Sunday, May 18, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Barack Obama has a lot of work to do.
After a long and contentious presidential nomination battle, Democrats gathered here for their state convention Saturday, with party leaders calling for unity in a tacit acknowledgment that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama will likely secure the nomination.
The message was lost, however, on Clinton supporters, whose reluctance to commit to voting for him in November offered fresh evidence the freshman senator still has to win over many in his own party.
Interviews with a score of Hillary Clinton supporters made clear Obama, a first-term U.S. senator, will have to campaign hard to win them over if — as seems increasingly likely — he is the Democratic nominee in the November election.
Many Clinton supporters said they’re still not sure whether they could support Obama, and some adamantly said “never.”
“I’m struggling with that right now,” said Bianca West, whose conflicted feelings seemed to encapsulate the mood of Clinton supporters as they grapple with the inevitability of Obama as their standard-bearer.
Party leaders who support Clinton, foremost among them her husband, the former president, took a less combative tone with Obama and seemed focused on gently nudging Clinton supporters to back Obama in the fall.
In a speech to the state’s party faithful here that focused on unity, the 42nd president mentioned his wife and Obama only in passing. Clinton trained his guns on Republicans instead.
Since a blowout victory in North Carolina and an unexpected near-victory in Indiana, Obama has racked up big-name endorsements, including that of former candidate and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Superdelegates, the party insiders who will play an important role in deciding the nominee at the Democratic National Convention in August in Denver, are moving into his column.
A dust-up last week between Obama and his Republican opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain, which began with a speech by President Bush before the Israeli Knesset obliquely comparing Obama’s foreign policy to European appeasement of the Nazis in the 1930s, had all the appearances of the start of what promises to be a rollicking general election campaign.
Obama is also winning pledged delegates at state conventions. At Saturday’s convention here, for instance, he won 14 delegates to the Democratic National Convention to Clinton’s 11, even though he lost Nevada’s January caucus by 6 percentage points. (Allocation of delegates is completed through a three-step process of caucus and then county conventions, culminating in Saturday’s state convention.)
Obama captured the convention, where more than 2,500 Democrats gathered, because there were so many Clinton no-shows — evidence, it would seem, of her waning campaign.
To drum up turnout, the Clinton campaign was forced to charter three planes and flew in the famous spouse.
Clinton Nevada Chairman Rory Reid conceded that the dynamics of the race have depressed some supporters.
“When people turn on the TV now they’re being told the race is over,” Reid said, pausing. “It’s been a difficult state of affairs for us.”
But Clinton supporters won’t hear of it.
Many said they want the nomination fight to continue and derided the national media for portraying Obama as the presumptive nominee. Many said they had traveled to Reno from Las Vegas on flights chartered by the Clinton campaign.
“One must die at the finish line and not before,” said Ana Uriarte of Las Vegas. “Like Hillary said, she’s in it to win it. And we’ll do what it takes to get her there.”
She added: “We don’t go away easily.”
Many Clinton backers said they could be persuaded to back Obama, but some, like Uriarte, said they could not cross over.
Uriarte, a 37-year-old Clark County public employee and Clinton precinct captain, said there’s still too much bad blood from what she called caucus-day shenanigans on the part of the Obama campaign. She also cited the controversy over Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and his inflammatory beliefs such as blaming AIDS on the federal government.
Uriarte said she’ll write in Clinton in the fall if she isn’t the nominee.
The question of whether to support Obama in November is dividing some friends and families.
Sheila Milko said she’ll support Obama to prevent another Republican from capturing the White House. She depicted a scene of harmony at the convention and praised Obama convention delegates for their comity and respect. “We hugged,” she said.
Her friend Mary Lucero said she’ll vote for the progressive icon Ralph Nader, who did in then-Vice President Al Gore’s chances in 2000, before she votes for Obama.
Louise Wadelski said she wouldn’t vote for Obama because she has “never cared for his style, his lack of experience.”
Her husband, David Squire, said he’ll certainly vote for Obama. He said he’s deeply worried about the Supreme Court, which the next president could help shape because a few justices are aging and/or expected to retire.
Many Clinton supporters, showing their unswerving devotion to the New York senator, said they’ll take their signal from her. This means Clinton will have to play a crucial role in bringing her supporters over to the Obama column, if and when she decides to endorse him.
“Only Hillary can persuade me” to vote for Obama, Wadelski said.
Many embittered Clinton supporters complain their candidate was the victim of a vindictive, sexist press corps.
Party leaders, not oblivious to the task ahead, have begun laying the groundwork to unify the party by winning over the Clinton-leaning grass roots.
That effort was sounded by Bill Clinton himself, when he admonished the gathering: “Don’t you forget why you came here. You did not go to all this trouble to have an argument with each other ... Let’s make our differences clear on the issues, talk about solutions and once everyone has voted, stand united.”
He added that after Democrats determine their nominee, “We have to get this show on the road.”
Other leaders fell right in line.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, who endorsed Clinton before the Nevada caucus, spent her lengthy speech banging away on McCain and calling for Democrats to come together.
Assemblyman Ruben Kihuen, who was courted heavily by all the candidates before backing Clinton, praised the former president’s call for unity and said the party will stand behind Obama, if indeed he’s the nominee.
Kihuen said his constituents, many of whom are Hispanic and backed Clinton by a wide margin, will be happy to support Obama if and when the time comes.
Obama’s failure to win Hispanic votes has been viewed as a key deficiency, with some observers asserting it’s related to racial tensions between blacks and Hispanics.
Not so, Kihuen said. They supported Clinton because of her long-standing ties to the community and memories of good times when her husband was president.
Kihuen said he personally likes Obama and said, “I’m ready for a nominee.”
Assemblyman Tick Segerblom, who backed Edwards, was even more succinct in his assessment of the end of the Democratic race and a new readiness to take on McCain full-bore: “Bigger fish to fry.”