Page last updated at 00:08 GMT, Friday, 16 May 2008 01:08 UK

Who could tell Clinton to quit?

By Max Deveson
BBC News, Washington

In Britain they are called the Men in Grey Suits.

Hillary Clinton
Mrs Clinton will listen to the advice of her most trusted colleagues

They are the people a politician least wants to hear from.

The people who visit you to whisper gently in your ear that the party's over - you have to resign, quit the race.

They are usually senior members of your party, loyal friends and colleagues, who you trust enough to tell you truth - even if the truth is that your political dreams are over.

With observers now almost unanimously predicting the death of Hillary Clinton's campaign to be the Democratic Party's 2008 presidential nominee, there is much discussion about how her exit from the race will be managed.

And who will tell her that she needs to call it a day.

Political arithmetic

Mrs Clinton is now faced with a situation in which the political arithmetic is against her.

Her rival, Barack Obama, has won more elected delegates than she has, more states than she has, and leads her in the popular vote.

And there is little prospect of Mrs Clinton being able to make up her deficit in the dwindling number of states that are still to hold primaries.

There is one moment of grace left for her and it is the inevitable moment she chooses to end her rock fight against Barack Obama and step aside
Mike Lupica, New York Daily News

And with every endorsement Mr Obama receives from one of the senior party officials and lawmakers who automatically get a vote at the party's nominating convention - the super-delegates - her chances of persuading enough of them to overturn the will of the electorate and choose her as the party's nominee grow increasingly slim.

Some in the party are concerned that the longer the internal battle goes on, the longer Republican presumptive nominee John McCain is allowed to push his message unchallenged.

The only way Mrs Clinton could realistically win the nomination now is by going for Mr Obama's jugular and trying to make him so unelectable that the super-delegates are forced to turn against him.

But many people in the party are unwilling to let that happen.

They fear that an all-out Clinton attack on Mr Obama would damage the party, damage the party's most likely nominee, and damage Mrs Clinton herself - a person for whom the party still retains a great deal of affection, and who is likely to be a senior figure in Democratic circles for many years to come.

Heavy hitter

Consequently, a number of Democratic bigwigs are coming round to the idea that Mrs Clinton should end her campaign sooner rather than later - and end it gracefully.

"There is one moment of grace left for her and it is the inevitable moment she chooses to end her rock fight against Barack Obama and step aside," writes Mike Lupica in the New York Daily News.

"Sometimes that kind of grace comes from the one who knows when to throw in the towel."

But who will carry out this intervention - and when?

Dianne Feinstein
Senator Dianne Feinstein has been a strong public supporter of Mrs Clinton

It is unlikely to happen before the primary in Kentucky on 20 May, where Mrs Clinton is highly favoured to win.

But the Kentucky primary will take place on the same day as the Oregon primary, where Mr Obama is likely to do well.

His campaign believes that he will do well enough on 20 May to make it clear to all observers that he is the only person able to win the nomination.

At this point, it will probably be necessary for someone in Mrs Clinton's camp to tell her that the race is over.

There are only a few people in the party, or in Mrs Clinton's inner circle who would carry enough weight to fulfil the role.

Bad tidings

Many of the most senior party figures - people like Ted Kennedy, John Kerry and most recently John Edwards - have publicly endorsed Barack Obama.

Some party elders have remained studiously neutral, however, and might be called upon to give Mrs Clinton the bad news.

Al Gore is probably the most obvious choice.

He served as vice president under Mrs Clinton's husband Bill, and has refused to endorse any candidate in the race so far.

The Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, might also be in a position to call on Mrs Clinton to quit.

Nancy Pelosi
Does Speaker Pelosi privately favour Barack Obama?

But both of these potential bearers of bad tidings have one major drawback - their gender.

Although they might be able to trigger a mass movement of super-delegates - as John Edwards's endorsement also may - they are highly unlikely to be the ones to come to Mrs Clinton and advise her to quit.

"White women have been Mrs Clinton's most reliable base of support and readiest crutch," US columnist Peggy Noonan quotes a super-delegate as saying.

"Maybe they're the only ones who can break through, both to Mrs Clinton and to the country, and tell her to stop," the super-delegate adds.

That would also rule out a senior African-American Democrat, like House Majority Whip James Clyburn, who has also stayed neutral during the campaign.

'Negative dividends'

Which women might Mrs Clinton listen to?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the most high-powered woman in Democratic politics, is deemed by the Clinton camp to be too pro-Obama in private, although she has made no public endorsements in the race.

"The Clintons think the speaker is for Obama... Her San Francisco district went for him 70% to 30% - they'll dismiss her," says Peggy Noonan's anonymous super-delegate.

So that leaves only a few women whom Mrs Clinton would trust and respect enough to listen to their advice.

Senator Dianne Feinstein of California has been a loyal Clinton backer since the beginning of the race.

There is one person on Mrs Clinton's team, of course, who is not a woman, but to whom she might well listen above all others

Her statement last week to the effect that the drawn-out campaign was producing "negative dividends... in terms of strife within the party," was seen by some as a coded attempt to tell Mrs Clinton that her time was up.

But she later reaffirmed her commitment to Mrs Clinton's continued presence in the race, saying "she should take this for as long as she feels she has a chance to win it".

Other names being suggested include Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, Robert Kennedy's daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and Ellen Malcolm of Emily's List, the high-profile pro-choice campaigning organisation.

Political analyst John Zogby told the BBC that California Senator Barbara Boxer, Washington Senator Patty Murray and Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln would also be of sufficient stature to make the suggestion to Mrs Clinton.

Behind the scenes, Mrs Clinton might also be prepared to listen to her campaign manager Maggie Williams, with whom she has worked on and off since arriving in the White House in 1992.

So these are the Men - but mainly Women - in Grey Suits, whom we might expect to be scheduling an appointment with Mrs Clinton before too long, if they feel that enough is enough and Mrs Clinton must bow out of the race.

There is one more person on Mrs Clinton's team, of course, who is not a woman, but to whom she might well listen above all others.

He has considerable experience of presidential campaigns, and has known Mrs Clinton longer than most.

So if and when her husband Bill decides to have a quiet word in his wife's ear, that might be the moment when Mrs Clinton is finally made to realise that her presidential ambitions are over - for the time being at least.

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