The Note: Super Countdown

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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.

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