If you think Hillary Rodham Clinton's persuasive skills have been put to the test in this political marathon, just wait until June 3.
That's when Montana and South Dakota, the final Democratic primary states, have their say and real arm-twisting begins.
With Barack Obama expected to maintain his lead in total votes and pledged delegates through the remaining 10 nominating contests, Clinton likely will need to persuade about 250 uncommitted party leaders and elected officials known as superdelegates to hand her the nomination at the party's August convention.
The crux of Clinton's case is that after 15 combined years as first lady and senator from New York, she has been tested and vetted, while Obama, a first-time senator from Illinois, is still a relative unknown who may be more vulnerable to Republican attacks.
Clinton advisers contend their argument got a major boost last week, thanks to the uproar over statements by Obama's former pastor and spiritual adviser, Jeremiah Wright, as well as the ongoing federal corruption trial of Obama's former political patron, Tony Rezko.
They say the controversies have amplified Obama's potential weaknesses and will make it easier to persuade superdelegates that Clinton would be the strongest Democratic nominee.
Just over half of the party's 796 superdelegates have committed to a candidate. Clinton holds a slight lead among them, but Obama has been closing the gap.
"The charge to the superdelegates at the convention is to nominate the person who will win in November. The votes in 40 states took place before certain events unfolded in the last month,'' said Ira Leesfield, a top Clinton fundraiser in Miami.
"Look at some of the revelations about his judgment with Rezko and with Rev. Wright, his judgment not to leave a church that gave the man of the year award to Louis Farrakhan."
Her skeletons are out
Whitewater, White House travel office, Vince Foster, Rose Law Firm. Clinton argues that after years of Republican-led investigations against her and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, her closet has no skeletons left for Republicans to discover.
She and her surrogates also have been reminding superdelegates that she's stronger among working-class white voters and Latinos who can make or break elections, and that she has performed better in crucial states like Ohio and Florida.
But with little sign those arguments were working, the campaign last week focused on Obama's controversies. Mark Penn, Clinton's senior strategist, suggested that her rise in some polls suggested "buyer's remorse" for Democrats who had picked Obama in earlier contests.
Superdelegates say they are listening. But the cold, hard numbers facing Clinton are daunting.
"If you're a superdelegate, why would you do anything else but follow the will of the people?" said U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, an uncommitted superdelegate from Pennsylvania who has fielded five calls from Sen. Clinton or her husband in the past couple of weeks.
"Clinton's argument is superdelegates are experienced, and you're supposed to exercise your judgment. But boy, it's going to be really difficult for me, if Obama's ahead on all other counts, to go the other way."
Polls suggest Clinton could win the Pennsylvania primary easily on April 22, when 158 delegates are at stake, but a gain there could be erased two weeks later when Indiana and North Carolina vote. Together, they boast 187 delegates.
Barring a big surprise, most observers doubt Clinton can overcome the delegate gap by June 3. Whether she can trim Obama's roughly 700,000 popular vote lead (400,000 if Florida's Jan. 29 primary is included) looks uncertain as well.
The uncommitted superdelegates — many of whom are politicians sensitive to antagonizing rank-and-file voters — then would have nearly 12 weeks to consider whether to overturn Obama's lead, while being lobbied heavily by the campaigns.
That could make for a hot, divisive summer for Democrats while Sen. John McCain raises money and works to unite Republicans.
Kirk Wagar, Obama's Florida finance chairman, doubts the race will continue until the August convention because Democrats won't tolerate Clinton supporters ripping apart the likely nominee.
"The only way this goes all the way to the convention is if 250 superdelegates from June 3 all the way to Aug. 25 don't say anything,'' Wagar said. "There's going to come a point where the math is so oppressive, and the remaining superdelegates demand it's over.
"She has a fine line she has to walk, because every time she goes on attack she is proving Barack Obama's thesis that it's time for a new kind of politics."
Jon Ausman, an uncommitted Democratic National Committee member from Tallahassee, said he thinks many superdelegates will wait until the last minute because of lingering doubts about who is the stronger candidate.
To him the most important consideration is who will help Democrats win more congressional and state legislative seats, and that seems to be Obama. But Ausman is sympathetic to Clinton's arguments.
"I really don't know what I'm going to do on this one,'' said Ausman, who will be one of Florida's 26 superdelegates if the state's delegation is seated in Denver. "I don't want to get into buyer's remorse as with John Kerry, when all of a sudden he's getting Swiftboated and he's gone."
Obama's campaign is countering with the argument that Clinton suffers from a "character gap," and they're touting a new Gallup Poll showing that just more than half of Americans question whether she is trustworthy.
"We believe this is going to be a significant issue as superdelegates and voters decide who to support in the fall," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said Friday.
Momentum has see-sawed between Obama and Clinton since the Iowa caucus in January, and several superdelegates said they doubted many undecided delegates would take Clinton's cue and choose now based on a couple of tough weeks for Obama.
"I, as a lot of people, certainly have been tuned into all the controversy about Obama's minister, and you hear the delegates talking about it, and you hear both sides — it'll blow over, no it won't blow over, it's too big a thing, and so on and so forth," said Muriel K. Offerman, a DNC member and uncommitted superdelegate from Cary, N.C., who heard from Sen. Clinton last week.
"I don't know that it's changed much. And Obama came back with a very strong statement. It's a few weeks yet, so who knows what else might come up."
Clinton will find it much easier to make her case to the superdelegates if she manages to narrow Obama's lead in total votes and pledged delegates, which are allocated according to the results of primaries and caucuses.
Among pledged delegates, Obama leads Clinton by 168, but his lead drops to 121 when committed superdelegates are factored in, according to the Associated Press. A total of 2,024 delegates are needed to win the nomination.
"I can't imagine if there's a 150-delegate lead (for Obama) that the superdelegates are going to break so strongly for Clinton that Clinton would be the nominee," said U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., an uncommitted superdelegate. "If it's 25 to 50, that's essentially a tie — that means they went through the whole process, and came out with a tie.
"And who knows what the public perceptions will be at that point, what the polling will be, what more we will have learned about the candidates."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8241.