DENVER — It wasn't the speech she wanted to give to the Democratic National Convention, but Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday gave an impassioned appeal for Democrats to unite behind the man who crushed her chance at making history.
"My friends, it is time to take back the country we love. Whether you voted for me, or voted for Barack, the time is now to unite as a single party with a single purpose," said the New York senator in a bittersweet and widely anticipated speech before an audience loaded with still-wounded Clinton supporters.
On the 88th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote, in a convention hall filled with white and blue Hillary signs and cheers for the woman on stage, it was easy to picture what could have been. She was introduced by her daughter as "my hero," and she was watched by a husband who choked up as she spoke.
But Clinton said a vote for Obama is a vote to continue her own fight.
"I haven't spent the past 35 years in the trenches advocating for children, campaigning for universal health care, helping parents balance work and family, and fighting for women's rights at home and around the world to see another Republican in the White House squander the promise of our country and the hopes of our people," said the former first lady.
"And you haven't worked so hard over the last 18 months, or endured the last eight years, to suffer through more failed leadership. No way, no how, no McCain. Barack Obama is my candidate. And he must be our president."
With much of the nation looking for any hint of ambivalence from Clinton, and with polls showing that her disillusioned fans could cost Obama the White House, her task Tuesday night could hardly have been tougher: leave no doubt about her support for Obama, while also paying tribute to the more than 18-million voters who nearly produced America's first female presidential nominee from a major party.
"I have so many mixed emotions right now. We are going somewhere great with Obama but we are leaving something great behind," said West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel. "I have a very heavy heart. Her speech was amazing."
Conventions are supposed to be all about promoting the nominee and the party's vision for the future, but this one is also very much about Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner on Tuesday night gave a rousing keynote speech touting Obama as the candidate for the future but was overshadowed by the story line of lingering tension between the Clinton and Obama camps.
Former President Clinton, whose public support for Obama has been tepid, gets a prime time speaking spot tonight and some Democrats fear tensions could flare as delegates cast roll call votes this evening.
A tentative deal between the Obama and Clinton campaigns would allow some states to cast votes in a roll call before somebody — possibly Clinton herself — cuts short the tally and asks the convention to nominate Obama by unanimous consent.
On Tuesday, party leaders admonished Florida delegates to be on their best behavior and avoid any hints of disunity.
"We're going to do it with respect, dignity and honor," former Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Terrie Brady told the delegates. She warned them that 20 "whips" in orange vests would come down hard on anyone veering off the unity message.
On a day when several hundred Clinton supporters marched to the Pepsi Center waving placards and chanting "Rise, Hillary, Rise," Floridians were not alone in worrying about a nationally televised show of division among Democrats.
"All you need is 200 people in that crowd to boo and stuff like that and it will be replayed 900 times," said former Democratic Party chairman Don Fowler of South Carolina. "And that's not what you want out of this."
After a mild first night focused on Sen. Ted Kennedy and Michelle Obama, Democrats on Tuesday turned aggressive in attacking John McCain and the GOP.
"Under George Bush, median household incomes have declined nearly $1,000. College costs have doubled. Health care costs have doubled, and energy costs have tripled. Under George Bush, you're paying more and making less,'' said U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Chicago. "If John McCain has his way, your bills will continue to grow, and your paycheck will continue to shrink."
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a strong Clinton supporter during the primaries, took aim at McCain's energy policies.
"The only thing green in John McCain's energy plan is the billions of dollars he's promising in tax cuts for oil companies,'' Rendell said. "And the only thing he'll recycle is the same failed Bush approach to energy policy."
For all the shots at President Bush and McCain, though, Warner touted bipartisanship and touted Obama as a uniter, a candidate for the future. Warner, who is expected to win a Virginia Senate seat in November is widely viewed as a future presidential contender.
The night highlighted successful Democrats — including Warner, and Govs. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, Brian Schweitzer of Montana, and Janet Napolitano of Arizona. But the night belonged to Clinton and her loyal fans.
"I don't want to do anything that violates or disrupts the convention, but I'm still upset," said Eleanor Strickland, a retiree in the Villages in north-central Florida. "I have been supporting and hoping for a woman president since the 1970s with Barbara Jordan. We came so close, and my heart is broken."
She said she will "hold her nose" and vote for Obama.
For voters like Strickland, Clinton invoked Harriet Tubman: "If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If they're shouting after you, keep going. Don't ever stop. Keep going."
Times staff writers Wes Allison and Alex Leary contributed to this report, which included information from the Associated Press. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected] or (727)893-8241.