It's not over, but it appears the end may be in sight.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama won the North Carolina Democratic primary by a commanding 14 percentage points over New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, proving to critics he can win white Southern votes as well as black. With that win, he has amassed an almost insurmountable lead in both pledged delegates and the popular vote.
But Senator Clinton took Indiana by a slim two-point margin and vowed to fight on. In recent months she's recast herself as the feisty champion of the working class. Her margin of victory among Hoosiers, though small, has inspired her to carry on through the last contests in June.
Even so, the outcome of Tuesday's primaries failed to change the dynamics of the race, pundits note, something Clinton had to do to wrest the mantle of presumed nominee from Senator Obama.
"It's more or less decided, even if she does go on to win West Virginia, Kentucky, and Puerto Rico," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "These two were the races the [super] delegates were waiting for, and Barack Obama came back to a strong victory in North Carolina after the polls showed it was getting close."
In his victory speech in Raleigh, N.C., Obama thanked voters for giving him a decisive win in a "big state" and a "swing state," directly addressing the Clinton campaign's assertion that she is better suited to win the big swing states in November. He won 56 percent of the vote to Clinton's 42 percent.
"There are those who were saying that North Carolina would be a game-changer in this election," he told a cheering crowd. "But today what North Carolina decided is that the only game that needs changing is the one in Washington, D.C."
Early last week, the Obama campaign became embroiled in the controversy over racially charged comments by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. It threatened to derail his White House run by alienating white working-class voters in North Carolina, in particular, analysts said. By week's end, Obama's once-commanding 25-point lead in the polls had shriveled to single digits. Some analysts say his comeback win by double digits in the Tar Heel State, which included 36 percent of the white vote, signaled to superdelegates – the party's officers and elected officials – and that he could weather controversy and rebound.
Obama took the opportunity to return to the theme he's most comfortable with on the campaign trail: the need to change the political culture.
"Because of you, we've seen that it's possible to overcome the politics of division and the politics of distraction, that it's possible to overcome the same old negative attacks that are always about scoring points and never about solving our problems," he said. "We've seen that the American people aren't looking for more spin. They're looking for honest answers about the challenges we face."
For her part, Clinton remained unbowed, declaring in her victory speech in Indianapolis that "it's full speed on to the White House."
"Tonight, Hoosiers have said that you do want a president who stands strong for you, a president who is ready on Day 1 to take charge as commander in chief and keep our families safe; a president who knows how to make this economy work for hard-working middle-class families," she said to cheers from the crowd in Indianapolis just after 11 p.m. Tuesday.
But Clinton also sounded a note of conciliation.
"I know that people are watching this race and they're wondering, I win, he wins, I win, he wins. It's so close," she said. "But 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."
Clinton in recent weeks has cast herself as the champion of the working class, knocking back a shot of whiskey and riding shot-gun in a supporter's pickup truck. That helped her edge out Obama in Indiana, 51 percent to 49 percent. According to exit polls, she won 64 percent of whites who do not have college degrees. But that effort to reach out to the working class, and men in particular, cost her support among some women. Clinton won 58 percent of the votes of white men and 61 percent of white women in Indiana, according to exit polls. That's less than the almost 70 percent of white women she won in earlier contests in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The delegate math, however, poses a challenge for Clinton. Though each candidate won a state on Tuesday, the delegates are awarded on the basis of the share of votes each garnered. That means Obama will win almost as many Indiana delegates as Clinton and considerably more North Carolina delegates. The two states had not finished allocating delegates at press time, but Obama has widened his overall lead, with 1,840 delegates compared with Clinton's 1,684, according to Associated Press reports Wednesday morning. To win the Democratic nomination, a candidate needs 2,025 delegates. Only 456 remain up for grabs.
Some pundits argue it's time for Clinton to bow out so the party can have time to unify and prepare for November. Others say Clinton's decision to carry on to the last primary in June is good for the Democratic Party because it allows leaders organize and energize voters in all of the states and territories.
"[Clinton] has large majority of support among Democrats on that. They seem to want every state to have a chance to vote," says Mr. Sabato. "That's very much in keeping with the philosophy of the Democratic Party."