WASHINGTON - On the rebound, Barack Obama left Hillary Rodham Clinton with fast-dwindling chances to deny him the Democratic presidential nomination after beating her in North Carolina and falling just short in an Indiana cliffhanger.
Obama was on track to climb within 200 delegates of attaining the prize, his campaign finally steadying after missteps fiercely exploited by the never-say-die Clinton.
His campaign dropped broad hints it was time for the 270 remaining unaligned party figures known as superdelegates to get off the fence and settle the nomination.
It was in that arena — even more than in the scattered primaries left — that the Democratic hyperdrama was bound to play out.
"You know, there are those who were saying that North Carolina would be a game-changer in this election," Obama told a roaring crowd in Raleigh, N.C., on Tuesday night, referring to Clinton's hope that an upset there would recast the race in her favor.
"But today what North Carolina decided is that the only game that needs changing is the one in Washington, D.C."
Clinton vowed to compete tenaciously for West Virginia next week and Kentucky and Oregon after that, and to press "full speed on to the White House."
But she risked running on fumes without an infusion of cash, and made a direct fundraising pitch from the stage in Indianapolis. "I need your help to continue our journey," she said.
And she pledged anew that she would support the Democratic nominee "no matter what happens," a vow also made by her competitor.
Polarizing, protracted and often bitter, the contest is hardening divisions in the party, according to exit polls from the two states.
A solid majority of each candidate's supporters said they would not be satisfied if the other candidate wins the nomination.
Fully one-third of Clinton's supporters in Indiana and North Carolina went beyond mere dissatisfaction to say they would vote for Republican John McCain instead of Obama if that's the choice in the fall.
Obama scored a convincing victory of about 14 points in North Carolina, where he'd been favored. Clinton squeezed out a narrow margin in Indiana after a long night of counting.
Racial divisions were stark.
In both states, Clinton won six in 10 white votes while Obama got nine in 10 black votes, exit polls indicated.
It was a slightly better performance than usual by Clinton among whites, while Obama's backing from blacks was one of his highest winning percentages yet with that group.
Against the backdrop of disunity, pressure is certain to intensify on the superdelegates to declare themselves and lasso Democrats together for the fall campaign against McCain. They are not bound by results in primaries or caucuses.
"There is an eagerness in the party to get this done and move on," said David Axelrod, chief Obama strategist. "There is no question that we can see the finish line."
David Lutz, 53, of Trinity, N.C., who lives on his Army pension and flea market sales, paid tribute to Obama's resilience in explaining why he switched from supporting Clinton in the final days.
"I finally got swayed Obama's way," he said. "He's like a magician — he pulled a lot of good tricks out of his hat."
A look at the night's numbers:
_Obama won at least 69 delegates and Clinton at least 63 in the two states combined, with 55 still to be divided between the two candidates.
_Obama's delegate total reached 1815.5 to 1,672 for Clinton in The Associated Press count, out of 2,025 needed to win the nomination.
_Obama won North Carolina 56-42, with returns from 99 percent of precincts.
_Clinton won Indiana 51-49, with returns from 99 percent of precincts.
And the races still ahead:
_28 delegates at stake in West Virginia in a week.
_103 delegates up for grabs a week later in Kentucky and Oregon.
_55 in Puerto Rico on June 1.
_31 in Montana and South Dakota on June 3.
On Tuesday, Clinton fell short of the Indiana blowout and the North Carolina upset that might have jarred superdelegates into her camp in a big way.
They have continued trickling toward Obama despite the fallout over his former pastor's racially divisive remarks and Clinton's win in Pennsylvania two weeks ago.
Obama sounded increasingly focused on the fall campaign.
"This primary season may not be over, but when it is, we will have to remember who we are as Democrats ... because we all agree that at this defining moment in history — a moment when we're facing two wars, an economy in turmoil, a planet in peril — we can't afford to give John McCain the chance to serve out George Bush's third term," he said.
Clinton was joined at her rally by her husband Bill, his face sunburned after campaigning in small-town North Carolina, and their daughter, Chelsea.
The New York senator stressed the issue that came to dominate the final days of the primaries in both states, her call for a summertime suspension of the federal gasoline tax. "I think it's time to give Americans a break this summer," she said.
Obama opposes the tax suspension, calling it a gimmick.
The impact of a long-running controversy over the Illinois senator's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was difficult to measure.
In North Carolina, six in 10 voters who said Wright's remarks affected their votes sided with Clinton. A somewhat larger percentage of voters who said the pastor's remarks did not matter supported Obama.
Obama and Clinton both planned to campaign in the next primary states starting Thursday, after a day in Washington. Obama headed to Chicago after his Raleigh speech before coming to the capital.