Clinton speech moves Democrats toward unity, but hasn't clinched it

Her words to the Democratic faithful Tuesday night are a first step, not an end point, toward bringing diehard Clinton fans around to Obama.

By , Staff writer

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    Hillary Rodham Clinton, on stage at the Democratic National Convention Tuesday with daughter Chelsea, acknowledges a sea of 'Hillary' signs borne by supporters.
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Denver – Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said virtually all the right things in her speech at the Democratic National Convention Tuesday.

She called Sen. Barack Obama "my candidate." She urged Democrats to unite as "a single party with a single purpose." And in a plea to her fiercest supporters, some of whom say they will vote for Republican John McCain over Senator Obama in November, she asked whether they were "in this campaign just for me" or for the good of Americans.

Again and again, the crowd inside the Pepsi Center here roared. Delegates hoisted official signs with "Hillary" on one side and "Unity" on the other. But were her words enough to heal a divided party?

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Senator Clinton highlighted the goals she shared with the presumed Democratic nominee – to end the Iraq war, to fight inequality, to make healthcare universal. But she did not talk about Obama’s personal qualities. She grew animated when criticizing Senator McCain, the presumed Republican nominee. But at other times, she seemed measured and subdued, a degree or two short of the fire she often displayed on the campaign trail.

"I think she did what she had to do, but I didn't feel any enthusiasm," Richard Corriveau, a Michigan lawyer and convention guest who voted for Clinton in the primaries, said as he left the Pepsi Center. He said he would vote for Obama this fall "reluctantly," because while he opposes McCain he still feels Obama is "more ego than substance."

Diane Mantouvalos, a founder of justsaynodeal.com, a prominent blog for Clinton diehards critical of the nomination process, said she watched the speech in a Denver hotel suite with a group of supporters who were in tears.

"What it did was it reminded us how incredibly strong a candidate she still is on that stage," Ms. Mantouvalos said.

Even so, Clinton appeared to give at least some of her most loyal admirers pause.

Will Bower, a co-founder of PUMA, a strident pro-Clinton group, said the speech did not change his mind about Obama but yielded second thoughts about his earlier decision to back McCain.

"I'm committed to not voting for Obama," he said in a phone interview. "But Hillary's speech reminded me that I'm not a Republican and I'm not excited about voting Republican. Tonight reminded me that I am still a Democrat at heart."

If nothing else, the 23-minute speech was another step forward for Democrats after a bitter nomination fight that pitted the strongest black presidential candidate in American history against the strongest female one. Many voters – particularly older and working-class women – saw Clinton as the embodiment of their highest personal and civic aspirations.

So divisive were the primaries that recent polls have found that just half of those who backed Clinton in the primaries say they will definitely back Obama this fall. Winning over those disaffected voters remains one of the Democrats' chief challenges, and McCain has made clear in remarks and in TV ads that he will make a strong play for them.

In a prime-time address that capped the second day of the convention, Clinton heaped praise on her most ardent supporters, jokingly calling them "my sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits."

"You never gave in and you never gave up, and together we made history," she said.

She remembered the people who had moved her on the campaign trail – a marine who waited months for medical care, a boy whose mother had just seen her hours cut at her minimum-wage job, a single mother without health insurance who adopted two special-needs children only to learn she had been diagnosed with cancer.

"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 as the arena erupted in applause. "Were you in it for all the people in this country who feel invisible?"

Tuesday was the 88th anniversary of the day the 19th Amendment gave women the vote, and Clinton spoke of the long struggle for equality that reached a summit with her candidacy.

She praised Obama's wife, Michelle Obama, and Sen. Joseph Biden Jr., his vice-presidential pick. And despite – or perhaps because of – lingering tensions between Bill Clinton and the Obama campaign over the former president's perceived ill treatment during the primaries, Senator Clinton explicitly linked Obama's priorities with those of her husband's administration.

"When Barack Obama is in the White House, he'll revitalize our economy, defend the working people of America, and meet the global challenges of our time," she said. "As I recall, we did it before, with President Clinton and the Democrats. And if we do our part, we'll do it again with President Obama and the Democrats."

The speech "hit all the high points," says John Pitney Jr., a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College in California. Still, he says, "you're not going to undo a months-long primary campaign with one speech. But it's a beginning."

How far beyond words her support will go is an open question. Will she release her delegates to Obama before a floor vote on her nomination Wednesday? What will her husband say in his speech Wednesday night? Will the Clintons, their wattage in the party now dimmed, aggressively campaign for Obama?

Senator Clinton's speech comes amid new questions about whether her biggest fundraisers, still embittered about the race, will work for Obama. In addition, Bill Clinton gave some the impression that he was speaking of Obama Tuesday when he voiced concerns about the ability of Democrats to "deliver" on "good intentions."

"This has nothing to do with what's going on now," Clinton insisted in remarks to a group of foreign dignitaries in Denver. "But I am just saying if you look at 5, 10, 15 years from now, you may actually see this delivery issue become a serious issue in Democratic debates because it is so hard to figure out how to turn good intentions into real changes in the lives of the people we represent."

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