"I am a better candidate for having had the honor to compete with Hillary Rodham Clinton," Barack Obama declared Tuesday when he locked up the nomination.
He is not only being diplomatic; he is also absolutely right. As Clinton is set to concede the Democratic race and throw her support to Obama today, he owes the woman who nearly beat him a debt of gratitude.
The rookie national politician who practically waltzed into his Senate seat in 2004 now enters the general election tougher, sharper and far better prepared for what stands to be an even harder fight ahead. He surely didn't feel grateful after licking his wounds in states like Pennsylvania, but the marathon primary cycle has created a Democratic electoral map more open, organized and engaged than ever before in modern history.
"He took some punches but he got off the mat,'' said Bob Buckhorn, a Democratic consultant in Tampa. "And that's a good thing for him because I guarantee you the Republicans are going to throw everything at him but the kitchen sink and he'd better be ready for that."
In 2004, John Kerry upset Howard Dean in Iowa and then swept to the nomination, facing nowhere near the fight Obama went through this year. Kerry wound up flat-footed and ill-prepared when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth started firing away at his war record and patriotism — a mistake the battle-tested Obama won't repeat.
But while Obama's a much better candidate thanks to his protracted battle with Clinton, he is hardly a stronger candidate.
"Three months ago we were salivating over Hillary Clinton as the nominee. Now we're salivating over Barack Obama,'' said Washington-based Republican consultant John Feehery, who credited Clinton with elevating racial issues that Republicans would have been wary of touching. "Hillary Clinton punched through the mystique surrounding Obama."
Clinton isn't responsible for Rev. Jeremiah Wright's eruptions or for Obama telling a group of donors in San Francisco about "bitter" small-town Americans who "cling to guns or religion." But she jumped on those controversies, just as Republicans will do and have already, and those controversies have taken a toll on the presumptive nominee.
Obama lost nine of the last 14 primaries to the former first lady. Had Clinton's campaign had the competence and foresight to avoid 11 straight losses in February and had she shown the same down-to-earth tenacity in the first half of the campaign as she did in the second, Clinton probably would be the nominee.
"I'd say right around the beginning of March, the Democratic primary stopped being useful to Obama and started being useful to Republicans,'' said Todd Harris, a former Jeb Bush campaign adviser, referring to the period when Obama's weakness with working-class white voters came into focus. "If Obama already had a built-in problem with white, working-class voters, Hillary certainly threw gas on that fire."
Still, Obama supporters are grateful that controversies like the Wright uproar occurred in the spring rather than in October, when Obama might not have had time to recover.
"I have a hard time believing there's any stone unturned, given the abilities of the Clinton press shop,'' said Miami lawyer Kirk Wagar, Obama's Florida finance chairman.
"To their credit, the Clinton campaign left it all on the field. The concept that Barack Obama is not fully vetted is laughable."
Of course, the Republicans will hit Obama from the right far harder than Obama's primary rival. The Illinois senator will face attacks on everything from his record on taxes to gun control to partial-birth abortion that he did not face in the primary.
Another Obama advantage: While Obama and Clinton have been slugging it out state after state, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee, has been virtually invisible. Lagging in money and enthusiasm among the Republican base, McCain got some breathing room from the extended Democratic primary to rev up his campaign and financial operations. But all the while Obama has been laying down strong campaign operations across the country.
So for all the hand-wringing about the Clinton vs. Obama drama paving the way for President McCain, there is at least as much evidence that it actually put the Democrats in a stronger position.
What Clinton says today and how helpful she is to Obama over the coming months may be the real test. If her legions of passionate supporters don't get behind Obama, all the organization, money and inspiration in the world won't be enough.
"Her legacy and that of her husband will be dictated by how she behaves from this day forward,'' said Buckhorn, who backed Clinton. "The last thing she wants is to be the cause of a Democratic defeat."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8241.