Puerto Rico is a hollow victory for flailing Clinton

Even as she notched up victory in Puerto Rico last night, Hillary Clinton's bid for the White House looked to be in its death throes after a weekend legal ruling gifted her rival, Barack Obama, an all-but impenetrable lock on the Democratic nomination.

The former first lady's best hope of stopping the Obama train had been to reinstate all of the delegates from disputed primaries in Florida and Michigan. Saturday night's decision by the party's rules committee to give the reseated delegates only half a vote each came as a crushing blow, prompting an expletive-filled denunciation by one of Mrs Clinton's closest aides.

Her victory in Puerto Rico and any strong showing in the final two contests in South Dakota and Montana tomorrow are still unlikely to give Mrs Clinton any extra momentum with the 200 or so uncommitted superdelegates, whose endorsements will decide this long, protracted contest.

While Mr Obama was looking ahead to today's campaign stop in Michigan, Mrs Clinton was still canvassing for support at a rally in the Puerto Rican capital San Juan yesterday, husband Bill and daughter Chelsea at her side.

The family have spent a combined 15 days in the territory, where Hillary hopes to demonstrate her overwhelming appeal among Hispanic voters.

She was counting on a landslide victory to bolster her argument to party insiders that she has won more popular votes than her opponent and is best placed to defeat the Republican candidate John McCain.

"Well clearly, it ultimately comes down to the delegates. But I think it's very important to note that Hillary Clinton will have received more votes than anyone ever running for president on either side in primary battle," her campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe stressed on ABC television.

Mrs Clinton's claim to have won the most votes since the primaries and caucuses began in January is not as straightforward as it seems. She ran virtually unopposed in Michigan after Mr Obama removed his name from the ballot, and voting totals from several caucus states cannot be calculated in the popular vote.

Saturday night's decision to share the votes of disputed delegates from Florida and Michigan led to scenes of bitterness at a time when the Democrats are trying to present a united front.

Mrs Clinton had won well in Florida and Michigan, two states that were punished for illegally moving their contests up the primary calendar. All Saturday, Democratic Party officials had debated how to get out of the impasse, while being booed and jeered by Clinton supporters. When the verdict came – giving the New York senator a net gain of 24 delegates – her personal representative at the talks, Harold Ickes, resorted to expletives to denounce the ruling and said the public vote had been "hijacked".

"This decision violates the bedrock principles of our democracy and our party," he later said in a statement issued with another Clinton adviser.

Mr Ickes was signalling Hillary and Bill Clinton's fury at party leaders who once cowed before them. It was as clear a sign as any, according to the respected NBC political analyst, Chuck Todd, that "the Democratic National Committee is not somehow controlled by the Clintons ... any more."

"This is Barack Obama's party now. He's already been winning the outside game. He now won the inside game," Mr Todd said.

Casting a pall over the party's prospects for a swift burying of the hatchet, Mrs Clinton reserved the right to keep the fight going with an appeal to the Democratic National Committee at the end of the month, which would lose the party vital days to campaign against its real political enemy – the Republican John McCain. "Denver! Denver!" Clinton supporters screamed, declaring their appetite for taking the fight all the way to the August convention there.

With tempers running high, the Obama campaign appeared to be walking on eggshells in order not to further inflame irate Clinton supporters and risk losing any eventual support in November. Asked when Mr Obama will declare victory, his spokesman Robert Gibbs told ABC television: "If not Tuesday, I think it will be fairly soon." However, the confidence in the Obama campaign was reflected in a decision to have the last rally of the primary season in St Paul, Minnesota tomorrow night – the venue where the Republicans will gather to crown John McCain at their September convention.

Hillary's road ahead

*The most likely outcome is that she returns to New York this week, suspends her historic bid for the presidency and endorses Obama for the Democratic nomination through gritted teeth, all in the name of party unity.

*Making the dubious claim to have won the popular vote, she could suspend her campaign without taking the step of pledging her support for Mr Obama, in the hope that more scandals emerge in the weeks ahead that will fatally damage his campaign.

*Mrs Clinton's nuclear option is to take the fight to the floor of the Democratic Party convention in August. This could fatally damage her standing in the party, but her anger that some of her Michigan votes were handed to Mr Obama when he had taken his name off the ballot means this option cannot be totally dismissed.

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