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Obama cruises; Clinton clings

His victory in North Carolina solidifies his lead. Her narrow win in Indiana gives her enough to carry on.

May 07, 2008|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — Barack Obama handily won North Carolina and Hillary Rodham Clinton eked out a victory in Indiana on Tuesday, keeping the Democratic contest alive and underscoring the chasm between their supporters.

Obama had the easier time of it. With 99% of precincts reporting, he was winning North Carolina 56% to 42%. In Indiana, Clinton was winning 51% to 49%, with 99% of the precincts counted.

The results left the dynamics of the presidential race essentially unchanged. Obama remains well-positioned to win the nomination when the voting ends June 3, but has not mustered the strength to finish off Clinton.

Clinton has an incentive to keep campaigning, but faces increasingly steep odds that she can push past Obama without some dramatic development.

Given the mixed results and inconclusive exit polling, it was unclear how an issue that recently dominated the campaign, a proposed summerlong suspension of the federal gas tax, played among voters of the two states. But the other major topic of discussion, Obama's relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., did not help the Illinois senator. Wright was an important factor for at least half the voters in the two states, according to exit interviews, and most of those voters supported Clinton.

The racial gap in the contest persisted, with Obama winning overwhelmingly among African American voters and Clinton carrying the white vote -- both men and women -- by a comfortable margin. With exceptions in a few states, neither candidate has managed to pull many voters away from the other's base of support, which has prolonged the race beyond what either side anticipated.

The candidates' election-night itineraries reflected their expectations.

Appearing in Raleigh, N.C., Obama took an indirect swipe at Clinton, who had predicted an upset in North Carolina that would turn the race upside down.

"There were those who were saying that North Carolina would be a game-changer in this election," Obama told a cheering crowd of 3,000 supporters. "But today what North Carolina decided is that the only game that needs changing is the one in Washington, D.C."

He sought to rebut one of Clinton's central arguments, the assertion that she can run stronger in the big states that Democrats will need to claim the White House in November. He called North Carolina "a big state . . . a swing state . . . a state where we will compete to win if I am the Democratic nominee."

Clinton addressed supporters filling a hotel ballroom in Indianapolis when the Indiana race was still too close to call. The outcome had hinged on thousands of votes outstanding in Lake County, a heavily black area and an Obama stronghold near his hometown of Chicago. The crowd's spirit flagged as the night wore on and Clinton's early lead in the vote count steadily diminished.

But the New York senator was beaming as she turned Obama's words against him. "Not too long ago, my opponent made a prediction. He said I would probably win Pennsylvania, he would win North Carolina, and Indiana would be the tiebreaker," Clinton said. "Well, tonight we've come from behind, we've broken the tie, and thanks to you, it's full speed on to the White House." (Actually, Obama said Indiana "may" be the tiebreaker.)

But there was a note of wistfulness to her remarks. Clinton lingered over thank-yous to her family and supporters even as she promised to continue campaigning and reiterated her call to seat the disputed delegates from Michigan and Florida. "It would be a little strange to have a nominee chosen by 48 states," she said.

Tuesday offered the last big bunch of delegates in the presidential primary season, which kicked off Jan. 3 with the Iowa caucuses. A total of 187 pledged delegates -- 115 in North Carolina and 72 in Indiana -- were at stake to be awarded on a proportional basis. Obama won at least 94 pledged delegates to at least 75 for Clinton, with 18 still to be determined, according to the Associated Press.

That brought Obama's overall delegate total to 1,840.5 to 1,684 for Clinton. It takes 2,024 delegates to win the nomination.

As of today, more than 93% of the pledged delegates to the Democrats' national nominating convention have been chosen. That means 217 remain -- fewer than the roughly 260 uncommitted superdelegates, or the 366 disputed delegates from Michigan and Florida.

But more important, Tuesday may have been Clinton's last best chance to change the direction of the race by upsetting Obama in North Carolina or blowing him out in Indiana, giving unpledged superdelegates an incentive to rally to her campaign. Mathematically, neither Clinton nor Obama can win the nomination without a boost from superdelegates -- VIPs and other party insiders who have an automatic vote at the convention.

From here, the race follows a fairly predictable road map: Clinton is expected to win West Virginia next Tuesday, Kentucky on May 20 and Puerto Rico on June 1. Obama should carry Oregon on May 20, and Montana and South Dakota on June 3.

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