Barack Obama scored a crucial win over Hillary Rodham Clinton in the North Carolina Democratic primary, regaining his footing after weeks of setbacks and moving closer to becoming the first black presidential nominee of a major US political party.
Clinton barely clung to a lead in Tuesday's other primary, in Indiana, which has become a must-win state for the former first lady. She led Obama 51 per cent to 49 per cent, with 8 per cent of precincts yet to report many seen as favorable to Obama. Obama continues to expand his advantage in delegates who will choose the party's nominee and, even if she wins in Indiana, Clinton is running out of opportunities to narrow the gap. But she signaled her determination to fight on. She told cheering supporters in Indianapolis, "Thanks to you, it's full speed to the White House."
Obama was on pace to finish the night within 200 delegates of the 2,025 needed to secure the Democratic nomination. Obama's win comes as he has struggled to overcome a gaffe about "bitter" working-class voters, criticism of his relationship with a controversial pastor and questions about his patriotism because he does not wear a flag pin. He told a raucous rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, that his win was a victory against the "politics of division and the politics of distraction."
Returns from 99 per cent of North Carolina precincts showed Obama was winning 56 per cent of the vote to 42 per cent for Clinton. The contests were the last big-delegate prizes in their marathon race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The long and often divisive race has led Democrats to fear that they may be undermining their prospects for capturing the White House after two terms eight years of Republican President George W Bush despite Bush's unpopularity.
Obama, an inexperienced but often-inspiring 46-year-old senator, stunned the political establishment by winning 11 consecutive contests in February. He appeared poised to defeat Clinton, who was once considered the all-but-inevitable nominee. But Clinton, while on the cusp of elimination, won major primaries in March and April. Obama's failure to lock up the nomination has led to growing doubts about whether he can attract the white, working class voters needed for Democrats to win in the November election against the presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.
Those doubts have been aggravated by the unending attention given to his relationship with his pastor, the Rev Jeremiah Wright, whose inflammatory remarks included suggestions that the United States brought the Sept 11 attacks upon itself.
Yet Obama remained the clear leader in the count of delegates to the party's national convention in August in Denver. Obama won at least 69 delegates Tuesday, according to an analysis of election returns by The Associated Press. Clinton won at least 63 delegates, with 55 still to be awarded.
Overall, Obama leads with 1,815.5 delegates to 1,672 for Clinton. With her loss in North Carolina, Clinton had little hope of narrowing the gap Tuesday even if she wins in Indiana. And with few contests remaining, Clinton has almost no chance of winning enough elected delegates to overtake Obama.
Her hope has been to keep the race going for weeks or months and persuade superdelegates party leaders and elected officials free to vote as they choose to back her as the Democrats' best hope of winning the White House. About 220 superdelegates remain undecided and 50 more will be named later. Obama acknowledged there were "bruised feelings on both sides" in the fight for the nomination.
Still, he said, "We intend to march forward as one Democratic Party, united by a common vision for this country." "We can't afford to give John McCain the chance to serve out George Bush's third term," he said.
The weak US economy has dominated the campaign and was by far the top issue in North Carolina and Indiana, according to interviews with voters as they left polling places. Record-high gas prices are a huge concern across the car-loving country.
The candidates sparred in recent days over Clinton's call for a temporary suspension of the federal gasoline tax. Clinton said it would help beleaguered drivers; Obama ridiculed the proposal as a political stunt that would cost jobs.
Exit polls in Indiana, a midwestern state, charted a racial divide that has become familiar in a long, historic campaign pitting a black man against a white woman.
Obama was gaining more than 90 per cent of the black vote in Indiana, while Clinton was winning an estimated 61 per cent of the white vote there, running ahead of her rival among white men as well as women.
She also had 51 per cent of independents' votes, to 49 for her rival, a statistical tie, and was winning among Democrats, 53-47. Obama's win in North Carolina mirrored earlier triumphs in Southern states with large black populations, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and South Carolina among them.
In North Carolina, Clinton won 60 per cent of the white vote, but Obama claimed support from roughly 90 per cent of the blacks who cast ballots.
To a large extent, the gasoline tax eclipsed the attention surrounding Wright, his former pastor. After saying several weeks earlier that he could not disown Wright for his fiery sermons, Obama did precisely that when the minister embarked on a media tour. At a news conference in North Carolina last week, Obama equated Wright's comments with "giving comfort to those who prey on hate." Voters in both states were divided evenly when asked whether the controversy surrounding Wright was a factor in their decisions. The balance of the primary schedule includes West Virginia, with 28 delegates on May 13; Oregon with 52 and Kentucky with 51 a week later; Puerto Rico with 55 delegates on June 1, and Montana with 16 and South Dakota with 15 on June 3.