WASHINGTON - Barack Obama declared Tuesday he's within reach of the Democratic nomination and trained his sights on the White House race after beating Hillary Clinton in Oregon but losing to her in Kentucky.
Obama went back to the scene of his first victory in Iowa to celebrate winning an absolute majority of regular delegates for the party's convention in August. He now needs less than 100 more to take the nomination.
"We have returned to Iowa with a majority of delegates elected by the American people and you have put us within reach of the Democratic nomination for the president of the United States of America," he told cheering supporters.
The Iowa contest on Jan. 3 turned the epic race on its ear at a time when few gave him much hope of becoming the first black nominee against Clinton, pegged as the likely winner for most of last year.
Obama praised her as "one of the most formidable candidates ever to run for the office," saying she's changed the country for all women.
He faced walking a fine line between celebrating a delegate feat and declaring victory, for fear of alienating Clinton supporters who are upset about her dwindling prospects.
The two camps are engaged in a delicate dance as they look ahead to rallying the party.
It means giving Clinton room to play out the remaining votes in the hope there will be fewer hard feelings when the dust settles.
But it was clear Obama had moved on from the nomination race as he called for party unity and appealed to outsiders to build a winning coalition against Republican John McCain in the general election this fall.
"You are Democrats who are tired of being divided, Republicans who no longer recognize the party that runs Washington, independents who are hungry for change," he said.
"We are ready for change. We are ready to come together. We are ready to believe again."
Clinton won Kentucky by 35 percentage points but the lopsided victory did nothing to slow Obama, who beat her by a wide margin in Oregon and drew the largest crowd of his campaign there last weekend.
Clinton vowed to see the primary season through to the end on June 3, arguing she would more easily triumph over McCain.
"We have to select the candidate who is best positioned to win in November," she said in Louisville, Ky.
"It's often been said: as Kentucky goes, so goes the nation."
While she'll continue to fight Obama for the crown, Clinton said the two see "eye to eye when it comes to uniting our party and electing a Democratic president this fall."
The two camps have already agreed to raise funds together for the party's campaign in the general election.
And Obama's top strategist David Axelrod disclosed that he has talked informally with Clinton's former campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle about joining forces to beat McCain.
But Clinton aides were clearly rankled by Obama's decision to mark his majority of pledged delegates in Iowa.
"Premature victory laps and false declarations of victory are unwarranted," said Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson.
"Declaring mission accomplished does not make it so."
Neither candidate has reached the magic number of 2,026 delegates to the party's convention in August required to win the nomination.
Obama led Clinton by 1,940 to 1,759, including Kentucky delegates.
The totals also include support from decided superdelegates - party officials and legislators who can support either one and are crucial to deciding the winner. They've been increasingly turning to Obama.
Clinton maintains only she can deliver white blue-collar workers in key swing states where she's been beating Obama.
Kentucky's white, rural, working-class voters were backing her in droves, fuelling another lopsided win for her like the one in West Virginia a week ago.
Race played a decisive role in Kentucky, where 90 per cent of voters were white. Clinton dominated in virtually all categories of those voters, including men, women and people of all ages, incomes and education levels.
But Obama held wide appeal in Oregon, also a largely white state but one that's more affluent with a more liberal Democratic base.
The only groups Clinton controlled were people over age 65 and those earning less than $30,000 a year.
Clinton's camp argued Obama had nothing to celebrate Tuesday because pledged delegates from Michigan and Florida haven't been counted. It was the penalty against the two states for moving up their primaries against the party's wishes.
Clinton claims she leads in the national popular vote - if the two penalized states are counted - and that superdelegates should take note.
Both candidates planned appearances Wednesday in Florida.
After Tuesday, there are only three votes left - Puerto Rico on June 1 and Montana and South Dakota two days later.
Obama, who has a whopping $37 million in campaign funds on hand, has all but ignored Clinton on the campaign trail lately. He's been trading barbs with McCain over the wisdom of holding direct talks with U.S. adversaries like Iran and Cuba.
Clinton has stopped running negative ads and has lowered the temperature on anti-Obama rhetoric.
But if an uneasy detente is starting to develop between the two camps, many Clinton supporters are furious at suggestions she should concede now.
A group called WomenCount launched by clothing magnate Susie Thompkins Buell took out a full-page ad in the New York Times on Tuesday with the headline: Not So Fast.
"We want Hillary to stay in this race until every vote is cast, every vote is counted, and we know that our voices are heard."
Another Ohio-based group angry about sexist attacks on Clinton throughout the campaign says it will try to thwart Obama in key swing states this fall.
Clinton addressed the issue Monday in an interview with the Washington Post, saying sexism has played a larger role than racism in the nomination fight.
"It's been deeply offensive to millions of women," she said. "There should be equal rejection of the sexism and the racism when it raises its ugly head."