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Obama: Contested primary made Clinton "a better candidate"

NEW YORK -- President Barack Obama opened a determined fence-mending mission Wednesday, hoping to use his popularity among Democrats to unite the party behind Hillary Clinton and draw in Bernie Sanders supporters reluctant to give up after a grueling primary fight.

In his first public remarks on the primary since Clinton clinched the nomination, Mr. Obama acknowledged the lingering bruised feelings and sought to shower praise on both candidates. He skirted a formal endorsement or a call on Sanders to drop out -- even as he spoke of the Vermont senator's campaign in the past tense.

Hillary Clinton on her challenges going forward

"It was a healthy thing for the Democratic Party to have a contested primary. And I thought Bernie Sanders brought enormous energy and his new ideas and he pushed the party and challenged them. I thought it made Hillary a better candidate," Mr. Obama said during a taping of NBC's "Tonight Show" on Wednesday. ''My hope is that over the next couple of weeks we're able to pull things together. "

The president's impending endorsement for Clinton seemed like a fait accompli, as the president traveled to New York for Democratic Party fundraisers. Though the White House kept mum about the timing, all signs pointed to Mr. Obama endorsing Clinton on Thursday after the president meets with Sanders in the Oval Office.

Democratic leaders hoped the meeting, requested by Sanders, would be a moment of catharsis for the party, sending a signal that even Sanders understands the importance of electing a Democrat in November.

Sanders is still pursuing Clinton

Yet it was unclear whether Sanders was ready to follow that script. The Vermont senator emailed supporters saying: "The struggle continues" and vowing to compete in the season's final primary contest next week in the District of Columbia.

"Oh, let him make that decision," said Vice President Joe Biden, urging those calling for Sanders' withdrawal to "give him time." Biden was arranging calls with both Sanders and Clinton to discuss the race before making a public endorsement of his own.

For the president, who reportedly has been itching to get off the sidelines in the race, the key question is whether voters who helped elect him twice will follow his lead now that he's not on the ballot.

There was little reason for overconfidence among Democrats, who haven't seen that powerful coalition of minorities, young people and women reliably show up for candidates not named Mr. Obama during the last two mid-term elections.

What's next for Clinton after clinching nomination?

If Clinton matches the levels of support and turnout among those groups -- especially African-Americans and Hispanics -- the president had, it would make Trump's path to victory exceedingly narrow.

But the yearlong battle between Clinton and Sanders exposed clear rifts: Young people and the most liberal voters fell overwhelmingly in Sanders' camp, while Clinton locked in support among Hispanics and African-Americans.

Mr. Obama "will be one of the politicians who can help bring the party together by making the progressive case for Hillary Clinton," said former Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer, who added that the president's most important job in the campaign would be "turning out his voters in November."

Trump, meanwhile, was making a fresh pitch to Sanders voters, refusing to concede that the Vermont senator's backers were unlikely to vote for him.

Pres. Obama will meet with Sanders at White House Thursday

In New York, Mr. Obama was raising money for Democrats and reaching out to young voters, taping an appearance on the late show hosted by Jimmy Fallon, who's very popular with that key voting group. NBC released an excerpt of the interview, but the full interview will not run until Thursday.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Mr. Obama has deliberately kept in close touch with his supporters even after his last election in 2012 and would be a "particularly influential advocate" for the Democratic nominee.

"I would think that would have some influence on those who supported Sen. Sanders in the primary," he said, "but I also suspect that Sen. Sanders is going to have something to say about this as well."

With the Democrats' nomination process winding down and emotions still high, Earnest said Mr. Obama would be "well-positioned" to play the role of unifier for his party going forward.

Bernie Sanders: I know it's a very steep fight

"Yes, you could expect the president to play that kind of role," he said at Tuesday's White House briefing in response to a question from CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan.

For months, Mr. Obama has been on the sidelines of the Clinton-Sanders showdown, arguing he didn't want to tip the scales before voters weighed in. As an added benefit, his publicly neutral stance may have helped him retain credibility he'll now need to persuade Sanders' supporters who are deeply skeptical of the Democratic establishment's influence in picking the nominee.

In addition to campaign events, Mr. Obama is likely to keep up his social media-profile, capitalize on his skill with pop culture interviews and the humor-laced digs at Trump, as he's demonstrated in recent speeches.

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