WASHINGTON - On the eve of the last two Democratic primaries, aides for Sen. Hillary Clinton appeared yesterday to be making plans to scale down her campaign, giving her time to decide in the coming days whether to end it or to stage a comeback.
While Sen. Barack Obama plans to spend election night in St. Paul, Minn., where Republicans will hold their convention, Clinton intends to return home to New York. Her campaign has scheduled no events beyond a speech tomorrow in Washington. Clinton aides considered and rejected a plan to have her campaign later this week in states that will be important in the general election.
She isn't withdrawing, a Clinton aide said, "but we're slowing down this process."
With voters in South Dakota and Montana set to end the five-month primary season today, Clinton campaigned as if it were any other day, but her husband telegraphed that the race might be wrapping up.
"This may be the last day I'm ever involved in a campaign of this kind," said former President Bill Clinton in Milbank, S.D. "I thought I was out of politics, till Hillary decided to run. But it has been one of the greatest honors of my life to go around and campaign for her for president."
Obama, campaigning in Michigan, a state both parties will contest in the fall, said he talked to Clinton on Sunday "and told her that once the dust settled, I was looking forward to meeting with her at a time and place of her choosing."
Clinton and Obama both picked up superdelegates yesterday.
Obama was 41.5 delegates shy of the 2,118 needed to clinch the Democrats' nomination, while Clinton was 200.5 away, according to the Associated Press tally.
In a significant gain for Obama, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, an influential voice in the black community, told the Associated Press that he would endorse the Illinois senator, who is bidding become the nation's first African-American president.
Although the Clinton campaign seemed poised to enter a more subdued phase, it did not seem on the verge of going out of business. On a conference call with top donors yesterday, campaign officials Harold Ickes, Jonathan Mantz and others appealed to them to stick with her.
During the call, Clinton officials said that the nomination was not beyond her reach.
Superdelegates are free to change their minds and switch allegiance, officials said, a hint that Clinton might stay in the race and pry superdelegates from Obama.
Shutting down the campaign now is impractical, said a Clinton aide. For one thing, Texas Democrats are meeting Friday and Saturday to divide 67 delegates between Clinton and Obama. With about 1,500 Clinton supporters due to attend, it would be a disservice to them for Clinton to drop her candidacy now, he said.
"There is a lot of indebtedness to people like that - to fundraisers and unions," the aide said.
After the elections today, Clinton will spend a few days reviewing her options and talking to superdelegates, supporters and donors, said Clinton aides.
At a rally yesterday in a high school in rural Yankton, S.D., Clinton talked about entering "a new phase in the campaign" and said she would try to coax superdelegates to her side.
"I will be spending the coming days making my case to those delegates," she said.
Clinton argued that she has won "the swing states and the swing voters that Democrats must win to take back the White House." And she pointed to polls that show her beating the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
"We have a very strong case to make that I am the best positioned to take back the White House and put this country on the right track," Clinton said.
Clinton officials conceded in the conference call that she faced steep odds.
But one Clinton donor who took part said a victory was still achievable. One scenario hinges on Clinton mounting an appeal of the decision by the Democratic National Committee's rules and bylaws committee that stripped her of four delegates in Michigan. If she prevails, the donor said, that might convince some superdelegates to change their minds and support her.
Yet some political analysts believe the contest is over and that Clinton needs to accept the verdict.
"For all intents and purposes everyone - except her campaign - realized it was over the day of the North Carolina primary. It's just been pro forma since then," said John Anzalone, a Democratic strategist who is neutral in the race.
"At this point, if she keeps fighting, it's not really the damage she does to Obama, it's the damage she does to herself. I think the Clintons are smart enough people to realize that if she's going to have a future, it's going to be one of helping Obama get elected, not being some kind of spoiler or poor sport."
Obama is hoping to clinch the nomination by tomorrow.
"You know, I think there are a lot of superdelegates who are waiting for the last couple of contests, but I think that they're going to be making decisions fairly quickly after that," Obama told reporters in Waterford, Mich. "My sense is between Tuesday and Wednesday we have a good chance of getting the number that we need to achieve the nomination."
Maryland's Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin joined a handful of Democratic senators who are undeclared superdelegates at a meeting in Washington yesterday.
"There wasn't really any outcome," said Cardin spokeswoman Sue Walitsky, who characterized the meeting as "a chance to get caught up on where things are" regarding the presidential race.
She said Cardin "has not made any decision with regards to timing" of his announcement.
"A lot of us just feel that the sooner this is sort of put to bed, the sooner we have a nominee, the better off everyone's going to be," Harkin said.
Bob Mulholland, a California superdelegate and DNC member, said the Obama campaign contacted him last week with a new pitch.
"The message was, 'Wouldn't you like to be one of the last'" superdelegates to put Obama over the top, he said.
Peter Nicholas writes for the Los Angeles Times. Sun reporter David Nitkin contributed to this article.