. -- Barack Obama, a political unknown just four years ago, clinched the Democratic nomination Tuesday, winning a grueling contest against Hillary Rodham Clinton to make history as the first black candidate to lead a major-party bid for president.
Obama’s protracted nominating fight with Clinton ended on the final day of the primary season, as a slew of superdelegates flocked to his side even before the polls closed in Montana and South Dakota. In fitting fashion, the two split the last contests, Obama winning Montana and Clinton taking South Dakota.
The Illinois senator laid claim to the nomination in an exultant speech Tuesday night in Minnesota -- delivered, not coincidentally, in the St. Paul sports arena where Republicans plan to install Sen. John McCain of Arizona as their nominee in September.
“You chose to listen not to your doubts or your fears, but to your greatest hopes and highest aspirations,” Obama said before a roaring crowd of 17,000 supporters. “Tonight we mark the end of one historic journey with the beginning of another.”
He added: “Because of you, tonight I can stand here and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for the president of the United States of America.”
Turning to the fall campaign, he pressed his claim that electing McCain would merely extend the incumbent administration another four years. “It’s not change when John McCain decided to stand with George Bush 95% of the time, as he did in the Senate last year,” Obama said. “It’s not change when he offers four more years of Bush economic policies.”
Appearing in New York City, Clinton was not prepared to concede, though there was a faintly valedictory tone to her remarks during a rally at Manhattan’s Baruch College. Clinton, the most successful female presidential candidate ever, warmly praised Obama and his supporters. But she continued to maintain that she would be the strongest Democratic candidate in November.
“Now the question is: Where do we go from here?” Clinton said. “And given how far we’ve come and where we need to go as a party, it’s a question I don’t take lightly. This has been a long campaign, and I will be making no decisions tonight.”
The New York senator spent Tuesday with aides at her home in Chappaqua, working the phones and discussing her next move. She stirred speculation about a joint ticket with Obama during a conference call with members of New York’s congressional delegation, telling them she would take the No. 2 slot if it were offered.
Shortly after midnight East Coast time, the two candidates spoke by telephone. Obama told Clinton he would like to “sit down when it makes sense for you,” according to Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs. Clinton thanked Obama for the call, Gibbs said, but no meeting was set.
The general election will pit the 46-year-old Obama against the 71-year-old McCain -- a generational contest between one of the youngest men ever to seek the White House and one of the oldest.
The two candidates also have starkly different views on issues, not least the war in Iraq. McCain says that the United States is winning there and that pulling out would only embolden America’s enemies. Obama says the war was a mistake from the start and has pledged to begin withdrawing troops as soon as he takes office.
McCain brought up the war in a prime-time speech he delivered outside New Orleans, just before Clinton and Obama spoke. He accused Obama of voting “to deny funds to the soldiers who have done a brilliant and brave job” in Iraq -- referring to a 2007 war-funding bill that Obama opposed because it lacked a timetable for troop withdrawal.
McCain agreed that the presidential race would focus on change. “But the choice is between the right change and the wrong change,” he said, “between going forward and going backward.”
Obama’s improbable rise from underdog to victor caps a primary season that will be long remembered for its firsts -- Obama bidding to become the nation’s first black president, Clinton the first female chief executive -- and for a series of dramatic contests that captivated the country like no political race in memory.
It pit a relative neophyte, who burst on the national scene as a U.S. Senate candidate, delivering a ringing keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, against a former first lady married to the most successful Democratic politician of his generation.
Tens of millions of voters turned out for primaries and caucuses, shattering records in one state after another, and millions more tuned in election night to watch the returns, boosting TV ratings and turning presidential politics into a new national pastime.
Obama began with an important win Jan. 3 in Iowa. Clinton, her campaign in the balance, rallied to take New Hampshire five days later. The two split the Jan. 19 Nevada caucuses -- Clinton winning the popular vote, Obama getting the most delegates -- then Obama seized the momentum a week later with a big win in South Carolina.
The two battled to a virtual draw on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, when voters in 22 states, including California, went to the polls. Obama then launched an 11-state winning streak that netted more than 200 elected delegates. He never surrendered the lead.
From then on, the contest played out on two levels: a competition for the support of rank-and-file Democrats and a separate campaign to win the support of the party’s so-called superdelegates, members of Congress and other insiders with automatic seats at this summer’s convention.
With the two not far apart among pledged delegates -- those awarded proportionately on the basis of election returns -- it was the superdelegates who determined the final outcome. A steady stream flowed Obama’s way throughout the day Tuesday; each new endorsement was heralded by the campaign with a news release counting down the number to the magic 2,118 needed to clinch the nomination.
Obama finished the day with 2,154 delegates to 1,919.5 for Clinton, according to the Associated Press.
The race was the closest Democratic contest since the establishment of the current nominating system in 1972 -- and the hardest fought since the Republican primary in 1976, when President Ford beat back a challenge from former California Gov. Ronald Reagan.
While captivating many, the contentious Democratic race also left bruises that may take some time to heal. Clinton supporters were outraged at perceived sexism and media favoritism toward Obama; many African Americans took issue with statements by Clinton, her husband -- former President Bill Clinton -- and their supporters that they took to be racially insensitive.
The results also pointed up a stark divide that defied Obama’s talk of unity and vision of a colorblind society.
In one state after another, Obama rallied a coalition of blacks and younger, more affluent and better-educated voters. Clinton’s base was working-class whites, the less educated, women and Latino voters; so constant were the results, the election returns could have been photocopied one week to the next.
While some Democrats speak of an Obama-Clinton pairing as a “dream ticket,” those hard feelings might have to be cleared away first.
“People have a lot of pain about some of the things that have been said, particularly with regard to race,” said Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, an Obama supporter. “He has to consider how he would feel having to address not just Hillary Clinton but also Bill Clinton.”
Asked about an Obama-Clinton ticket, David Axelrod, chief strategist for the Obama campaign, told reporters en route to Minnesota: “We don’t have a short list or a long list. We’re coming here tonight to finish the process of winning the nomination, and then we’ll turn our attention to the notion of who the running mate should be and so on.”
Barabak reported from San Francisco, Finnegan from St. Paul. Times staff writers Janet Hook, Noam P. Levey, Maeve Reston and Stuart Silverstein contributed to this report.