RALEIGH, N.C. — The end could be near.
Or the endgame, at least, of a surprisingly drawn-out Democratic presidential contest. Four months and 42 states after the opening Iowa caucuses, the primary in North Carolina on May 6 now looms as a pivotal final showdown between Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Obama starts with a double-digit lead in polls here, a state where 2,400 free tickets to his rally at the War Memorial Auditorium in Greensboro last week were gone within three hours of the announcement he would appear. But Clinton has appeal in the Tar Heel State, too, and is competing hard. The day after Obama's rally, she drew 1,000 supporters to the gym at Terry Sanford High School in Fayetteville for a town hall meeting.
"I really believe May 6 has the potential to be everything," says Joe Trippi, a strategist for the presidential bids of former North Carolina senator John Edwards this year and Howard Dean in 2004. "Every day you see increased pressure on Hillary Clinton about why she's staying in, and if she could win in North Carolina it would shut down that kind of talk and open up the possibility she could get there" to the nomination.
"But if he wins in North Carolina," Trippi says of Obama, "I think you're going to see things close up very quickly. You'll see a lot of superdelegates line up behind him."
The Pennsylvania primary comes first, on April 22, with 158 convention delegates at stake. Clinton is favored there, though a Quinnipiac University Poll released Wednesday showed her lead narrowing to single digits, 50%-41%. An unexpected victory by Obama would dash her hopes for a comeback, but a win by Clinton wouldn't be the sort of surprise that could reshape the race. Indiana, which also votes May 6, is considered a tossup.
In North Carolina, however, an upset by Clinton could change the dynamic of a contest now heading in Obama's favor.
He leads narrowly among pledged delegates and the overall popular vote. She leads narrowly among superdelegates — a group of about 800 Democratic officeholders and officials who are automatic and uncommitted delegates — but he has been closing that gap since the Super Tuesday contests Feb. 5. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar announced her support for Obama on Monday, following high-profile endorsements by Pennsylvania Sen. Robert Casey and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
Former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton, the top Democrat on the 9/11 Commission, also endorsed him Wednesday.
The Associated Press count gives Clinton 250 superdelegates, Obama 218. Overall, Obama has 1,634 delegates to Clinton's 1,500.
Clinton campaign officials dispute the idea that a loss in North Carolina would be devastating, and Clinton has vowed to campaign until the last vote is counted, even if that means a credentials fight at the August convention in Denver.
"It's certainly not in the category of a must-win type state," says Averell "Ace" Smith, director of her campaign in North Carolina. "It's more in a category of, if we happen to pull an upset, would that change the way the whole race is looked at? Yes, absolutely."
Still, Obama partisans and some unaffiliated Democrats, including Trippi, see North Carolina as Clinton's last chance to turn around her fading prospects — or face intense pressure from party leaders to suspend her campaign and avoid a summer of trench warfare that could hurt Democratic prospects in the general election this fall.