A razor-thin victory in Indiana and a blowout loss in North Carolina is unlikely to immediately drive Clinton out of a race she has fought so long to win. But with just six contests remaining and more party superdelegates available now than winnable delegates, her path to the nomination has nearly vanished.
Barack Obama emerged from the contest with a net gain in delegates, and there are now more superdelegates up for grabs (267 according to CBS News estimates) than pledged delegates in the remaining contests (217). He will also log a big gain in the overall popular vote thanks to his big North Carolina showing. Clinton faces favorable terrain in upcoming states like West Virginia and Kentucky but can't come close to winning enough delegates or votes to narrow those margins substantially.
Despite losing in Indiana, Obama put some questions to rest tonight. Most importantly, he demonstrated that he could weather the kind of firestorm created by his controversial former pastor Jeremiah Wright after two weeks of the more intense scrutiny he has faced thus far in the campaign. Obama also showed he could come back from a big loss in Pennsylvania in the middle of it all and right the ship.
The Clinton campaign was quick to point out that Obama had called Indiana a "tiebreaker" contest and claimed a victory there gives them an edge in that argument. But the failure to achieve anything more than a virtual "tie" in Indiana may not inspire the party leaders she now needs in overwhelming numbers to win.
In the wake of her Pennsylvania win, Clinton's campaign claimed they had raised an impressive $10 million in just the next 24 hours. That - and probably more - has almost certainly been spent since then and a bare tonight's near double-defeat is unlikely to fill the coffers again.
Democrats will be reading the results in the coming hours and days and, while there remain some troubling signs about Obama's ability to win over white, blue-collar voters, it's the hardening split between supporters of both candidates that may be most alarming. A third of Clinton voters in Indiana, and slightly more of them in North Carolina, told exit pollsters that they will support John McCain in general election over Obama should he win the nomination. Fewer of Obama voters said they would support McCain over Clinton but majorities of supporters for both candidates in both states said would be dissatisfied if the other won the nomination.
Those numbers have grown since Pennsylvania and earlier contests when such troubling signs first began emerging. Early on in the campaign, polling showed wide enthusiasm for all the Democratic candidates. But the long and often combative campaign which have revolved around issues like race and gender, appear to have taken a toll, at least in the short term. Democratic superdelegates may be more interested in seeking a resolution sooner rather than later.
Both candidates sought to reach out to the other tonight in their speeches. Appearing at a rally in Indiana, Clinton acknowledged the passions on both sides but insisted, "I think that says a lot about how excited and passionate our supporters are and how intent so many Americans are to really taking their country back. 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."
Speaking to supporters in North Carolina, Obama dismissed suggestions that the party will remain divided. "Yes, there have been bruised feelings on both sides," Obama said. "Yes, each side desperately wants their candidate to win. But ultimately, this race is not about Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or John McCain. This election is about you - the American people."
When those bruised feelings might begin to heal remains a question, however. Clinton needs less money to compete in upcoming contests like West Virginia and Kentucky. And she still has a battle to wage over the delegations and votes in Florida and Michigan, even if the inclusion of those states wouldn't make up enough ground to do her any good.
Clinton will be spending most of the day tomorrow huddled with strategists and talking with superdelegates, according to her campaign (although she did add a West Virginia town hall meeting this morning). Many of those discussions may revolve as much around the when and how this race might end, not whether it should at all.