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Barack Obama addresses voters at a town hall style meeting at the Munster Steel Co. in Munster, Ind., on Friday.
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Hillary Clinton greets supporters during a campaign event at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., on Friday.
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North Carolina and Indiana residents are expected to turn out in record numbers as they vote today in the last delegate-rich primary of this election cycle.
On Monday, national polls showed New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama locked in a tight race in Indiana, where both were hoping to win the support of the state's white, blue-collar voters. Obama is expected to do well in North Carolina, where roughly 20 percent of the population is African-American, though recent nationwide surveys show that his overall support has softened.
The two candidates are vying for a combined total of 187 pledged delegates. Indiana has 72 delegates at stake, while North Carolina has 115.
Obama leads Clinton in delegates won in primaries and caucuses, though she has a slight lead in the support of the superdelegates. Clinton has argued that she should win the Democratic Party's presidential nominee because she has won large delegate-rich states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Clinton saved her candidacy with her win in Pennsylvania on April 22 and has campaigned aggressively in Indiana in hopes of denying Obama a victory next door to his home state of Illinois.
Despite Clinton's momentum coming out of the Keystone State, Obama seemed in command in North Carolina and on the march in Indiana. But days later, he became embroiled in renewed controversy over remarks made by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
The Obama camp already had been shaken in March by videotaped excerpts from Wright's sermons in which he made statements that many deemed anti-American. At the time, Obama distanced himself from Wright but refused to renounce his longtime minister. The Illinois senator delivered a speech that addressed the broader issues of race in America and was generally well received.
For his part, Wright said his statements had been taken out of context. But at a news conference Wednesday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., he seemed to reiterate many of his controversial views. Obama angrily responded by breaking ties with his former pastor.
Will Wright Dog Obama in Indiana and North Carolina?
A USA Today/Gallup poll published last week suggests that Obama has been hurt by the controversy. The poll showed Clinton leading Obama 51 percent to 44 percent nationally among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent voters, in contrast to a CBS News/New York Times survey released the day before that had Obama leading Clinton by 12 points.
The two primaries were once seen as Obama's next big chance to seal the Democratic nomination and end Clinton's bid for the presidency.
Wins in both would make it all but mathematically impossible for Clinton to be nominated. But with controversy still swirling around Obama and Wright, it's looking more like a chance for Clinton to reclaim the momentum.
"The main differentiation [between the candidates] has been that Obama has been on the defensive the entire week leading up to the primary," said Matt Tully, a political columnist for The Indianapolis Star.
"Obama's challenge for the last couple of weeks has been to reach out to the white, working class, and the unfolding of the Rev. Wright story and the perpetual focus on it does not help," said Robert Dion, a professor of political science at the University of Evansville in Indiana.
The one bright spot for Obama in recent days has been his continuing success among superdelegates. He trailed Clinton by nearly 100 superdelegates after Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, but by Friday, he had closed the gap to fewer than 20.
He also has picked up the support of superdelegate Joe Andrew, a former Democratic National Committee chairman under President Clinton. Andrew had endorsed Hillary Clinton but switched sides, saying it was time to end the nomination fight by lining up behind Obama.
Political experts were predicting high voter turnout in both states, especially because Indiana has an open primary and allows voters to register the day of the contest.
So far in the Democratic primaries, voters have split along the lines of race, gender, age, education and income. Political scientists say North Carolina and Indiana will be no different.
The economy is expected to be a major factor for voters. Indiana's primary industries, automobiles and steel, have taken a hit in this economic downturn, while North Carolina's blue-collar workers have watched their jobs move overseas for years.
From NPR staff reports and the Associated Press