The moment presidential candidates know it's time to go.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 5 2008 7:11 AM

Finding the Exit

The moment presidential candidates know it's time to go.

John Dickerson chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

Hillary Clinton. Click image to expand.
Hillary Clinton

At some point in the next weeks or months, either Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama is going to face a lonely moment. Standing at the bathroom sink with a toothbrush or huddling with aides at campaign headquarters or collapsed on a couch at home with his or her spouse, one of them will decide that it's over.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

This will happen—honest. The campaign may seem interminable, but at some point, it's going to end. The voters will cast ballots, and the superdelegates will scheme, but for Clinton (or, less likely for the moment, Obama), the contest will come down to this simple, stark moment of recognition.

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But how does it happen? How does a presidential candidate decide to switch off his or her frantic determination to win every news cycle, shake every hand, and rebut every charge and instead end a quest that for many candidates has been the driving force of their adult lives? "Nobody can make the decision except you," says Tony Coelho, who managed the early portion of Al Gore's race in 2000 and was a confidant to Rep. Richard Gephardt during his 1988 campaign. "And you have to make the decision in a way that you don't second-guess yourself the rest of your life."

Heaven help the staffer who tries to get in front of a candidate who is not ready to get out of the race. "They know that the second they start thinking they're not going to win, they crack," says Joe Trippi, who also worked on Gephardt's 1988 run. After Gephardt's disastrous Super Tuesday showing, Trippi says he broached the idea of throwing in the towel with the former House majority leader and got a stirring rebuke. "I'm not getting out until they cut my head off and hand it to me," Trippi remembers Gephardt roaring. "His neck was red, and you could see the veins."

Usually, candidates get ushered to the threshold of departure: The voters spurn them, the press stops covering them, and they run out of money. "It's like the seven stages of denial at hyperspeed," says Mary Matalin, a veteran GOP operative who advised former Sen. Fred Thompson (remember him?) this time around. In 1996, Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, spent record sums only to place fifth in the Iowa caucuses; he still had cash aplenty in the bank, but the voters clearly just didn't want him, so he folded up shop. In 1976, when former Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma ran for the Democratic nomination, his campaign plane was full of reporters—until he lost Iowa and New Hampshire. "Hell, I had 'em with me one day, and the next day I didn't," he says of the press. "That's how you know."

The biggest blow for any candidate, though, is the day the money disappears. "What gets them out is not that lightning strikes," says Bob Beckel, who managed Walter F. Mondale's 1984 campaign, "but when their treasurer arrives and says, 'We're a million bucks in debt.' " In conversations with campaign veterans and candidates, the scene they paint is always the same: stern men in shirt sleeves in a drab hotel room talking about the hard numbers and the folly of plunging into deep personal debt.

Clinton won't experience that quick of a death. She has the money, votes, and media attention to continue until the convention. (So does Obama, for that matter, if he were suddenly to become the underdog.) Undecided superdelegates could rally to her, but this doesn't look likely to happen anytime soon. The voters could show an overwhelming preference in the remaining 10 contests or deliver a big upset in a single, crucial one, but they've been no help so far in bringing the race to a close. "I don't think it's going to be a 3 a.m. phone call," says Democratic stalwart Robert Shrum of the final moment that will persuade one of the candidates to get out of the race. "I think it will gradually dawn."

The Obama forces tried to bring on the early dawn for Clinton, and it backfired. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., suggested recently that superdelegates should embrace Obama as the nominee before the primary voting ended. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., went further last weekend, saying that Clinton should drop out of the race immediately because she can never overcome Obama's lead among elected delegates.

But if Clinton had even been flirting with leaving the race, her male colleagues gave her fine reasons not to. A ruling from a few white-haired white men from the most exclusive club in America was just what Clinton needed to energize her supporters, many of whom see deep sexism in the calls for her to drop out. Supporters now show up at Clinton rallies with signs that read, "Don't Quit." Clinton sent out two different fundraising appeals prompted by the calls for her exit. "They couldn't have done anything more helpful to her," says James Carville, the Clintons' resident janissary.

All presidential candidates are ambitious, of course, but the decision to throw in the towel goes beyond one contender's personal desires. Candidates keenly feel the weight of disappointing all those people at the rope lines and in the living rooms who have told them they're pulling for them. "A lot of people invested time and money and effort into my campaign when I ran," says Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination in 1996 and 2000. "One of my feelings was that I let them down. I haven't done as well as I should have."

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