WASHINGTON — Sen. Barack Obama began taking the first steps to unify the fractured Democratic Party for a general election battle against Sen. John McCain Thursday, even as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton continued to insist that she has the backing of a broader coalition that could carry the party to victory in November.
Returning to Washington, Obama was mobbed by well-wishers as he walked onto the House floor. Behind the scenes, his campaign worked with a light touch to win over uncommitted superdelegates and allies of Clinton.
With numerous prominent Democrats believed to be waiting in the wings to endorse his candidacy, Obama appears poised to win the pledged delegates and superdelegates he will need to claim the Democratic nomination as early as May 20, when Kentucky and Oregon vote.
But although he appeared to lock down his lead on Tuesday with a strong win in North Carolina and a narrow loss in Indiana, he won only two new superdelegate endorsements Thursday, from Reps. Rick Larsen of Washington state and Brad Miller of North Carolina. And many other unaligned lawmakers said they are likely to remain on the sidelines for the time being, in deference to Clinton.
As he began trying to rally the Democratic Party around him, he also struck a tougher tone against McCain, saying McCain was "losing his bearings" for repeatedly suggesting the Islamic terrorist group Hamas preferred Obama for president. That brought an angry response from McCain's campaign, which accused Obama of trying to make an issue of McCain's age.
McCain turns 72 in August and would be the oldest person to be sworn in as president if elected.
At the root of the dispute is McCain's decision to call attention to a Hamas adviser's apparent affinity for Obama. The adviser, Ahmed Yousef, said recently: "We like Obama and hope that he will win the election."
Clinton campaigned Thursday in West Virginia, which holds its primary Tuesday. Her backers were also calling superdelegates, encouraging them to remain uncommitted until after the final two primaries on June 3 and touting poll numbers suggesting that Clinton would be a stronger nominee in key states such as Florida and Ohio.
But the once-formidable Clinton fundraising machine has begun to sputter at a critical moment for her campaign, Clinton advisers and donors said Thursday, with spending curtailed on political events and advertising in the last six nominating contests.
Tuesday's loss in the North Carolina primary and her narrow victory in Indiana appear to have had a dampening effect on her fundraising, aides said, increasing the likelihood that Clinton will lend her campaign more of her own money beyond the $11-million she has already provided. Advisers said Clinton was committed to spending more of her own cash on the campaign if necessary.