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Obama Seen as Inevitable Victor

A quiet consensus is emerging among Democratic lawmakers that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has all but sealed up the party’s presidential nomination.

After his decisive win over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in North Carolina and his narrow loss in Indiana on Tuesday, Congressional Democrats aligned with both camps suggested their extended and bruising battle is drawing to a close.

But a sense of suspended animation prevailed Wednesday on Capitol Hill as lawmakers waited for the dust to settle from the latest round of contests. No one from either camp called for Clinton to quit the race, and at press time, no undeclared Congressional superdelegates — or any backing the New York Senator — lined up behind Obama.

Instead, most Democrats said they are hoping the contest has entered a new phase, in which Clinton will scale back attacks on Obama in advance of an eventual exit and to allow him to pivot toward Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive GOP nominee.

“This thing has been put to bed,” said Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), whose January endorsement of Obama, along with his father, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), was a pivotal moment in the campaign. “Reality is sinking in. And today it’s crystal clear Sen. Clinton won’t put a dent in the delegate count.”

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), a Clinton backer, echoed Kennedy’s assessment of the race for pledged delegates. He suggested that Obama should offer Clinton the vice presidential slot on the ticket. “Anything is possible in politics, but it’s improbable to suggest she’d be at the top of the ticket. Many of us are beginning to pursue victory in November, which I believe includes having her on the ticket.”

Both candidates are back on the Hill, with meetings planned to reach out to the 91 colleagues from both chambers who have yet to name a preference. Clinton was set to meet with undeclared superdelegates on Wednesday night, while Obama plans to meet with Blue Dog Democrats this morning, and, later, with those from North Carolina. Those lawmakers make up roughly a third of the superdelegates who have yet to endorse, and because neither candidate is expected to finish the primary season with enough pledged delegates to clinch the nomination, their support will be critical to ending the race.

Freshman Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), whose district in the western portion of the state favored Clinton despite the statewide result, announced his support for her on Wednesday. But a handful of superdelegates off the Hill coming out for Obama meant the Illinois Democrat had netted four superdelegates by press time.

Clinton vowed to fight on. Stumping in West Virginia, she said she would stay in the race “until there’s a nominee.”

“It’s still early,” she said.

But her Hill supporters acknowledged feeling deflated about her prospects.

“It was a pretty gloomy mood this morning,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), a Clinton supporter. “I would never tell anyone to get out of a race,” she said, but acknowledged that the odds seem slim that Clinton can catch Obama.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she hoped to talk to Clinton in the next few days to game out what her strategy is to secure the nomination because Feinstein said the race is beginning to harm the party. “I have great fondness and great respect for Sen. Clinton. She is a friend. I’ve worked with her all the time she’s been in the Senate and while she was first lady, and I’m very loyal to her. Having said that, I would like to talk to her to see what her view is on the rest of the race, what the strategy is,” Feinstein said. “I think the race is reaching a point now where there are negative dividends from it, in terms of strife within the party, and I think we need to prevent that as much as we can.”

Most Senators took caution when asked about her prospects. Even Senators supporting Obama seemed unwilling to urge her to exit the race.

“I’m in favor of this being settled quickly as it can be settled,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), an Obama supporter. “But also, I’m in favor of Sen. Clinton making her own decisions.”

That seemed to be the sentiment for many, but Clinton still found solid backing from many of her colleagues, including Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), her home-state ally. Schumer insisted that his support for Clinton remains unchanged, calling it “still a very close race. This isn’t 60-40. This is like 51-49.”

Meanwhile, across the Capitol, several uncommitted lawmakers signaled they are moving toward endorsing Obama.

“Her only leg to stand on with the superdelegates was to win the popular vote,” said Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), who is uncommitted. Doyle said he already told Clinton that he would vote for Obama if he is ahead in the popular vote and delegates, and that appears to be increasingly likely after his big win in North Carolina and her narrow victory in Indiana.

But Doyle said he is prepared to wait until June to make his decision, saying that Clinton has earned the right to make up her own mind on ending her campaign. “In a perfect world these candidates would make this decision on their own,” rather than having the superdelegates force one or the other out of the race, he said.

“I’ll probably let the dust settle before I declare,” said Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), who appears likely to endorse Obama. Miller said he already thought Obama was going to be the nominee and said that feeling is “much stronger today than it was yesterday.”

Miller added that he thought it would be easier going into the general election if the loser’s supporters felt that the decision was decided by voters and not by party leaders. If things continue with Obama holding a major lead in delegates, and somehow superdelegates overturn the voters, “It’s hard to imagine his supporters not feeling like he had been cheated.”

The Indiana results did not shove the superdelegates into one camp. Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) said he still doesn’t know which candidate to endorse or when he will do so. “But when I do, I will back the candidate that I think would make the best president.”

His fellow Hoosier, Rep. Brad Ellsworth, does not plan to formally endorse a candidate until the convention, but in a sign of support for Clinton, said that he would support the candidate backed by his district.

A spokesman for Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.) said he is “really and truly honestly undecided.” The spokesman noted that Visclosky’s district went for Obama, and obviously these results “will factor into his decision.”

Freshman Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) noted that Clinton won his district and will wait until the last primary votes are cast in early June to announce his support. But, he added, for Clinton, “after last night, it’s a very tall mountain to climb, if not an impossible one to climb.”

Likewise, freshman Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) pointed to Clinton’s narrow win in his district as the reason he will wait until the end of the scheduled contests to declare. “But he had a good night last night, and her path to the nomination has gotten steeper, no doubt about it.”

Erin P. Billings, Jennifer Bendery, Emily Pierce and Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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