Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama hoped to recover after a difficult month on the campaign trail while his rival Hillary Clinton battled for survival in today’s primary elections.
A split result in the contests in Indiana and North Carolina would leave the race for the party’s nomination as close as ever, but a clean sweep for Mr Obama would raise serious questions over the former first lady’s ability to continue.
On the other hand, a double victory for Mrs Clinton would add credibility to her claim that he was lacking support and that she was best placed to clinch the White House for the Democrats against Republican John McCain in November.
Such a claim may help persuade the party’s so-called superdelegates to support her in the nomination race and winning their support is Mrs Clinton’s best chance of success.
But top Democratic officials have voiced increased concern that the prolonged race will undercut the party’s chances to present a united front for November’s general election.
The latest round in the 16-month campaign between the Democrats comes as both candidates predicted their protracted battle would continue for weeks yet.
Yesterday, the pair embarked on an intense 24-hours on the campaign trail with last-ditch appeals for support in the two states, which have emerged as major tests for both candidates.
Mr Obama needs to show the party’s superdelegates, almost 800 people who will decide the Democratic nominee in the close race, that the controversy over his former pastor Rev Jeremiah Wright has not damaged his popularity.
And Mrs Clinton, coming off a win in Pennsylvania two weeks ago, needs to seize on what has been one of the roughest patches in his campaign to boost her fading chances of becoming the party’s nominee.
Mr Obama, who would be America’s first black president if elected in November, is expected to do well among North Carolina’s large African American electorate while Mrs Clinton, who would be the first woman president, leads polls in Indiana.
Yesterday, the two rivals focused on a rare key policy difference in their plans to tackle the troubled US economy.
Front-runner Mr Obama dismissed the former first lady’s plan to offer Americans a summer petrol tax holiday as “pandering to voters” and said she was working from the same political playbook as Republican rival John McCain.
But Mrs Clinton said she was “not going to put my lot in with economists”, many of whom have criticised her plan, and added that she wanted oil companies to pay the £4 billion petrol tax cost this summer “instead of having the money come out of the pockets of consumers and drivers”.
A Suffolk poll showed Mr Obama was trailing Mrs Clinton 43% to 49% in Indiana, with a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points, but 58% of respondents also gave him a favourable rating, compared with Mrs Clinton’s 53%.
Following Mr Obama’s defeat in Pennsylvania last month, he has struggled to move past a potentially damaging row over his former pastor’s controversial comments, while Mrs Clinton has portrayed herself as the Democrats’ best hope for winning the White House, in part because she is more popular with the party’s working-class base.
Mrs Clinton’s aides lowered expectations for a victory in North Carolina, where Mr Obama is favoured, but sounded more optimistic about Indiana, where demographics seem to lean in her favour.
Having consistently attracted record levels of financial support from voters, Mr Obama has outspent the 60-year-old New York senator by around four to five million dollars (£2m – £2.5m) – roughly a third more – on television adverts in both states combined.
Mr Obama also has the support of more national convention delegates – 1,743.5 to 1,607.5, according to the latest Associated Press figures – but neither candidate will reach the 2,025 needed to clinch the party’s nomination without the so-called superdelegates – party leaders and others whose votes are not tied to the primary season results.
Mr Obama also won an extremely close race in Guam at the weekend, but because of the way the party apportions delegates, each candidate received two.
A total of 187 delegates are at stake today.