By Susan Milligan, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- Hillary Clinton will take the Democratic nomination even if she does not win the popular vote, but persuades enough superdelegates to vote for her at the convention, her campaign advisers say.
The New York senator, who lost three primaries Tuesday night, now lags slightly behind her rival, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, in the delegate count. She is even further behind in "pledged'' delegates, those assigned by virtue of primaries and caucuses.
But Clinton will not concede the race to Obama if he wins a greater number of pledged delegates by the end of the primary season, and will count on the 796 elected officials and party bigwigs to put her over the top, if necessary, said Clinton's communications director, Howard Wolfson.
"I want to be clear about the fact that neither campaign is in a position to win this nomination without the support of the votes of the superdelegates,'' Wolfson told reporters in a conference call.
"We don't make distinctions between delegates chosen by million of voters in a primary and those chosen between tens of thousands in caucuses,'' Wolfson said. "And we don't make distinctions when it comes to elected officials'' who vote as superdelegates at the convention.
"We are interested in acquiring delegates, period,'' he added.
Clinton advisers rejected the notion that the candidate -- and the party -- would be badly wounded in the general election if the nominee were essentially selected by a group of party insiders.
"This is a nomination system that exists of caucuses, primaries, superdelegates and also the issue of voters in Florida and Michigan,'' states whose delegates currently will not be seated at the convention because they broke party rules by moving up their primaries to January, said Mark Penn, senior strategist for the Clinton campaign. But "whoever the nominee is, the party will come together behind that nominee,'' he said.
With the battle for the Democratic nomination excruciatingly close, supporters of both campaigns are questioning the nominating process. The Clinton camp has suggested that the caucuses -- where Obama has bested Clinton in all but one state -- are inherently undemocratic, since only a small percentage of eligible voters are able to make it to a caucus site and commit the time to vote at a particular hour.
Clinton -- who initially joined other Democrats in opposing Michigan and Florida's decisions to go ahead with early primaries -- now wants the votes of those primaries counted. The Obama camp thinks that idea is unfair, since candidates were not allowed to campaign in those states, and Clinton alone kept her name on the Michigan ballot, meaning Obama did not have a chance at getting even provisional delegates.
Superdelegates should "vote their conscience,'' despite how their states voted, Wolfson said. Penn noted that the Obama campaign, for example, has not asked Massachusetts Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry to cast superdelegate votes for Clinton, although the Bay State voted overwhelmingly for her in the primary.
The two candidates head into contests next week in Hawaii and Wisconsin; Obama is leading in the polls in both states. The Clinton campaign is pinning its hopes on the March 4 states of Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island, but Wolfson said yesterday the campaign is opening offices in every remaining primary and caucus state, including Puerto Rico.