WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Hillary Clinton emerged from Tuesday's contest in Pennsylvania with a big symbolic victory and a net gain of about a dozen pledged delegates. But those spoils could vanish on May 6 in North Carolina, a delegate-rich contest with a plethora of natural advantages for Barack Obama.
Sen. Hillary Clinton won big in Pennsylvania, but North Carolina could prove to be tough territory.
Obama owes his victories throughout the Democratic nomination battle to African-Americans, young voters, upscale whites and independent voters.
In North Carolina, those voters come in bunches, and their ranks are growing.
Since the beginning of January, nearly 65,000 new voters between the ages of 18 and 24 have registered in the state as Democrats or unaffiliated voters. More than 67,000 new African-American voters have registered over the same period.
The metrics don't bode well for a Clinton victory.
"It would take a monumental event in next two weeks for that to happen," said Jerry Meek, chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party. "But can she shave an Obama victory to five or six points? Possibly."
African-Americans are expected to make up around 40 percent of the primary electorate, giving Obama a healthy starting point in his chase for a large share of the state's 115 pledged delegates.
Obama should capture votes in the Research Triangle, a thriving swath of counties in and around the Raleigh-Durham area filled with highly-educated tech workers and medical researchers.
North Carolina also happens to be sandwiched between two demographically similar states -- Virginia and South Carolina -- that already held nominating contests, exposing thousands of Tar Heels to campaign advertising and news coverage of two Obama blowout victories in January and February.
There's more: Unaffiliated voters can participate in North Carolina's semi-open primary, and although Obama split independent voters with Clinton in Ohio and Texas, political observers say independents in North Carolina appear likely to tilt back toward Obama, as they have done in other southern states.
Topping off Obama's formidable North Carolina coalition are college students. From the mountains of Boone to beaches of Wilmington, the state is peppered with dozens of public universities, major organizing hubs for the Obama campaign.
Both campaigns are already taking advantage of North Carolina's "One Stop, Early Vote" program -- which permits new voters to register and cast ballots, all at once -- to sign up supporters on the spot and have them vote.
The Obama campaign in particular sees the program as a ripe opportunity to run up votes among North Carolina's many college students.
Obama's staff has organized concerts for early May in Greensboro and Chapel Hill featuring two popular indie rock bands, The Arcade Fire and Superchunk, hoping to lure college-aged voters away from their dorms to early voting locations, before they turn their attention to final exams.
Early voting started April 17, and even before Clinton won Pennsylvania, tens of thousands of North Carolinians had already cast their ballots.
Clinton's advisers acknowledge the tall odds, and appear to be focusing most of their May 6 efforts toward Indiana, a state with lunch-bucket demographics that have proven friendlier to the New York senator, most recently in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Watch how the Dems are prepping for Indiana »
Clinton's campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe told CNN Tuesday night that he sees North Carolina as "competitive," but Clinton's state director, Ace Smith, has already lowered expectations as far as they can go, insisting he sees no chance for a Clinton victory there.
Asked by reporters at a Clinton event in Winston-Salem last week whether she can win the state, Smith responded, "No. That would be the biggest upset of the century."
An Obama adviser in North Carolina dismissed Smith's prediction, charging that the Clinton campaign is devoting significant resources to the state.
"They are very good at lowering expectations while competing ferociously," the adviser said. "Look what they're doing, not what they're saying."
Clinton's campaign has run three television ads so far, two of which focus on the issues of veterans' health care and high gas prices, and her team has opened 18 offices around the state. Smith is also one of the campaign's top organizers: He is credited with engineering Clinton's wins in California and Texas.
Her campaign has dispatched Chelsea Clinton to college campuses and former president Bill Clinton to small, rural towns in the eastern and western parts of the state. (The former president's dogged pursuit of downscale whites is a far cry from his campaign role in the run-up to the South Carolina primary in January, when he was used primarily to appeal to the state's African-American voters.)
Obama has countered Clinton's surrogate activity with a slew of television ads. Between March 16 and April 16, Obama outspent Clinton on the TV airwaves by more than 2-to-1, with most of the ads concentrated in the Raleigh and Charlotte markets.
Clinton spent over $690,000 on television ads in North Carolina during that month-long period. Obama spent nearly $1.5 million.
Most of North Carolina's Democratic votes are where the TV ad dollars are being spent: around Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, in between Interstates 77 and 95. Smith, Clinton's state director, acknowledged Obama is likely to win these urban areas, but he said the Clinton campaign is aggressively targeting small-town, working-class Democrats as well as unaffiliated voters, most of whom are white.
He argued Obama "has lost traction" among independents during the nomination battle, a claim disputed by Obama aides in North Carolina, who remain confident that unaffiliated voters will turn out for the Illinois senator on primary day.
As she did in Virginia and South Carolina, Clinton seems poised to perform admirably against Obama among downscale whites in rural areas. But in Virginia and South Carolina, her success among those voters was not enough to overcome the other forces working in Obama's favor.
Theodore Arrington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, predicted Clinton needs to win more than 70 percent of the white vote to counteract African-American turnout -- a high-water mark that she has yet to hit in any contest so far, and is unlikely to in North Carolina.
"In those mill towns, she and Bill can do well," Arrington said, referring to rural areas in the state that have seen losses in manufacturing jobs. "But with the black voters in the urban areas going for Obama, that's not going not be enough." E-mail to a friend
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