WASHINGTON - Barack Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination last night, a breakthrough in the evolution of American politics that sets the stage for a precedent-shattering matchup against Republican John McCain.
Obama, who will become the first black nominee of a major party, gained a delegate majority on the final day of the longest, most expensive and closely contested nomination struggle in decades.
"Tonight, we mark the end of one historic journey with the beginning of another," Obama said last night as he turned his attention to the fall campaign. "Tonight, I can stand before you and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for the president of the United States of America."
Obama, addressing a large crowd at the site of this summer's Republican convention, heaped praise on Hillary Clinton as "a leader who inspires millions of Americans with her strength, her courage and her commitment" and said he was "a better candidate" for having competed against her.
The 46-year-old freshman senator's triumph ended, at least for now, Clinton's attempt to become the nation's first female president. The former first lady, in her second term as a senator, briefly congratulated Obama "on the extraordinary race" he had run but pointedly did not concede.
Amid reports that she is interested in becoming the vice presidential nominee, Clinton, smiling and composed, described Obama, in a speech to supporters in New York, as her friend and said she was committed to unifying the party and winning in November. But, she said, "this has been a long campaign and I will be making no decisions tonight" on her next move.
Obama broke through the 2,118-delegate barrier needed to assure him of a nominating majority in the same way he closed out Clinton over the final months of the campaign: He picked up pledged delegates in a split decision in the last two primaries - winning Montana but losing South Dakota to Clinton - while collecting new support from several dozen more elected and party officials known as superdelegates.
Obama needed every bit of the primary calendar to vanquish a determined Clinton, 60, who began the campaign as an overwhelming favorite. She fought back from a disastrous series of defeats in January and February in a gritty closing drive that won her most of the primaries held over the final three months of the season.
However, Obama's early victories and record-setting fundraising success, much of it generated online, attracted steadily increasing support from superdelegates, whose votes proved decisive. In the end, his personal popularity and organizational prowess proved too much for Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to overcome.
Clinton told colleagues yesterday that she would consider joining Obama as his running mate, the Associated Press reported. However, Obama aides have said privately that they do not expect Clinton to become the vice-presidential nominee.
Voter tests that started with Obama's caucus victory in Iowa five months ago concluded yesterday in two sparsely populated states that will almost certainly go Republican in November.
Obama and Clinton were expected to split 31 delegates from those states roughly evenly, leaving Clinton about 200 delegates behind Obama, overall.
Even if Obama were to gain all the remaining undeclared delegates, Clinton will still finish with more delegates than any runner-up in the modern era of Democratic presidential campaigns, according to Tad Devine, a veteran of those contests stretching back to the late 1970s.
After the polls closed last night, Obama's campaign announced the support of more than two dozen superdelegates, including Rep. John Sarbanes of Baltimore. About 130 of the more than 800 superdelegates - who, together, represent about one-fifth of all delegates - have yet to make their preferences known, and the majority were expected to support the likely nominee.
Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin was among the undeclared superdelegates expected to come out for Obama as early as today. Obama won the state's February primary during a pivotal period in the campaign, despite active opposition from some leading Maryland Democrats, including Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Gov. Martin O'Malley, early Clinton backers.
In a signal that Obama was turning to the challenge of taking on McCain, he called on Democrats, Republicans and independents to "unite in common effort to chart a new course for America."
More Bush policies
Speaking at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., where Republicans will hold their national convention in early September, Obama portrayed McCain as a loyal backer of President Bush who would offer "four more years of Bush economic policies" and an Iraq war policy "that isn't making the American people any safer."
He said that the U.S. does not have many good options in Iraq, but in a shot at McCain, added that "what's not an option is leaving our troops in that country for the next hundred years."
Obama charged that McCain "has spent a lot of time talking about trips to Iraq in the last few weeks, but maybe if he spent some time taking trips to the cities and towns that have been hardest hit by this economy . . . he'd understand the kind of change that people are looking for."
McCain countered with an event in Kenner, La., which national Republican officials called the kickoff of his general election campaign.
Sympathy for Clinton
The Arizona senator appealed for support from disillusioned Clinton voters with a swipe at the news media, which Clinton, her husband and her backers often accused of bias against her candidacy.
"The media often overlooked how compassionately she spoke to the concern and dreams of millions of Americans, and she deserves a lot more appreciation than she sometimes received," said McCain, whose effort to beam his message to a national TV audience was cut off in mid-speech when the cable networks broke away to declare Obama the presumptive Democratic nominee.
McCain, mocking Obama's campaign slogan of "change we can believe in," portrayed himself as the candidate who would make the sharpest break with politics as usual in Washington. After reeling off a list of issues on which he differs sharply from Bush, he vowed, if elected, to end "the era of the permanent campaign of the last 16 years" and begin "the era of reform and problem-solving."
For weeks, Obama and McCain have been trading charges on a daily basis, most recently over U.S. military involvement in Iraq, which Obama opposed from the outset and McCain has actively supported.
National opinion surveys show the two men locked in a virtual dead heat, five months before Election Day. The latest Gallup daily election tracking poll, released yesterday, had them in a statistical tie, with McCain at 46 percent and Obama at 45 percent.
Whichever candidate prevails in November, the 2008 election figures to make history - by elevating to the White House either the oldest person or the first African-American ever to become president.
As they did last night, Obama and McCain are offering voters their own brand of change, after eight years of Bush's increasingly unpopular presidency, though neither qualifies as a Washington outsider. Obama is serving his fourth year in the capital, while McCain arrived three decades ago and was elected to Congress during Ronald Reagan's first term.
Instead, 2008 will be the first presidential election in history between a pair of sitting senators. The last Senate incumbent to go directly to the Oval Office was
John F. Kennedy in 1961.
The McCain-Obama contest will also be the first in more than half a century in which neither an incumbent president nor a vice president will be on the November ballot.
The last time neither the president nor the vice president made a try for his party's nomination was 1928.
McCain, whose nomination was as unlikely, in its own way, as Obama's, has had three months to pull his party together since wrapping up the nomination in early March. Obama said this week that he had offered to meet with Clinton at her convenience, and there have been reports that a meeting could happen as early as today or tomorrow.
In spite of the closeness of the Obama-Clinton contest, senior Democrats played down Republican claims that it will be difficult for the winner to close divides within his party.
"I don't think there's long-term division," said Devine, who was not aligned with either campaign. "This is nothing like 1980," when a split between Carter and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy never healed, helping contribute to Carter's re-election defeat.
"If Hillary Clinton embraces him publicly, that will solve 95 percent of his problems and the party will come together very quickly," Devine predicted. "She is the bridge" to Obama "that all of her voters will go across."
OBAMA PASSES 2,118
* Sen. Barack Obama passes the number of delegates needed to get the Democratic nomination for president.
* Obama gained the support of several superdelegates last night including former Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland and former President Jimmy Carter