barack_obama_1.jpgWASHINGTON (AP) _ Hillary Rodham Clinton lost her last best chance to score an upset on Barack Obama's turf Tuesday, putting the Illinois senator a step closer to becoming the country's first black presidential nominee.

Obama was the long-standing favorite in North Carolina, and he won with the overwhelming support of black voters there despite an intense effort by Clinton to turn the state around.

Obama's victory there was tempered by the fact that Clinton beat him handily among white voters, extending her argument to superdelegates who will decide the nomination that she will be the stronger general-election candidate.

So far, she's been losing that argument.

Even as Obama has been struggling with the fallout over his former pastor's racially divisive remarks, even though Clinton is coming off a big win in Pennsylvania, he's still winning more superdelegates. Since the Pennsylvania primary two weeks ago, Clinton has picked up 11.5 superdelegate endorsements to Obama's 22, according to an Associated Press count.

A very narrow win for Clinton in Indiana, the other state that voted Tuesday, did not turn the race around for her like a surprise victory in North Carolina would have.

Obama's win in North Carolina helps stop a slide for him that began two months ago when Clinton won primaries in Ohio and Texas. He got victories in the Texas and Wyoming caucuses and the Mississippi primary, but soon found himself the target of unflattering media coverage spurred by video of his former pastor's divisive sermons.

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright has suggested the United States spread terrorism and possibly the HIV virus to kill blacks. Obama at first distanced himself from the comments while embracing the man, but eventually denounced the pastor completely.

Undecided superdelegate Muriel Offerman, of Cary, N.C., said she wondered if the controversy could have cost Obama her state.

“This week I wasn't sure how this was going to shake out because of the Jeremiah Wright thing and because President Clinton had been here so much,'' she said in a telephone interview from her home, where she was watching coverage of Obama's victory on television. Former President Bill Clinton visited small towns across North Carolina in support of his wife, including nine stops on the eve of the election.

“People want change and I think North Carolina is like some of the other states, that it's just time for a change,'' Offerman said. But she said Obama's racially lopsided victory “is certainly a concern. And I think we all have our work cut out for us.''

Eighteen percent of North Carolina voters casting ballots said race was important in deciding their vote, according to exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks. Nearly a quarter of black voters said race was important, and 93 percent of those respondents voted for Obama. Fourteen percent of white voters said race was important, and 60 percent of them went for Clinton.

Offerman said she hopes the candidates will follow through on their promises to support the eventual nominee. She said they will need each other to bring the party together after the racially divisive primary.


EDITOR'S NOTE _ Nedra Pickler covers the Democratic presidential campaign for The Associated Press.