Barack Obama had a lot riding on Hillary Rodham Clinton's convention speech Tuesday night.
So did Clinton.
In the opening lines of her keenly awaited address, she delivered the sort of full-throated endorsement that the Obama team wanted.
"My friends, it is time to take back the country we love," she declared. "Whether you voted for me, or voted for Barack, the time is now to unite as a single party with a single purpose. We are on the same team, and none of us can sit on the sidelines. This is a fight for the future. And it's a fight we must win."
The convention hall, so packed that local fire marshals refused to let more people in, erupted in cheers as both Clinton and Obama delegates waved white signs that read simply "Hillary."
"Barack Obama is my candidate," she said, "and he must be our president."
Clinton was headlining the second night of a Democratic gathering that is divided and nervous — divided between the two former rivals for the presidential nomination and nervous that a November victory which once seemed to be a sure thing is now at risk.
The feel-good mood that suffused the Pepsi Center on Monday night — marked by a bittersweet address from the ailing Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy and an affectionate tribute to Barack Obama by his wife, Michelle — was replaced with an air that was considerably more charged.
Clinton's ability to persuade her reluctant supporters to unite behind Obama would be a significant boost for him, especially in attracting the older voters, blue-collar workers and Latinos who propelled her presidential campaign. At the moment, only about half of Clinton's primary-season supporters say they are sure to vote for Obama, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll during the weekend found.
"There's a lot of animus there because it was so close," San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom told USA TODAY before Clinton spoke. He's worried the lingering resentment could hurt Democrats' chances of winning the White House. "There's still that friction."
The daily Gallup tracking poll released Tuesday showed Republican John McCain edging ahead of Obama, 46%-44%, for the first time since Obama clinched the nomination in June. The race remains close despite economic anxiety and a desire for change that boost Democratic prospects.
Clinton has her own reasons for wanting to deliver her vote.
At stake is her political future "whether it's a career in the U.S. Senate to be the equivalent of a Ted Kennedy, a sort of über-senator, or whether it's to maintain her viability so if Obama loses she doesn't even have to say 'I told you so' and she's the front-runner for next time," says Charlie Cook of the non-partisan Cook Political Report. "But those things only happen if she's seen as doing the right thing now."
So the New York senator had to walk a sort of high-wire: giving her supporters the public moment they wanted — to acknowledge and celebrate her breakthrough candidacy — while also making a persuasive argument that it was time to line up behind the man who defeated her.
She did that by recalling those she encountered on the campaign trail.
"I want you to ask yourselves: Were you in this campaign just for me? Or were you in it for that young Marine and others like him?" she said. "Were you in it for that mom struggling with cancer while raising her kids? Were you in it for that boy and his mom surviving on the minimum wage? Were you in it for all the people in this country who feel invisible?"
The 25-minute speech focused on policy and warned of the risks of four more years of GOP rule, and she mentioned Obama's name more than a dozen times.
But Clinton didn't talk about Obama in personal terms. She didn't address criticisms she made during the primaries that he lacked the experience to handle the demands of the presidency.
And she didn't discuss what would happen during today's roll-call vote. The Obama team has been anxious to avoid a 50-state roll call that might spotlight a closely divided convention.
Watching and applauding in the audience was former president Bill Clinton, whose speech to the convention tonight will be another test of party unity.
Obama, who was campaigning in Billings, Mont., called the Clintons after the speech, thanking him for his support and congratulating her on her speech. He said he loved one particular line she used: "No way, no how, no McCain."
Drafting the remarks had been no easy task. Speechwriter Jonathan Lovett, former communications aide Jim Kennedy and former White House aide Lissa Muscatine — pulled an all-nighter Monday working on them. At mid-afternoon Tuesday, Clinton was making last-minute revisions, and the text wasn't released until she was walking on stage.
In the Texas delegation, a group of Clinton supporters watched, applauded and got teary-eyed. Arika Kulhavy of Nacogdoches cried through the speech. Shondra Wygal, 36, who works for Senate candidate Rick Noriega, called it "awesome."
"I am sad that she didn't come out on the top, but I am a Democrat first," Wygal said, so she'll support Obama in November. First, she wants to cast her convention ballot for Hillary.