The Note: Will Obama strike back?

April 23, 2008 1:20:01 PM PDT
And so the drama continues -- even if we may still know how this play ends. Stop us if you've heard this one before: The frontrunner is facing fundamental questions concerning electability. The underdog is gaining momentum. The leading candidate has whiffed on an opportunity to put the challenger away (four strikes you're out?). There is one solitary candidate who remains extremely likely to win, and yet . . .

The race goes on -- for two weeks at least, and probably six weeks -- if not all the way to the convention.

Many things didn't change on Tuesday: Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is still the favorite, flush with cash and armed with a delegate lead that shrank by barely 10 percent, despite a 10-point loss in the biggest state left on the calendar.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., retains only a tortuous path to the nomination -- lined with temptations to take the Democratic Party tumbling down the mountain with her (and, perhaps, Obama).

But Clinton's margin in Pennsylvania -- powered by demographics that gave her 60 of 67 Keystone State counties, including newly Democratic Bucks and Montgomery -- are surely enough to keep Clinton in the race a while longer.

"Mrs. Clinton's margin was probably not sufficient to fundamentally alter the dynamics of the race, which continued to favor an eventual victory for Mr. Obama," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times. "But it made clear that the contest will go on at least a few weeks, if not more. And it served to underline the concerns about Mr. Obama's strengths as a general election candidate."

By one (rightly disputed) metric -- the popular vote, including Florida and Michigan -- Clinton has pulled ahead of Obama. But without the rogue states, Obama is still up by 500,000 -- and if you can find another objective measurement by which she's in the lead, let us know.

It's enough for Clinton: "I think that's one of the most important factors that people have to take into account," Clinton told ABC's Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America" Wednesday. "But of course, the votes in Michigan and Florida were official -- I mean, they were certified by the secretary of state. It's just that the Democratic Party can't figure out what to do with all those votes, and try to seat delegates."

"I actually have more votes from people who actually voted for me," Clinton added. "Last night's win should give a lot of fresh information to our superdelegates, because after all, the road to Pennsylvania Avenue does lead through Pennsylvania."

From a Clinton campaign memo out Wednesday morning (subject line: "The Tide is Turning"): "By providing fresh evidence that Hillary is the candidate best positioned to beat John McCain in the fall, the Pennsylvania primary is a turning point in the nominating contest," the memo reads. "And with both candidates under the microscope at the same time for the first time, Hillary took more than a few punches and came out stronger while Sen. Obama emerged weaker as voters learned more about him."

Don't expect a flood, not with Clinton winning key battlegrounds: "It is an argument that stalls superdelegates right now," ABC's George Stephanopoulos reported on "Good Morning America." "They're still going to hang back. . . . He's not going to get the wave he needs -- this is going on to Indiana and North Carolina."

The pace quickens: "Despite Clinton's win, Obama remains the front-runner for the nomination, with a significant overall delegate lead and a huge financial advantage. She also has few primaries left in which to overtake him," Thomas Fitzgerald writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"Still, Clinton's big margins among white working-class voters seemed likely to add fuel to her argument that Obama cannot win the big industrial swing states in the fall against Republican John McCain."

By ABC's count, Clinton picked up 16 delegates in the Keystone State, with 16 more still to be awarded, leaving Obama's overall edge at 130.

From the Obama campaign's evening-capping memo: "Hillary Clinton lost her last, best chance to make significant inroads in the pledged delegate count," reads the memo. "The bottom line is that the Pennsylvania outcome does not change dynamic of this lengthy primary."

The margin matters -- and Clinton won by enough to stay in the game, if not to change it. And close to the minds of superdelegates is one very big number that has nothing to do with vote totals: the $42 million Obama has in his piggybank.

(That $2.5 million raised Tuesday night is a good start -- but only that. When Clinton gave out her Website address on stage Tuesday, there's a good bet that superdelegates only heard two syllables: I'm broke.)

"Obama's loss in Pennsylvania raised anew questions about his ability to win the big industrial states that will be critical to the Democrats' hopes of winning back the White House in November," Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post. "In the coming days, Clinton's camp will try to play on those doubts with uncommitted superdelegates -- who have been moving toward Obama over the past two months -- urging them to remain neutral until the primaries are over."

But if fence-sitters stay firmly planted, what other incentives can Clinton provide to bring them down? Balz, on the daunting (and shrinking) map: "Clinton expects victories in West Virginia, Kentucky and Puerto Rico. Obama's team expects to win Oregon, North Carolina, Montana, South Dakota and Guam. That makes Indiana the critical battleground. Obama was there last night and Clinton will arrive today."

Next up are Indiana and North Carolina -- sounds like half of a Final Four. (How long before we see the ol' O'Bomber jump-shot?)

John Mellencamp welcomed Obama to the Hoosier State on Tuesday (and stands ready to do the same for Clinton, per ABC's Jake Tapper).

The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny sees him turning his focus to Sen. John McCain, as he seeks "persuade party leaders that time is running out for Democrats to start defining their Republican opponent."

And you knew this was coming from a campaign that's controlled superdelegates like De Beers doles out diamonds: "A series of endorsements are scheduled to be announced in the coming days, including superdelegates who intend to pledge their support for Mr. Obama," Zeleny reports.

Speaking of: "Gov. Brad Henry, [D-Okla.] who said earlier he would not endorse a Democratic presidential candidate until this summer's national convention, announced this morning he is supporting Barack Obama," writes Michael McNutt in The Oklahoman.

Per a campaign aide, Wednesday will also bring a series of "prominent" former John Edwards supporters out for Obama in North Carolina -- though not, for the moment, superdelegates (or Edwards himself).

Here's an NC wrinkle: National Journal's Carrie Dann reports that the North Carolina Republican Party is set to unveil an ad Wednesday morning featuring "controversial figures from Barack Obama's past" -- including the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in "a starring role."

Look for a sharper candidate -- one who knows he's starting to get a reputation as a politician who can't finish a fight.

Obama "is likely to make his new negative tone even more negative -- with a sharp eye on trying to end the Democratic presidential nomination fight after the May 6 primaries in Indiana and North Carolina," Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post.

"But the candidate who rocketed to stardom as the embodiment of a new kind of politics -- hopeful, positive and inspiring -- saw his image tarnished in the bruising fight for Pennsylvania."

Does he dare? Adds Weisman, "a Democratic strategist familiar with the Obama campaign said aides are likely to turn to the controversies of Bill Clinton's White House years -- Hillary Clinton's trading cattle futures, Whitewater and possibly impeachment. 'Everyone knows the history of the Clintons,' the strategist said."

(If it comes, don't say the Clinton campaign didn't call it. Title of Clinton memo this morning: "Will Sen. Obama Follow the Pattern & Attack Tomorrow?")

How does he hold up? "The extended race is also clearly getting to Obama, who is noticeably fatigued on the stump and lacks the energy that drew in so many new voters earlier in the primary season," Time's Amy Sullivan writes.

"The largely positive media coverage he previously enjoyed has been replaced by a tenser relationship. The candidate now limits his availability to the political press corps, and recently snapped at a reporter who tried to ask a question while he was eating breakfast at a Pennsylvania diner."

Questions for Clinton, inside the numbers: "The tough tone of the Pennsylvania Democratic campaign tarnished both candidates -- more so Hillary Clinton, with 68 percent of voters saying she attacked Barack Obama unfairly," ABC Polling Director Gary Langer writes.

"Despite Clinton's victory in the state, overall expectations were on Obama's side. Fifty-five percent said they expected him, not Clinton, to be the party's eventual nominee."

The hard bigotry of high expectations: "Although her margin was clear, and would be considered a near landslide in an ordinary election, it seemed to have fallen short of the overwhelming blow-out she needed to dramatically reduce the delegate gap between her and Mr. Obama," James O'Toole writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

What if Pennsylvania didn't matter? "Punxsutawney Hillary and the Democrats get to do the whole thing all over again, two weeks from now," Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post.

"Six weeks of bowling and Bittergate and Pastorgate and nonexistent Bosnian snipers . . . and for what? The Pennsylvania results have essentially changed nothing," Dick Polman writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"There is seemingly no cure for the chronic Democratic migraine. Memo to the voters of Indiana and North Carolina: Take these candidates, please!"

"She deserves credit for resilience and persistence, but it is likely that the drumbeat in her party will be for her to seriously consider the next step of her candidacy," Mike Tackett writes in the Chicago Tribune.

Says the New Democratic Network's Simon Rosenberg: "I don't think she can win through ordinary means."

"She can't win but won't quit," Democratic strategist Jim Jordan tells the Los Angeles Times' Peter Wallsten. Pennsylvania voters, Wallsten writes, "did not present any definitive new evidence that would compel Democratic Party elders to step in and anoint Clinton as their White House nominee, particularly when Barack Obama continues to lead in the overall delegate count and in the popular vote."

The tide, as we've known, is controlled by the superdelegates -- all of whom have fresh evidence to make them pause before they dive into the Obama stream.

"Why can't he close the deal?" asks the AP's Ron Fournier. The question for superdelegates (folks who know that in politics, a win is a win): "Will they start wondering why can't Obama put her away?"

"Even the conventional wisdom that Obama is the near-inevitable nominee of his party couldn't help him get it done. Nor could the notion that the good of the party as a whole might be well-served by ending the nomination fight sooner rather than later," writes the Philadelphia Inquirer's Larry Eichel.

"In addition, Obama was unable to break into Clinton's demographic strongholds."

"Welcome to Spinsylvania. (Population: 2.)," writes Newsweek's Andrew Romano. "The stories they tell to sway undecided superdelegates -- the only voters with the power, at this point, to put one of the two Democratic candidates over the top -- will largely shape the race in the coming weeks. And for both Democrats, Pennsylvania will serve, in some sense, as Exhibit A."

With Indiana the new Pennsylvania (which was itself the new Ohio/Texas), pay attention to Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind. "She starts a little behind," Bayh tells the Indianapolis Star's Mary Beth Schneider. And this illuminating comment, from a savvy politician who has a future: "Look, I'm supporting Hillary Clinton. I'm not against Senator Obama."

The lay of the North Carolina land: "Her rival, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, has led comfortably in every recent poll in the state, including one this week that showed him with a 25-point advantage," Jim Morrill writes in the Charlotte Observer.

"And at least 38 percent of registered Democrats are African American, a group that has heavily supported Obama elsewhere."

Hope you didn't think this portion of the fight was over: "Even before Tuesday's primary win in Pennsylvania, Hillary Clinton's surrogates were renewing calls for Michigan's votes to count," Todd Spangler writes in the Detroit Free Press.

"The seating of Michigan's and Florida's disallowed delegates will be a theme as Clinton takes her fight to another industrial state, Indiana, which votes May 6."

Think The New York Times editorial board is ready for a break? "Voters are getting tired of it; it is demeaning the political process; and it does not work. It is past time for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to acknowledge that the negativity, for which she is mostly responsible, does nothing but harm to her, her opponent, her party and the 2008 election," writes the Clinton-endorsing editorial board. "It is getting to be time for the superdelegates to do what the Democrats had in mind with they created superdelegates: settle a bloody race that cannot be won at the ballot box."

It's Indiana time on the trail. Get the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

Also making news:

McCain, R-Ariz., can smile on Wednesday, and he'll be doing it in Inez, Ky. "If I am president, I will not forget that the decisions I make will affect, for good or ill, your ability to make decisions for your families," he plans to say, per his campaign. "I will not forget my responsibilities to every American community. I will not offer talk as a substitute for action. I will not make promises I intend to forget. And I will not make this my last visit to Inez."

Don't miss some positioning on trade: "Last time I checked, Nafta has five letters, not four," McCain said Tuesday, per The New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller. She writes: "Mr. McCain kept up his free-trade-is-good message in this economically depressed city, a contrast to his Democratic competitors, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, who both have called for renegotiating Nafta. Mr. McCain also repeated his message that lost manufacturing jobs would not return, a position that polls show may have helped him lose the Michigan Republican primary in January to Mitt Romney."

McClatchy's Matt Stearns: "Continuing a weeklong tour of what he calls the 'forgotten America,' McCain called for increased use of community colleges to retrain workers and investment in alternative-energy technologies to replace the manufacturing jobs that have gone overseas, as free-trade agreements have made it easier for firms to move where production is cheaper."

McCain "is making an appeal to black voters this week, but he has taken a different approach than President Bush did during his 2004 reelection campaign," Alexander Bolton writes in The Hill.

"While Bush highlighted an amendment seeking to ban gay marriage and other social issues to court black voters, McCain is championing education and other populist ideas. Part of McCain's strategy is to make the case that the Democrats' tax plan will negatively affect citizens across the economic spectrum."

Former President Bill Clinton said the Obama campaign "played the race card on me" -- then he said he didn't say it. "No, no, no, that's not what I said," said Clinton -- except he did.

"Oops, he did it again," ABC's Emily Friedman writes.

Said Democratic strategist Bob Shrum: "He would do the [Clinton] campaign good if he would just stop saying stuff like this."

How does this fit with electability? ABC's Jake Tapper (on the candidate who's promised help in down-ballot races): "In two different TV ads for a Louisiana special election for a U.S. House seat, Republican groups are assailing Louisiana Democratic state Rep. Don Cazayoux by tying him to Obama."

"Jaws" star Roy Scheider donated $50 to Obama in March -- a month after he passed away at the age of 75, per the Los Angeles Times' Dan Morain.

House Republicans are taking on Democratic leadership on gas prices: "Two years ago this week, you stated that House Democrats had a 'commonsense plan' to 'lower gas prices,' " GOP leaders wrote in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., per The Hill's Jackie Kucinich.

"In light of the skyrocketing gasoline prices affecting working families and every sector of our struggling economy, we are writing today to respectfully request that you reveal this 'commonsense plan' so we can begin work on responsible solutions to help ease this strain."

Next up, per a House leadership aide: Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio., and House Republicans will formally introduce legislation forcing Pelosi to reveal her "commonsense plan" and begin forcing votes on the House floor to highlight the Democrats' do-nothing policy on rising gas prices.

Tony Snow has been hospitalized in Washington State. Per the AP: "Former White House spokesman Tony Snow canceled a series of speaking engagements at Eastern Washington University today because of illness. Officials for the university did not reveal the extent of his illness, but said he did go to a hospital."

The kicker:

"I choose not to play your game today. Have a nice day." -- Bill Clinton, finger wagging.

"Having worked out my shirt feels a little tight. . . . Two cheese steaks didn't help." -- Obama communications director Robert Gibbs, sporting a too-tight "Stop the Drama, Vote Obama" shirt.

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