EVANSVILLE, Ind. - Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton once again faced off in crucial primaries as voters in Indiana and North Carolina crowded polls Tuesday seeking to settle the largest remaining contests in an epic Democratic presidential nomination struggle.
Obama was looking to shore up his position as the front-runner, while Clinton was seeking another victory to keep her candidacy competitive in a race that is likely to continue into June and perhaps to the Democratic National Convention in August.
Obama began the day by dropping in on the Four Seasons Family Restaurant in the Greenwood, Ind., a suburb of Indianapolis. He walked around shaking hands, then sat at the counter and had an omelette, chatting with patrons on either side.
"I feel good," Obama said when asked about the day's voting. "I think we've campaigned hard. I think it's going to be close. I'm seeing a lot of enthusiasm."
Clinton was more reticent.
"We're just, you know, looking to see what happens," Clinton told reporters on her campaign plane late Monday. "Obviously we hope to do as well as we can."
"We started out pretty far behind with some tough odds ... I never feel confident. I just try to do the best I can."
In Indiana, Marion County Clerk Beth White said many voters already were in line when polls opened at 6 a.m. Tuesday.
"We really do feel today is going to be a heavy voting day, and our inspectors are ready," said White, the clerk in Indiana's most populous county.
Even before the opening of polls at 6:30 a.m. in North Carolina, there were signs of record turnout. Nearly half a million people had already cast early and absentee ballots as of Monday - more than half the total number of voters who cast a ballot during the 2004 primary.
"I can't remember a primary that had this much excitement," said Gary Bartlett, director of the North Carolina Board of Elections.
Obama, who was flying later to North Carolina to await election results in Raleigh, visited a polling place Tuesday morning at Hinkle Field House on the campus of Butler University in Indianapolis, the site of part of the filming of the basketball movie "Hoosiers."
In Smithfield, N.C., voter Matthew Casey said he initially favoured Clinton, but decided a vote for Obama would help end their bruising primary and allow Democrats to start focusing on Senator John McCain, the certain Republican nominee.
"We've got to end the war - it's killing the economy," said Casey, 47, a healing arts practitioner.
Jim Ellis, 73, a retired architect from Raleigh, N.C., cast his ballot for Clinton.
"I came here not to vote for somebody, but to vote against somebody. I don't think he's qualified and when the cream comes to the surface ... if he's elected president I think he's going to be a disappointment," he said.
Dual victories by Obama would all but knock Clinton out of the race. Polls, however, have found a small edge for the New York senator in Indiana. Obama remains the favourite in North Carolina, though his lead has shrunk.
Altogether, 187 delegates are at stake in the two states, nearly half the pledged delegates left with eight primaries to go before voting ends in a month.
North Carolina and Indiana cannot mathematically settle the nomination. A candidate needs 2,025 delegates to win, and Obama had 1,745.5 to Clinton's 1,608 as the day began.
The key to the nomination is held by superdelegates, party leaders who aren't bound by the outcome of state contests. About 220 are still undecided.
Despite a rash of recent troubles and his loss to Clinton in the big Pennsylvania primary two weeks ago, Obama has continued to nibble away at Clinton's lead in superdelegates. He trailed with 255 to her 269.5 on Tuesday.
Clinton's main hope is to persuade most of the still-neutral superdelegates to disregard his lead in the delegate chase and support her instead. Her campaign also hopes to get a boost by getting delegates from Michigan and Florida seated.