WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton said Saturday what Barack Obama's backers have wanted to hear for weeks: she endorses his campaign and will do everything she can to get him elected president.
It remains to be seen how the two Democratic powerhouses will meld their machines -- or how long it will take for the political healing to take place -- but Obama supporters said they were encouraged by how unequivocal her endorsement was.
As Clinton suspended her groundbreaking presidential campaign, she trumpeted her many primary victories as a historic achievement and called on her supporters to move beyond the long, sometimes bitter contest.
Accused earlier in the week of failing to make a gracious exit after it became clear that Obama had clinched the nomination, Clinton sent a different message in her concession speech.
"Life is too short, time is too precious, and the stakes are too high to dwell on what might have been," Clinton said in a half-hour speech to thousands of supporters who packed into Washington's National Building Museum. "We have to work together. And that is why I will work my heart out to make sure Sen. Obama is our next president. I hope and pray that all of you will join me in that effort."
It was a dramatic and emotional end to a campaign that had brought Clinton closer to the White House than any woman in U.S. history.
It marked the beginning of a general election campaign that pits Obama against Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, and poses a stark choice about the direction the U.S. can take after eight years of George W. Bush's presidency.
Obama and his allies welcomed Clinton's endorsement and praised her for the message her campaign sent about women's rights.
"I am thrilled and honored to have Sen. Clinton's support," Obama said. "But more than that, I honor her today for the valiant and historic campaign she has run. She shattered barriers on behalf of my daughters and women everywhere, who now know that there are no limits to their dreams."
Obama watched the speech on the Internet and phoned Clinton afterward. She did not take the call because she was speaking with supporters at the time.
But signs of detente immediately appeared on the two candidates' websites: Obama's invited supporters to e-mail Clinton to thank her for her campaign; Clinton's site posted a new message: "Support Senator Obama . . . . Together we can write the next chapter in America's story."
Dana Marie Kennedy, a Democratic activist who recruits women to run for political office, said she came all the way from Phoenix to hear Clinton's speech and was not ready yet to transfer her loyalty to Obama.
"I will get there, but I need a few days," she said.
Democrats in both camps said that Clinton had done all she could in throwing her weight behind Obama, putting to rest -- at least for now -- lingering questions about whether she might only go through the motions of backing him.
"She sounded all the notes we hoped she would on a very difficult day," said David Axelrod, Obama's senior political advisor.
But he acknowledged that some in the audience harbored bitter feelings, witnessed in the scattered booing that punctuated every comment she made about Obama. "This wasn't a rally for Barack Obama. It was a celebration of her candidacy," Axelrod said.
Her endorsement ends the agony for those Democrats who were torn between the two senators.
"How the loser loses determines whether the winner can win," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who is close to both Clinton and Obama. "She did exactly what he needed today."
William A. Galston, a Brookings Institution political analyst who supports Clinton, said, "I'm totally confident it will translate into real on-the-ground help. She sent a pretty unequivocal message to supporters to cool it and figure out how to get with the program."
Clinton's unqualified endorsement of Obama cleared the way for the two campaigns to meld their strengths. A key question is whether Clinton can transfer to Obama the loyalties of those voters -- including many women, Latinos and working-class whites -- who flocked to her and shunned Obama during the primary season.
Geoff Garin, chief strategist for Clinton's campaign, said it was unclear exactly how the two campaigns would mesh, but that it was up to the Obama campaign to take the initiative.
"Sen. Clinton has expressed her commitment to doing whatever she can," Garin said. "I hope the Obama campaign will take advantage of that. Sen. Clinton has a lot to offer and the campaign organization she's built up has a lot to offer. But at this stage, it's his call."
Accompanied by her daughter Chelsea, her mother and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton opened her farewell on a bittersweet note: "This isn't exactly the party I planned, but I sure like the company."