Hillary softens tone for primary swansong

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It was pouring with rain in this down-at-heel railroad town as a few hundred die-hard supporters of Hillary Clinton waited patiently for a handshake, an autograph or even a quick photo with the aspiring US president.

On a campaign swing across the mountains of West Virginia, she did not disappoint and was soon signing her name to the baseball hats handed out by lobbyists that bore the logo "clean coal". "Hillblazer" volunteers gamely stood at street corners where passing pick-up trucks honked their support, revealing a streak of mountain defiance in a part of the country where the odds against success can be overwhelming.

Predominantly white and working-class, the town of Grafton is natural Hillary country. It has a proud military tradition, and is fiercely pro guns and religion. It is also extremely poor and a recent report revealed that life expectancy among women was actually declining in parts of Appalachia.

Not everyone in Grafton is a fan of Mrs Clinton. In a small shop the rival Barack Obama campaign has hired out for the week, air force veteran Bill Spears, 72, was collecting an Obama banner to place on his front lawn. A rare Republican in a state run by Democrats for 100 years, he said: "If she was running for Taylor County dog catcher, I still wouldn't support her."

Once a bustling railway hub, Grafton, like Mrs Clinton's presidential aspirations, has seen better days. Main Street is a shadow of its former self thanks to a Wal-Mart on the outskirts. The railway hotel has been closed for years and even the tracks are switched by brakemen 1,000 miles away.

When a convoy of vehicles finally escorted Mrs Clinton into town, it was a shadow of the long cavalcades that once accompanied her campaign stops. Even though she is expected to win today's West Virginia primary by a huge margin, the victory will be too little, too late to change things. Mr Obama will remain the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee.

Mrs Clinton is gamely battling on through the five remaining primary contests even though she has no real hope of winning the nomination. Rather than crashing down to earth, her presidential campaign is gliding to a close. Her trip to Grafton was more a nostalgic thank you than a tub-thumping rally and when she spoke, her tone was measured and conciliatory.

This was all in contrast to the shrill tones of a few weeks ago when, on the eve of the Pennsylvania primary, she threatened to "obliterate" Iran if it attacked Israel. Here in Grafton, she did not even mention her opponent and hardly even bothered to encourage her supporters to get out and vote.

Inside the restored station, now a railway museum, a softer, gentler Mrs Clinton was on display. There was none of the negative campaigning or divisive talk in which she had recently engaged. Last week she insisted she alone she could deliver the "hard-working white voters" the Democrats need to win the presidential election in November. A more pragmatic Mrs Clinton now seems to accept that, unless lightning strikes her opponent, she will not be her party's nominee. She even made a slip of the tongue yesterday when, at another campaign stop, she referred to the next president "whoever he is", before quickly correcting to "whoever she is".

She spoke passionately of bringing about universal health care in America and getting paid leave for families facing emergencies, so that people do not need to quit their jobs to look after an ailing relative. Even if the presidency eluded her, she seemed to say, there would be a role for her.

The shift in tone was unmistakable as she spoke of the long tradition of women in America continuing to fight for what is right even when told it is unattainable. She spoke of how she had dreamt of becoming an astronaut as a teenager, and was shocked to be rejected just for being a girl, rather than having poor eyesight and no athletic ability.

Then, referring to the many emails she had received urging her to stay in the race, she said her favourite was from a fan who wrote: "It's not over until the lady in the pant-suit says it is."