Hillary Clinton, who for seven weeks has crawled, kicked and bitten her way back into contention, suffered a blow on Tuesday, halting the momentum behind her bid for the nomination just when she had begun to regain credibility.
In the universe of political clichés, she is on life support, her oxygen choked off, her knees buckling, unable to stanch the bleeding, down for an eight count, on the ropes, praying for the bell to ring, desperate to get her wind back.
The results yesterday were a split decision, with Obama winning big in North Carolina and Clinton apparently carrying Indiana by a few percentage points. Clinton was widely viewed as needing a double-digit win in Indiana, and either a close loss or actual victory in North Carolina.
In North Carolina, she suffered a crushing, 15-point-plus defeat at the hands of Barack Obama with 115 convention delegates at stake. He won black voters, who are roughly a third of the state's Democratic primary electorate, by a 91-7 margin. White voters, who make up just over 60 percent of the state's Democratic voters, backed Clinton 61-37.
In Indiana, Clinton appeared headed for a more modest 2 point or less victory. There, she won 60-40 among white voters, who made up 80 percent of the turnout, while losing black voters 8-92.
Clinton's success among white voters is very likely to continue to raise questions concerning Obama's viability among whites, who play a larger role in general elections than in Democratic primaries.
For Hillary, the outcome in Tuesday's primaries was particularly painful, coming after an extraordinary revival of her campaign with solid victories in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
"After the Reverend Wright controversy, Hillary Clinton had the nomination in her hands. Obama was suffering the worst press month of his campaign," said Republican media consultant Alex Castellanos. "Then she had a choice. She could have gotten bigger, more presidential, less political, could have risen to defend Obama. 'This is outrageous and has no place in politics.' She didn't do that. Instead, she chose to become smaller, more political, less presidential. Her own political instincts betrayed her."
The demographic patterns on Tuesday suggest an intensification of racially polarized voting.
In the March 4 Texas primary, Clinton won whites (46 percent of the total), by 55-44; she won Latinos (32 percent of the total) by 66-32, while Obama carried blacks by 84-16.
In Ohio, also on March 4, white Democrats (76 percent of the primary turnout) backed Hillary 64-34, while blacks (18 percent of primary voters) supported Obama 87-13.
Seven weeks later, in the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, white Democrats (80 percent of primary turnout) voted 63-37 for Clinton while blacks (15 percent of the total) votes 90-10 for Obama.
"It looks like a big win for Obama in North Carolina and a narrow win for Clinton in Indiana," said Emory political scientist Alan Abramowitz as the first exit polls were released. "That's not good for Hillary. She needed a breakthrough -- a big win in Indiana and a win or a narrow loss in North Carolina. It looks like she's not going to get either. Obama will add to his delegate lead."
It is unlikely, however, that Clinton will give up at this stage.
"I can tell you right now [what the Clinton people will argue]. The battle goes on, a fight to the death, one delegate at a time, never say die, millions of Democratic voters yet to be heard, white working class people will vote for McCain instead of 'him,' blah, blah, blah," declared Lawrence F. O'Brien, Democratic lobbyist, donor, and the son and namesake of the Democratic National Committee chair in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Open Left's Chris Bowers wrote: "Given that Obama was already ahead... and that there are now very few states remaining, that is a very good night for him....it is just what he needed to help turn around the media narrative."
Clinton has demonstrated an extraordinary will to win, and a refusal to quit when she was losing primary after caucus after primary. Her campaign is now arguably at the stage where it is dependent on miracles -- like the surfacing of a new, and worse, Jeremiah Wright controversy or a Chicago scandal implicating Obama.
Norman Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, contended, in effect, that it's all over but the shouting:
"I have long viewed this in a simple way: two things matter, delegates and popular votes. If Obama wins both, he cannot be denied the nomination. If these numbers [early returns] hold up, he will erase her gains in Pennsylvania and have a near-insurmountable popular vote lead. That will do it, and I expect a stream of superdelegates to move to him in the coming week-plus."
While it was clearly Obama's night, there were some small glimmers of hope for Clinton in the exit poll data.
In Indiana, she very narrowly beat Obama (51-49) among men, held her own (56-44) with working and lower middle class voters without college degrees, and won among the one in five white, self-described "independents" -- often an Obama constituency -- by a slim, 52-48 margin.
In addition, the 67 percent of Indiana voters primarily concerned with the economy now completely eclipse the 18 percent who give top priory to the Iraq war. Hillary wins the economy voters by 53-47, while Obama carries the Iraq-priority voters by 54-46.
Conversely, the significance of Clinton's victory in Indiana was undermined by indications that a statistically significant number of Republicans, perhaps as many as 7 percent of all the votes cast, were following the suggestion of conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh to cast ballots for her in the Democratic primary.
Further elaboration can be found in the analysis of my colleague Sam Stein. Just over one in ten Indiana Democratic primary voters was a Republican, a constituency that has backed Obama on other contests, but in Indiana Clinton won them 53-47, possibly as a result of Limbaugh's exhortations.