A graceful exit is never easy in a business as fraught with ego and ambition as presidential politics. Which is why in recent days, quiet calls have started going out to key supporters of Hillary Clinton who are showing signs of wanting to jump ship. Clinton's emissaries point out that she is no longer attacking Barack Obama, and they promise she won't start again. Allow her to ride out the last few primaries, they argue, and she won't do anything to make it difficult for her longtime allies to switch their allegiances when the time comes.
The latest round of calls was a tacit admission that while the battles aren't over, the war has been lost. It also raises the question, What will Clinton's terms of surrender turn out to be? Her husband, for one, seems to have a pretty clear idea what he thinks she should get as a consolation prize. In Bill Clinton's view, she has earned nothing short of an offer to be Obama's running mate, according to some who are close to the former President. Bill "is pushing real hard for this to happen," says a friend. Hillary is more opaque about what she might want, divulging little even to those who see and talk to her every day. "It's as plain as the nose on your face that this whole thing has shifted to a different mode," says a top Clinton strategist. "But I don't know what she wants. I don't know what she's thinking."
Even if Clinton is not on the ticket, the list of things she might want could range from a tangible move like help in paying off some of her campaign debt to a symbolic gesture of homage at the Democratic National Convention. Obama's team knows that Clinton and her crew above all are likely to want respect to be paid for their efforts; beyond that, it is unclear what the tab will be. "There have been no discussions between the campaigns," says chief strategist David Axelrod. "There's been no back-channel negotiations. We're respectful of her and her right to fight on." But they know the time is rapidly approaching when the two campaigns are going to have to begin peace talks. And they anticipate, given everything they have learned about the Clintons, that the negotiations won't be easy. "We're expecting sort of the worst here," says a top Obama adviser.
How bad could it be? Or put another way, how much leverage does Clinton have? Certainly more than she did a month ago. Though she is unlikely to catch Obama in delegates, her lopsided victories in Kentucky and West Virginia have helped her narrow his lead in the popular-vote count to a virtual tie. She may even finish the primary season with more votes, if you count those from the disputed primaries in Michigan and Florida. That gives her bragging rights for the No. 2 spot or for other demands. "This is about making her pile of chips bigger so she can use them to bargain with when the voting is done," says a longtime backer, who also believes she is making a play for a place on the ticket.
Some of Clinton's own strategists are doubtful that Obama will offer to make her his running mate in no small part because that would mean bringing Bill aboard. Her presence on the ticket would also undercut Obama's core message of change and his promise of a new brand of politics. However, advisers say that in the interest of unifying the party, there may well be a good argument for tapping one of the Clintons' high-profile supporters, such as Indiana Senator Evan Bayh or Ohio governor Ted Strickland.
But neither of them would give Obama an automatic entrée to crucial voter groups that Clinton won women, Latinos, older voters, blue-collar whites and that in many key states have appeared to be beyond his reach. "There is still a lot of enthusiasm and support out there for her," says a leader of a women's activist organization. "It is a valid question where that goes after June 3" the date of the last Democratic primaries. In that regard, exit polls from her lopsided win over Obama in Kentucky pointed in an ominous direction: only a third of those who voted for her said they would support Obama over John McCain in the fall. By comparison, 71% of Obama voters said they would vote for her if their candidate did not win the nomination. Some of Clinton's women supporters are angry at what they see as sexist treatment of their candidate. A newly formed political-action committee calling itself WomenCount claimed it had raised $230,000 in four days after running full-page newspaper ads across the country that proclaimed, "Not so fast ... Hillary's voice is OUR voice, and she's speaking for all of us."
Given that sentiment, how Obama treats Clinton and vice versa is likely to have as much impact on any final settlement between the camps as the final vote tallies. Jesse Jackson, who knows a thing or two about waging a long and bitter primary battle and about reconciling when it is over said recently, "The winner really needs the loser." But then he added that unless the loser gets over the "pain" of coming in second, the party is doomed. Nothing is more likely to bring the loser's supporters aboard than seeing their candidate throw herself wholeheartedly behind the winner. On the other hand, when the post-primary relationship doesn't gel Democrats remember how excruciating it was to see Jimmy Carter practically chasing Ted Kennedy across the stage to grab his hand at the 1980 convention in New York City it can be fatal.
That message has been received by Obama. He stopped short of claiming the nomination after the Oregon primary on May 20. In his speech that night in Des Moines, Iowa, he praised Clinton's "courage and her commitment" and added, "Some may see the millions and millions of votes cast for each of us as evidence that our party is divided. But I see it as proof we have never been more ... united." When he praised Clinton for helping to shatter barriers in politics that had long held women back, he was using phrases that were very close to those that had been suggested by several Clinton-camp followers. One measure of Obama's desire for peace will be whether he ignores objections from some of his most stalwart backers and helps Clinton pay off her $20 million-plus campaign debt, either by headlining events on her behalf or by appealing to his donors to help her. There is an urgency to this task: she has only until late August to raise the cash from donors to repay herself more than $11 million she has personally loaned her campaign.
Perhaps the knottiest question in the end will be this: If the vice presidency is not in Clinton's future, what role will she be permitted to play at the convention? She has earned by effort alone a chance to speak there. Several party officials believe she is likely to insist that her name be placed in nomination on the first ballot, opening up all the divisions once again. Whether and how Clinton and Obama can work their way through the terms of surrender will tell voters a lot about both of them. And it could help determine whether a Democrat is elected in November.
with reporting by Michael Duffy and Michael Weisskopf/Washington