After 16 months, more than 35 million votes, and 54 hard-fought contests, it has come down to this: Barack Obama, the son of a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, has become the first African-American to clinch the presidential nomination of a major political party in the United States.
In the process, Obama came from nowhere as a first-term, 46-year-old senator from Illinois to defeat Hillary Clinton, the favorite of the Democratic establishment—a universally known former first lady and popular senator from New York who had full use of the political machine developed by her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
"I will be the Democratic nominee for the president of the United States of America," an ebullient Obama told 17,000 cheering supporters in St. Paul, Minn., Tuesday night. He said he won "because you decided that change must come to Washington, because you believed that this year must be different than all the rest, because you cared to listen not to your doubts and your fears but to your greatest hopes and aspirations."
Obama, sporting an American Flag lapel pin that he once declined to wear, was gracious toward his defeated opponent, whom he called "a leader who inspires millions" and who showed "an unyielding desire to improve the lives of ordinary Americans." Obama congratulated Clinton for running a path-breaking campaign as the first woman to come so close to a major-party nomination.
For her part, Clinton told several thousand backers in New York City that she would not decide her next steps immediately. But earlier Tuesday, she floated the idea that she was interested in the vice presidential slot on Obama's ticket. Obama aides said he was in no hurry to make a decision on his running mate, and some of his advisers said that picking Clinton would be a long shot.
Typical of their close race, Obama and Clinton split the final two primaries, with Obama winning Montana and Clinton taking South Dakota on Tuesday. But it was the superdelegates—elected officials and party activists who aren't bound by primaries or caucuses—who put Obama over the top. After a steady stream of endorsements in recent days, by Tuesday evening he had moved safely beyond the mark of 2,118 delegates needed for nomination.
Obama used his speech to connect Republican candidate John McCain to the unpopular policies of President George W. Bush, especially the Iraq war. He said McCain represents the status quo, is out of touch with the problems of everyday Americans, and doesn't offer the kind of sweeping change that Americans are looking for. In a sign of his goal of staying on the offensive, Obama gave his speech in the same St. Paul arena where the Republicans will nominate McCain in September at their convention. McCain had given a speech a bit earlier in the evening from New Orleans in which he portrayed Obama as an inexperienced neophyte whose judgment can't be trusted as commander in chief.
Obama's campaign has been groundbreaking in several ways. He raised more money than any candidate in history, an estimated $256 million from 1.5 million people, including many small donors on the Internet. His message of conciliation and change mobilized younger voters in record numbers. He also drew support from large numbers of African-Americans.
Even Republican strategists admit that Obama could possibly assemble an unusual coalition this fall consisting of traditional Democrats, the young, the affluent, African-Americans, antiwar activists, independents, and millions of others yearning for change.
What's next? Obama will focus on swing states where he was defeated by Clinton in the primaries, including Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. He will attempt to shore up support in traditionally Democratic states such as California and New York. He will begin the process of selecting his vice presidential running mate, with close attention being paid not only to Clinton but also other leaders with a strong background in the military, such as former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, or Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. In any case, Obama is not expected to choose his vice presidential candidate for many weeks.
Obama also has much work to do to appeal to voting blocs that he will need in November but have flocked to Clinton in the primaries, especially older women and working-class whites. This won't be easy.
But Obama also has some very important strengths. Eight of 10 Americans think the country is on the wrong track, and a similar percentage disapprove of President Bush's job performance—a ready-made formula for Democratic victory. The issue landscape also is conducive to the Democrats, with the country largely unhappy with the administration's policies on the economy, gasoline prices, Iraq, and corruption.