The Note: Underdog Fight

It took until a day after Super Tuesday, as it happened, for the tsunami to strike: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is now the underdog in the Democratic presidential fight -- and that is very much not by design (Mark Penn's spin notwithstanding).

Feb. 5 -- the day that was once expected to seal the nomination for the Candidate Formerly Known as "Inevitable" -- was at best a duel to a draw, at worst the beginning of an erosion of Clinton's carefully constructed delegate lead.

Feb. 6 brought the stunning news that the Clinton campaign is essentially broke, running on a $5 million loan from the candidate herself, with senior staff foregoing paychecks and the candidate pleading with her opponent to accept five more debates (do we really need more?) over the next four weeks.


To recap some of what $100 million has purchased for Camp Clinton: the surging energy of Sen. Barack Obama's campaign; an unfriendly next batch of contests (Obama-friendly caucuses, and primaries with high numbers of black voters) that could narrow or even erase the delegate gap; and the intimidating prospect of Obama's virtually unlimited resources ($6.9 million and counting raised by the campaign just since polls closed Tuesday).

Clinton, D-N.Y., has tried on plenty of hats (and pantsuits), but tying her hair back as the underdog is a new role entirely for this Clinton. At least she's got time to try something different: The campaign is now a very expensive (and very long) war of attrition, and her personal cash infusion (more could still come) signals to her supporters that she'll swim through the rising Obama tide.


"With both candidates claiming the lead, Democrats dug in Wednesday for a prolonged nominating fight that will test Hillary Rodham Clinton's establishment support against Barack Obama's growing financial edge," Mark Z. Barabak and Peter Nicholas write in the Los Angeles Times.

One Clinton bright spot: "From now on virtually all the major contests are primaries -- not caucuses -- and Clinton has done better in primary states."

"With Super Tuesday leaving Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in a virtual deadlock, the fiercely fought Democratic presidential race has become a pitched battle for delegates -- and neither candidate is likely to win it anytime soon," The Boston Globe's Scott Helman reports.

"Obama argued that despite feeling victorious, he was still the 'underdog' because of Clinton's institutional advantages and broader name recognition."

There's plenty of spin here, but the short-term map does favor Obama, D-Ill. "Clinton advisers sounded especially grim on Wednesday about the upcoming contests, noting Mr. Obama's advantage with black voters in Louisiana, Maryland and Virginia and with liberals and young voters in Washington State and Wisconsin," Patrick Healy writes in The New York Times.

"They were already looking ahead and budgeting for the March 4 primaries in Ohio and Texas, when nearly 400 delegates will be at stake."

How many frontrunners do you know who ask for more debates? This letter is going out Thursday, from Clinton campaign manager (pro bono) Patti Solis Doyle to Obama campaign manager David Plouffe: "I was disappointed to see that Senator Obama rejected the idea of having more debates given the fact that he and Senators Clinton have had only a single one-on-one debate," she writes. "I think we can do better and so does Hillary."

Obama has built his own establishment, and while Clinton can fall back on her edge among superdelegates, watch for jumpers, switchers, and traitors if Obama starts racking up more victories.

"Given how competitive the race is, many superdelegates may remain neutral to see whether one of the two candidates gains a clear advantage," Shailagh Murray and Matthew Mosk write in The Washington Post.

"That, Democratic strategists said, would require Clinton or Obama to go on a lengthy winning streak that would include victories in the March 4 Ohio and Texas primaries. Obama is making a big play for Texas, with plans to open 10 offices there in the days ahead."

Clinton has Chelsea and Bill, and Obama has some big names of his own calling superdelegates: Campaign manager has "divv[ied] up superdelegate calls with the Senator's senior whips, including [Sen. Dick} Durbin, other members of the Illinois delegation, and Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and John Kerry (Mass.)," Erin P. Billings and Lauren W. Whittington write in Roll Call.

"All of Obama's Congressional supporters were invited to join another conference call Wednesday, and the main focus again was the effort to pick up superdelegate support."

Then there's less subtle ways to reach superdelegates. Obama on Wednesday said superdelegates "would have to think long and hard about how they approach the nomination when the people they claim to represent have said, 'Obama's our guy.'"

Per the New York Post's Geoff Earle: "The message: If you're an elected member of Congress, and your district backs Obama, casting a vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton could be bad for your political career."

Could Florida and Michigan matter again? "Barack Obama's advisers are anticipating the possibility of a Democratic presidential race deadlocked past the last primary, and the outcome may hinge on a fight over whether delegations from Florida and Michigan get seats at the party's national convention in Denver," Bloomberg's Catherine Dodge and Alex Tanzi write.

Among those fearing the prospect of a brokered convention: DNC Chairman Howard Dean. "I think we will have a nominee sometime in the middle of March or April," Dean said in an interview on New York 1, per the New York Sun.

"But if we don't, then we're going to have to get the candidates together and make some kind of an arrangement. Because I don't think we can afford to have a brokered convention -- that would not be good news for either party."

(Would a pre-brokered convention be that much better? And who's got the juice to force either Obama or Clinton out of the race? Try finding a party elder who doesn't have a horse.)

Self-funding does mean new scrutiny of Clinton's cash: "At a news conference in Virginia, Clinton said she used 'my money' to loan herself the $5 million. Later, communications director Howard Wolfson said the $5 million came from joint assets she held with former President Clinton," Dan Morain and Peter Nicholas write in the Los Angeles Times.

"The New York senator has written books that have earned her at least $6.6 million. But much of her wealth appears to have come from her husband's business dealings since he left the White House seven years ago," they write. "In her most recent financial disclosure, Clinton reported a joint bank account and a blind trust each worth between $5 million and $25 million. She also disclosed that former President Clinton had earned millions in speaking fees -- as much as $350,000 a speech."

A few reasons not to despair at Camp Clinton: The call-out for her Website in her victory speech Tuesday night seems to have worked: Blogger Taylor Marsh reports that Clinton's fundraising is up substantially, with the campaign set to launch a 72-hour, $6 million money drive.

Most importantly, these question simply cannot be answered (but they will be, soon enough). "Is [the Obama] campaign a series of surges of enthusiasm, often powered by the younger voters who form long lines waiting to hear Mr. Obama speak, that set expectations that are not met at the voting booth?" Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times.

"Or is it rather a slow-building force, one that despite faltering in New Hampshire and falling short on Tuesday in big states like California has allowed Mr. Obama to battle one of the most formidable political dynasties to a draw and will eventually propel him to victory?"

Speaking of uncertain frontrunners, on the Republican side, here comes Sen. John McCain in one of those overhyped moments that seldom does anyone much good or credit.

A year ago, McCain, R-Ariz., was free (and happy) to choose Letterman's couch over the Conservative Political Action Committee (and even THAT couldn't keep away the boos).

He doesn't have that luxury this year, not with Rush Limbaugh's fuming and conservatives even in his home state sending messages with their votes that he has not locked down the party's conservative core.

"The Conservative Political Action Conference is taking on the significance of a State of the Union address for Mr. McCain and his chief Republican presidential rivals, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee," Stephen Dinan writes in the Washington Times.

"Each is seeking to corral the backing of the conservatives who serve as the backbone of their party."

(His message is going to have to be deeper than to "just calm down.")

McCain's path to the nomination seems as secure as ever, and yet . . . they won't be all that friendly at the CPAC meeting in Washington. "This speech isn't just about the people in the room – McCain needs to convince the conservative wing of the Republican Party that he can unite the party in the general election against an enthusiastic (Fired up and ready to go?) Democratic Party," ABC's Karen Travers and Talal Al-Khatib write in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

"But with nearly 60 percent of the delegates he needs to win the nomination, does McCain even need to win over the CPAC crowd?"

Time's Michael Grunwald: "The dominant narrative for the rest of the Republican race could be McCain's uneasy relationship with the right. Though the Arizona Senator has solidified his claim to the GOP nomination, he still finds himself in a struggle to win over the party's skeptical conservatives without turning off the swing voters he'll need to win the White House."

McCain's problems on the right came into sharp electoral relief on Tuesday. "While the Arizona senator has a commanding delegate lead over his rivals, only 32 percent of self-described conservatives -- the majority of GOP primary voters yesterday -- cast their votes for McCain, according to exit polling," ABC's Jennifer Parker reports.

Rush Limbaugh on Wednesday said McCain is the Republican nominee "for all intents and purposes," but does he seem resigned to that fact? "Here's the thing about McCain: he can't win conservatives in the South by virtue of this primary yesterday," Limbaugh said.

"These blue states that McCain won last night are places where he has no chance in November."

Here's what makes it so tricky: McCain, of all people, knows he can't sacrifice his brand. "John McCain is putting his 'straight talk' reputation on the line today when he enters a convention full of conservatives who distrust what he has to say," Bloomberg's Ed Chen and Hans Nichols report.

"He needs to walk a fine line in courting conservatives, because he risks eroding his support among independents."

His message: "I think it's pretty obvious we need to re-energize our base," McCain tells USA Today's Susan Page and David Jackson. "Get 'em engaged again to help us win this election and reach out to the independents and the, quote, Reagan Democrats."

Yet McCain is a ways away from getting a clear field. "With words that did not thunder with confidence, Romney's spokesman told reporters, 'The governor's statement from last night is still operative. He is in this race until the convention,' " ABC's John Berman, Ursula Fahy, and Matt Stuart report.

Said one adviser: "We won one less state than McCain . . . and we have a lot more money." (This aide might have been off by a state or two).

But the situation from here is bleak: "Mitt Romney, who prides himself on 'wallowing in the data' before making tough decisions, now confronts an unforgiving mathematical landscape of delegate counts, polls, and popular vote tallies that suggest the odds are overwhelmingly against his presidential bid," Michael Levenson and Lisa Wangsness write in The Boston Globe.

"With 499 total delegates up for grabs through March 4, Romney would have to win more than 80 percent of them to catch McCain, assuming the Arizona senator won none. And, even if Huckabee won them all, he would still trail McCain."

Don't forget Mike Huckabee, either. "Vote totals in the South indicate that none of the candidates are uniting the party," ABC's Jake Tapper and Toni L. Wilson report.

Huckabee tells Tapper: "We won the states that a Republican has to win if he's going to win the White House."

Romney speaks at CPAC at 12:15 pm ET, and McCain follows at 3 pm ET.

Obama tours New Orleans on Thursday, laying out his "comprehensive program to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast," per his campaign (if not quite laying out his program for scooping up John Edwards supporters). Clinton campaigns in Arlington, Va., close to her campaign headquarters, with an eye on Tuesday's "Potomac Primary."

Get all the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

Also in the news:

ABC's Melinda Arons writes up the latest secret political society: "This isn't your typical clatch of concerned citizens. They all used to work for the Clintons in various junior and middle level roles. They are all currently supporting Obama. And they are all scared to death someone will find out," Arons writes. Says one: "The fact is is that the political arena for staffers is a business, and you have your own interests to protect."

This time, at least, when Clinton and Obama crossed paths on the Senate floor, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., made sure there were no snubs. While Clinton and Obama shared a brief chat on the Senate floor, "Kennedy cut in and made jokes at his own expense, prompting Obama to join in on the fun," Paul Kane writes in The Washington Post.

"Kennedy noted before a group of senators that Clinton's New York Giants had just stunned his New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, as well."

That exchange happened when senators convened to vote on a proposed economic stimulus package. The package failed to meet the 60-vote threshold by a single vote -- which happens to be the precise number of votes McCain held but did not cast, avoiding "a difficult choice given his status as the Republican presidential front-runner," the AP's Laurie Kellman writes.

McCain's plane landed at Dulles airport in time for the vote, but he skipped the Senate session. Before the vote, he told reporters: "I don't know if I'm doing that. We've got a couple of meetings scheduled."

Campaign spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker says McCain would have voted "no": "It was a procedural vote, and his absence wouldn't have affected the outcome as he would have opposed cloture."

ABC's Jake Tapper: "While his absence may not have changed the final outcome, that's not to say it's what in high school we might call an excused absence -- whether as a matter of image, a matter of tending to Senate business, and a matter of being present for key votes. And the stimulus package is pretty high-profile right now. McCain was the only one in the entire Senate to have missed the vote, including two others who are running for president."

Talking Point Memo's Greg Sargent has details of a new Obama mailer that has a new line of attack. "8 years of the Clintons, major losses for Democrats across the nation," reads the mailer, which lists post-1992 losses suffered by Democrats among governors, Senators and members of the House of Representatives.

Writes Sargent: "The mailer could signal that Obama plans to press this argument about the Clinton presidency more aggressively in the days ahead."

For such a close race, the Democrats sure are divided, and Tuesday played out the trends we're growing familiar with. "The two Democratic presidential candidates are earning a nearly equal number of votes nationwide by attracting starkly different demographic groups, a trend that could determine who wins the nomination," Michael Kranish writes in The Boston Globe.

"Clinton's supporters tend to be white women, lower-income, and Hispanic voters, according to Super Tuesday exit polls. Obama is popular among African-American, male, higher-income, and younger voters."

The Obama campaign's biggest demographic challenge: Latinos. "Barack had a pathetic campaign in the Latino community," Juan Andrade Jr., president of the Chicago-based U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute, tells the Chicago Tribune's Bob Secter and Michael Martinez.

"He deserved to get his butt kicked."

The RNC casts Clinton and Obama as the villains in the FISA debate, in a new Web video. Al Gore has voted -- but he's not telling. "He early voted," Gore spokeswoman Kalee Kreider tells Politico's Ben Smith.

"As a private citizens, neither of the Gores are releasing who they voted for."

The kicker:

"Not completely quixotic." -- Jesse Benton, Ron Paul spokesman, describing the Paul presidential campaign, to ABC's Z. Byron Wolf.

"I'm a little upset, but I really couldn't help it." -- Amber (Obamagirl) Ettinger, on how an illness prevented her from voting for Obama.

"Like, have you noticed a lot of security around here? It's because the Vice President heard there were some Ducks around." -- President Bush, welcoming the Anaheim Ducks to the White House.

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