By Susan Milligan, Globe Staff
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Senator Hillary Clinton scored a lopsided victory in the Puerto Rico primary today, boosting both her spirits and her popular vote count, but offering little hope that she can catch rival Senator Barack Obama by the end of the Democratic presidential primary season on Tuesday.
Even in defeat, Obama crept closer to the nomination, picking up at least 15 of Puerto Rico's 55 pledged delegates. Obama is now about 50 delegates short of the 2,118 needed to sew up a clear majority, according to the latest Associated Press tally, and Obama's advisers believe they will get a slew of superdelegate endorsements after Tuesday's primaries to make it official.
Obama still must unite a Democratic Party bitterly divided during the wrenching and lengthy campaign -- a challenge he acknowledged today as he addressed supporters in South Dakota, which along with Montana hold primaries Tuesday.
Clinton "is going to be a great asset when we go into November to make sure we beat the Republicans. That I promise you. Whatever differences Senator Clinton and I may have, those differences pale in comparison to the other side,'' Obama told a rally yesterday in Mitchell, before launching into a general election speech.
Clinton and her campaign, however, gave no indication that she is ready to concede.
"The people have spoken and you have chosen your candidate," she told screaming supporters at a hotel rally in San Juan. "Senora! Presidente!'' -- Spanish for "Madame President" -- they shouted in reply.
The New York senator also directly addressed the remaining 200 or so undeclared superdelegates, whose endorsements she would have to virtually sweep to stop Obama from clinching the nomination. She claimed she now leads in total popular vote -- a count disputed by the Obama campaign -- and she argued that she would be stronger than Obama among swing voters and in battleground states Democrats need to defeat presumptive GOP nominee John McCain in the fall.
"I do not envy the decision you must make," she told superdelegates, "but a decision has to be made, and in the final assessment, I ask you to consider these questions: Which candidate best represents the will of the people who voted in this historic primary? Which candidate is best able to lead to us victory in November? And which candidate is best able to lead our nation as our president in the face of unprecedented challenges at home and abroad?"
But even as the Clinton campaign insisted it would fight on, the former first lady struck a conciliatory tone in her victory speech, recognizing Obama's supporters -- a line that brought boos and hisses from the boisterous crowd -- and delivering an extensive series of thank-yous to her staff and to those union members and Latinos who have been so critical to her campaign successes.
"We must elect a Democratic president,'' Clinton urged the crowd, a rare public reference to the possibility she might not be the nominee.
Puerto Rico, where Clinton is popular and voters usually turn out in numbers exceeding 80 percent of eligible voters, offered her best hope to pull ahead in the popular vote. But with discontent on the island over Puerto Rico's limited status and power -- residents can vote in primaries, but not the general election -- many voters stayed home.
"It's a joke,'' said Milda Jimenez, 65, as she demonstrated at a rally yesterday morning to protest the holding of the primary. "We don't hate the US. But we are a territory, a colony, and we won't get anything out of'' participating in the primary, she said.
Clinton, who campaigned tirelessly in the US territory and played on politically powerful connections between the island and her home state of New York, captured 68 percent of the vote, compared to 32 percent for Obama. But with 93 percent of the vote counted, there were about 355,000 total votes -- not the 2 million the Clinton campaign had hoped.
Still, the win was welcome news to the Clinton campaign, which is quickly running out of options to contest the nomination.
A Democratic National Committee panel on Saturday rejected Clinton's demand to seat all of the delegates from Florida and Michigan, both of which violated party rules by moving up their primaries to January. The compromise -- which gives the two states' delegates a half vote each -- helped Clinton narrow the delegate gap with Obama slightly, but she is still about 160 delegates behind.
The Clinton campaign is still pressing to recalculate the delegate count in Michigan, where the Illinois senator was not on the ballot but was awarded 59 delegates to Clinton's 69, holding open the possibility that it may challenge the Michigan ruling before the credentials committee of the DNC later this month.
"This does not unify the party, this crazy, cockamamie thing they came up with in Michigan,'' Clinton's campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, told reporters in San Juan today.
The compromise on Florida and Michigan, however, did give Clinton an opening to count her victories in the two states as part of her unofficial popular vote total.
Monday, she will begin airing a new TV ad in Montana and South Dakota touting the fact that she has received more votes -- more than 17.6 million -- than "any primary candidate in history.'' The ad carefully avoids declaring that Clinton has won a majority of the popular vote, a claim disputed by the Obama campaign, in part because Clinton's count does not include several states where he won caucuses.
"The fact is that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have gotten more votes than any presidential campaign in primary history. We are, however, ahead in the popular vote now and will be ahead when all of the votes are counted Tuesday. That's not taking anything away from what she's accomplished, it's just a fact,'' Obama spokesman Bill Burton said in an e-mail.
Further, Burton pointed out, the nomination is decided by which contender has the larger number of delegates, and "a majority of those delegates will soon be Senator Obama's.''
The Illinois lawmaker is favored in both the Montana and South Dakota primaries, which offer a combined total of 31 delegates.
McAuliffe said the campaign hoped to get a spike in contributions after today's commanding win, and would decide its next move after tomorrow's final primaries. "We're going to look at all our options. All our options are on the table,'' he said.
Clinton, meanwhile, sounded almost wistful as she reflected on the people she has met and the places she has seen in her long fight for the nomination.
"This campaign has been an extraordinary journey," she said. "And I am grateful for every day of it."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.