JAE C. HONG / AP Enlarge
EVANSVILLE, Ind. - Like marathoners on their second wind, Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton raced for advantage until the final hours in the campaign for the Indiana and North Carolina primaries Tuesday.
Voters in both states are settling the largest remaining contests in a Democratic presidential nomination struggle that has dragged improbably into spring.
There was little if any expectation that the primaries would settle the big, messy picture. Both Clinton and Obama predicted they'd still be campaigning in June.
Clinton, at her scrappiest when her campaign is on the line which it has been for weeks brought a full-throated roar to a series of events in a day of frantic travel spilling into the wee hours Tuesday.
A wealthy inside-Washington veteran, the former first lady worked hard to make common cause with blue-collar voters crucial to Tuesday's outcome.
"I do see you, I do hear you," she told supporters in Merrillville, Ind., speaking outside the local fire station as a dozen firefighters looked down on her from the fire truck behind her.
She pressed her proposal for a federal gas tax holiday that Obama has dismissed as a gimmick, one of the few issues where the two Democrats clearly diverge.
"It's a stunt," the Illinois senator said in Evansville. "It's what Washington does."
Obama's stance was backed up by 230 economists who released a letter Monday opposing the temporary tax break, which would take 18.4 cents off the price of a gallon if consumers got the full savings at the pump. The signers included four Nobel Prize winners and economic advisers to presidents of both parties.
Clinton shrugged off the blistering reviews from policy makers, industry experts and editorial writers.
"I believe we should start standing up for the majority of Americans who are paying the outrageous gas prices," Clinton said. "I'm ready to take on the oil companies."
Obama hurtled from Indiana to North Carolina and back.
"I want your vote. I want it badly," he pleaded on a factory floor in Durham, N.C., one of many settings drawing the working-class voters he needs.
Obama capped his day with a rain-soaked, get-out-the-vote rally in Indianapolis featuring Motown legend Stevie Wonder, followed by a visit to a factory for the midnight shift change.
Standing at the gates outside the Auto Components Holding plant, partly owned by Ford, Obama shook hands one-by-one with employees as they left. "If I got your vote, it would mean a lot," Obama told them.
"We need all the help we can get here. They're trying to close us down," one worker told Obama.
The plant, once owned entirely by Ford, makes steering components. It employs 1,200 workers roughly half of them on the Ford payroll and is scheduled to be shut down at the end of 2010, said Jim Lewis, United Auto Workers president at the plant.
Addressing a group of employees, Obama said, "What you do here this represents the best in America." He said he recognized the situation with layoffs and plant closing and promised to be an advocate for workers if elected president. "We're not going to reverse it overnight," he added.
"I need everybody's help," Obama said. "This is going to be a close race."
At a late-night rally in Evansville, Clinton spoke to a sparse crowd that filled only half of a stuffy high school gymnasium. Nevertheless, she seemed just as animated as she had at her first stop of the day, and spent time after her event signing autographs, posing for pictures and shaking hands.
"Jobs, jobs, jobs," she stressed before the crowd waving Clinton campaign signs with union seals on them.
Clinton predicted a record turnout in Indiana and noted that this is the first time in 40 years that the state will have an impact on the presidential election.
"It's way past time," she said.
"What we need to do together is understand that this is not about me, this is about you," Clinton added. "Solution, not speeches. Results, not rhetoric."
Dual victories by Obama would all but knock Clinton out of the race. Polls, however, have found a small edge for the New York senator in Indiana. Obama remains the favorite in North Carolina, though his lead has shrunk.
Altogether, 187 delegates are at stake in the two states, nearly half the pledged delegates left with eight primaries to go before voting ends in a month.
North Carolina and Indiana cannot mathematically settle the nomination. A candidate needs 2,025 delegates to win, and Obama had 1,745.5 to Clinton's 1,608 Monday.
The key to the nomination is held by superdelegates, party leaders who aren't bound by the outcome of state contests. About 220 are still undecided.
Despite a rash of recent troubles and his loss to Clinton in the big Pennsylvania primary two weeks ago, Obama has continued to nibble away at Clinton's lead in superdelegates. He picked up two from Maryland on Monday, leaving him trailing Clinton 269-255.
Clinton's main hope is to persuade most of the still-neutral superdelegates to disregard his lead in the delegate chase and support her instead. Her campaign also hopes to get a boost by getting delegates from Michigan and Florida seated.
Obama easily outspent Clinton in both states while outside supporters threw big money into the contest, too.
The Service Employees International Union, which is backing Obama, spent about $1.1 million in the state, much of it on ads. The American Leadership Project, which has received most of its money from labor groups backing Clinton, spent more than $1 million on ads in Indiana that questioned Obama's economic policies.37.97691 -87.56413