DENVER — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton answered skeptics Tuesday night by issuing a ringing call for her supporters to rally behind Sen. Barack Obama, saying Democrats cannot afford to stay home in November and let another Republican administration ruin the economy.
“Barack Obama is my candidate,” Clinton said in the final speech of the second night of the convention that will nominate Obama for president.
“No way, no how, no McCain,” she declared in a speech that both blasted the presumed Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and put forth Obama, her colleague from Illinois, as the man “who must be our president.”
Much of the speculation leading into the Democratic National Convention had centered on how firmly Clinton, the junior senator from New York, would go to bat for Obama, who narrowly edged her for the Democratic nomination in an extraordinarily contentious primary season.
Fire marshals closed the convention floor, which was packed to capacity with Clinton supporters who cheered long and loudly for their candidate. Clinton reserved special gratitude for them and the 18 million other voters who backed her in her primary campaign against Obama.
“To my supporters, my champions — my sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits — from the bottom of my heart: Thank you. Thank you,” she said. “You never gave in. You never gave up. And together we made history.”
'Time to take back the country we love'
But she told those supporters that it was time to take all of their energy and enthusiasm and channel it into electing Obama.
“My friends, it is time to take back the country we love,” she said. “Whether you voted for me or voted for Barack, the time is now to unite as a single party with a single purpose.
“We are on the same team, and none of us can sit on the sidelines,” she added. “This is a fight for the future. And it’s a fight we must win.”
The McCain campaign responded immediately, saying in a statement that “nowhere tonight did [Clinton] say that Barack Obama is ready to lead. Millions of Hillary Clinton supporters and millions of Americans remain concerned about whether Barack Obama is ready to be president.”
The role of Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, is considered a crucial factor to the success of a convention that remained divided between Obama and Clinton loyalists.
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Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, one of Hillary Clinton’s closest advisers, and other Democrats signaled Tuesday that they were confident that the senator would fall in line, but they were less certain about the former president, who is scheduled to address the convention Wednesday night. Obama angered the Clintons during the campaign season with dismissive comments that some Clinton backers said painted the former president as naively racist.
Aides to both candidates said that Bill Clinton had not finished writing his speech and that no one in the Obama camp knew what he was going to say.
“I don’t know about the president. I haven’t spoken to the president in a while,” Rendell said. “But Hillary is on board.”
Deep strains remain. With McCain drawing closer to Obama — even within the margin of error in some polls — an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that Obama was drawing the support of only half of Clinton voters.
In the poll, which was released last week, 21 percent of Clinton supporters said they planned to vote for McCain and 27 percent said they were undecided or wanted to vote for someone else. That meant only 52 percent of Clinton’s backers said they would vote for Obama.
Clinton message welcomed
But New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Clinton administration official who surprised the Clintons by endorsing Obama, welcomed Clinton’s words as “a strong signal that will unify the party.”
“She couldn’t have been clearer: She’s firmly behind Senator Obama,” Richardson said. “She hit a 500-foot home run.”
Besides sending a message to her supporters, Richardson said, the speech also “may have been a signal to her husband that it’s time to get behind Senator Obama.”
Former Rep. Harold Ford Jr., D-Tenn., chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, said Clinton gave “a big, big speech tonight,” laying out “in compelling terms” why her supporters should rally around Obama.
“I don’t believe there’s a Clinton supporter ... who was not proud of her and, more importantly, is not ready to go out and work for Barack Obama,” Ford said.
Sen. Joe Biden, who Obama revealed as his running mate on Saturday, described Clinton's speech as “tremendous.”
“I spent 20 minutes with her afterwards,” he said. “She hit it out of the park.”
Obama watched Clinton’s speech on television with a Democratic family in Billings, Mont. Afterward, he told Clinton by telephone that she had given a “terrific speech,” Obama aides said.
Aides said Obama also spoke with Bill Clinton for several minutes. He said he was grateful for the Clintons’ support and said he knew how proud the former president must have been watching his wife as he was Monday night watching his own wife, Michelle, speak.
Clinton also delivered her stinging attack on McCain, answering calls from some party activists for a more sustained attack on the Republicans.
“We don’t need four more years of the last eight years,” Clinton said, hammering McCain on numerous issues, including health care, high fuel prices, job outsourcing, home foreclosures and the war in Iraq.
“It makes perfect sense that George Bush and John McCain will be together next week in the Twin Cities,” she said. “Because these days they’re awfully hard to tell apart.”
It was a very different speech from the keynote address delivered by former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who urged voters to remember that the party will need to work with Republicans after the election.
“We need Barack Obama as the next president of the United States,” Warner said. And he criticized Republican policy proposals on defense, energy and the economy, saying, “John McCain promises more of the same.”
But that was one of only two times Warner mentioned the Republican candidate.
Warner, who is running for the Senate as a “radical centrist” by appealing to independent and Republican voters, turned away from the tone of Clinton and many of the speakers who preceded him Tuesday. He called on Democrats to bury their partisan bitterness, saying cooperation between the parties would be vital in the future.
“I know we’re at the Democratic convention, but if an idea works, it really doesn’t matter if it has an ‘R’ or ‘D’ next to it,” he added. “Because this election isn’t about liberal versus conservative. It’s not about left versus right. It’s about the future versus the past.”
Warner had acknowledged ahead of time that many Democrats might be unhappy with his remarks after Monday night’s opening session, which featured a tribute to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Michelle Obama’s speech, which was more personal than political. Some party activists complained of a lack of red meat and called for a more sustained attack on McCain.
Democratic strategist Paul Begala said Tuesday that Warner had the wrong idea, adding, “This isn’t the Richmond Chamber of Commerce.”
VP candidates on the move
Meanwhile, McCain was preparing to name his running mate in the coming days, Republican officials said.
Two contenders were to be in Denver on his behalf to assail Democrats: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on Tuesday and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Thursday. It amounted to a final audition of sorts.
Biden, in his first public remarks since being named Obama’s running mate, acknowledged that he had caused headaches for his party in the past, and he thanked home-state Delaware delegates for sticking with him when he “didn’t always comport myself in the way that I wanted to.”
Biden, who ended his 1988 presidential run amid allegations of plagiarism, did not elaborate, but aides said the remarks were mostly a reference to his reputation for long-windedness and off-the-cuff remarks that sometimes backfired. As he began his brief campaign for the presidential nomination last year, he called Obama “articulate” and “clean,” and he drew criticism for saying “you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.”
Clinton meets Michelle Obama
After her warmly received appearance Monday night, Michelle Obama turned to politicking for her husband, dropping by a conference in Denver on economic security Tuesday morning.
Obama introduced a plan for working women that she said would address issues like the 22 million working women who do not get sick pay.
“The Obama-Biden plan will expand the Family and Medical Leave Act so that millions of additional Americans will be able to take time off to care for a baby or an elderly parent,” she said. “And the Obama-Biden plan will require employers to provide all their workers with at least seven paid sick days a year.”
Obama ran into to Clinton at an event for Emily’s List, the women’s political group. Clinton congratulated Obama on her convention speech, and Obama wished Clinton good luck on hers.
By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com. David Gregory, Ann Curry, Andrea Mitchell and Tom Brokaw of NBC News; MSNBC’s Norah O’Donnell; and NBC affiliates KUSA of Denver and WHEC of Rochester, N.Y., contributed to this report.