By BETH FOUHY
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - Hillary Rodham Clinton needed a game changer. Instead, it's almost game over.
Barack Obama won a resounding victory in North Carolina after the worst two-week stretch in his campaign. And Clinton, fueled by a burst of energy from her convincing win in Pennsylvania last month, barely eked out a win in Indiana despite her full-throated populist appeal in that largely blue-collar state.
There are six primaries left in the Democrats' epic battle for the nomination, but Tuesday's results were decisive on their own: They offered Clinton her last, best chance to turn the tables on her rival, and she didn't even come close.
"It's bad news for Hillary Clinton, but frankly I think the game changed a long time ago," said unaligned Democratic strategist Garry South. "Barack Obama has outraised her substantially, he's won more states, more pledged delegates, and is ahead in the popular vote. It's obvious he's outperformed her."
Indeed, Obama managed to outpace Clinton through a period that tested his mettle and political skills more than any other in the 15-month campaign. In a stretch that pitted Clinton's gritty determination against Obama's calm fortitude, the Illinois senator prevailed.
To be sure, Obama is still struggling to win some demographic groups, notably blue-collar white voters, who are a key component of the Democratic base.
Among whites without college degrees, Clinton outdid Obama by 64 percent to 35 percent in Indiana, and 71 percent to 26 percent in North Carolina. The New York senator and her surrogates have trumpeted that advantage, hoping to persuade the so-called superdelegates likely to decide the race will that she would be the stronger Democratic candidate in the general election.
Seeking to broaden her advantage with that group, Clinton fashioned herself as the champion of the working class, railing against Wall Street "money brokers" and promoting a summer federal gas tax holiday widely panned by economists and many Democrats.
Obama denounced Clinton's gas tax proposal as an unabashed pander. Clinton aides were giddy, feeling that they had drawn Obama into an argument over the economy, which has long been viewed as her strong suit.
Obama was also forced to contend with the re-emergence of his controversial former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who made incendiary statements at a Washington press conference last week. Among other things, he suggested the U.S. government may have developed the AIDS virus to infect the black community and had invited the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Exit polls showed the Wright imbroglio did influence about half the voters in both states as they weighed which candidate to choose.
Yet none of that shook the fundamentals of the race, as the results Tuesday demonstrated. Obama remains ahead of Clinton in every measure, and the final jury - superdelegates - have been trending his way, even as he charted rough seas. His strong showing in North Carolina and Indiana will undoubtedly speed up that pace.
Clinton, meanwhile, is low on cash and her anemic performance Tuesday means she may not be able to rely on a surge in Internet fundraising that she saw after winning primaries in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas. She will meet with superdelegates Wednesday and attend an evening fundraiser in Washington - both key tests of her chances going forward.
She also continues to be dogged by an "honest gap" - hardly a strong suit in making the case to superdelegates that she is the more electable candidate. Exit polls in North Carolina found just 49 percent of voters believe Clinton is honest and trustworthy, compared to 71 percent for Obama. In Indiana, 54 percent said Clinton is honest, while 66 percent said Obama is.
Her aides insist she will press anew for a resolution to the disputed contests in Michigan and Florida, both of which she won, but whose results were voided because the primaries were moved in violation of Democratic Party rules.
Anticipating those efforts, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe sent a memo to superdelegates reminding them of the math. He said Clinton would need to win 68 percent of the remaining delegates to win the nomination - an extremely unlikely scenario, made harder by her poor performance Tuesday.
"With the Clinton path to the nomination getting even narrower, we expect new and wildly creative scenarios to emerge in the coming days. While those scenarios may be entertaining, the are not legitimate and will not be considered legitimate by this campaign or millions of supporters, volunteers and donors."
At least one undecided superdelegate saw Clinton nearing the end of her game as well.
"Senator Clinton did not get out of the night what she needed," said North Carolina Rep. Brad Miller. "To use a basketball analogy, she traded baskets. And she needed to do much better than that this late in the contest with her down 150 or 160 pledged delegates."
Editor's note: Beth Fouhy covers presidential politics for The Associated Press. Associated Press Writer Nedra Pickler contributed to this story.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)