The Note: Super Countdown

Take what lessons you will from Sunday's astonishing and invigorating Super Bowl -- of New York and New England, of family legacies, of smugness and hunger, of Tom Petty seeing it all at halftime ("Free Fallin' "), of underdogs and favorites on the biggest of stages.

(And know that it could mean absolutely nothing or absolutely everything that Sunday night saw Hillary Clinton jumping for joy in a Minnesota bar, and Mitt Romney shuffling off to bed early -- with just a touch of sore loser in him.)


The battle for the Republican and Democratic nominations is not a classic favorite vs. underdog, insider vs. outsider duel. Befitting battles for hearts and souls of parties (whatever that means) the races pit party establishments against themselves -- or, at least, different portions of the establishments against each other.

And now that the only super thing left to grab the nation's attention is a sort of big national primary on Tuesday (and now that they'll be marching on Broadway instead of Boylston Street that same day) what happens in the closing hours takes on outsized importance, like key plays in the last few minutes of a playoff game.

It's why it may matter that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is dueling with Sen. Barack Obama on guns and healthcare at this very late stage -- and that she got (almost) pinned down on how she might pay for a universal healthcare mandate. "We will have an enforcement mechanism, whether it's that or it's some other mechanism through the tax system or automatic enrollments," she told ABC's George Stephanopoulos Sunday on "This Week."

It's why we take particular notice that another Kennedy -- and a Californian at that -- is backing Obama. Maria Shriver, California's first lady, managed to overshadow her cousin Caroline -- and Oprah Winfrey -- at an event at UCLA: "If Barack Obama was a state, he'd be California," Shriver said Sunday, per the Sacramento Bee's Peter Hecht.

It's why former President Bill Clinton's every word was parsed when he toured black churches in Southern California on Sunday -- and why ears perked up when he started talking about the "cruel irony that we have an embarrassment of riches in this election." (And this might just have been as close to an apology as we're going to hear: "We should be a country of second chances," the former president said, per the New York Sun's Josh Gerstein.)

It's why it could matter quite a bit that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is maybe letting the teensiest bit of (over-?) confidence creep into his demeanor. McCain on Sunday came into Romney territory -- Boston -- "and spoke openly of his plans for the general election," Michael Finnegan, Maeve Reston, and Seema Mehta write in the Los Angeles Times. McCain "said he expected to unite the party's factions once he won the nomination. He plans to travel late this week to Germany for a security conference and might go to Iraq."

(Ask Tom Brady what happens when you start looking past your next opponent. It's why former governor Mitt Romney's last-minute trip to California -- where things could be tighter than they seem -- may mark his best chance to get back in the game . . . . )

It's why Romney really needs the talk-radio-talking-head-Republican set to do some dirty work on McCain.

"The hope is that these high-profile figures will sound the alarm and rouse conservatives who, either out of uncertainty over whom to support or a lack of enthusiasm for any one candidate, are about to wake up and find the despised McCain as their standard-bearer," Politico's Jonathan Martin reports.

It's why former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., just might still be a factor in a two-man race where he isn't one of the two men.

"Desperate to stay relevant in this contest, the former Arkansas governor is . . . dialing up his attacks on Romney and largely ignoring McCain, even though the latter has emerged as the clear GOP front-runner heading into Super Tuesday," Perry Bacon Jr. writes in The Washington Post.

Said Huckabee: "Romney's arrogance is offensive to my supporters and serves only to fire them and me up."

As for sports omens and metaphors for the two candidates who had home teams in on the action . . . Clinton, D-N.Y., jumped into the air at a bar in Minneapolis. "We've got one down, now we've got to have the other," she said, per ABC's Eloise Harper.

Romney, R-Mass., wouldn't stick around to watch the Giants celebrate. Always a savvy student of sports, he labeled it "one of the worst moments in sports history" when his hometown team lost, and announced that he had no interest in seeing Eli and company hoist any trophies, per Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post.

So one set of the week's big contests is down. Yet 24 hours before Super Tuesday, everything we thing we know about the race could still change. McCain could sweep the nation and emerge as the de facto nominee -- unless conservatives buck the polls and consolidate behind Romney (whose hastily-added trip to Long Beach, Calif., for late Monday adds an intriguing wrinkle).

Clinton could edge out Obama in the big states and hold her own in enough small ones to emerge with a substantial delegate lead -- unless Obama surges past her and ends up with a lead of his own.

We're still couching our language: "Senator John McCain, buoyed by new polls and endorsements, appeared in an increasingly commanding position on Sunday as he headed toward coast-to-coast contests that could effectively hand him the Republican presidential nomination," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times.

"On the Democratic side, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama were enmeshed in a tough national fight, illustrated by polls showing the race had tightened both nationally and in key states voting on Tuesday where Mrs. Clinton had once enjoyed a comfortable lead," Nagourney writes.

"They include California, Missouri, New Jersey and Arizona."

Clinton is clinging to a late lead, hoping the clock keeps running, but the score really looks tied: It's Clinton 45, Obama 44 in a new national poll (the kind that might matter in a national primary).

"The Democratic presidential race has become a cliffhanger as a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll on Sunday showed Barack Obama wiping out Hillary Rodham Clinton's double-digit national lead just before coast-to-coast contests on Tuesday," Jill Lawrence writes for USA Today.

"Clinton's lead faded over two weeks during which Obama advertised heavily and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, took heat from fellow Democrats for attacking Obama."

The momentum just might reside with Obama, whose been on a roll out of South Carolina and has seen his numbers heading in just one direction. "Sen. Obama, of Illinois, and Sen. Clinton, of New York, could battle to a draw," Jackie Calmes writes in The Wall Street Journal.

"But many Democratic activists say Sen. Obama stands to gain momentum, given his advantage in states voting after tomorrow, his campaign's financial strength and his ability to withstand the Clinton machine."

"California was supposed to be Hillary Clinton's Golden State, but suddenly it's looking more like the Golden Gloves -- with her hoping for a split-decision victory over Barack Obama," the New York Daily News' Michael McAuliff writes.

But the early states seemed easy compared to this. ""The crowds have grown, the poll figures have tightened and the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has changed dramatically as Super Tuesday nears, playing more to Hillary Rodham Clinton's strengths than to Obama's," Maria L. La Ganga writes in the Los Angeles Times.

"The Illinois senator's forte was the stately pace of the early campaign states, when he had time to fill in the details of his celebrity silhouette."

If you live in a Feb. 5 state, you probably saw an Obama campaign ad Sunday night -- part of a $250,000 Super Bowl buy in targeted states.

No such ploy from Camp Clinton, but Clinton seeks to reach a national audience two ways over on Monday: via Letterman's couch, and with a "national townhall" to be broadcast on her Website and on the Hallmark Channel at 9 pm ET, moderating by veteran journalist Carole Simpson.

Let the pre-spin begin anew: "One Clinton adviser, granted anonymity in order to speak candidly about the contest, said the campaign is now anticipating it will not be able to reclaim its front-runner status on Tuesday night," Anne Kornblut and Alec MacGillis write in The Washington Post.

Per the Clinton adviser: "It is likely that people are going to wake up Wednesday morning still scratching their heads, saying, 'We don't know who is the front-runner on the Democratic side.' "

Sen. Clinton herself: "We are doing well in a lot of states where there are a complicated set of challenges from one end of the country to the other," Clinton told reporters traveling on her plane Saturday, per Time's Karen Tumulty. But she conceded: "Obviously, we're all making it up as we go."

(And Bill Clinton's Super Bowl date with Gov. Bill Richardson appears to have yielded nothing more than some cigar-smoking and some empty fruit trays, per The New Mexican's Doug Mattson.)

As for the Republicans, McCain's most important question going into Super Tuesday: Will the self-styled party guardians "save" the GOP in time?

That's who Romney is appealing to in the closing hours, as he pitches himself as the true conservative in the race. McCain, he said, is "virtually indistinguishable from Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama on a number of major issues our country faces," Susan Milligan and Michael Levenson write in The Boston Globe.

"I think it does make sense to have a candidate representing our party who's positions are distinctly different from the Democratic potential nominees," Romney said Sunday, ABC's Matt Stuart, John Berman, and Ursula Fahy report.

The Romney campaign is trotting out former senator Rick Santorum, R-Pa., to help make the case against McCain being a true Republican (and notice the delicate use of a certain word that begins with the letter T).

"As a conservative I don't agree with McCain on many issues and I don't think he has the temperament and leadership ability to move the country in the right direction," Santorum says in a new radio ad, ABC's Teddy Davis reports.

Santorum isn't the only former (or current) GOP colleague with a McCain story. "There would be a lot of people who would have to recalibrate their attitudes toward John," Romney supporter Sen. Robert F. Bennett, R-Utah, tells The Washington Post's Paul Kane.

But, Kane writes: "Many Senate Republicans, even those who have jousted with McCain in the past, say their reassessment is underway. Sensing the increasing likelihood that he will be the nominee, GOP senators who have publicly fought with him are emphasizing his war-hero background and playing down past confrontations."

McCain himself doesn't look worried. He seemed "at times reluctant to think ahead but then sounding like he has clinched the Republican nomination," David Jackson writes for USA Today.

McCain told ABC's Ron Claiborne that he's not getting cocky: "I don't think there's any doubt that we got momentum on our side and I think we're headed in the right direction," he said.

"But the key to it is, don't take anything for granted; keep campaigning hard; keep trying to get these endorsements and support and then try and get this thing over with Tuesday."

Yet . . . "A top McCain aide said McCain expects to do well and could rack up wins in enough Super Tuesday states to either force Romney from the race or leave him in it only nominally," Claiborne reports.

McCain is caught in a whirlwind that he hopes boosts his chances without stripping his core (again). "Senator John McCain, Republican renegade, is making a head-spinning transition, seeking to win over the Republican establishment and harness all that comes with it," Elisabeth Bumiller writes in The New York Times.

New York Times columnist William Kristol delivers a conservative pep talk: "When the primaries are over, if McCain has won the day, don't sulk and don't sit it out. Don't pretend there's no difference between a candidate who's committed to winning in Iraq and a Democratic nominee who embraces defeat," he writes.

"Don't close your eyes to the difference between pro-life and pro-choice, or between resistance to big government and the embrace of it. And don't treat 2008 as a throwaway election."

McCain campaigns in New Jersey on Monday, while Huckabee is in Tennesse and Arkansas, and Romney hits Tennessee and Georgia before closing out the night in California.

For Obama, it's New Jersey to Connecticut to Massachusetts (a Super Bowl circuit that takes him from euphoria -- at Giants Stadium -- to football depression, in New England). Clinton does Connecticut and a quick Massachusetts stop before heading to New York for Letterman and her televised town hall, while her husband works California for her.

Keep track of where things stand with ABC's delegate tracker.

Also in the news:

Bloomberg's Al Hunt looks forward to a general election pitting Obama against McCain: "More than any other Republican or Democrat, they appeal to independent-minded voters while still parting ways on crucial issues," he writes. "It would be change versus experience, the audacity of hope."

And Hunt imagines them hatching the plan that JFK and Barry Goldwater lined up for the 1964 match-up that never was: "Imagine from Labor Day to Election Day every week an Obama-McCain debate, maybe even without a moderator, in a different American city. That would energize the electorate and provide a remarkable capstone to a remarkable race."

Obama now has plenty of Kennedys on his side -- but he doesn't have an RFK to his JFK, circa 1960, Newsweek's Evan Thomas writes.

"While JFK was kept radiant and pure, Bobby was the grubby enforcer, the tough guy who cleared the hacks out of campaign headquarters and made sure the money was put in the right envelopes," Thomas writes. "Obama's campaign is reasonably well organized and quite well financed. But Obama does not seem like a do-what-it-takes infighter."

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman takes on Obama's healthcare plan -- again. "New research, just released, confirms what I've been saying: the difference between the plans could well be the difference between achieving universal health coverage -- a key progressive goal -- and falling far short," Krugman writes.

"Specifically, new estimates say that a plan resembling Mrs. Clinton's would cover almost twice as many of those now uninsured as a plan resembling Mr. Obama's -- at only slightly higher cost."

Obama's red-state rock stars take to The Wall Street Journal op-ed page to make their case. "Americans are fed up with a divisive brand of politics that is more about scoring points than solving problems," write Gov. Janet Napolitano, D-Ariz., Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, D-Kan., and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

"To win in November -- and to govern this country -- we should not choose to be a party that extends an era of bitter partisanship; we must be the party that ends it."

Some Al Gore speculation/thinly sourced reportage: Per the American Spectator's "Prowler" blog: "Former Vice President Al Gore has asked his staff to begin laying out plans for an endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama if he performs well in the Super Tuesday primaries. '[Gore] doesn't see the utility of endorsing Obama until the endorsement would actually mean something and give Gore an opportunity to be the kingmaker,' says a former aide with knowledge of Gore's thinking."

Politico's Michael Calderone writes up the tussle between Obama and his traveling press corps over ground rules on the plane. "We're not on the plane, in my view, to have private talks with presidential candidates," says The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny. "We're here to report what they are saying and give our readers a better idea of their campaigns and their candidacies."

Obama's is not the only campaign with a testy relationship with the press. The Los Angeles Times' Peter Nicholas and Maria L. La Ganga write up the Clinton campaign's failed effort to convince reporters to spend some off-the-record moments with Chelsea Clinton on the press plane.

"Some of the journalists on the flight agreed to the condition; others did not," they write. "Told of the split, Chelsea Clinton stayed away. The Clinton press secretary, Jay Carson, was exasperated."

Chelsea was in Nashville on Sunday, and the campaign wanted her highlighted -- but don't get too close.

"The 27-year-old does not usually make herself available to reporters, and did not during this visit," The Tennessean's Colby Sledge writes. "On Sunday, aides asked photographers to move several times -- once while outside the restaurant -- citing Clinton's desire not to have cameras too close to her."

McCain's idea about having governors certify that their borders are secure is getting pushback from his home-state governor: Napolitano.

"If you make certification the only criteria for whether you then move into overall immigration reform, what I would be leery of is putting up a process by which you never have to take responsibility for overall immigration reform," Napolitano tells ABC's Teddy Davis.

McClatchy's Matt Stearns does the math on Clinton's 35 years of bringing "positive change to people's lives."

"The overall portrait is of a lifelong, selfless do-gooder. The whole story is more complicated -- and less flattering," Stearns writes.

"Clinton worked at the Children's Defense Fund for less than a year, and that's the only full-time job in the nonprofit sector she's ever had. She also worked briefly as a law professor. Clinton spent the bulk of her career -- 15 of those 35 years -- at one of Arkansas' most prestigious corporate law firms, where she represented big companies and served on corporate boards.

It's budget day on the Hill, and the president is breaking the $3 trillion barrier. "President George W. Bush will acknowledge on Monday that a slowing U.S. economy will lead to a higher budget deficit this year and next, as he unveils a $3 trillion fiscal 2009 spending plan that would boost military funding but nearly freeze many domestic programs," Reuters' Caren Bohan reports.

As for hopes of keeping down that deficit . . . "Bush will project budget deficits of about $400 billion for both fiscal 2008 that ends September 30 and fiscal 2009, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The budget situation will be inherited by the next president, who succeeds Bush in January 2009."

The TV networks certainly think Super Tuesday is big; ABC is leading the way with five hours of live coverage, Matea Gold writes in the Los Angeles Times.

And with us talking sports omens, the RNC offers this flashback: from 2004: Sen. John Kerry, "wearing a Red Sox cap as he bounded into a morning rally in Toledo, recalled someone phoning a radio show early in the campaign and saying, 'John Kerry won't be president until the Red Sox win the World Series.' He exclaimed, 'Well, we're on our way!' " (Mary Dalrymple, "Kerry, Bush Campaigns Spar Over Basking In Red Sox Win," The Associated Press, 10/28/04)

The kicker:

"No talking -- jinx rules." -- Former senator Bill Frist, R-Tenn., in a Coca-Cola commercial with Democratic strategist James Carville, in the Super Bowl ad that surely had the most Americans saying, "Who are those guys?"

"The sooner we can wrap this up and start kissin' each other, the easier it's going to be to win in November." -- Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, a McCain supporter (and former Giuliani supporter) who hopes to have chosen his last candidate for the year.

"They can redeem themselves on Tuesday -- they can vote for a winner." -- Hillary Clinton, asked how New England fans can cope with their loss to the New York Giants.

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