WASHINGTON — Barack Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination Tuesday, seizing a place in American history on the final day of a grueling five-month primary that forced him to battle rival Hillary Clinton to the very end.
The 46-year-old senator from Illinois becomes the first African-American ever to win a major political party presidential nomination and lead it into a general election.
He'll face Republican Sen. John McCain, 71, of Arizona, at a time when Americans are anxious about the economy at home and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Their campaigns are certain to offer very different visions. Obama opposed the Iraq war from the start; McCain, a heroic former prisoner of war, is the steady supporter of invading Iraq who pushed for more troops, not fewer, when the long conflict looked increasingly dire. McCain embraces the Bush administration's economic policies favoring private-sector leadership and low taxes, while Obama favors higher taxes on the wealthy, lower taxes on the middle class and more government intervention in economic affairs.
Clinton, the New York senator who kept her long-shot hopes alive for months with late primary wins, appeared to bow to the inevitable, telling supporters in a conference call Tuesday that she'd be willing to accept the number two spot on a ticket with Obama if it were offered.
Clinton saluted Obama in broad terms but refused to concede the nomination, even as she vowed to help unite the party for victory in November.
"It has been an honor to contest these primaries with him just as it is an honor to call him my friend. Tonight, I would like all of us to take a moment to recognize him and all of his supporters for all they have accomplished," she told supporters in New York.
Turning to her own plans, she said she would consult with party leaders over coming days. "This has been a long campaign and I will be making no decisions tonight," she said.
Obama wrapped up a majority of delegates needed to win the nomination at the party's August convention in Denver as a tide of unelected super delegates came out for him throughout the day Tuesday.
"Sixteen months have passed since we first stood together on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois. Thousands of miles have been traveled. Millions of voices have been heard," Obama said Tuesday evening. "Tonight, we mark the end of one historic journey with the beginning of another — a journey that will bring a new and better day to America.
"Tonight, I can stand here and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States of America," he said to thunderous appause from supporters in St. Paul, Minnesota.
He praised Clinton generously, lauding her as "a leader who inspires millions with her strength" and said she'd play a role in the promised accomplishments of an Obama presidency, including expanding health care.
He did not say what her role would be or signal whether it might be as vice president.
Turning to McCain, he saluted the veteran's life of public service but insisted that they have very different agendas.
"I respect his many accomplishments, even if he chooses to deny mine. My differences with him are not personal; they are with the policies he has proposed in this campaign."
He criticized McCain for standing too often with President Bush, supporting economic policies he said have hurt American jobs and paychecks, and for maintaining support for the Iraq war.
"We must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in — but start leaving we must," Obama said.
"The general election campaign has begun," McCain countered in a speech from Kenner, Louisiana.
He, too, vowed to change the country's course, but said Obama offered the wrong course on Iraq and on the promise of government help for economic woes.
"No matter who wins this election, the direction of this country is going to change dramatically," McCain said. "But, the choice is between the right change and the wrong change; between going forward and going backward."
The Associated Press declared that Obama had clinched the nomination even before the final two primaries in Montana and South Dakota were finished, saying he'd surpassed the 2,118 delegates needed. CNN and NBC declared him over the top soon after the South Dakota polls closed.
Ironically, Clnton won South Dakota by 56-44 percent with 38 percent of the vote counted, according to cable news networks, while Obama took Montana, based on exit poll projections. But both victories were incidental to the delegate count, when Obama clinched the nomination by securing more than the necessary majority of 2,118.
A flood of more than 26 superdelegates added their names to the roll minutes after the last polls closed Tuesday evening.
Others didn't wait.
"It is time to rally behind him, unite the party, and win back the White House," said Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., finally declaring his support for Obama.
"She has run an impressive race and would make a great president," Spratt said of Hillary Clinton. "But under the Democratic Party rules, I believe that Sen. Obama has earned the nomination and proved his ability."
"I believe the time has come for all unpledged delegates to make their choices known," added Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., another superdelegate who broke a long silence to support Obama. "And I believe our best choice against a George Bush third term is Sen. Barack Obama."
They were among the 797 superdelegates — senior party officials and leaders — who may vote for whomever they choose, regardless of caucuses or primaries in their states.
Another prominent superdelegate coming out for Obama Tuesday was former President Jimmy Carter.
Obama quickly turned his attention to the coming general election campaign, traveling to the Minnesota site of September's Republican National Convention to stage a rally and fire a rhetorical shot across the rival party's bow.
He also plans a gala rally Thursday evening in Northern Virginia, one of the normally Republican states that Obama hopes to win this fall.
Clinton went home to New York Tuesday, huddling with family and talking with supporters by phone.
"She made it clear ... that she would do whatever it would take to win the election, including being vice president," said Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who was on the call.
Rangel said it would take a little work, however, before the two combatants could come together.
"There has to be some discussion to make sure we have one campaign philosophically and politically," Rangel said. "You need to date a little before you get married."
Whether the two rivals end up on the same ticket or not, Tuesday night marked the end of the longest and costliest primary campaign in U.S. history: more than 16 months of fulltime campaigning since Obama and Clinton declared their candidacies, five months of voting in 54 contests and more than half a billion dollars raised and spent by Obama and the rest of the Democratic field.
Obama took the nomination with an unlikely campaign that dethroned the woman with the most popular brand name in Democratic politics, a vast network of contributors and the loyalty of party elites to her husband, the former president.
He did it playing by new rules, raising a record-shattering $218 million largely over the Internet and attracting young people who're normally out of reach to politicians but were inspired by his message of a less confrontational, more civil politics.
Indeed, his own youth underlined his newness almost as much as his biracial heritage did. He's also the first major party nominee to come of age after the turbulence and combative politics of the 1960s and Vietnam War.
Echoing rivals in his vows to get out of Iraq and expand health care, Obama made his pitch entirely on hope for change in a party deeply unhappy with the Washington of George Bush and the Republican Party. It also allowed him to portray chief rival Clinton as more of the same old Washington brand of politics.
Over five months, he built a coalition of African Americans, young people, and upscale, highly educated and high-income whites.
He heads into the fall campaign with some significant advantages, notably broad dissatisfaction with Republicans, opposition to the Iraq war and concerns about the economy. Three out of four Americans think the country is on the wrong track, polls have found.
Yet Obama also emerges from the nomination with challenges and weaknesses made clearer by the campaign.
For one, he lost several battleground states since March 4, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. He struggled to win over rural voters, Roman Catholics, seniors, union members, Hispanics and whites, a broad slice of America that Republicans vowed Tuesday to court.
His long fight with Clinton also exposed his lack of experience in foreign policy, national security, management and government.
Republicans Tuesday vowed to take the fight to Obama, calling him too liberal for the country and dependent on too narrow a coalition to govern.
"The more we can focus the general election on specific issues and not let Obama talk about general things like change and the audacity of hope," said Republican National Committee chairman Mike Duncan, "that gives McCain the opening to put together a center-right coalition, which is a winning coalition most of the time in American politics."
(William Douglas traveling with Clinton, Margaret Talev traveling with Obama and David Lightman in Washington contributed.)