By Celeste Katz and David Saltonstall
Daily News Staff Writers Hillary Clinton blew her last, best chance to turn in a game-changing primary win Tuesday night, as Barack Obama rolled to a landslide in North Carolina while Clinton barely edged him in Indiana.
In North Carolina, there was no suspense. Obama cruised to a 56%-to-42% win with 99% of precincts counted.
But even with the split of the two primaries, the numerical advantage was going decisively to Obama. North Carolina has more delegates than Indiana (115 to 72), so his win in the Tar Heel State will grow his current delegate lead, and his advantage in bragging rights for the popular vote swelled by some 165,000 votes Tuesday night.
For Clinton, it was hard to find a silver lining. Having once called North Carolina a potential "game-changer," she got buried there.
And the slim victory in Indiana was unlikely to convince superdelegates, donors or others that she is more electable than Obama.
But Clinton depicted the Indiana result as enough of a reason to hang on for the final month of primaries, though she may face increasing pressure to bow out.
The results added an air of confidence to Obama as he took the stage at a rally in North Carolina, where Clinton had campaigned hard while her foe was staggered by a controversy over his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
"We have seen that it is possible to overcome the politics of division and the politics of distraction," said Obama. He then pivoted into an appeal for party unity as if he were already the nominee.
But he was likely to begin today about 200 delegates short of the 2,024 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. Clinton wasn't talking about throwing in the towel.
Even when the race in Indiana was still too close for most of the networks to call, Clinton put on her game face and declared victory on her own - while also making a plea for online donations.
The Democrats' marathon has left serious divisions in the party itself, if exit polls in Indiana and North Carolina are any reflection.
Voters in both states were split down the middle on whether Wright factored into their choice.
But the racial divide was clear - Obama took more than 91% of the black vote in both states, while Clinton won an estimated 60% of whites.
Most experts still believe the contest will come down to the party's undecided superdelegates - the 270 or so party leaders who have yet to back a candidate but could push either over the top.
For the former First Lady, the stakes could not have been higher in Indiana and North Carolina. She began the day needing to win the remaining contests by margins averaging around 70% to 30% - plus most of the superdelegates - to overtake Obama in delegates. Tuesday night's results make her challenge even more daunting.
With Obama getting closer to the 2,024 delegate votes needed to win, Clinton also opened a new front, arguing that the goalposts should be moved to 2,208 votes - with now-disqualified Michigan and Florida counted.
Democratic leaders have refused to count results in those two states after both scheduled primaries ahead of the Democratic National Committee's Feb. 5 deadline. Clinton won both contests, but Obama's name wasn't even on the ballot in Michigan.
"I am running to be the President of all of America - North, South, East and West," she said Tuesday night. "That's why it is so important that we count the votes of Florida and Michigan."