RALEIGH, N.C. — Barack Obama claimed a decisive victory over Hillary Clinton in North Carolina Tuesday and hoped that his ability to avoid a blowout in Indiana after the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy secured his path to the Democratic nomination.
"Some were saying that North Carolina would be a game-changer in this election," he told fans at North Carolina State University's Reynolds Coliseum. "But today, what North Carolina decided is that the only game that needs changing is the one in Washington, D.C."
Obama congratulated Clinton on her apparent Indiana win even before the result was clear_ and when it appeared he still had a shot at an upset, for her victory wasn't clear until after 1 a.m. EDT — but even as he saluted Clinton for being a formidable opponent, Obama turned his prime-time televised speech toward rallying Democrats behind his lead to unite against Republicans in November.
"This fall, we intend to march forward as one Democratic Party, united by a common vision for this country. 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 — we can't afford to give John McCain the chance to serve out George Bush's third term. We need change in America."
Anticipating Republican attacks on him this fall, Obama said: "The question, then, is not what kind of campaign they'll run, it's what kind of campaign we will run. It's what we will do to make this year different. I didn't get into race thinking that I could avoid this kind of politics, but I am running for president because this is the time to end it."
His top strategist, David Axelrod, told reporters: "We have a lot to celebrate tonight, and I think the Clinton folks have a lot to think about. There's no question we're closer to the finish line."
Obama's day began in Indiana, where he continued what's become his primary-day tradition, playing basketball with friends who came along for the trip.
He had an ugly moment that seemed an omen for how the Indiana race would break. On a visit to the Four Seasons Family Restaurant in Greenwood, Ind., he tried to approach a patron who was sitting alone, but the man waved him away. The man later told a reporter, "I can't stand him,'' and repeated the erroneous rumor that Obama is a Muslim, when in fact he's a Christian. "He's not even pro-American as far as I'm concerned,'' the man said.
Obama seemed unfazed and found others much more welcoming. He was caught off guard when one of the three men at a table where he'd been chatting handed him the check and said, "This will seal the thing." Obama took the bill to the cashier and paid it.
Touching down in North Carolina in late afternoon, he headed to downtown Raleigh, where he ordered a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, told the happy-hour crowd that it still had a couple hours left to vote and left the bartender an $18 tip.
Obama told reporters that his success with blue-collar voters has been "really a mixed bag" depending on the state. He argued that Clinton's popularity with working-class whites isn't a sign of those voters not liking him so much as them being "much more familiar with Senator Clinton and President Clinton."
"You have to give them credit," Obama said of the Clintons, talking to reporters before the polls closed. "They're not going to go down easy. We've just got to keep on delivering our message, that we're going to change things."
Obama's supporters in the Raleigh audience saw his win as a blow to Clinton.
"If he were to have lost, it would have been trouble. If he could have done this in Indiana, (Clinton) would have been delusional to go on," said Brett Brenton, 34, a white man in medical sales who was in the Raleigh audience.
As it stands, Brenton said, he thinks Clinton may stay in a while, but he now believes the nomination is set — and that "it's just a matter of time." Brenton's wife, Alison, said superdelegates now "need to step up" and end the contest.
Deborah McCrae, an African-American real estate broker also in the audience, said that now Clinton "is going to have to cooperate."