Clinton Delivers for Obama

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Anthony Suau for Time

Senator Hillary Clinton speaks at the Pepsi Center during the Democratic National Convention.

No winner of a hard-fought, down-to-the-wire presidential nomination battle ever received a stronger boost from his vanquished foe than Senator Barack Obama picked up from Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton here Tuesday.

After days of backstage carping among both her supporters and his, no one knew exactly what to expect. Obama didn't just beat a strong and popular candidate; he snatched the reins from the party's old guard and ticked off a former President, Bill Clinton, in the process. People might have wondered if Hillary Clinton was preparing to launch her 2012 campaign when the Pepsi Center became filled with thousands of cardboard placards emblazoned with her website address. After all, history holds plenty of examples of also-rans who achieved far less than Clinton did this year — her 18 million primary votes essentially tied Obama's over a grueling six-month race, yet those voters refused to close ranks behind their party's winner.

Clinton cleared up all doubts in a matter of seconds: "I am here as a proud mother," she declared, "a proud Democrat, a proud Senator from New York, a proud American — and a proud supporter of Barack Obama." At that the crowd of some 15,000 people, which had greeted Clinton with a solid four-minute wall of noise, erupted again, waving all those white "Hillary" signs in an enormous cloud.

Six months of pitched battle and a summer of what-ifs would change anyone; they've turned Clinton into a first-rate stage presence. She followed a tough act, Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, who woke up a drowsy crowd with a barn burner of a speech on — of all things — energy independence. Yet Clinton managed, without a lot of poetry or melodrama, to take the gathered Democrats up another couple of notches toward fever country.

She didn't merely declare her own wholehearted support for Obama. She challenged her supporters — a quarter of whom now favor John McCain over Obama, according to recent polls — to put aside their lingering resentments and think about the bigger picture. "I want you to ask yourselves: Were you in this campaign just for me?" And at another point: "You haven't worked so hard over the last 18 months, or endured the last eight years, to suffer through more failed leadership. No way. No how. No McCain!"

Clinton repeated her endorsement at regular intervals through her 22-min. speech. "Barack Obama is my candidate," "I support Barack Obama," "We need to elect Barack Obama," and so on. She even added an extra one at the end of her prepared text.

But perhaps the most striking benediction she delivered to her former foe was to hand him — maybe as a loan or maybe forever — the mantle of 1990s peace and prosperity that she had hoped to wear as her own. "As I recall, we did it before with President Clinton and the Democrats," she said to a new round of cheers. "And President Obama and the Democrats will do it again."

Bill Clinton watched the speech from box seats high above the convention floor, flanked by the widow of Arkansas Democratic chairman Bill Gwatney, killed recently by a disgruntled former employee, and the son of the late Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio. When the speech ended, the former President wiped tears from his eyes, mouthed the words "Great speech" and let out a long sigh.

It's safe to assume Obama let out his own sigh about that same moment. He is halfway through his convention now at a critical juncture in his improbable campaign. His early summer lead in national polls has evaporated, and many Democrats have become skittish. A number of leading liberal writers have started spinning out preliminary theories about why the most effective political organization in years is doomed. Yet he surely knows it could be worse.

Not only did Hillary Clinton come through for him big-time. The campaign pivoted Tuesday from a vaguely defensive attempt to reintroduce the candidate to a more upbeat theme of future vs. past.

"The race for the future is on," keynote speaker Mark Warner of Virginia said in an otherwise generally flat performance. "John McCain promises more of the past. America has never been afraid of the future, and we shouldn't start now."

Democrats hoping to hear the sound of McCain being chewed on were probably disappointed. A number of speakers tried to tie the Republican nominee to incumbent President Bush, figuring that ought to be as lethal as a bathtub tied to a Channel swimmer. Noting that McCain sides with Bush 90% of the time, according to some estimates, Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey Jr. declared, "That's not a maverick. That's a sidekick."

But it was all pretty dry. The closest thing to red meat came from Schweitzer, and it wasn't very red: "We simply can't drill our way to energy independence, even if you drilled in all of John McCain's backyards — including the ones he can't even remember." The relentless inclusion, in virtually every speech, of a vague and sketchy story about Americans fallen on hard times, lost whatever power it may have had by early evening, at the latest.

Nevertheless, in that final hour, with the whole crowd finally paying attention and on its feet, with Hillary Clinton giving Obama more than he had any historical justification to expect, there was the feeling of a convention that had shifted up a gear or two. That must make a candidate exhale in relief.