West Virginia, May 14 – Hillary Clinton celebrated her rout of Barack Obama in West Virginia on Tuesday but it was a bittersweet victory colored by her Democratic rival’s daunting lead in the nomination race.
While the New York senator renewed her vow to stay in the race, she appeared subdued in her victory speech and pointedly avoided any jabs at the front-runner Obama after months of hard-hitting political combat.
Her more conciliatory tone hinted at an effort to heal wounds in the party and lay the ground for a possible exit as the White House prize appeared more and more out of reach.
"I will work my heart out for the nominee of the Democratic party to make sure we have a Democratic president," Clinton said.
With only a handful of contests left and her rival Obama enjoying a formidable mathematical edge, Clinton painted herself as a plucky underdog and promised to stay in the fight.
"You know I never give up, and I’ll keep coming back and I’ll stand with you as long as you stand with me," Clinton said to cheering supporters at a rally in Charleston.
Just as her presidential prospects looked shaky, Clinton seems to have hit her stride on the campaign trail, presenting her speeches with a confident ease instead of the stiff delivery that marked the outset of her effort.
In the days leading up to the primary, the former first lady carried a feisty populist message up and down the poor, rural state.
Pacing and punching the air, she slammed tax cuts for the wealthy and accused President George W. Bush of failing to protect consumers from high oil prices.
It was no coincidence that Clinton’s more relaxed manner came as the race’s outcome became clear, lifting the burdens of a tense duel, said Larry Sabato, professor of political science at the University of Virginia.
"Of course she’s enjoying it. She’s going to have a landslide in West Virginia, in Kentucky, and Puerto Rico," referring to upcoming contests after Tuesday’s vote.
"The pressure’s off. She knows the race is over. It’s a perfect combination," Sabato told AFP.
Even as she looked forward to the final contests in the nomination battle, attention shifted to how and when Clinton might bow out of the race.
Senior party leaders have mostly refrained from demanding her withdrawal, allowing her to leave on her terms.
US commentators speculate she could be gunning to be Obama’s vice-presidential running mate, or for an influential role in his administration should he defeat Republican John McCain in November.
"She wants to have nearly half the delegates when she goes to the convention, which increases her influence with Obama," Sabato said.
Her mettle meanwhile has won praise from both admirers and critics alike. with the New Republic writing of "a heroic aspect to Clinton’s resolve."
Those who have followed her career say she has often been at her best in the face of disappointment.
"Perseverance and resilience … are the strongest threads in the tapestry of her life, along with religion and family," Clinton biographer Carl Bernstein has written.