Hillary Clinton gave the speech weary Democrats have been waiting for Saturday, formally suspending her campaign and pledging unconditional support to her party's presumptive nominee. "The way to continue our fight now, to accomplish the goals for which we stand, is to take our energy, our passion, our strength and do all we can to help elect Barack Obama the next president of the United States," Clinton told her supporters.
The former first lady's exits the stage with a decidedly double-sided legacy. There was the good: Here was an historic run that energized the party, garnered 18 million votes, and – as Clinton suggested in a speech that referenced the new cracks in "that highest, hardest glass ceiling" – made the prospect of a female president far more feasible. But also the bad: A mistake-prone effort that failed to get a once-inevitable candidate to the finish line, and tactics that resulted in a tarnished legacy for a former president.
With Saturday's speech marking perhaps the final significant milestone in two decades of Clinton-Bush dominance of the executive branch, the campaigns of Obama and presumptive GOP nominee John McCain have been signaling their eagerness to look forward. Both are vowing to redefine an electoral map dominated in recent years by division of constituencies into red and blue. Obama will speak in North Carolina today, a state that has not gone to Democrats since 1976, in an attempt to set the tone for a campaign in which he plans to go on the offensive in areas thought to be Republican strongholds.
McCain is also attempting to look beyond the traditional GOP voter, and he is uniquely positioned to do so thanks in part to a moderate, maverick image that plays well with independents. And while the Arizona senator is viewed skeptically by the conservative base that helped twice put George W. Bush in office, he is facing an opponent whose weakness with key groups – among them working class whites, Latinos and women – gives him an opening to take significant votes from traditional Democratic constituencies.
But while both candidates, in their rhetoric and their strategy, are signaling that a new era of politics is upon us – one in which candidates from both parties are fighting for votes in all 50 states – there remain plenty of reminders of the old way of playing the game. The McCain campaign is looking to define Obama as an elitist liberal, just as Republicans did with 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry, while the Obama campaign has tapped Dan Carroll, an opposition researcher who dug into Clinton's opponents' records in 1992, to examine McCain.
In other words, while the game may have changed, no one's throwing out the rule book just yet.
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