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W.Va. burg burns with hope for Clinton candidacy

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — If you're looking for a reason why Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton should keep grinding it out, despite the odds against her, meet Reba Weller.

As soon as word swept through town Wednesday morning that Clinton would speak here about noon, Weller, 57, grabbed her folding camp chair and found a handicapped parking spot near the old Town Hall, then planted herself in the soft green grass out front, amid a sea of blue Hillary signs.

In her pocket was a $100 check to help keep Clinton's campaign going, a princely sum for someone trying to make it on disability payments.

"I don't understand all this delegate and superdelegate stuff, but they should just let the people vote," said Weller, who quit work at a local domestic violence center after a car accident left her disabled. "Let the people decide.

"Because Rockefeller" — a little dig at her smooth-talking rival, Barack Obama — "he don't get it. He don't understand small town. They should just let the people vote."

With Tuesday's big loss in North Carolina and narrow victory in Indiana, a place where she was expected to do much better, Clinton fell even further behind in her race to catch Obama, who now needs fewer than 200 delegates to clinch the Democratic nomination for president.

Even so, supporters and some strategists say there's no need for Clinton to leave the race with just six contests left, so long as she scales back her aggressive attacks on the party's probable nominee.

Clinton's hastily scheduled trip to Shepherdstown, a quaint, historic college town in West Virginia's eastern panhandle, was a clear sign that she has no designs on giving up. And that was welcome news for some.

"It's going to be tough to catch up, but she still has a chance, and I think she's going to pull it out in the end," said Chris Palank, 53, a nurse practitioner from Shepherdstown. "It's like a race — second, second, second, then around the corner."

Plus, Palank added, "she cannot quit and have a future."

"She can't quit," agreed her friend, Melody Skeen, 53, of nearby Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

"She can't quit, nor would she," Palank continued. "She has totally internalized this campaign, and is running for the country, not for her."

"Which is what makes her who she is," Skeen said.

• • •

Clinton spoke outside McMurran Hall at Shepherd University, a liberal arts college that anchors a downtown of antebellum brick shops and clapboard homes. On a perfect sunny day in early May, the town was alive with the promise of renewal, with green, downy grass covering every sunny spot and mayflies swarming by the Potomac River, where the college kids go to drink beer.

Mary Galloway, a Clinton volunteer who lives in Harpers Ferry, rushed over as soon as she found out about the speech and began collecting names for the volunteer banks.

"I think she wanted to come out soon, fast, after last night, and show she is still a viable candidate," said Galloway, 66, a retired management consultant. "You certainly don't know the future. … She's playing it out to see what happens."

When Clinton finally emerged from the front doors, she was accompanied by her daughter, Chelsea, who introduced her as a woman who would be the "best president of my lifetime," which, of course, would include her father's tenure.

Sen. Clinton never mentioned Tuesday's results, nor did she mention Obama, nor did she say she was staying in the race. She didn't have to. Instead, she hit the same notes that have kept her campaign alive so far — the need for universal health insurance, her pledge to end No Child Left Behind, to begin pulling U.S. troops from Iraq, and to focus on creating jobs in areas like this one, where they have been disappearing.

"Next Tuesday will be one of the most important elections in this process," Clinton said, "and I personally believe" — she was interrupted by applause — "West Virginia is one of those so-called swing states. Democrats need to win it in the fall. I want to start by winning it in the spring."

Her fans ignored the robust contingent of Obama supporters who infiltrated the crowd with their signs. They said they like her for her perceived pragmatism, at least in regards to policy, and for being more in tune than Obama with the struggles of the middle class.

Forget what the economists and Obama say; Clinton's proposal to make oil companies absorb the 18-cent federal gas tax and pass the savings to price-weary consumers was okay by them. "If it saves me a dollar, awesome, even if it is only short-term," said lumber company office manager Karen Baker, 37, of nearby Hedgesville.

• • •

Inside the Washington Beltway, where people are paid to think about such things, the question of Clinton's exit from the race has shifted from "if" to "when."

Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic strategist in Washington who isn't taking sides, said the Clinton campaign needs to realize "the nomination is almost impossible to achieve. I think that's just a fact."

But here in Shepherdstown, in a state full of the sort of working-class Democrats who have overwhelmingly chosen Clinton in recent contests, her supporters say remaining in the race is just as important to Clinton and her political future as it is to them.

"It's one thing to be overwhelmed, to be beaten fair and square. At least then you can say, 'Well, I tried,' " said Ed Hull, 60, who served in the Marines Corps in Vietnam. "But if you quit, who's going to trust you anymore?"

Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said Wednesday there have been "no discussions" about giving up, and the Clinton campaign will focus on West Virginia while trying to seat the disputed delegates from Michigan and Florida.

"The reality is that many pundits have counted Sen. Clinton out many times during this contest, and … some of them are doing it again today," Wolfson said. "Thankfully for us, the punditocracy does not control this nominating process — voters do."

Many Democrats worry that extending the race will leave Obama weakened for the general election. But even Devine agreed there's no reason for her to quit. She should continue to campaign in Kentucky, Puerto Rico and West Virginia, as she has pledged to do, provided that she refrains from attacking Obama or in any way diminishing him, he said.

"Frankly, there's a good chance she'd win West Virginia even if she got out. I think staying in the race would do him a favor."

Times staff writer Amy Hollyfield contributed to this report.

W.Va. burg burns with hope for Clinton candidacy 05/07/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 9, 2008 11:17am]
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