| CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- More party leaders swung behind Barack Obama, edging him closer to the Democratic presidential nomination, even as he braced for a loss to Hillary Rodham Clinton in the West Virginia primary Tuesday.
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West Virginians voted at an apparently brisk pace in a contest that was expected to deliver a lopsided win to Clinton, but one unlikely to restore her fading chances for the nomination.
One precinct in Fayette County operated on a backup generator, two days after severe storms knocked out power in parts of the state. Voter turnout was steady in many areas, including Kanawha County, home to the state Capitol.
"There's history in the making this year", said Vera McCormick", the county clerk. "We're excited about it and most of the voters in Kanawha County are excited and are wanting to get out and vote."
Party leaders continued coalescing around Obama as four more superdelegates -- former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Rep. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and the District of Columbia Democratic party chair Anita Bonds -- endorsed the Illinois senator.
"This race, I believe, is over", said Romer, a former Democratic National Committee chairman.
He said only Clinton can decide when to withdraw, but: "There is a time we need to end it and direct ourselves to the general election. I think that time is now."
Not so fast, said Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson.
"I think Democrats across the country tomorrow will be asking themselves why Senator Obama -- with all of his money, with all of the great press, with voters being told he was the inevitable nominee -- why did Senator Obama lose West Virginia by 15 points or so?" he asked on NBC's "Today" show.
"What does it say about his candidacy at this date that he can't beat Senator Clinton in a key swing state?"
Obama has already turned his focus in tone and itinerary to Republican John McCain almost to the exclusion of Clinton. He planned to spend primary night in Missouri, a bellwether in the general election.
The New York senator campaigned, though, like it mattered and polls found her with a commanding lead in the Mountain State, as well as an advantage in Kentucky a week later.
Clinton and Obama briefly shook hands and spoke on the Senate floor Tuesday, as they interrupted their campaigns for a few hours to vote on energy-related bills. Many senators from both parties warmly greeted the two separately, as visitors in the galleries watched intently.
Interest was keen in the West Virginia primary, judging by a record turnout of more than 70,000 people who cast ballots in person before Tuesday in the state's liberal early voting system.
Clinton implored West Virginians in four stops Monday to send her forward with a convincing win.
"This may be the most important vote you've ever cast", she told a crowd in Fairmont. "Let's have a huge vote in West Virginia."
Obama made only one appearance in the state, talking up his love of country and conviction that veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars deserve better care from their government when they come home.
"At a time when we're facing the largest homecoming since the Second World War, the true test of our patriotism is whether we will serve our returning heroes as well as they've served us", he said.
In every step now, he's mindful of the gathering struggle with McCain, a veteran both of politics and war who will exploit Obama's short national resume as surely as Clinton has tried to do.
Obama is mounting a two-week tour that will take him to the remaining primary states but concentrate on fall battlegrounds including Florida and Michigan.
Increasing numbers of Democratic primary voters have become entrenched behind their candidate and said they would not support the other candidate in the fall -- a rift the party is eager to start healing.
To that end, the party leaders known as superdelegates have been moving to Obama's side, 30 of them in the week since he routed Clinton in North Carolina and narrowly lost Indiana. Clinton added two superdelegates in the same period.
At that pace, he would reach the number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination -- 2,025 -- in three weeks, when delegates from the remaining primaries are included.
West Virginia had 28 delegates at stake Tuesday.
Calvin Woodward reported from Washington. Associated Press Writer John Raby in Charleston, W.Va., contributed to this report. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
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