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Don't push her! Clinton's campaign chair warns fellow Democrats

May 11, 2008 | 10:38 pm

Some people have been looking for signs of a graceful exit from the Democratic presidential race by New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. They probably should not be holding their breath.

Senator Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe warns Democrats not to try to push his candidate from the ongoing primary struggle with illinois Senator Barack Obama

Terry McAuliffe, her campaign chairman and himself a former head of the Democratic National Committee, made it clear Sunday that isn't happening anytime soon.

And Clinton's chief spokesman, Howard Wolfson, went on "Fox News Sunday" to state and re-state a firm belief that his boss would win and she was in the race until somebody got 2,209 delegates, which would mean counting Florida and Michigan.

McAuliffe was in there swinging too on both "Face the Nation" and "Meet the Press," arguing that Clinton still has a chance to win the party nomination.

It's a good time for her campaign to make that argument because, if you believe some state polls, Clinton is poised to crush Barack Obama in West Virginia in Tuesday's primary voting there, some suggest by as much as a two-to-one margin. Once a solidly Democratic state, it's gone to the GOP two straight times now.

And if the superdelegates are smart, McAuliffe suggested, they'll resist the Obama bandwagon effect, hold out and not do anything that might turn off the many....

...millions of Democrats, some Republicans and independents (and don't forget the millions of women invested in this woman candidate), who form much of the party's traditional base and have voted for her this primary season.

"Most of the superdelegates will wait till the end till everybody's voted," McAuliffe suggested. That would be June 3, after Montana's primary. Clinton will be ahead in the popular vote, he predicted, and ahead in delegates. Few would agree with McAuliffe's delegate math.

The airwaves, newspaper pages and e-mails among Democratic loyalists are full of certain messages that her chances of winning are nil and it's not if she gives up a quest that once seemed certain but when -- maybe after a big win in Kentucky? Or in Montana June 3. Then go on a quick campaign victory/unity tour together with Obama.

But the suggestive chatter and at-large urging of surrender forgets a crucial historical fact about the Clintons. Even when the situation is clearly hopeless to everyone else -- dead, gone, deceased, buried, cold -- quitting doesn't seem to be a page in their playbook. They cling to an almost mystical belief in something unexpected happening to save their bacon. And with serial justification.

Maybe you remember 1992 when Gov. Bill Clinton was about to disappear from the Democratic race until New Hampshire, which he lost and, like some slick Vegas magician, somehow turned second place into "the Comeback Kid." He only went on to become the sole two-term elected Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Or how his wife's national health care fiasco helped cost Democrats historic control of congress in 1994 and some speculated his party might dump Bill come '96? Or when Clinton was clearly going to be forced to become the second president to resign the presidency, and the first to do it over an intern?

And remember how Sen. Clinton was just about cooked after her lackluster third-place finish in January's Iowa caucuses? And the next week she found her voice to scoop up New Hampshire?

Or the South Carolina loss that was gonna sink her, until along came Ohio and Pennsylvania and Texas, where she actually did lose the delegate race but millions still think she won.

To be sure, the superdelegates do not want to be seen to take the victory away from Obama and perhaps split the party for a generation. But what if Obama fumbles the ball on his own before mid-June and gives the supers sufficient pause to pause in their flow toward him?

Something could happen. Obama's made several rookie mistakes, most recently departing from his text to announce that he's now campaigned in all 57 states. Minor slips, to be sure. Fatigue probably. But serial.

Think of it this way. What if those Rev. Jeremiah Wright "God damn America" videos had circulated just before Iowa? Do you think all those newly-involved, churchgoing Iowans would have turned out for the Illinois senator the same way? Or in South Carolina?

McAuliffe wasChief presidential campaign strategist David Axelrod for Illinois Senator Barack Obama heard by millions of Americans today. But he was really addressing only a few hundred superdelegates. "They understand we're in a fragile time in our party," he said. "Let's let the process finish. People need to be careful not to alienate" the Clinton supporters. The party will need them either way come November.

Over on "Fox News Sunday," Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, was clearly on his best behavior, predicting ultimate victory but refusing to take any anti-Clinton bait from Chris Wallace, praising her and saying Clinton would decide how to run her campaign.

He even disagreed with Wallace when the host asked about a continuing flood of superdelegates endorsing Obama. Axelrod thought "trickle" was more accurate, at least until the primary process is completed.

McAuliffe argued that the nomination game is still on until the DNC's rules committee meets at the end of this month to discuss how and whether to seat the disputed delegates from Michigan and Florida at the Democratic convention in Denver come late August.

When he was the committee chairman, McAuliffe took a hard line on stripping delegates from states that refused to follow DNC rules. But Sunday he told Tim Russert he thinks party leaders are now talking about going beyond the rules to strip Michigan and Florida of all their delegates.

"The rule is 50 percent," McAuliffe said. "That's the point I like to make."

So awarding half the delegates as won in those two states would be acceptable?

"Yes," he said, arguing that the party can't deny that a lot of voters showed up to vote in those primaries, even though the candidates didn't really compete in them.

"We have to win these two states in the general election," McAuliffe noted.

He also brushed off Clinton's recent comment about "hardworking white voters" supporting her over Obama. He said she was "paraphrasing" an Associated Press story that didn't say that explicitly.

Meanwhile, former candidate John Edwards gingerly voiced an opposing view.

On the AP story, Edwards said, he's sure Clinton "feels like she didn't choose her words very well there." As she makes the case for herself, he said, "she has to be careful that she's not damaging our prospects," defining "our" as the Democratic Party and what he called "our cause."

But like many others, he refrained from urging Clinton to give up the race and from suggesting she has lost the nomination race.

"The problem is, you can no longer make a compelling case for the math," was the most Edwards would say. Although as The Ticket noted earlier today, Edwards may have accidentally tipped his endorsement hand in an earlier TV interview. And as we pointed out a couple of days ago, Obama might actually fear a sudden Clinton withdrawal.

-- Christi Parsons and Andrew Malcolm

Christi Parsons writes for the Swamp of the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau.                                 Photo Credits: AP