True Concessions? Crafting Clinton's Exit

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton on Saturday will thank her supporters and announce her support for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's presidential candidacy.

"I have said throughout the campaign that I would strongly support Sen. Obama if he were the Democratic Party's nominee," she said in an e-mail to her backers. "I will be speaking on Saturday about how, together, we can rally the party behind Sen. Obama. The stakes are too high and the task before us too important to do otherwise."

But she did otherwise in a speech on Tuesday night. Speaking in New York City after the polls closed in the final contests in Montana and South Dakota, Clinton told supporters she would be making no decision about the future of her campaign at that time. Her speech sounded more like a rally than a denouement.

Clinton argued she'd carried "the popular vote with more votes than any primary candidate in history" — though that's true only if you leave out a few caucus states and also count the votes in Michigan, where Obama wasn't on the ballot.

Party Needs a Unity Speech

What Democrats wanted to hear, according to Democratic campaign strategist Bill Carrick, was a unity speech.

"The arguments like who won the most popular votes and who's going to be the strongest candidate in the general election ... have been very contentious arguments," he said, "and it just creates a wedge between the Obama supporters and the Clinton supporters. And I think a lot of people found that disappointing."

On Tuesday night, Obama had secured enough delegates — both pledged and super — to secure the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. But Clinton congratulated him and his supporters only "on the extraordinary race they have run," with no reference to the outcome.

"It was curious to me why she didn't concede," says another Democratic strategist, Garry South. "The election was clearly over. ... I'm really not sure what this four-day delay bought her."

What Does Delay Buy Her?

It's certainly raised a lot of speculation. Much of it centers around the vice presidential spot. Clinton has said she'd be open to it. Reportedly, her husband, former President Bill Clinton, has been pushing for it.

Lanny Davis, an aide to Clinton's campaign, has even joined forces with a group called "VoteBoth" in circulating an online petition to get her the No. 2 spot on the ballot. Not a good move, according to Carrick.

"The vice presidency is not something that's campaigned for," he says. "It usually backfires on someone who overtly campaigns" for the job.

That may be why Clinton campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson released a statement saying: "While Sen. Clinton has made clear throughout this process that she will do whatever she can to elect a Democrat to the White House, she is not seeking the vice presidency, and no one speaks for her but her."

Do the Right Thing

In any case, the consternation over Clinton's Tuesday speech "will all go away on Saturday," according to Susan Estrich, manager of Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential campaign and author of The Case for Hillary Clinton.

"There's really no choice for her — if she wants a future at all in the Democratic Party — but to do the right thing, which she's going to do," Estrich says.

And here's what "the right thing" would be, according to South: "She has to concede, and she has to use the accepted words for a concession speech, which is that 'I lost, Barack Obama won, and I offer him my heartiest congratulations.' And anything less than that will be viewed as more parsing of words. That's what Democrats need, and anything less than that on Saturday ... is going to do damage to Hillary Clinton."

But how Democrats will ultimately judge her is not a matter of what she says in her next speech, says Carrick, but "the totality of how she behaves between now and November. If she's presumed to be ... working hard for the ticket," he says, "everybody's going to forget about this stuff."

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