WASHINGTON — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose nomination for the presidency was considered all but inevitable this time last year, ended her campaign for the White House on Saturday and implored her skeptical followers to rally behind Sen. Barack Obama.
"We cannot let this moment slip away," she said. "We have come too far and accomplished too much."
In a speech to several hundred loyalists who mixed boos with cheers as she congratulated the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Clinton said that she was proud of what she had accomplished and that she would remain a force on the national stage, particularly for universal health care.
She also praised Obama as the embodiment of the American dream, and said that on ending the war in Iraq, improving the economy and increasing access to health care, he is their best hope and echoes their ideals.
"The way to continue our fight now — to accomplish the goals for which we stand — is to take our energy, our passion, our strength and do all we can to help elect Barack Obama the next president of the United States," Clinton said to more cheers and boos.
"Today, as I suspend my campaign, I congratulate him on the victory he has won and the extraordinary race he has run. I endorse him, and throw my full support behind him. And I ask all of you to join me in working as hard for Barack Obama as you have for me."
The speech put to rest lingering questions about whether Clinton, 60, was ready to relinquish the spotlight to Obama, 46, a freshman senator from Illinois whom she derided throughout the campaign as naive and under-experienced. On Tuesday, when Obama clinched the nomination, she delivered a strident speech that didn't congratulate her rival and left open the possibility that she would continue contesting the nomination.
The faithful loved it, but many Democratic Party leaders broke out in a sweat.
Impact on the party
Clinton rose to national prominence as an unusually political and ambitious first lady when her husband, Bill Clinton, was elected president in 1992, and her decision to move to New York and run for the U.S. Senate in 2000 was widely seen as a precursor to her own bid for the presidency.
Bill Clinton was elected twice, and no one has had more of an impact on the modern Democratic Party than the Clintons. Hillary Clinton spent most of the past year as the party's presidential front-runner. Losing to Obama has been difficult for her supporters to take.
Yet as she addressed several hundred loyalists in the National Building Museum on Saturday with her husband and daughter, Chelsea Clinton, and mother, Dorothy Rodham, every word projected the message that she was ready to move on, and that she wanted her supporters to move on, too.
She used the phrase "elect Barack Obama our president" four times. She even invoked Obama's campaign slogan: "So today, I am standing with Sen. Obama to say: Yes we can."
As Clinton pledged to join forces with Obama and his campaign, she said: "We will make history together, as we write the next chapter in America's story."
Clinton also took special care to address those women — and they are many — who believed she was their best hope in modern times to see a female president. They were crushed by her undoing, and not a little bitter.
Obama will need them come November against Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, and Clinton assured them that her campaign, which won nearly 18-million votes, was a giant step forward for women. Obama's ascension as the first African-American nominee of a major party was remarkable, too, she said.
"Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time," she said, "thanks to you, it's got about 18-million cracks in it."
She added: "So I want to say to my supporters, when you hear people saying — or think to yourself — 'if only' or 'what if,' I say, 'Please don't go there.' Every moment wasted looking back keeps us from moving forward.
"Life is too short, time is too precious, and the stakes are too high to dwell on what might have been. We have to work together for what still can be. And that is why I will work my heart out to make sure that Sen. Obama is our next president, and I hope and pray that all of you will join me in that effort."
Friends and advisers say Clinton will keep her pledge, and an Obama spokesman said the campaign is especially keen for her help in Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio — key swing states where she won the primaries easily.
Talk of cooperation
Already, Obama and Clinton fundraisers and organizers are beginning to discuss how to cooperate to beat McCain. "We have various groups within the Obama campaign, some are grass roots, some geographic, some are national. … Through all these kinds of different groupings and networks, we're all reaching out," said Frank Sanchez of Tampa, a former special assistant to President Clinton who now serves as chairman of Obama's Hispanic fundraising team.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Broward County Democrat who was one of Hillary Clinton's top Florida advisers, said the Obama team already has asked her to become involved in his campaign.
"A lot of my close friends and supporters were Obama people, and we just parted company in the campaign, but I have always told them at the end of the day, if he's the nominee, I'll be there for him," Wasserman Schultz said.
But there is clearly a schism between the Democratic professionals and semipros who write the checks — and who are most concerned with putting a Democrat in the White House — and the grass roots supporters and activists.
Friday morning, on the eve of Clinton's big speech, Ana Cruz sent an e-mail to each of the approximately 1,500 members of Florida for Hillary saying it was time to mend fences and get behind Obama.
Cruz, a Democratic operative in Tampa, noted that each of the state's members of Congress who had backed Clinton had thrown their support to Obama, and she was preparing a news release saying that Florida for Hillary would be endorsing him, too.
She was surprised by the response. "I can't tell you how many people replied, 'I am not ready to endorse, do not include my name,' " said Cruz, a Clinton adviser who was co-founder of the group. "So I backed off and said, 'Okay, guys, we'll hold off on the release until we can get some consensus.' "
Because the race lasted so long, and because so many Democrats — particularly women — had invested so much of themselves in Clinton's campaign, getting them to support Obama won't be like hitting a switch. "It's like a divorce," Cruz said.
Clinton's speech may have gotten them thinking about it, but many of the faithful here Saturday weren't sold on Obama yet. They didn't like his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Some were skeptical about his wife, Michelle Obama. Many questioned his experience. And it's far from certain whether they'll show up for Obama in November.
"Yes," bet Stephanie Kaufman, 51, of Silver Spring, Md.
"No," said her friend, Jane Gorbaty.
"I think we'll have to show unity," Kaufman said. "Otherwise we're done for."
Gorbaty shrugged. She said she'll probably vote for him, but couldn't imagine wearing an Obama button, or knocking on doors for him, or planting Obama signs as she did for Clinton. "My signs are still in my yard," she said. "And they're going to stay there."
Wes Allison can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0577.