U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama on Saturday said Hillary Clinton can stay in the nominating race as long as she wants and expressed confidence that Democrats will coalesce around the winner despite the often bitter contest. ( Reuters )
"My attitude is that Senator Clinton can run as long as she wants. Her name is on the ballot and she is a fierce and formidable competitor," said Obama, adding that the notion that Democrats have been split by the prolonged nominating contest "is somewhat overstated."
Clinton, a New York senator, on Friday vowed to stay in the White House race, rejecting mounting pressure from some Democratic leaders to bow out and let the party focus on defeating the presumptive Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, in the November general election.
Clinton trails Obama in the race for 2,024 Democratic nominating delegates. But she says she can still beat the Illinois senator and that all Democrats should get a chance to vote.
At rallies on Saturday in Indiana and Kentucky, crowds objected loudly when Clinton mentioned calls for the Democratic primary contest to conclude.
"There are some folks saying, 'well, we ought to stop these elections,'" she told a rally in Indianapolis.
"I didn't think we believed that in America. I thought we of all people knew how important it was to give everyone a chance to have their voices heard and their votes counted," Clinton said.
The former first lady who would be the first woman U.S. president also repeated her call to find a way to count votes from Michigan and Florida, which broke party rules by moving up the dates of their contests, disqualifying the results.
Holding out an olive branch to her supporters, Obama said Clinton "obviously believes that she would make the best nominee and the best president and I think that she should be able to compete and her supporters should be able to support her for as long as they are willing or able."
Obama, who would be the first black U.S. president, was on a six-day bus tour through Pennsylvania where Clinton is running well ahead in polls in advance of the April 22 primary.
Obama said the Democratic Party will need to move quickly and decisively to pick its nominee in early June when the state-by-state nominating contests are winding down, and turn its attention to taking on Republicans.
"I think it is important to pivot as quickly as possible for the superdelegates or others to make a decision as quickly as possible," Obama said, to give the nominee time to choose a running mate and plan for the party's convention in August.
Superdelegates are elected officeholders and other party leaders who also weigh in on the nominating contest. Obama and Clinton are avidly courting them to try to lock down the nomination.
Obama also downplayed fears that the contest will continue to divide Democrats in the election against McCain.
"You can't tell me that some of my supporters are going to say 'well, we'd rather have the guy who may want to stay in Iraq for 100 years because we are mad that Senator Clinton ran a negative ad about Senator Obama. And I think the converse is true as well," he said.
Obama and Clinton back pulling U.S. combat troops out of Iraq. McCain has argued they could be needed there for years.
To avoid risking a divided party ahead of the November election, Obama said both campaigns should avoid excessive tactics.
"I do want to make sure that we show some restraint and that we are measured in how we present the contrasts between myself and Senator Clinton," he said.
"And we've been very careful throughout this campaign not to say things that could be used as ammunition for the Republicans if Senator Clinton was the nominee."