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Obama cruises; Clinton clings

Times Staff Writer

Barack Obama handily won North Carolina and Hillary Rodham Clinton eked out a victory in Indiana on Tuesday, keeping the Democratic contest alive and underscoring the chasm between their supporters.

Obama had the easier time of it. With 99% of precincts reporting, he was winning North Carolina 56% to 42%. In Indiana, Clinton was winning 51% to 49%, with 99% of the precincts counted.

The results left the dynamics of the presidential race essentially unchanged. Obama remains well-positioned to win the nomination when the voting ends June 3, but has not mustered the strength to finish off Clinton.

Clinton has an incentive to keep campaigning, but faces increasingly steep odds that she can push past Obama without some dramatic development.

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Given the mixed results and inconclusive exit polling, it was unclear how an issue that recently dominated the campaign, a proposed summerlong suspension of the federal gas tax, played among voters of the two states. But the other major topic of discussion, Obama’s relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., did not help the Illinois senator. Wright was an important factor for at least half the voters in the two states, according to exit interviews, and most of those voters supported Clinton.

The racial gap in the contest persisted, with Obama winning overwhelmingly among African American voters and Clinton carrying the white vote -- both men and women -- by a comfortable margin. With exceptions in a few states, neither candidate has managed to pull many voters away from the other’s base of support, which has prolonged the race beyond what either side anticipated.

The candidates’ election-night itineraries reflected their expectations.

Appearing in Raleigh, N.C., Obama took an indirect swipe at Clinton, who had predicted an upset in North Carolina that would turn the race upside down.

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“There were those who were saying that North Carolina would be a game-changer in this election,” Obama told a cheering crowd of 3,000 supporters. “But today what North Carolina decided is that the only game that needs changing is the one in Washington, D.C.”

He sought to rebut one of Clinton’s central arguments, the assertion that she can run stronger in the big states that Democrats will need to claim the White House in November. He called North Carolina “a big state . . . a swing state . . . a state where we will compete to win if I am the Democratic nominee.”

Clinton addressed supporters filling a hotel ballroom in Indianapolis when the Indiana race was still too close to call. The outcome had hinged on thousands of votes outstanding in Lake County, a heavily black area and an Obama stronghold near his hometown of Chicago. The crowd’s spirit flagged as the night wore on and Clinton’s early lead in the vote count steadily diminished.

But the New York senator was beaming as she turned Obama’s words against him. “Not too long ago, my opponent made a prediction. He said I would probably win Pennsylvania, he would win North Carolina, and Indiana would be the tiebreaker,” Clinton said. “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.” (Actually, Obama said Indiana “may” be the tiebreaker.)

But there was a note of wistfulness to her remarks. Clinton lingered over thank-yous to her family and supporters even as she promised to continue campaigning and reiterated her call to seat the disputed delegates from Michigan and Florida. “It would be a little strange to have a nominee chosen by 48 states,” she said.

Tuesday offered the last big bunch of delegates in the presidential primary season, which kicked off Jan. 3 with the Iowa caucuses. A total of 187 pledged delegates -- 115 in North Carolina and 72 in Indiana -- were at stake to be awarded on a proportional basis. Obama won at least 94 pledged delegates to at least 75 for Clinton, with 18 still to be determined, according to the Associated Press.

That brought Obama’s overall delegate total to 1,840.5 to 1,684 for Clinton. It takes 2,024 delegates to win the nomination.

As of today, more than 93% of the pledged delegates to the Democrats’ national nominating convention have been chosen. That means 217 remain -- fewer than the roughly 260 uncommitted superdelegates, or the 366 disputed delegates from Michigan and Florida.

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But more important, Tuesday may have been Clinton’s last best chance to change the direction of the race by upsetting Obama in North Carolina or blowing him out in Indiana, giving unpledged superdelegates an incentive to rally to her campaign. Mathematically, neither Clinton nor Obama can win the nomination without a boost from superdelegates -- VIPs and other party insiders who have an automatic vote at the convention.

From here, the race follows a fairly predictable road map: Clinton is expected to win West Virginia next Tuesday, Kentucky on May 20 and Puerto Rico on June 1. Obama should carry Oregon on May 20, and Montana and South Dakota on June 3.

If that happens, depending on the margins, the biggest question is whether Clinton can close the gap in the popular vote, excluding Michigan and Florida.

After Tuesday’s big win in North Carolina, Obama appeared likely to boost his lead in the popular vote by more than 150,000 votes.

Many of the uncommitted superdelegates have suggested the popular vote should be the yardstick for choosing the party’s nominee. They don’t count Florida and Michigan because neither state was seriously contested after breaking the party’s scheduling rules.

To a great extent, demographics have been destiny in the Democratic contest, with both candidates boasting loyal constituencies that have backed them whatever else happened in the race. Clinton’s winning formula includes large majorities of women, Latinos, Catholics, seniors and white working-class voters. Obama’s base has been African Americans, independents and the better-educated and more affluent.

Those patterns held true Tuesday. Six in 10 white voters backed Clinton in Indiana and North Carolina, according to exit polls conducted for TV networks and the AP. Obama won 90% of the black vote in both states. Turnout approached a record in both states, reflecting the enthusiasm Democrats have shown throughout the nominating fight.

In an odd twist to a campaign already filled with hairpin turns, it was an idea broached by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive GOP nominee, that dominated the Democratic race over the last two weeks.

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Clinton became a fierce advocate of McCain’s proposal to suspend the federal government’s 18.4-cent-a-gallon tax on gasoline, as a way to punish the oil companies and give motorists a bit of relief from record high prices. She featured the gas tax in her TV ads and added a populist edge to her stump speeches, blasting Big Oil, Wall Street and the insurance industry.

Obama responded with ads dismissing the gas tax as a gimmick. It might help Clinton win votes, Obama said in his speeches, but the tax holiday would do nothing to punish the oil companies -- which could simply pocket the change -- nor to solve the nation’s long-term energy needs. When economists and other experts ratified that view, Clinton scoffed.

It was impossible to gauge voter opinion on the issue because the questionnaire used in exit poll interviewing did not ask about the gas tax.

The verdict on Wright, Obama’s controversial former pastor, was clearer. The senator broke with his spiritual mentor a day after Wright’s fiery speech last week at Washington’s National Press Club, amid signs their relationship had become a liability to Obama.

Half of those surveyed in each state said Wright was an important consideration in casting their vote. Of those, 7 in 10 in Indiana and 6 in 10 in North Carolina supported Clinton, including 8 in 10 whites. Those who minimized Wright as a factor heavily favored Obama.

In a footnote to Tuesday’s balloting, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards announced his intention to stay neutral in the Democratic contest.

Edwards told People magazine that he admired Clinton’s tenacity but not the “old politics” she represents.

While crediting Obama with sincerely trying “to bring about serious change and a different way of doing things,” Edwards said: “Sometimes I want to see more substance under the rhetoric.”

Edwards ran unsuccessfully for the nomination and has been ardently courted by Clinton and Obama ever since he dropped out in late January.

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mark.barabak@latimes.com

Times staff writers Noam P. Levey in Indianapolis and Peter Nicholas in Raleigh contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

PRIMARY RESULTS

*--* CLINTON INDIANA N.CAROLINA 51% 42% 638,274 657,920 OBAMA INDIANA N.CAROLINA 49% 56% 615,862 890,695 *--*

99% of precincts reporting. Source: Associated Press


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