In the closing phases of this heated and protracted race for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination, the latest twist is perhaps the most surprising – Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are saying nice things about each other.
By Edward Luce in Washington
Their motives are entirely logical, say campaign advisers and consultants.
Mr Obama, who on Monday described Mrs Clinton as formidable, smart, tough and determined, has almost certainly won the nomination and now needs to bring the half of the party that did not vote for him behind his candidacy.
And Mrs Clinton, in the words of one consultant, is “amassing as many chips on the table as she can” to sharpen her leverage for the endgame once the primaries process concludes on June 3.
Whether she is hoping to be invited on to Mr Obama’s ticket as his running mate, or to enlist the Illinois senator’s help in paying down her $21m (€13.5m, £10.7m) in campaign debts, Mrs Clinton would gain nothing by throwing in her hand at this stage, say party insiders.
In the Kentucky and Oregon primaries on Tuesday, Mr Obama will almost certainly cross the threshold to win a majority of pledged delegates, even though Mrs Clinton will win Kentucky – possibly by a very large margin. After that, there are just three primaries to go, with Mr Obama expected to win two of them.
“It is clear she and her campaign realise that Obama will be the nominee,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic consultant. “But the more popular votes and pledged delegates she can build up by June 3, the better position she will be in to take credit for healing the party and perhaps becoming the vice-presidential nominee. I would put her chances of getting on the ticket at 50:50.”
It is a delicate strategy in which a sense of timing will be paramount. Mrs Clinton’s supporters know that Mr Obama is unlikely to want her as his running mate, not least because her presence – and the extension of Bill Clinton’s role to the general election stage – would dilute his message of “change”. In the words of one Obama supporter, “he would rather eat cold vomit for breakfast” than run with Mrs Clinton.
But Mr Obama, who now devotes his campaign speeches to attacks on John McCain, the Republican nominee – except when he is complimenting Mrs Clinton on having run an impressive campaign – may also be left with little choice but to accommodate his opponent’s demands if she refuses to bow out of the race soon.
Senior Democrats point out that Mrs Clinton would be by far the most successful losing candidate in Democratic history, having on some measures exceeded Mr Obama’s tally in the popular vote. “Normally you withdraw from the race after a string of losses,” says Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist. “But she has just kept on winning races, some of them by large margins. On psychology alone, it is very hard for her to accept defeat.” One scenario would be for Mr Obama to take on a prominent supporter of Mrs Clinton as his running mate, such as Wesley Clark, the former Nato commander in Europe, or Ted Strickland, the governor of Ohio.
General Clark might help address Mr Obama’s perceived weaknesses on national security and Mr Strickland would do the same among white blue-collar workers.
But Mrs Clinton is showing strong signs of wanting to take on the role herself. In recent interviews she has repeatedly left that option open. Likewise, Mr Obama has said Mrs Clinton “would be on anybody’s shortlist”.
“To become the first female vice-president in US history is also a serious accomplishment,” said a Clinton adviser. Some also suggest that Mr Obama, who will tonight celebrate his expected Oregon victory in Iowa, where he won the first nominating contest of the calendar, is pragmatic enough to opt for Mrs Clinton were he to believe that was the only way to unite a deeply fractured party. Swing states, such as Florida, where Mr Obama is spending three days this week, will be hard to win without the support of older women and Jewish voters.
In terms of Mrs Clinton’s minus points, Mr Obama is also enough of a student of history to know that the choice of running mate makes little difference to the general election outcome.
“I had the best match-up in history,” said Mr Devine, who was campaign manager to Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 1988, up against the widely mocked Dan Quayle. “But we still lost the general election heavily.
“If taking Hillary on the ticket is the price of Democratic unity, then my guess is Obama would be prepared to pay it.”