Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton pushed back hard Friday against pressure for her to withdraw from the presidential race, with aides saying she...

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WASHINGTON — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton pushed back hard Friday against pressure for her to withdraw from the presidential race, with aides saying she remains more determined than ever to remain in the contest until the end of the primary season.

Allies of Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois have sought to increase pressure on Clinton of New York to drop out of the race in recent days, arguing that, because of his lead in pledged delegates, her only path to the Democratic nomination lies in a divisive campaign that drags to the party’s convention Aug. 25-28 in Denver.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Friday offered what may have been the starkest challenge to Clinton from a prominent Obama supporter, saying she should avert a potentially bloody and futile battle by stepping aside.

Uncommitted Democratic leaders also stepped up their demands for a speedy resolution, saying the party cannot afford to be distracted from targeting the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

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Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, in a round of television appearances, sought to calm increasingly anxious Democrats by setting a target date of July 1 for concluding the nominating process.

“We don’t want this to degenerate into a big fight at the convention,” Dean said on ABC. Saying it “would be nice” to have the nomination settled by July 1, a month after the last votes in the Democratic contest are cast June 3, Dean said completing it sooner would be “all the better.”

Dean’s comments came the same day Obama picked up the surprise endorsement of Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey Jr., who joined Obama at a boisterous rally kicking off a six-day bus trip through the state. Casey said that Obama represents “a story infused with the promise of America” and that “he can heal us, he can help us rebuild America.”

The internal Democratic tumult over the battle is the latest challenge for Clinton. Her best hope for victory lies in extending the process until she can overtake Obama in the popular vote. She hopes to make strides in the 10 remaining contests, the biggest of which are Pennsylvania on April 22 and Indiana and North Carolina on May 6.

Obama leads in delegates, with 1,623 delegates, 1,406 of them pledged, to Clinton’s 1,499 delegates, 1,249 of them pledged, according to an Associated Press count.

Casey’s endorsement was an unexpected boon for Obama. The scion of a prominent Pennsylvania political family and son of a former governor, Casey repeatedly had declared that he would remain neutral in Pennsylvania’s primary in which 158 delegates are at stake.

Other key Democrats in the state have lined up behind Clinton, including current Gov. Ed Rendell, Rep. John Murtha and the mayors of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Clinton and Obama both expect Clinton will win Pennsylvania. What may matter more is the margin. Clinton leads 52-36 percent in a compilation of recent statewide polls, according to RealClearPolitics.

If she can extend her lead in Pennsylvania, it might improve her chances of coming from behind and winning over enough superdelegates to overtake Obama at the national Democratic Party convention.

Recent polling has found Democrats’ appetite for the extended campaign beginning to wane. A Pew Research Center survey released this week found 44 percent of Democratic voters believed the extended campaign fight is a “good thing” for the party, down from 57 percent in late February.

Responding to a comment from Obama that the Democratic primary race was like a good movie that had gone on too long, Clinton replied: “I like long movies.”

Material from The Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers and the Chicago Tribune is included in this report.

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