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Primary Results Reflect Pattern of Presidential Race

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

A single day's primaries reflect the pattern of the Democratic campaign for president. Hillary Clinton won a tough state. She described it as another step toward the White House. Yet by the end of the night, Barack Obama was just a little further ahead. Clinton won Indiana by just two percentage points. Obama won North Carolina by 14.

And the superdelegates who will finally decide this close nomination were watching. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: Hillary Clinton had hoped to win Indiana by a big enough margin and lose North Carolina by a small enough one to narrow Obama's lead in delegates or in the popular vote. But neither happened last night. Obama's big win North Carolina overshadowed Clinton's squeaker of a victory in Indiana.

It was Obama's first primary victory in two months, and a huge relief for the Obama campaign - a sign that he was able to overcome, at least for now, the damage caused by the incendiary comments of his former pastor. He began his victory speech in North Carolina by reminding Clinton that she had once hoped to derail his momentum by winning this state.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): You know, there are those who were saying that North Carolina would be a game changer in this election.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Sen. OBAMA: But today, what North Carolina decided is that the only game that needs changing is the one in Washington, D.C.

(Soundbite of cheering, applause)

LIASSON: Obama's win added to his lead in delegates and popular votes. And because there are only 217 pledged delegates available in the remaining six contests, it makes it very difficult for Clinton to catch up. That's a point the Obama campaign has been making relentlessly, and it's one he drove home again last night.

Sen. OBAMA: Tonight, we stand less than 200 delegates away from securing the Democratic nomination for president of the United States.

LIASSON: Obama pivoted quickly to the fight he's confident he will be waging in the fall, a fight against John McCain - who, Obama said, plans to use the same old Republican playbook against him.

Sen. OBAMA: Yes, we know what's coming. I'm not naive. We've already seen it. The same names and labels they always pin on everyone who doesn't agree with all their ideas, the same efforts to distract us from the issues that affect our lives, by pouncing on every gas and association and fake controversy in the hopes that the media will play along.

LIASSON: Hillary Clinton was in Indiana, where she reminded her supporters that Obama had once predicted that Indiana would be the tiebreaker.

(Soundbite of applause)

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Democratic Presidential Candidate): Tonight, we've come from behind. We've broken the tie. And thanks to you, it's full speed on to the White House.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: Clinton's comments to continue fighting - and she is favored in at least three of the remaining six primaries: West Virginia, Kentucky and Puerto Rico - but it will be harder for her to raise the money to continue. Last night, some of her remarks sounded conciliatory, almost as if she was beginning to contemplate the possibility of losing the nomination.

She congratulated Obama and said they were both on the same journey.

Sen. CLINTON: I can assure you, as I have said on many occasion, that no matter what happens, I will work for the nominee of the Democratic Party because we must win in November.

(Soundbite of cheering, applause)

Unidentified Group: Yes we will. Yes we will.

Sen. CLINTON: And I know that Senator Obama feels the same way.

LIASSON: Clinton had hoped a strong showing last night would encourage the remaining undecided superdelegates to at least stay neutral. But after last night, the steady trickle of superdelegates to Obama will probably accelerate, with some ready to endorse him today.

Last night, Obama increased his lead in both pledged delegates and popular votes. Democratic strategist Tab Devine, an uncommitted superdelegate himself, says Clinton now has to consider her options.

Mr. TAB DEVINE (Democratic Strategist; Superdelegate): They have to make a decision: Do they want to stay in this thing until the voting is over? Or do they wan to look at the numbers right now and conclude that she simply can't get to the nomination? I suspect that they're going to want to stay and fight and probably wait till the end when the voting is over. It's just a question of what is the tone and tenor of the campaign between now and then.

LIASSON: The Clinton campaign already has a new argument. It now says that instead of 2,025 delegates, the Democratic winner needs 2,209, which would include the Michigan and Florida delegations. Those states were stripped of their delegates when they violated Democratic Party rules and held their primaries too early. The party's rules and bylaws committee meets at the end of this month to try to resolve the issue.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. 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.

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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