Obama vs. McCain: The Gloves Come Off

To get the grubby business of politics out of the way first, it should be noted that Hillary Clinton gained a comfortable victory in the South Dakota primary while Barack Obama breezed to a double digit win in Montana.

But the results from ultimately meaningless primaries pale in comparison to the historical tsunami that hit this country right around 7:30 central time when both CNN and AP made the call that Barack Obama would be the first African American to win the nomination for president of a major political party in the United States.

We knew it was coming, of course. We've known for months that Hillary Clinton had very little chance of closing the gap opened up by Obama in the wake of his 10-state primary winning streak. But Clinton demonstrated true grit and a steadfastness that won the admiration even of some of her harshest critics by coming back time after time to force Obama to continue the campaign.

In the end, the Democratic nominee stumbled to the finish line, losing 7 of the last 10 primaries. He was not able to deliver a knock-out blow to his tenacious rival - his nomination gained by convincing superdelegates that his victory was inevitable and the fact that the clock simply ran out on Clinton.

But regardless of how he achieved it, Obama's victory is one of those "hinge" moments in American history where a door is opened and the country walks through it, leaving the past behind forever. Putting politics aside for one moment, the victory of this talented, passionate, brilliant man whose life story is perhaps even more incredible than his singular achievement in winning the nomination should be a source of enormous pride for all Americans. We should revel in it for a few moments, if only because there has been so little to truly unite us in recent years.

But once the sheen is off the novelty of the event, it's back to business - the business of trying to figure a way to win enough states to get to 270 electoral votes. Nothing else matters from here on out and both candidates - John McCain and Obama - will mix and match the states on the electoral map, weighing every decision against how far it advances their plan for victory.

Last night saw the unveiling of the outline of those plans when both candidates gave speeches that, for all intents and purposes, kicked off the general election campaign. And for Hillary Clinton, last night was a strange and sad interlude. A campaign not suspended. A race not conceded. But a clear realization by the candidate that her consuming desire to be president would not be achieved.

Earlier in the day, she allowed her staff to mention that she would accept the Vice Presidential nomination if it was offered. But there is much more to that acknowledgment than meets the eye. One school of thought holds that she would not have put her name forward so aggressively if she thought it would be refused. Another side of the coin is that she allowed her name to be mentioned because she knew Obama would never choose her.

She doesn't want to appear the supplicant begging for scraps from Obama's table. But at the same time, she doesn't want to be seen as thrusting herself forward either. It is a difficult position for her to be in, and over the next few days the two candidates and their staffs will probably feel each other out carefully, with Obama making the decision whether the "dream ticket" will become a reality.

And part of that decision will certainly be questions surrounding the one man in America who could upstage the presidential candidate. Bill Clinton has angered Obama supporters with his blatant use of the race card as well as his pointed criticisms of the candidate on everything from health insurance to the Iraq war. His outsized personality makes bringing Hillary on board a gamble of immense proportions. In the end, Obama will have to decide if he can win without Hillary Clinton on the ticket. The only reason she would be there is if he felt he had no other choice.