WASHINGTON — Barack Obama won North Carolina's primary Tuesday, and Hillary Clinton pulled out a surprisingly close victory in Indiana, triggering speculation that Clinton's candidacy is staggering and perhaps near its end.
On a night when Clinton hoped for a sweep, Obama beat her decisively in North Carolina. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, the Illinois senator had 56 percent to Clinton's 42 percent.
But the big Clinton stumble was in Indiana, a state where she had counted on a strong win. Instead, she barely beat Obama.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, she led 51 percent to 49 percent. The New York senator abruptly canceled her morning talk show appearances and had no public appearances planned Wednesday. She was expected to meet with superdelegates, top Democratic officials, in Washington.
The New York senator was upbeat but conciliatory Tuesday as she addressed supporters in Indianapolis.
"I can assure you, as I have said on many occasions, that no matter what happens, I will work for the nominee of the Democratic Party, because we must win in November," she said, even while vowing to continue the race.
Obama celebrated his North Carolina victory by sounding like an eventual nominee.
"Tonight," Obama said, "many of the pundits have suggested that this party is inalterably divided — that Senator Clinton's supporters will not support me, and that my supporters will not support her. Well, I'm here tonight to tell you that I don't believe it."
North Carolina had 115 convention delegates at stake and Indiana 72. Early Wednesday, Obama led Clinton in delegates, 1,815.5 to 1,672, with 2,025 needed to nominate.
Obama had been expected to win handily in North Carolina, where African-Americans account for about one-third of the Democratic vote.
He needed a victory in Indiana, where only about one in seven voters is black, to show that he could expand his reach.
The Illinois senator's last non-Southern predominantly white state primary victory was in Vermont on March 4. Since then he's lost a string of primaries in diverse big states, including Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where Clinton rolled up large majorities among white working-class voters.
Clinton had hoped to break through in the South by adding North Carolina to that list, but apparently failed to capitalize on two weeks of Obama being on the defensive, despite her energetic campaigning and that of her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
He spent much of his time trying to distance himself from his controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and fighting Clinton's plan to push a freeze on the federal gasoline tax, which he called an empty gimmick.
But exit polls read like reruns of primaries past. Obama won 91 percent of the black vote in North Carolina, but Clinton took 60 percent of the white vote. Similarly, in Indiana, Clinton won 60 percent of the white vote, while Obama got 92 percent of African-Americans.
The Wright controversy appeared to hurt Obama. About half of those surveyed in the exit polls in both states said the "situation with Rev. Wright" was important, and they went heavily for Clinton.
Eight days before the primaries, Wright told a Washington audience that the U.S. government may have spread AIDS into the African-American community, said that America invited the 9-11 attacks and praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
The next day, Obama, who had defended his relationship with Wright while condemning his more controversial comments, broke with him.
"The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago," Obama said. He called Wright's comments "divisive and destructive" and said that they gave "comfort to those who prey on hate."
A lot of undecided voters were annoyed by Wright. Diane Cline, a Greenfield, Ind., legal assistant, attended an Obama rally last week but voted for Clinton.
"One of the issues was his pastor," she said. "I would have left the church if my pastor had acted like that."
Clinton appeared to run strong with voter blocs that she traditionally carries, winning strong majorities of voters earning between $15,000 and $75,000 in Indiana. And she rolled up a 3 to 2 margin among white women in Indiana and a 2 to 1 margin in North Carolina.
But she wasn't able to expand her constituency much beyond that. Among voters under 30, exit polls showed she lost by nearly 3 to 1 in North Carolina and about 3 to 2 among voters under 30 in Indiana. Among "very liberal" voters, she lost by a 3 to 2 margin in Indiana and more than 2 to 1 in North Carolina, while narrowly winning moderates in Indiana and picking up "somewhat conservative" voters in both states.
There was little evidence that her gas tax-relief plan, which she promoted relentlessly with television commercials and at her rallies, won her much support.
Obama fought back hard against the gasoline tax plan, calling it a "classic Washington gimmick" and "a strategy to get through the next election."
Many voters agreed that the Clinton plan was hardly the cure-all for their economic woes. Still, some appreciated the gesture.
"It'll help for a while," said Ellen Leonard, a Jeffersonville, Ind., housewife who went for Clinton.
Others were less enthusiastic. "It's like getting the $600 (tax rebate) check. It's no solution to the bigger problem," said Michelle Engleman, a Clarksville, Ind., stage manager.
Six primaries remain, beginning Tuesday in West Virginia and ending June 3 in
Montana and South Dakota, but they have little chance of shifting the momentum. The six states' total of 217 delegates is fewer than the approximately 230 superdelegates — elected Democrats and party officials — who remain uncommitted.
Those delegates are waiting for some signal as to who'll be the stronger candidate against presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, and exit polls gave them few clues Tuesday.
Clinton currently leads among superdelegates by 269.5 to 255, and the Tuesday results aren't expected to sway many of those who remain undecided.
"I'm not going to make a decision tomorrow," chuckled one superdelegate, Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., in an interview with McClatchy.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008