack Obama and the rest of the Democratic Party played no part.
Image: Hillary supporter
An unidentified delegate cries during a speech by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Tuesday night.Matthew Cavanaugh / EPA
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's supporters imagined this week as a celebration of their candidate, and for brief stretches they managed to fool themselves. One group traveled from New York and built an impromptu museum commemorating Clinton's historic campaign. Another lighted thousands of candles in a park as a symbol of her widespread support.

On Tuesday morning, several hundred loyalists marched through downtown, forming a 200-yard snake of Clinton insignia united behind a banner bearing their message: Hillary. Who Else?

Supporters of the once and former Democratic front-runner essentially established their own convention here — one in which Sen. Barack Obama, the man who defeated her, and the rest of the Democratic Party played no part. They paraded through town in Clinton T-shirts and crammed into bars to watch her Pepsi Center speech, the climactic moment of the convention's second night. When it ended — and reality set in — many of Clinton's supporters, donors and former staff members planned to head to the airport and leave town.

In their wake will linger a question likely to resonate for the rest of this election: Where are they headed next? Some attended a Republican happy hour in Denver and took home yard signs for Sen. John McCain. Others said they will vote for Obama but are unlikely to campaign for him.

"A lot of people came here just because they wanted to celebrate Hillary," said Elizabeth Fiechter, a New York City lawyer who helped organize Tuesday's parade. "We get criticism because there's this idea that the election should move on and just leave her behind. We're not going down that quietly."

An awkward balance
Convention organizers had designed Tuesday to be Clinton's day, filled with a long series of tributes and capped by her speech. And all day, the senator from New York tried to strike an awkward balance: to accept her spotlight without diminishing Obama's; to commiserate with frustrated supporters without betraying frustrations of her own.

Clinton had been scheduled to address the Democratic Women's Caucus in the morning, but she canceled to fit in a speech rehearsal. By the time she walked onstage at a gala hosted by Emily's List in the early afternoon, the day had already exacted an emotional toll, aides said.

For more than a minute, Clinton soaked in a standing ovation. It was hard not to think about what a moment this could have been, those in attendance said, because so many elements had aligned perfectly. In front of Clinton stood a crowd mainly of women, assembled on Women's Equality Day and the 88th anniversary of women's suffrage. As she started her speech, Clinton smiled wanly and alluded to the missed opportunity, and to the glass ceiling that had held tight for another election cycle.

"One day it will completely shatter," Clinton said, "and that is especially important for us to believe on this day, because we're meeting on a historic day."

But Michelle Obama was scheduled to speak on the same stage in five minutes, and Clinton quickly transitioned into a strong endorsement of her and her husband, her onetime Democratic rival. This convention is "his time," she said. It's a message Clinton has reiterated this week to her pledged delegates, who expect to be released from their commitment to her sometime before or during the roll call Wednesday.

"I ask all of you who worked so hard for me -- who knocked on doors and made those phone calls, who got into arguments from time to time, who contributed so generously -- to work as hard for Barack Obama as you did for me," Clinton said at the gala. "So let's devote all the passion and the energy we have, and there's a lot of it."

Some are holding back
So far, Clinton's closest supporters have hesitated to follow that call. Clinton will hold a private meeting with her top financial advisers Wednesday, and many donors plan to leave immediately thereafter. Terence R. McAuliffe, Clinton's campaign chairman and a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, also plans to leave before Obama's speech.

As Clinton preached reconciliation at the Emily's List gala, several hundred of her most ardent supporters converged in a downtown park for a celebratory parade, where their passion and energy had a different target. They shouted into loudspeakers and beat on drums, creating a cacophony that echoed across downtown. As they began marching, some supporters chanted, "We want a roll call." Many of them wore their opinions on T-shirts: Country Over Party; Damn, We Wish You Were President; Still Making History; Democrats Left Behind.

It was a scene Fiechter, the New York lawyer, never dared imagine when she created 18 Million Voices in June. Frustrated at the end of the primary season, Fiechter spent a few hours late one night building a simple tribute Web site to Clinton. She forgot about her creation until a few days later, when she checked her e-mail and found 2,200 new messages waiting for her.

Fiechter used the e-mail to organize her new group, establishing chapters in more than two dozen states and launching plans for what some members called "the Hillary convention."

'Perfect woman to do this job'
Their week of festivities started Monday with a meet-and-greet, where Clinton supporters learned that they differ from one another more than they originally thought. The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that only 42 percent of Clinton voters classify themselves as "solidly behind" Obama, and 20 percent plan to vote for McCain. But in Denver, Clinton supporters sometimes classified themselves as belonging to one of two categories: the sad and the angry.

"It just makes me upset because Hillary would have been the perfect woman to do this job," said Katherine Vincent, from Colorado. "I'm a Democrat first, but it's just difficult to get over."

"I hate Obama so much that I'm going to devote as much time to McCain as I did to Hillary," said Adita Blanco, a Democrat from Edward, Okla., who has never voted for a Republican. "Obama has nothing. He has no experience. The Democratic Party doesn't care about us. You couldn't treat [Clinton] any worse."

As the women from 18 Million Voices chatted Monday morning, 10 McCain supporters entered the park, sensing an opportunity. Gary Turner, a 51-year-old Republican from Denver, approached Fiechter and offered her a brochure for a Happy Hour for Hillary, sponsored by the Republican National Committee.

A few Clinton supporters grabbed the brochure and made plans to attend later that night, when they would mingle with a few dozen Republicans over appetizers. But Fiechter looked at the invitation and hesitated.

"No, I don't think so," she said. "This isn't what we're about."

"Hey, we understand you guys," Turner said. "Hillary got a raw deal, right? We don't want Obama, right? It seems like we're on the same team."

"Actually," Fiechter said, "I'm still on Hillary's team."