INDIANAPOLIS — Sen. Barack Obama and his team really wanted this long race to end on Tuesday night, but the split decision — a big win in North Carolina and a narrow loss in Indiana — leaves Sen. Hillary Clinton standing.
“On to West Virginia!” exclaimed the always exuberant Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe at Clinton’s election night headquarters here, referring to the upcoming May 13 vote.
The Clinton people were upbeat, though the math remained as stacked against Clinton on Tuesday as it did on Monday.
According to Obama campaign estimates, Clinton needs to capture 70 percent of the some 217 pledged delegates and 278 uncommitted superdelegates still on the table as she runs out of states. West Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Montana and South Dakota are left, with the last primary vote June 3.
The parallel inside campaign becomes more critical than the elections ahead. Obama and Clinton are competing for superdelegates — the party leaders and elected officials — and the May 31 Democratic National Committee credentials committee meeting looms to discuss seating the stripped Michigan and Florida delegates.
“The math is the math,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s senior strategist, from Raleigh, N.C. That state was suddenly transformed into a “big state” like California and New York by the Obama team, in order to counter Clinton’s claim Obama can’t land the big ones.
While Clinton spent the day in Indiana — visiting the Indianapolis Motor Speedway — Obama flew to North Carolina, certain of a victory there, drinking a PBR beer at the end of the day at a saloon there to shake the arugula rap on him. Obama struggled in Indiana, the first state adjacent to Illinois he apparently lost, even though he had a running start in the northwest part of the state, which relates more to the Chicago area than to the rest of the Hoosier state.
Clinton didn’t exactly get the game-changer she wanted and Indiana was not, as Obama put it, the potential tie-breaker. “Not tied anymore,” said Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Clinton’s biggest Hoosier booster.
This latest chapter in the 16-month Democratic primary saga — the North Carolina and Indiana contests — was different. The economy — more than Iraq — was the focus, with a debate over a gas tax holiday really about a larger issue of who could relate best to the working class white vote. And early voting was going on in both states as Obama was going through the toughest patch of his campaign, having last week denounced his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, highlighting the role that race plays in this historic contest between Clinton and Obama.
On that front, the exit polls from Indiana and North Carolina show more sharply the challenges that Obama faces should he become the Democratic presidential nominee.
More than 90 percent of the African-American vote in Indiana and North Carolina went to Obama. And despite drinking beer and playing pickup basketball, exit polls showed Obama’s demographic did not broaden. Obama had the younger, better educated, higher income voters. And there was Wright fallout. People who decided in the last week broke for Clinton.
“Tonight we’ve come from behind,” said Clinton. Not quite. She’s still behind.