As the candidates stamp their Valentine's Day cards for the superdelegates, know these two facts about the Democratic race:
Sen. Barack Obama has an edge, but he also has a math problem.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has the same math problem -- and also a democracy problem.
That's why they're both trying to tweak the rules of the nomination process in the middle of the game. (And it's why the Democratic Party just may need an elder to step in -- Al Gore, the party turns its lonely eyes to you. . . .)
By ABC's count, Obama, D-Ill., now leads by 51 in the delegate race -- and it's only that close because of Clinton's big edge among the superdelegates.
But Obama is not going to get close to 2,025 unless the superdelegates flock to him -- and thus the call from campaign manager David Plouffe for the supers to endorse the delegate leader, which is decidedly not what the system was created for. (Who likes looking inevitable now?)
Clinton, D-N.Y., has a trickier problem: She's falling behind in a game that's hard to catch up in. Her only paths -- even if played within the party's rules -- are ugly: Either her team manages to twist enough arms to get her the overwhelming support of the superdelegates (how many of these folks can be reminded of the jobs they had in the Clinton administration?), or she gets Michigan and Florida (contests she knew offered no delegates when she chose to semi-compete there) to count.
This is a Republican dream: "Neither candidate is expected to win the 2,025 pledged delegates needed to claim the nomination by the time the voting ends in June," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times.
"Mr. Obama's campaign began making a case in earnest on Wednesday that if he maintained his edge in delegates won in primaries and caucuses, he would have the strongest claim to the backing of the [superdelegates]," he writes.
"With every delegate precious, Mrs. Clinton's advisers also made it clear that they were prepared to take a number of potentially incendiary steps to build up Mrs. Clinton's count. Top among these, her aides said, is pressing for Democrats to seat the disputed delegations from Florida and Michigan."
In the perception game, not all delegates are created equal. This is a bad formula for Clinton -- complicated by the fact that she could extend her losing streak to 10 next week, and that even convincing victories in Ohio and Texas March 4 are unlikely to vault her into the lead among delegates who are elected, not selected.
"While Clinton still has a viable path to the nomination, that path was further clouded Tuesday when Obama made in-roads into demographic groups once thought to be Clinton's core: women, white men, Hispanics, and low-income Democrats," ABC's Jennifer Parker writes.
But, says Clinton communications chief Howard Wolfson, a tie is still possible (and Clinton likes her chances in a tie ballgame): "No one is going to get to 2,025 without a considerable number of superdelegates."
Yes, the Clintons have the edge with the supers -- but these are savvy politicians in their own right, who like to be with winners. "Conversations with party officials and an informal survey of the delegates show it's more likely they'll get behind the candidate who wins the most votes," Heidi Przybyla and Catherine Dodge write for Bloomberg News.
One very big hint from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is neutral in the race: "They'll be sensitive to the public will."
The Michigan and Florida scenario is even uglier -- and with Julian Bond and Al Sharpton having weighed in on opposing sides, is everyone ready for a resumption of some race wars (happily in abeyance since South Carolina)?
Sharpton just might be cozying up to the Obama campaign by arguing against counting Michigan and Florida votes: "I think the DNC is playing a dangerous game . . . [and could] open the door here for everything from litigation to demonstration," he tells the New York Post's Maggie Haberman.
"This smacks of the same stuff we accused the Republicans of in Florida in 2000 . . . changing the rules."
Now that Camp Clinton wants those votes to count, "Obama's camp said her demand was a blatant attempt to ignore the ground rules set when the national party stripped both states of their delegates for breaking early-primary rules," Beth Reinhard writes in the Miami Herald.
There's still a few plausible scenarios under which all of this is avoided. We will know much more after March 4, as James Carville (still advising the Clintons) conceded on Wednesday: "She's behind. Make no mistake. If she loses either Texas or Ohio, this thing is done," Carville said, per the Orlando Sentinel (and he repeated his assertion on CNN Wednesday night).
On the trail in Texas, Clinton told ABC's Kate Snow, "I don't think about it that way." But she didn't exactly vigorously deny the stakes: "My job is to do the very best I can in Texas and Ohio. . . . We have a lot of support and we are going to be here working hard until we find out what happens on March the 4th."
Clinton told the San Antonio Express-News that March 4 will be a "turning point day" in the race for the nomination. (But which way should we be prepared to turn?)
Terry McAuliffe, on "Today" (making Andrea Mitchell blush with Valentine's Day wishes), says he's "more confident than I have ever been." (God love the man's enthusiasm -- but seriously?)
No delegate spin or machinations change the fact that Clinton needs to start winning contests. And before she can do that, she needs to get the race back on her own terms. "The pummeling she took in Maryland, Virginia and the District raised new questions about her campaign's message and strategy, which Democratic strategists said she must fix if she hopes to slow Obama's growing momentum in time to defeat him in what are now must-win contests in Ohio and Texas on March 4," Dan Balz and Anne Kornblut write in The Washington Post.
Clinton is (again) playing some catch-up: "Having blown through more than $120 million, Clinton's campaign is struggling to build a campaign from scratch in Ohio and Texas, with political observers in near agreement that a failure to win both could be fatal," writes Time's Karen Tumulty.
"The Texas and Ohio presidential primaries, on March 4, have become must-win contests for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, her advisers say. So why is she just opening campaign field offices across those states?" Patrick Healy and Katharine Q. Seelye write in The New York Times.
"The answers go to the heart of Mrs. Clinton's current political challenge. She and her team showered so much money, attention and other resources on Iowa, New Hampshire and some of the 22-state nominating contests on Feb. 5 that they have been caught flat-footed -- or worse -- in the critical contests that followed, her political advisers said."
Things don't look good from the inside, either (and when stories like this make it outside the room, what does that say about where things are headed?).
"The campaign has something of a shellshocked feel, as staffers privately chew over a blowup last week where internal frictions flared into the open," Monica Langley and Amy Chozick writes in The Wall Street Journal.
"Clinton campaign operatives say it happened as top Clinton advisers gathered in Arlington, Va., campaign headquarters to preview a TV commercial. 'Your ad doesn't work,' strategist Mark Penn yelled at ad-maker Mandy Grunwald. . . . 'Oh, it's always the ad, never the message,' Ms. Grunwald fired back, say the operatives. The clash got so heated that political director Guy Cecil left the room, saying, 'I'm out of here.' "
This precious detail from the trail in Texas: "Mrs. Clinton stayed on the stump, wearing her trademark yellow jacket and a sunny disposition, while the campaign song blaring here, in Spanish, was 'Estos Celos,' or 'This Jealousy.' "
Clinton is trying to slow things down: There are 20 days left, and two debates -- and Clinton wants more of them. Clinton crossed the threshold of negative television ads (though perhaps lightly) by engaging in the debate over debates: The ad, accusing Obama of ducking debates, "suggests a sharper tone in the race," Greg J. Borowski writes in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
But it's an odd message emanating from a campaign that has signaled that it's looking beyond Wisconsin: "Clinton aides framed the debate over debates as Obama trying to hide from Wisconsin voters. The ad, however, was presented on a day when Clinton was in Texas and Obama was here," Borowski writes.
"Clinton is trying to pull a Rosie Ruiz. Ruiz, the putative winner of the Boston Marathon in 1980, actually sat out much of the race only to emerge near the finish line to claim victory," Bloomberg columnist Margaret Carlson writes.
"Clinton is virtually not running anywhere in February, planning to re-emerge in March to sprint to the finish line by triumphing in races in Texas and Ohio. Rudy Giuliani tried this in Florida, only to find that his chosen field of play would be his final resting place."
In Texas, Clinton is playing up a return to her roots -- she spent three months in San Antonio working for the McGovern campaign, in 1972. She "continued her sharper attacks against Sen. Barack Obama," ABC's Kate Snow and Eloise Harper report.
Said Clinton: "People live in hope, we have hope, what we need is help, and help is on the way. . . . This does not happen by wishing for it."
Clinton's hearing voices, too -- those of Barbara Jordan Ann Richards: "I can hear their voices saying, 'You keep going! You give the people a real choice about the future!' " she said at a campaign event in McAllen, Texas.
But Obama has the big voice of Big Mo in his corner -- and Clinton doesn't have many opportunities to steal him away. "He is no longer just standing toe-to-toe with Hillary Clinton," ABC's David Wright reports. "He is beating her and vowing to take the race all the way to the Democratic Convention."
This must hurt: "The man who served as national manager of former President Clinton's 1992 campaign endorsed Sen. Barack Obama on Wednesday," per the AP's Philip Elliott. (David Wilhelm is also a superdelegate, in case you're scoring at home.)
On Wednesday came Obama's economic plan. "Releasing the plan served a dual purpose for Mr. Obama: It answered charges from Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign and Republicans that he is more rhetoric than reality, and it may help him make inroads with working- and middle-class voters who have formed Mrs. Clinton's base during much of the primary season," Sara Murray and Michael M. Phillips write in The Wall Street Journal.
The turn to specifics is by design. It's "part of the Illinois senator's deliberate emphasis on bread-and-butter domestic issues as he tries to continue peeling white, working-class voters away from Senator Hillary Clinton and secure the Democratic nomination," The Boston Globe's Scott Helman reports.
Obama is also taking on Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as he seeks to join the general-election battle a tad early. McCain, Obama said, "traded principles for his party's nomination," ABC's Sunlen Miller reports.
Checking in with the Republicans . . . So you're Mike Huckabee, and you're desperate to have your longer-than-long-shot bid taken seriously. Where do you spend your weekend? Naturally, delivering a paid speech at the Young Caymanian Leadership Award, which -- unfortunately -- isn't actually in the United States of America.
Yes, he's being punished for his honesty (it would be easy to disappear from the trail for 24 hours of "down time"). But is his financial situation really this dire that he couldn't cancel?
"There will be a few more times when I gotta go out and make sure I can make my mortgage payments just like everybody else has to do. I am not independently wealthy," Huckabee said, per ABC's Kevin Chupka.
Here's as good an argument as any as to why Huckabee is really still in the race: "As he battles onward, Huckabee, 52, is gaining something else: A chance to be seen as a national leader of conservative evangelicals -- a potent force in the Republican Party -- and perhaps as their standard-bearer in a future presidential race," Michael Finnegan writes in the Los Angeles Times.
McCain is continuing to line up the support of the Republican establishment. "House Republican leaders gave Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) a winner's welcome on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, setting aside past differences to unite behind their party's near-certain nominee for president," Jill Zuckman and Jim Tankersley write in the Chicago Tribune.
McCain seems primed for a battle against Obama -- and if it happens, he'll be in it without one of his key players.
Mark McKinnon said Wednesday that he plans to make good on his pledge not to work against Obama: "I would simply be uncomfortable being in a campaign that would be inevitably attacking Barack Obama," he told National Public Radio, per ABC's Teddy Davis.
But that doesn't mean the McCain campaign will hesitate in attacking Obama. At a Christian Science Monitor lunch, campaign manager Rick Davis "said there's plenty of room to undercut Mr. Obama's support by pointing out information such as his ranking by National Journal as the most liberal senator in 2007," per the Washington Times' Stephen Dinan.
Said Davis: "I promise you, by the end of this campaign, you know, that will be right there on your refrigerator, under one of those magnets."
Here's another probable line of attack, and it works against either Democrat who's still in the field: "Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton helped secure more than $340 million worth of home-state projects in last year's spending bills, placing her among the top 10 Senate recipients of what are commonly known as earmarks, according to a new study by a nonpartisan budget watchdog group," Paul Kane writes in The Washington Post.
Obama's "$91 million total placed him in the bottom quarter of senators who seek earmarks." McCain, meanwhile, "was one of five senators to reject earmarks entirely, part of his long-standing view that such measures prompt needless spending," Kane writes.
Huckabee spends the day in Wisconsin, while McCain hits Vermont and Rhode Island. Clinton spends some quality time with her new valentine -- Ohio -- while Obama actually spends the day with his wife: He's down for the day, in Chicago. Get details of the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
Also in the news:
What Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, earned for his wide stance: a public rebuke from the Senate Ethics Committee. The committee unanimously found Craig to have engaged in "improper conduct" -- but "it carries no punishment beyond additional embarrassment for Craig," per the Idaho Statesman's Erika Bolstad.
"The letter represents another setback for the Idaho Republican. He saw the ethics process as one of two avenues available to him to clear his name."
Also on the Hill: "The House will vote Thursday to authorize criminal and civil contempt proceedings against White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers for failing to comply with Judiciary Committee subpoenas," Politico's John Bresnahan reports.
The long-distance courtship of John Edwards continues. Obama on Wednesday could not have been more effusive: "I think John Edwards is somebody who lifted up the issues of poverty and the working families, in a powerful way," Obama said, ABC's Sunlen Miller reports.
"I think he's extraordinarily talented. He is going to be a major voice in the Democratic party for years to come and I want him involved and partnering with me in moving this country forward." (Partnering?)
The Los Angeles Times' Dan Morain looks at the secret of Obama's fundraising success -- the small-dollar donors.
"Lately, the Obama fundraising approach has paid especially big dividends. It is easily outpacing Clinton's money-gathering operation, which began the race with a massive financial advantage and has relied more heavily on traditional big donors."
The Clinton campaign has dropped its threatened boycott of the MSNBC debate in Ohio Feb. 26.
Former President Bill Clinton weighs in on the Shuster mess: "If he had made a racial slur against Senator Obama, he would have been fired," he told a TV interviewer, per ABC's Jake Tapper.
USA Today's Susan Page looks at the "enthusiasm gap," as measured in primary turnout.
"The Commonwealth of Virginia hasn't gone Democratic in a presidential election since 1964. Yet when the returns were counted in the state's primary Tuesday night Democratic hopeful Barack Obama drew more votes by himself than the Republican field did combined."
Don't worry about Rush Limbaugh -- he'll be fine, even if McCain wins this thing. "There are always going to be liberals to rail against no matter who's in the White House," Limbaugh tells Time's Jay Carney.
"Arguing against liberalism and a Democrat agenda is always going to be on my plate, it's always going to be the first thing out there regardless of who the president is. I mean, I don't view myself as having to defend my President if he's in my party. That's not my job; that's not how I go about it.
The DNC gets into the Valentine's Day spirit -- with a new Web video featuring McCain and President Bush as sweethearts.
"I thought Cher was pretty hot." -- Obama, in the issue of People magazine that's out Friday.
"Because she's got more balls than anyone else I know. . . . Wait, can I say that?" -- Clinton supporter, in San Antonio, when asked why she supports Clinton's campaign.
"I am sorry, I don't know what that means." -- Roger Clemens, asked during his congressional testimony whether he's ever been a vegan.
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