BOCA RATON — At first, Hillary Rodham Clinton's own popularity seemed to eclipse her message.
It took nearly until the end of Clinton's 25-minute speech at Florida Atlantic University's sports arena Thursday for the crowd, more than 1,000, mostly women, to offer standing-ovation approval for her appeal: Elect the guy who beat me.
"If you care about protecting a woman's right to choose and preventing the Supreme Court from becoming even more of a tool for right-wing ideology," Clinton said, "then Barack Obama is your candidate and must be our president."
The Obama campaign can only hope everyone in their party can be persuaded as well as the audience in Boca Raton. He is caught between rival historical precedents. His challenge is persuading 18-million people who voted for the first woman with a real chance at winning the White House to set aside hard feelings and help elect the first African-American to the White House instead.
The emotional, hard-fought primary ended nearly three months ago, but feelings are still raw, and nowhere is that more apparent than in South Florida, still a Clinton redoubt.
"I'm not voting for Obama unless he picks her. … I'm still very upset by all this," said Alba Derck, 82, one of several condo dwellers in Century Village west of Boca Raton — where Clinton visited twice — who pledged to stay home or vote for the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain.
Democrats say their job now is to make Clinton supporters realize that on foreign policy, abortion, health care, taxes and the environment, Obama and Clinton are in step. McCain is a world away.
Clinton has been taking that message to core supporters recently, including working-class white voters in the Rust Belt, union workers in Nevada and, as on Thursday, senior citizens and women in Florida.
Democratic leaders say they believe the convention offers an important chance to reinforce the similarities between Clinton and Obama on issues dear to the Democratic base, and to sharpen their critiques of what a McCain administration would mean, particularly for women who value abortion rights and government-mandated rules for equal pay and benefits.
"She often says the best way to advance the things she has fought for so long is to vote for Sen. Obama," said Nick Shapiro, an Obama campaign spokesman, "and you're going to hear a lot of that at the convention."
Party leaders also hope the convention will salve the wounds of the primary and unite Democrats. Aides in both camps say Obama insisted that Clinton's name be placed in nomination, meaning her name will be called and her delegates can vote out-loud for her.
Although the outcome, of course, is predetermined, campaign aides and party strategists say the gesture will help assuage Clinton supporters who just want to be heard.
At the convention, Clinton has been given a starring role. On Tuesday night, Chelsea Clinton will introduce her mom, whose prime-time speech will cap a day of celebrations designed to honor women in politics on the 88th anniversary of the ratification of the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote.
Meanwhile, former President Bill Clinton speaks Wednesday night. Several key convention organizers, including convention CEO Leah Daughtry and chief of staff Peggy Cusak, held senior jobs in the Clinton administration.
"I think after Tuesday and our celebration of Hillary's success, that will sharpen the focus of Hillary's supporters … on electing Barack Obama," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Broward County Democrat who was a top Clinton adviser. "There is this need that Hillary's supporters have to acknowledge and mark her place in history, and the opportunity to do that will go a long way."
Clearly, plenty of folks are still on the shore. A poll released Thursday by NBC and the Wall Street Journal found that 52 percent of Clinton's supporters are now behind Obama, but 21 percent are backing McCain, and another 27 percent are undecided or want to vote for someone else.
By contrast, 88 percent of people who backed someone else in the Republican primaries now favor McCain.
Obama's challenge with ex-Clinton voters is apparent in the Century Village condo communities, known for turning out thousands of Democrats on Election Day. Of 20 Clinton enthusiasts interviewed during a Wednesday afternoon of clubhouse dancing, four said they planned to abstain from a presidential vote and three said they planned to vote for McCain. The rest said they would vote for Obama, although many said so grudgingly, pinning hopes on an Obama-Clinton ticket.
"Why should I vote for him? What has he done? Where does he come from? I don't have confidence in him," said 78-year-old retired schoolteacher Rhoga Siegel, who vowed to sit the election out.
Ask Team Obama what it's doing to attract Clinton's supporters and answers come tumbling out: Meetings and weekly conference calls with Clinton delegates. Calls from Obama fundraisers to Clinton fundraisers. Consultations between Obama and Clinton staff about strategy and the convention.
But some complain it hasn't been enough, and several groups are holding marches in Denver next week to protest Clinton's loss.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., insists Obama has hurt himself by not reaching out enough to elected officials, including members of Congress, who backed Clinton, like herself. Her point was that House members know their districts, because "we run every two years. We are representative of the people, we are at the retail level. And I would just tell him, 'Listen to his retailers. We know how to campaign.' "
Primary battles always split parties to some degree. If Century Village is any testament, most former Clintonites said they believe their wayward Democratic friends will eventually return to the fold.
"Old people are very obstinate. We're all very bitter right now," said former Tampa resident Paul Duber, 83, a retired travel agency owner who "loved" Clinton but is now supporting Obama. "But when push comes to shove, at the very last minute, they're going vote for him."