hillary_clinton_1.jpgWASHINGTON (AP) _ This one's for the girls.

That was Hillary Rodham Clinton's message Saturday, June 7 as she ended her presidential bid _ a final, full-throated acknowledgment of what her pioneering quest had meant to women.

It was a moving, genuine and unexpected moment for Clinton, who spent most of her campaign playing down her gender as a way to reassure voters who might have trouble imagining a female commander in chief.

Speaking to supporters at the National Building Museum here, Clinton finally seemed to jettison the counsel she'd received over the course of her 17-month campaign to be safe and non-controversial _ advice that made her seem steely and dull and robbed her of the magic her barrier-breaking campaign might otherwise have had.

Also gone was the careful, poll-tested message of “strength and experience'' she had pressed throughout the campaign, which emphasized her toughness at the expense of her humanity and warmth.

In defeat, the former first lady was finally free _ and clearly eager to let it rip.

“Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it,'' Clinton said _ a reference to the millions of voters who supported her in the primaries.

“The light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time,'' she said to applause and cheers.

The former first lady who made history with her election to the Senate in 2000 spoke of running for president as both a mother and a daughter. Her weeping 89-year-old mother, Dorothy Rodham, and 28-year old daughter Chelsea stood nearby.

She channeled suffragists who gathered in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848. She noted that biases against women still exist. And she spoke to female insecurity, urging women not to take the wrong message from her defeat and fail to try to achieve their dreams.

“It would break my heart if, in falling short of my goal, I in any way discouraged any of you from pursuing yours,'' she said. “When you stumble, keep faith. And, when you're knocked down, get right back up and never listen to anyone who says you can't or shouldn't go on.''

The speech offered a telling glimpse into what might have happened had Clinton shed her pantsuit-clad androgyny and presented herself instead as what she was: a female trailblazer, going where no woman in this country had ever gone before.

Clinton's passionate female supporters recognized that side of her all along _ hugging her on the rope line at campaign events and whispering into her ear as though she were one of their girlfriends. They proudly wore her campaign buttons and angrily pushed back on what they viewed as sexist trash-talk by television commentators and political opponents.

But to her skeptics, she was “just another Clinton'' _ a calculating politician driven by overweening ambition, ready to steamroll her opponents if that's what it took to get elected. They never for a second doubted she was tough enough to take the 3 a.m. phone call _ they just wanted to elect someone else to do it instead.

Would things have been different had the New York senator peeled back the armor and embraced her femininity? No one will ever know. But she won the New Hampshire primary after finally showing some emotion.

Polls show Obama still has considerable work to do to win over Clinton's anguished female backers _ a matter she addressed in her speech by acknowledging how much both candidates had in common.

To do so, she linked the milestones each had hit _ she as the first serious female candidate, he as the first black to be nominated by a major party for president.

“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.

Watching the speech at home in Chicago, Obama clearly recognized the message Clinton was sending to women and quickly embraced it.

“I honor her today for the valiant and historic campaign she has run,'' he said in a statement. “She shattered barriers on behalf of my daughters and women everywhere, who now know that there are no limits to their dreams.''


EDITOR'S NOTE: Beth Fouhy covers presidential politics for The Associated Press.