MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer HELENA
Barack Obama claimed Montana's primary Tuesday night, just hours after securing the Democratic presidential nomination in his historic race against Hillary Rodham Clinton. Obama's victory quickly prompted the state's five uncommitted superdelegates including Gov. Brian Schweitzer and U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester to endorse the Illinois senator. "I want to thank all those in Montana and South Dakota who stood up for change tonight," Obama said in his victory speech from St. Paul, Minn., site of the upcoming Republican national convention. Obama will challenge Republican Sen. John McCain in the fall. With the win, Obama showed his continued strength in the Rocky Mountain West. He won earlier contests in Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. With 94 percent of precincts reporting, Obama had 56 percent of the vote to Clinton's 41 percent. Two percent had no preference. McCain easily won the state's Republican presidential primary, a nonbinding contest , over Ron Paul . Montana Republicans earlier held a Super Tuesday caucus that Mitt Romney won. The Democratic race brought unexpected attention to Montana, where the June 3 primary usually means little in presidential politics. This year, both candidates and their respective spouses came to Montana to personally ask for votes. "I think you may live a long time before you see that scenario again, where every single contest is part of the calculation," said Kenneth Bickers, a University of Colorado political analyst who has followed the race. Obama sealed the nomination, according to The Associated Press tally, based on primary elections, state Democratic caucuses and support from party superdelegates. Analysts have said Obama will have a hard time carrying the state in November against McCain. The last time a Democrat won Montana was Bill Clinton in 1992, when Ross Perot helped dilute the Republican vote. Democrats, however, were hopeful the energy surrounding the primary will carry over to the general election. "This is the kind of excitement that I think bodes Well for November," said Montana Democratic Party Chairman Dennis McDonald. "I think today is really historic historic for Montana and historic for the country at large." Montana voters went to the polls in large numbers Tuesday, taking advantage of both sameday voter registration and early voting with absentee ballots. "This is the first chance we've had in an election to really voice ourselves and say this is where we stand on the issues," said Colin Curry, a 26-year-old coffee shop barista in Helena. Curry, describing himself as "mostly independent," said the excitement prompted him to vote in his first election since he turned 18. He picked Obama over Clinton. "It's like they say. He represents change," Curry said. The state's primary was open to all voters, allowing Republicans and independents to vote on the Democratic side. Exit polling showed that about one in 10 voters decided on Election Day who to vote for, while most made up their minds long ago. About equal numbers said the long campaign energized the Democratic party, versus those who thought it divided the party, according to exit pol l s conduc t ed for The Associated Press and television networks. This year, the candidates fought hard for the state. Obama was here first with offices and advertising, while Cl inton hired experienced Montana political operatives. A Clinton supporter said she voted early for the candidate and hoped the New York senator will continue to pursue the nomination. "Why should all of this be pre-decided? This should be decided on the convention floor," said Cindy Butler, 50, of Billings. "I hope she stays in and continues to fight." Some voters were attracted to Obama's message of change. Republican Crisse Hall, 44, of Billings said she voted for Obama because he "talks a lot about doing what's right and not just a short-term fix." South Dakota residents also voted Tuesday, but the polls there closed an hour earlier allowing Montana to lay claim to the title of last primary in the nation. ___ Associated Press writers Matthew Brown in Billings and Coralie Carlson in New York contributed to this report.