INDIANAPOLIS - Senator Barack Obama won a decisive victory in the North Carolina primary yesterday, righting his presidential bid after the rockiest stretch of his campaign, while Senator Hillary Clinton eked out a narrow win in Indiana to keep her campaign alive.
Obama moved closer to clinching the Democratic nomination, adding to his increasingly strong advantage in pledged delegates and in the overall popular vote with just six contests remaining over the next month - and none likely to radically reshape the race.
In North Carolina, Obama led Clinton 56 percent to 42 percent last night with 99 percent of precincts reporting. The win, in the largest state left to vote, was the first clear sign Obama has survived his rough few weeks, caused largely by his controversial former pastor, and it dashed Clinton's hopes of a game-changing sweep.
"You know, some were saying that North Carolina would be a game-changer in this election," Obama told 3,000 supporters last night in Raleigh. "But today, what North Carolina decided is that the only game that needs changing is the one in Washington, D.C."
In Indiana, Clinton wasn't declared the winner until after 1 a.m. today, more than seven hours after most polls closed. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Clinton led 51 percent to 49 percent.
A win in Indiana, in Obama's backyard, added another Midwestern manufacturing-heavy state to Clinton's column and suggested that her increasingly populist message is resonating with voters hurt by the sagging economy. But Clinton's failure to alter the race with a resounding victory could increase pressure on her from party leaders to consider ending her campaign.
Before the final result was known, Clinton addressed a somewhat deflated audience of supporters at an event hall in downtown Indianapolis, one that had hoped to be celebrating a stronger victory. She and her aides clung to a remark Obama made last month that she would win Pennsylvania, he would win North Carolina, and Indiana would be the "tie-breaker."
"Tonight we've come from behind, we've broken the tie, and, thanks to you, it's full speed on to the White House," Clinton said.
She once again asked for donations to keep her campaign going, but she also seemed to make a point of saying that she would work for the Democratic nominee even if it is not her.
"It is time for all of us to recognize what's at stake in this election," Clinton said.
While Obama congratulated Clinton on her apparent win in Indiana and called her a "formidable opponent," he spoke last night as if the nomination were all but his. Seeming more confident than he has in recent weeks, Obama disputed that Democrats will be divided, and declared that he is ready for any Republican attacks.
"We've seen it already," he said. "The same names and labels they always pin on everyone who doesn't agree with all their ideas. The same efforts to distract us from the issues that affect our lives by pouncing on every gaffe and association and fake controversy in the hope that the media will play along.
"I didn't get into the race thinking that I could avoid this kind of politics, but I am running for president because this is the time to end it," he added. "We will end it by telling the truth - forcefully, repeatedly, confidently - and by trusting that the American people will embrace the need for change."
With his solid win in North Carolina, Obama won more delegates on the night and he erased her gain in popular votes from winning Pennsylvania's primary two weeks ago.
Yesterday's primaries marked the last major showdown of the Democratic nomination fight. The six remaining contests through June 3 - West Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Montana, and South Dakota - will award 217 pledged delegates combined.
Instead, over the next few weeks, all eyes will be on the roughly 270 undeclared superdelegates, the party leaders and elected officials who will almost certainly determine the nominee. Clinton is also pushing the Democratic Party to count 366 delegates from disputed primaries in Florida and Michigan.
Obama began ahead of Clinton in polls in both North Carolina and Indiana, but he was dogged in the last two weeks by the resurgence of his controversial former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who broke his weeks-long silence by loudly defending his fiery criticism of the United States.
Exit polls suggested that many voters yesterday weighed Obama's involvement with Wright heavily, with about half in each state saying the relationship was "somewhat" or "very" important to their decision.
"The last few weeks the campaign hasn't been about issues - it's been about me," Obama told supporters Monday night in Indianapolis, asserting that Americans do not want the presidential election decided by petty personal flaps. "They know we can do better than that."
But the biggest debate between Obama and Clinton during the two-week campaign for Indiana and North Carolina was, in fact, a substantive one: Clinton proposed a summer-long suspension of the federal gas tax, pitching it as short-term relief from record fuel prices.
Obama dismissed the idea as a cynical "gimmick" designed to win votes that would have little bearing on prices at the pump. Many economists and independent analysts agreed with him.
The dispute became a proxy for a broader distinction between the candidates that Clinton has sought to cultivate: that she is in touch with struggling Americans, while Obama offers mere abstract promises. The gas tax issue also spawned a furious exchange of negative TV ads in the run-up to yesterday's vote.
Obama, continuing his dominance on the airwaves, outspent Clinton on TV advertising in Indiana and North Carolina. He spent $7.8 million overall in the two states compared with Clinton's $4.1 million, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group.
As in other states, Obama racked up large margins in urban areas such as Indianapolis and Charlotte, while Clinton fared better in more rural regions such as southern Indiana. Two-thirds of voters surveyed in North Carolina and nearly as many in Indiana cited the economy as the most important issue - the highest proportions of the 28 states so far with exit polling conducted for the Associated Press and the TV networks.
Neither Indiana nor North Carolina had held a competitive Democratic primary for decades, and voter participation was unprecedented in both states. Hundreds of thousands of people had cast absentee ballots before polling places even opened yesterday, and voter turnout during the day was on pace to shatter records.
In North Carolina, Cherie Poucher, director of the board of elections in Wake County, said voter registration had soared in recent weeks and voters were lined up at some polling places before they opened at 6:30 a.m.
Steve Craycraft, the county clerk for Delaware County in Indiana, home to the city of Muncie, gave a similar report.
Craycraft also said that many Republicans yesterday were voting in the Democratic contest, a trend in some other states with open primaries. Some GOP voters apparently cast ballots for Clinton merely to prolong the bruising Democratic nomination race.
But some Republicans also voted Democratic for more constructive reasons. Jackie Finney, a 54-year-old from Indianapolis who works as an administrator at an information technology firm, voted for President Bush in the prior two elections but cast a primary ballot for Obama yesterday, praising his "fresh perspective." If Obama is the nominee, Finney said, she will face a difficult decision in November.
Obama also enjoyed strong support from younger voters such as Amelia Tryon, a 25-year-old from Indianapolis who works for a nonprofit on youth issues.
"He's fresh and he doesn't seem like he's playing the games everybody else is playing," she said.
But many other voters, especially those on low and moderate incomes, saw Clinton as the more likely savior in the face of fast-rising costs.
"We know she can do what we're looking for," said Donna Yazel, a 63-year-old from Portage, Ind., who works in retail.
Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com.