Image: HIllary Rodham Clinton
Brent Smith  /  Reuters
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton greets supporters at her election-night rally in Indianapolis on Tuesday.
NBC News and news services
updated 5/7/2008 3:33:00 AM ET 2008-05-07T07:33:00

Barack Obama resoundingly won in the North Carolina primary Tuesday night and declared he was closing in on the Democratic presidential nomination. Hillary Rodham Clinton apparently eked out a win in Indiana as she struggled to halt her rival's march into history, NBC News projected.

"Tonight we stand less than 200 delegates away from securing the Democratic nomination for president of the United States," Obama told a raucous rally in Raleigh, N.C. -- and left no doubt he intended to claim the prize.

Clinton stepped before her own supporters not long afterward in Indianapolis. "Thanks to you, it's full speed on to the White House," she said, signaling her determination to fight on in a campaign already waged across more than 16 months and nearly all 50 states.

Returns from 99 percent of North Carolina precincts showed Obama winning 56 percent of the vote to 42 percent for Clinton.

That had made Indiana a virtual must-win state for Clinton, who was hoping to counter Obama's delegate advantage with a strong run through the late primaries. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, the former first lady led 51 percent to 49 percent.

Results had been slow in coming from populous Lake County, a heavily black area in the northwestern part of Indiana near Obama's home city of Chicago. The county is home to the city of Gary, and the senator won overwhelming support there.

Extra ballot counters were brought in because of an unusually large number of absentee ballots, the Northwest Indiana Post-Tribune reported on its Web site.

'Defining moment in history'
Two weeks after a decisive defeat in Pennsylvania, Obama sounded increasingly like he was looking forward to the fall campaign. In Raleigh he congratulated Clinton on what he said "appears to be" a win in Indiana.

"This primary season may not be over, but when it is, we will have to remember who we are as Democrats," Obama said, "because we all agree that at this defining moment in history — a moment when we're facing two wars, an economy in turmoil, a planet in peril — we can't afford to give John McCain the chance to serve out George Bush's third term."

Despite the uncertainty of the outcome in Indiana, Clinton staked a claim to victory there.

"Not too long ago, my opponent made a prediction," she said at the rally, joined by her husband, Bill, his face sunburned after hours spent campaigning in small-town North Carolina, and their daughter, Chelsea. "I would win Pennsylvania, he would win North Carolina and Indiana would be the tie-breaker.

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"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."

To emphasize her determination, Clinton announced plans to campaign Thursday in West Virginia, South Dakota and Oregon, three of the remaining primary states.

But Clinton also made a direct fundraising appeal to backers — unusual remarks at a victory party. “I need your help to continue our journey,” she said.

Her speech seemed to lack the full-throated spirit that marked her events in the run up to Tuesday. And after her speech, she didn't linger long to shake supporters' hands, sign autographs and pose for pictures, after ending her speech.

Racial divide
Still, exit polls in both states charted a racial divide that has become familiar in a long, historic campaign pitting a black man against a white woman and that could weigh heavily on an Obama campaign in the fall.

In North Carolina, an estimated one-third of all ballots were cast by black voters, and Obama claimed support from roughly 90 percent of them. Clinton won 60 percent of the white vote. Only Democrats and unaffiliated voters were permitted to vote in North Carolina.

In Indiana, Clinton's victory among white voters was just as wide.

In Indiana, about one in five voters said they were independents, and an additional one in 10 Republicans.

Voting in Indiana was carried out under a state law, recently upheld by the Supreme Court, that requires voters to produce a valid photo ID. About a dozen nuns in their 80s and 90s at St. Mary's Convent in South Bend were denied ballots — by a fellow sister — because they lacked the necessary identification.

Economy weighs on voters
The economy was the top issue by far in both states, according to interviews with voters as they left polling places.

But nearly half of voters in both states said the controversy over incendiary sermons by Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was very or somewhat important to their vote. In Indiana, nearly three-quarters of those who said it was important voted for Clinton — though those who said so and voted for Obama may have signaled approval of his handling of the situation.

In both states, whites and blacks were about as likely to call the situation important. But whites were much more likely to vote for Clinton if they said so. Black voters made up a third of the North Carolina Democratic electorate but were only about one in seven in Indiana.

Brett Schaefer, a resident of Southern Indiana, said the issue is still top-of-mind for many Democratic voters.

“I cannot stand here and think that that was the first time his preacher has talked that way,” Schaefer said.

However, the races in both states were dominated in the final days by Clinton's call for a summertime suspension of the federal gasoline tax, an issue that she created after scoring a victory in the Pennsylvania primary two weeks ago.

Obama ridiculed the proposal as a stunt that would cost jobs, not the break for consumers she claimed.

In his speech Tuesday night, he said Americans "aren't looking for more spin; they're looking for honest answers."

Obama begins day ahead
Obama, an often-inspiring 46-year-old freshman senator, stunned the political establishment by winning 11 consecutive contests in February. He appeared poised to defeat Clinton, who was once considered the all-but-inevitable nominee. But Clinton, while on the cusp of elimination, won major primaries in March and April.

Obama's failure to lock up the nomination has led to growing doubts about whether he can attract the white, working-class voters needed for Democrats to win in November.

He began the day with 1,746 delegates, to 1,611 for Clinton, out of 2,025 needed for the nomination, according to NBC's national delegate count.

Indiana had 72 delegates at stake, and Clinton projected confidence about the results by arranging a primary-night appearance in Indianapolis.

North Carolina had 115 delegates at stake, and Obama countered with his rally in Raleigh.

Race for voters, superdelegates
Obama leads Clinton in delegates won in primaries and caucuses. Despite his defeat two weeks ago, he has steadily whittled away at her advantage in superdelegates in the past two weeks and trails 273 to 254, according to NBC News' superdelegate count.

Superdelegate sampling

Clinton saved her candidacy with her win in Pennsylvania, and she campaigned aggressively in Indiana in hopes of denying Obama a victory next door to his home state of Illinois. Indiana is home to large numbers of blue-collar workers who have been attracted to the former first lady, and she sought to use her call for a federal gas tax holiday to draw them and other economically pinched voters closer.

Inevitably, the issue quickly took on larger dimensions.

Obama said it symbolized a candidacy consisting of "phony ideas, calculated to win elections instead of actually solving problems."

Clinton retorted, "Instead of attacking the problem, he's attacking my solutions," and ran an ad in the campaign's final hours that said she "gets it."

To a large extent, the gasoline tax eclipsed the controversy surrounding Wright. After saying several weeks earlier he could not disown Wright for his fiery sermons, Obama did precisely that when the minister embarked on a media tour.

At a news conference in North Carolina last week, Obama equated Wright's comments with "giving comfort to those who prey on hate."

The balance of the primary schedule includes West Virginia, with 28 delegates on May 13; Oregon with 52 and Kentucky with 51 a week later; Puerto Rico with 55 delegates on June 1, and Montana with 16 and South Dakota with 15 on June 3.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican nomination already in hand, campaigned in North Carolina and assailed Obama for his vote against confirmation of Chief Justice John Roberts .

"Senator Obama in particular likes to talk up his background as a lecturer on law, and also as someone who can work across the aisle to get things done," McCain said. "But ... he went right along with the partisan crowd, and was among the 22 senators to vote against this highly qualified nominee."

Clinton also voted against Roberts, but McCain, as if often the case, focused his remarks on Obama.

Obama's campaign responded that the Republican would pick judges who represent a threat to abortion rights and to McCain's own legislation to limit the role of money in political campaigns.

NBC News, msnbc.com and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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