Candidates try to win Indiana, North Carolina

EVANSVILLE, Ind. – On a fevered day of campaigning, Sen. Barack Obama looked to voters in Indiana and North Carolina on the day before their elections to reverse a string of defeats in key states, while Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton fought to keep her improbable comeback hopes alive with a pair of strong showings.

Sensing momentum in a state she was once expected to lose, Clinton spent part of Monday campaigning in North Carolina, where she championed her proposal to suspend the federal gas tax for the summer, promised to take on oil companies over alleged price gouging, and pledged a return to the economic progress of the 1990s, when her husband was president.

“I’m running a campaign on a simple belief: This election is about jobs, jobs, jobs,” Clinton told a crowd at a train station in High Point, N.C.

Obama also split his time between both states, an indication that he, too, sees a tightening race in North Carolina and a close contest in Indiana. He hit on many of the same economic themes as Clinton, in particular dismissing her proposed gas tax holiday as a gimmick that would amount to a mere $30 per voter while costing highway construction jobs.

The pace of both campaigns underscored an urgency to exceed expectations in the two biggest contests left on the Democratic calendar.

For Obama, the Indiana and North Carolina primaries provide a chance to end two months of difficulties that peaked last week when his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., held a controversial news conference in which he defended earlier statements that Obama had denounced. The senator from Illinois broke with Wright, terming the news conference “outrageous” and “destructive,” but it remains to be seen how voters will react.

Obama has also struggled at the polls, not winning a single large state since his Wisconsin rout of Clinton on Feb. 18.

The Clinton campaign has labeled Indiana a must-win and is hoping for a stronger-than-expected finish in North Carolina, if not an outright triumph, to maintain the momentum she has built in the past several weeks.

Public polls show Clinton trailing in North Carolina, where about a third of voters are expected to be African American, but both campaigns have detected volatility over the past 10 days as Wright has re-emerged as a campaign issue. Clinton’s schedule reflected a dynamic that both campaigns seem to agree on: She remained behind but has gained ground over the past two weeks in North Carolina, while Indiana is essentially a dead heat.

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