Barack Obama hopes to seal the Democratic presidential nomination soon after the final primaries this week, despite suffering a landslide defeat to Mrs. Clinton in Puerto Rico.
By Andrew Ward and Daniel Dombey in Washington
Mrs Clinton won about two-thirds of votes in the US territory, highlighting her strength among Hispanics, who dominate the Caribbean island.
But it was a largely symbolic victory as Mr Obama edged to within about 50 delegates of the winning post, with two more primaries remaining in South Dakota and Montana on Tuesday.
Speaking in Mitchell, South Dakota, Mr Obama paid tribute to his rival as an “outstanding public servant”, signalling his desire for reconciliation after an often bitter campaign.
”Whatever differences Senator Clinton and I may have, those differences pale in comparison to the other side,” he said, urging the party to unite to beat John McCain, the Republican candidate, in November.
Mrs Clinton suffered a setback on Saturday when the Democratic party rules committee rejected her pleas for Michigan and Florida to have their full voting powers restored – a move that was crucial to her hopes of catching Mr Obama.
Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Clinton campaign, said the former first lady would decide after Tuesday’s primaries whether to appeal the ruling, raising the possibility of the dispute continuing to the Democratic convention in August.
But, in a largely conciliatory victory speech in San Juan, Mrs Clinton gave no indication that she planned to fight all the way to the convention.
Commentators said Clinton advisers appeared to be using the vague threat of a convention showdown to strengthen her position before negotiating her exit from the race. Speculation has focused on the possibility of her pressuring Mr Obama to choose her as running mate or seeking a Senate leadership role.
Obama advisers said they expected the Illinois senator to be within about 30 delegates of clinching the nomination after Tuesday’s contests and predicted that Democratic super-delegates would push him over the finish line before the end of this week. Democratic figureheads, such as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, the party’s congressional leaders, have called on undecided super-delegates to announce their intentions soon after the final primaries.
The number of delegates needed to win the nomination increased to 2,118 on Saturday after Democratic officials agreed to allow Michigan and Florida to send all their delegates to the convention – but with only half a vote each. The deal resulted in a modest increase in delegates for Mrs Clinton but made only a small dent in Mr Obama’s lead.
Mrs Clinton won the Michigan and Florida Democratic primaries in January but the results were ruled invalid because both states violated party rules by leapfrogging towards the front of the primary calendar. After a contentious 10-hour meeting in Washington, the rules committee agreed to allocate the bulk of Florida’s delegates to Mrs Clinton but refused to fully recognise the Michigan result because Mr Obama was not on the ballot.
Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said the compromise marked the “beginning of the unification of the party”. But the Clinton campaign condemned the decision as “undemocratic” and there were angry protests from her supporters at the hotel where the meeting took place.
Mrs Clinton led by 36 percentage points in Puerto Rico with more than 90 per cent of votes counted. The results put her on course to win a majority of the island’s 63 delegates and reinforced the impression that Mr Obama is limping to victory after several heavy defeats in the closing stages of the race.
Mrs Clinton was relying on a big win in Puerto Rico to strengthen her claim to have won the biggest share of the popular vote, when Michigan and Florida are included. But her argument excludes caucus states and fails to take account of the 40 per cent of voters who supported “uncommitted” in Michigan in the absence of Mr Obama’s name on the ballot.
“More people have voted for Senator Clinton in these primaries than anyone in the history of primaries,” said Howard Wolfson, a Clinton spokesman, promising a final push to convince super-delegates that she had the best chance of beating Mr McCain.