UNITY, N.H. — Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton embraced, praised each other and locked hands in unity Friday, hoping to convince legions of still-skeptical Clinton backers to rally around her one-time rival.
"She rocks. That's the point I'm trying to make," a grinning Obama told the throng of 4,000 squeezed into a soccer field in the small western New Hampshire town of Unity.
While they got polite applause, the cheers weren't overwhelming, and many Clinton backers said they still needed time to get comfortable with Obama.
"I don't feel united. I still support Hillary," said Malka Yaacobi, a musician from Cambridge, Mass. "It's hard to know what Obama stands for."
Both candidates said that their six-month rivalry, which ended three and a half weeks ago when the Illinois senator clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, was history.
"We may have started on separate paths, but today our paths have merged," Clinton said. "Today our hearts are set on the same destination for America."
Obama spoke of how their campaigns had shattered barriers, and how they faced gender and racial bias.
But because of Clinton's campaign, "My daughters and all your daughters will know there's no barrier to who they are. . . . They will take for granted women can do anything that the boys can do, and do it better, and do it in heels. I still don't know how she does it in heels."
Clinton mixed praise for Obama with some uncharacteristic asides during her 20-minute talk. For instance, she praised him for a "spirited dialogue," which she called "the nicest way I could think of phrasing it."
But that was OK.
"It was spirited because we cared so much," a slightly smiling Clinton said. Today, though, she wanted her backers to create "an unstoppable force," declaring, "We are one party."
Those were welcome words to Obama.
"I know firsthand how good she is, how tough she is, how passionate she is, how committed she is to the causes that brought all of us here today," he said.
"We need them," Obama said of the Clintons. "We need them badly."
Obama, who spent most of his speech contrasting his views with those of Republicans, needs not only Clinton's voters, but also their enthusiasm. He and Clinton picked Unity as the site for Friday's rally not just for its name, but also because they tied here in the January primary: Each got 107 votes.
Clinton urged her backers to come to Obama's side, reminding them "those votes were not just for us. Each vote cast was a prayer for our nation."
Still, her supporters often noted that accepting Obama is a still-evolving process
"I'm just afraid he'll be like Jimmy Carter," said Kay Gould, an East Burke, Vt., nurse, recalling the one-term Democratic president who lost his re-election bid in 1980. "I'm for Obama by default, because any Democrat will do."
Linda Rhines, a Somerville, Mass., international consultant, had the same hesitation about Obama.
"I'm absolutely inspired by him, but he is inexperienced," she said. She noted that Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick was elected with a similarly thin resume, and is stumbling.
"I just don't think I'm going to really know Obama, or know about him, until he's been in office," Rhines said.
Some were unimpressed enough to reject Obama outright.
"Party unity, my ass," said Sharon Chang, a biomedical researcher from Hampton, N.H. "Obama is an insult to every thinking person and especially every woman."
To many, though, Friday's logistical endurance test — shuttle buses came from 12 miles away and people waited an hour to clear security once they got here before waiting another three hours in sun-baked 87-degree heat — was part of an important healing process.
Clinton urged them to join Obama. To those who are thinking of voting for Republican John McCain or not voting, "I strongly urge you to reconsider," she said. "I hope many of you will work as hard for Senator Obama as you did for me."
It was the kind of message that Jeremiah Schuyler, a Jeffersonville, Vt. teacher, had come to hear. "It was worth driving two and a half hours and spending $50 on gas," he said. "I don't know if all this will help with unity, but it's historic."
The festive mood, and the kind words from Obama, made it all worthwhile, said Kathy Bonaccorsi, a Lee, N.H., teacher.
"I understand why Clinton people are disappointed. She's a role model to them, and when you respect someone you feel funny going against them," she said. But, Bonaccorsi added, the rally would "absolutely" help bring those folks on board.
Ellie Jones, a Claremont retiree, was a shining example.
"I thought she would be the first woman president, and that it could actually happen while I'm still alive," said Jones, who's 74. "But I want to end the Iraq war, and I go with the Democratic Party."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008