WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton neared the finish line of their dramatic Democratic presidential duel on Monday, with Obama poised to claim the nomination as Clinton faced the possible end of her bid.
Campaigning before the final two nominating contests in Montana and South Dakota, Obama promised to unify the party for the November election against Republican John McCain and said he and Clinton would be able to come together.
“Senator Clinton has run an outstanding race, she is an outstanding public servant, and she and I will be working together in November,” Obama, an Illinois senator, said during a campaign stop in Troy, Michigan.
Obama said he told Clinton in a phone conversation on Sunday that “once the dust settled I was looking forward to meeting with her at a time and place of her choosing.”
Clinton made a final campaign visit to South Dakota before she returns to New York on Tuesday for a rally that could be her farewell to a race she entered as a heavy favorite but now has almost no chance of winning.
Obama is fewer than 40 delegates shy of the 2,118 needed to clinch the win, and could reach the number quickly with help from some of the approximately 180 uncommitted superdelegates — party officials who can back any candidate at the August nominating convention in Denver.
Obama gained seven more superdelegates on Monday, but the slow trickle of endorsements could turn into a flood as the voting ends in Montana and South Dakota, which have a combined 31 delegates at stake.
Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives and the top-ranking black member of Congress, was among the superdelegates to back Obama on Monday.
A group of 17 uncommitted Senate Democrats met on Monday to discuss a potential endorsement of Obama. Many are poised to announce either on Tuesday, helping Obama lock up the nomination after the final contests, or wait another day to give Clinton a chance to bow out, Senate aides said.
“There are a lot of superdelegates who are waiting for the last couple of contests but I think that they are going to be making decisions fairly quickly after that,” Obama told reporters in Michigan.
“My sense is that between Tuesday and Wednesday that we’ve got a good chance of getting the number that we need to win the nomination,” he said.
Voting ends in South Dakota at 7 p.m. MDT/9 p.m. EDT, and in Montana an hour later, with results expected shortly after.
Campaign spokesman Mo Elleithee told reporters Clinton had no plans to pull out of the race on Tuesday night, and Clinton said she would be making her case to superdelegates that she is the strongest candidate to beat McCain in November.
“The decision will fall to the delegates empowered to vote at the Democratic convention. I will be spending the coming days making my case to those delegates,” Clinton told supporters in Yankton, South Dakota.
“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,” she said.
The New York senator also makes the disputed claim that she has won more popular votes than Obama in the five-month race for the Democratic nomination, and has argued that superdelegates committed to Obama could still switch to her.
“One thing about superdelegates is that they can change their minds,” Clinton told reporters on her campaign plane on Sunday.
Clinton’s popular-vote math includes a disputed vote total in Michigan, where the contest was not sanctioned by the national party and Obama was not on the ballot. It does not count contests won by Obama but waged in a caucus system that does not tally individual votes.
Popular votes do not determine the party’s nominee, who is selected by delegates at the convention. Obama’s lead in delegates is unassailable unless Clinton wins nearly all the remaining uncommitted superdelegates.
Campaign workers who handle Clinton’s advance travel arrangements have been told to go to New York or head home to wait until more trips are planned, aides said.
Obama’s visit to Michigan, a battleground state in November, came two days after a party committee voted to seat the state’s delegation to the August nominating convention at half-strength and award a portion of the delegates to Obama even though he was not on the ballot.
That decision was a blow to Clinton, who did not want any Michigan delegates awarded to Obama, and ignited a firestorm of criticism from Clinton supporters.
(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan, Thomas Ferraro and Ellen Wulfhorst; editing by Mohammad Zargham)
To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/