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Ind., N.C. Primaries Will Help Define Democrat Battle

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

It is primary day in Indiana and North Carolina. What happens in the two states will help define an unpredictable contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, or it may not. The 16-month battle between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton has seen constant shifts in momentum. Although since late February, Obama has remained ahead in the popular vote and the delegate count. In today's contest, 187 pledged delegates are at stake - 115 in North Carolina and 72 in Indiana.

NPR's Mara Liasson joins us to talk about what we might expect today and beyond. And Mara, first of all, let's talk about where senators Obama and Clinton stand right now as far as the delegate race is concerned.

MARA LIASSON: Well, Obama has 1,745 delegates, Hillary Clinton has 1,608 delegates, so he's ahead of her by a 133. In the superdelegate count, which is counted in those total numbers, she has only 25 more superdelegates than he does.

BLOCK: Now, the strategies that both candidates have been using in North Carolina and Indiana, trying to get out to vote today. Do they differ? How are they similar?

LIASSON: Yes. Well, they have very different goals. Obama's goal really was to right himself after this very damaging two months. He needed to make inroads with white working class voters, even before the Reverend Wright controversy and his comments about bitter voters who cling to guns and religion. They just made his job that much harder. So he has really ditched the big rallies, tried to show he can relate to these voters by meeting with them in more intimate settings and smaller groups. And don't forget, Indiana was a state that, his campaign thought, that he would win. North Carolina was a state they though they would win very easily, but he's had to fight very, very hard in both.

For Senator Clinton, she's been zeroing in on these same white working class voters. She's become a full-throated populist, a real fighter for the working class. She's been autographing boxing gloves and challenging Obama to debate her on the back of a flat-bed truck. And her strategy has also featured Bill Clinton. And he has been confining his travels to these small rural towns where these voters can be found in both Indiana and North Carolina. You might call them the Bubba vote. No one can relate to those voters better than he can. And actually of all the candidates and surrogates, he comes by his small town white rural voter bona fides honestly.

NORRIS: Now, in the past couple of weeks there has been one issue that has risen to the surface, and that is the idea of a summer moratorium on gasoline taxes. Senator Clinton supports this, Barack Obama opposes it. How is that playing out in these two states voting today?

LIASSON: Well, the first thing to say, it's amazing that we actually have an issue. This is the first time they've had an actual policy difference in months and months. Senator Clinton has used this issue to show her populist roots and her proclivities. There's not a single economist or policy expert who says this would actually bring down the price of gas at the pump, but she says I don't want to throw my lot in with economists. This is someone who used to be very proud of her reliance on experts and derided George W. Bush for not paying attention to them.

For Obama's side, it's giving him a chance to go back to his roots as someone who wants to practice a different kind of politics. He calls this a political gimmick, and it's been a great change of conversation from Reverend Wright.

NORRIS: If you look at what happened in the last primary contest in Pennsylvania, Hillary Clinton won that state by nearly 10 points. But since then Barack Obama has been picking up more superdelegates. So what does that tell us about where this race is headed?

LIASSON: Well, Pennsylvania didn't change the dynamic of the race, which is now all about the 278 or so remaining undecided superdelegates. And believe it or not, they are the biggest pool of delegates left. After today, all the remaining contests only offer 217 pledged delegates.

So the fact is that her strategy has really been to try to convince these superdelegates to stay neutral, but she hasn't been able to do that. The steady net trickle of superdelegates has continued to Obama. He even got a very high profile defection last week. Joe Andrew from Indiana, who was a former DNC chair who had endorsed Hillary Clinton, switched.

NORRIS: And Mara, how many states still to go before this is all over?

LIASSON: Well, a lot depends on what happens tonight. If one of them can win both contests, it's a very big deal. If he wins both, I think she'll be under a lot of pressure to drop out. If she wins both, his hold on the nomination is really called into question.

Otherwise, if they split the contest tonight, we've got six remaining primaries. Three look very good for her - West Virginia, Kentucky and Puerto Rico; three look very good for him - Montana, South Dakota and Oregon. Where does that leave us? That means that the superdelegates probably will have to do what they don't want to do, which is decide this nomination before the end of August.

And one more thing: at the end of May the rules and bylaws committee will meet to discuss the fate of Michigan and Florida's delegation.

NORRIS: Big undecided states of Michigan and Florida. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: NPR's Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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