Image: Signs for Clinton and Obama.
Joe Raedle  /  Getty Images
People hold signs in support of Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama during her campaign event at Shepherd University, in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, on Wednesday.
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updated 5/8/2008 2:46:51 AM ET 2008-05-08T06:46:51

After 16 years, the Clinton era may be coming to an end, presenting Democrats with a historic but potentially wrenching transition and a challenge to Senator Barack Obamaas he seeks to reconcile a deeply divided party.

Bill and Hillary Rodham Clintonhave been at the heart of the Democratic Partysince Mr. Clinton steered it back to the White House in 1992, with a campaign that combined a moderate appeal with the hard-edged political tactics that had once been the province of Republicans. Mrs. Clinton seemed poised last year to lead Democrats into the general election campaign if not beyond.

And while the relationship between the party establishment and the Clintons has always been uneasy at best, an entire generation of Democrats has known no other figures as dominant as the two of them.

Mrs. Clinton said Wednesday that she would remain in the race despite her double-digit loss in North Carolina and winning only narrowly in Indiana. But across the party, Democrats — including some of her own supporters — were confronting an increasing likelihood that their tangle of ties to and feelings about the Clintons would be swept aside for now as the party prepares for a new era with a leader, in Mr. Obama, who comes from a different generation and promises a very different style of politics.

'New generation of political leaders'
“There is going to be a new set of people running the show,” said Simon Rosenberg, the executive director of the New Democratic Network, a political action organization not affiliated with any candidates. “The Clintons and their allies have been running the show for 16 years. You’re going to see a new generation of political leaders coming to the fore. It’s going to create an upheaval.”

Gary Hart, a former Colorado senator who ran for president in 1984 and is supporting Mr. Obama, said: “At least half the Obama administration, if he is elected, will be people in the White House for the first time: cabinet members and senior appointees.”

Certainly, no one is expecting a couple with such political skills, an extended network, history and broad appeal — not to mention fund-raising power — to disappear from the Democratic stage. Mrs. Clinton would presumably return to what could be a potentially very high-profile role in the Senate. Mr. Clinton is only 61, and never has been the kind of politician happy on the sidelines.

But Mr. Obama’s move to the brink of the nomination was fraught with symbolism and evidence of a party in transition. A first-time presidential candidate, he has so far outmaneuvered the vaunted Clinton political machine. He positioned his candidacy as a repudiation of the kind of politics the Clintons practiced and a generational break. And he drew thousands of new voters and donors into his fold, giving the party a fresh face and new energy.

“The Clintons had an important role in the recent history of the Democratic Party and will always play some role, given their success at bringing this country peace and prosperity,” said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who backed Mr. Obama. “But elections are about the future, not the past. It’s a new era. This is a new spirit that’s out there.”

Uncharted territory
Still, this is uncharted territory for the party and the attempt to mesh the old with the new — ideas, leaders and voters — could prove wrenching. Many in the party, if weary with the Clintons, remain appreciative of the extent to which Mr. Clinton helped rescue the party after 12 years out of the White House. The Clintons are in many ways a security blanket for many in the party; they may not be easy to quit.

All of this poses a challenge to Mr. Obama as he seeks to move the Clinton wing of the party beyond with the Clinton era without offending Mrs. Clinton’s considerable base of supporters. Exit polls in Indiana and North Carolina once again suggested just how cleaved the party is between young and old, white and black, lower-income and upper income.

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“It’s going to be hard,” said Bob Kerrey, a former senator from Nebraska, and a supporter of Mrs. Clinton. “Part of what I’ve seen in this campaign is how difficult it is to unite this party: To unite voters in West Virginia with Democratic voters in South Central Los Angeles. That is what he has to do and what is going to be hard.”

“He has to learn to set aside grievances; and there are going to be plenty of them,” Mr. Kerrey said. “Can we disagree without being disagreeable? The answer is, no. We get disagreeable. And this has been a disagreeable primary.”

Mr. Hart recalled that after a similarly divisive primary battle against Walter F. Mondalein 1984, he made a point of throwing all his effort into trying to get his supporters behind Mr. Mondale. In that case, Mr. Hart was more equivalent to Mr. Obama than Mrs. Clinton, having drawn new voters into the primary system.

“I went to the platform and moved his nomination by acclamation,” Mr. Hart recalled. “And then I went out and did over 40 campaign events for him on my own. And I was not able to move the younger and independent voters, as the results made clear.”

Potential for defection
One example of the political environment Mr. Obama faces could be found in the fact that nearly 50 percent of Clinton supporters in Indiana said they would vote for Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, or stay at home if Mr. Obama was the candidate, surveys of voters leaving the polls said on Tuesday.

History suggests that that response reflects the emotion attendant to such an intensely fought campaign, and Democrats said that they were confident the majority of these voters would return to the fold as the differences are drawn between Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain on issues like the Iraq war and the merits of the Bush administration.

“These people are not going to vote for John McCain — I don’t care what they say now,” Mr. Hart said.

Still, even a mild defection of Democrats could prove critical if the country undergoes another presidential election as close as the last two, and Mr. Obama’s advisers said they were well aware of that as they prepared for the months ahead.

This article, For the Democrats, Signs of a Possible Changing of the Guardfirst appeared in Thursday editions of The New York Times.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

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