Sen. Barack Obama scored a decisive victory in North Carolina’s Democratic presidential primary Tuesday, moving him ever closer to locking up an insurmountable lead among pledged delegates, while Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton eked out a win in the hotly contested Indiana primary as she sought to keep her shaky candidacy for the nomination alive.
The returns appeared likely to solidify a status quo in the Democratic race, one that now gives Obama, D-Ill., the clear advantage, largely because of his solid lead in the tally of pledged delegates, and makes Clinton, D-N.Y., an even more distinct underdog.
A big Obama victory in North Carolina and Clinton’s narrow advantage in Indiana meant the senator from Illinois was almost certain to add to both his pledged-delegate margin and his lead in the popular vote. That would leave Clinton with an even more daunting challenge in finding a way to deny him the nomination.
It was a far different outcome than the Clinton campaign had hoped for. In the closing hours of the campaigns in the two states, her advisers expressed confidence that she was gaining ground on Obama in North Carolina and positioned for a clean victory in Indiana.
Obama, declaring that he is now fewer than 200 delegates away from locking up the nomination, used his victory speech in Raleigh to begin to try to heal the divisions in the party that have resulted from the long and difficult campaign and to sound the themes of a general-election race against Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee. “This fall, we intend to march forward as one Democratic Party, united by a common vision for this country,” he said. “Because we all agree that at this defining moment in history – a moment when we’re facing two wars, an economy in turmoil, a planet in peril, a dream that feels like it’s slipping away for too many Americans – we can’t afford to give John McCain the chance to serve out George Bush’s third term. We need change in America.”
Slow counting in Lake County, Ind., where the city of Gary, an Obama stronghold, is located, kept the Indiana race in doubt well into the night, dashing the hopes of the Clinton camp for an early projection from the networks and a prime-time victory celebration in Indianapolis.
She appeared more than a hour after Obama spoke, before any final call on Indiana had been made, to declare that she will continue fighting. “Tonight we’ve come from behind,” she said. “We’ve broken the tie, and thanks to you it’s full speed – on to the White House.”
But there were other signals that she and her advisers recognize the long odds she faces. Her speech was tinged with a sense of urgency, as she pleaded with her supporters to go immediately to her Web site and make a contribution to allow her to continue to campaign against a rival who enjoys a sizable financial advantage.
And, like Obama, she pledged to help unify the party, regardless of the outcome. “No matter what happens I will work for the Democratic nominee, because we must win in November,” she said.
Tuesday’s voting came after the most difficult month of the campaign for Obama. Clinton had gained momentum by winning in Pennsylvania two weeks ago, and Obama’s position appeared even more perilous when his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, went on a public relations tour and repeated many of his most controversial statements. Obama finally made an emphatic break with Wright a week before the primaries in Indiana and North Carolina.
Roughly a third of the voters in both states said the Wright situation was very important in their vote, and those voters went heavily for Clinton. But an almost equal percentage said Wright made no difference, and they strongly supported Obama.
The economy was the dominant issue in both states. More than six in 10 voters in each state cited that issue as the most important one facing the country. In North Carolina, those economy-driven voters backed Obama narrowly; in Indiana, they supported Clinton.
In North Carolina, Obama brushed aside a determined effort by Clinton, whose campaign believed her populist economic message and proposal for a summer suspension of the federal gasoline tax were helping her gain ground there. Overwhelming support from African-American voters, who made up a third of the electorate, helped seal the Obama victory. In Indiana, Clinton built her narrow lead with strong support from white voters, particularly working-class whites who had become the focus of both candidates.
Obama enjoyed an advantage in northwestern Indiana because of its proximity to his home in Chicago, but Clinton sought to balance that with solid support in more culturally conservative southern Indiana. She carried the overwhelming number of counties in the state, but Obama won college towns and the city of Indianapolis.
The Indiana and North Carolina results followed the pattern of previous Obama-Clinton contests. Clinton carried the votes of women in both states, while Obama won men in North Carolina and split them with Clinton in Indiana. Obama won younger voters, while Clinton carried the backing of older voters. Clinton won whites; Obama won blacks.
At stake Tuesday were 187 pledged delegates – 115 in North Carolina and 72 in Indiana. That made Tuesday the third-biggest day of the long nomination battle in terms of delegates; it also was the last big day on the calendar.
An additional 217 pledged delegates remain to be chosen in the final six contests between now and June 3: primaries in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Montana and South Dakota. Obama entered the day with 1,745 delegates to Clinton’s 1,608, according to an Associated Press tally.
Included in that count are superdelegates – elected officials and party leaders who are automatically granted a vote at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Among those superdelegates, Clinton led Obama 270 to 255.