By Dan Balz and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
With a split decision in the final two primaries and a flurry of superdelegate endorsements, Sen. Barack Obama sealed the Democratic presidential nomination last night after a grueling and history-making campaign against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton that will make him the first African American to head a major-party ticket.
Before a chanting and cheering audience in St. Paul, Minn., the first-term senator from Illinois savored what once seemed an unlikely outcome to the Democratic race with a nod to the marathon that was ending and to what will be another hard-fought battle, against Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee.
"Tonight we mark the end of one historic journey with the beginning of another -- a journey that will bring a new and better day to America," he said, as the emotion of the moment showed on his face. "Because of you, tonight I can stand before you and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States of America."
Obama's success marked a major milestone for the nation -- a sign of the racial progress that has taken place during the span of the senator's lifetime. But the nomination battle also revealed a racial schism within the Democratic Party, and potential resistance to a black candidate in some parts of the country that will play out in the general-election campaign.
Obama's victory was notable not simply for its historic importance but also because it marked a rejection, albeit by the narrowest of margins, of a candidate who represented the most powerful family in Democratic politics. Clinton's defeat seemed almost inconceivable a year ago as the race was beginning to unfold, but Obama and his advisers proved equal to the challenge.
In the last two primaries, Obama won Montana but lost to Clinton in South Dakota, a continuation of the seesaw battle the two waged from the first caucuses in Iowa in January through more than 50 other contests. They fought the most closely contested Democratic nomination battle in the modern era and split the party into two almost equal coalitions.
But with the help of superdelegates who declared their allegiance to Obama throughout the day, he easily crossed the threshold of 2,118 delegates needed to secure the nomination around the time polls had closed in Montana and South Dakota, closing off the last slender hope Clinton had to take away the nomination.
During his speech, Obama offered praise to his rival. "She has made history not just because she's a woman who has done what no woman has done before, but because she is a leader who inspires millions of Americans with her strength, her courage and her commitment to the causes that brought us here tonight," he said.
Obama still faces a sizable job of uniting his party, and his uneven performance during the final months of the nomination battle could make Clinton's supporters more difficult to win over quickly. Clinton has pledged to help unify the part, but last night she signaled that she will do so on her own timetable.
Clinton, who waged a fierce campaign to become the first woman nominated for the presidency, spoke shortly before Obama at a rally in New York. Amid questions about when or whether she would quit the race, she declared: "This has been a long campaign, and I will be making no decisions tonight."
Earlier in the day, she opened the door to considering to be Obama's vice presidential running mate, should he make the offer, leading to speculation about what her goals will be.
"You know, I understand that that a lot of people are asking, 'What does Hillary want? What does she want?' " she said. She then ticked off a list that included ending the war in Iraq, improving the economy and providing universal health care. But in a clear statement aimed at Obama, she added: "I want the nearly 18 million Americans who voted for me to be respected, to be heard and no longer to be invisible."
Obama spoke at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, the arena where McCain will accept the Republican nomination in September, and he used much of his speech to cast McCain as a continuation of the Bush presidency. But before Obama took the stage in Minnesota, McCain was on television from New Orleans with a speech that challenged the Democrat in an outline of the debate that will take place between now and November.
"This is, indeed, a change election," McCain said. "No matter who wins this election, the direction of this country is going to change dramatically. But the choice is between the right change and the wrong change, between going forward and going backward."
The last day of the primary-caucus season provided a fitting conclusion to the long nomination battle, a day of extraordinary drama, frenzied speculation and fast-changing events. Obama's campaign worked furiously to pressure uncommitted superdelegates to endorse him, Clinton's campaign struggled to provide her with time to leave the race on her own terms, and the media breathlessly sought to keep pace.
Yesterday began with an unexpected report by the Associated Press that said Clinton would use her rally last night to concede. Campaign chairman Terence R. McAuliffe immediately went on CNN to deny the report, and a short time later the campaign issued a terse statement: "The AP story is incorrect. Sen. Clinton will not concede the nomination this evening."
But inside the campaign there was confusion as aides struggled to figure out what had triggered the report, and expressed uncertainty about the day ahead. "This is very much a work in progress," a senior Clinton adviser said.
Clinton fought a rear-guard action, with her campaign officials pleading with superdelegates and party leaders to give her the dignity of a graceful exit and an election-night rally in which she could celebrate her long campaign rather than concede to her rival.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid had exhorted a group of uncommitted senators on Monday to hold off their declarations until today, and he repeated that plea publicly yesterday. "Senator Clinton needs to be left alone. . . . Let this week work its course," he told reporters at the Capitol.
The only remaining question was when -- not whether -- Clinton would step aside. Some advisers, including former chief strategist Mark Penn, reportedly urged her to consider the full range of options, other than quitting outright. Others counseled her to consider her options -- and her legacy.
Aides said the end is likely to come by week's end but could be signaled as soon as today.
Talk of a possible Clinton vice presidency came out of a discussion she held with supporters in the New York congressional delegation. Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez (D-N.Y.), told The Washington Post that she had implored Clinton to think about the passionate support her candidacy has received from Latino voters, who will be crucial to Democratic chances in November.
"She said if she was asked, she would consider it," Velazquez said. "She said, 'Look, I will do whatever it takes to defeat McCain in November.' "
Elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004 after eight years in the Illinois Senate, the 46-year-old Obama, the son of a black Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, accomplished something that few thought possible when he began his candidacy in February 2007 against the heavily favored Clinton.
Clinton, the former first lady and a second-term senator from New York, seemingly held all the advantages, including a vast network of fundraisers, a web of political supporters in virtually every state, and the allure of being able to restore to power a family that had given the Democrats control of the White House for eight years under her husband.
Obama proved to be an even more prodigious fundraiser, tapping the Internet as no candidate ever had to raise millions more than his rival, and also grabbed hold of a powerful movement of grass-roots supporters and volunteers who helped fuel his candidacy and provided a built-in base of organization across the country.
He also tapped effectively into a hunger for change after eight years of the Bush administration. In a Democratic campaign that, initially at least, was cast as experience vs. change, Obama proved to have found the more powerful message.
Obama's victory -- and Clinton's unexpected third-place finish -- in the Iowa caucuses in January upended expectations for the nomination battle and set the candidates on an epic struggle that continued until the polls closed last night.
With an 11-contest winning streak in mid-February, Obama built what turned out to be an insurmountable lead in pledged delegates, then held on in the campaign's last three months as Clinton ticked off victories in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana.
Meanwhile, Obama effectively turned the tables on Clinton among the party leaders and elected officials who make up the nearly 800 superdelegates. After Clinton built a substantial lead among that group in the early stages of the race, Obama steadily gained ground and then surged ahead with these party insiders. Once that began, Clinton's hopes of winning the nomination effectively came to an end.
Kornblut reported from New York. Staff writers Shailagh Murray, Paul Kane and Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.