Page last updated at 06:58 GMT, Wednesday, 4 June 2008 07:58 UK

Obama and crowd rise to occasion

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, St Paul, Minnesota

Barack Obama speaking in St Paul, Minnesota, 3 June 2008
The crowd in St Paul seemed to inspire Barack Obama

For the Obama faithful it was never going to be just another night of celebration.

They sensed that victory was theirs more than they calculated it from the returns in Montana and South Dakota - or from the steady trickle of reports that more and more super-delegates were declaring for their candidate.

And as they began trooping into the hall five hours before he was due to speak, it was clear they felt they had a role in helping the senator from Illinois set his seal on this pivotal moment in America where one election process ends, and another begins.

The primaries were over, the general election campaign was beginning.

Victory was his to declare, but the mood of the crowd as he outlined his vision would help to define this moment in the minds of the millions of Americans watching at home on television.

They did not let him down.

Making history

Many of Mr Obama's victory rallies have had a shattering intensity about them - he stirs the crowd's energy, but he feeds on it too, and in St Paul they seemed to inspire him.

Tonight we mark the end of one historic journey with the beginning of another - a journey that will bring a new and better day to America
Barack Obama

Not for the first time, Mr Obama's campaign managers picked an indoor sports stadium as the venue for their rally - this time an ice-hockey hall in which four tiers of seating towered far above the stage.

The next time it stages a professional hockey game, it is going to seem a little sedate.

Mr Obama performed in the middle of a force-field of noise which mingled the joy and relief and hope he has kindled in his followers.

Some of his older black supporters will tell you candidly that there is a bit of disbelief in there too - they never expected in their lifetimes to be able to support an African-American candidate with a real chance of winning the White House.

Political campaigning is about mapping strategies, booking halls, buying advertising and beating rivals.

But every so often, in private, Mr Obama and his closest advisers must surely lift their eyes to history's horizon and reflect on the powerful symbolism of his candidacy in a country which still lives with the legacy of racial division.

Within Mr Obama's lifetime, white racist groups in the Deep South tried to intimidate black voters out of registering to take part in elections.

Now he has a real chance of becoming president.

Reaching out

This was probably Mr Obama's most important speech of the year so far - the first time as candidate for the Democratic Party that he has spoken to Americans not just about why he wants to lead them, but where he wants to lead them.

Senator Obama was lavish in his praise of Hillary Clinton

From the faithful in St Paul, he was always going to get adoration at the very least.

But he has to reach out beyond them now - to people who voted for Hillary, people who might back Republican John McCain and people who might not vote at all.

His essential message of course, is of hope and change - but no candidate in history has ever campaigned for despair and the status quo.

He will need a lot more flesh on the bones when the campaign against the Senator McCain builds to a climax in the autumn.

He was lavish in his praise of Mrs Clinton, speaking of her "unyielding desire to improve the lives of ordinary Americans" and of how he expected to find her at his side in the Democratic battle for the White House.

He said he was a better candidate for having had to run against her.

At previous Obama rallies, I have heard loud booing break out when shots of President Bill Clinton appeared on the giant video screens.

Nothing like that in St Paul - there was cheering when Senator Clinton was praised just as there had been cheering a few hours earlier when Mrs Clinton took the stage in New York and spoke warmly of Mr Obama's campaign and his supporters.

Running mate?

It will take more than a couple of set-piece speeches delivered at a moment of high emotion to repair the wounds left by this most divisive of primary seasons.

But at least this all showed that the party's leaders know what has to be done.

In the end, Mr Obama did his job, reaching high-flown pinnacles of rhetoric.

But while he claimed victory in a spine-tingling moment, Mrs Clinton did not of course, quite concede defeat, leaving the impression in the air that she might be angling rather openly for the vice-presidential slot.

Many of his supporters felt they were looking over their shoulders wondering what their defeated rival might do next.

At the very least she made sure that the story of the night was about her as well as about Mr Obama, even in the moment that the hand of history descended on his shoulder.

The night belonged to him all right, just as it should have done,

But somehow in the midst of all the noise and energy in St Paul, she could not quite be forgotten.

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