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AT 1:23 P.M. Eastern time yesterday, the Associated Press proclaimed that Sen. Barack Obama had clinched the Democratic presidential nomination. Even though the polls still were open in South Dakota and Montana, enough superdelegates had indicated their support to assure Obama of a majority of delegates no matter who won the popular vote in the last two primary-election states.

This is an unprecedented, historic moment. For the first time in U.S. history, a major political party has chosen a black person as its presidential standard-bearer.

And at this moment, the most important person in the Democratic Party is . . . Sen. Hillary Clinton.

In the interest of all the people who want to see a woman president in their lifetime, we sincerely hope the female runner-up will rise to the occasion. The way she chooses to exit the presidential race - if she chooses to lead rather than pout - will make a big difference in the general election against Republican John McCain.

So far, not so good.

Clinton and her supporters have run a less-than-brilliant campaign with an incoherent message. And that was when she still had a chance.

Then, when Obama's lead became insurmountable and when any other candidate would have faced reality with grace and pragmatism, Clinton carried on, and on, and on with a campaign that became even more divisive and dishonest. She did it, she claimed, for the women and girls who dream of being president someday. No matter if that meant making it easier for a Republican candidate with policies inimical to health and welfare and civil rights of women to get elected.

There is no question that the misogyny expressed toward Clinton during the campaign was disgusting. But Clinton would have lost to Obama even without misogyny. It was she who completely misread the voters' hunger for change. It was she who mismanaged the millions she raised early on when she seemed "inevitable." It was she who didn't do the homework on the long-standing Democratic rules.

It was she who voted for the war in Iraq and refused to accept responsibility for it. It is she who, to the end, played the victim.

Now, it's over for her for this year, but not for the aspirations of those other women for whom she claims to be fighting on. We believe that Obama can win without her strong support. It won't be easy, but he can do it.

But if the first woman candidate to get this far turns out to epitomize the selfish "sore loser," willing to jeopardize the team's chances to feed her own ego, that has to make it more difficult for the next woman.

As the polls closed last night, all the major networks agreed that Obama has the votes for the nomination, but Clinton still pretended she was in the running. She was making no decisions last night, she said, and asked her supporters to visit her Web site and give her their recommendations. (Hmmm. . . wonder what they will say?)

These were not the actions of a leader. *