Barack Obama scored an easy win in North Carolina on Tuesday to take a big step toward the Democratic presidential nomination, while Hillary Clinton scraped through a narrow victory in Indiana that keeps her faint White House hopes alive.
With a double-digit win over Clinton in North Carolina's nominating contest, Obama rebounded from a rough campaign stretch fueled by his comments on "bitter" small-town residents and a controversy over racially charged comments by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
With 95 percent of votes counted, the networks are projecting Hillary Clinton as the winner of the Indiana primary election. "Tonight we've come from behind. We've broken the tie and thanks to you, it's full speed on to the White House," Clinton told a rally in Indianapolis.
The New York senator, who would be the first woman U.S. president, needed a decisive win to counter Obama's growing lead and to answer critics who argue she has no chance of winning and should end her candidacy for the good of the party.
The two Democrats are embroiled in a grueling battle for the right to represent the party in November's presidential election against Republican John McCain.
"We have seen that it's possible to overcome the politics of division and distraction, that it's possible to overcome the same old negative attacks," Obama told cheering supporters in Raleigh, North Carolina. His speech took the tone of a candidate already fighting the general
Obama, a 46-year-old Illinois senator who would be the first black U.S. president, started his remarks by congratulating Clinton on "what appears to be a victory in the great state of Indiana." But hours after he spoke, the gap in Indiana narrowed dramatically to give him a chance of a win.
An upbeat Clinton told supporters in Indianapolis: "It's full speed on to the White House."
Clinton, a 60-year-old New York senator and former first lady who would be the country's first woman president, also asked for donations to keep alive her campaign, which has been heavily outspent by Obama.
Obama wins Big In North Carolina
In North Carolina, Obama beat Clinton by 56 percent to 42 percent of the vote, with 99 percent of precincts reporting, according to MSNBC.
The big victory moved him closer to the 2,025 delegates needed to clinch the nomination at the party's August convention.
The result was a heavy blow to Clinton's efforts to overtake Obama in either delegates or popular votes won during the state-by-state nominating contests that began in January.
Indiana and North Carolina, with a combined 187 delegates to the Democrats' convention at stake, were the biggest prizes left in the race. Only six contests remain with a combined 217 delegates at stake.
Obama has an almost unassailable lead in pledged delegates who will help select the Democratic nominee. An MSNBC count gave Obama 1,818 total delegates to Clinton's 1,683 with only a portion of delegates awarded from Tuesday's contests.
Delegates are allocated on a proportional, rather than a winner-take-all basis, meaning the close finish in Indiana and Obama's big margin in North Carolina will expand his lead in the count.
"We're nearing the finish line," Obama's chief strategist David Axelrod told reporters. "I think we've taken another big step down the road here to ending this contest and beginning the general election campaign."
Neither candidate will win enough delegates to clinch the race before the state-by-state voting ends on June 3, leaving the decision to nearly 800 superdelegates -- party insiders free to back any candidate.
Clinton's campaign said the race was far from over.
"They've been trying to wrap up this nomination over the will of the voters for a long time, and it hasn't worked," said Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee. "There's a funny thing about democracy. Voters like to have a say."
Exit polls showed the faltering U.S. economy, which has increasingly preoccupied voters around the country, was the top issue for two-thirds of Indiana voters and about 6 of every 10 voters in North Carolina.
In the last week, the two Democrats had courted working- and middle-class voters suffering from an ailing economy and high gas prices and battled over Clinton's proposal to lift the federal gasoline tax for the summer.
Voter turnout was high in both states, as it has been throughout the Democratic race -- a reflection of the interest and enthusiasm the duel between Obama and Clinton has generated among Democrats.
But Democrats have also worried that the party will be too divided by the bruising battle to beat McCain in November. "This fall, we intend to march forward as one Democratic Party, united by a common vision for this country," Obama said.