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Waiting for the Game to Change

Sen. Barack Obama won North Carolina's presidential primary by a wide margin Tuesday, while Sen. Hillary Clinton narrowly won in Indiana.

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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, May 7, 2008

RALEIGH, N.C. The Democrats are putting the "stale" in stalemate.

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Barack Obama needed to "close the deal" by beating Hillary Clinton in Indiana and North Carolina. Clinton needed a "game-changer" so that she could have a viable path to the presidential nomination.

But no deal closed and no game changed Tuesday night.

Obama's big win in North Carolina, coupled with Clinton's squeaker in Indiana, adds to a sense that his nomination is inevitable. But the split decision also gave Clinton a reason to remain in the race and force the party's superdelegates to decide it.

In other words, there is no exit plan. We're going to West Virginia! And we're going to Oregon and Kentucky! And we're going to Puerto Rico and Montana and South Dakota! Yeeaarrgghh!

"There were those who were saying that North Carolina would be a game-changer in this election, but today what North Carolina decided is that the only game that needs changing is the one in Washington, D.C.," Obama told his supporters here at North Carolina State University on Tuesday night. But in the next breath, he acknowledged that he hadn't closed the deal, either. "I want to start by congratulating Senator Clinton on what appears to be her victory in the great state of Indiana," he added, to boos from the crowd.

Then he said something nobody could dispute: "This has been one of the longest, most closely fought contests in American history."

And it's not over yet. Just after 5 p.m. Tuesday, the early exit polls -- showing a commanding advantage for Obama in North Carolina and a smaller but clear edge for Clinton in Indiana -- meant that there would be no clean sweep. And the primary-night suspense fizzled. Here at Obama's victory party at North Carolina State University, reporters greeted the early returns by tossing a Nerf football.

The crowd had not yet been admitted in the Reynolds Coliseum when the networks called the state for Obama the moment the polls closed at 7:30. Two Obama staffers, watching MSNBC on a jumbo screen in the quiet hall, gave a shout of "Yea!" Television crews ran over to capture the action.

By the time late-night suspense did develop, in the form of uncounted votes in Gary, Ind., Obama was on his way back to Chicago, and the crowd had left the coliseum. Only a few stragglers remained to cheer the TV screen showing Clinton's declining lead in Indiana.

Dreading another inconclusive Tuesday night like this, the pundit class had labored to create a narrative for the Indiana and North Carolina contests. They proposed two competing story lines: Obama would close the deal, or Clinton would change the game.

In both cases, Clinton started the cliche chase. "I mean, why can't he close the deal?" she taunted her front-running rival.

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