Hillary Rodham Clinton lost North Carolina on Tuesday and with it her last best chance at the White House.
The results dented if not doomed her hopes of convincing superdelegates to disregard Obama's lead in delegates, states won and popular vote to nominate her.
"Senator Clinton did not get out of the night what she needed," said North Carolina Rep. Brad Miller, an undecided superdelegate. "To use a basketball analogy, she traded baskets. And she needed to do much better than that this late in the contest with her down 150 or 160 pledged delegates."
Obama came into the race at a low point, reeling from his former minister Jeremiah Wright's racially divisive remarks and a blistering loss in Pennsylvania that raised questions about whether he can win white voters. Clinton had momentum and devoted her scarce funds and precious time to turning around a long-anticipated Obama win in North Carolina.
She diverted resources away from Indiana, a state she had a better shot of winning. In hindsight, the Clinton campaign may consider that a mistake since the Indiana race was so close.
A clearly buoyed Obama told supporters in Raleigh that his victory came in "a big state, a swing state and a state where we will compete if I am the Democratic nominee."
Message: I can win here, and Clinton can't.
Obama still has more superdelegates
It was a thrust at Clinton's electability argument, her chief argument to superdelegates. It hasn't been working.
Since the Pennsylvania primary two weeks ago, Clinton has picked up 11.5 superdelegate endorsements to Obama's 22, according to an Associated Press count.
"Even during the period post-Pennsylvania, during Reverend Wright, we decisively won superdelegates in that period," said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. "And if they're not going to make up significant ground during that period, it's hard to see how things are going to change."
The contest now shifts to an even bigger focus on winning superdelegates — there are 270 yet to be claimed, compared to 217 pledged delegates at stake in the remaining seven primaries.
Plouffe was feeling so confident in Obama's lead that he allowed that he would be willing to give Clinton the lion's share of the delegates from Michigan and Florida. She won both states, even though their primaries violated party rules and both candidates agreed to boycott them and have been arguing about the fairest way to seat the delegates ever since.
After long arguing that Clinton's wins were not legitimate and shouldn't benefit her in the delegate count, Plouffe said seating the delegations is "going to require us being generous and offering to give her some delegates."
A win for Clinton in Indiana, the other state that voted Tuesday, wouldn't turn the race around for her like a surprise victory in North Carolina would have. It appears that Obama's victory in North Carolina will give him the most delegates in Tuesday's contests.
While Obama appeared more upbeat than he has in weeks, Clinton's energized demeanor in the closing days of the campaign changed noticeably as she spoke to supporters late Tuesday while an Indiana victory had yet to be determined. While vowing to press on to upcoming contests in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oregon, the former first lady appeared stiff and cautious, her husband and daughter subdued.
Obama's win in North Carolina helps stop a slide that began two months ago when Clinton won primaries in Ohio and Texas. He got victories in the Texas and Wyoming caucuses and the Mississippi primary, but soon found himself the target of unflattering media coverage spurred by video of Wright's divisive sermons.
Undecided superdelegate Muriel Offerman, of Cary, N.C., said she wondered if the controversy could have cost Obama her state.
"This week I wasn't sure how this was going to shake out because of the Jeremiah Wright thing and because President Clinton had been here so much," she said in a telephone interview from her home, where she was watching coverage of Obama's victory on television.
"People want change and I think North Carolina is like some of the other states, that it's just time for a change," Offerman said. But she said Obama's racially lopsided victory "is certainly a concern. And I think we all have our work cut out for us."
Offerman said she hopes the candidates will follow through on their promises to support the eventual nominee. She said they will need each other to bring the party together after the racially divisive primary.