PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — For anxious Democrats, the wait is over. Bernie Sanders threw his support behind Hillary Clinton Tuesday, offering a much-anticipated endorsement of his onetime rival in the long and at times bitter Democratic primary contest.
“I have come here to make it as clear as possible as to why I am endorsing Hillary Clinton and why she must become our next president,” Sanders said, Clinton at his side, the pair flanked by her slogan “Stronger Together.” His reason: stopping Donald Trump from reaching the Oval Office.
“This is one of the most important elections in our lifetimes,” Clinton said, directing her pitch to those among the crowd of 3,000 who supported Sanders. “So I’m asking you to stand with us, and then I’m asking you to keep working in the weeks and months and, yes, years ahead. You will always have a seat at the table when I am in the White House.”
Awkwardness permeated the symbolic moment. Sanders looked pained. Clinton nodded through his notably long remarks, which sounded an awfully lot like his stump speech. Afterward, Sanders mopped the sweat from his forehead with a white cloth. The inelegant optics underscored that this is a union of necessity, not true love — a coming together of two opposing threads of the Democratic Party driven by fear of Trump and what he could do.
Yet Sanders’ endorsement is still an important moment for Clinton as she heads into her party’s July 25 nominating convention and the general election fight with Trump. Strained though it may be, the Clinton-Sanders hug helps draw a contrast with Republicans, who remain deeply divided over Trump, with some major party leaders declining to even attend the GOP convention.
“In these stressful times for our country, this election must be about bringing our people together, not dividing us up. While Donald Trump is busy insulting Mexicans, Muslims, women, African Americans and veterans, Hillary Clinton understands that our diversity is one of our greatest strengths,” Sanders said.
The early New Hampshire primary was especially hard-fought, with a dramatic result. Sanders clobbered Clinton by 22 points in New Hampshire, a victory that revealed the depth of Clinton’s weaknesses, gave Sanders a real shot at the nomination, and propelled him to wins in 21 more states.
Clinton needs Sanders’ help to shore up support among vital demographics, especially young voters, with whom she continues to struggle. The Vermont senator vowed Tuesday to “campaign in every corner of this country” to ensure Clinton beats Trump in November.
He may have his work cut out for him. While polls suggest Sanders supporters are warming to Clinton, plenty remain deeply skeptical.
“Nope,” read one sign held aloft in the bleachers. Introductory speakers fielded boos as they lauded Clinton. When Sanders announced his endorsement, about 40 of his supporters walked out of the Portsmouth High School gym.
Watching them leave, Kurt Ehrenberg, a former Sanders staffer in charge of gathering Sanders supporters for the event, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, we tried.”
“I won’t be voting for her. There’s not a circumstance in which I would,” said Keith Yergeau, 30, of Bedford, N.H. He did, however, say he was glad to see that Sanders pushed Clinton leftward on policy issues.
The Clinton and Sanders camps carefully staged the event in a bid to close the divide. The Clinton campaign slogan, “Stronger Together,” was plastered on big signs on both sides of the stage.
Before the speeches, most of the 70 members on Sanders’ New Hampshire steering committee were allowed to enter backstage with a chance to get their picture taken with Clinton. Later they were steered to a roped-off VIP area where Clinton’s New Hampshire cochair, Jim Demers, sat near Julia Barnes, the former Sanders New Hampshire campaign director. As they took their seats, Sanders and Clinton retreated to a hold room where they were alone for roughly 15 minutes before they were called onto the stage together.
Looking to disrupt signs of unity, Trump’s campaign pumped out press releases during Sanders’ speech that took direct aim at Sanders’ populist base, slamming Clinton’s ties to Wall Street and her past support for trade agreements.
“Bernie Sanders endorsing Crooked Hillary Clinton is like Occupy Wall Street endorsing Goldman Sachs,” Trump wrote in one of several tweets accusing Sanders of betraying his principles by backing the former secretary of state.
“To all the Bernie voters who want to stop bad trade deals & global special interests, we welcome you with open arms,” he wrote in another tweet.
Sanders’ endorsement comes more than a month after Clinton clinched the Democratic presidential nomination. He held off embracing the former secretary of state in a bid to wring policy concessions from the Clinton camp. Insiders say the slow-walk endorsement also was designed to help shepherd his more ardent fans into the Democratic fold. Sanders more than once said he couldn’t snap his fingers and make his followers back Clinton.
Sanders has had some success on the policy front. With Clinton’s blessing, the group writing the Democratic National Committee’s platform for the upcoming convention adopted several of the Vermont senator’s proposals over the weekend, including a $15 minimum wage.
Over the course of the primary, Clinton came to embrace many of the major themes Sanders emphasized, such as cracking down on Wall Street misbehavior, reforming campaign finance rules, and addressing income inequality. More recently, she unveiled proposals that echo causes Sanders championed, including free tuition at public colleges for students of families making less than $125,000 a year.
While Sanders seemed to drag himself, inch by inch, toward Tuesday’s endorsement, others from the left rushed to back Clinton once she amassed the requisite delegate count, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren among them.
Clinton accepted Sanders’ backing in a town where she lost to him by 800 votes in the New Hampshire primary. She made a passionate plea to Sanders’ faithful, focusing on the major issues of Sanders’ campaign. To those who poured their “heart and soul” into his campaign, Clinton asked them directly for their support: “Our country desperately needs your voices and involvement. And so does this campaign. And so does the Democratic Party.”
Globe correspondent Meg Bernhard contributed to this report. Victoria McGrane can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac. James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.Click here to subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign.