barack_obama_2.jpgWASHINGTON (AP) _ Barack Obama was within striking distance of the Democratic presidential nomination this week after a decisive win in North Carolina and a near miss in Indiana battered Hillary Rodham Clinton's fading candidacy, upping pressure on superdelegates to decide the fierce and historic White House battle.

The two Democrats' prolonged contest appeared to be nearing its climax, with Obama, a 46-year-old first-term senator, now less than 200 delegates away from clinching the nomination.

The split decision Tuesday night cost her the last, best chance she had of winning the nomination, but Clinton jumped back into the race Wednesday, with her sights set on West Virginia next week, followed by Kentucky and Oregon.

Clinton backers appeared on early morning television programs to stress that she was still in the race and to urge superdelegates _ party officials free to vote as they chose _ not to flee to Obama.

She also issued a plea to supporters for more funds _ a call that was followed Wednesday morning by an announcement that she had again loaned herself money, this time a total of $6.4 million in the past month.

“This candidacy and this campaign continues on,'' Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson said Wednesday on CNN.

Her lackluster showing Tuesday could further damage her chances of raising more money, and the loan further reflected the financial problems she is facing in contrast to Obama and his fundraising prowess. Clinton had loaned herself $5 million earlier this year.

Clinton's indebted campaign reported raising $10 million online after her Pennsylvania victory on April 22. Evidently, the money was not enough and her fundraising was unable to keep up with her expenses heading into Tuesday's contests against a rival who has routinely outspent her.

An invigorated Obama, seeking to become the U.S.'s first black president, took the day off after declaring Tuesday’s strong showing afforded him a “clear path to the White House.'' His campaign dropped broad hints it was time for the 270 remaining unaligned superdelegates to take sides and settle the race.

“Tonight we stand less than 200 delegates away from securing the Democratic nomination for president of the United States,'' Obama told a raucous rally in Raleigh, North Carolina.

It was among the superdelegates _ even more than in the six remaining primaries _ that the Democratic drama was bound to play out, as the protracted rivalry has polarized Democratic voters and heightened disunity ahead of November's general election against presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.

Clinton, a former first lady with sights set on becoming the U.S.'s first female president, showed no public signs of easing her pace. Her campaign added a Wednesday appearance in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, to her schedule. On Thursday, she planned to campaign in West Virginia, South Dakota and Oregon.

Returns from 99 percent of North Carolina precincts showed Obama winning 56 percent of the vote to Clinton's 42 percent, mirroring his earlier victories in southern states with large black populations.

In Indiana, she eked out a win with a 2 percent margin, with 99 percent of the precincts there reporting. Separating them were more than 22,000 votes out of more than 1.2 million cast. The outcome there was not clear for more than six hours after the polls closed, the uncertainty stemming from slow counting in Lake County near Obama's home city of Chicago.

Obama won at least 94 delegates and Clinton at least 75 in the two states combined, with 18 still to be divided between the two candidates. Overall, his delegate total reached 1,840.5 to 1,684 for Clinton in The Associated Press count, out of 2,025 needed to win the nomination in August.

But with only 217 delegates at stake in the remaining contests, it is essentially mathematically impossible for either candidate to secure the necessary number of elected delegates _ making superdelegate support the linchpin to winning the nomination.

“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.''

The protracted and often bitter nature of the race has hardened 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 McCain instead of Obama if that is the choice in the fall.

Clinton, in assurances echoed by Obama, declared she would support the Democratic nominee “no matter what happens.''

Tuesday's win was crucial for Obama who, after winning 11 consecutive contests in February, repeatedly failed to knock out a resurgent Clinton. She won major primaries in March and April, revitalizing her campaign.

For weeks, Obama's campaign was bogged down as he struggled to explain remarks about “bitter'' working-class voters, his relationship with a controversial pastor and why he does not wear a U.S. flag pin on his lapel.

Some Democrats worried whether his defeats indicated that he could not attract the white, working-class voters needed for them to take back the White House from the Republicans.

At his North Carolina rally, he told supporters that his win was a victory against the “politics of division and the politics of distraction.''

Even so, 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. But blacks comprised about a third of the voters in North Carolina _ nearly double their proportion in Indiana.

The weak U.S. economy has dominated the campaign. The candidates sparred in recent days over Clinton's call, amid surging gasoline prices, for a temporary suspension of the federal gasoline tax this summer _ a plan Obama ridiculed as a political stunt that would cost jobs.

The remainder of the primary schedule includes West Virginia, with 28 delegates on May 13; Oregon with 52 and Kentucky with 51 a week later; Puerto Rico with 55 delegates on June 1, and Montana with 16 and South Dakota with 15 on June 3.