At least for one more day the titanic and seemingly interminable Democratic primary continues, and only one person in America can bring it to an end: Hillary Clinton.
Barack Obama coupled a solid, double-digit win in North Carolina with a narrow defeat in Indiana to stall the momentum Hillary Clinton showed in the 11 weeks since Obama's last significant win. "We now know who the Democratic nominee is going to be," NBC's Tim Russert declared shortly after midnight, as the late numbers trickling in from Gary-based Lake County in the northwestern corner of Indiana reduced Clinton's victory margin in the Hoosier State to around 20,000 votes. It is a testament to how much the complex mix of expectations, performance, and spin figure in this contest that a proclamation by the dean of televised punditry matters more than the potential endorsements of the nearly 300 undeclared Democratic superdelegates.
The crucial question is whether Russert's "we" includes the New York senator and her top campaign advisers. Does Hillary Clinton know who the Democratic nominee is going to be?
Depending on the answer, her campaign moves next toward one of two possible scenarios.
The Hillary Clinton of Scenario 1 will, at some point during the next 72 hours, recognize and accept that, despite a truly impressive run since Obama's Feb. 19 victory in Wisconsin, she cannot possibly climb out of the delegate hole she dug for herself early on. This Clinton spoke to supporters in Indianapolis last night using language that hinted the beginning of the end was near.
"So this journey that we're on together is one that has been a blessing for me, because I know what this country has meant to me and I know what it still means to all of you," she said. "It is now our responsibility to ensure that it will always mean the same for our children and our grandchildren. I will never give up on you and on your families and on your dreams and on your future."
This Clinton also realizes there are now fewer total pledged delegates left to capture in the remaining five states and Puerto Rico than there are uncommitted superdelegates left to persuade. She knows her once triple-digit lead among those superdelegates has fallen into the teens and could slip into single-digits by week's end.
With just those six contests left to go, for this Clinton the math is now practically impossible -- even with Michigan-Florida scenarios, a crush of support from late-deciding superdelegates, and likely wins in the upcoming Kentucky and West Virginia primaries.
But the Hillary Clinton of Scenario 2 also made an appearance onstage in Indianapolis last night, opening her speech with the sort of tough, odds-be-damned defiance that has been the hallmark of her campaign in recent weeks.
"Not too long ago, my opponent made a prediction. He said I would probably win Pennsylvania. He would win North Carolina, and Indiana would be the tie-breaker," said that Clinton. "Well, tonight we've come from behind, we've broken the tie, and thanks to you, it's full speed on to the White House."
That Clinton still believes -- and you can tell, she's quite firm in this belief -- that she is better equipped to serve in the White House and more capable of building a coalition that can defeat John McCain to get her there. That Clinton has buoyed herself during the past two months by courting working-class white voters with kitchen-table issues, while benefiting from Obama's ongoing struggles to separate himself from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
That Hillary Clinton went on to promise last night that she would not only win Kentucky and West Virginia later this month but also in November as the Democratic nominee. (According to an e-mail sent just after 11 p.m. last night, though today her schedule is cleared except for a fundraiser, Clinton has not cancelled campaign stops planned late this week in West Virginia, South Dakota, and Oregon.) That Hillary seems intent on taking her case all the way to this summer's national convention in Denver.
Tuesday, however, turned out to be a disappointment for Clinton, under any scenario.
The Democratic double-header began with the expectation that Clinton would win Indiana, narrowly but perhaps comfortably, and Obama would prevail in North Carolina, narrowly but perhaps comfortably. The split results would inevitably and mercilessly punt the decision along for another month until Montana and South Dakota bring the calendar to a close on June 3.
But, though the results technically split, the margins tilted toward Obama. And the results helped answer a variety of new questions dogging his campaign, including whether he could recover from the damage the Wright episodes created, his ability to post a significant (i.e., non-Vermont victory) on the scoreboard, whether he could stay competitive enough among working-class white voters and, overall, whether he and his campaign could steady the ship. His decisive, 15-point win in the Tar Heel State accomplished all of that: His 230,000-plus net popular vote margin and estimated 20-delegate haul neutralized Clinton's gains from Pennsylvania two weeks ago and Indiana yesterday, combined.
"There were those who were saying that North Carolina would be a game changer in this election," said Obama, returning the serve in the make-your-opponent-eat-their-words battle. "But today, what North Carolina decided is that the only game that needs changing is the one in Washington, D.C."
Thus far in this precedent-setting, ceiling-busting primary battle, tens of millions of votes have been cast, hundreds of millions of dollars donated to the two campaigns, and more than 3,000 delegates and superdelegates have been won or persuaded. Now the contest comes down to the decision of one superdelegate, Hillary Clinton.
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