Surrounded by 30,000 cheering supporters in St. Paul, Minn., Barack Obama laid claim to the Democratic nomination for president, June 3, the first African American ever to be chosen by a major U.S. party as its presidential standard bearer.

“Tonight after 54 hard-fought contests, our primary season has finally come to an end,” Obama said. “Because you chose to listen not to your doubts and your fears but to your greatest hopes and highest aspirations, tonight we mark the end of one historic journey with the beginning of another … Tonight I can stand before you and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for the President of the United States.”

He thanked millions of voters who cast ballots for him, including that same day in South Dakota, won by Hillary Clinton, and Montana, carried by Obama. His delegate count was 2,132 and Clinton’s 1,925. It takes 2,118 to win the nomination.

Obama had generous praise for his rival, saying he is a “better candidate” for having competed with Clinton for the nomination. Earlier, in a speech in New York City, Clinton did not concede defeat. “This has been a long campaign and I will be making no decisions tonight,” she said.

Obama spoke from the same platform where Republican John McCain will deliver his acceptance speech at the GOP convention in August. McCain, earlier that day in New Orleans, lashed out at Obama for failing to recognize the “progress” of the “surge” in Iraq and for not taking a trip to Iraq to meet with Gen. David Petraeus.

Obama drew thunderous applause as he responded, “John McCain has spent a lot of time talking about taking trips to Iraq in the last few weeks. But maybe if he spent some time taking trips to the cities and towns hardest hit by this economy — cities in Michigan and Ohio, and right here in Minnesota, he would understand the change people are looking for. It’s not change when he offers four more years of Bush economic policies … that have lowered the real income of the average American family.”

There is a growing chorus of demands that Clinton end her quest and call on her supporters to join in the effort to defeat McCain. That was the theme of many Democratic convention superdelegates as they jumped on the Obama bandwagon.

Mark Anderson, president of the South Dakota AFL-CIO, said he is confident that Obama and Clinton supporters will work together in the coming months against McCain and the Republican right.

“In South Dakota, I don’t see there is going to be any divisiveness,” Anderson, a Sioux Falls electrician and member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said in a phone interview. “The winner is the winner and we’re going to get behind the winner in November.”

South Dakota has so many registered Republicans that “it’s hard for a Democrat to carry the state,” he said, adding, “If there ever was a year when that might happen this year would be it. There are so many negatives on the Republican side, if McCain gets tied to George W. Bush, it is going to be a big problem for him.”

Many records for Democratic voter registration and turnout were smashed in this year’s primaries. On Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, with primaries in 26 states, voter turnout broke records in 15 states. In Missouri, more than 780,000 voters participated in the Democratic primary, a 47 percent increase over the previous record. In New Jersey, more than 1.1 million Democrats voted, a whopping 69 percent above the previous high. Massachusetts voter turnout was up 47 percent. In Mississippi’s primary, the youth vote tripled from 15,400 in 2000 to 70,673 in 2008, helping Obama in his 73 percent landside victory.

Excitement over the prospect of electing the first woman or the first African American president, and the contest between the two, energized Democratic voters. The primaries brought to the surface a deep longing for change after eight years of Bush-Cheney preemptive war, Hurricane Katrina incompetence, hate-mongering and corporate corruption.

With his powerful oratory, Obama tapped into that sentiment, mobilizing enormous rallies such as 14,000 in Boise, Idaho, 35,000 at Independence Mall in Philadelphia and 75,000 in Portland, Ore. He succeeded in reaching across partisan divides to voters in red states and blue, Democrats, Independents and even Republicans.

His campaign has become a multiracial mass movement of volunteers such as the youth who rode buses to South Carolina in January. They slept on the YMCA gymnasium floor in Columbia and went door-to-door to produce a landslide victory for an African American candidate in the cradle of the Confederacy.

Speaking with Reuters from Tanzania, the Rev. Jesse Jackson called Obama’s victory “a transformational moment … as the son of America and Africa becomes the de facto Democratic Party nominee.”

“It says a lot about a growing, maturing, changing America,” Jackson said. “Hillary and Barack became the conduits through which a more mature and less toxic America was able to express itself.”

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