Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois claimed the Democratic presidential nomination Tuesday night, NBC News projected based on its tally of convention delegates. By doing so, he shattered a barrier more than two centuries old to become the first black candidate ever nominated by a major political party for the nation’s highest office.
“After 54 hard-fought contests, our primary season has finally come to an end,” Obama told cheerig supporters in a victory celebration in St. Paul, Minn., at the site of the convention that will nominate his Republican opponent in the fall, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
“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, 46, of Illinois, hailed his opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, for having “made history in this campaign, not just because she’s a woman who has done what no woman has done before, but because she’s a leader who inspires millions of Americans with her strength, her courage and her commitment to the causes that brought us here tonight.”
But Clinton refused to give Obama the unalloyed victory he sought.
In a speech to supporters in New York, Clinton said it had been “an honor to contest these primaries with him” and declared that she was “committed to uniting our party so we move forward stronger and more ready than ever to take back the White House this November.”
But she emphasized that she had won more votes in primaries and caucuses than Obama, and she pointedly said she would “be making no decisions tonight.” Instead, she said she would consult with party leaders in the next few days to determine her next step.
Aides said that was a strategic decision to preserve her leverage to negotiate over policy disagreements and the possibility that she would join Obama’s ticket as the vice presidential nominee.
Superdelegates put Obama over the top
In a speech Tuesday night in New Orleans, meanwhile, McCain welcomed Obama to the general election campaign as a “formidable” opponent. But he said he was “ready for the challenge and determined to run this race in a way that does credit to our campaign and to the proud, decent and patriotic people I ask to lead.”
Obama’s victory came on the final day of the Democratic campaign schedule, as voters in South Dakota and Montana voted in the final primaries. But it was the decisions of the last unpledged party officials, known as superdelegates, who put Obama over the top.
Throughout the day, as Obama edged closer to the number of 2,118 delegates needed to win the nomination, more and more superdelegates relentlessly ticked over into his column, leading him to claim victory early in the evening.
Other notable black candidates have run for president, but it was Obama who broke through to be embraced by one of the two major parties, 45 years after Martin Luther King Jr. declared his dream for a colorblind America.
Obama-Clinton ticket could be in the works
NBC News projected Obama as the presumptive Democratic nominee at 9 p.m. ET, as polls closed in South Dakota. NBC projected that Clinton had won the primary, but it said Obama would win at least six delegates. Combined with late superdelegate declarations, it said Obama had gone over the top.
NBC projected Obama as the winner in Montana later in the evening.
Throughout the day, as superdelegates fell into Obama’s column, speculation increased that McCain could be facing an Obama-Clinton unity ticket.
In an afternoon conference call among Clinton and members of the New York congressional delegation, Clinton signaled an interest Tuesday in joining the ticket as running mate but stopped short of conceding to Obama or dropping out of the race, participants told NBC News. On the call, Rep. Nydia Velasquez said she believed the best way for Obama to win over Latinos and members of other key voting blocs would be to take Clinton as his running mate.
“I am open to it,” Clinton replied, if it would help the party’s prospects in November, the participants said.
‘Whatever is needed’
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., a prominent Clinton supporter, told NBC News that “certainly to the extent that she will do anything to win ... she’ll be available.”
“She’ll do whatever is needed,” Rangel said. “If people think it would help, she’d do it.”
Lisa Caputo, a longtime Clinton adviser, said Clinton “knows the math just isn’t there, so everybody needs to be a realist.”
Caputo said in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that Clinton would “bring a lot of momentum to the ticket.”
“She brings the female vote in spades. She obviously brings the older vote,” Caputo said. “She also brings the swing states; she's also bringing the Latino vote.”
Aides to Clinton told NBC News that Clinton would seek a meeting with Obama as soon as possible, perhaps as early as Wednesday, when they will cross paths twice. First they will be in Washington to address the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and later they will be in New York, where they will be attending fundraisers.
But Obama’s top strategist, David Axelrod, said the campaign was not yet thinking about the vice presidential pick.
“We’re just savoring the night,” Axelrod told NBC News.