The note: Good, bad, or ugly

March 3, 2008 9:19:25 AM PST
The climactic round of voting is still 24 hours away, but the phone is ringing now for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- and it's a call from a party that's anxious (fiercely urgent?) to have things resolved. (How many rings will it take for her to pick it up?) Yet she's making a big call of her own (a party-line connection): It's 3 am, and do you know where your Rezko-loving, NAFTA-flipping, universal-healthcare-lacking neophyte stands?

The Clinton campaign will follow one of three paths this week -- one that's good for her, one that's bad for her, and one that's ugly for the Democratic Party.

The "good" one involves actually winning the contests her campaign has been assuring supporters she will. That would slow and stop Sen. Barack Obama's momentum -- and, after a solid month of losses, we'd have a ballgame again, even if she'd still be trailing.

If she loses either Ohio or Texas (or both), then she chooses between bad and ugly. Either she gets out or she stays in -- and that choice will hinge on a key question: Does she see a distinction between the good of the Clintons and the good of the party?

Obama, naturally, wants to take a step back. Remember when this was a battle for delegates? He does -- and he joins his supporters in turning up the heat on Clinton, telling ABC's Terry Moran on Sunday that it's nearing time to end the nomination fight.

"If we do well in Texas and Ohio, I think the math is such where it's going to be hard for her to win the nomination, and they'll have to make a decision about how much longer they want to pursue it," said Obama, in an interview broadcast on "Good Morning America" on Monday, with more to come on Monday's "Nightline."

"We've been picking up superdelegates during the course of the last several weeks. And I would assume that there are going to be people who want to bring this to an end one way or another, because John McCain's out there," Obama said.

Obama's response to the "3 am" ad: "She has got a little desperate toward the end of this campaign."

Says Moran: "They think they're on the verge of nailing this thing down. . . . This candidate smells victory."

We can quibble over what clarity looks like, but Obama, D-Ill., enters the voting with a 113-delegate edge, per ABC's delegate scorecard. With polls tight in Ohio and Texas, even clear Clinton wins won't make a substantial difference making up that gap.

The key point that will shape the week: "Obama has such a big lead in pledged delegates that there is virtually no way Clinton can overtake him on Tuesday," Anne Kornblut and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post. "The best hope for keeping her candidacy alive, advisers acknowledge, is to win the popular vote in the two big states with contests and to break about even in the delegate hunt."

If Clinton does not sweep on Tuesday (and with apologies to Camp Clinton, it's Clinton -- not Obama -- who has more pressure this week), voices like this will begin to rise from the ranks of the superdelegates: "I just think that D-Day is Tuesday," Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., said on "Face the Nation." "Whoever has the most delegates after Tuesday, a clear lead, should be, in my judgment, the nominee."

The pressure will reach new levels after Tuesday, almost regardless of the result. "While there has been a growing expectation that Mrs. Clinton would drop out if she did poorly on Tuesday, it is less clear what lesson she might draw from a mixed result," The New York Times' Brian Knowlton reports.

"Some political analysts said that Mrs. Clinton -- who has clearly sharpened her attacks on Obama, even as he has been outspending her -- appeared to have made some headway in recent days in raising doubts about his experience and readiness to be commander in chief."

Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson didn't sound ready to give anything up on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." "Two percent is a very close number, considering how many delegates have [been awarded], how many Americans have voted," he said. "We're going to have a great day on Tuesday. We're going to win this nomination. This nomination fight is going to go forward after Ohio and Texas."

Between Rezko and NAFTA and red phones, there's just enough out there this Monday to make this thing interesting yet. Wedged between a national cable appearance and some time with Jon Stewart, expect an all-out Clinton assault (starting with a Monday morning press conference) in what could be her campaign's final election-eve. (And keep an eye out for Obama's two-minute closing ad Monday evening.)

Clinton, D-N.Y., is also displaying optimism (the campaign, she said Sunday, will go on "a lot [stumble] while longer") but some advisers are less than fully confident.

"Privately, Clinton campaign advisors say their own internal polls show the race tightening in Ohio and remaining very close in Texas," ABC's Kate Snow and Eloise Harper report.

"In their best case scenario, Clinton aides hope she could win Ohio by 3 to 6 points and squeak out a victory in Texas. They would consider that a good night and reason to fight on to Pennsylvania, which holds its primary on April 22. Other scenarios, they admit, are not so pretty."

The stakes are these: "If Barack Obama defeats Hillary Clinton in Texas or Ohio tomorrow, he will take control of a unified Democratic Party and enter the race against John McCain with an already-established reputation as a political giant-killer," Bloomberg's Catherine Dodge reports.

"Democrats have so far largely managed to avoid the kind of rancor that would split the party and endanger its prospects in November. . . . That may change if voters fail to deliver a clear verdict tomorrow."

As we peer into Clinton's mind, "Mrs. Clinton believes there are new whiffs of momentum around her," The New York Times' Patrick Healy reports. "For better or for worse, Mrs. Clinton has come full circle on her message, again embracing the strategic assumptions with which she began the campaign in January 2007: That she is the most able and experienced Democrat to be commander in chief, to manage the economy, and to win what she calls a 'wartime election' in November."

There's Clinton's ringing-phone ad, of course (and the Obama response -- bringing the campaign back to the Iraq-muddied ground Clinton hopes she'd left long ago).

"We're still waiting to hear Senator Clinton tell us what precise foreign policy experience that she is claiming, and that makes her prepared to answer that phone call at 3 in the morning," Obama said in Ohio, per The Dallas Morning News' Todd J. Gillman and Christy Hoppe.

A new radio ad in Texas is even sharper: "Hillary Clinton voted to send our troops to war," Gen. Tony McPeak says in the ad, adding that Clinton did not read the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq.

Clinton, meanwhile, wants voters to make judgments based on more than "just words." "You know sometimes I finish a speech and people come up to me and say you know that was so inspiring and so wonderful it made me feel so good," she said, ABC's Eloise Harper reports. "I say, that's great. That's just words. Our job is to make a difference."

There's Rezko, and now another Chicago figures whose relationship with Obama matters (particularly in Ohio): The NAFTA story gains an intriguing wrinkle, with the AP's Nedra Pickler reporting on an internal Canadian memo based on government officials' conversations with Austan Goolsbee, a top Obama economic adviser.

The memo: "Goolsbee candidly acknowledged the protectionist sentiment that has emerged, particularly in the Midwest, during the primary campaign. He cautioned that this messaging should not be taken out of context and should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans." The denial: "He's not quoting me," Goolsbee said. "I certainly did not use that phrase in any way."

More important than the action in Dayton and Laredo could be what goes on starting Monday in a federal courthouse in Chicago, when the Tony Rezko trial kicks off to national attention.

"Mr. Obama's name is likely to surface during the trial, if only because $10,000 of the money Mr. Rezko is accused of extorting wound up in Mr. Obama's 2004 Senate campaign," Mike McIntire and Christopher Drew reported in Sunday's New York Times.

"There is nothing to indicate that Mr. Obama did any favors for Mr. Rezko, but there is ample evidence that Mr. Rezko did favors for Mr. Obama."

"Any mention of Obama in the trial -- he is a side figure -- could have political ramifications for Obama and be grist for ads," Lynn Sweet writes in the Chicago Sun-Times. "While Obama's connections to Rezko have long been the subject of stories in the Chicago newspapers, the trial is the peg for other news organizations to be doing their own examinations."

The Clinton campaign is (of course) eager to play this up: "Throwing the kitchen sink at Barack Obama may not stop him, so Hillary Clinton's team Sunday hurled the whole house -- the dream home that the Illinois senator bought in 2005 with the help of an indicted Chicago developer going on trial Monday," Michael McAuliff and Michael Saul write in the New York Daily News.

And Republicans may be paying attention at just the right moment for it to have any impact on the Democratic primary. "The Democratic Party may once again nominate a first-time candidate they haven't fully vetted politically," warns Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund. "Democrats flocked to Michael Dukakis in 1988, ignoring Al Gore's warnings about Willie Horton; later they were blindsided by revelations about Bill Clinton after he was elected president."

On "This Week," old friends Wolfson and David Axelrod threw their playbooks at each other, in a blur of calls for disclosures and clarifications.

Then there's the anti-whispering campaigns Obama has faced all along -- and Clinton certainly didn't shout them down on "60 Minutes" Sunday night. ABC's Jake Tapper picks up on an interesting Clinton locution: Asked if she believes Obama is a Muslim, she responded, "No! No! Why would I? There's nothing to base that on. As far as I know." (Read that again -- and pause before those final five words.)

Bloomberg columnist Al Hunt is predicting a rough 50-day stretch for Obama, regardless of what happens on Tuesday. "If Hillary Clinton wins the Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination will go on for at least another, surely more acrimonious, seven weeks, until Pennsylvania votes," Hunt writes. "If Obama wins Texas, it's effectively over; then the Republicans and the media will escalate their scrutiny and criticism."

And yet . . . if all of these storylines don't add up to a pair of Clinton victories on Tuesday, the obits will flow. They've already appeared in surprising quantities, given the fact that the race is by no means over, and the Los Angeles Times' Peter Nicholas has the latest take -- with the unsurprising detail that no one could control Bill.

"The former president shelved the plan" to have him campaign elsewhere in the South on the even of the South Carolina primaries, Nicholas reports. "Day after day he stayed in South Carolina, getting into angry confrontations with the press and others. . . . Hillary Clinton may be one of the most disciplined figures in national politics, but she has presided over a campaign operation riven by feuding, rival fiefdoms and second-guessing of top staff members."

Does this seem like a strategist who's confident about moving on? "[Mark] Penn said in an e-mail over the weekend that he had 'no direct authority in the campaign,' describing himself as merely 'an outside message advisor with no campaign staff reporting to me.' 'I have had no say or involvement in four key areas -- the financial budget and resource allocation, political or organizational sides. Those were the responsibility of Patti Solis Doyle, Harold Ickes and Mike Henry, and they met separately on all matters relating to those areas.' "

Clinton is working it to what could be the end. "Borrowing a strategy former President Clinton used during his final campaigning days in 1992, the senator is on the trail nearly around-the-clock, jetting to Texas to deliver a pointed national security message and busing between Ohio towns with promises of better economic times," The Boston Globe's Susan Milligan writes. "On the stump, Clinton is fiery, focused, and seemingly unperturbed by the string of 11 straight losses she suffered in last month's primaries and caucuses."

As for what to expect on Tuesday: The latest Texas poll shows a race that couldn't be tighter. It's Obama 46, Clinton 45: "Hillary Clinton is favored by Hispanics, women and lower-income Anglos. Barack Obama has basically sewn up the black vote and does well among men and wealthy suburbanites," Jay Root writes in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

In Ohio, it's Clinton 49, Obama 45 in the new Quinnipiac Poll out Monday (down from a 19-point edge two weeks ago).

It's Clinton 47, Obama 43, in the McClatchy survey. "In Ohio, the New York senator has lost the double-digit lead she had long enjoyed until a few weeks ago," McClatchy's Stephen Thomma writes. "She clings to a small lead thanks largely to the rise of the economy as an issue."

Mark Z. Barabak and Michael Finnegan lay the stakes out simply and concisely in the Sunday Los Angeles Times: "In a campaign that has frequently defied expectations, a consensus emerged as the candidates caromed across the country: Clinton must win Texas and Ohio to have any serious hope of sustaining her bid to become the nation's first female president. A split decision would not suffice, analysts said, and winning narrowly may not help."

But don't discount the pressure on Obama, who had two previous chances -- in New Hampshire, and on Super Tuesday -- to effectively end this campaign. "This is Barack Obama's third chance to knock her out. If he can't close the deal this time, maybe he can't close the deal, period," Michael Goodwin writes in his New York Daily News column.

"Either the third time is the charm for him, or it could be strike three against him. Any result tomorrow that doesn't finish her off lets her argue that Democratic voters' love affair with Obama was just one of those flings."

In the Republican race (such as it is), it looks like former governor Mike Huckabee's campaign is nearing its end (he said he remembers the Alamo, you'll recall). But "those around him say he won't disappear and is poised to claim political leadership of conservative evangelicals," Stephen Dinan writes in the Washington Times.

"Mr. Huckabee's inner circle says he's the perfect bridge to re-establish the Christian right, which has suffered over the last decade, as a political force that speaks for millions of voters."

And/but: Huckabee, R-Ark., says he's looking forward to Mississippi and Pennsylvania. "I'm not understanding why some people are in such a rush to get this settled when I don't know there is a bomb sitting under anybody's chair that's going to go off if we don't have the nominee all settled," Huckabee said Sunday, per the Houston Chronicle's Bennett Roth.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is set to be endorsed on Monday by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Gov. Sonny Perdue, R-Ga., ABC's Ron Claiborne reports.

McCain can relax a bit -- treating reporters to barbecue at his home in the Arizona mountains on Sunday.

But USA Today's David Jackson notices something else the campaign is doing: "The Arizona senator's campaign is busy fielding questions over his decision to pull out of the public financing system, his support of the Iraq war, lobbyists working in his campaign, an endorsement from a controversial evangelical, and even his place of birth," Jackson writes. "It's not defense, McCain press secretary Brooke Buchanan said. . . . 'We are not going to let the Democrats define us,' she said."

Clinton and Obama both spend the night in Houston, with Clinton starting her day in Toledo, Ohio, and Obama staying put in Texas. Huckabee and McCain both concentrate on the Lone Star State.

Also in the news:

The ringing-phone ad has Obama talking about the war again, and on Sunday he seemed to suggest that Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., voted against the war, ABC's Sunlen Miller reports. (Actually, it was former chairman Bob Graham, D-Fla., who voted against it after reading the National Intelligence Estimate).

Said Camp Clinton: "Sen. Obama is so desperate to divert attention from his limited national security experience that he's not just misleading voters about Sen. Clinton, he's also misleading voters about his own supporters."

All that NAFTA rhetoric? Depends on the state, Amy Chozick and Nick Timiraos report in The Wall Street Journal. "After weeks of hammering the North American Free Trade Agreement on campaign stops in Ohio, the Democratic presidential candidates are singing a different tune in Texas," they write. "Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have had to adjust their messages as they have shuffled between hard-hit Ohio and robust Texas, where Nafta is largely seen as an economic boost to the state's border communities."

The Obama campaign tussled with Politico editors over a story on Catholic voters over the weekend, and Politico editor John F. Harris pulled back the curtain. "Campaign reporters with Politico and other publications tell me the response was characteristic of an Obama press operation that is becoming known, as is its counterpart in the Clinton campaign, for an aggressive style," Harris writes.

The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz detects a shift in press scrutiny. "During a campaign stop in Ohio last week, ABC's Jake Tapper asked Barack Obama about what he called 'an attempt by conservatives and Republicans to paint you as unpatriotic,' " Kurtz writes. "Obama dismissed the criticism as 'nonsense.' But did the exchange mark the end of a long period in which the media have gone easy on the man who could all but clinch the Democratic nomination in tomorrow's primaries?"

The New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller digs into McCain's Senate record: "The fine print of his record in the Senate indicates that he has been a lot less consistent on some of his signature issues than he has presented himself to be so far in his presidential campaign," she writes.

"His most striking turnaround has been on the Bush tax cuts, which he voted against twice but now wants to make permanent. Mr. McCain has also expressed varying positions on immigration, torture, abortion and Donald H. Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary."

McCain tells The Wall Street Journal's Bob Davis that he'll be correcting his Web site regarding his position on Social Security. "Actually, I'm totally in favor of personal savings accounts and I think they are an important opportunity for young workers," he writes (teeing up a Democratic issue all over again). "I'll correct any policy paper that I've put out that might intimate that personal savings accounts are not a very important factor."

The Washington Post's Peter Slevin sees both Clinton and Obama shifting their anti-war messaging. "They use the war as a proxy to discuss national security, describing Iraq as an example of misguided foreign policy and failed counterterrorism strategy," Slevin writes. "A combination of somewhat better news from the war zone and worsening economic prospects at home is pushing the candidates beyond the templates that guided their strategy when the campaign began."

Don't forget Rhode Island (or Vermont, for that matter). "Senator Barack Obama blended themes of optimism and change yesterday with a sharp attack on opponent Hillary Clinton's vote for the Iraq war, at a presidential campaign rally before an overflow crowd of 10,000 at Rhode Island College," Scott MacKay and Mark Arsenault write in the Providence Journal.

Joseph C. Wilson uses a HuffingtonPost column to slice into Obama's anti-war credentials. "There is no credible reason to conclude that Obama would have acted any differently in voting for the authorization had he been in the Senate at that time. Indeed, he has said as much," Wilson writes. "The supposed intuitive judgment he exercised in his 2002 speech was nothing more than the pander of a local election campaign, just as his current assertions of superior judgment and scurrilous attacks on Hillary Clinton are a pander to those who now retroactively think the war was a mistake without bothering to acknowledge Senator Clinton's actual position at the time and instead fantasizing that she was nothing but a Bush clone. Obama willfully encourages and plays off this falsehood." Clinton surrogate Gloria Steinem makes some headlines by seeming to belittle McCain's years as a POW. "I mean, hello? This is supposed to be a qualification to be president? I don't think so," Steinem said, per the New York Observer's Niall Stanage.

Obama is endorsed by the Toledo Blade and the Cincinnati Enquirer.

The Enquirer goes with McCain, but The Dallas Morning News sticks with Huckabee. "We look forward to having him around to help shape and lead the Republican Party beyond November," the Morning News editorial reads.

"That's why we encourage Texas Republicans to mark their ballots for Mr. Huckabee in the GOP primary: to demonstrate to the party's elite that Mr. Huckabee and his vision have a solid constituency."

Gov. Charlie Crist, R-Fla., said Sunday that "he'd support a repeat of the Democratic presidential primary so the state's delegates can be counted at the party's national convention," per Bloomberg's write-up of a CNN interview.

You will be shocked to learn that Kevin Sheekey hasn't given up hopes of being part of a national campaign. "I think the mayor is the ultimate swing voter," Sheekey, a former deputy to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y. "He is someone who the country is looking at to find out where they will go. He is one of the true independents in the country."

The kicker:

"The campaign is going very well -- very, very well. Why -- what have you heard?" -- Hillary Clinton, on "Saturday Night Live."

"It started strong, but you don't have an ending." -- Rudolph Giuliani, likening his campaign to an "SNL" skit.

"The country is groaning and moaning and screaming for change." -- Bill Clinton, on the trail.