NEW YORK - Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton did not go gentle into that good night, but neither did she rage against the dying of the light.

Instead, as Sen. Barack Obama claimed enough delegates yesterday to win the Democratic presidential nomination, an upbeat Clinton celebrated a final primary victory, in South Dakota, and continued to argue that she had proven herself the party's stronger general-election candidate.

"This has been a long campaign, and I will be making no decisions tonight," Clinton said, asserting she would consult with party leaders and supporters before formally deciding what to do.

"I want the 18 million Americans who voted for me to be respected," she said, to deafening cheers from a crowd of several thousand in the bunker of the Baruch College gym, three stories below street level in the Gramercy section of Manhattan.

"DENVER! DENVER! DENVER!" chanted some in the crowd, referring to the party's national convention in August.

Clinton was careful, congratulating Obama on his accomplishments without explicitly saying he was the presumptive Democratic nominee. "It has been an honor to contest these primaries with him, just as it is an honor to call him my friend," she said.

Obama, she said, "has inspired so many Americans to care about politics and empowered so many more to get involved, and our party and our democracy is stronger and more vibrant as a result."

Some of Clinton's supporters were defiant, some were angry, but the general mood in the gym was celebratory. Even news that the television networks and the Associated Press had declared Obama the nominee did not shake them.

"It leaves us still very hopeful - maybe in denial," said Jennie Walker, 45, a singer-songwriter. "I'm hoping for a miracle. There could easily be something."

Clinton's loss has been unfolding in slow motion since March, when, despite a string of impressive victories, she could not erase the delegate lead Obama had built up. With demographic splits - white, working-class voters and women favoring Clinton, and younger voters and African Americans behind Obama - the race settled into a predictable pattern.

In recent days, the signs had multiplied that the end was imminent. Clinton campaign aides were told to be sure to turn in their expense receipts by the end of the week. Advance staffers - the young nomads who set up rallies and other events during a campaign - got plane tickets to New York to help set up this final event, but their jobs were over.

Last night's rally was really for history, a chance for Clinton to put her final spin on events and to celebrate her extraordinary achievement, despite the sense of disappointment. After all, she came within a whisker of becoming the first woman to win a major party's nomination for president.

"A wake? Are you kidding? It's a celebration of her candidacy," said Susan Ness of Washington, who was a member of the Federal Communications Commission during Bill Clinton's administration. "People are upbeat because we are so proud of what she has accomplished."

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D., N.Y.) said she thought Clinton would be a good vice presidential candidate, a common sentiment among those who realized her campaign was done. And Clinton herself, in a conference call earlier yesterday with Maloney and other New York lawmakers, said she would be open to the vice presidential slot if it would help the party, participants in the call said.

Clinton did not bring up the matter during her public remarks.

"She's entitled to a little reflection before making a decision," Maloney said. "This is a love-in for Hillary. She got 18 million votes! She's lifted women all over this country."

As it became clear in recent weeks that Clinton would not win, many supporters turned angry, believing that their candidate was hustled off the stage by a sexist media and political establishment.

"They could not let her win - not only because she's a woman, but she's a smart, hardworking woman," said Theresa Ciccone, 42, a sports therapist.

Clinton went from the all-but-inevitable nominee to the also-ran in a matter of six months. There were tactical mistakes, to be sure, but more fundamentally she was perceived as the candidate of the establishment and experience at a time an unsettled electorate was eager for change.

"This is an out-of-body experience," said Mark Aronchick, a Philadelphia fund-raiser for Clinton who traveled to New York. "I keep thinking, how did this happen?"

Already, some supporters have begun to move on to the next project: pushing Clinton as Obama's running mate. Lanny Davis, a former White House counsel, said he was establishing a Web-based petition drive.

"If he doesn't have her, I think he can still win," Davis said, "but with her on the ticket, he can't be beat."

Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.