Analysis: Democrats quietly send word to Clinton it's over

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WASHINGTON — Apart from George McGovern, a plainspoken man who knows something about losing elections, not a single Democrat of national stature publicly urged Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday to end her campaign for the White House.

They didn't have to.

There was no shortage of other ways to signal, suggest, insinuate or instigate the same thing. And certainly no need to apply unseemly pressure to a historic political figure, a woman who has run a grueling race, won millions of votes and drawn uncounted numbers of new Democratic voters to the polls.

Instead, many Democrats preferred to say softly what the party's 1972 presidential nominee said for all to hear. Barack Obama has won the nomination "by any practical test," McGovern said.

"Hillary, of course, will make the decision as to if and when she ends her campaign," he added. "But I hope that she reaches that decision soon so that we can concentrate on a unified party capable of winning the White House next November."

Its campaign quarry finally cornered, the Obama high command gave it space. The Illinois senator was on track to become the first black presidential nominee of a major party and aides produced a small trickle of superdelegate supporters. But there was nary a word about hastening Clinton's departure.

"I think that it would be inappropriate and awkward and wrong for any of us to tell Senator Clinton when it is time for the race to be over," said Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, speaking on a campaign-sponsored conference call with reporters.

"This is her decision and it is only her decision. And we are confident that she is going to do the right thing for the Democratic nominee. We are confident she will help work hard to unite our party."

Sen. Chuck Schumer, a staunch supporter of his fellow New Yorker, said, "It's her decision to make and I'll accept what decision she makes." Asked about her chances of still capturing the Democratic nomination, the normally loquacious Schumer fell silent.

Other Democrats preferred to speak more freely, but only on condition of anonymity. They, too, said that Tuesday's primaries in North Carolina and Indiana had effectively sealed the outcome.

They predicted an acceleration in the pace of superdelegates to his side _ he gained four during the day, to two for Clinton. And wondered about her ability to raise sufficient campaign funds _ she disclosed having loaned herself another $6.4 million in recent weeks, despite an earlier boast that 80,000 new donors came to her aid after she won the Pennsylvania primary on April 22.

Clinton's arguments for staying in the race were disappearing.

Obama lengthened his overall lead in delegates in the two states that held primaries on Tuesday, and by day's end, had drawn to within about a dozen of the former first lady in superdelegate support. He had 1,846.5 in The Associated Press' count, to 1,696 for Clinton, out of 2,025 needed for the nomination.

Additionally, his 240,000-vote victory in North Carolina, coupled with her narrow, 18,000-vote triumph in Indiana, all but assured Obama will finish the primary season with a lead in the cumulative popular vote.

Five more states and Puerto Rico are yet to vote. But alone among them, Oregon figures prominently in any Democratic plan to amass 270 electoral votes in the fall, the number required to win the White House. Her persistent attempt to claim the unprovable, that she would more easily win in the fall than Obama, faded for reasons beyond her control.

For members of Congress, in this case Democrats, electability begins and sometimes even ends at home.

Which is why it did not pass unnoticed last weekend _ with Obama trying to fend off controversy stemming from his former pastor _ that a sustained conservative attempt to derail a Democratic House candidate in Louisiana by linking him to the presidential contender had fizzled.

Democrat Don Cazayoux is "with Barack Obama for a big government scheme" for health insurance, said a television advertisement run by Freedom's Watch. "Their plan raises income taxes and raises taxes on small business."

Cazayoux won anyway, and now holds a House seat in the Baton Rouge area that had been in Republican hands for three decades.

A separate ad, aired by the North Carolina Republican Party, showed Obama and his former preacher, as well as a brief video of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. "He's just too extreme for North Carolina," the narrator says in the 30-second spot.

Because the commercial was aimed at both the Democrats in the state gubernatorial primary, its impact was unclear.

Clinton vowed to press on, planting her flag in West Virginia, site of next week's contest, and announcing plans to visit other upcoming primary states on Thursday. She said controversies over the delegations from Michigan and Florida must be resolved.

"I'm staying in this race until there's a nominee and obviously I am going to work as hard as I can to become that nominee," she said.

That sounded fine to Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, an uncommitted superdelegate.

"I think most of us out of respect for her are content to wait a little longer," he said.

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EDITOR'S NOTE _ David Espo covers presidential politics for The Associated Press.