Delayed But Gracious Clinton Exit Leaves Fractured Party

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's delayed yet ultimately generous exit from the presidential race Saturday starts the healing process for a divided Democratic Party, clearing the way for Sen. Barack Obama to begin reaching voters whom he has failed to attract -- and securing a future for Clinton in the party she still hopes to lead some day.

But the somber faces that turned out to see Clinton end her campaign -- and the scattered boos that greeted her mentions of Obama's name -- suggested the lengths to which both Clinton and Obama must go to move beyond the battles of the longest primary season in history.

The Democratic Party is, as Clinton said, "a family," but it's more often resembled "The Simpsons" than "The Waltons."

To Sen. John McCain's delight, 2008 was no exception.

The primary campaign that formally ended with Clinton's suspension of her campaign cleaved the party in two -- dividing along lines of black and white, male and female, blue-collar and white-collar.

In this history-making year, Clinton's challenge as she joins Obama on his quest -- whether or not she joins his ticket -- will be to subsume the personal piques of the just-ended campaign and convince her supporters to believe as strongly in him as they have in her.

"I ask all of you to join me in working as hard in working for Barack Obama as you have for me," Clinton said.

Clinton backers note with sadness and frustration that the candidate seemed to find her most effective voice too late.

When her humanity, her passion -- and, yes, even her femininity, her unique status as the first viable female candidate for president -- shone through, Clinton became an electoral force, winning contests long over the race was deemed to be over.

Saturday's speech was another strong, memorable performance. She did more than recognize Obama's victory -- she enthusiastically embraced his vision for the country, which, for Obama to be successful this fall, must be more than the sum of its policy parts.

"I am standing with Senator Obama to say, 'Yes we can,' " Clinton said.

Yet as she uttered what must have been personally painful words, endorsing Obama and exhorting her supporters to work on his behalf, echoes of the battle that just ended remained -- and not just in the chants of "Hillary" that continued to sound at the National Building Museum.

A massive Saturday event for Clinton to make formal what had become inevitable ensured one final weekend of Hillary -- not Obama -- coverage.

The overflow crowd in Washington looked like one last Clinton rally; if you muted your television, the campaign that never seemed to end continues still.

"This isn't exactly the party I planned, but I sure like the company," Clinton told her supporters.

Saturday's event notwithstanding, Clinton probably missed her best chance to sound grace notes; her nationally televised address Tuesday night, delivered after Obama secured the nomination by every mathematical measure, might have been the best venue for her to call on her supporters to become his.

Clinton instead used that speech to call on her supporters to mobilize on her behalf, and to continue to press her dubious claim to have won the popular vote.

Such claims -- including the suggestion that her supporters weren't being heard because their chosen candidate wasn't going to win -- could have a lasting impact on the party, threatening to delegitimize Obama as the Democrats' standard-bearer at the very moment he needs Democrats to unite.

Clinton started making up for that Saturday -- but her work, like Obama's has only just begun.

Among the lingering questions in this campaign is how Clinton's run will be ultimately remembered. With the Democratic Party only starting to heal itself, that answer may be more closely related to Obama's finish than her own.

But as she basked in the history of the moment, enjoying for one final time the cheers of a crowd's political passion, she offered a nod to the larger legacy of her campaign.

"We will some day launch a woman into the White House," Clinton said. "Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it."