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Huge crowd at St. Paul as Obama savors the moment

ST. PAUL, Minn. — It was the most historic night so far in Barack Obama's life and one of the biggest in American politics.

For a few minutes, he let himself feel it.

Securing enough support to become the first black American to win a major party's backing for president, the freshman Illinois senator took to the stage here at the Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday night with his wife Michelle by his side. They bumped fists gently in mutual congratulations, and she gave him a thumbs-up, kissed him and stepped aside. Some 17,000 adoring supporters cheered in jubilation as another 15,000 waited outside, according to local fire authorities.

"Tonight, I can stand here and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States," Obama declared. He thanked his family, staff and volunteers, and said he was dedicating the night to his white grandmother who had helped raise him, still alive but too old to travel from Hawaii.

With an eye on the general election campaign, Obama, 46, chose to mark the night not in a racially historic spot but in the hall where John McCain will address the Republican National Convention in September as that party's nominee.

Obama quickly turned his attention that way. He whipped the crowd into a frenzy promising "change" and said, "Let us unite in common effort to chart a new course for America."

He spoke of having "the courage and conviction to lead the free world" in the footsteps of presidents Roosevelt, and Truman, and Kennedy.

He pledged to heal partisan divisions even as he talked about ending the war in Iraq and making wholesale changes from President Bush's policies.

"What you won't hear from this campaign or this party is the kind of politics that uses religion as a wedge, and patriotism as a bludgeon...that sees our opponents not as competitors to challenge, but enemies to demonize.

"We may call ourselves Democrats and Republicans, but we are Americans first. We are always Americans first. "

"I face this challenge with profound humility," Obama said, "and knowledge of my own limitations."

Needing a unified party behind him, Obama recognized that his own huge achievement had cost his primary election rival the chance to be the first woman to do as much - and that this was a night for grace and humility.

"Senator Hillary Clinton has made history in this campaign not just because she's a woman who has done what no woman has done before," he said, "but because she's a leader who inspires millions of Americans with her strength, her courage, and her commitment to the causes that brought us here tonight."

He said running against Clinton had been an "honor" and also praised former President Bill Clinton.

Obama spent most of Tuesday in Chicago.

He played basketball, did satellite interviews for South Dakota and Montana stations and spent hours on the phone behind closed doors working to secure enough superdelegates to declare the nomination when the polls closed.

At Obama campaign headquarters, on the 11th floor of a downtown Chicago office building, business went on as usual throughout the day.

But there was a giddiness, even as volunteers worked the phones, raised money and the policy team prepared for Obama's remarks to be delivered on Wednesday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and by satellite to a labor conference in Puerto Rico.

"I don't know if I'm going to cry or to scream, but it's something I've prayed for!" said Joyce Teal, 65, a black woman who has volunteered for Obama since his Senate run four years ago. "It's historical for African-Americans. It's historical for all Americans."

Aides rolled out the growing super delegate count in a steady stream throughout the day. At noon, Obama needed only 33 more super delegates; by the time his plane landed in St. Paul he needed just eight. It was obvious he would reach the 2,118 delegate threshold that night.

Strategist David Axelrod said as he boarded the plane that he felt "numb."

"It's going to take a little while for it to sink in," said Axelrod. "It's almost surreal that we're at this moment....It says a great deal about the progress we've made as a country and also says a lot about Barack Obama."

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