Obama Claims Status of Presumptive Nominee; Clinton Weighs Future

“After 54 hard-fought contests our primary season has finally come to an end,” Obama told a crowd of 20,000 cheering supporter “Sixteen months have passed since we first stood together on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill. Thousands of miles have been traveled. Millions of voices have been heard… Because of you, tonight, I can stand before you and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States.”

Should the super delegates who have pledged to support Obama at this summer’s convention maintain their vote, Obama would become the first black candidate of a major political party in U.S. history.

But rather than focus on his candidacy, the Illinois senator instead focused on the more than 35 million Americans who voted in the Democratic primaries and caucuses.

“[A]t the end of the day, we aren’t the reason you came out and waited in lines that stretched block after block to make your voice heard. You didn’t do that because of me or Senator Clinton or anyone else. You did it because you know in your hearts that at this moment — a moment that will define a generation — we cannot afford to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Obama said.

He spoke highly of his rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, calling her “a leader who inspires millions of Americans with her strength, her courage and her commitment to the causes that brought us here tonight.”

Speaking in New York, Clinton also congratulated Obama on his campaign, saying, “It has been an honor to contest these primaries with him. Tonight, I would like all of us to take a moment to recognize him and his supporters for all they have accomplished.”

But Clinton added that she would not concede the race as of yet.

“This has been a long campaign and I will be making no decisions tonight, but this has always been your campaign,” Clinton said, urging people who had voted for her to visit her Web site and offer their thoughts about what she should do.

She reiterated her claim that she had garnered more of the popular vote in the nation’s primaries despite Obama not appearing on the Michigan ballot. Clinton added that she would do what was necessary to make sure the Democrats retake the White House in November.

Obama’s delegate milestone came at the end of a record-setting campaign season for Democrats. The numbers are staggering: more than 35 million votes were cast in the primary; the last two candidates ended nearly tied in the popular vote after they raised more than $470 million; more states weighed in on a contested nomination contest since 1976. And all of this took place before the actual general election officially began.

The Obama campaign’s focus on having grassroots operations in all of the states propelled him to critical run of wins in February that helped him to a solid 100-plus delegate lead that he largely maintained for the remainder of the contest.

Another key component of the Obama strategy appeared to be organizing around the 14 state caucuses, a process that requires an additional level of commitment by voters to turn out for party meetings. It was a strategy that paid off with Obama winning 13 of the contests — and actually winning the majority of the delegates awarded by the 14th contest in Nevada.

It was a strategy that even Clinton adviser Harold Ickes admitted it may have been one of the key mistakes made the former first lady’s camp.

“As you look back, I suspect that Obama looks back on his campaign, we look back on ours, there were things we, we would redo,” Ickes told Tim Russert Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press.

As Tuesday unfolded, the media strained to move Obama from front-runner to presumptive nominee status. The Associated Press moved a story in mid-morning saying Clinton would concede, a report the campaign angrily knocked down minutes later with a curt, one-line press release.

The AP jumped again at 1:23 p.m. ET, saying Obama “effectively clinches Democratic nomination, based on assured delegates in last primaries,” a line the NewsHour and other news organizations soon picked up and repeated.

But the media’s crazed reporting of the growing flood of super delegate declarations did nothing to affect the two candidate’s carefully scripted Tuesday night plans.

Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain spoke first outside New Orleans, trying to highlight the policy changes he would bring to Washington and criticizing both Obama and the Bush administration. Clinton then spoke after winning the South Dakota primary, defiantly outlining her case for why she would make the strongest candidate in the fall. Finally, Obama addressed a crowd of 17,000 inside and another 15,000 outside Minnesota’s Xcel Energy Center, renewing his call for a new kind of politics.

Despite the carefully scripted conclusion, some analysts questioned whether it was the one Obama would have sought.

“[Clinton] has now won a fair number of the contests since March 4th,” Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza told the NewsHour Tuesday night. “It’s not going to change the math. As I said, the math was determinative after he won those 11 straight contests, but he is not finishing it necessarily in the way he would like.”

But despite the still divided Democratic Party, both Obama and McCain used the bulk of their addresses to outline their core cases against one another.

McCain took sharp aim at Obama’s record, accusing him of lacking the proven track record of standing up to special interests.

“For all his fine words and all his promise, he has never taken the hard but right course of risking his own interests for yours; of standing against the partisan rancor on his side to stand up for our country,” McCain told a largely subdued crowd. “He is an impressive man, who makes a great first impression. But he hasn’t been willing to make the tough calls; to challenge his party; to risk criticism from his supporters to bring real change to Washington. I have.”

Obama chose to speak from the very convention center where Republicans will gather for their convention and used the bulk of his address to criticize McCain.

“The other side will come here in September and offer a very different set of policies and positions, and that is a debate I look forward to,” Obama said. “But what you don’t deserve is another election that’s governed by fear, and innuendo, and division. What you won’t hear from this campaign or this party is the kind of politics that uses religion as a wedge, and patriotism as a bludgeon — that sees our opponents not as competitors to challenge, but enemies to demonize.”

Despite his huge rally and a new majority of delegates, analysts said Obama’s ability to unify his party ahead of the convention will be the first major test of the Democrats’ presumptive nominee.