DEMOCRAT grandees Jimmy Carter and Al Gore are being lined-up to deliver the coup de grâce to Hillary Clinton and end her campaign to become president.
Falling poll numbers and a string of high-profile blunders have convinced party elders that she must now bow out of the primary race.
Former president Carter and former vice-president Gore have already held high-level discussions about delivering the message that she must stand down for the good of the Democrats.
"They're in discussions," a source close to Carter told Scotland on Sunday. "Carter has been talking to Gore. They will act, possibly together, or in sequence."
An appeal by both men for Democrats to unite behind Clinton's rival, Barack Obama, would have a powerful effect, and insiders say it is a question of when, rather than if, they act.
Obama has an almost unassailable lead in the battle for nomination delegates, and is closing the gap with Clinton in her last stronghold, Pennsylvania, which votes on April 22.
Clinton remains publicly defiant, insisting she will continue the battle with Obama all the way to the Democratic convention in August – when superdelegates, or party top brass, will have the chance to add their weight to primary votes.
But the party's top brass have concluded her further participation in the race can only harm the party as Republican nominee John McCain strives to take advantage of her increasingly bitter battle with Obama.
Both Carter and Gore occupy the rarefied position of elder statesmen – in addition to their White House past, both are winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, giving them additional gravitas to carry the party with them.
Neither of them is likely to object to the role of bringing down the curtain on Clinton. While neither man has formally endorsed either her or Obama, both have clashed in the past with the Clintons.
Gore blames his loss to George Bush in the 2000 presidential election on the impeachment of Clinton triggered by his White House affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Carter, who has carved out a successful career as an international mediator, is believed to detest the flashy style of the Clintons. He recently told an interviewer that his entire family are committed Obama supporters.
A number of options are being considered by the higher echelons of the Democrats, but they fall roughly into two categories. One is for Carter and Gore to go to Clinton privately and ask her to step down. The other is for both men to appear in public and endorse Obama – a move which would see a majority of superdelegates go with them.
The campaign to force Clinton to make an early exit is being masterminded in Congress, home to the most influential of the superdelegates. Senate Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have called on superdelegates to hold an unofficial congress in early June to anoint a winner, rather than waiting for the convention in Denver.
Pelosi has drawn withering fire from the Clinton camp for saying that these superdelegates must follow the national vote, with Clinton insisting that they should "vote with their conscience".
Yet some in the Democratic elite are wary of moving too soon. Polls show that 30% of Clinton's supporters would vote for McCain if she fails to become the nominee. To close off Clinton's bid before millions have had the chance to vote risks causing the very split that officials are desperate to avoid.
But a loss to Obama, or even a single-digit victory, in Pennsylvania will seal Clinton's fate. Pennsylvania is the last big state left in the race, and the last chance for Clinton to claw back Obama's delegate lead. "If he (Obama] wins (Pennsylvania] flat out, I think the big foot will come down," a source said.
Anything less than a resounding victory by her will probably see the race choked off ahead of the final primaries on June 3.
In the 10 remaining primaries, only a catastrophic loss of support by Obama will see Clinton overcome his lead of 160 delegates.
She admits she has little chance of winning the public vote, and is basing her strategy on convincing party-appointed superdelegates that she is, in her own words, the more "electable" of the two candidates.
Clinton enjoys strong support among superdelegates, many from a party elite who worked for her husband Bill during his years in the White House. There are more than 350 superdelegates who have yet to show a preference, potentially enough to rub out Obama's lead and give the presidency to Clinton.
But historically, superdelegates have never gone against the public vote, and party insiders say they would face a revolt, or even riots, if they were to do so now.
Obama's campaign has been a phenomenon in American politics, bringing in record numbers of new voters and record funding, and few think the superdelegates would dare deny him victory if he wins the popular vote.
It would also invite the unedifying spectacle of a mostly white elite denying an African American candidate a chance for the presidency. "It would cause a scandal to do that," says one party official. "To turn around to the black community and say, 'You got the most votes, but no'? Unlikely."
Clinton insists she will see her campaign through to the final primaries in June, and then on to the national convention, where her supporters have powerful lobbies in the organising committees.
But a chain of events in the past two weeks has worked to undermine this strategy, pulling the rug from under her claim to be more experienced and better organised than Obama.
It began with her extraordinary suggestion that she braved sniper fire during a trip to Bosnia in 1996, a statement contradicted by TV footage showing the event was peaceful.
There are suggestions that the long list of wealthy benefactors may be expecting favours to be returned once Hillary is in the White House, suggestions sharpened by the Clinton's refusal to release the list of donors to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library.
Such conflict-of-interest issues came into the open last week when it emerged that Clinton's chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn, was lobbying for the Colombian government to secure a free trade agreement with America, despite Clinton's public opposition to such a deal. Penn stepped down, the second high-profile sacking of a campaign manager this year.
Together with reports that Clinton's money troubles have left her unable to pay event organisers and even the health insurance of her staff, the impression is of a campaign in trouble.
These issues have undermined Clinton's claim to be more "electable", with her own stormy campaign contrasting with the disciplined control of Obama's organisation.
Obama himself has refrained from criticism on these issues, his staff keen to portray their candidate as "presidential" and above the fray.
Conspiracy theorists among her opponents claim Clinton is prolonging the race not because she hopes to win, but to inflict such damage on the party that a weakened Obama loses to John McCain in November, allowing Clinton to have a second tilt at the nomination in four years' time.
For Clinton, defeat in the nomination process would mean consignment to the political wilderness.
Losing nominees rarely get a second chance to run, and although Clinton's seat as a New York senator seems safe, failure in the nomination process leaves her politically neutered.
Talk of a possible consolation prize, in awarding her the job of Senate Majority leader, has petered out with several more senior senators also coveting the job.
Meanwhile, Clinton's poll numbers continue to slide. Obama now leads her nationally by about 10 points, and a CNN poll in Pennsylvania showed him closing the once-yawning gap to just three points.
Should Clinton lose Pennsylvania, the defection of growing numbers of superdelegates from her to Obama could become a flood.
Possible outcomes of the crucial Democrat primary of April 22.
1. Clinton wins big
A win of 20 points or more over Obama in Pennsylvania would keep Clinton's campaign alive. She would also have to replicate this result in the nine states still to vote, narrowing the gap with her rival and convincing the all-important party superdelegates to choose her as nominee.
2. Clinton wins small
A victory in single digits, in a state where Clinton was once 20 points ahead, would make little difference to Obama's lead. Yet a win is a win, and she would be likely to try to stay in the race until June, unless superdelegates stepped in.
3. Obama wins small
A single figure victory on Clinton's 'home turf' would cement Obama's claim to the nomination. Superdelegates would be likely to declare him the nominee before June.
4. Convincing win for Obama
A double-digit Obama victory would be the shock of the primary contest. It would be followed by a stampede of superdelegates rushing to be front of the queue to embrace him.
Obama forced to backtrack
DEMOCRAT Barack Obama last night conceded that comments he made about bitter working-class voters who "cling to guns or religion" were ill chosen, as he tried to stem a burst of complaints that could hurt his chances in upcoming primaries in Pennsylvania and Indiana.
"I didn't say it as well as I should have," he said, at a campaign rally in Indiana.
As he tried to quell the furore, presidential rival Hillary Clinton hit him with one of her lengthiest and most pointed criticisms, saying: "Obama's remarks were elitist and out of touch."
At issue are comments Obama made privately at a fundraiser last Sunday. He explained his troubles winning over white, working-class voters, saying they have become frustrated with economic conditions: "It's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment to explain their frustrations."
The comments, posted on the Huffington Post political website, set off a storm of criticism and threatened to highlight an Obama Achilles' heel – the image that the Harvard-trained lawyer is arrogant, aloof and carries himself with an air of superiority.
The content of this story is disputed by former vice president Al Gore.