Clinton wins West Virginia, but the numbers remain bleak.

Down and on the way out.
May 14 2008 10:29 AM

The Hillary Deathwatch

Clinton wins West Virginia, but the numbers remain bleak.

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The past 24 hours have been a combination of sky highs and brutal lows for Hillary Clinton. She won by double digits in West Virginia—one of her biggest victories yet (Update 9:31 a.m., May 14: The final tally is 67 percent to 26 percent). But a superdelegate shutout (Obama won four today to her zero) and a crippling campaign debt suggest the victory will be short-lived. We'll bump her up 1.3 points to 2.9 percent, if only because tonight's victory all but guarantees she'll stick around a few more weeks.

First, the good news: Clinton's West Virginia victory gives her what she most desperately needs—arguments. Her win, while expected, managed to suck away much of Obama's normal coalition (minus blacks, who made up 4 percent of the electorate). She can say Obama is weakening, that he's vulnerable in the general, and that voters want her to stick it out. Not even a landslide victory would earn Clinton enough pledged delegates to challenge Obama's tally, and Obama's popular-vote lead remains daunting. But she now has an excuse to stay in. In the words of MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, Clinton is now an "understudy candidate," waiting in the wings to see if Obama catches the flu.

The problem is, he's still looking healthy. Obama picked up four superdelegates today, including New Orleans Mayor and walking Katrina symbol Ray Nagin. Obama now leads by about 13 supers. He also won over pledged delegate Jack Johnson, a Prince George's County, Md., executive whose district went for Clinton. (Remember, it's Clinton who has argued that pledged delegates aren't bound.) While Johnson doesn't have the high profile of Clinton defectors John Lewis and Joe Andrew, the fact that he's flouting party practice to support Obama suggests that if the tide is turning, it's not toward Clinton.

The money front: also bleak. Over the weekend, Clinton's campaign confirmed that she's looking at $20 million in campaign debt. In her victory speech, Clinton again encouraged viewers to visit HillaryClinton.com, and not for the policy positions. A similar plea worked after her Pennsylvania win but less so after Indiana. Tomorrow's haul will indicate just how costly it will be to stay in the race through June. Meanwhile, rumors are circulating that Obama will announce his April fundraising tomorrow. If both campaigns release numbers, the news will be whichever is bigger.

In her speech tonight, Clinton said she's not going anywhere. And it's becoming clear why. For her, it's not about money. It's not about delegates. It's not even necessarily about thinking she can win. "I am in this race because I believe I am the strongest candidate," she said. It may be that simple. To drop out now would be to abandon all the voters who agree with her. She owes it to them and to herself to see this through. In her speech, she told a story about Florence Steen, an 88-year-old woman who stayed alive just long enough to vote for a woman and then died. If there's a better metaphor for her candidacy—other than Eight Belles, of course—I haven't heard it.

For a full list of our Deathwatches, click here. For a primer on Hillary's sinking ship, visit our first Deathwatch entry. Send your own prognostications to hillarydeathwatch@gmail.com.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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