WASHINGTON - Democratic front-runner Barack Obama easily captured North Carolina on Tuesday and narrowly lost to Hillary Clinton in Indiana, rebounding with a fresh burst after his roughest few weeks in the extraordinary U.S. race.
Obama beat Clinton by 14 points in the southern state, where a third of voters were black, giving him more delegates and pushing him closer to claiming the top prize. Clinton, who needed to win Indiana to survive, squeaked by with a two-point advantage in a contest that also fell along racial lines.
"Tonight we stand less than 200 delegates away from winning the Democratic nomination for president of the United States," a jubilant, confident Obama told a rally in Raleigh, N.C.
"There were those who said North Carolina would be a game-changer, but today what North Carolina decided is that the only game that needs changing is in Washington D.C."
The results provided Obama with more ammunition to rally the Democratic party to his side.
But Clinton made it clear she's not giving up. She portrayed her showing in Indiana, bolstered by rural, white, lower-income voters, as a compelling reason to keep fighting
"Thanks to you, it's full speed to the White House," she told supporters in Indianapolis as she appealed for money to finance her campaign.
Obama took his North Carolina triumph as a sign he'd survived an anti-American racial outburst from his ex-pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright that rocked his campaign.
"It's possible to overcome the same old negative attacks that are always about scoring points and never about solving our problems," he said.
"I love this country too much to see this country distracted and divided at this point in its history. I know the promise of America."
He was also intently focused on the White House run in November against Republican John McCain
"We can't afford to give John McCain the chance to serve out George Bush's third term," said Obama.
When it comes to the math after four months of state contests, Obama's substantial lead in pledged delegates is nearly impossible for Clinton to overcome by the time voting ends June 3.
But she's hung in, hoping to convince a majority of nearly 800 Democratic officials and legislators who will decide the bruising battle that she alone can beat McCain by capturing key swing states and blue-collar workers.
She made another pitch Tuesday to have delegates counted from Florida and Michigan - two states she won that were shut out by the Democratic party because they held their primaries early.
"I am running to be president of all America - north, south, east and west. That's why it's so important to count all the votes," she said.
Party officials are meeting May 31 to decide what to do about the issue.
Obama's biggest challenge has been wooing the white workers who've flocked to Clinton in recent contests, raising questions about his electability this fall.
His job got harder after Wright created a furor last week and put the spotlight on their close, 20-year relationship.
He has been winning among blacks, more affluent voters and young people, trends that continued Tuesday.
Most voters cited the economy as their top concern and they were divided evenly when asked whether the Wright controversy was a factor in their decisions.
Clinton's support among blacks in both states was down in the single digits, according to exit polls, while Obama was capturing more than 90 per cent.
She was carrying 60 per cent of whites in North Carolina and 61 per cent in Indiana.
Obama's chief strategist David Axelrod dismissed concerns about Obama's appeal among white Democrats, saying they will fall behind him as the official nominee.
The race goes to West Virgina next week, while Kentucky and Oregon vote May 20.
Puerto Rico is voting June 1, and Montana and South Dakota hold primaries two days later.
The primaries Tuesday presented the last best chance to scoop up delegates for the party's August convention and sway the so-called superdelegates before the remaining six smaller votes.
Until Tuesday, Obama hadn't actually won a big state since Wisconsin in mid-February.
Besides Wright, he faced damage over his own comments about "bitter" small-town residents and charges that he's an elitist who's out of touch with lower-income Americans.
His losses to Clinton in Ohio in March and Pennsylvania in April, created an opening for her argument that he can't capture a major voting bloc in the fall election.
"It's really a mixed bag," he said earlier Tuesday. "There've been some states where we have won the blue-collar vote. Wisconsin. We won it in Iowa. We won it in Minnesota."
"Then there are states where we've not done so well, mainly because people are much more familiar with Senator Clinton and President Clinton and their track record. You have to give them credit."
Both candidates were predicting the race would go at least through June 3.
Spiralling gas prices dominated campaigning in both states in the final days.
Clinton has proposed a gas-tax holiday over the summer, a plan ridiculed by Obama as ineffective and blatant pandering to voters.
Obama began the day with 1,745.5 delegates, to 1,608 for Clinton, out of 2,025 needed for the nomination, according to the Associated Press.
Indiana had 72 delegates at stake, while North Carolina had 115.
Neither candidate will reach the required number in the remaining contests, setting the stage for superdelegates to make the final determination.