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Amid clamor to drop out, Clinton campaigns on

BATH, South Dakota (Reuters) - Sitting on board Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign plane are the remnants of a colorful balloon replica of the candidate, once nearly life-size but now almost deflated and shriveled.

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton departs from the service entrance after a reception on Capitol Hill in Washington May 14, 2008. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Like the once cheery caricature, the former first lady soldiers on, but her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination is on the down-swing.

Crowds are shrinking, media attention is waning, supporters are jumping ship and calls are growing for her to drop out and help unite the Democrats behind Barack Obama.

Her voice hoarse and less forceful than it has been in more impassioned speeches, Clinton still seemed inscrutable and upbeat campaigning this week in South Dakota. The rural state holds one of the last nominating primaries on June 3.

“There’s a lot of people who say, ‘Well, you know, we should just wrap this up.’ Well, I’ve never been impatient with democracy,” she said. “I think actually letting people vote is, on balance, a really good thing and has served our country well over many, many years.”

Clinton, a New York senator, vows to stay in the race until the last primary despite a campaign deeply in debt. She trails Illinois Sen. Obama in the popular vote, in pledged convention delegates and in superdelegates who can back any candidate they choose.

“You’re going to see a lot of us between now and June 3,” she told voters in South Dakota.

While the candidate once campaigned relentlessly with four or five events a day, she now has two or three. The number of press spokesmen with her is down to one from two, and the press corps barely fills one bus when once it filled two.

As she steps from her plane, Clinton smiles and waves but no crowd actually awaits her.

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The balloon gift from a supporter last month used to be a smiling image with yellow balloons for hair, pink balloons for lips and black balloons for its trademark pantsuit. Now the memento is sagging and tangled.

To hear Clinton tell it, she will stay in the race until every state primary is held, with June 3 the do-or-die date. She often compares her situation to a sporting event in which the losing team, trailing however badly, plays to the end.

But critics are more likely to compare it to a boxing match, with the losing fighter knocked to the mat and unable to get up. Winning the remaining primaries would not give her the delegate support she needs to overcome Obama’s lead.

In sparsely populated Bath, about 300 people turned up to hear Clinton talk about farming and economic woes. Several spoke out for her to stay in the race.

“My opinion is that the people that vote are the ones that count. I’m not for how many delegates there are or any of that kind of stuff,” said Debra Pulfrey, 49, a nursing assistant from Aberdeen. “I think she should keep right on going.”

Retiree Marilyn Rekow, 74, echoed the sentiment.

“Just stick with what you believe and don’t kowtow to the Obama forces,” she said. An undecided voter, she said: “I’m going to weigh these suckers right up until the very end.”

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But in the online world of blogs and opinion pieces, calls abound for Clinton to drop out. Critics say her persistent campaign could hurt Obama’s fight against presumptive Republican nominee Arizona Sen. John McCain in the November election.

On the popular video site YouTube, a scathing parody of the film “Sunset Boulevard” shows Clinton in the role of Norma Desmond, the delusional, over-the-hill actress who is no longer a star but insists, “I’m ready for my close-up.”

In The Washington Post, columnist Dana Milbank compared Clinton’s plight to a well-known dead parrot sketch by the Monty Python comedy troupe, in which a customer tries to return a deceased bird to a pet shop only to be told it is sleeping or stunned.

“This is an ex-parrot,” the customer insists.

“This is an ex-candidate,” the Post headline said.

(Editing by Vicki Allen)

To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters “Tales from the Trail: 2008” online at http:/