Barack Obama is poised to seal the Democratic presidential nomination on Tuesday night, as party leaders unify behind his bid to become America’s first black president.
By Andrew Ward in Washington
His victory will set up a historic general election in November between the 46 year-old Illinois senator and John McCain, the 71 year-old Vietnam war hero and Arizona senator, who has already won the Republican race, as the Democrats seek to regain the White House after an eight-year absence.
Hillary Clinton is not expected to officially concede defeat after Tuesday’s final primaries in Montana and South Dakota but campaign officials acknowledged that her bid to become the first woman president was all but over.
Mr Obama is expected to declare victory and launch his general election campaign on Tuesday evening at a rally in St Paul, Minnesota – venue of the Republican national convention in September – as he closed in on the 2,118 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.
By early on Tuesday evening, he was about four short of the finishing line, with many super-delegates, including former President Jimmy Carter, known to be planning to endorse Mr Obama once the polls closed in Montana and South Dakota.
A USA Today/Gallup opinion poll on Tuesday gave Mr Obama a five percentage point lead over Mr McCain among likely voters, just outside the survey’s four-point margin of error.
Mrs Clinton is attempting to engineer a graceful exit from the race in the next few days, while maximising her bargaining power with Mr Obama as she seeks to secure her political future.
She is expected to use a speech in her home state of New York on Tuesday evening to signal her willingness to accept the vice-presidential nomination and pressure was already mounting on Mr Obama to choose her as running mate.
Clinton supporters argued Mr Obama needed his opponent on the ticket to help reunify Democrats after an epic 17-month battle that has bitterly divided the party along lines of race, class and gender.
Mr Obama’s promise of change ultimately prevailed over Mrs Clinton’s claims of greater experience, although they finished almost tied in the popular vote and she won several of the biggest and most politically important states.
Terry McAuliffe, the Clinton campaign chairman, told CNN that Mrs Clinton was willing to do “whatever it takes” to make sure the Democrats win the White House, adding that she and Mr Obama “have to be together in some capacity”.
Mr McAuliffe dismissed the possibility – left open until Tuesday – that Mrs Clinton might keep fighting all the way to the Democratic national convention in August.
Mr Obama hopes to end the Democratic race on a triumphant note by winning Tuesday’s primaries in Montana and South Dakota, although Mrs Clinton is competing strongly in both states.
But the final primaries are less important than the feverish activity behind the scenes in Washington as the Obama campaign scrambled to secure the additional super-delegates – party leaders and elected officials – he needed to end the race.
Mr Obama is anxious to declare victory on the day of the final primaries to prevent the impression that he owed his nomination to Democratic officials rather than ordinary voters. His ability to bring super-delegates into line was viewed as the first test of his authority as the presumptive new leader of the Democratic party.
November’s general election will involve a stark contrast in age, race, style and policies between the two nominees.
Mr Obama wants to withdraw US troops from Iraq, launch high-level talks with Iran and place tougher conditions on international trade; Mr McCain would keep US forces in Iraq indefinitely, press for tougher sanctions against Iran and promote free trade.