CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Her voice raspy, her tone determined, Hillary Clinton urged cheering supporters yesterday to ignore the political pundits who have declared her toast.
While taking a less confrontational tone toward front-runner Barack Obama, she dismissed calls for her to drop out and insisted anew that she would be the stronger Democratic candidate to face Republican John McCain in November - in part because she is winning the support of most white voters.
Obama, with the delegate math firmly on his side, suggested he could wrap up the nomination on May 20 and was welcomed at the US Capitol as the almost certain nominee.
Clinton's campaign, however, insisted she was in the race until at least June 3, when the last primaries are held. At a rally under the dome of the West Virginia Capitol, Clinton argued that her coalition is the stronger one for November.
"We need to bring back hard-working people to the Democratic Party," she said. "I'm winning Catholic voters and Hispanic voters, blue-collar workers and seniors - people Senator McCain will need in the general election."
She made a similar point, but in a more provocative way, in an interview published yesterday in USA Today that generated buzz in the liberal blogosphere and among some political commentators who said Clinton was playing the race card. She said news reports on the Indiana and North Carolina primaries on Tuesday have "found how Senator Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me."
She was also scheduled to campaign yesterday in Oregon, which votes May 20, and South Dakota, which votes June 3.
Instead of visiting any primary states yesterday, Obama was in Washington. On the House floor, he was quickly surrounded by well-wishers calling him "Mr. President" and reaching out to pat him on the back or shake his hand. They included a few Republicans and Clinton supporters.
Obama pressed members of Congress, who make up about a third of the 260 or so undeclared superdelegates, to declare their fealty publicly.
He added two, Representatives Brad Miller of North Carolina and Rick Larsen of Washington state, and also picked up the support of David Bonior, the former national campaign manager for John Edwards, who has stayed neutral. Bonior was the second-ranking Democrat in the US House for most of Bill Clinton's presidency and for 26 years represented Michigan, a key swing state in the fall. Bonior cited Obama's resounding win Tuesday in North Carolina, and said Obama can carry on Edwards's focus on poverty and working families.
Obama gave his first extended interviews since his North Carolina win, and in one with NBC, he highlighted May 20, when he is expected to win the primary in Oregon and could reach a majority of pledged delegates in all primaries.
"That will be an important date," Obama said, pointing out that the Democratic Party has always picked the candidate with the most pledged delegates chosen in primaries and caucuses.
Obama's campaign is reportedly planning a bigger-than-usual victory rally that night to declare he effectively won the nomination.
And now that Obama is near the finish line of the Democratic race, the long deadlock over the disputed delegates from Florida and Michigan might be breaking.
Florida Democratic Party spokesman Mark Bubriski said officials have been talking with campaign representatives of Obama and Clinton about recognizing all or some of Florida's 211 delegates.
In Michigan, Democratic leaders have settled on a plan to give Clinton 69 delegates and Obama 59 as a way to get the state's delegates seated at the national convention. Clinton won the Jan. 15 Michigan primary - Obama had taken his name off the ballot - and was to get 73 pledged delegates under state party rules, while Obama was to get 55.
But Clinton's campaign opposes Michigan's plan because she would get four fewer delegates.