WASHINGTON, June 3 – Democrat Barack Obama stood on the threshold of history Tuesday, within reach of becoming American’s first black presidential nominee after a bitter campaign against Hillary Clinton.
As voters in the last two states, Montana and South Dakota, wrapped up the gruelling coast-to-coast Democratic nominating marathon, Clinton was staring at the demise of her own historic quest to be the first woman president.
The only questions remaining in the Democratic race were whether Obama would reach the mathematical winning post of 2,118 delegates by late Tuesday, and whether Clinton would formally fold her campaign, and endorse her fierce rival.
Regardless, Illinois Senator Obama, 46, planned to train his full fire on potential general election rival John McCain, with a raid into the same Minnesota sports arena where Republicans will crown their nominee in September.
Clinton was meanwhile headed back to her home state in New York, prompting speculation she would abandon her campaign, which has garnered nearly 17 million votes, at a "celebration" event in Manhattan on Tuesday night.
Obama, the former community organizer who has reached the heights of US politics after just three years in the Senate, already had any eye on healing his party after a nominating battle which cleaved it down the middle.
He divulged some of the content of his congratulatory telephone call to the former first lady, after her thumping win in the Puerto Rico primary on Sunday.
"I emphasized to her what an extraordinary race that she’s run and said that there aren’t too many people who understand exactly how hard she’s been working — I’m one of them," Obama told reporters in Michigan.
He said he told his 60-year-old rival that "once the dust settled I was looking forward to meeting with her at a time and place of her choosing."
A flurry of conflicting signals escaped from the Clinton camp on Monday, with some reports saying advance workers who set up campaign events would not be needed after Tuesday and that staff had been told to file expense reports.
Former president Bill Clinton perhaps foreshadowed his departure from this campaign trail, a tumultuous 18 years after capturing the White House, with valedictory musings in South Dakota.
"I want to say also that this may be the last day I’m ever involved in a campaign of this kind," he said.
"I thought I was out of politics, till Hillary decided to run. But it has been one of the greatest honors of my life to be able to go around and campaign for her for president," he added.
But aides traveling with Clinton played down reports that the former first lady would exit the race on Tuesday, even as other signs pointed to a conference between Clinton and top advisors at her New York home.
There were also indications that nearly 200 superdelegates, the top party officials who can vote how they like at the party’s August convention in Denver, were beginning to accelerate their slide towards Obama.
The Illinois senator picked up 4.5 superdelegate votes on Monday to Clinton’s two, while James Clyburn, a hugely influential African-American leader and major force in Congress, was due to follow on Tuesday.
Obama was just 42.5 delegates short of the 2,118 now needed to capture the nomination, after a contentious deal was thrashed out on Saturday over the renegade primaries in Florida and Michigan.
A total of 31 delegates was available in Tuesday’s contests.
Rumors circulated that other superdelegates would endorse him en masse on Tuesday or early Wednesday.
Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, who has remained neutral, said he and "most uncommitted superdelegates" would also break cover Tuesday.
"And I think it’s very much in the party’s interest to have a nominee and to get moving on with the election," he told MSNBC.
Obama said he felt "that between Tuesday and Wednesday, that we’ve got a good chance of getting the number that we need to win the nomination."
Polls were opening across two time zones at 7:00 am in Montana (1200 and 1300 GMT) and at 7:00 am in South Dakota (1300 GMT).
They were to close at 7:00 pm in South Dakota (0000 and 0100 GMT Wednesday), and at 8:00 pm in Montana (0200 GMT).