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.
"She's running out of real estate," says Craig Schirmer, Obama's state director. "There are only so many contests left, only so many more delegates, only so many more votes to get."
An unexpected 'pivotal' role
The key audience for the North Carolina returns are the superdelegates crucial to boosting either rival's convention count to 2,024, the number needed for nomination.
"Hillary Clinton needs a win in North Carolina to be able to convince superdelegates to join her cause, and Barack Obama needs to win in North Carolina to put to rest any speculation that he could lose the nomination," says state party Chairman Jerry Meek, a Fayetteville lawyer neutral in the contest.
"So I think that we're going to play a pivotal role," he says.
That's as much a surprise to Meek as anyone else. Never before has North Carolina's primary been important in the Democratic nominating contest. It last played a notable role in the GOP contest more than three decades ago, in 1976, when challenger Ronald Reagan defeated President Gerald Ford.
Last year, a bill in the state Legislature to move up the primary in hopes of giving the state more clout failed. Neither Democratic campaign had opened an office or scheduled an appearance here until two weeks ago. Meek had been pleased mostly that the state had gotten two "bonus" superdelegates for resisting the temptation to hold an earlier contest.
Now North Carolina and the other states at the end of the Democratic primary calendar — Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon, Montana and South Dakota, plus Puerto Rico and Guam — are getting unusual attention.
In recent days, the Obama campaign opened 13 offices across North Carolina and sent in Schirmer, an architect of the senator's win in South Carolina and the campaign's state director in Wisconsin, which Obama carried. The Clinton camp dispatched Smith, who ran her winning campaigns in California and Texas.
Each is trying to set high expectations in a state where Obama has a 12 percentage-point lead, according to the four most recent state polls, averaged by RealClearPolitics.com. Schirmer calls the contest "very competitive" and "very, very close." Smith, on the other hand, says a win by Clinton "would be, like, one of the greatest upsets of the last quarter-century."
The Clinton campaign is pouring in resources, including separate visits during the past week by Hillary, Chelsea and Bill Clinton. On Friday, he stumped in seven cities, from Kannapolis to Gastonia. The former president acknowledges the stakes are high.
"This whole thing could come down to what you all decide to do in North Carolina," the former president told voters in Cary. "This is a state which is very much involved in all the promise and all the peril that's going on in the American economy."
Meanwhile, the Obama camp has begun airing a TV ad decrying plant closures and job losses.
"Enough is enough," Obama declares in the 30-second spot.
Navigating a narrow path
Hillary Clinton's path to the nomination is a narrow one: Win big in Pennsylvania, prevail in North Carolina and force a favorable resolution of disputes over the Florida and Michigan delegations. The two states' delegates currently don't have seats at the convention because they were chosen in primaries held earlier than party rules allowed. Clinton's efforts to schedule new votes there have failed.
Strong showings in the final states could reduce Obama's lead in pledged delegates — though it is virtually impossible for her to overtake him, given the way the party distributes delegates proportionately in each state — and even gain her an edge in the popular vote. That would reinforce her argument to superdelegates that she wins the big states that would be crucial in a general-election campaign against presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.
A misstep or controversy that ensnared Obama would help Clinton, too, though he's apparently survived a furor in recent weeks over controversial remarks by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.
Clinton is spotlighting economic angst among working-class voters — the same issue her husband used when he promised to focus "like a laser beam" on the economy in the 1992 primaries.
"The Bush economy is like a trapdoor" that has left too many Americans at risk of "falling through and losing everything," she tells an audience at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh. "It's time for a president who is ready on Day One to be commander in chief of our economy."
Heads nod around the meeting room, where about 500 supporters and students are gathered.
She ticks off in detail her proposals for a job retraining program and a program to create "green-collar" jobs that are environmentally friendly, for one program to help families afford college tuition and another to boost those struggling to keep their mortgages current.
"She has specific plans on getting us out of the war, on health care and the economy," Barbara Carson, 60, a former FBI agent and employer-relations consultant who is in the audience, says approvingly. "While Barack is a good candidate, he doesn't have the specifics. He has blue-sky visions. We need concrete, ready-to-go plans."
Melissa Dunston, 30, a teacher's assistant with a "Hillary" sticker on her blouse, has brought her two daughters and a niece to hear Clinton speak. "They need to see the next president," she says.
Despite Obama's lead in North Carolina, Clinton has a better shot in this state than she did in South Carolina, where Obama swamped her by 2-1 in the Jan. 26 primary. In South Carolina, African-Americans made up 55% of the Democratic primary electorate, according to surveys of voters as they left polling places, and eight of 10 supported Obama. Clinton and former North Carolina senator John Edwards split the white vote.
Now Edwards is out of the race and the proportion of black voters in North Carolina is lower — 38% of registered Democrats, according to the State Board of Elections. Public Policy Polling and other survey firms predict that African-American turnout will surge in North Carolina, as it has elsewhere, which means Clinton likely will need the support of as many as three in four white voters to win.
The racial divide is apparent at campaign events. Clinton's rally in Fayetteville included black supporters but was predominantly white. Obama's rally in Greensboro included white supporters but was predominantly black.
Steady as he goes
Obama's path to the nomination is an easier one: Stay the course.
Avoiding a blowout in Pennsylvania — or better — then winning in North Carolina would maintain his lead in the overall popular vote as well as his edge in pledged delegates. That would minimize any opening for Clinton to persuade superdelegates, who will hold the balance of power at the convention, to endorse her.
"When we started off, nobody thought we could win — let's face it," Obama says in Greensboro, responding to a question shouted from the balcony. "First of all, you've got a black guy named Barack Obama — you're starting in a hole," he says. "Then, I'm 46 years old, and I've got these big ears, so they make me look younger." He's used the line before, but it's new to this audience, which laughs appreciatively.
A desire for change has propelled his presidential bid, he says. "Keep in mind what has been so powerful and positive about this campaign is that the grass roots has stood up and said, 'We're going to give Barack a chance.' "
Mary Winstead, 54, the director of a trade school that retrains the unemployed, applauds from a seat near the back of the auditorium. "I think Hillary Clinton is a very nice person, but I do think we need a change, and Barack will be the man for the job," she says.
She is confident that at the end of the day Democrats will "come together" behind one contender or the other, and she doesn't fault Clinton for rejecting calls for her to withdraw from the race — yet.
"But if she doesn't do well in North Carolina," Winstead says of Clinton, "I think she should start considering that."