Raleigh, N.C. — As my colleagues and I left the the North Carolina State University campus here last night, there was considerable discussion about the remarks Barack Obama had made to the overflow crowd in the cavernous Reynolds Coliseum moments before. For the first time any of us could recall, the discussion went, Obama spoke in patriotic terms, talking about his World War II-veteran grandfather who was buried with the American flag, and closing his remarks with a rare "God Bless America."
A number of us concluded that, fresh from his larger-than-ever-expected triumph in the North Carolina primary that day, Obama was reaching out and trying to look and sound "more presidential." It was clearly the sign of someone who felt like a winner and was behaving as though he was the Democratic nominee.
With his extraordinary (57%) showing in North Carolina and dramatic near-win (we await late returns from Gary as I write), Obama appeared poised to deliver the knock-out punch to Clinton and do what Democrats from National Chairman Howard Dean on down so desperately hope for — ring down the curtain on the protracted Democratic "trench warfare."
Had the returns tonight turned out the way almost all of the political analysts I talked to felt they would (a relatively easy Clinton win in Indiana, a narrow Obama win in North Carolina), the "superdelegates" who still remain neutral would have been given an extension of that neutrality. As it happened, pressure will now be immense on the "superdelegates" who refuse to commit to come out for Obama.
In addition, party elders who have kept quiet about their choice of Obama or Clinton are very likely to go public with endorsements of the Illinoisan and calls for Clinton to pack it in. Watch for former Vice President Al Gore and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to shortly endorse Obama and calling on Clinton to go quietly.
But for now, the so-called "experts" are still reeling from predictions gone awry. Less than three hours before the polls closed, former Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer said that Obama had been in "free fall in the polls here since Rev. Wright resurfaced," that this had led to a "rapid descent among white voters supporting Obama," and he predicted an unimpressive 53% to 47% win for the Illinois senator.
Obama, of course, swept North Carolina with a handsome 58% of the vote. In a state where African-Americans comprise more than 30% of the vote, record turnouts occurred in Raleigh-Durham, Winston-Salem, and other urban centers with strong concentrations of black voters. Obama also scored heavily among college-educated voters and first-time voters, ("First-timers," a Fox News survey showed,(comprise 21% of the primary turnout in North Carolina and Indiana; Obama won the "first timers" by a margin of 59% to 41%).
As dramatic and unexpected Obama’s North Carolina triumph was, the nail-biter in Indiana was even more unanticipated. In fact, the first hotly contested Democratic presidential primary in the Hoosier State since Robert Kennedy’s dramatic win in 1968 caught much of the world of punditry off guard. Again, a major black turnout in Marion County (Indianapolis) and Lake County (Gary) boosted him and an influx of new voters. Veteran GOP consultant Chris Faulkner e-mailed me to observe that in his home of St. Joseph, which turned out 46,000 votes in the general election in ’06, "the primary turnout was 63,000." (Again, the results from the Hoosier State were unexpected; during a dinner in Indianapolis the night before the balloting, both Faulkner and former State House Speaker Brian Bosma both predicted a Clinton win by a fairly decisive margin; another dinner companion, former state GOP executive director and former state representative Luke Messer, predicted "Obama’s on the verge of a big upset. You watch."
We did. Hillary Clinton did eke out a Hoosier win at the last moment of the vote-counting. She can make a case for continuing her campaign in states such as West Virginia where polls show her ahead comfortably. But as Obama moves closer to nomination and she keeps insisting she is in the race to stay, Hillary Clinton is going to have to wake up some mornings and ask herself "Why?"