Obama turns to healing Democratic rifts after 'extraordinary' nomination

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All the United States was his stage yesterday as Barack Obama re-scripted 200 years of history by adopting the mantle of the first African American to win the presidential nomination of a major political party, an achievement that elicited wonder and admiration from cafes in Texas to the White House in Washington yesterday.

Even as Mr Obama turned his attention to healing deep rifts in his party, President George Bush – through a spokesman, rather than a telephone call – congratulated the 46-year-old Illinois Senator, saying he had come "a long way in becoming his party's nominee. And his historic achievement reflects the fact that our country has come a long way, too."

There were warmer sentiments from Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State. "The United States of America is an extraordinary country. It is a country that has overcome many, many, now years, decades, actually a couple of centuries of trying to make good on its principles. And I think what we are seeing is an extraordinary expression of the fact that 'We the people' is beginning to mean all of us," she said.

But even as these words of congratulation flowed in from black and white, Democrat and Republican figures across the land, the time for basking was short. Mr Obama steps out of a sometimes bare-fisted nomination fight into a general election battle with John McCain that promises to be every bit as savage.

Distracting him first, however, is the increasingly awkward dance between himself and Hillary Clinton, who in her last primary-night speech on Tuesday omitted either to concede the race to her rival or even acknowledge that he had passed the delegate milestone that entitles him to the crown. Last night, US news channels reported that Mrs Clinton would withdraw officially tomorrow.

Indeed, while the spotlight should surely have been his for at least one day, Mrs Clinton seemed intent on keeping it on herself. As Mr Obama made a brief, unscheduled dash into the corridors of Capitol Hill yesterday, the questions shouted by reporters were less about him and his thoughts on Mr McCain and more about her. Will he/won't he choose her as his running mate?

While the aggressive tone of her speech enraged some of his supporters, Mr Obama used an appearance before a US-Israel lobby group in Washington yesterday once more to heap praise on the former first lady, calling her an "extraordinary candidate, an extraordinary public servant". Anxious to dispel any notion that he may be a reluctant supporter of Israel, Mr Obama said he foresees maintaining Jerusalem as the "undivided" capital of the country as he addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

But Palestinian leaders reacted angrily, saying that they "totally rejected" the statement.

Even as Mr Obama left the meeting, Mrs Clinton was arriving at the hall to give her own address to the group. But a tired-looking Mrs Clinton also took care to trade praise with Mr Obama. "It has been an honour to contest these primaries with him," she said.

It is a stand-off that cannot end until Mrs Clinton formally acknowledges that the nomination race is over and that she is the loser. At that moment she will either end her candidacy altogether or suspend it, perhaps in the vague hope of calamity overtaking Mr Obama between now and the party convention. But some amount of negotiating must happen between the two sides first, with many supporters of Mrs Clinton clamouring for her to be offered the number two spot. Last night, the Obama camp said that, among three people chosen to lead the search effort for a potential vice-presidential nominee, was the daughter of John F Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy.

Meanwhile, Lanny Davis, a former Clinton White House lawyer, launched his own web-based movement for a Hillary Veep draft. He was doing it independently of her campaign, he said.

The pressure to pull Mrs Clinton on board may grow stronger, particularly if doubts exist that Mr Obama may not be able to prevail over Mr McCain in November without her and without the constituencies she proved far better at attracting in the primary season, including older women and blue-collar whites.

However, several factors weigh against Mrs Clinton. Her presence on the ticket may blur Mr Obama's message of bringing change to Washington. There will be deep hesitation also because of the two-for-one dimension. Mr Obama would find himself harnessed not just to Hillary but to Bill too, whose stumping on behalf of his wife has provoked one controversy after another.

As Mr McCain manoeuvres to take on Mr Obama – yesterday inviting him to a series of town hall meetings – Mrs Clinton may find that her presence on the national stage may fade fast. Yesterday, party leaders, including the chairman, Howard Dean, and Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, issued a statement urging the party to rally together, saying the "voters had spoken".

Possible running mates

Senator Joseph Biden

Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he could shore up the foreign relations credentials of Obama. But at 65, he is a six-term Washington fixture and may cloud Obama's message of change.

Evan Bayh

Bayh, a senator from Indiana, was a co-chair of Clinton's campaign and is believed to have been one of the top candidates for the vice-presidency had she gained the nomination.

Bill Richardson

A former UN ambassador, the Governor of New Mexico could help Obama on foreign affairs and among Latin voters. A former contender for the nomination, he came out early to endorse Obama.

John Edwards

The former senator and one-time candidate for the nomination has charisma and a record of attracting support from the white, blue-collar constituencies that Obama has had trouble reaching.

Michael Bloomberg

The popular second-term Mayor of New York and billionaire founder of the Bloomberg media empire is considered an excellent manager, and as a Jew would help Obama in that crucial and sceptical voting block.

Wesley Clark

A charismatic former military leader, Clark would boost Obama's credentials as he triesto assert himself as a credible future commander-in-chief and give support to his call for an end to the war in Iraq.

Ed Rendell

The bulldog-framed Governor of Pennsylvania has been one of Hillary Clinton's supporters but has been candid this week about her loss against Obama. He would help Obama take Pennsylvania, a crucial state, in November.

Kathleen Sibelius

The Governor of Kansas has been a key Obama backer and has a strong bipartisan image. Her success in Kansas, a Republican stronghold, has seen her profile in the party rise. What's more, if it's not Clinton, here is an alternative woman.

For rolling comment on the US election visit: independent.co.uk/campaign08