DENVER — It was the night the Democratic Party was looking forward to ... and dreading.
As some of the pledged delegates for New York Senator Hillary Clinton vocally expressed support for their candidate of choice during her prime-time speech Tuesday night (August 26) at the Democratic National Convention, others worried that the divisions between the Clinton camp and that of presumptive Democratic nominee Senator Barack Obama could send a message of disunity at a time when the party was trying to put on its most unified face for the world.
"Whether you voted for me, or you voted for Barack, the time is now to unite as a single party with a single purpose," said Senator Clinton during her rousing speech, during which the floor of the convention center was a sea of signs that said either "Hillary" or "Obama" on one side and "Unity" on the other. "We are on the same team, and none of us can afford to sit on the sidelines. This is a fight for the future. And it's a fight we must win together.
"We were all very interested to see her reasons for supporting Barack Obama, and so I think it's very clear tonight that she was a strong messenger that we have to change our country and that it's OK, even though we supported Hillary Clinton in the past, to unite behind Barack Obama," said Hector Balderas, 34, an elected Clinton delegate who serves as the state auditor for New Mexico and is the youngest Hispanic statewide elected official in the country.
Speaking outside the Pepsi Center just after the Clinton address, Balderas was joined by Conor Kennedy, 14, son of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose family, like Balderas', faced some internal squabbling over which Democratic candidate they were going to back in this election.
"Even though I can't vote, I'm trying my best to support Obama and get the word out about how great he is and what an inspiration he's going to be," said the preternaturally on-message Kennedy, who was wearing a dark blue suit, red tie and Vans. "I've met a lot of women who switched from Hillary to McCain just because they were upset, so I think it's really, really important that she came here. It's a great thing. ... She had everyone on their feet clapping for her. It was an inspiring speech, and I think that it spoke to everyone."
After the bitterly contested primary, Clinton unequivocally threw her support behind Obama on Tuesday night, even if, as Balderas noted, there was a bit of a scramble and some grumbling among members of the delegation over which of the unity signs to take during the speech. Free of the bitterness that marked the campaign, Clinton called herself a "proud supporter of Barack Obama" during the 23-minute address and repeatedly stressed the importance of those who supported her lining up behind Obama to defeat presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.
"No way, no how, no McCain," she said.
Despite the obvious, intense emotion on the floor, Balderas said her message of unity definitely sunk in. "People were ... clinging to her every word in many ways," he said. "She put things in proper perspective. She clearly said that it wasn't about her, it was about the many Americans who are suffering, the many Americans who want change in this country, and so I think that we've left a better and more united party." As a first-time delegate, Balderas said he's learned this week that people may not necessarily set aside their preferences in terms of candidates, but that they will unite in an effort to "improve our country."
While it may not have healed all wounds, Balderas said Wednesday was likely going to be a new day, with a focus on McCain's and Obama's policies and the plan to beat the Republican candidate in November. "It will take us some time, but we will be a united party, and because of both leaders, we're going to be a stronger party and we'll feel that power in November."
Despite the split in his family, Kennedy said, from the start "we all knew we had two really great leaders here. Even when our family was divided, we were not the ones making fun of each other for that choice," he said, smiling. "As long as we're not voting McCain, I think we're all cool about that. We really got lucky with ... Hillary and Obama this year. ... It's great that they've come together."
According to a recent New York Times poll, as many as half of Clinton's delegates were onboard with Obama as the party's pick, but a portion of them, possibly more than 5 percent, were not planning to support Obama.
On Wednesday, Clinton plans to release all her delegates to the Obama campaign, officially ending her bid for the presidency, though CNN reported that just hours before the Clinton address, some supporters were still threatening to jump ship and possibly support McCain.
In the Pepsi Center on Tuesday, Clinton's backers were not shy about voicing their opinions on buttons, hats and T-shirts bearing the New York senator's name and likeness. During the speech, the hundreds of attendees who could not get onto the floor for the address huddled around monitors and cheered as loudly as the crowd inside did for the applause lines.
As late as Tuesday afternoon, it was still unclear what would happen during Wednesday's roll-call vote. According to reports, there was a tentative deal in place that would let some states cast their votes in the roll call before someone, possibly Clinton, cut the vote off and asked for Obama to be nominated by unanimous consent. Before the speech, Clinton had not publicly instructed her delegates on how to vote, and the uncomfortable behind-the-scenes dance put some Clinton backers who feel Obama has not shown the former first couple the proper respect on edge.
"It seems to be a little more of a problem than I anticipated," former Democratic Party chairman Don Fowler told The Associated Press on Tuesday before the speech. "All you need is 200 people in that crowd to boo and stuff like that, and it will be replayed 900 times. And that's not what you want out of this."
Don't miss out on the action: MTV News and our Street Team '08 will be on the ground at both conventions to sort through all the speeches, streamers and ceremony to find the information you need to choose our next president. And head to Choose or Lose for nonstop coverage of the 2008 presidential election. And after history is made in Denver, MTV News will help you make sense of it all in "Obama Decoded," premiering Friday, August 29 at 7:30.