WASHINGTON - Hillary Rodham Clinton said Saturday what Barack Obama's backers have wanted to hear for weeks: She endorses his campaign and will do everything she can to get him elected president.
It's unclear how the two Democratic powerhouses will meld their machines - or how long it will take for the political healing to take place - but Obama supporters said they were encouraged by how unequivocal her endorsement was.
As Clinton suspended her groundbreaking presidential campaign, she trumpeted her many primary victories as a historic achievement and called on her supporters to move beyond the long, sometimes bitter primary contest.
Criticized earlier in the week for failing to make a gracious exit after it became clear that Obama had clinched the nomination, Clinton sent a different message in her concession speech.
"Life is too short, time is too precious, and the stakes are too high to dwell on what might have been," Clinton said in a half-hour speech to thousands of supporters who packed into Washington's National Building Museum. "We have to work together. And that is why I will work my heart out to make sure Senator Obama is our next president. I hope and pray that all of you will join me in that effort."
It was a dramatic and emotional end to a campaign that brought Clinton closer to the White House than any woman in U.S. history. It marked the beginning of a general election campaign that pits Obama against Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, and poses a stark choice about the direction of the United States after eight years of George W. Bush's presidency.
Obama and his allies welcomed Clinton's endorsement and praised her for the message her campaign sent about women's rights.
"I am thrilled and honored to have Senator Clinton's support," Obama said. "But more than that, I honor her today for the valiant and historic campaign she has run. She shattered barriers on behalf of my daughters and women everywhere, who now know that there are no limits to their dreams."
Obama watched the speech on a computer over the Internet, and phoned Clinton afterward. She did not take the call because she was speaking with supporters at the time. But signs of detente immediately appeared on the candidates' Web sites: Obama's invited supporters to e-mail Clinton to thank her for her campaign; Clinton's site posted a new message: "Support Senator Obama. ... Together we can write the next chapter in America's story."
Dana Marie Kennedy, a Democratic activist at the rally who recruits women to run for political office, said she came all the way from Phoenix to hear Clinton's speech and was not yet ready to transfer her loyalty to Obama.
"I will get there, but I need a few days," Kennedy said.
Democrats in both camps said that Clinton did all she could in throwing her weight behind Obama, putting to rest -- at least for now -- lingering questions about whether she might only go through the motions of backing him.
"She sounded all the notes we hoped she would on a very difficult day," said David Axelrod, Obama's senior political advisor. But he acknowledged that some in the audience harbored bitter feelings, evidenced by the scattered booing that punctuated every comment she made about Obama. "This wasn't a rally for Barack Obama. It was a celebration of her candidacy," Axelrod said.
Her endorsement ends the agony for those Democrats who were torn between the two of them.
"How the loser loses determines whether the winner can win," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., who is close to both Clinton and Obama. "She did exactly what he needed today."
Said William Galston, a Brookings Institution political analyst who supports Clinton, "I'm totally confident it will translate into real, on-the-ground help. She sent a pretty unequivocal message to supporters to cool it and figure out how to get with the program."
Clinton's unqualified endorsement of Obama cleared the way for the two campaigns to meld their strengths. A key question is whether Clinton can transfer to Obama the loyalties of those voters -- including many women, Latinos and working-class whites -- who flocked to her during the primary season.
Geoff Garin, chief strategist for Clinton's campaign, said it was unclear exactly how the campaigns would mesh but that it was up to the Obama campaign to take the initiative.
"Senator Clinton has expressed her commitment to doing whatever she can," said Garin. "I hope the Obama campaign will take advantage of that. Senator Clinton has a lot to offer, and the campaign organization she's built up has a lot to offer. But at this stage, it's his call."
Accompanied by her daughter Chelsea, her mother, and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton opened her farewell on a bittersweet note: "This isn't exactly the party I planned, but I sure like the company."
Repeatedly throughout the speech, Clinton highlighted the historic nature of her candidacy. Making a reference to her vote total over the course of the campaign, Clinton said she hoped that she had made "18 million" cracks in the glass ceiling preventing women from becoming president. And she said she hoped she had made the path to the presidency a little easier for the next female candidate for president.
"You can so be proud that from now on it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories," Clinton said. "Unremarkable to have a woman in a close race to be our nominee. Unremarkable to think a woman could be president of the United States. And that is truly remarkable, my friends."
Clinton also, albeit briefly, acknowledged Obama's achievement in becoming the first black person to become a major party's choice for the presidency.
"Together Senator Obama and I achieved milestones essential to our progress as a nation, part of our perpetual duty to form a more perfect union," Clinton said.
Comments from women who waited in sweltering heat to hear the former first lady -- including some who wept -- made clear that Obama still has a challenge ahead in rallying Clinton supporters.
Carol Schneider, a 63-year-old educator from Washington, did not hide her bitterness about how Clinton had been treated and said she might write in Clinton's name on the ballot in November.
"I'm disappointed and embarrassed that the Democratic Party didn't choose a candidate with the experience and qualifications that Hillary Clinton had," she said. "She has been disrespected all the way through to the end."
Many younger women who came to hear Clinton said they, too, were disappointed. But there seemed to be less anger.
"I'm sure that for a lot of people who have been waiting so long for this, it's sad to see her come so close," said Lauren Ross, 23. "But we grew up thinking that it's going to happen. It's just a matter of time. We'll have a woman president."
Clinton's campaign has taken her supporters on a roller coaster ride, from her early frontrunner status - the inevitable nominee, skilled debater, beneficiary of the nation's most powerful political machine - to the underdog as her campaign stumbled and Obama soared among voters who cared more about his call for fundamental change over Clinton's claim of greater experience.
Technically, Clinton suspended her campaign and did not formally give up her candidacy. The move allows her to keep her delegates, continue fundraising to pay off her debt and may ensure her a more prominent role at the Democratic National Convention this summer.
Republicans wasted no time ramping up their general-election rhetoric against Obama. The Republican National Committee launched a Web site highlighting criticisms they have made of each other in the primary campaign.
"Senator Clinton was correct to question Obama's naivete and inexperience, and those concerns remain for all voters nationwide," said Robert M. "Mike" Duncan, chairman of the GOP.
But Clinton's exit speech Saturday was a carefully scripted to send a message of party unity.
"We all know this has been a tough fight, but the Democratic Party is a family," Clinton said. "Today our paths have merged."