DES MOINES, IA. — It was a homecoming of sorts, and Barack Obama was in a celebrating mood.
Returning to Iowa, where his remarkable rise toward the Democratic nomination began last January, Obama Tuesday night claimed a majority of pledged delegates, billing it as an important milestone in his bid to best rival Hillary Clinton.
"You have put us within reach of the Democratic nomination for president of the United States," he told an enthusiastic crowd in front of the Capitol in Des Moines.
But still short of enough superdelegates to claim the nomination outright, and with three primaries remaining, Obama sought not to overplay his hand. On a night when he won Oregon's primary but was thrashed by Clinton in Kentucky, he paid tribute to his rival, praised her perseverance and predicted a place for her in history.
"No matter how this primary ends," Obama said, "Senator Clinton has shattered myths and broken barriers and changed the America in which my daughters and your daughters will come of age."
The staging of the Iowa event was calculated to give Obama a major boost — to prod unclaimed super delegates by suggesting his inevitability; to counter the concern, raised in states like Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, that working-class white voters don't like him, and to look ahead to a November race against Republican John McCain.
Pleading for Democrats to unite, he warned that Republicans "will play on our fears and our doubts and they'll try to sow discord and division ... We need this unity and this energy in the months to come."
Iowa, mostly white and rural, is where voters, prospective donors, and Obama's rivals, Clinton and John Edwards, first understood the breadth of his organization.
Winning the caucuses here in the nation's first nominating contest more than four months ago toppled expectations. It was defining in terms of giving credibility and momentum to the 46-year-old biracial freshman senator from Chicago, and in revealing the far more established Clinton's vulnerabilities.
Meanwhile, the intensive grassroots, youth and caucus strategies Obama's campaign employed to pull off the victory gave him a blueprint for other states.
"In the darkest days of this campaign, when we were dismissed by all the polls and all the pundits, I would come to Iowa and see that there was something happening here that the world did not yet understand," Obama told supporters at the downtown rally. "Change is coming to America."
Obama said the question that led him to Iowa still persists — "whether this country, at this moment, will keep doing what we've been doing for four more years, or whether we will take that different path. It is more of the same versus change. It is the past versus the future."
The overall feel in Des Moines was jubilant. The warm-up band played funk hits, like "Super Freak" and "Play That Funky Music (White Boy)." The ice and snow of the caucuses was long gone, and fans lined up early, enjoying the crisp spring air.
The crowd was a mix of locals and out-of-towners, and young campaign volunteers from last year, who helped build the winning organization here and were eager to reunite and marvel at the fruits of their efforts.
"I think it's awesome he's coming back to Des Moines and saying thanks," said Melinda Grubb, 50, a food server, who waited for hours to get in to the event and said it would be her sixth time seeing Obama.
"It all started with the votes of 'white, hard-working Americans,'" she said of Iowa, mimicking a tired Clinton's awkwardly worded remarks in a recent interview about her own supporters.
Grubb said Obama "embodies the spirit of change and brings everybody together. I wish Hillary would just get her people to unite for the Democratic Party and say, 'Okay he's the one.' But I think it's slim-to-none."