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Democrats Discuss Exit Strategy

Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) is looking to Capitol Hill to close out his victory in the Democratic presidential contest this week, with a large number of uncommitted lawmakers planning to endorse him.

But the party leaders who will help end the process by bringing both camps together are still hugging the sidelines, waiting for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to announce her plans after the close of the final two primaries tonight.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have called for a quick end to the protracted primary campaign and recently signaled they would step in to end the contest if it looked likely to drag into the summer.

But Democratic Congressional sources said the leaders probably will not need to get publicly involved. With a flood of uncommitted lawmakers expected to endorse Obama, the nomination could be firmly in his hands in the coming days.

Unaligned Democratic Senators began to focus on bringing the race to a speedy close on Monday. Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa) convened a meeting with his fellow uncommitted Senate Democrats to discuss endorsements and party unity — a private session that also included Sens. Ken Salazar (Colo.), Tom Carper (Del.) and Benjamin Cardin (Md.).

Emphasizing that no decisions were made at the meeting, Salazar said he has talked to 12 to 13 uncommitted Senators over the past few days, while only four attended the Monday meeting.

Harkin said the group planned to meet again on Wednesday, following today’s final primaries. Harkin said no decisions on whether to endorse en masse were made, but Senators discussed “how we can bring this to a close sooner rather than later.”

Salazar said there was discussion about encouraging the two candidates to join a unity ticket, but no conclusions were reached.

“Many people could make the argument that maybe both of them should be on the same ticket,” he said.

Most Senators involved said there was no pressure to endorse a candidate. Rather, it was a discussion of how to help unify the fractured party.

Obama supporter Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said he does not expect all of the undecideds to endorse Obama, but he believes enough of them will come out for the Illinois Senator “that it sets a tone that it’s over.”

Nelson predicted, “There’ll be a lot of endorsements Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.”

Harkin said he would likely be ready to endorse after today’s results. His role in unifying the remaining superdelegates comes four years after his very public endorsement of then-candidate Howard Dean, whose candidacy imploded after he finished third in the Iowa caucuses.

Just a few Senators have stayed neutral during the months-long rivalry between their two colleagues. Top among them is Reid, who has long insisted he will remain impartial until the contest is resolved. Reid has said he will be among “the last” to endorse in the race.

But he has joined other party leaders in calling for a quick end to the rivalry and has urged superdelegates to align once the last primaries conclude later today. It remains unclear whether today’s results — and Clinton’s posture thereafter — will affect Reid’s neutrality.

Rodell Mollineau, Reid’s spokesman, on Monday offered little insight into his boss’s thinking: “Sen. Reid believes we’re coming to the end of a spirited primary season and soon it will be time to turn our attention to the general election. That’s why he continues to encourage superdelegates to make their decisions known in the coming days.”

Pelosi similarly has predicted the process would wrap up within a week of today’s contest and has said it cannot last until the convention, signaling little patience for a fight into the summer.

“We’ll see how things progress,” said one well-placed Democratic leadership aide, adding that all signs seemed to point to a timely end to the primary contest this week without further intervention from party leaders on Capitol Hill.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has no plans to endorse, a spokeswoman said, but Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) is set to issue a long-expected endorsement of Obama today.

Democratic operatives predicted the party, including its leadership, would rapidly rally around Obama this week. “Once Sen. Clinton makes her intentions known, things are going to move extremely fast,” one Democratic strategist said. “I would not be surprised if by Friday we forgot what Monday looked like.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a Clinton campaign national co-chairwoman, said she has been urging Obama supporters to offer Clinton the vice presidency to unify the party.

“We are going to have to make sure that this reaches a conclusion so that we maximize our ability to bring along the individual supporters of the candidate who does not win,” Wasserman Schultz said. “I think the best way to do that is to put Hillary Clinton on the ticket.”

Still, Wasserman Schultz predicted the race could still go on for weeks as both sides seek a “dignified” end to the process — but she said she could not say for sure whether Clinton’s speech tonight in New York would include “some kind of a significant announcement.”

While she warned against Obama supporters strong-arming Clinton from the race, Wasserman Schultz said she wants a resolution relatively soon. “It would be better for us to have as much time as possible to unify behind the eventual nominee.”

While some inside and outside the party have argued that the protracted contest has been bad for Democrats, some on the Hill are beginning to make the opposite argument.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) outlined that argument on Monday, pointing to millions of new Democratic voter registrations, record fundraising and three recent special election victories in formerly Republican seats.

Steven T. Dennis, Emily Pierce, Lauren W. Whittington and John Stanton contributed to this report.

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