Clinton: 'I ask you to work as hard for Obama as you have for me'

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Hillary Clinton formally suspended her presidential campaign yesterday, graciously and enthusiastically backing her rival Barack Obama after coming within an ace of being the first woman contender for the White House.

The former first lady ended her campaign for the world's top job at a rally in a Washington museum, where thousands of supporters and staff had gathered for a bitter-sweet celebration. "This isn't the party I planned, but I sure like the company," she told them.

Wearing a dark suit and accompanied by her husband, former president Bill Clinton, her mother Dorothy and daughter Chelsea, she finally uttered the words anxious Democrats have been waiting for all week, declaring: "Today as I suspend my campaign, I congratulate him on the victory he has won and the extraordinary campaign he has won. I endorse him and throw my full support behind him and I ask of you to join me in working as hard for Barack Obama as you have for me."

Her endorsement of the first black American with a real chance of winning the presidency came a full 13 minutes into her speech, as she declared that "the way to continue our fight now, to accomplish the goals for which we stand, is to take our energy, our passion and our strength and do all we can to help elect Barack Obama the next President of the United States. I endorse him and throw my full support behind him."

Her repeated incantation of the words "Barack Obama" was greeted with a mixture of boos and cheers. By suspending her campaign, rather than conceding victory, Mrs Clinton retains the right to use her elected delegates to push for her campaign agenda at the Democratic convention in Denver in late august. She can also continue to raise money to pay off her ballooning campaign debts. There was absolutely no indication that she intends to revive her campaign at a later stage, but she left the door open for a possible spot on the ticket, repeatedly using the word "together" as she gave Mr Obama her backing.

In the bitter five-month primary season, Mrs Clinton found herself beaten to the nomination once her opponent passed the finish line with the 2,118 delegates on Tuesday, despite winning only one of the last three primaries in South Dakota, Montana and Puerto Rico. For her supporters, defeat was all the harder to take because of her strong finish, and their belief that the Obama campaign was rapidly losing altitude, with white working-class voters expressing their doubts at the ballot box.

Mrs Clinton then made a distinctly ungracious speech on Tuesday night, when she failed to endorse him and declared that she needed time to decide what to do next. She also pushed for a place as his vice-presidential running mate. But angry senior Democrats quickly forced her into yesterday's endorsement, with New York Congressman Charlie Rangel, one of her most loyal political supporters, publicly making it clear that she had no other choice.

After a week of high-stakes drama in which she seemed to threaten to withhold her support, Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton gave journalists the slip and held a secret hour-long tête-à-tête on Thursday in the home of her friend, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. They sat alone in her living room, with only water for refreshment, speaking for over an hour. They were both laughing when they finished. Mrs Clinton will now direct her biggest fund-raisers to raise cash for his effort. She is also expected to get his assistance in paying off her own $30m campaign debts.

Mr Obama spent the weekend at home in Chicago with his wife and children giving Mrs Clinton some uninterrupted time to make yesterday's heart-wrenching speech. He later issued a statement, declaring himself "thrilled and honoured" to have her support. "I honour her today for the valiant and historic campaign she has run," he said. "She shattered barriers on behalf of my daughters and women everywhere, who now know that there are no limits to their dreams. And she inspired millions with her strength, courage and unyielding commitment to the cause of working Americans."

Mrs Clinton spent much of Friday working on her speech with her campaign manager, Maggie Williams, her media adviser, Mandy Grunwald, and Mark Penn, the strategist who was ejected from her campaign a few months ago when his lobbying interests collided with her anti-free-trade themes. Aides described the effort as painstaking and emotional. Mrs Clinton never wavered in her commitment to Mr Obama in her speech, in which she uttered his name 13 times.

She also held a party at her Washington home on Friday in which she thanked and bade a personal farewell to her exhausted campaign staff. She had earlier summoned her supporters with an email in which she said: "I will extend my congratulations to Senator Obama and my support for his candidacy. This has been a long and hard-fought campaign, but as I have always said, my differences with Senator Obama are small compared to the differences we have with Senator McCain and the Republicans."

Shortly after 12 noon, Mrs Clinton left her $3m house, located in a tree-lined cul-de-sac beside the British embassy. It has been her command-and-control centre for the past 17 months of an extraordinary political journey, which began in the darkest days of Bill Clinton's presidency, when she helped him to recover from the shame of his impeachment following the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

As her campaign drew to a formal close, both Barack Obama and John McCain were reaching out to the 18 million voters, many of them older women, who cast their primary votes for her. Mr Obama has being trying to project a female-friendly figure on the campaign trail. When he claimed the nomination on Tuesday, his wife Michelle was centre-stage with him and he dedicated his speech to his white grandmother back in Hawaii.

But even as she prepares to go out on the campaign trail for Mr Obama, Mrs Clinton's sharpest barbs in the acrimonious primary contest are being recycled by the Republicans into attack ads. She has done a lot of Mr McCain's dirty work already with her biting attacks, which are proving to be a perfect fit with the Republican assertion that Mr Obama lacks substance and experience needed for the job of commander in chief.

On Thursday the Republicans posted and emailed a YouTube attack using Mrs Clinton's own words after Mr Obama's former fund-raiser was convicted of corruption. "We still don't have a lot of answers about Senator Obama's dealings with Mr Rezko," she says.

Another video posted the day Mr Obama was talking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, with a promise that "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided", attacks his promise to meet Iranian leaders without preconditions.

That clip showed Mrs Clinton saying: "I disagree with his continuing to say that he would meet with some of the worst dictators in the world without preconditions and without a real understanding of what he would get from it."

"There's going to be a sustained effort to reach out to Clinton supporters and conservative Democrats who have concerns over Obama's judgement and experience," said the Republican spokesman Alex Conant.

The key dates

Democratic convention: 25-28 August

Held in Denver, Colorado, where Obama's coronation as his party's candidate will be formalised

Republican convention: 1-4 September

McCain will accept the nomination in the twin cities of Minneapolis/St Paul, Minnesota

General election: 4 November

Presidential polls are always held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November

Inauguration: 20 January 2009

This is the day when George Bush formally hands power to his successor

Who else is in the line-up for vice-president?

Jim Webb

Author and senator who would add national security credentials and Republican appeal.

Kathleen Sebelius

Governor of Kansas, a Republican stronghold. Crucially, a woman who is not Hillary.

Bill Richardson

Governor of New Mexico has great appeal among Latino voters.

Evan Bayh

Senator from Indiana, who was co-chair of the Clinton campaign.

Joseph Biden

Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Comm-ittee. But at 65 not exactly a symbol of change.

Ted Strickland

Governor of Ohio, could win Obama the crucial swing state. A Clinton backer.