Dogged by defections and signs of financial trouble, Hillary Rodham Clinton faced a significant shift Wednesday even among supporters as talk turned from how she might win to how she can end her presidential campaign gracefully.
As more ballots trickled in from Indiana and North Carolina, Barack Obama padded his lead in the delegate count and national popular vote, increasing the already long odds against Clinton winning the Democratic Party nomination. Democrats worried that another month of rough campaigning could further hurt Obama’s chances in the fall election.
Clinton showed no signs of quitting. She made a hastily scheduled visit to West Virginia, which votes Tuesday, and revealed she had lent her campaign $6.4 million on top of an earlier $5-million infusion.
“I am in this race,” the New York senator told a gathering of nearly 1,500 women supporters at a Washington fundraiser Wednesday night. “I am staying in this race.”
But a day after losing North Carolina in a landslide and barely squeaking past Obama in Indiana, Clinton was suddenly in the position her rival had occupied for the last few weeks: confronting doubts after her perceived underperformance.
Among those expressing concern was California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Clinton superdelegate.
“I have great fondness and great respect for Sen. Clinton and I’m very loyal to her. That said, I’d like to talk with her and get her view on the rest of the race and what the strategy is . . . ,” Feinstein said. “I think the race is reaching the point now where there are negative dividends from it, in terms of strife within the party.”
Others were blunter still. “I think effectively the race is over,” said strategist Tad Devine, a 30-year veteran of Democratic politics who has remained neutral this primary season. “Obama will be the nominee of the Democratic Party. It’s a question of how the end game comes about, its orchestration, whether or not he gains strength from it or is somehow diminished.”
Obama had a day off at home in Chicago. Though he plans to campaign in West Virginia and in Oregon -- ahead of that state’s May 20 primary -- aides said his focus would increasingly turn to the general election. Already, the Illinois senator is talking more about the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
“Everyone is eager to get on with it,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist.
Obama continued to gain support, picking up four superdelegates -- including former Clinton backers from North Carolina and Virginia -- as well as Inola Henry, a California member of the Democratic National Committee.
A more high-profile defector was George S. McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, who endorsed Clinton last fall at a campaign stop in Iowa. McGovern said Clinton had “run a valiant campaign” but stood no real chance of winning the nomination. But even as the former South Dakota senator endorsed Obama, he stopped short of urging Clinton to quit.
“Hillary, of course, will make the decision,” McGovern told the Associated Press. “But I hope that she reaches that decision soon so that we can concentrate on a unified party capable of winning the White House next November.”
Clinton politely brushed aside McGovern’s comments, saying in West Virginia that “he has a right to make whatever decision he makes.” She touted the support of Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, a superdelegate who endorsed Clinton after she carried his district Tuesday.
In a further sign of her financial straits, Clinton sent an e-mail appeal for money Wednesday; she planned to attend a Los Angeles fundraiser next week. “As long as she is fighting, I’m going to fight on,” said Sim Farar, a Los Angeles entrepreneur who has raised millions for Clinton.
Some major donors were offended when they received calls and e-mails from Obama backers urging them to abandon Clinton’s campaign.
“The fact is, this is a marathon. She should be able to finish,” said Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis, who is among Clinton’s top Northern California fundraisers.
At this stage, the presidential campaign has become largely a matter of metrics, and Obama made gains Wednesday in two of the most important measurements: the number of pledged delegates and the popular votes cast in more than 40 contests nationwide.
Obama picked up at least 97 delegates in North Carolina and Indiana, according to the Associated Press. Under the party’s proportional allocations, Clinton won at least 86.
That gives Obama 1,846.5 of the 2,025 delegates needed to win the nomination at the party’s convention in Denver this summer. Clinton has 1,696 delegates, according to the AP.
Neither candidate can win solely with the support of pledged delegates, which has heightened the competition for superdelegates -- members of Congress and other party leaders who are automatically seated at the convention.
In the popular vote, Obama made up the ground he lost to Clinton two weeks ago when she beat him in Pennsylvania by nearly 10 percentage points. He now leads Clinton by about 700,000 votes, excluding the disputed results in Michigan and Florida.
Neither candidate contested those states after they were stripped of their delegates for breaking party rules by holding their primaries too early. Both had agreed to honor the party’s decision, and Obama kept his name off the Michigan ballot.
In a news conference at Sheperdstown, W.Va., where she had attended a college rally, Clinton suggested she would press her fight to seat delegates from the two states -- which she won -- all the way to the convention floor if necessary.
“Those were legitimate elections, and they deserve to have those votes counted,” she said.
Though the fundamentals of the race were unchanged, there was a widely held view in political circles -- shared within the Clinton camp -- that Tuesday was a serious setback for her campaign. Obama’s 14 percentage-point win in North Carolina, where former President Bill Clinton made a strenuous effort, was seen as a particular blow.
“It’s a tough race,” said Don Fowler, a former national Democratic Party chairman and Clinton superdelegate from South Carolina. “If things had been a little better in North Carolina, we would be stronger than we are today. But the game’s not over till it’s over.”
Others, however, urged Clinton to reassess her campaign. “She has to look realistically at the vote [Tuesday] and decide what’s best for her candidacy, what’s best for the country, what’s best for the party,” said Democratic Rep. Dale E. Kildee, a longtime Clinton backer.
Capitol Hill, where superdelegates gathered en masse, was the place where the mood shift among Democrats was most detectable Wednesday.
Rep. Jason Altmire, whose Pennsylvania district went heavily for Clinton, said the sense of resignation among her supporters was evident when lawmakers gathered on the House floor for roll call votes.
Undaunted, Clinton continued her superdelegate lobbying. She dispatched a senior aide to meet with about a dozen House supporters Wednesday morning and attended a big Washington fundraiser Wednesday night.
“Let’s have the people have their say,” Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland told the crowd, which included some congressional supporters. “We’re riled up. We’re revved up. We’re ready to go.”
Barabak reported from Indianapolis and Hook from Washington. Times staff writers James Hohmann, Noam P. Levey, Dan Morain and Peter Nicholas also contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Delegates needed for nomination, 2,025. Totals as of May 7:
Total delegates: 1,846.5
Pledged delegates: 1,587.5
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Total delegates: 1,696.0
Pledged delegates: 1,424.5
Source: Associated Press