WASHINGTON - It has been hard for Hillary Clinton to step down, and even tougher for Lanny J. Davis, the longtime Clinton defender from Maryland who is the force behind an online petition to persuade Barack Obama to make her his running mate.
The nascent effort has been widely criticized, and Obama said that "everybody just needs to settle down" about his selection. The Clinton campaign tried to tamp down the movement yesterday, declaring that she is not seeking the vice presidency.
But Davis remains unapologetic about pushing the discussion and said critics who accuse him of pressuring Obama misrepresent what he is trying to accomplish. He said he wants to provide an outlet to Clinton supporters, but only those who are willing to back Obama and "whoever he chooses" as a running mate.
"I've been lumped together with people who have said to Senator Obama, 'You have to put her on the ticket,'" Davis said in an interview. "My position is he makes the final decision."
The Davis venture is characteristically bold, attention-grabbing and polarizing, the latest move on Hillary Clinton's behalf by a lawyer and lobbyist who rose to prominence as special counsel defending President Bill Clinton during the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky inquiries.
His lengthy e-mails extolling Hillary Clinton's strengths have filled reporters' in-boxes for months. His face pops on cable news shows regularly, and his blog postings are widely read.
All of the work comes on his own dime. He's not an employee of the campaign or an official adviser. "So if I say something stupid, they can't fire me," said Davis, a partner at a Washington law firm.
Davis started the petition and turned it over to a Web site called VoteBoth.com, which he said was launched some time ago by other Democrats - not him - before knowing which candidate would secure the nomination. Davis joined VoteBoth as a senior adviser yesterday.
The petition's preamble says that "more than 17 million Democrats who supported [Clinton] at the polls and who, in combination with your more than 17 million supporters, would form the base of a successful presidential campaign in the November election."
Davis said he discussed the effort with Clinton, who neither encouraged nor discouraged it.
He sought no permission or advice, he said, from anyone in the campaign.
"When I talked to her about her interest in being vice president, she was open to it, but ambivalent," Davis said. "Her openness is because she is a patriot and a Democrat."
A friend of the Clintons' from Yale Law School, Davis "admires" the New York senator and "knows what a tremendous individual she is," said Susan Ness, a former Federal Communications Commissioner during the Clinton administration, who, like Davis, got her start in Montgomery County politics.
"He has done all he has from his heart, and he's got a huge heart," Ness said of Davis. "He's a very caring person, but very much of a political person."
The petition drive represents the more aggressive branch of Clinton supporters as her campaign winds down. Others, such as strategist James Carville, said the opposing camps need time to cool down and then talk.
"While Senator Clinton has made clear throughout this process that she will do whatever she can to elect a Democrat to the White House, she is not seeking the vice presidency, and no one speaks for her but her," campaign spokesman Phil Singer said yesterday in a statement. "The choice here is Senator Obama's and his alone."
A New Jersey native, Davis, 62, ran for Congress from Maryland twice in the 1970s and later represented the state as a member of the Democratic National Committee.
Davis "loves the game, and he is a passionate advocate for his friends," said Susan Turnbull of Montgomery County, the vice chairwoman of the DNC, who succeeded Davis in the organization. "He considers [the Clintons] very close friends."
"He's been a mentor to a lot of young Democratic activists, including me," said Cheryl C. Kagan, a former state lawmaker who has known Davis since she was a teenager.
But Kagan, a Hillary Clinton supporter, questions the effort of Davis and others, saying the vice presidency might not be the right fit for Clinton.
"I think she's been a terrific senator, and I think she can help President Obama enact a progressive legislative agenda, from the Senate," Kagan said.
The vice presidency "is a two-person decision, and it is presumptuous of any of us to have a say," she said.
Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, an Obama supporter from Montgomery County, played down the significance of the petition drive, calling it "fine" but "probably not pivotal."
Obama is certain to include Clinton on a short list of vice presidential prospects, Franchot said, adding that she deserved to be there.
The strengths and weaknesses of an Obama-Clinton pairing have been much discussed. Clinton drew strong support from older voters, Hispanics and lower-income workers, which could help Obama in the general election if she were on the ticket.
But she remains a polarizing figure, with a high proportion of the electorate saying they would not vote for her.
As comments increased about the audacity of an organized push by a close Clinton ally to get her on the ticket, Davis said he did not receive a request from the campaign to suspend his effort.
But he said he would not work any harder at it.
"I intend to do nothing further. This is not an advocacy campaign. I need to get my life back," he said. "I did what I could for my good friend."