Image: Barack Obama
Jeff Haynes  /  Reuters
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) speaks during his South Dakota and Montana presidential primary election night rally at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., on Tuesday.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 6/4/2008 12:01:33 AM ET 2008-06-04T04:01:33

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 cheering 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 here 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 Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, for having “made history in this campaign, not just because she is 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.”

“Our party and our country are better off because of her, and I am a better candidate for having had the honor to compete with Hillary Rodham Clinton,” Obama said.

But after splitting the last two primaries of the election campaign with Obama, Clinton refused to give him 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.”

Slideshow: Historic night 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 accused Obama of unfairly trying to tie him to the policies of President Bush. "But the American people didn't get to know me yesterday, as they are just getting to know Senator Obama,” McCain said.

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McCain said Obama “hasn't been willing to make the tough calls, to challenge his party ... I have.”

In his speech, Obama fired back that McCain has regularly backed President Bush in the Senate and would offer four more years of failed policies on Iraq and the economy.

“There are many words to describe John McCain's attempt to pass off his embrace of George Bush's polices as bipartisan and new,” Obama said. “But change is not one of them.”

Obama’s victory came on the last 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. Clinton won the primary, but NBC said Obama would win at least six delegates — enough when combined with late superdelegate declarations.

Even though the race had been all but decided, record numbers of Democrats turned out in South Dakota, NBC affiliate KDLT of Sioux Falls reported, giving Clinton about 55 percent of their votes.

Superdelegate sampling

NBC later in the evening projected Obama as the winner in Montana, where he won 58 percent of the vote.

Throughout the day, meanwhile, as superdelegates kept falling 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 but stopped short of conceding, 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.

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 could 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 for a round of party 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.

NBC News’ Steve Handelsman and Athena Jones, in St. Paul., Minn., and Andrea Mitchell, in Washington; and NBC News political director Chuck Todd contributed to this report.

Video: ‘I will be the Democratic nominee’

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