Barack Obama faces his fifth – and probably final – chance of seizing the Democratic nomination in Tuesday’s showdown with Hillary Clinton in the primary elections in Indiana and North Carolina.
By Edward Luce in Washington
Admitting that he has been through a “rough couple of weeks” with the controversy over his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Mr Obama goes into Tuesday’s polls knowing it is his last opportunity to end the primary race with a clear result.
A defeat in Indiana would sharply raise the chances of the race ending in a bloody floor fight at the Democratic convention in August – a scenario that many believe would favour the “Clinton machine” with its adroitness at calling in favours.
On four previous occasions – in New Hampshire in January, on Super Tuesday in February, in Ohio and Texas in March and Pennsylvania in April – Mr Obama has failed to put an end to the increasingly protracted and rancorous contest.
Most pundits have discounted the remaining seven nominating contests, since each is leaning decisively towards one candidate or the other. In addition, with 93.5 per cent of the delegates having been elected by tonight, none of the remaining races can sharply alter the picture.
“I think it’s clear that the Obama campaign is running scared right now,” Phil Singer, Mrs Clinton’s spokesman, said yesterday.
Mr Obama’s “ability to close the deal” remains his biggest single concern. With each “comeback” victory, Mrs Clinton has further entrenched doubts about his ability to defeat Republican John McCain in a general election, although her tactics have alienated a growing number of the unelected “super-delegates”, who may ultimately settle the Democratic nomination.
Portraying Mr Obama as “condescending” and “out of touch with ordinary people”, Mrs Clinton hopes the blue-collar voters of Indiana will follow their counterparts in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
In North Carolina, where a large chunk of the electorate is African-American, she hopes to restrict Mr Obama to a narrow victory.
In spite of winning applause from economists for refusing to match Mrs Clinton’s promise of a summer tax holiday on petrol consumption, Mr Obama is struggling to fend off her attacks on his image.
Mr Obama said: “One of the ironies of the last two or three weeks was this idea that somehow Michelle [his wife] and I are elitist, pointy-headed intellectual types when the fact is our lives . . . more closely approximate the lives of the average voter than any other candidate.”
A victory for Mrs Clinton in Indiana would do little to clarify the decision for super-delegates.
According to a New York Times/CBS poll on Monday, more than 60 per cent of voters said Mrs Clinton told people what they wanted to hear rather than what she believed – far higher than Mr Obama.
Her “untrustworthy” ratings have also rocketed as the campaign has continued, but the former first lady has gained traction by hammering away at the notion she has a better feel for ordinary people than Mr Obama, whom she depicts as a man of eloquent but empty words.