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Barack Obama claims historic win

Sixteen months after launching his brash, long-shot quest for the White House, Barack Obama claimed victory as the Democrats' standard-bearer - the first African-American candidate anointed by either major party for the White House.

The backdrop chosen for Obama's declaration of victory was an in-your-face message to GOP opponent John McCain - the arena in St. Paul that will be the site of this summer's Republican National Convention. "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," Obama said to 17,000 cheering, joyous supporters. Another 15,000 crowded the streets outside.

Obama and his wife, Michelle, who wore a violet dress, ascended the stage amid thunderous applause. Obama kissed her on the cheek before she left the stage and he began to speak.

The senator thanked his family and staff but reserved his most heartfelt thanks to his grandmother, who lives in Hawaii and can't travel. "Tonight is for her," he said.

The nomination prize became Obama's as scores more superdelegates rallied to his side Tuesday. His delegate share from the last two primaries in South Dakota and Montana sealed his win over Hillary Clinton. Obama's bold and successful challenge to Clinton, a former First Lady with worldwide fame and unmatched political machines, ranks with the biggest political upsets in modern American history.

Obama, with his fans cheering their approval, offered generous tribute to the vanquished New York senator even as she held off from conceding defeat.

"As someone who's shared a stage with her many times, I can tell you that what gets Hillary Clinton up in the morning" is "an unyielding desire to improve the lives of ordinary Americans, no matter how difficult the fight may be," Obama said.

And then Obama launched right into the fall campaign, blistering McCain as wrong on the Iraq war, the economy and understanding what Americans need. Despite McCain's past reputation as an independent thinker, Obama said, the Arizona senator in the past year "decided to stand with George Bush 95% of the time."

Most of all, Obama reached to inspire.

"I face this challenge with profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations. But I also face it with limitless faith in the capacity of the American people," Obama said.
Generations from now, he said, Americans can look back on the moment as "when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals." The 46-year-old son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas burst onto the national stage with an electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Elected to the Senate from Illinois that year, he soon cast an eye on a White House bid, formally launching his campaign in February 2007. The odds against Obama, just 25 months into his freshman term, looked nearly insurmountable.

"Barack and Michelle's eyes were pretty wide open going into this," said Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign manager. "We knew we had a very thin needle to thread, and that this was going to be a difficult task, but that there was a path."

But by conquering Clinton, who spent most of 2007 fostering an aura of inevitability about her candidacy, Obama emerges as a battle-tested candidate for the fall.

"This idea that seemed like a long shot to a lot of people, rightfully so, now doesn't seem like it's a long shot," Hildebrand said. Obama predicted a united party despite their often-contentious campaign, inviting Clinton supporters to join a "common effort to chart a new course for America" against McCain, the GOP's presumptive nominee.

McCain, in New Orleans, congratulated Obama but said, "The choice is between the right change and the wrong change."

Campaign officials credit a variety of factors with Obama's victory in the epic primary campaign: his unprecedented fund-raising, his grass-roots organization, his low-drama campaign command and his unwavering message about the nation's hunger for change.

Most crucial, though, was the campaign's strategic commitment to fight aggressively state by state, beginning with Iowa, home of the first-in-the-nation caucus. The victory there Jan. 3 propelled the campaign forward and, more importantly, exposed Clinton's vulnerability.

By winning in overwhelmingly white Iowa, Obama convinced many skeptical black voters that whites were willing to support him. His black support became a bulwark that led to his stunning victory in South Carolina, and helped him sweep the South and Middle Atlantic states, building a delegate lead from which Clinton could not recover. That cushion helped him withstand Clinton's string of late victories, which revealed his weaknesses among white working-class voters amid the fallout over his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Even on his victory night, he split primaries with Clinton - he got Montana; she won South Dakota.

Doug Muzzio, professor of public affairs at Baruch College, said the long slog to defeat Clinton has made Obama stronger.

"In 2007, Hillary Clinton was the invincible, inevitable nominee," Muzzio said. "Hillary was the best thing that happened to Obama - it made him better, it made his campaign better, it perhaps inoculated him against some of the Republican attacks."

Chief Obama strategist David Axelrod said the campaign holds no illusions about the difficulty ahead.

"They're going to do everything they possibly can to win," he said. "It can be very, very nasty. I hope it's not, but they've signaled that it might be. We're prepared for that."

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