Hillary Clinton will be offered a dignified exit from the presidential race and the prospect of a place in Barack Obama's cabinet under plans for a "negotiated surrender" of her White House ambitions being drawn up by Senator Obama's aides.
The former First Lady would get the chance to pilot Mr Obama’s reforms of the American healthcare system if she agrees to clear the path to his nomination as Democratic presidential candidate.
Senior figures in the Obama camp have told Democrat colleagues that the offer to Mrs Clinton of a cabinet post as health secretary or to steer new legislation through the Senate will be a central element of their peace overtures to the New York senator.
Mr Obama said on Thursday that he believed he would have secured the support of enough delegates to make him the standard bearer of his party in November’s presidential election by the end of this week.
His cause received what could be a decisive boost when the Democratic Rules Committee agreed a compromise to seat only half of the delegates elected in Michigan and Florida.
Both states were won by Mrs Clinton but were stripped of their voting rights after moving election dates in breach of party rules.
After today’s primary election in Puerto Rico and Tuesday’s final contests in Montana and South Dakota, the remaining super-delegates will come under huge pressure from fellow party grandees to declare their hands.
The Obama camp, however, remains nervous about Mrs Clinton’s intentions and ambitions, and is preparing a face-saving package that will allow her to continue to play a role in health care reform, which has been her signature issue for more than a decade. Despite pressure from some Clinton allies, Mr Obama and his advisers do not wish to ask her to be his vice-presidential running mate. “They will talk to her,” one Democrat strategist close to senior figures in the Obama camp told The Sunday Telegraph. “They will give her the respect she deserves. She will get something to do with health care, a cabinet post or the chance to lead the legislation through the Senate.”
Another Democrat who has discussed strategy with friends in the Obama inner circle said that Mr Obama was openly considering asking Mrs Clinton to join his cabinet, alongside two other former presidential rivals: John Edwards, who is seen as a likely attorney general; and Joe Biden, who is a leading contender to become Secretary of State.
Mr Obama hinted at the plan last week. “One of my heroes is Abraham Lincoln,” he said. “Lincoln basically pulled in all the people who had been running against him into his cabinet because whatever personal feelings there were, the issue was 'how can we get this country through this time of crisis?’ And I think that has to be the approach that one takes.”
Informal talks have already begun between Obama and Clinton fundraisers to discuss a merger, enabling Mr Obama to pay off Mrs Clinton’s campaign debts of $11 million (£5.6 million).
Tentative contacts have already taken place between Obama and Clinton aides over the endgame, but there have been no formal talks. Mrs Clinton’s aides, while acknowledging that she will have to abandon her White House dream, do not feel they are in a position to negotiate on her behalf. “She has not surrendered in her own mind yet and until she does it’s very difficult to have these conversations,” the second strategist said.
Dee Dee Myers, the former press secretary to President Clinton, said: “It seems clear to me from watching her, and talking to people, that she doesn’t really know what she wants.” But after 17 months of campaigning, and $150 million (£76 million) spent, the question that haunts the Clinton camp is: how did someone who a year ago had unrivalled name recognition, a legendary campaign organisation and more money than her opponent contrive to throw it all away?
The answers come down to wrong message, wrong tactics, complacency, character – and, ultimately, the opponent. Even Clinton aides agree that she wrongly sold herself as a candidate of experience, when voters yearned for Barack Obama’s message of change. Her campaign machine then failed to win January’s crucial opening Iowa caucuses, handing lethal momentum to Mr Obama.
Her staff mistakenly believed they could knock her rival out by “Super Tuesday” on February 5, when 22 states voted. When that did not happen, she had neither the resources nor the organisation to compete in the succession of caucuses that followed, allowing Mr Obama to build the delegate lead he maintains to this day.
Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster not affiliated to either camp, told The Sunday Telegraph: “We have known for two years that Democrats and voters in general are much more interested in change. Yet for reasons that are inexplicable, the Clinton campaign chose to be on the short end of that message stick.”
Backed into a corner, Mrs Clinton responded with increasingly outlandish claims about her qualifications, including a ludicrous statement that she had braved sniper fire on a trip to Bosnia.
That, plus her subsequent insistence that she had merely “mis-spoken” rather than admitting she had got her facts wrong, raised new issues about her character.
In any case, Mr Mellman believes the decisive factor in her defeat was the one she couldn’t control. “The most important thing was that she was up against Barack Obama. He is enormously talented.”