Barack Obama moved closer to the Democratic presidential nomination on Tuesday night by sweeping to victory in the North Carolina primary election and restricting Hillary Clinton to a narrow win in Indiana.
By Andrew Ward and Edward Luce in Washington
Mr Obama won by 14 percentage points in North Carolina, while Mrs Clinton prevailed by just two points in Indiana.
The results appeared certain to extend Mr Obama’s almost unassailable lead in the race for nominating delegates and further lengthen the odds against Mrs Clinton snatching the nomination.
Mr Obama described his North Carolina win as a triumph against the “politics of division and the politics of distraction” after a fractious fortnight of racially-charged debate.
”Tonight we stand less than 200 delegates away from winning the Democratic nomination for president of the United States,” he told a victory rally in Raleigh, signalling confidence that the race was drawing to a close.
Mrs Clinton, however, struck a defiant tone in a speech to supporters in Indiana, vowing to press on with her campaign through the seven remaining state contests to be held over the next month.
She recalled how Mr Obama had described Indiana as a potential “tiebreaker” because it was the most finely balanced of the recent states to vote. “Tonight we’ve come from behind, we’ve broken the tie and thanks to you, it’s full speed on to the White House,” she told cheering supporters in Indianapolis.
But the heaviness of her defeat in North Carolina coupled with the slim margin in Indiana robbed her of almost all the momentum gained from recent victories in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas.
Mrs Clinton needed a strong performance on Tuesday to bolster her case among the Democratic “superdelegates’ whose votes could decide the race, and to attract a fresh wave of financial donations to keep her campaign afloat.
While Mr Obama narrowly failed to secure the double victory that might have delivered a knock-out blow, Mrs Clinton is sure to face mounting pressure from within the Democratic party to drop out.
She initially looked on course for a solid victory in Indiana, with early returns showing her ahead by several percentage points. But the margin was narrowed by a surge of late votes from Obama strongholds in north-west Indiana, near the senator’s home city of Chicago.
With almost all the votes counted, Mrs Clinton led by 51 per cent to 49 per cent in Indiana, while Mr Obama led by 56 per cent to 42 per cent in North Carolina.
Voting patterns in both states showed a continuing demographic split among Democratic voters. More than 90 per cent of African-Americans voted for Mr Obama in North Carolina, where they make up almost a third of the voters, and exit polls showed blue-collar white Democrats again strongly backing Mrs Clinton in both states. Almost half of voters also said the controversy surrounding Jeremiah Wright, Mr Obama’s former pastor, influenced their vote.
For Democrats, the most disturbing aspect of Tuesday’s vote was the high and growing proportion of Mrs Clinton’s supporters who told exit pollsters they would not vote for Mr Obama in a general election – and vice versa.
Almost half of Mrs Clinton’s supporters and one in three of Mr Obama’s said they would vote for Mr McCain in November if the other secured the nomination. This suggests that the widely observed racial breach that has been generated by the rancorous contest will make it increasingly tough for the winner to unite the party against Mr McCain in the autumn presidential election.
Mr Obama acknowledged there were “bruised feelings” on both sides of the contest but insisted the party would heal its wounds once the nomination was decided.
”This fall, we intend to march forward as one Democratic party, united by a common vision for this country,” he said. ”We can’t afford to give John McCain the chance to serve out George Bush’s third term.”
Mrs Clinton made a similar call for unity, saying: “No matter what happens I will work for the nominee of the Democratic party because we must win in November.”
The next contest is on Tuesday in West Virginia, which Mrs Clinton is expected to sweep. With black voters making up less than 5 per cent of the total, the largely blue-collar Appalachian state could give her a landslide.
Mrs Clinton made clear that she would continue fighting to have her victories in Florida and Michigan recognised, despite both states having been stripped of their delegates by the Democratic National Committee because of an infringement of party rules.