Clinton's Aides Debate What to Do Next

It's a question bandied about with such frequency—and even frustration—that Sen. Hillary Clinton herself asked it rhetorically at a rally at Manhattan's Baruch College on Tuesday night: "What does Hillary want?" On the night that her quest for the Democratic presidential nomination became a mathematical impossibility, she failed to provide a clear answer. "I will be making no decisions tonight," she said in a largely defiant speech. All she would offer was a vague exhortation for "the nearly 18 million Americans who voted for me to be respected, to be heard and no longer to be invisible." When her most die-hard supporters chanted "Denver!"—a battle cry urging her to take her fight all the way to the Democratic National Convention in August—she did nothing to tamp down their frenzy. Instead, she asked her supporters to log on to her Web site and tell her what she should do next. Clearly, she was in no rush to leave the stage.

The result: even as Sen. Barack Obama made history as the first African-American nominee of a major party, the airwaves are filled with speculation about what Clinton's next move will be. Few in her entourage seem to have a clue. "We're marching to her request that time be given," said one senior strategist. "On uncommitted superdelegates, we are not calling them because [Obama] is clearly the nominee and to call them would be running counter to the fact that he is the nominee. On people who have supported us, we are asking them to stay the course for another day or so while [Clinton] sorts through everything. And on pledged delegates, we are asking them to do the same thing." But while her campaign asks for a little breathing room, the rest of her party is growing impatient. Some pundits were scathing in their commentary. Among them: CNN's Jeffrey Toobin, who on Tuesday night called Hillary's speech a reflection of the "deranged narcissism of the Clintons."

The New York senator's advisers appear divided on the question of what to do next. At the Baruch College event, some sounded determined to soldier on. Campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe introduced Hillary as "the next president of the United States." Some staffers touted her victory in South Dakota as cause for continuing the fight. "It validates why she continues in this race," said one of them. "She has closed very strongly. She has won more states than Barack Obama in the final months, she has won more delegates than Barack Obama in the final months and she has won more votes." (That last claim, of course, is only true if Clinton were to take all of the votes cast for her in the disputed Michigan primary and deny any to Obama, whose name wasn't on the ballot but many of whose supporters cast ballots for "uncommitted.") The Clintonites who continue to spin such arguments seem to have constructed an alternative reality. "Superdelegates can switch," one staffer said, not long after most news outlets had declared Obama the winner of enough delegates to secure the nomination.

Other Clinton aides seem to have accepted that the end has arrived. One senior strategist tells NEWSWEEK that several key advisers urged Clinton to give a concession speech or no speech at all Tuesday night (apparently, she chose not to heed their counsel). The strategist said the campaign's current position—urging patience—is becoming increasingly untenable as members of Congress indicate they are no longer willing to stick with her. On Wednesday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean urged all uncommitted superdelegates to announce their choices by Friday. According to the Clinton strategist, some of Clinton's erstwhile congressional supporters are now telling her they will publicly announce support of Obama.

Many Clinton supporters are now vigorously pushing for Obama to choose her as his vice presidential running mate. As Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Texas Democrat and Hillary backer, told reporters, "We don't need to look for a Southerner or a Midwesterner [to fill out the Democratic ticket]. We need to look for the person who documented 18 million votes." Clinton allies like Lanny Davis, former White House counsel, and Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, have launched public campaigns calling for her to be selected as veep.

But is Clinton herself interested in the No. 2 spot? The campaign's official line is that the idea of the vice presidency was initiated by members of Congress on a conference call with the candidate on Tuesday. But Rep. Brian Higgins of New York offers a different version. Higgins says that Clinton initiated discussion of the vice presidency on the call, though he took great pains to emphasize that "it was in the context of the importance of winning in November." Higgins's recollection conflicts with that of other supporters on the call, who say New York Rep. Nydia Velasquez was the one who first mentioned the vice-presidency. Higgins's comments clearly rankled some of his colleagues. On Tuesday night, when NEWSWEEK asked about Higgins's contention that Clinton initiated the veep chatter, New York Rep. Anthony Weiner (who happens to be dating Huma Abedin, Clinton's "body woman" and close aide) snapped, "He is mistaken." (The Clinton campaign did not respond to requests for comment). Whatever the case, the vice presidency is Clinton's only remaining shot to make it to the White House.

Late Wednesday, it appeared that Clinton might be moving more decisively toward the exits. According to one senior strategist, who requested anonymity discussing internal campaign dynamics, Clinton held a conference call Wednesday afternoon with diehard supporters in the U.S. House. "They made a very strong case that she needed to really support in a public way Sen. Obama and she indicated that she would take steps to do that and it appears it's going to be Friday."

Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York, who was on the conference call, says "last I heard, she was going to reach some conclusion on Friday.... She was going to resolve a problem that we were having which I can't discuss in terms of Democratic delegates not knowing which direction we should go."

The Clinton camp finally made it official Wednesday night, releasing a statement saying that the senator would host an event in Washington on Saturday "to thank her supporters and express her support for Senator Obama and party unity."