, DES MOINES, Iowa, May 21 – Barack Obama claimed a new milestone in his White House quest and declared the Democratic nomination nearly within his grasp after splitting his latest primary battles with Hillary Clinton.
Thumped Tuesday by Clinton in the southern state of Kentucky, Obama won the northwestern state of Oregon handily to come within a mere 75 delegates of the 2,026 needed to win the party nod.
Obama, seeking to become the first black US president, basked in an initial moral victory as he sewed up a majority of "pledged" delegates elected in a bruising run of coast-to-coast nominating contests.
"We have returned to Iowa with a majority of delegates elected by the American people," the Illinois senator, 46, told a rally Tuesday night in the midwestern state where he notched his first victory in January.
"You have put us within reach of the Democratic nomination for President of the United States of America," he told some 7,000 cheering supporters who roared back, "Obama ’08."
Clinton’s chances of depriving Obama of his prize rested on a wholesale defection of unelected superdelegates, nearly 800 top party officials who can vote how they like at the party’s August convention.
But the former first lady and current New York senator vowed anew not to give up her dream of becoming America’s first female president until after the closely fought Democratic primary season ends on June 3.
"It’s not just Kentucky bluegrass that’s music to my ears. It’s the sound of your overwhelming vote of confidence even in the face of some pretty tough odds," she told raucous supporters in Louisville, Kentucky.
"I’m going to keep making our case until we have a nominee, whoever she may be," Clinton said with a wide smile at her victory party.
Still, the often-bitter campaign appeared to be winding down as both candidates went out of their way to assure a united front against Republican John McCain in the November election.
Obama skewered McCain in his speech Tuesday night. "The Bush policy that asks everything of our troops and nothing of Iraqi politicians is John McCain’s policy too.
"So is the fear of tough and aggressive diplomacy that has left this country more isolated and less secure than at any time in recent history."
At the same time, Obama went out of his way to heap some of his warmest praise on Clinton and highlight her value as a potential ally instead of an adversary.
"No matter how this primary season ends," Obama said, "Senator Clinton has shattered myths and broken barriers and changed the America in which my daughters and yours will have come of age."
But Tuesday’s results held new warning signs for Obama as Clinton’s success among white, working-class voters raised new questions about his appeal with the crucial swing bloc in a general election.
With all precincts reporting in Kentucky, Clinton won 65 percent to 30 percent in the socially conservative state. With 66 percent of precincts reporting, Obama had a 58-42 percent edge in Oregon.
In a new sign of his growing political might, Obama’s campaign said he had raised 31 million dollars in April. Clinton’s communications chief Howard Wolfson said her campaign raised 22 million dollars in the same month.
Both Obama and Clinton were heading to Florida Wednesday. The Sunshine State’s primary results, like Michigan’s, were voided by Democratic bosses over a scheduling row.
Clinton, however, claims she has won the popular vote, if Michigan and Florida are counted, and argues she would therefore be the strongest nominee.
She is also hoping to persuade officials of the party’s rules and bylaws committee to put the two states back into play when they meet at a crucial meeting on May 31. Most commentators said her chances were slim.
The last contests in the race are in Puerto Rico on June 1, and Montana and South Dakota on June 3.