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Hillary stays publicly confident

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May 12, 2008

Hillary Rodham Clinton was just warming up the crowd in a cramped and muggy middle school gymnasium when she switched her pronouns.

“All the kitchen table issues that everybody talks to me about are ones that the next president can actually do something about,” Clinton said Sunday night, “if he actually cares about it.”

The word hung in the air only for a moment.

“More likely, if she cares about it,” she added.

Was it a dramatic turn of phrase or a slip of the tongue? A way to spotlight gender on Mother’s Day or a sign that the public doubts about her campaign have taken root?

West Virginia is expected to deliver Clinton a big win Tuesday, but her campaign is not as confident as it once was. In the week since Democratic rival Barack Obama trounced her in North Carolina, Clinton has been closely watched for signs that her campaign’s dwindling hopes have gotten to her.

For instance, she has eased off her pointed jabs at Obama. She has pledged anew that she would support the Democratic nominee “no matter what happens.”

On Sunday, daughter Chelsea introduced her in West Virginia. In the past, she has brought her mother to the stage as “the next president of the United States.” Sunday she added the word “hopefully.”

Clinton rejects any suggestion that she’s dropping out of the race. She used campaign stops Sunday to remind voters of women who didn’t give up in difficult situations, who fought for equal rights, broke into male-dominated professions and succeeded when others told them to quit.

She quoted Eleanor Roosevelt, telling supporters: “A woman is like a tea bag. You never know strong she is until she is in hot water.”

Earlier in the day, she read letters from supporters urging her not to give up, despite campaign math that’s nearly impossible to work out in her favor.

Looking only at West Virginia, this should be a confident time for the New York senator. She remains strong among working-class white voters, women and older Americans. Those demographics are expected to carry her to a triumph Tuesday and another in Kentucky next week.

But Obama has a commanding lead in pledged delegates and has erased her lead among superdelegates, the party leaders who can side with any candidate. Obama is focusing on the general election against Republican John McCain.

Clinton’s last best hope is to use strong showings in West Virginia and Kentucky to make the case that Obama is weak among key Democratic constituents.

“Why can’t Senator Obama beat Senator Clinton in West Virginia? Voters there have heard that he’s the presumptive nominee,” Clinton campaign strategist Howard Wolfson said on “Fox News Sunday.” “They’ve seen the great press he’s gotten in the past couple of days. Let’s let them decide. They have an opportunity. They want to end this on Tuesday, they’re perfectly capable of it.”

David Gergen, former White House adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton, said in an AP Broadcast interview in San Francisco, “She says ‘full steam ahead,’ (but) her problem is that she’s running out of track.”

“She was the inevitable nominee and I think they misjudged what they were up against,” Gergen added. “Along comes this phenomenon named Barack Obama and upsets everybody’s calculations. The real problem in the (Clinton) campaign was that they weren’t adaptable, they were not able to change game plan right in the middle once it looked like they had a real fight on their hands.”