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In sealing nomination, Obama makes history

He's the first African-American to head presidential ticket of a major party, winning Democrats' long war of attrition.

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Those groups had long coexisted, not always comfortably, within the party. The historic candidacies of the leading Democrats buoyed the aspirations of two long-disenfranchised groups – women and blacks – as much as it threw the party's diversity into high relief.

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"When the fight has been between white men, those demographic differences aren't brought front and center," says Earl Black, a Rice University political scientist and coauthor of "Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics." "When you have major candidates that are female or minority, that's when it really does create a greater test for the Democrats to resolve those tensions."

The final day of the popular voting ended like so many earlier ones: with a split decision. Clinton on Tuesday won 55 percent of the vote in South Dakota to Obama's 45 percent. In Montana, Obama won 56 percent to Clinton's 41 percent. The results, together with endorsements Tuesday from at least 40 superdelegates, pushed Obama well past the 2,118 delegates needed for the nomination.

Clinton entered the race last year as the hands-down favorite. She was by some accounts the most famous woman in the world. Her husband's eight years in the White House had secured her celebrity and ensured her access to the most powerful figures in the Democratic establishment.

Obama, by contrast, was until recently a virtual unknown. The son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, he spent most of his childhood overseas. He was a relatively obscure state senator in Illinois when his rousing speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention vaulted him to celebrity as a comer in a party desperate for rebirth.

A war of attrition

In the weeks before the first contest of the primary season, Clinton led in national polls by more than 30 percentage points. Obama's victory in Iowa – Clinton finished third, behind former Sen. John Edwards – shocked expectations. It was a testament to his superior grass-roots organization and a signal that a real race was in the making. It was also a turning point for blacks, a key Democratic voting bloc, who began abandoning the Clintons in droves amid evidence that Obama could win overwhelmingly white states.

"When he proved to blacks that he could win among whites, that really increased momentum," says Christopher Parker, an expert on race and politics at the University of Washington, in Seattle.

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