The historic battle for the Democratic nomination for president is all but over, whether Hillary Clinton acknowledges it or not. Barack Obama's decisive primary win in North Carolina and his stronger-than-expected showing in Indiana solidified his lead and did not alter the dynamics of this grueling marathon. Now it is up to Clinton to decide how the endgame will play out and whether it will be graceful or a further descent into the gutter.
Clinton vowed Wednesday to remain in the race, and it is perfectly fine if the former first lady wants to run out the clock through the final six Democratic contests. But it is highly unlikely she can overtake Obama in the number of pledged convention delegates or in popular vote. Her plea for contributions Tuesday night and the acknowledgement Wednesday that she has loaned another $6.4-million to her campaign suggest reality is setting in among Democrats, even if she and her attack dogs, including the former president, refuse to accept it. She cannot make a credible argument after Tuesday's results that she has built momentum or that Obama is too damaged by the rants of his former pastor to wage a vigorous campaign against Republican John McCain.
Most of Clinton's remaining options amount to grand theft. She is renewing her demand that the Democratic Party recognize election results from Michigan, where Obama's name was not even on the ballot, and from Florida, where neither candidate competed. Even if all of these votes were counted, Clinton would not catch up with Obama. The rules of the game, however warped and ridiculous, cannot be changed in the fourth quarter because you don't like the score. Clinton did not contest the party's petty decision to punish Michigan and Florida for moving up their primaries, and she did not stand up to the smaller early-voting states and campaign here before the election. She should have made her case months ago, not after the fact.
The Clinton campaign also continues to lobby the Democratic Party's superdelegates to ignore the primary results and conclude that she is the stronger candidate to face McCain. That isn't likely to work; several more superdelegates endorsed Obama on Wednesday. Clinton and her campaign already have demonstrated their willingness to use the wedges of class and race against Obama. They are capable of engaging in the slimiest of tactics if there is the slightest chance they could gain votes. However, such a scorched-earth approach would weaken Obama for the general election and further scar the Clinton legacy that both the former president and first lady are desperate to embellish. That the Clintons would press superdelegates to take the nomination away from Obama is another example of how the former first couple put their own interests ahead of the party's.
Obama has tapped into a hunger for a new direction, energizing a wave of young and first-time voters desperate for change. Even as he stands on the brink of becoming the first African-American to be nominated for the presidency by a major political party, he has work to do with older voters and working-class whites. But the election results in Indiana and North Carolina demonstrate that he has survived the storm created by the incendiary comments of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. And Obama's speech Tuesday night was pitch-perfect as he began shifting the discussion to changing the direction of the country and uniting the party.
If Clinton plays out the primary season, the only defensible strategy would be to adopt a more positive tone, win a couple more states and hope for another surprise that raises doubts about Obama's electability. Her own political future could be determined by how she conducts the final weeks of a campaign that no longer has a reasonable chance of success. She could help unite the party and raise her own stature, positioning herself for another run for the presidency or a leading role in the Senate. Or she could fight to the bitter end, clouding her own future and leaving Democrats wounded and divided heading into the general election.