The good news came early for Democrat Barack Obama, as networks called him the winner of the North Carolina primary a minute after the polls closed. Early returns suggested the victory — his first since controversial statements by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright — was a sizable one.
Hillary Rodham Clinton did not get the "game-changer" she sought in North Carolina. She was counting on an Indiana win to continue her quest to convince the party she should be the nominee, despite Obama's lead in convention delegates and states won. Even two hours after polls closed, Indiana was too close to call.
Obama told supporters in Raleigh, N.C., his victory proves "it's possible to overcome the politics of division and distraction; that it's possible to overcome the same old negative attacks that are always about scoring points and never about solving our problems."
David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, said the win "continues our momentum toward the nomination." He predicted superdelegates, the party VIPs who will ultimately decide the nominee, would continue to come on board and the race would be settled before the convention in August.
Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe said on MSNBC that the superdelegates and voters will be asking "who is it that is best to take on (presumptive Republican nominee) John McCain in the fall? … They want to make sure a Democrat wins the White House. And her economic message is the message that's working."
Both candidates spent Tuesday in Indiana. Obama did nearly two dozen radio and TV interviews, visited a Greenville restaurant and stopped at a polling place in Indianapolis before heading to Raleigh to celebrate. Clinton visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The economy was by far the most important issue in both states and provided fodder for a policy disagreement between the candidates. Clinton, adapting an idea from presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, proposed suspending the 18.5-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax for three months this summer and taxing oil companies to replace the money, which goes to road repair.
Obama, citing a failed experiment with such a suspension in Illinois, said the suspension would help oil companies and candidates — but not drivers. "The problem with it is, you take away 5% in federal taxes, and the oil companies just raise their prices 5%, and it never gets to the consumer. So it makes them more profits," he told a voter Tuesday.
The issue endured right to the end in appearances and dueling TV ads because it fit the pair's larger themes. Clinton used it to reinforce her pitch that she's a champion of hard-pressed families and that Obama is out of touch. Obama called it an example of the "same old Washington politics" that substitutes gimmicks for real solutions.
Political analysts said Obama's North Carolina win complicates Clinton's path to the nomination. Jenny Backus, a party strategist, said Clinton "needs to show that his voters are leaving him and he's not winning states he's expected to win." Surveys of voters leaving the polls suggested Clinton did not cut into Obama's strength with young voters or African-Americans.
The Obama win in North Carolina also "makes it harder for her to make the claim that he's unelectable," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who is neutral in the race. The tight race in Indiana "doesn't seem quite powerful enough to dislodge superdelegates from what appears to be their natural inclination" to back the person who's won the most delegates.
The next primary will be May 13 in West Virginia. Clinton led Obama 56%-27% in the state in a Rasmussen Reports poll released this week. Even if Obama spends the whole week there, says Robert DiClerico, a presidential elections expert at West Virginia University, "I would not expect that he would be able to improve his chances here significantly." He said the Clintons are popular and the state is full of the types of voters Clinton has done well with elsewhere — white, working-class and rural.
Kentucky presents more friendly demographics for Clinton on May 20. Obama is likely to win Oregon that day. Steve Murphy, a Democratic media strategist, said Obama also needs to win Montana and South Dakota on June 3 to avoid causing "some raised eyebrows."
He said Clinton's odds are long. "We as a party are not going to deny the nomination to a deserving African-American candidate who's won the most delegates."