WASHINGTON - A cash-strapped Hillary Clinton faced a stinging call Wednesday to give up her bid for the Democratic nomination as Barack Obama plotted strategy for a White House run this fall.
Weakened by a big loss in North Carolina and a razor-thin win in Indiana this week, Clinton put on her game face and vowed to fight to the end. But it seemed like the end had already begun.
Pundits who've written her off before publicly pronounced the race was over. But many Democrats also said privately the latest contests sealed the outcome.
Clinton, who hasn't been able to overtake Obama's lead in state delegates, is running out of time and ammunition to sway the party brass and legislators who will decide the race
In a sign of the times, she was loaning her campaign more of her own money - $6.4 million this time - while Obama was picking up the support of at least four more of those so-called superdelegates.
And she may be facing widespread defections in coming days now that George McGovern, a prominent party elder and longtime friend, urged Clinton to drop out, saying it's virtually impossible for her to win.
"The time has come from Democrats to unite to get ready for a tough race this fall against Senator (John) McCain," said McGovern, who endorsed Obama.
Clinton brushed off the bad news, saying: "I respect him and he has a right to make whatever decision he wants."
Others were more circumspect, signalling subtly that it's time for her to go.
"It's her decision to make and I'll accept what decision she makes," said Senator Chuck Schumer, a stalwart supporter.
Schumer didn't answer when asked about her chances of winning.
And it was hardly comforting that close ally Senator Diane Feinstein of California said she needs to talk to Clinton to see "what the strategy is" for the rest of the campaign.
"I think the race is reaching a point now where there are negative dividends from it in terms of strife within the party," said Feinstein.
It hasn't been easy for the Democratic party to watch Clinton's uphill battle with Obama become bloodier and more divisive while McCain is free to focus on November's election.
And talk has already turned to just how the loser's departure should play out.
"How the loser loses will determine whether the winner can go on and win," said Rahm Emanuel, a former Clinton administration aide who is now a Chicago area congressman.
"If you look at history, whether it was Ted Kennedy in 1980 versus Jimmy Carter in that primary, or Ronald Reagan in '76 with Gerald Ford, both of those candidates, how they lost their spirited primaries, affected the winner's ability to move on and have an effective general election."
Obama's aides made it clear he has no intention of trying to push Clinton out - at least not publicly. He has always said he expects the race to run its course through the last six contests ending June 3.
"We respect Senator Clinton. She's a formidable person, a tenacious candidate," said Obama's chief strategist David Axelrod.
"It's not up to us to tell her what to do. That wouldn't be respectful or appropriate."
But Obama's campaign suggested that some 270 of nearly 800 superdelegates who are still undecided need to make up their minds fast.
And Obama has his eye firmly fixed on the nomination. He'll soon begin campaigning in states likely to be pivotal in the fall, not just the ones still voting to determine who will face off against McCain.
"We can see the finish line," said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe.
As for Clinton, she was holding a private meeting with uncommitted officials Wednesday.
Her hope for hanging in is that Democrats will have some kind of buyer's remorse about the first-term Illinois senator, whom she's tried to paint as a rookie who substitutes soaring rhetoric for substance.
"I'm staying in this race until there's a nominee," Clinton declared after a rally in Shepherdstown, W.Va., which votes next Tuesday.
"What matters is what strength you have going into the general election. We should stay focused on nominating the strongest campaign against Senator McCain and who would be the best president."
Besides, said Clinton, if Democrats used Republican rules in picking delegates - which include some winner take-all-states: "I'd already be the nominee."
"We have a much more complicated process."
Obama, who leads in states won and the popular vote, has 1,840.5 delegates to 1,688 for Clinton out of the 2,025 required, according to the Associated Press.
Clinton is insisting that Florida and Michigan delegates be seated at the party's August convention. She won those states but they were shut out by the party because they held their primaries early.
Counting them would help her but it still wouldn't get her where she needs to be. The party rules committee is meeting on the issue at the end of the month.
So far, the two candidates have been largely splitting the decided superdelegates, who are free to change their minds at any time.
Some were convinced Clinton had the best chance of beating McCain because she's shown during the nomination race that she can pick up large swing states and attract white blue-collar workers crucial to taking back the Oval Office.
Obama, meantime, has been attracting a different constituency: blacks, young voters, the affluent and the educated.
Those trends, including the racial split, were evident Tuesday in North Carolina, where Obama won by 14 per cent, and Indiana, where Clinton eked out a two-point margin.
Exit polls also revealed some troubling signs about how tough it may be to reunite the party after the nominee is chosen.
A third of Clinton supporters in both states said they'd vote for McCain over Obama in November. Another 12 per cent in North Carolina and 16 per cent in Indiana said they wouldn't vote at all.