Analysis: Obama will need to unite divided party

Four months after he swept the opening Iowa caucuses, Barack Obama moved toward claiming the Democratic presidential nomination with strong showings on the last big primary night of the season.

Now the Illinois senator has a formidable to-do list: navigating a half-dozen final, smaller contests and clinching the 2,025 delegates needed for nomination. Uniting a divided party and appealing to base voters who have been cool to him. And pivoting for a fall election against Republican John McCain, who's had a three-month head start.

"First things first: We have to continue to fight as hard as we can to secure this nomination," says David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager. But "obviously, you know, we also don't want to wake up on the morning of June 4 or June 10 or whenever this is going to end and not be prepared."

The campaign has launched a 50-state voter-registration drive, and Plouffe speaks favorably of a proposal floated last week by Michigan Democratic leaders to split the difference between the campaigns over seating the state delegation. That's been in bitter dispute because the primary was held earlier than party rules allow.

Another big decision ahead is whether to accept public financing for the general election. Last year, Obama said he would if his Republican opponent did, but now his fundraising prowess has made it clear that doing so would forfeit what almost certainly would be an enormous financial advantage.

The long Democratic battle has brought some significant benefits to the party's nominee, including sparking a surge in Democratic registration across the country as GOP ranks stall. Turnout in Tuesday's North Carolina and Indiana primaries smashed state records.

Both candidates also have identified and organized supporters in states traditionally seen as Republican.

"I'll be very interested in November if we see … an impact because Democrats spent so much time and money in states they don't normally do that in," including North Carolina, says Jennifer Palmieri, an aide to John Edwards' presidential campaign. "And I think that the amount of money and organizing that they spent in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania is a very useful exercise."

Still, there are real downsides to the setback-and-comeback campaign between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, including hardening lines between their supporters.

What's more, the Democratic primary battle has drawn a road map for Republicans to the vulnerabilities of an Obama candidacy, from his association with a controversial pastor to the label of an elitist.

Obama's path ahead:

•Give Clinton a graceful exit.

Obama extended an olive branch in his victory speech Tuesday, congratulating Clinton for "what appears to be her victory" in Indiana. While she was leading in the vote count at that point, the outcome was still too close to call.

The Obama camp also has avoided demanding that she get out of the race.

"It would be inappropriate and awkward and wrong for any of us to tell Sen. Clinton when it is time for the race to be over," Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill said Wednesday on a conference call organized by the Obama campaign.

Down the road: a discussion of Clinton's role and speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention in August.

•Reach out to her backers.

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