CHICAGO — The vote totals from Western states were still hours out, but as Barack Obama stood before thousands of supporters in his hometown a little before 11 p.m. on Super Tuesday, the freshman Illinois senator already counted a victory as his campaign had defined it: not letting rival Hillary Clinton sweep the 22 states in play.
As Obama spoke, the vote totals rolling in left open the possibility that he could compete with her delegate count and perhaps win more states than she, if not the biggest ones.
"There is one thing on this February night that we do not need the final results to know," Obama said. "Our time has come. Our movement is real and change is coming to America," he said. "We are the ones that we've been waiting for; we are the dream that we seek. It's a chorus that cannot be ignored, a chorus that cannot be deterred."
While Obama insisted that the race was neither about him nor Clinton, but about the nation's future, he also suggested that if Clinton were the nominee, Democrats would go into a general election with Republicans and independents allied against them, whereas he could unite the country and bring his party victory.
People in the crowd at the Hyatt Regency ballroom cheered as TV networks announced states that Obama had won and chanted, "Yes, we can!" They booed each report of a Clinton win, and some chanted, "No, she can't!"
Overall, though, the audience was more measured, perhaps more calculating, than the exuberant crowds at Obama's earlier election-night parties. Many of the estimated 2,500 volunteers, friends and staff in the ballroom, and thousands more in an overflow room, counted themselves as his supporters years before his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004.
They weren't expecting him to win most of Super Tuesday's 22 Democratic contests, just to pick up enough delegates to stay at Clinton's heels heading into contests this weekend, next week, next month, maybe into the summer.
As the night unfolded, he appeared at least on track for that, and perhaps in position to win half or more of the states.
"That's a win for Obama, if he splits the delegates with her," said Gloria Muhammad, 64, a widow who's African-American. "I think they're going to split the delegates and they'll take it to the convention."
Alissa McCurley — a 28-year-old law student who's white, hails from Kansas and initially backed Obama because "I started out as a Clinton-hater" — said of Super Tuesday, "I see it as just one more step in the process. I don't see any of these primaries as make or break." She also said that her motivations for supporting Obama had evolved. "I truly believe in him," she said. "There's people from every background here, and it's just cool to be here at such an exciting time in history."
Obama watched early returns from home. Then he, his wife, Michelle, and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, headed to the hotel. Part of one floor was blocked off for family and friends — "the whole Southside crew" an aide said — and secured by Secret Service. Michelle Obama's mother, brother and cousins and some of Barack Obama's Kansas relatives on his maternal grandparents' side were expected.
His day began shortly after 5 a.m. with television interviews. He played basketball, and he and his wife voted near their home. At the polls he joked: "It was close, but in the end I went for Obama." His humor belied unease about what 22 states would do. "Everybody is flying blind on this one," he said.
Campaign manager David Plouffe said they always considered Super Tuesday a "daunting" day because it pushed contenders to be everywhere at once and nowhere in any depth, circumstances that gave the more established Clinton the advantage.
With the day over and remaining contests more spaced out, time is on Obama's side, Plouffe said. "If it is very close tonight from a pledged-delegate standpoint, we would consider that a terrific night for us."