Barack Obama took a big stride towards the Democratic presidential nomination Tuesday with a thumping victory over Hillary Clinton in North Carolina, while she eked out a wafer-thin win in Indiana.

Well after midnight, hours after they declared the North Carolina result, US networks said the former first lady had taken Indiana by a few thousand votes for a victory margin of 51 percent to 49 percent.

In North Carolina, Obama romped home by 56 percent to 42, and used his victory speech here to cast himself as the Democrats’ heir apparent for the November election against Republican John McCain.

“This fall we intend to march forward as one Democratic party united by a common vision for this country because we all agree that at this defining moment in our history, a moment when we are facing two wars, an economy in turmoil, a planet in peril, a dream that feels like it’s slipping away for too many Americans,” he said.

The Illinois senator, bidding to be the country’s first black president, said he was now fewer than 200 delegates away from securing the Democratic nod to take on McCain.

Before flying out of Indiana to Washington DC, as the networks were still agonizing over the rustbelt state, Clinton proclaimed victory there and said it was “full speed on to the White House.”

Obama acknowledged that Clinton had appeared to have won Indiana, but consolidated his upper hand in their closely fought duel with his convincing win in North Carolina and attacks on “the politics of division and distraction.”

“This election is about you — the American people — and whether we will have a president and a party that can lead us toward a brighter future,” he told pumped-up supporters in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The two states were the biggest nominating contests left in the Democrats’ White House tussle after months of back and forth that will culminate in the final primaries on June 3.

CNN exit polls said Obama, buffeted by weeks of controversy over racially tinged remarks by his former pastor, had won more than one-third of white voters in North Carolina.

A total of 187 pledged delegates were on offer in the two states — 115 in North Carolina and 72 in Indiana. After Tuesday, 217 elected delegates will be up for grabs in the remaining six contests.

Clinton’s camp admits she cannot overtake Obama in the count of pledged delegates who will formally anoint the nominee at the Democratic Party’s August convention in Denver.

So she is trying to persuade the nearly 800 Democratic “superdelegates,” who are free to vote for either candidate, that her inexperienced rival would go down in flames against McCain.

The New York senator has also raised the prospect of carrying on after the end of the nominating calendar, a scenario many Democrats fear could split the party and hand victory to McCain.

She said the true finish line of the presidential race was 2,209 Delegates — including Florida and Michigan, whose pro-Clinton results were voided in an argument with Democratic bosses about the timing of the states’ primaries.

But contradicting Clinton, Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean said the delegate target remained 2,025.

“There’s going to be a compromise is what I would predict,” he said on MSNBC, ahead of a May 31 meeting of the DNC’s rules committee on the Florida-Michigan headache.

“We’ll have a nominee by the end of June,” Dean vowed, playing down fears of a convention brawl in August.

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