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A look at Hillary Clinton

WASHINGTON - Just when it was hard to be sure if she had really tried to code-talk Democrats into fleeing the Black Peril of a Barack Obama presidential candidacy, Hillary Clinton surpassed even that for chutzpah by spreading word that her candidacy should transcend the party campaign rules.

Democratic primary and caucus candidates have campaigned all along on the clear understanding that proportional representation determines their delegate count - they would get delegates in more or less direct proportion to their popular vote counts, in contrast to the winner-take-all system that prevailed in most Republican primary states. It was never supposed to matter that one candidate, in this case Clinton, had received more total votes nationwide than another, or had carried more key states than another. As with horseshoes and hand grenades, closeness was supposed to count - a candidate, in this case Obama, who stayed close enough in states he lost and won enough others, including a few wins going away, could tally enough convention delegates to win the party;s nomination. Every campaign knew it going in, and every campaign paid close attention to the varying delegate-allocation formulas of different primary and caucus states.

Under the rules, and with due regard for the superdelegate votes that can be cast independent of primary or caucus results, Obama is just about strapped in as the next Democratic presidential nominee.

But the comeback Clintons aren't through yet. To the growing chagrin of Democratic officials who have learned to fear party infighting, Clinton and her surrogates have continued to make a special case for her as the nominee. Their case is that she has won more votes nationwide and more of the states that are essential to win in November, ergo Democrats everywhere (but especially superdelegates) should ignore the rules and anoint her the nominee.

So now, just when it was getting hard to be sure the nation wouldn't miss the never-ending Clintonian political drama, the drama has taken another turn. On primary night in the Democratic stronghold state of West Virginia, Clinton delivered a victory over Obama by 41 percentage points. Modern political candidates in free states simply don't win seven votes out of 10, let alone when the opponent happens to be a major party's front-runner.

For Obama, the beating went beyond embarrassing. It was belittling. It generated doubts among opinion leaders that he'll ever be able to attract the blue-collar middle-class voters who have flocked to Clinton. It even heartened Republicans; their congressional candidates may be mired in a practically biblical Slough of Despond - but maybe, as polls suggest, just maybe presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain still has a chance.

After West Virginia, Obama decided not to campaign at all in Kentucky, where Clinton expects to drub him again; and she is gaining in Oregon, though Obama's lead there looks commanding.

Then it will be on to June 3, the final day of the primary season. Democrats in Indian-populous Montana and South Dakota may get the chance to bring Obama home or keep Clinton in the hunt.

The Native vote is strongly Democratic in both states. Clinton has mostly dispatched husband Bill Clinton - the former president - to campaign in border towns and Indian communities. Many Indian people flat-out admire him and appreciate his attention. The reasons why they might are beyond rehearsing here; suffice to say that first lady Hillary Clinton had a hand in some of the administration's initiatives that extended so fruitfully to Indian country.

The fact that Bill Clinton's last visit to Indian country, Pine Ridge in 1999, didn't get high marks afterward for follow-up action on the housing crisis has been banished by the general pleasure of greeting him again. His speeches have lost none of their electricity for the faithful, and there is little sign they don't believe him when he insists his wife still has a chance to win the party's nomination. He has pledged to work on Indian affairs from the White House when she is elected president.

For all that, the question of the hour for the Indian vote is whether the reception shown the former president will matter for Hillary Clinton the candidate. Despite the skepticism expressed by some for pre-election promises from any politician, and notwithstanding Obama's edge in endorsements from tribal leaders in the two states, testimonials keep suggesting that Hillary Clinton is on a roll with Indian voters, whether they'll agree to be quoted or not.

''We're sure going to do our part here,'' said Norma Bixby, director of tribal education for the Northern Cheyenne in Lame Deer, Mont. An Indian rally for Clinton will take place sometime before June 3, she said, and enthusiasm is running high. ''I'm sure it's going to be exciting all across the state.''

Her allegiance begins with President Bill Clinton. ''Overall, I think he really tried to open some doors for tribes.''

It doesn't end with him, though. He was a good president, Bixby said, but he and Hillary are a great team. She's not voting for her because of Bill Clinton or because she's a woman. ''Hillary would be an excellent president. She would make those hard decisions. ... With Obama, I don't get that feeling from him. He takes a philosophic approach, with his flowery speeches. They compare him with John F. Kennedy, but maybe only for his speeches. ... I don't see the hard decisions coming from him.''

Bixby had a view of the Cherokee freedmen issue that put her on the fight a bit with Obama. She feared his membership in the Congressional Black Caucus would lead him to override the right of tribes to determine their citizenship, a sovereignty offense in her view. (The CBC is determined to punish the Cherokee for expelling its freedmen - tribal citizen descendants of slaves and free blacks who lived among the Cherokee before, during and after the Civil War.)

Outgoing word hadn't yet reached Bixby that Obama recently released a position statement upholding tribal sovereignty and urging the caucus to back off the Cherokee until courts can sort out the issue. After a brief discussion of the position paper, she allowed that it was an improvement. ''But I'd vote for Hillary anyway.''