For Barack Obama's team, Tuesday was a day unlike any other primary day. Gone were the normal nerves about the final results, the shared leaks of exit polls and the memories of dashed expectations in previous contests.
Since late on Monday evening the Illinois senator's top aides had known they would secure the nomination with a bloc of superdelegates to be rolled out over the course of the coming day. But it wasn't until the elected officials and party insiders started to make their endorsements public early Tuesday afternoon that Team Obama could finally, at long last, begin to relax.
On the plane to St. Paul, Minn., the inner circle could finally savor the historic nature of the victory at hand. The man they worked for was about to become the first African-American candidate ever to top a major-party ticket. Staffers began to hug and joke. Amid the festivities, reporters asked senior strategist David Axelrod if he and his colleagues recognized the milestone they had reached.
"I think that it's going to take a little while for it to sink in," Axelrod said. "We've been so engaged in this process day to day that it's almost surreal that we're at this moment. But I'm proud of him and proud of the country. We started off with the premise that the things that unite us as Americans are greater than the things that divide us and that we could overcome whatever barriers existed. The fact that we have I think says a great deal about the progress that we've made as a country, and I think also a great deal about Barack Obama. So it's an extraordinary night. We're going to celebrate tonight, and then we're going to wake up tomorrow and start all over again, because we're not in this simply to break a barrier. We're in this to try and change the country and the direction of this country."
Other aides expressed a simpler sentiment, after 16 months of travel and hand-to-hand combat with the Clintons. "Relieved," said one senior aide when asked how he felt now that the nomination was clinched. "It will be great to just focus on one thing: the general election."
That's what Obama did in his speech in St. Paul, returning to the original theme of his campaign: a call to turn the page on the policies of the past and forge a new politics.
He was gracious about Hillary Clinton's talents, suggesting she would play an active role in helping execute the agenda of an Obama administration. "We've certainly had our differences over the last 16 months," he said. "But as someone who's shared a stage with her many times, I can tell you that what gets Hillary Clinton up in the morning—even in the face of tough odds—is exactly what sent her and Bill Clinton to sign up for their first campaign in Texas all those years ago; what sent her to work at the Children's Defense Fund and made her fight for health care as First Lady; what led her to the United States Senate and fueled her barrier-breaking campaign for the presidency: an unyielding desire to improve the lives of ordinary Americans, no matter how difficult the fight may be.
"And you can rest assured that when we finally win the battle for universal health care in this country, she will be central to that victory. When we transform our energy policy and lift our children out of poverty, it will be because she worked to help make it happen. Our party and our country are better off because of her, and I am a better candidate for having had the honor to compete with Hillary Rodham Clinton."
It was not always clear things would work out this way. Hillary Clinton began the race as the heavy favorite; her staff in the early going sometimes seemed to regard Obama's mere presence in the contest as an affront. The combat was grueling and at times felt as if it would never end. (Indeed, even as Obama crossed the threshold in the delegate count needed to clinch the nomination and was widely declared the winner, Clinton still declined to exit the race or endorse the party's presumptive standard-bearer.) But Obama tucked away any lingering resentments, calling for the party to come together and focus on the fall. "All of you chose to support a candidate you believe in deeply," he said. "But at the end of the day, we aren't the reason you came out and waited in lines that stretched block after block to make your voice heard. You didn't do that because of me or Senator Clinton or anyone else. You did it because you know in your hearts that at this moment—a moment that will define a generation—we cannot afford to keep doing what we've been doing. We owe our children a better future. We owe our country a better future. And for all those who dream of that future tonight, I say let us begin the work together. Let us unite in common effort to chart a new course for America."
Obama took a less charitable tack in discussing John McCain, his rival in November, who is slated to accept the GOP's presidential nomination in the very same hall come September. Obama noted that McCain had served America "heroically" but added pointedly that there was little respect shown in return. "I honor that service, and I respect his many accomplishments, even if he chooses to deny mine," he said.
"There are many words to describe John McCain's attempt to pass off his embrace of George Bush's policies as bipartisan and new," Obama observed. "But change is not one of them."
The McCain campaign has been hammering at Obama in recent weeks, decrying the Democrat's stated intention to negotiate with hostile foreign leaders and faulting Obama for not having traveled to Iraq. Obama aggressively moved to turn that argument against McCain Tuesday night. "John McCain has spent a lot of time talking about trips to Iraq in the last few weeks," Obama said. "But maybe if he spent some time taking trips to the cities and towns that have been hardest hit by this economy—cities in Michigan, and Ohio, and right here in Minnesota—he'd understand the kind of change that people are looking for."
Those states—like Iowa and Pennsylvania, also shouted out in St. Paul—are core battlegrounds; Obama knows he must win over many of Clinton's supporters in the coming months if he's to vanquish McCain there this fall. (Florida and Michigan, stars of the party's dramatic rules sessions over the last weekend, are also crucial; Obama trails McCain in both places in the most recent polls.)
As Team Obama pivots into the fall campaign, it will be focusing on states that John Kerry won in 2004—not least Pennsylvania, where Obama lost to Clinton but is ahead of McCain by several points. In Michigan and Ohio, Obama's aides believe the economy will be critical in shaping voters' attitudes. In Florida, where Obama trails McCain, the campaign believes it can be very competitive very soon, with the help of high turnout among African-American voters and students, as well as younger Cuban-Americans. The campaign also believes it can run strong out west—in states like Oregon, Washington, Montana and Colorado—and pick off several Southern targets such as Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia.
On Tuesday night Obama was content to leave the table-top strategy 'til later and sketch out the broad terms of engagement for the fall. "The other side will come here in September and offer a very different set of policies and positions, and that is a debate I look forward to. It is a debate the American people deserve," he said. "But what you don't deserve is another election that's governed by fear, and innuendo, and division. What you won't hear from this campaign or this party is the kind of politics that uses religion as a wedge and patriotism as a bludgeon—that sees our opponents not as competitors to challenge but enemies to demonize. Because we may call ourselves Democrats and Republicans, but we are Americans first. We are always Americans first."