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Starting Gate: Can Anyone Break Out?

This weekend's caucuses in Guam pretty much summed up the Democratic race: Out of about 4,500 votes, Barack Obama edged Hillary Clinton by a grand total of seven votes. That's about where the race is heading into the next round of all-important primaries -- Obama ahead just enough to be comfortably assured of finishing the race that way but not far enough to coast completely.

In fact, tomorrow's contests in North Carolina and Indiana have the potential to end up as pivotal. A win in both would nearly allow Obama to claim victory and might well be enough to get those uncommitted superdelegates off of the fence. A split – with Clinton winning Indiana and Obama taking North Carolina, would keep the race going on to West Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon and beyond.

But it's the other scenario that he crept into the political discussion that could be the real game changer should it occur. What if Clinton manages to pull off a sweep? Unlikely as that seems, it's not impossible to consider. Indiana, where Clinton has held a small lead in the past weeks, looks to be her best short for a win. North Carolina is much tougher. Among Democrats in the Tar Heel State, blacks make up about 37 percent of the party. Obama has consistently won around 90 percent or more of that vote throughout the primaries which means Clinton would have to carry a huge percentage of the rest of the Democrats and non-affiliated voters allowed to participate in the primary.

Obama has held a solid lead in most polls there but Clinton appears to have closed the gap – and caused enough concern within his campaign to spend some valuable time in North Carolina in recent days. Most worrisome to him is that in most recent polls, he is under 50 percent – and Clinton generally does better among those late-deciders.

If she were to pull that upset, it could be devastating to Obama. A Clinton sweep would raise serious concerns about Obama's ability to win in the general election and inevitably lead to some discussion about the on-the-ground impact of the Rev. Wright controversy. (A new CBS News/New York Times poll has encouraging news on that front for his campaign). And with the race heading into states like West Virginia and Kentucky, perceived Clinton-friendly states, the one-time front-runner would face the possibility of winning the nomination despite having lost a series of contests to end the race.

Such a course of events still might not be enough for Clinton to win the nomination but it wouldn't exactly help Obama to head into the general election with a lot of momentum.

Around The Track

  • North Carolina is expecting its biggest primary turnout ever.
  • The Clinton campaign is considering a "nuclear option" in an attempt to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida, reports Huffington Post's Tom Edsall.
  • Clinton and Obama made their pitches to party activists at the Indiana state party's Jefferson-Jackson dinner last night.
  • John McCain leads both Democrats in New Hampshire, according to the latest Granite State poll. McCain, of course, won the GOP primary in the state in both 2000 and this year.
  • Obama's once-positive press coverage has taken a chilly turn according to Washington Post's Howard Kurtz.
  • "I'm talking about him in his previous life, before he was an objective journalist." – Hillary Clinton, in an awkward moment with ABC's George Stephanopoulos on yesterday's "The Week." Check out this full report from CBS News' Fernando Suarez.