NOW THAT it's finally, formally over - even if Hillary Clinton didn't concede last night - what did this seemingly endless race bring to Democrats, women and the general election?

One can't overstate its historic import: the first African-American nominee, the first woman to seriously vie for the White House.

One can't deny its unequaled draw: 35 million-plus votes just between Clinton and Barack Obama.

One cannot help but believe Clinton's strong showing, stamina and force of will encourages women at all levels of life.

In her speech last night in New York City, she noted her campaign often saw mothers and fathers lifting their small children on to their shoulders and whispering, "See, you can be anything that you want to be."

And, yes, there were ugly moments when race, religion and misogyny got into the mix of media frenzy in doses too heavy to help democracy.

But this contest engaged America and set the stage for further engagement in the fall.

Obama earned this.

From a dead start without national campaign experience, he overcame the "inevitable" Clinton machine and various pastor blow-ups, and did so with intelligence, poise and grace rarely seen in politics.

The cost? More than $404 million spent by just the two front-runners, another $111 million raised by other Democratic candidates.

(Even former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who dropped out in February 2007, raised $2 million. Heck, Mike Gravel - remember him? - raised $500,000.)

Republican National Committee Chairman Robert M. "Mike" Duncan yesterday said Democrats are "struggling to overcome deep disunity."

During a news-conference call, he said many Democrats rejected Obama's "policies and thin resume."

I'm not so sure.

I think many more Democrats embraced Clinton than "rejected" Obama.

And the party mantra now is "unity."

Philadelphia congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, a Clinton superdelegate, says the long fight "has been good for us," got the nation focused on the Democratic agenda and made Obama "a stronger candidate."

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, also of Philadelphia, and a superdelegate who organized a push of 20 to 25 other superdelegates to act sooner rather than later, endorsed Obama late yesterday for reasons of "party unity."

Brady last night told me, "I'm probably in trouble when I get home because my wife loves Hillary," but Obama has the numbers and is going to win and "we didn't want to go to the convention lathered up and having a floor fight."

Perhaps neither did Clinton, who yesterday said she's open to the idea of joining Obama on a so-called (and Gov. Rendell-endorsed) "dream ticket."

Last night she said, "I am committed to uniting our party."

Philly congressman Chaka Fattah, an Obama superdelegate, tells me, "She's an excellent choice [for vice president] . . . . She could raise the percentage of women voters by 4, 5, 6 percent."

But Schwartz says, "I'm not even sure that's right for Barack Obama. It satisfies Democrats, but in the general election you have to reach beyond that." Both are right.

Clinton brings more women but maybe limits Obama's overall reach. She'll likely get his help with her $20 million campaign debt, and maybe a say in Cabinet picks, if he wins. But VP? Despite her strengths and vote-getting abilities, there's a list of arguments against her.

Does she help "turn the page" to a new style of politics? Remember, she said in March that she and John McCain "crossed the threshold" of experience needed to serve as commander in chief, but "You'll have to ask Sen. Obama with respect to his candidacy."

There's also Obama's-not-a-Muslim "as far as I know," Bosnia sniper fire, the RFK gaffe and how Obama can't win "hardworking Americans, white Americans."

There's also Bill Clinton's wish for an election with "two people who loved this country and were devoted to the interest of this country."

(Guess which two he was talking about.) Then there's Bill's donors, business deals and, if the current Vanity Fair is right, ongoing manscapades.

Any or all of this is fodder in the fall for the GOP or its stooges. But that's then, this is now, and now it's finally over. *

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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