Barack Obama won the epic Democratic presidential race on Tuesday night as party leaders unified behind his bid to become America’s first black president.
By Andrew Ward in Washington
The Illinois senator declared victory after securing the 2,118 delegates needed to beat Hillary Clinton to the Democratic nomination.
”Tonight, we mark the end of one historic journey with the beginning of another,” he told 17,000 supporters at a victory rally in St Paul, Minnesota, where the Republican party plans to hold its national convention in September.
”Tonight, I can stand before you and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for President of the United States.”
Hillary Clinton did not concede defeat after Tuesday’s final primaries in South Dakota and Montana and said she would consult with supporters and party leaders over the next few days before making a decision.
But she signalled that her bid to become the first woman president was all but over by offering congratulations to Mr Obama for his campaign and promising to help reunify the party.
The rival Democrats split the final primaries between them, with Mr Obama winning Montana by 18 percentage points while Mrs Clinton won in South Dakota by 10 points.
Mr Obama’s nomination was secured shortly before the polls closed as a wave of previously undecided “super-delegates” – party leaders and elected officials – pushed him over the finish line.
His victory set up a historic general election in November between the 46-year-old first-term 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.
”America, this is our moment,” said Mr Obama. ”This is our time; our time to turn the page on the policies of the past.”
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.
Mr Obama praised Mrs Clinton for ”her strength, her courage and her commitment” and said she had a big role to play in pushing forward their shared priorities, such as delivering universal healthcare.
Addressing supporters in New York, Mrs Clinton also spoke warmly of her opponent but struck a more defiant tone by pressing her disputed claim to have won the biggest share of the popular vote and arguing that she had prevailed in the states needed to beat Mr McCain.
Clinton advisers ruled out the possibility of prolonging the race until the Democratic national convention in August. But by refusing to immediately concede defeat, Mrs Clinton appeared intent on maintaining bargaining power with Mr Obama as she seeks to secure her political future.
Mrs Clinton told lawmakers in a conference call on Tuesday that she would be willing to accept the vice-presidential nomination and Mr Obama faced mounting pressure to choose her as running mate.
Clinton supporters argued Mr Obama needed his opponent on the ticket to help reunify Democrats after an 17-month battle that has bitterly divided the party along lines of race, class and gender.
Mr Obama’s message of change ultimately prevailed over Mrs Clinton’s claims of greater experience, but nearly 18m Democrats cast votes for the former first lady and she swept to a series of big wins in the final weeks of the race.
“I’m committed to uniting our party so we move forward stronger than ever and more ready than ever to take back the White House this November,” Mrs Clinton said.
Sheila Jackson, a Texas congresswoman and Clinton ally, told the Financial Times that an Obama-Clinton ticket would be “unbeatable” in November and insisted there was plenty of time for the two candidates to reconcile. “This is June and the election is in November. We’ve seen the world change in that time-frame,” she said.
November’s election will involve stark contrasts 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.
In a speech marking the unofficial start of the general election campaign, Mr McCain described his presumptive Democratic opponent as “an impressive man who makes a great first impression” but questioned whether his appeal would endure once Americans got to know his policies.
Sharpening his main line of attack against Mr Obama, the Arizona senator said voters should be concerned about the judgment of a candidate who is willing to hold unconditional talks with Iran yet has not visited Iraq to consult with US commanders for more than two years.
Mr McCain chose to make his speech near New Orleans to highlight his differences with President George W. Bush, the deeply unpopular Republican president, weeks after describing the administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina as a “disgrace”.
But Mr Obama argued that his opponent would represent a continuation of the Bush administration — providing a taste of the battle to come over the next five months. ”It’s not change when he offers four more years of Bush economic policies that have failed to create well-paying jobs,” he said. “And it’s not change when he promises to continue a policy in Iraq that asks everything of our brave young men and women in uniform and nothing of Iraqi politicians.”
Additional reporting by Joshua Chaffin in New York