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Clinton's persistence earns applause

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Louisville, Kentucky

There are only a handful of people left in the United States who believe that Hillary Clinton is going to win the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

Hillary Clinton in Louisville, Kentucky - 20/5/2008
Senator Clinton seems more comfortable battling against the odds

And at times on Tuesday night it felt as though they were all gathered in the downtown Louisville ballroom where the Clinton camp celebrated their victory in Kentucky.

They know how to celebrate in the state which is famous for fine whiskeys, fast horses and fried chicken and while the crowd was not huge it was lively, and ready to respond to the candidate's extraordinary ability to draw energy from adversity.

Senator Clinton was in relaxed form.

Plenty of people I spoke to in the crowd were convinced that she has become a much better performer now that the race is going against her, almost as though she is more comfortable battling against the odds.

Passionate conviction

This was one of her best performances. She laughed when the crowd responded to her appeal for internet donations by joining in with her to chant the address of her website, hillaryclinton.com.

She even managed a joke about supporting the party's presidential nominee in November "whoever she might be".

There was something different too about the atmosphere in the audience.

Senator Clinton's supporters admired her earlier in the race when she seemed the likelier winner - and they were always passionately convinced of her qualifications for the presidency.

If the Democratic timetable had put places like Kentucky and West Virginia first, Mrs Clinton might well have developed an unstoppable momentum

But now that she has been written off by just about every political expert in the United States, there has been a subtle change in their attitude.

Now they absolutely love her for her stubborn refusal to admit she has been beaten.

A smartly-dressed elderly woman in last night's audience put it simply:

"Every woman knows what it's like to struggle against the odds," she told me. "That's what this is about."

Graceful exit?

The Clinton camp has now come up with an ingenious way of calculating and interpreting the votes which have already been cast in earlier primaries that allows them to argue that she is winning, not losing the race.

For a moment there was so much belief in the crowded ballroom, with her campaign manager Terry McAuliffe introducing her from the stage as "the next president of the United States" that it almost seemed plausible.

Almost.

It is worth noting that there was plenty in her speech about uniting the Democratic Party after the nominating race, and plenty too about how she is going to work for a Democratic victory in November.

Barack Obama in Des Moines, Iowa - 20/5/2008
Mr Obama has won more delegates in the primary contests so far

And there was no aggression towards her rival either (remember "Shame on You Barack Obama"?).

So behind the bluster it was possible to detect signs of the ground being prepared for a graceful exit.

It just is not happening yet.

This must all be frustrating stuff for Camp Obama which was rumoured at one point to be preparing to declare victory in the race tonight on the grounds that he now has a majority of pledged delegates.

But of course, there is not much point in Mr Obama declaring victory until Senator Clinton is ready to accept defeat and her speech here in Louisville made it clear she is not ready yet.

Swing states

Instead of cantering through the last few primaries in a kind of lap of honour, Mr Obama finds himself still running against Mrs Clinton.

His tactic increasingly is to focus his fire on the presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.

But the primary campaign remains more than an expensive distraction for him.

The Democratic timetable just happens to finish with a series of battles including Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky - all important swing states in a general election, and all states where Mrs Clinton has now soundly thrashed Mr Obama.

In the big picture that may not matter much - these are really just skirmishes taking place when the main battle is over.

Agonisingly close

But it does draw unhelpful attention to Mr Obama's continuing inability to connect with certain traditional Democrat voters - chiefly white, working class men.

If it is frustrating for Camp Obama, just imagine how it feels for those cheering, stamping, whistling Clintonites packed into that hotel ballroom with me in Louisville.

If the Democratic timetable had put places like Kentucky and West Virginia first, Mrs Clinton might well have developed an unstoppable momentum.

If the party used the winner-takes-all system favoured by Republicans she would almost certainly have won.

Even with the rules as they are, she has come agonisingly close.

Like so many of the other races Kentucky has failed to finish off the Democratic nominating process.

Indeed the result it delivered merely makes it certain now that we will go on - first to Puerto Rico, and then finally, at last, to Montana and South Dakota.


Electoral College votes

Winning post 270
Obama - Democrat
365
McCain - Republican
173
Select from the list below to view state level results.


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