Obama’s emphatic North Carolina victory, and a close race in Indiana, extended his lead in the count of delegates to the Democratic National Convention, and in most counts of the combined popular vote.
As important, they diminished Clinton’s rationale for urging Democratic superdelegates to override his delegate lead and give the nomination to her.
Her case to party elders — that Obama was a flawed, flagging candidate — lost much of its altitude. Her bread-and-butter pitch to voters fell prey to the doubts Obama’s television campaign raised about her sincerity. What had been, in the best of scenarios an up hill climb, became far steeper.
"There were those who were saying that North Carolina could be a ‘game-changer’for Mrs. Clinton," Obama jeered in his Raleigh victory speech. "But today, what North Carolina decided is that the only game that needs changing is the one in Washington, DC."
Obama then pivoted toward the general election, warning of coming Republican attacks and — after tweaking Clinton’s high hopes in North Carolina — addressing her only with gracious language.
He made no suggestion that she should leave the race, and even congratulated her on her “apparent victory” in Indiana — which remained very much in the balance as he spoke. Visually and rhetorically he began to reintroduce himself to the broad general election audience, stressing his patriotism and his American roots.
“I know the promise of America because I have lived it,” he said, standing before a backdrop of middle-aged white women waving small American flags. He cited “the founding ideals that the flag draped over my grandfather’s coffin stands for — it is life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Clinton, meanwhile, promised to forge ahead. In a muted tone, with her husband glum and sun-burned behind her, Clinton she pledged to charge ahead “full speed.”
“I’m going to work my heart out in West Virginia and Kentucky this month,” she said. She cast her potential victory in Indiana — citing her opponent’s words — as a “tiebreaker” after the two split victories in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
But Clinton also thanked her family, her staff and her supporters at unusually great length, giving the speech a somewhat valedictory tone. She promised to fight for a Democratic victory in November “no matter what happens.”
Tim Russert of NBC News reported around midnight that Clinton had canceled her scheduled network morning appearances for Wednesday morning, contributing to the perception that her campaign was thrown back on its heels by the results.
Exit polls suggested that there were no dramatic reversals in the hardened demographic patterns that have determined the outcome of almost every Democratic primary since February. But the outbursts by Obama’s former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, didn’t seem to damage his support from white voters.
“The fact that we have done as well as we have done tonight says something about the durability of his candidacy,” said Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod.
The victory, in which he appears to have expanded his lead in pledged delegates by more than 10, also put Obama on course to take a clear majority of pledged delegates on May 20.
Obama’s strong night also meant an unconventional gamble of his paid off. Clinton made the issue of the primaries her call for a gas tax holiday, and she portrayed Obama as out of touch for opposing it, on the stump and in a series of television ads.
Obama, flouting conventional wisdom, met her bread-and-butter appel with a high-minded policy argument and a character attack, calling the plan a gimmick and jabbing at her Achilles’ heel, voters’ sense that she is untrustworthy.
Clinton hoped her argument would reveal Obama’s abiding weakness with working class voters. “What’s the matter with Barack Obama?” asked one of her television ads.
Instead, Obama appears to have used the issue to underline her weaknesses.
Clinton’s own gamble, meanwhile, cratered. She spent unexpected days in North Carolina, where Bill Clinton made nine stops Monday, and many of her aides held out hope she could win there.
But Obama won by double-digits, picking up more than a third of the white vote in the state. On stage in Indianapolis, her husband’s red, sun-soaked face was all he had to show for the days he’d spent there.
Finally, the Indiana results seemed likely to leave a bad taste in the mouths of supporters of both candidates. From the stage in Indianapolis, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh joked about past alleged voting irregularities in Gary, telling the story of a little girl who supported Hillary and suggesting she might be permitted to vote in Lake County.
Meanwhile, Obama’s press secretary, Bill Burton, e-mailed reporters twice with claims that conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh had provided Clinton's margin by suggesting that Republicans vote for her maliciously to prolong the race.