WASHINGTON Barack Obama pushed close to victory in the marathon Democratic presidential race Monday on the eve of a final pair of primaries amid signs that Hillary Rodham Clinton was preparing to acknowledge defeat.
Said a confident-sounding Obama: "I told her that once the dust settled I'm looking forward to meeting with her at a time and place of her choosing." That was from a conversation the two rivals had on Sunday night. He did not describe her response.
He also said he would begin thinking about a vice presidential running mate "the day after I have gotten that last delegate needed to officially claim the nomination."
The former first lady gave no public hint of quitting the race, and she has said repeatedly she might continue her candidacy even beyond the end of the primaries.
But her husband, former President Bill Clinton, strongly suggested otherwise. "This may be the last day I'm ever involved in a campaign of this kind," he said as he worked for his wife in South Dakota.
Obama, bidding to become the first black major party nominee in history, was 41.5 delegates shy of the 2,118, needed to clinch the nomination at the party's convention in Denver, according to The Associated Press count. He gained 5.5 delegates during the day Monday, including Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, a member of the House leadership who scheduled a formal announcement for today.
Obama's aides prodded uncommitted lawmakers and other "superdelegates" to climb on board quickly as Clinton struggled to hold back the tide.
Rep. Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania, who is uncommitted, said Obama's goal was to be in position to seal the nomination tonight, once the votes are tallied and delegates awarded from primaries in Montana and South Dakota. The first-term congressman, whose district voted for Clinton in the state's April primary, said he would not be immediately joining the endorsers. "I'm not going to do anything before the results tomorrow night," he said.
Clinton, the long-ago front-runner, was not far behind Obama in delegates. She had 1,917.5 after adding two during the day.
But there was no doubt that the historic nominating campaign, pitting a black man against a woman, was nearing an end.
If nothing else, the candidates' itineraries said as much.
The former first lady campaigned into the night in South Dakota, scratching for a primary triumph that could somehow persuade uncommitted superdelegates to back her, before heading home to New York for a post-primary appearance Tuesday night.
"I'm just very grateful we kept this campaign going until South Dakota would have the last word," she said at a restaurant in Rapid City.
Obama looked ahead to the general election by campaigning in Michigan, a likely battleground state in the fall campaign.
He said that when he called Clinton on Sunday to congratulate her on her Puerto Rico primary victory, he broached the topic of a meeting.
"The sooner we can bring the party together, the sooner we can focus on John McCain and taking back the White House," he said.
Obama stopped short of a flat prediction that he would be able to claim victory Tuesday night when the delegates were allocated after the day's primaries. But he said, "It is my sense that between Tuesday and Wednesday we have a good chance of getting that number of delegates" needed for victory.
Obama arranged a Tuesday night speech in Minnesota, at the site of the Republican National Convention that will nominate Arizona Sen. McCain in September.
Democratic Party leaders watched impatiently from the sidelines, eager for a quick end to a race that drew record millions to voting booths but also exposed racial and other divisions.
Officials said that if Obama failed to gain 2,118 delegates by Tuesday night, one possibility under discussion was for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, who is head of the Democratic Governors' Association, to issue a statement on Wednesday urging superdelegates members of Congress and other party leaders to state their preferences as soon as possible.
Clyburn, the senior black member of Congress, has long been presumed to support Obama. Confirming plans for a formal announcement, he said was lobbying other uncommitted lawmakers to endorse the Illinois senator.
Two Democrats also said Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina would join Clyburn in making an endorsement.
Additionally, a handful of uncommitted senators conferred to plan their next move in the nominating campaign. "A lot of us just feel that the sooner this is sort of put to bed, the sooner we have a nominee, the better off everyone's going to be," said Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, one of the participants.
Clinton has had a strong run through the late primaries, including a lopsided victory on Sunday in the Puerto Rico primary, and she has repeatedly declined to say she would concede defeat if her rival appeared to gain the delegates he needs.
A top aide, Harold Ickes, stressed over the weekend that the campaign reserved the right to challenge a ruling by the convention rules and bylaws committee that he said improperly gave a handful of Michigan delegates to Obama.
But in a conference call during the day with top donors, Ickes said that would probably not happen, according to one participant who described the conversation on condition of anonymity.
Even some of her strongest supporters counseled against it.
"If one candidate has the requisite number of delegates, both pledged and super, it makes it far more difficult to make the credible argument that she stay on in the chance that some superdelegates might change their mind and endorse her later," said Hassan Nemazee, a national co-chairman of Clinton's finance committee.
Ickes also conceded that Obama was likely to reach the delegate threshold by Wednesday, and that Clinton would need some time to consider her next step.
He said there was no political significance to a decision to invite staff aides who have worked for Clinton in primary states to either attend her rally on Tuesday night or return home for further instructions. But officials said the aides had been told they would no longer be paid.
"There are no more primaries so there is nowhere to send them," Ickes said.
The former first lady arranged a private meeting with her donors on Tuesday, and was scheduled to address the national conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington on Wednesday.