WASHINGTON (AP) _ Barack Obama stands alone at last among Democrats seeking the White House, strongly endorsed by former rival Hillary Rodham Clinton but still facing the ponderous challenge of wooing her base for the fight against Republican John McCain.
Clinton finally suspended her campaign _ but did not fully abandon it _ with a 28-minute speech and 14 mentions of her rival, telling supporters:
“I endorse him and throw my full support behind him.''
But the polls show Obama faces a stiff task in winning over Clinton's deeply disappointed female supporters, not to mention her base among working-class whites as a whole.
In a spirit of reconciliation and of political necessity, however, Obama began working in that direction in a statement after watching Clinton's Saturday speech on the Internet.
“I honor her today for the valiant and historic campaign she has run,'' he said, while taking a rare weekend break with his family at his Chicago home. “She shattered barriers on behalf of my daughters and women everywhere, who now know that there are no limits to their dreams.''
On Monday, Obama will travel to North Carolina _ a state that has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976 _ to launch a two-week national tour in key battleground states in which he intends to highlight his differences on economic issues with McCain, the veteran Arizona senator. It comes at a time when Americans are growing increasingly uneasy over the faltering U.S. economy, reflected in rising home foreclosure and unemployment rates and record-high oil prices.
With some supporters in tears, Clinton called for Democratic unity as the party stands to stride past cultural and political milestones that she and Obama, the first black to secure a major party presidential nomination, represent.
“Children today will grow up taking for granted that an African-American or a woman can, yes, become the president of the United States,'' she said.
More than 17 months after she announced her run to become America's first woman president _ a campaign that seemed unstoppable at the start _ Clinton had accumulated about 18 million votes in the Democratic primaries.
“Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it has about 18 million cracks in it and the light is shining through like never before,'' she said before a crowd of supporters jammed into the ornate National Building Museum, not far from the White House she longed to occupy again.
In one of her most relaxed performances since the campaign began, Clinton repeatedly reminded listeners of the new threshold her candidacy had set for women _ the rock solid bloc of her coalition.
The new Clinton role, however, was to heal wounds opened in the sometimes bitter battle with Obama _ especially the historic open sores of gender and race in America.
“The way to continue our fight now to accomplish the goals for which we stand is to take our energy, our passion, our strength and do all we can to help elect Barack Obama, the next president of the United States,'' she said.
“Today as I suspend my campaign, I congratulate him on the victory he has won and the extraordinary race he has run. I endorse him and throw my full support behind him and I ask of you to join me in working as hard for Barack Obama as you have for me,'' the former first lady said. Some in the crowd booed.
By suspending, not ending, her campaign, Clinton retains her delegates to the party's national convention in Denver this August and can still raise money. The move also leaves her able to restart her campaign should Obama stumble before August. But that did not seem to be her plan.
“We may have started on separate journeys but today, our paths have merged,'' Clinton said of the extended nomination battle with her Senate colleague. Obama represents Illinois; Clinton holds a seat from New York.
Obama secured the 2,118 delegates needed to clinch the nomination Tuesday. His campaign put a photo of the New York senator on its Web site and urged supporters to send her a message of thanks. Likewise, Clinton's Web site thanked her backers. “Support Senator Obama today,'' her Web page said. “Sign up now and together we can write the next chapter in America's story.''
Republicans quickly launched a “Clinton vs. Obama'' page on the Republican National Committee's website drawing attention to her criticism of Obama during the campaign.
Obama could use the women and working-class voters who flocked to Clinton's campaign. She could benefit from his prodigious fundraising to help retire a debt of as much as $30 million. Clinton advanced her campaign at least $11.4 million; by law, she has only until the summer Democratic convention to recoup it.
Clinton has told colleagues she would be interested in joining Obama as his running mate and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, an Obama supporter, said Saturday that she had made “a powerful case for her eligibility'' to be on the ticket.
Joining Clinton on stage Saturday were her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and their daughter, Chelsea. When she spoke, they stepped away. Her mother, Dorothy Rodham, wiped away a tear as she watched from nearby.
Associated Press Writer Beth Fouhy in Washington contributed to this report.
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