WASHINGTON — She's darting around the country like a full-fledged presidential candidate, but within Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's circle of advisors and donors, the conversation has turned to how she can make a dignified exit from the race.
Outwardly, Clinton operated Thursday as if the disappointing results from Indiana and North Carolina never happened. She made stops in West Virginia and South Dakota, while her husband held a conference call with top fundraisers. Before dawn, one of her advisors, Mark Penn, crafted a memo outlining future campaign strategy.
But for all the signs of normalcy, much of the infrastructure that keeps the New York senator's campaign going -- the aides, donors and political allies -- is resigned to the hard reality that the Democratic nomination now appears out of reach.
One Clinton aide said Thursday: "There is a profound sadness" among the staff. "I don't think anyone sees that there's a clear path to victory here."
Richard Schiffrin, a national finance co-chairman for Clinton, is scheduled to meet with other fundraisers and her next week. Schiffrin said he would tell her: "Let's look at the situation as it exists and think about whether there's a credible path to the nomination, and if there isn't, what's Plan B?"
He added: "The bottom line is she's going to make a decision that in my view will be in the best interests of the party and the country."
Clinton launched a three-state, 21-hour, cross-country marathon campaign swing Thursday. Speaking to several hundred supporters in the marble-lined dome of the state Capitol in Charleston, W.Va., she acknowledged that she had come under growing pressure to drop out. She suggested that she would stay at least until Tuesday's primary there.
"Some folks say, 'You've got to end this before you get to West Virginia,' " she said. "I think we want to keep this going so the people of West Virginia's voices are heard."
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) left the campaign trail for a star turn on Capitol Hill, where even Republican lawmakers elbowed past colleagues in the House chamber to shake his hand.
On "NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams," Obama denied that he was the presumptive nominee. "Not yet. I will be," he said, "if Sen. Clinton decides not to go on, or if we complete the six contests and we are ahead as we are now. But nothing is certain. I don't want to take it for granted."
Having invested 16 months and raised more than $200 million in the campaign, Clinton may find it difficult to quit. Her campaign persona is now built on the idea that she's working-class America's scrappy warrior. So dropping out with six contests left in the campaign season would be awkward.
And those who have spoken to her say she is reluctant to leave.
Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.) met privately with Clinton on Wednesday at the Democratic National Committee's offices in Washington. "She wasn't talking exit. She's talking winning," Mahoney said.
Chris Lehane, who served in President Clinton's administration, said: "Having worked for them, I would never, ever count out a Clinton: Bill, Hillary, Chelsea or the cat, Socks. One of the primary reasons she has remained extremely competitive in this race is that people have extrapolated she's a fighter."
But even trusted aides don't see how she can wrest the nomination from Obama.
They are divided over what course she should follow. Some believe she should not drop out until the last contests on June 3. Others contend she should exit "gracefully" sometime this month.
Ultimately, an aide said, Clinton will decide with her husband what to do; staff won't be consulted on so momentous a decision. The aide and others associated with the campaign requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for the campaign.
Some members of Clinton's circle are thinking through the conditions under which she might concede the race.
One supporter familiar with the campaign's operations said that Clinton wanted to go out on a positive note -- say, after winning in West Virginia and Kentucky, whose primaries are May 13 and 20, respectively.
She also would want a resolution to the disputed elections in Florida and Michigan, the campaign supporter said. That would enable her to say she worked successfully to give those voters a voice.
The Democratic Party nullified the outcomes in Florida and Michigan as punishment for their leapfrogging other states on the election calendar. Clinton won both elections, but neither candidate officially campaigned in the two states, and Obama's name wasn't on the ballot in Michigan.
On Thursday, Clinton sent Obama a letter asking him to help her ensure that Florida and Michigan voters "have a voice in selecting our party's nominee."
The dispute could be resolved as soon as May 31 by the Democratic National Committee's rules panel, which has the authority to reinstate the delegations or fashion a compromise.
Given Obama's formidable lead in delegates, he could agree to seat the entire delegations from both states and still maintain his advantage over Clinton. In short, compromising with Clinton on this point might not cost Obama much.
"If you've resolved Michigan and Florida and she wins a couple of more states -- West Virginia and Kentucky -- and she still can't get the nomination barring an act of God, I don't think she stays in the race," the Clinton supporter said.
Though she is campaigning actively, Clinton is now avoiding direct attacks on Obama, choosing a more muted approach.
In South Dakota on Thursday, she didn't mention his name.
Instead, she spooled out her policy positions and spoke glowingly about the achievements of her husband's White House.
Times staff writers Bob Drogin, Richard Simon and Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.