Senator Barack Obama won a commanding victory in the North Carolina primary on Tuesday and inched well within 20,000 votes of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in Indiana, where the outcome of the primary came down to a large county outside Chicago that had yet to completely report its votes.
Regardless of who prevails in Indiana, the night's results injected a boost of momentum into Mr. Obama's campaign and assured that Mr. Obama would widen his lead in pledged delegates, providing him with new ammunition as he seeks to persuade Democratic leaders to coalesce around his campaign. He also increased his lead in the popular vote in winning North Carolina by more than 200,000 votes.
"Don't ever forget that we have a choice in this country," Mr. Obama said in an address in Raleigh, N.C., that carried the unity themes of a convention speech. "We can choose not to be divided; that we can choose not to be afraid; that we can still choose this moment to finally come together and solve the problems we've talked about all those other years in all those other elections."
The slow-motion pace of Tuesday's vote count in Lake County, just outside Chicago, injected a note of late-night drama into the Indiana race. As late as 11:45 p.m. Eastern time, no votes had been reported from the county, which is seen as a stronghold for the Obama camp and home to a large black population.
Shortly after 12:30 a.m. on Wednesday, the county had reported about 56 percent of its vote, and those results brought Mr. Obama within 17,000 votes of Mrs. Clinton.
Union County, a small rural district in the eastern part of the state with a large white population, had also not reported by early Wednesday morning.
In winning North Carolina by 14 percentage points, Mr. Obama - whose campaign had been embattled by controversy over the incendiary remarks of his former pastor - recorded his first primary victory in nearly two months. His campaign was preparing to open a new front in his battle with Mrs. Clinton, intensifying the argument to uncommitted Democratic superdelegates that he weathered a storm and that the time was dawning for the party to concentrate on the general election.
But as Mrs. Clinton addressed her supporters at a rally in Indianapolis on Tuesday evening, it was clear the fight was not over. In the first three minutes of her address, she asked supporters to contribute money, saying, "Tonight, I need your help to continue this journey."
Clinton advisers acknowledged that the results of the primaries were far less than they had hoped, and said they were likely to face new pleas even from some of their own supporters for her to quit the race. They said they expected fund-raising to become even harder now; one adviser said the campaign was essentially broke, and several others refused to say whether Mrs. Clinton had loaned the campaign money from her personal account to keep it afloat.
The advisers said they were dispirited over the loss in North Carolina, after her campaign - now working off a shoestring budget as spending outpaces fund-raising - decided to allocate millions of dollars and full days of the candidate and her husband in the state. Even with her investment, Mr. Obama outspent Mrs. Clinton in both states.
Six hours after the polls closed in Indiana, the race remained too close to call. Results from Lake County - home to the city of Gary, just across the state line from Chicago - had not been reported. The delay meant that Mrs. Clinton did not appear on television until well after Mr. Obama, allowing him to put his stamp of victory on the evening.
With six primaries remaining on the Democratic primary calendar, the fight between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton now turns to Washington. The Obama campaign was poised to present a new cache of superdelegates - the party officials who may have to settle the nominating fight - as early as Wednesday to press its case that the results from Tuesday are reason enough to back his candidacy and end the torturous nominating fight.
In his speech, Mr. Obama, of Illinois, congratulated Mrs. Clinton "for what appears to be her victory in the state of Indiana." Then, he used his televised forum to deliver a speech highlighting how he was likely to come under attack. In doing so, he made an argument for his viability in a general election, which his rivals believe has been damaged because of his association with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who made a series of incendiary comments about America.
"Yes, we know what's coming; I'm not naíve," Mr. Obama said, adding, "The attempts to play on our fears and exploit our differences, to turn us against each other for political gain, to slice and dice this country into red states and blue states; blue-collar and white-collar; white, black, brown; young, old; rich, poor."
"This is what they will do, no matter which one of us is the nominee," he added. "The question, then, is not what kind of campaign they'll run; it's what kind of campaign we will run."
Democrats said they expect to see more superdelegates flow to Mr. Obama in the next few days, including perhaps some now aligned with Mrs. Clinton.
Senator Claire McCaskill, an Obama supporter from Missouri, called the results "a big, big night" for Mr. Obama given the Wright episode. "This shows he can take major blows and kind of rise above it," Ms. McCaskill said. "I think there was a sense that she has some momentum, and I think it has just ground to a screeching halt tonight."
Despite Mrs. Clinton's performance, she pledged to take her campaign to West Virginia, Kentucky and the other states remaining on the primary calendar. And the campaign has been pushing the cause of seating disputed delegates from Florida and Michigan, states that were penalized for holding primaries before party rules allowed.
"You know it seems, it would be a little strange to have a nominee chosen by 48 states," she told her supporters in Indianapolis. "We've got a long road ahead, but were going to keep fighting on that path because America is worth fighting for."
The Rules and Bylaws Committee of the Democratic National Committee will convene on May 31 to settle the issue of whether to seat the delegates from those two states.
Going forward, both candidates intend to spend time in Washington, courting superdelegates and party officials.
Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, an Obama supporter, said the candidate accomplished what he needed to by outperforming expectations in both states and showing that Mr. Wright was not driving off voters en masse.
"The next question will be what happens with the undecided superdelegates," he said. "Will they begin to come his way? I don't see anything to suggest they should start going her way."
In North Carolina, Mr. Obama's performance was bolstered by a strong black vote. He captured more than 90 percent of those voters in that state, where blacks accounted for one in three voters. But over all, Mrs. Clinton continued to draw strong support among whites, particularly older women.
The voting in Indiana and North Carolina came at the conclusion of an acrimonious two-week campaign that found Mr. Obama on the defensive over incendiary remarks by Mr. Wright. Yet there was little evidence either argument caused significant shifts in electoral patterns of previous states, with most Clinton voters saying the Wright episode affected their vote and Obama backers saying it did not.
Once again, Mrs. Clinton drew the lion's share of her support from women and older voters. Mr. Obama held onto his mainstays of support - blacks, young voters and liberals - and made small gains in Indiana with lower-income white voters who have eluded him in the past.
In both states, the candidates' final arguments centered on a summertime suspension of the federal gasoline tax, which Mrs. Clinton proposed as an economic lift for voters and Mr. Obama derided as a political gimmick.
At this stage in the nominating fight, most voters seemed to have settled on their preferences before the battle intensified. Only a quarter of voters in Indiana decided whom to support in the last week, and a majority backed Mrs. Clinton, while one in five voters in North Carolina also decided late, and most of them backed Mr. Obama.
The country's economic condition was listed as the chief concern of the Democratic primary voters. About 9 in 10 voters in Indiana and 8 in 10 voters in North Carolina said the economic slowdown had affected their family at least somewhat.
At least three in five voters in both states said the economy was the most important problem facing the country, according to surveys of voters leaving polling places that were conducted in both states by Edison/Mitofsky for the television networks and The Associated Press.
In Indiana, about 8 in 10 voters were white and about 15 percent were black. Six in 10 of the whites voted for Mrs. Clinton, while about 9 in 10 blacks favored Mr. Obama.
© 2008 The New York Times
Update: (Wednesday 5/7; 1:15 am) Cable networks CNN, MSNBC, and other outlets call "Apparent" victory for Hillary Clinton in Indiana.