Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, is gearing up for a tough face-to-face confrontation with his defeated rival Hillary Clinton over her demand to become the vice-presidential candidate.
The Obama camp, though anxious to pull the party together after a bitterly fought contest with Clinton, is hostile to the idea of having her on a joint ticket. They fear that having her and Bill Clinton in the heart of the campaign and in the White House would be disruptive.
Clinton is expected to end her campaign for the White House tomorrow, bowing to pressure from Democratic leaders to help the party unite around Obama as the nominee. Her exit arrived after signs of rising frustration from Democratic members of Congress at Clinton's refusal to concede the race or congratulate Obama for clinching the nomination.
They feared Clinton's refusal to acknowledge her defeat could hurt the party's prospects against the Republican John McCain in November.
Clinton aides said she made the decision following a late afternoon conference call with 22 Democratic leaders who had been supporting her campaign. One of those supporters, the New York member of Congress, Charlie Rangel, was visibly angry, chiding Clinton in TV interviews for failing to acknowledge Obama's victory.
Clinton is expected to make her official announcement at an event in Washington, according to her communications director Howard Wolfson. She told staff at her campaign headquarters to stop coming to work from tomorrow.
The issue of how to handle Clinton has become Obama's first big test as the Democratic nominee.
In an indication that he was preparing to snub her for the vice-presidential role, Obama confirmed that he is commissioning three prominent Democrats to vet potential vice-presidential candidates. They are Caroline Kennedy, a member of one of America's most prominent political families and an early Obama supporter; Jim Johnson, a Democratic businessman; and Eric Holder, deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said: "Senator Obama is pleased to have three talented and dedicated individuals managing this rigorous process."
Obama became the presumptive Democratic nominee on Tuesday night after the last two contests of a race that spanned 54 primaries and caucuses beginning in January. He won Montana 56% to 42% but she took South Dakota 56% to 44%. The share of delegates he won in these contests pushed him over the finishing line of 2,118 delegates. He is to be formally adopted as nominee at the party conference in Denver in August.
Robert Gibbs, Obama's communications director, said Obama and Clinton had spoken early yesterday and agreed to meet. "When the dust settles and it makes sense for her, he'll meet whenever she wants to," he said.
The former Democratic president Jimmy Carter highlighted the dilemma when, in a Guardian interview, he said it would be a mistake for Obama to have her as his vice-presidential nominee.
"I think it would be the worst mistake that could be made," said Carter, who endorsed Obama on Tuesday night. "That would accumulate the negative aspects of both candidates." Lanny Davis, a close Clinton adviser and friend, was among those who yesterday launched petition drives and websites, and writing directly to Obama. Another supporter, Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, said he wrote to the Congressional Black Caucus urging members to push Obama to choose Clinton. He said he had spoken with her on Tuesday and she was "absolutely ready" to become vice-president.
Over the last few months, even though it was obvious that the arithmetic was stacked against her, she refused to speak publicly about becoming vice-president. The first inkling came on Tuesday when she spoke to members of Congress who support her and indicated her interest. That hardened up after the polls closed on Tuesday and by yesterday had become a full-on campaign.
Obama and Clinton met yesterday in Washington on the sidelines of the annual conference of the pro-Israeli lobby group, Aipac. Obama said afterwards there was no detailed discussion: "We're going to be having a conversation in the coming week," he said.
A Clinton aide said it would be a major problem for Obama not to put her on the ticket because many of the 18 million people who voted for her would not necessarily vote for him: the Hispanics, the white working class and women.
The Obama team hopes that the pressure to put her on a joint ticket will die away over the next few days and allow him to focus on McCain.
The Republican candidate yesterday congratulated Obama on his victory and challenged him to a town hall debate every week between now and the Democratic convention at the end of August.
McCain, speaking at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said John F Kennedy had made such an agreement with former Senator Barry Goldwater for the 1964 election.
"I don't think we need any big media-run production, no process question from reporters, no spin rooms," McCain said. "Just two Americans running for office in the greatest nation on earth, responding to the questions of the people whose trust we must earn."
He suggested the first town hall be held on June 12 in New York.
David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, said such meetings would allow "a great conversation to take place about the need to change the direction of this country". The two teams are to enter into talks about the structure and timetable.
© 2008 The Guardian