WASHINGTON — Illinois Sen. Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination for president Tuesday night, all but ending a grueling, often contentious political marathon that was celebrated for record voting nationwide but also exposed deep divisions within the party along the lines of race and class.
Obama's ascension marked a historic milestone in American politics, one that seemed virtually unthinkable even a decade ago, as he became the first African-American candidate to win a major-party nomination for the White House. That he defeated the first viable female candidate for the honor made it doubly remarkable.
More than two dozen Democratic superdelegates endorsed Obama on Tuesday, including two from Florida, making the outcome clear even before the polls closed in Montana and South Dakota, but he waited until the votes were tallied to claim victory. After winning in Montana and losing in South Dakota, the last states to hold their primaries, Obama counted 2,153 delegates, 35 more than the 2,118 needed to cinch the nomination.
His rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, called Obama a friend and took "a moment to recognize him and his supporters for all they have accomplished." But she also argued again that she would be the strongest candidate in November and stopped well short of conceding, saying she would determine her next step in the coming days. "I will be making no decisions tonight," she said to wild applause at Baruch College in New York City.
In a conference call with fellow members of New York's congressional delegation earlier in the day, she indicated a willingness to serve as Obama's running mate — a potentially damaging wrinkle in the Democrats' efforts to woo Clinton supporters before November should Obama choose someone else.
For Obama, 46, it was a night for magnanimity. During his victory speech in St. Paul, Minn. — site of the Republican National Convention this summer — he bathed Clinton in praise, lauding her commitment to America and saying, "I am a better candidate for having had the honor to compete with Hillary Rodham Clinton." Then he jabbed his general election opponent, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, for backing many of President Bush's policies.
"America, this is our moment," Obama said, his wife, Michelle, by his side. "This is our time. Our time to turn the page on the policies of the past. Our time to bring new energy and new ideas to the challenges we face. Our time to offer a new direction for the country we love."
Never before have so many states helped decide a primary fight. State after state saw record turnout, even in Florida, where the Jan. 29 primary officially didn't count because it violated national party rules. Excitement over the race also boosted Democratic registration nationwide.
The downside for Democrats was that the primary season was often a dogfight, and it revealed deep fissures within the party's sprawling coalition. While Obama galvanized African-American voters and upper-class whites, he consistently lost to Clinton among women, seniors, Hispanics and working-class white voters — key constituencies Obama will need to beat McCain.
Obama made it clear in his speech that he would be reaching out to Clinton and to her supporters. Democratic Party leaders already are discussing strategies for unifying the party.
Some party luminaries say the quickest route would be for Obama to tap Clinton, 60, as his running mate. Many Clinton supporters love the idea, and several uncommitted Democratic senators have been pushing it as well. "I urged Barack as recently as yesterday to give Hillary the right of first refusal," said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who is neutral.
But others worry Clinton is ill-suited for second chair, and her strident speech Tuesday night — even asking supporters to advise her on what she should do — may harden those concerns.
So far, party leaders have been treating Clinton gingerly. Even as Obama's nomination became inevitable, they have been careful not to push her to quit, so as not to alienate her supporters. "Sen. Clinton needs to be left alone," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday. "Let's get through the primary process and let this week work its course."
But there are signs, after primary contests in 56 states and territories, that Democrats may start pushing soon. This morning, 15 or so uncommitted Senate Democrats are scheduled to discuss how best to end the process and focus on the general election, senators said.
"After everybody's had a good night sleep, I hope, then we'll put our heads together and think what might we do, or what might a group of us do, to begin unifying our party," Carper said.
Throughout the race, Clinton pitched herself as the candidate of experience — two terms in the Senate and eight years as first lady, with years of activism before that. She was heavily favored until Obama upset her in Iowa.
Obama was the newbie, a freshman who had served just two years in the Senate, a young black man running for an office for which African-American candidates had never surpassed second-tier status.
Yet Ron Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, said Obama's success was not so surprising, given the way he tapped into the strong current of change running through the electorate.
"He was prescient enough to build a campaign around that theme, to be able to articulate it, and to have a story, a personal story, that built upon on it," Walters said. "All the other candidates took the traditional route — here I am, I've been here for a long time, I have experience. The people didn't want to hear that."
Two hours before Obama took the stage in St. Paul, McCain spoke in New Orleans, where he condemned Obama's lack of experience and his support of using government to solve problems. McCain, 71, also predicted that Obama's attempts to convince voters that a vote for him is a vote for Bush won't work.
"The American people didn't get to know me yesterday," McCain said. He grinned wolfishly. "They're just getting to know Mr. Obama."
Times staff writer Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report. Wes Allison can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0577.