SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Hillary Clinton won a lopsided, but largely symbolic victory yesterday in Puerto Rico's presidential primary, the final act in a weekend of tumult that pushed Barack Obama tantalizingly close to the Democratic presidential nomination.
The former first lady was winning roughly two-thirds of the votes as she continued a strong run through the late primaries.
Before cheering supporters, she predicted she would have more combined votes than her rival when the primaries end tomorrow night, claimed victories in key swing states and said that no contender will command enough delegates to claim the nomination.
"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 election?" she said in an appeal to some 200 uncommitted superdelegates who hold the balance of power in the fight for the nomination.
"Which candidate is best able to lead us to 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?"
Obama and his aides projected confidence, and even in defeat, he gained 17 delegates in Puerto Rico, leaving him 47 short of the 2,118 needed to clinch the nomination.
Contrary to Clinton, they predicted he was on track to gain a delegate majority shortly after the primaries in South Dakota and Montana, and questioned her popular-vote claim. Her assertion includes estimates for caucuses in Iowa, Nevada, Maine and Washington state, where no official candidate popular vote is available. It also includes the results from Florida, where no campaigning occurred, as well as Michigan, where Obama did not receive any votes because his name was not on the ballot.
Campaigning in Mitchell, S.D., the Illinois senator praised the former first lady in terms usually reserved for a vanquished rival.
"First of all, Senator Clinton is an outstanding public servant, she has worked tirelessly during this campaign . . . and she is going to be a great asset when we go into November," he told his audience. "Whatever differences Senator Clinton and I may have, those differences pale in comparison to the other side."
Obama's confidence in the outcome of the historic battle between a woman and a black man for the nomination reflected the results of Saturday's meeting of the Democratic Party's rules and bylaws committee. Before an audience that jeered and cheered by turns, the panel voted to seat disputed delegations from Michigan and Florida, but give each delegate only one-half vote rather than the full vote sought by the Clinton campaign.
While the decision narrowed the gap between Clinton and Obama, it also erased the former first lady's last, best chance to change the course of the campaign.
With 99 percent of the precincts reporting, the Puerto Rico vote count showed Clinton with 261,916 votes, or 68 percent, to Obama's 120,929, or 32 percent.
Obama had a total of 2,071 delegates in the Associated Press count, including 17 from Puerto Rico. He also gained the support of two superdelegates during the day.
Clinton has 1915.5, including 38 from Puerto Rico.
There are 31 delegates combined at stake in Montana and South Dakota tomorrow, and Obama's high command sounded confident that enough superdelegates were poised to quickly climb on and deliver him the nomination.
There have been numerous statements by party leaders in recent days indicating they favor a quick end to the presidential race so the party can begin unifying for the fall race against Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who wrapped up the Republican nomination months ago.
And while Clinton's campaign said it reserved the right to challenge the decision concerning Michigan's delegates, Speaker Nancy Pelosi rushed out a statement Saturday night that congratulated the committee "for its good work."
Robert Gibbs, a senior aide, did not rule out the possibility that Obama will seat the Michigan and Florida delegations at full strength if he is the nominee. Gibbs appeared on ABC's "This Week."
Clinton's campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, appearing on the same program, declined to say what Clinton would do. "We'll see where we are when we finish up Tuesday," he said. "Then superdelegates will begin to move."
He, as well as Clinton's communications director, Howard Wolfson, said the former first lady had won more votes than Obama in the course of the primary campaign - an argument she placed in a new television advertisement in South Dakota and Montana, and one she makes to undecided superdelegates. *