In West Virginia, Clinton’s Disciples Persevere

Washington Post; May 11, 2008; by Eli Saslow

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — They traveled here from New York, Pennsylvania and Indiana last week to stand in the rain on a rural street corner, at a four-way intersection of winding mountain roads. One woman, a doctor, took vacation time from her job to make the trip. Another, a mother of three, hired a babysitter for the first time in months.

The 10 volunteers, linked by a resolve to keep Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign alive by helping her win Tuesday’s West Virginia primary, met to wave campaign signs patched together with duct tape. They cheered as the first car, a beat-up white Volvo, rolled toward the intersection, and a young man in aviator sunglasses leaned out his driver’s-side window.

“Hey,” he said. “Don’t you think you’re wasting your time?”

Clinton’s most loyal supporters — the ones still standing on street corners — have adopted their candidate’s motto, even as she trails Sen. Barack Obama by an insurmountable margin in pledged delegates: to fight like hell, despite dim odds and denigration, until someone officially wins the Democratic nomination.

But on this day, the intersection of Highway 480 and German Street, where they stood, divided Shepherdstown into two factions. College kids from Shepherd University approached from the north, angry that Clinton has remained in a race she appears destined to lose. Truck drivers and farmers approached from the south, their support for Clinton fortified by her perseverance.

The two groups met at the intersection in a cacophony of honking horns and shouting that echoed across this town of about 1,000 near the Maryland border. After two hours, Luanne Smith had heard enough.

“It’s become so personal, just one insult after another,” Smith said. “These sides are starting to feel some hate for each other. Everybody is angry, but I’m going to keep at this as long as I can. I never want to look myself in the mirror and say, ‘You quit. You didn’t do your part.’ ”

Even if Smith and the other volunteers help Clinton win by a large margin in West Virginia, it’s unlikely to help her overcome the momentum and lead in delegates that now give Obama’s campaign a sense of inevitability. West Virginia awards only 38 delegates, and its population — mostly white, rural and working class — consists of the exact demographic that has supported Clinton in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana. Obama campaign aides subtly shifted their focus to the general election after the results in the North Carolina and Indiana primaries last week, apparently content to concede Clinton a victory here.

Smith traveled from her home in Burke, Va., and checked into the Super 8 Motel because she’d grown tired of hearing her friends insist it was time to give up. “She’s going to win so big,” Smith said, “that it will force people to see all of the possibilities.”

Smith, who also volunteered for Clinton in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, read about plans for Thursday’s honk-and-wave event on a campaign Web site. She arrived at the corner wearing a black fanny pack and red blouse decorated with Clinton stickers. Other volunteers parked nearby saw Smith’s outfit and greeted her with handshakes and half hugs.

“I don’t even know these other women, but I feel like I do,” said Zenia Kuzma, from Shepherdstown. “We’ve been going through this same ordeal together.”

All 10 women watched on television Tuesday night as Clinton lost badly to Obama in North Carolina and won narrowly in Indiana. All 10 listened to pundits and politicians implore Clinton to quit the race, and heard friends and family members insist that voting for Clinton had become utterly pointless.

The women stood on the street, outlining a scenario in which Clinton could still win the nomination: big victories in several of the six remaining primaries, including West Virginia’s. Public endorsements from John Edwards and Al Gore. Counting primary results from Michigan and Florida. A sudden and overwhelming tide of support from undecided superdelegates to establish her as the clear-cut nominee.

“It’s doable, really,” said Mary Bell, a 56-year-old retired lawyer from Shepherdstown. “We’ll take it one week at a time, just like she’s doing. Obama might not be tough enough for this job, and she’s proving she’s a fighter. It’s the little things, like getting out on the street and showing support, that can help you win this campaign one day at a time.”

They arranged themselves at the intersection in a way that no passerby could possibly ignore them. Lisa Florek, a 39-year-old from Charles Town, W.Va., held up two cardboard signs and chanted Clinton’s name. Gerrie Nussdorf, a volunteer from New York, offered each driver a sticker.

Smith and Kuzma stood behind a 10-foot-long sign and listened to a developing pattern. Trucks headed out of town honked in support and encouragement. Compacts destined for the college or the nearby coffee shop slowed down and offered very different suggestions.

“Give up already,” shouted a woman in a red jeep.

“Boo. Clinton’s a loser,” said a man in a blue sedan.

“What are you doing?” asked a passenger in a weathered Pontiac. “Didn’t you hear Clinton already lost?”

After each insult, Smith and Kuzma glared straight ahead, venting to each other only after the drivers had pulled away.

“This just isn’t very nice,” Kuzma said. “These are some mean people.”

“Every one of them is the same — skinny kids who’ve never experienced anything but college,” Smith said. “The more I’m involved, the angrier I get. Every call for her to get out of the race just incenses me. It makes me crazy. Who are you? Who in the world are you to tell this woman who’s done so much that it’s time for her to be quiet and sit down?”

In Shepherdstown, Obama and Clinton supporters have withdrawn into such tight cliques that reconciliation seems unlikely, some of the women said. Obama supporters damage yard signs; Clinton supporters take their complaints about unruliness to the local press. When Clinton visited Shepherd University for a rally Wednesday, a dozen students showed up with Obama signs and chanted before Clinton took the lectern.

“I don’t recall any other primary where the other side has been a little bit abrasive like this,” said Bell, the retired lawyer from Shepherdstown. “That’s just their style, and it can sometimes come off as harsh.”

As Bell stood on the corner, a young man leaving the university in a black pickup slowed down as he approached the intersection. Bell guessed that he was an Obama supporter, and she held up her sign and prepared for another insult or a pithy remark or some dismissive gesture.

The man rolled down his window and stopped in front of Bell.

“Hey,” he said. “Keep fighting.”

“Oh,” Bell said. “Thanks. You can bet we will.”


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