Hillary Rodham Clinton wanted a "game changer," but Tuesday may prove to be a game ender.
After the roughest three weeks of his presidential campaign, Barack Obama cemented his front-runner status with a double digit win in North Carolina's Democratic primary and a narrow loss in Indiana, a state widely seen as must-win for Clinton.
Even though Clinton eked out a victory early today, her momentum was halted. Her last grasp at the nomination now may hinge on counting Florida's officially meaningless primary.
"Some were saying that North Carolina would be a game changer in this election," Obama said in Raleigh, N.C., referring to Clinton. "But today, what North Carolina decided is that the only game that needs changing is the one in Washington, D.C.
"You stood up to the cynics, and the doubters, and the naysayers when we were up and when we were down,'' he said. "Because you still believe that this is our moment, and our time, for change —tonight we stand less than 200 delegates away from securing the Democratic nomination for president of the United States."
The last big states to weigh in on the tumultuous Democratic primary may finally have settled this long race. Having looked in recent weeks ever more vulnerable, Obama broke through as the night's big winner.
The Illinois senator increased his nearly insurmountable lead in elected delegates. Perhaps more important, Tuesday's results failed to change the landscape in a way that might push many uncommitted superdelegates to hand the nomination to Clinton.
Clinton needs those remaining uncommitted superdelegates, more than 260, to remain patient — and uncommitted — while she tries to convince them she's the stronger nominee. She had been hoping to claim a "popular vote" lead and a track record in winning big states, but those arguments looked shakier with Obama's North Carolina victory.
The calls for Clinton to drop out and help unify the party are sure to increase. But earlier in the evening, when Clinton's lead was comfortable, she was looking ahead.
"Thanks to you, it's full speed to the White House," Clinton told supporters in Indianapolis amid chants of "Yes we will!"
As the votes continued to trend to Obama into the night, however, NBC's Tim Russert said Clinton canceled appearances on today's morning television shows.
The mathematical hurdles in front of the New York senator are daunting, although she's favored to win several of the upcoming contests, including West Virginia and Kentucky. She would have to win the support of roughly seven in 10 of the remaining superdelegates to win the nomination.
"The last month has been an exercise in denial, and the only thing that's been accomplished is her attempt to hurt Barack Obama,'' said Fort Lauderdale lawyer Mitchell Berger, veteran Democratic fundraiser and Obama supporter.
"Tonight should show the superdelegates that there's no question that Sen. Obama has withstood the body blows and has shown not just by what has happened but by the way he has dealt with it that he is able to appeal to us in a better way than just division," Berger said.
But exit polls for the Associated Press and TV networks showed Obama continuing to do poorly among some key voter groups, particularly working-class white voters. Of 28 states that have held primaries where she and Obama competed before Tuesday, Clinton won working-class white voters in 25 of them, and Tuesday she won two-thirds of whites in both North Carolina and Indiana.
Nine in 10 black voters in both states backed Obama, which helped boost his win in North Carolina where roughly one third of the electorate is black.
The uncertainty over whether Florida and Michigan will wind up with any delegates to the national convention takes on new urgency now that Indiana and North Carolina are done.
The fate of those two states — combined they had 366 delegates stripped away as punishment for holding primaries earlier than allowed — remains one of the last major question marks in the race and Clinton has vowed to stay in the race until they get resolved.
"It would be a little strange to have the nominee chosen by 48 states," Clinton said Tuesday night as the crowd chanted "Count the votes! Count the votes!"
The magic number for securing the nomination is 2,025, but the Clinton campaign has suggested the real number is 2,209, which would include full delegations from Michigan and Florida.
Florida alone has nearly as many potential delegates, 211, as the 217 that will be allocated in the remaining six Democratic contests, starting with West Virginia on Tuesday. A Democratic National Committee panel on May 31 will consider an appeal to reinstate Florida's delegates, but many observers doubt Florida will wind up with a full delegation so Clinton would likely net less than 38 delegates.
Tuesday ended a tough period for Obama that started when Clinton won primaries in Ohio and Texas two months ago. He faced an uproar that continues to reverberate over his former pastor's racially divisive remarks, as well as questions about his electability.
Half the voters in each state Tuesday said the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was an important factor in choosing a candidate. Of that group, seven in 10 in Indiana and six in 10 in North Carolina backed Clinton, including eight in 10 whites. Those discounting Wright as a factor heavily favored Obama.
Indiana allowed independents and Republicans to vote in the Democratic primary, and exit polls showed about one in five voters said they were independents and one in 10 Republican. The Republican cross-over votes fueled speculation that radio personality Rush Limbaugh's "Operation Chaos" may have played a significant role, as he exhorted listeners to vote for Clinton so that the Democratic primary battle would continue as long as possible.
On the air Tuesday, Limbaugh read an e-mail from one of his Hoosier fans: "Rush, at 8:15 a.m. this morning I voted for Hillary Clinton in the Indiana primary. It was tough. I showered twice, I threw up a little in my mouth, but I did it. It was an honor to follow your orders."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected] or (727)893-8241.