THE NOTE: Waiting for Mo

Rising out of the South Carolina mist, and shining over the Las Vegas lights, could it be that we see an old friend (sorely missing through these wild first three weeks of voting)?

Momentum -- we've missed you, and we'd love to see you back on this of all days, one year before you can smile with the knowledge that you helped inaugurate the next president of the United States. And yet . . . someone's still in your chair.

Sen. John McCain overcame his demons (gotta love victory as exorcism) and won narrowly yet decisively in South Carolina -- looking and feeling very much like a candidate of destiny in continuing one of the most remarkable political comebacks of this or any time.

"What's eight years among friends?" he asked late Saturday (and for once he wasn't trying to convince himself).

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton overcame a big union endorsement (through textbook mastery of spin, she actually fashioned herself the underdog) to cruise past Sen. Barack Obama in Nevada -- surging her ahead of Obama in what remains dogfight of a Democratic contest.

"I guess this is how the West was won," she said (and she sort of WAS trying to convince herself).

But even clarity looks cloudy these days. In a measure of one of the many absurdities that mark this race, neither of the weekend's big winners appear to have the most delegates to show for their Saturday.

Both Clinton and McCain can make strong claims to front-running status. Yet both have paths ahead that are lined with obstacles that seem designed to keep Big Mo away for a while.

McCain's victory was sweet vindication for a candidate who was slimed out of the race in the very same state eight years ago -- it was a "healthy dose of poetic justice," per the Chicago Tribune's Jill Zuckman. LINK

But he needs more than a feel-good story. "In almost any other year, a victory like this -- particularly in a state with a history of backing the eventual Republican nominee -- would send the winner hurtling down the road toward the nomination," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times. "But perhaps not this year, and perhaps not this candidate." LINK

McCain, R-Ariz., will soon have to start winning in a winnowed field, in states where independents won't be able to help him. "The terrain from here is markedly different, starting Jan. 29 in Florida, where the Republican primary is open only to Republicans," Nagourney writes.

Clinton, D-N.Y., won the Democrats' only big prize between New Hampshire and South Carolina, giving her two in a row after Obama, D-Ill., won the first round. She and her husband were jubilant by the time they hit St. Louis Saturday night -- with an energetic speech before some 2,000 patient, frozen souls.

"Eleven days ago people were dancing on Hillary's grave -- we have another thing coming now," former President Bill Clinton said, per ABC's Eloise Harper.

But the Nevada results again showed her weakness among African-Americans, who will register their votes in large numbers for the first time just six days from now, when the Democrats get their turn in South Carolina.

"After yesterday's results in Nevada, the two are virtually tied," Susan Milligan writes in The Boston Globe. "The Democratic race still has no clear front-runner despite a front-loaded primary schedule that many believed could settle the nomination early." LINK

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