When Hillary Rodham Clinton dropped by Tally’s Restaurant on Monday, it seemed like a routine stop at a Great Plains landmark famous for pigs in a blanket made with buffalo sausage.
She posed for photos and talked to customers about healthcare and student loans, shaking her head at the debt that one young woman said she was wrestling with.
Clinton laughed at the suggestion that her likeness could one day join the dozens of bronze statues of former presidents scattered around downtown Rapid City. (At the front door of Tally’s, a life-size Ronald Reagan in cowboy dress stands guard.)
“Get your friends out to vote for me,” Clinton told a man wearing a “United We Stand” baseball cap emblazoned with an American flag.
A running theme of Clinton’s campaign for president in recent weeks has been her vow to keep fighting for the Democratic nomination even as the odds grew longer. On Monday, that theme dominated her travels once again -- this time on the eve of the South Dakota and Montana primaries that will close a five-month marathon of Democratic contests.
“I want you to think hard,” the senator from New York told the crowd at Tally’s. “Who would you hire to do this job?”
But the stark reality that Clinton faced was no secret: The hard math of the Democratic delegate count has put her rival Barack Obama within days, if not hours, of declaring himself the party’s White House nominee.
And while Clinton struggled to keep her voice on her final journey across South Dakota -- she lost it three times Monday -- and had to scale back her last rally when weather forced it indoors, Obama enjoyed an upbeat daylong visit to Michigan.
Obama campaigned in the Detroit suburbs as if his nomination were inevitable, offering barely a nod to the enduring, if fading, challenge that he faces from Clinton.
The Illinois senator did not bother holding a blast of closing rallies in Montana or South Dakota. Instead, he spent his day making his case against Republican John McCain in a November battleground state, handling South Dakota and Montana radio and TV interviews by phone or satellite.
At a rally in Troy, Mich., Obama mentioned Clinton in passing, offering praise.
“She and I will be working together in November,” Obama told a couple thousand supporters packed into a high school gymnasium.
Sally Foley, a lawyer and Obama supporter in the bleachers, said Clinton appeared to be “in denial.” “She’s having a hard time letting go,” Foley said. “It’s not happening.”
“Hillary Clinton, bless her heart,” added Leona McElvene of Warren, Mich., an Obama supporter who snapped photos of him from the stands. “They have to work out something where they can cooperate so we can make the country work better.”
Obama’s events were as buoyant as Clinton’s were subdued. The crowd in Troy leapt to its feet and cheered at line after line of Obama’s speech. When he pledged more money for art, music, science and literature classes in public schools, the gymnasium erupted in roars of “Yes we can! Yes we can! Yes we can!”
Standing before a giant “Change We Can Believe In” banner, Obama urged the crowd not to fret over whether Democrats would unite once the nomination fight is settled. He reminded his supporters of widespread anxiety over the Iraq war and the economy. Michigan’s unemployment rate is the highest in the nation.
President Bush and McCain, Obama said, “have been so focused on pursuing a flawed and costly war in Iraq that they’ve lost sight of the problems that have been mounting in Michigan, here at home.”
Michigan taxpayer money spent on the Iraq war, he added, could have gone to healthcare, college scholarships and salaries for new teachers.
Borrowing a laugh line from McCain’s former Republican presidential rival Mitt Romney, Obama continued, “Sen. McCain conceded not too long ago that he didn’t know much about the economy.”
The McCain campaign’s response to Obama’s event -- and what has become its daily ignoring of Clinton -- only added to the sense that the Democratic race was all but over. McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said Obama appeared “desperate to divert attention from his weak judgment on foreign policy.”
In South Dakota, Clinton told supporters at a rally in rural Yankton that she was turning to “a new phase in the campaign” -- an effort to win support from superdelegates, the party leaders who are on the verge of declaring a winner.
“Their responsibility not only to the Democratic Party, but to our country, is to vote for the candidate who is best able to lead us to victory in November and best prepared to lead our country into the future,” she told the crowd at a school near the Missouri River.
Twice during the Yankton rally, Clinton handed the microphone to her daughter, Chelsea, after she lost her voice. The second time, Clinton left the stage to gargle.
Finnegan reported from Troy, Mich., and Levey from Rapid City and Yankton, S.D.