Indiana too early to call, but Clinton is leading

Barack Obama’s huge victory in the North Carolina Democratic primary and narrow loss in Indiana on Tuesday cast new doubts on Hillary Clinton’s ability to capture the nomination with a dwindling number of contests remaining.

Obama trounced Clinton in North Carolina, and she won Indiana by a slim margin.

Anxious Hollywood donors and supporters of Hillary Clinton had looked to victories in the dual primaries as a chance to change the dynamic of the race, and convince superdelegates and party leaders that she is the more electable candidate, particularly as Obama struggled with the fallout from comments made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

But Obama’s double-digit victory in North Carolina and close encounter in Indiana makes her path to the nomination more of a long shot. Some pundits talked of the race as if it had ended, and started speculating on who Obama would pick as a running mate.

With just a few weeks left before the final contests in Montana and South Carolina on June 3, it is next to impossible for Clinton to overtake Obama in the pledged delegate count, and after his victory in North Carolina, there were doubts about whether she can prevail in the popular vote.

“Tonight we stand less than 200 delegates away from winning the Democratic nomination for president of the United States,” Obama told a crowd in Raleigh, N.C.

According to exit polls, Clinton still dominated white voters, older voters and women voters, and still held a majority of working class voters in Indiana, while Obama’s strengths were among young, new and well-educated voters. In North Carolina, he won voters making both over and under $50,000.

Even though there were votes still left to count, Clinton sought to cast her showing in Indiana as a better than expected win, as polls several weeks ago showed that Obama held a significant lead. She even cited Obama’s comment several weeks ago that the state “may be the tie breaker.”

“We’ve come from behind, we’ve broken the tie, and thanks to you, it is full speed, on to the White House,” Clinton told supporters in Indianapolis.

Yet, alluding to the difficulty of financing the rest of the contest, she added, “Once again, I need your help to continue our journey.”

Clinton is scheduled to return to Los Angeles to raise money at a $150-per-person fund-raiser in Century City on May 15, but it is ever more difficult to tap major donors with so many in the entertainment community barred by election law from giving any more to their favored candidates. She will have to depend in large part on Internet donations and convincing superdelegates that she still has a chance.

“It was a split night, but that helps him,” said political consultant Noah Mamet, who has been raising money for Clinton. “The clock is running down and there are fewer and fewer states every week. It gets harder for her tonight. I still think she can win but it will be difficult.”

Mamet noted that the map ahead favors Clinton in states such as West Virginia next week and Kentucky on May 20.

“It is harder to see how she could thread the needle, but she is the toughest fighter I have ever met in politics,” he said.

Obama’s showing on Tuesday gave donors a sigh of relief, after a frustrating week as the campaign dealt with the Wright story. According to exit polls, about half of voters in both states said that the Wright controversy was an important factor in their decisions, but that didn’t mean that they would vote against Obama, who worked throughout last week to contain the damage and distance himself from his former pastor.

Literary agent Mitch Kaplan, an Obama fund-raiser, said the results showed that the campaign has weathered the controversy.

“She’s spinning; he’s winning,” he said, “All she can do now is run for the Democratic nomination. He’s running for president of the United States.”

In their speeches on Tuesday, both candidates struck a more magnanimous tone, an indication that they will tamp down attacks in the coming weeks and focus on uniting the party and a polarized group of backers.

That is true in the entertainment industry, where Obama and Clinton have raised almost equal amounts. He has collected $3.2 million through the end of March to Hillary Clinton’s $3.1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. John McCain has collected $588,725 from industry sources.

Meanwhile, Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean is expected to host about 40 top donors and fund-raisers on May 14 at the Regency Club in Westwood, hoping to turn attention to the ultimate goal: defeating John McCain. The DNC has come under some criticism for not launching a campaign against the Republican nominee fast enough, hobbled not just by the attention paid to the protracted contest but by modest fund-raising.

As they had in previous primary contests, both campaigns deployed celebrity surrogates to Indiana and North Carolina, but they were more judicious in playing up their celebrity connections as the race focused on working class voters.

Stevie Wonder performed at an Obama rally in Indianapolis on Monday, while Rob Reiner, Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen and Sean Astin campaigned for Clinton. John Mellencamp, with the signature song “Small Town,” performed for Clinton on Saturday, but he is officially neutral in the race, having done the same for Obama at a rally in Indiana on the night of the Pennsylvania primary.

Other die-hard supporters of the candidates from politicking on their own. Elizabeth Taylor issued a press release on Friday, urging voters in those states to vote Hillary.

“It would be magnificent for our country if Senator Clinton won the votes, hearts and minds of the people in Indiana and North Carolina on Tuesday,” she said.

Tom Hanks posted a video message on his MySpace page, trumpeting Obama candidacy while at the same time striking a note of irony in that his testimonial was titled “Beware: Celebrity Endorsement.”

Obama “has the integrity and the inspiration to unify us, as did FDR and Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy and even Ronald Reagan when they ran for the job,” Hanks said.

Perhaps the most valuable endorsement came from a North Carolina native and sheriff of the fictitious town of Mayberry, Andy Griffith. He appeared in a commercial for Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, facing a Democratic gubernatorial primary challenge against state treasurer Richard Moore. Perdue won the race handily.

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