RALEIGH, North Carolina (AFP) — Barack Obama declared himself within touching distance of the Democratic presidential nomination Tuesday after trouncing Hillary Clinton in North Carolina, while she eked out a razor-thin win in Indiana.
Well after midnight, hours after the North Carolina result, the former first lady held on to take Indiana by a victory margin of 51 percent to 49 percent.
In North Carolina, Obama romped home by 56 percent to 42, and used his victory speech here to cast himself as the Democrats' heir apparent for the November election against Republican John McCain.
"Tonight we stand less than 200 delegates away from securing the Democratic nomination for president of the United States," said Obama , 46, bidding to be America's first black commander-in-chief.
"This fall, we intend to march forward as one Democratic Party, united by a common vision for this country," he added to thousands of exultant supporters.
"Because we all agree that at this defining moment in history -- a moment when we're facing two wars, an economy in turmoil, a planet in peril -- we can't afford to give John McCain the chance to serve out (President) George Bush's third term."
Before flying out of Indiana to Washington, as television networks were still agonizing over the rust-belt state, Clinton proclaimed victory there and said it was "full speed on to the White House."
"But I can assure you, as I have said on many occasions, that no matter what happens, I will work for the nominee of the Democratic Party, because we must win in November," the 60-year-old former first lady added.
Obama was a clear winner Tuesday, besting Clinton by more than 200,000 votes between the two primaries and picking up a net gain of 13 delegates to the party's August convention where 2,025 are needed for the nomination.
He also boosted his case among the nearly 800 "superdelegates," party grandees who are free to vote for either candidate and hold the key to the tightest nomination race in a generation.
With Obama holding an estimated 1,842-1,692 edge in elected delegates, Clinton is running out of road. Only six primaries, with a total of 217 delegates at stake, remain between now and June 3.
Exit polls from Tuesday's votes said Obama, buffeted by weeks of controversy over racially tinged remarks by his former pastor, had won over more than one-third of white voters in North Carolina.
He also scored well with voters in terms of his identifying with their values, suggesting he had deflected Clinton's accusation that he is an "elitist" out of touch with blue-collar voters.
Clinton's camp admits she cannot overtake Obama in the count of pledged delegates who will formally anoint the nominee at the party's convention in Denver, Colorado.
So she is trying to persuade the superdelegates that her inexperienced rival would go down in flames against McCain.
Obama chief strategist David Axelrod said whichever way the Clinton camp spins it, "the math is the math."
"Senator Clinton would have to win close to 70 percent of the remaining delegates, both pledged delegates and superdelegates. That's a really tall order... We believe this momentum is going to continue to build," he said.
But Clinton spokesman Jay Carson insisted his candidate had been counted out prematurely before.
"It is always the most laughable thing to me when pundits declare this race over," he said.
"For all the math... this is a very, very close race. We continue to beat him in big states."
Clinton has raised the prospect of fighting all the way to the convention in Denver, a scenario many Democrats fear could split the party and hand victory to McCain.
She said the true finish line of the presidential race was 2,209 delegates -- including Florida and Michigan, whose pro-Clinton results were voided in an argument with Democratic bosses about the timing of the states' primaries.
But contradicting Clinton, Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean said the delegate target remained 2,025.
"There's going to be a compromise, is what I would predict," he said on MSNBC, ahead of a May 31 meeting of the DNC's rules committee on the Florida-Michigan headache.
"We'll have a nominee by the end of June," Dean vowed, playing down fears of a convention brawl in August.
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