11:03 pm ET: That’s it for tonight — get the full wrap and analysis, as always, in The Note tomorrow morning.
10:53 pm ET: A new crush of superdelegates, 17 new ones, just rolled in for Obama. This is over, whether Sen. Clinton wants to recognize tonight or not.
How does she play these next hours and days? Indeed, what does she want? (And how long with the party really truly care?)
10:36 pm ET: "America, this is our moment," Obama says. Impossible to watch this and not realize how different these two candidates are…. What a race it will be this fall.
10:25 pm ET: Strategically placed signage in St. Paul, per ABC’s Sunlen Miller: "Vets for Obama." "Unify the party." "Women for Obama." Also some American flags. And they paid attention to placement — far more in camera view than elsewhere.
Also — 17,000 people inside the Xcel Center. Another 15,000 outside. Sunlen Miller says maybe a quarter of the crowd has been on its feet all through the speech.
10:23 pm ET: Obama appears to be soaking himself in the history here — but not long enough to avoid the task at hand. It’s remarkable when you think about how little breathing time he has now.
9:51 pm ET: A shout-out for the Website? Is this a draft for vice president she’s stirring? Wow. Wow.
9:48 pm ET: Still waiting on the grace notes — surely there’s more than saying, "Tonight, I would like all of us to recognize him and his supporters for all they have accomplished."
"I will be making no decisions tonight."
Oh my. Will it ever end?
9:43 pm ET: "What does she want?" Clinton asks. Hmmm — that is the question. She wants her supporters "to be respected, to be heard, and no longer to be invisible." This is where she might want to be careful, no? Does she want to stoke perceptions among these voters that that are being disrespected, ignored, and not seen?
9:39 pm ET: The whole Clinton family out again tonight. It seems like, early in the speech, that Clinton is cherishing the moment — wistful, and spinning through the history of her own campaign. "I am so proud we stayed the course together," she said.
But no recognition yet that she hasn’t won.
9:06 pm ET: McCain raps the era of the permanent campaign "of the last 16 years." That’s Bush plus Clinton, if you’re curious.
9:02 pm ET: We’re seeing the McCain experience argument get some flesh: "One of us has a record of working to do that [bring change], and one of us doesn’t. . . . He hasn’t been willing to make the tough calls."
8:54 pm ET: ABC’s Bret Hovell, with the McCain campaign in Louisiana, points out: "New slogan from the McCain campaign tonight: ‘A leader we can believe in.’ It’s on the big sign behind McCain tonight."
We’re also hearing McCain say repeatedly, "That’s not change we believe in." Of course, taking Obama’s line, turning it against him.
8:51 pm ET: "Americans should be concerned," McCain says. There’s the crux of his argument. He needs to disquality Sen. Obama during this campaign. If he does, he wins. If he doesn’t, he probably loses.
8:43 pm ET: From ABC’s Kate Snow, some telling details from the Clinton campaign "celebration" in New York City: "It just hit me that something was very different about this room… other than the fact that we are 2 stories below ground in a cinderblock no-frills gym on Manhattan’s lower east side…. THERE ARE NO TELEVISIONS. There have been large screen TV’s at every one of Clinton’s election night events. Her supporters watch the results come in, they cheer when they’re shown on CNN. Tonight, no TV’s, cell phones and blackberries don’t work down here… no contact with the outside world. People in here cannot see the ongoing countdown clocks on the cable channels. They won’t know when Obama has crossed the threshold."
8:38 pm ET: McCain starts with a swipe at the media — this works on several levels. First, Republicans love to hear about media conspiracies. And second, many of Clinton’s supporters (particularly women) think the media was in the tank for Obama. They could be in play this fall, and if they’re watching McCain now, he just reached out to them.
7:52 pm ET: Drudge has the prepared text of Obama’s speech up — several sentences of "Hillary is great" talk — but I wonder if this should be read as, "I see your future in the Senate" (probably not, but read away): "And you can rest assured that when we finally win the battle for universal health care in this country, she will be central to that victory. When we transform our energy policy and lift our children out of poverty, it will be because she worked to help make it happen. Our party and our country are better off because of her, and I am a better candidate for having had the honor to compete with Hillary Rodham Clinton."
And here’s the third-Bush-term part: "Because while John McCain can legitimately tout moments of independence from his party in the past, such independence has not been the hallmark of his presidential campaign. It’s not change when John McCain decided to stand with George Bush ninety-five percent of the time, as he did in the Senate last year."
6:55 pm ET: My colleague Teddy Davis has a write-up on what McCain is set to say tonight, in his big general-election kick-off speech, now scheduled for around 8:30 pm ET. Here’s a sliver: "You will hear from my opponent’s campaign in every speech, every interview, every press release that I’m running for President Bush’s third term," McCain plans to say. "You will hear every policy of the President described as the Bush-McCain policy. Why does Senator Obama believe it’s so important to repeat that idea over and over again? Because he knows it’s very difficult to get Americans to believe something they know is false."
Well . . . maybe. But a smart Democratic source makes this point: "The mere fact that John McCain is kicking off his general election campaign trying to kick away George Bush means Obama won round one."
He has a point — the McCain campaign has been claiming that this third-Bush-term label won’t fly. But by taking it on directly tonight, it would appear that Team McCain is a smite more worried about its stickiness than they’re letting on.
6:23 pm ET: If Sen. Clinton does want to be Sen. Obama’s running mate, what do you think of the strategy (assuming it was one — which the campaign says it wasn’t) of letting people know she’s consider it if she’s offered it? It takes away a dose of attention from Obama on his big day — and gets the veepstakes rumor mill churning with her as the center of it. It increases public pressure, but surely can’t leave Obamaland with a better taste in their mouths about Sen. Clinton. Then again, maybe the play is based on a realization that Obama won’t pick her unless he’s forced to do so…
5:48 pm ET: Just to throw this out there — what happens if we get another one of those famous split decisions tonight? Yes, the big story should be (and will be, by any measure) Obama’s securing the nomination, not a loss in Montana or South Dakota. But another loss would seem to, again, point out the gaping holes in Obama’s electoral coalition. As we’ve said, he’s stumbling past the finish line here.
And, for those who are interested in an Obama-Clinton ticket, this winning streak amounts to the best argument she could put together.
5:42 pm ET: But this is all that matters, for tonight — from ABC’s decision desk: "Based on the preliminary exit polls and our reporting, ABC News projects that Barack Obama will have enough delegates to secure the Democratic nomination after the votes are counted tonight. "
Wow. Sit back and behold.
5:41 pm ET: Some details from the preliminary exit polls, from ABC polling director Gary Langer: "As in previous primaries, about a third of Hillary Clinton’s supporters say they wouldn’t support Barack Obama in the general election, underscoring his challenges in bringing the party together."
"Fifty-five percent in these preliminary results say that if Obama’s the nominee they’d like him to pick Clinton as his running mate; precisely as many say if Clinton were to win, they’d want her to pick Obama."
Ready to dream, anyone?
Rick Klein here, from ABC’s The Note — I’ll be live-blogging all the action tonight, as returns come in from the final two states in this wild process — and as the candidates take the stage in probably their most-watched speeches of the campaign. (If you guessed that Montana and South Dakota would end this thing, you win — and you’re also lying.)
The working assumptions at this hour:
1. Barack Obama will mathematically clinch the nomination tonight. As of 5:10 pm ET, he’s 21 delegates away, by ABC’s count — and with him poised to win 15-18 delegates out of today’s contests, he probably seven or eight superdelegate endorsements from being in the safe zone, where the last voting will surely put him over the top. Now, supers can always change their minds, right up to the convention, but this will be a major moment in the campaign that Obama will mark with a general-election kick-off-style speech where he will declare victory, in St. Paul, Minn. — the same place where John McCain will accept the GOP nomination in three short months.
2. Hillary Clinton will not suspend/withdraw/drop out of the race tonight. She’s been telling supporters privately today that she needs some time to reflect, and everyone associated with Clinton says she is not conceding anything this evening. Most intriguingly, she also told members of the New York congressional delegation that she’d be "open" to considering a spot on Obama’s ticket, if he offers it. Her people say she’s said this before, but the interpretation is everything, and the fact that she’s engaging this question on this day is significant. I’m also hearing from Democrats that there will be a good measure of anti-Bush and anti-McCain red meat in her speech tonight — maybe trying out for the No. 2 spot?
3. John McCain will seek to "frame" the race with a speech from Louisiana that accepts Obama’s premise — that he’s essentially the nominee. Expect a lot of talk about McCain’s government reform ideas (the New Orleans area is his backdrop), and an emphasis on his record of accomplishments, in contrast to Obama’s perceived lack thereof.
All in all — a busy night. Perceptions will be so important — what they say and how they say it will matter. (And wouldn’t it be awkward if Obama DOESN’T clinch tonight?) Probably the most-watched speech will be Clinton’s — will she call for party unity, even hint at endorsing Obama, or sound like she’s soldiering on, the last lieutenant in a disbanded army?
What are you looking for tonight?