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.
FOR THE RECORD - A front-page box in yesterday's editions of The Sun misidentified one of the superdelegates who announced his support for Sen. Barack Obama. The delegate was Rep. John P. Sarbanes, not Paul Sarbanes.
THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR
"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."