Obama nears nomination as Clinton wins in Puerto Rico

Hillary Clinton won a lopsided, but largely symbolic victory in Puerto Rico’s presidential primary, the final act in a tumultuous weekend that brought rival Barack Obama tantalisingly close to claiming the Democratic presidential nomination.

The former first lady was winning roughly two-thirds of the votes in the US territory as she continued a strong run through the last primaries that came too late to make a dent in Mr Obama’s overwhelming delegate lead.

In defeat, Mr Obama gained 17 delegates, leaving him 47 short of the 2,118 needed to become the first black presidential nominee of a major US political party.

Aides predicted the 46-year-old Illinois senator could clinch the nomination as early as this week.

Montana and South Dakota end the primary season tomorrow.

Campaigning in Mitchell, South Dakota, Mr Obama said he was confident the party would unite, and praised Mrs Clinton in terms usually reserved for a vanquished rival.

He told supporters that she would be “a great asset when we go into November” - the general election battle against Republican John McCain.

Mr Obama has a total of 2,071 delegates in The Associated Press count, including the 17 from Puerto Rico. He also gained the support of two superdelegates – top party officials and politicians free to vote for any candidate – during the day.

Mrs Clinton has 1915.5, including 38 from Puerto Rico.

There are 31 delegates combined at stake in Montana and South Dakota. Mr Obama’s high command sounded confident that enough superdelegates were poised to quickly declare their support and deliver him the nomination.

Mr Obama’s confidence reflected the outcome of Saturday’s meeting of the Democratic Party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee. Before an audience that jeered and cheered by turns, the panel voted to seat disputed delegations from Michigan and Florida, but give each of the 368 delegates only one-half vote rather than the full vote sought by the Clinton campaign.

The two states were stripped of their delegates for holding their nominating contests early, breaking party rules. Mrs Clinton won both races, but none of the candidates campaigned in either state and Mr Obama’s name was not on the Michigan ballot.

The committee’s decision did little to hurt Mr Obama’s delegate lead, but was a major blow for Mrs Clinton, erasing her last, best opportunity to change the course of the race.

Her camp argued that Mr Obama should not be given any delegates from Michigan, but instead the committee gave her a slim majority.

In addition, there have been numerous statements by party leaders in recent days indicating they favour a quick end to the presidential race so the party can begin unifying for the general election race against Mr McCain, who effectively wrapped up the nomination months ago.

As Clinton struggled to remain viable, Mr Obama has been preparing for weeks for the November battle against Mr McCain. He planned to campaign in Michigan today, a key battleground state, and mark the end of the primary season at a Tuesday night rally in St Paul, Minnesota, the same arena where Mr McCain will officially become the Republican nominee at the party’s convention beginning on September 1.

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