The Note: Cruelest Cuts

If you're looking for signals that the Clintons may have overstayed their welcome and overplayed their hand (and that some superdelegates like to dream just as much as their constituents) pay attention to a man who knows the power of symbolic gestures.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., is no ordinary superdelegate (oxymoron alert). He brings with him the scars of the civil rights movement, the aspirations of his voters, and a desire for comity within his party in making it known that he (even maybe) plans to cast his vote at the convention for Sen. Barack Obama, not Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the candidate he had endorsed.

"Something is happening in America, and people are prepared and ready to make that great leap," Lewis tells The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny and Patrick Healy, (maybe/probably) joining Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., as a superdelegate who's making a late switch.

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Per Zeleny and Healy, Lewis is offering himself up as peacemaker -- and this is not the kind of piece Camp Clinton wants. "He also said he and other lawmakers would meet in the coming days to decide how they intended to weigh in on the nominating fight," they write.

"The comments by Mr. Lewis underscored a growing sentiment among some of the party's black leaders that they should not stand in the way of Mr. Obama's historic quest for the nomination and should not go against the will of their constituents."

He may not have switched yet -- a Lewis spokesman tells The Washington Post that he's only contemplating a defection, and hasn't made up his mind yet -- but the import has already been felt.

As the lobbying picks up among superdelegates who are members of Congress, this is what the Clintons reap for what they sowed in South Carolina, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., tells ABC's Jake Tapper.

"Those of us who live in the South especially, we know the code words when we hear them, and we understand the tone. People felt some of that was going on and they reacted to it in a very bitter way," Clyburn says.

Clyburn took particular offense to former President Bill Clinton's Election-Day comparison of Obama to Jesse Jackson: "It was an attempt to isolate the ethnicity of the candidate," he tells Tapper.

The Lewis defection "is a huge blow to the Clinton campaign," ABC's George Stephanopoulos reported on "Good Morning America" Friday. "If the superdelegates start to crumble, start to defect on Hillary Clinton, she's going to have a very, very uphill fight -- almost an impossible fight -- to get this nomination."

There's a direction to the campaign, with trajectories that savvy politicians recognize. Try to discern a pattern in scattershot (only mostly unrelated) events:

- The SEIU on Friday will endorse Obama, joining the United Food and Commercial Workers in handing Obama key union support, now that John Edwards is out of the race.

- A Clinton will spend at least part of every day this month shaking the money tree.

- The campaign is being outmaneuvered on the ad front.

- Happy Hillaryland has a "sense of melancholy" about it -- not to mention overt tension amid " 'increasing frustration' with Mark Penn, Clinton's campaign strategist and pollster, and the closest thing to a Karl Rove-type figure within the campaign," per ABC's Kate Snow and Jennifer Parker.

If there are indeed less than three weeks left of the Clinton political dynasty, history will record that Clinton spent a decent chunk of her final 21 days as a candidate stirring up the classic debate over debates -- a tactic that's rarely worked since Cicero was serving in the Roman Senate.

But she has also settled on a different (and clear) line of attack: That Obama, D-Ill., is all talk, no action. "Some people may think words are change. You and I know better. Words are cheap," she said, per ABC's Kate Snow and Eloise Harper.

Campaigning in Ohio, Clinton, D-N.Y., "sought Thursday to become the populist of the presidential race by proposing restrictions on an array of industries and casting rival Barack Obama as more beholden to corporations," AP's Jim Kuhnhenn reports. (Channeling John Edwards and/or appealing to John Edwards?)

The day brought a "sharpening of the rhetoric, if not yet the knives," per the Milwaukee Journal's Greg J. Borowski, "as Hillary Rodham Clinton directly accused Barack Obama of ducking a Wisconsin debate and of lifting ideas from her economic plan."

President Bill Clinton is reading from the same playbook (at last): "I think that action counts more than rhetoric, that solutions are more important than speeches, however beautiful," he said in Wisconsin, according to the La Crosse Tribune's Reid Magney.

The tactic of contrasting herself with Obama just might work for voters who are just tuning in now and still harbor doubts about whether this first-term senator with the funny name has what it takes to be president.

Fresh polls provide a bright spot for Clinton: New polls show her in control of the race in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Yet even with her victory in New Mexico finalized (finally, giving her exactly one additional delegate), Clinton finds herself battling perceptions that her campaign is slipping.

Her decision to all-but cede the caucus states seems to have backfired, The Washington Post's Dan Balz reports, noting that Obama's victory in Idaho, for instance, netted him 12 additional delegates; Clinton's win in New Jersey gave her only 11 more than Obama won.

"It is [a decision] that, in retrospect, baffles Democratic strategists and, even more so, the operatives on Obama's team," Balz writes.

"Clinton now faces a difficult mathematical challenge. She will need big margins in upcoming states to make up ground. A split of 52 percent to 48 percent in Ohio on March 4 would net her only about five more delegates than Obama would gain. A 60-40 victory in Ohio would give her about 30 more delegates than him. In Texas, a 55-45 split would give Clinton about 19 more than Obama, although Texas rules are so convoluted that those numbers may overstate the difference."

It all contributes to the perception that the campaign could be over by the end of the night March 4. "Her elevation of Ohio and Texas to must-win status may well turn out to be a game-changer for the Democratic race," Jackie Calmes writes in The Wall Street Journal.

"Instead of a long fight for delegates up to the August convention, which all sides had come to expect after no candidate scored an early knockout, their rivalry may be decided much as nominations have been in past years' contests -- based on perceptions: If Sen. Clinton doesn't win both states, she will be widely perceived to have lost, no matter that neither candidate yet has the needed 2,025 delegates."

As for what comes next -- the Times' Zeleny and Healy have a hint as to what won't be coming. "Clinton advisers said Thursday that it was unlikely they would broadcast 'horrible nasty negative ads,' in the words of one adviser, and that they were wary of going too negative against Mr. Obama, given what the Clintons say is the news media's tendency to coddle and protect Mr. Obama and portray the Clintons as an attack machine."

As the momentum builds -- and Clinton scrambles for footing -- Barack Obama is ABC's Buzz Maker of the Week.

On the Republican side -- Mike Huckabee isn't good at taking hints. Sen. John McCain and former governor Mitt Romney didn't look like they wanted to be standing next to each other Thursday in Boston, but Romney's endorsement fairly shouts the question: Why is Huckabee still a candidate for president?

"Even when the contest was close and our disagreements were debated, the caliber of the man was apparent," Romney said (though he wasn't quite so ready to concede that point a week ago).

"The former adversaries were all smiles at Romney's former campaign headquarters in the North End, where Romney gave McCain his blessing in front of a giant American flag," Scott Helman writes in The Boston Globe.

"It made for an odd tableau, for they spent much of the past 18 months at each other's throats -- McCain had likened Romney to a pig and called him a flip-flopper; Romney dubbed McCain a dishonest liberal as recently as 10 days ago."

Don't miss this detail: "Romney and McCain took only two questions and then walked off as reporters yelled 'Is this the ticket?' -- a reference to whether McCain would consider Romney as his running mate. They did not answer."

If Romney's delegates all cast votes for McCain, R-Ariz., he be just shy of the nomination (and he's basically sealed the deal even without those votes). Very slowly yet rather surely, the pieces are falling into place.

Even his frenemies on Capitol Hill stand ready to help. "Senate Republicans are circling their wagons around Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- a significant strategic shift to protect their presumptive presidential nominee and leave President Bush more isolated," The Hill's Manu Raju and J. Taylor Rushing report.

"Now that McCain is the presumptive nominee, said GOP aides, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will increasingly coordinate strategy with McCain on high-profile bills."

Count Rush Limbaugh among the unconverted: "It's entirely possible I will go the distance without saying I support a candidate," Limbaugh tells The New York Times' Jacques Steinberg. And he's not expecting McCain to come groveling for his support: "I don't think there's anything he could do. If he did do it, he would be accused of selling out."

As for Huckabee -- Politico's Jonathan Martin finds his Saturday destination on a map (hint -- it's on the other side of Cuba, and no, there are no convention delegates at stake there).

Huckabee "pledged to remain in the race even though there were not enough remaining delegates to put him over the top," Michael Cooper writes in The New York Times.

Said Huckabee, on CNN: "Most people are, right now, saying it looks like McCain is the inevitable nominee, but I'm not most people."

"We're not ready to say 'Game over,' " Huckabee said on the stump, per the Wisconsin State Journal's Mark Pitsch.

While Huckabee packs for the Cayman Islands (the weather is a bit different in Wisconsin this time of year), McCain also hits the Badger State. Obama restarts the campaign engine in Wisconsin, while Hillary Clinton campaigns in Ohio and Bill Clinton works Texas. All the candidates' schedules are available in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

The weekend's big event: Clinton and Obama speak back-to-back in Milwaukee on Saturday, at a state Democratic Party dinner. ABC's George Stephanopoulos catches up with McCain on the trail in Wisconsin on Friday for an interview airing Sunday on "This Week."

Also in the news:

This story might be very relevant very soon: Could Obama be backing out of his pledge to abide by public campaign finance limits in the general election? This pledge, from last March, was rather unequivocal (and poised to become rather famous): "If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election."

But now, with McCain offering him a chance to formalize the deal, "Obama's campaign refused to reaffirm its earlier commitment," Elisabeth Bumiller reports in The New York Times. McCain adviser Mark Salter: "He either places value on that or he's just fooling voters."

Salter previews the general election for The Boston Globe's Sasha Issenberg: "He has run entirely on his persona being different. It's important that we puncture that myth," he said. "What we've got to get people to see is one guy is real and one guy is just a promise." (Hmm, they should share notes with Clinton.)

McCain has begun hitting Obama over earmarks. "My friends, examine my record on earmark and pork barrel projects, and you will see a big fat zero," he said in Vermont on Thursday, per ABC's Bret Hovell.

The Center for Responsive Politics opens a fascinating window into the world of superdelegates. The super-d's "have received at least $890,000 in political contributions from Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- going back to 2005 -- with Obama sending a larger share of cash to the influential party insiders," per ABC's write-up of the report.

Per the report: "In cases where superdelegates had received contributions from both Clinton and Obama, all seven elected officials who received more money from Clinton have committed to her. Thirty-four of the 43 superdelegates who received more money from Obama, or 79 percent, are backing him."

McClatchy's David Lightman looks at who might broker a delegate deal: It should be DNC Chairman Howard Dean "at least on paper," but "his role has been more of an executive director than spokesman and statesman."

Writes Lightman, "in this tense time, when Democrats are whispering and wondering about whether there's a wise man or woman out there who could step in and break the presidential candidates' deadlock, the Democratic Party chairman isn't being widely considered as a natural for that role."

The prospect of an ugly convention has Democrats spooked. "This would be a train wreck," former DNC chairman (and Clinton supporter) Don Fowler tells USA Today's Fredreka Schouten, who focuses on the potential battle over non-delegates from Florida and Michigan.

The AP's Nedra Pickler doesn't see the DNC backing down: "Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton desperately wants meaningless wins in Florida and Michigan to turn into votes she can count on. It won't be easy with the Democratic National Committee rules standing in her way."

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., offers some advice: "The answer, for the integrity of the process, is a do-over: Hold the Michigan and Florida Democratic primaries again," he writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. "The voters -- not the party insiders -- have the moral authority to choose the nominee. Democratic voters in Michigan and Florida should get that chance."

The Los Angeles Times profiles Obama strategist David Axelrod -- on the fast track to genius/guru/Rove (circa '04) status as the train leaves the station. "Axelrod is described as Obama's answer to Karl Rove and the most powerful political consultant not on a coast," Maria L. La Ganga writes. "And at a time when New York Sen. Clinton is shaking up her own campaign staff, he is someone, said one political observer, who 'ain't going to be fired.' "

Bloomberg's Timothy J. Burger looks to the general election to speculate on what will make the "Republican attack machine" run against Obama. "If Obama does become the Democratic presidential nominee, his Chicago ties might provide the fuel," Burger writes. "While the Illinois senator has never been accused of wrongdoing, some of the associations he formed as a community organizer and politician in Chicago may provide fodder for attacks."

Just when you thought they were getting along on the Hill . . .

"The House broke for a week's recess Thursday without renewing terrorist surveillance authority demanded by President Bush, leading him to warn of risky intelligence gaps while Democrats accused him of reckless fear mongering," Carl Hulse writes in The New York Times.

And: "The House yesterday escalated a constitutional showdown with President Bush, approving the first-ever contempt of Congress citations against West Wing aides and reigniting last year's battle over the scope of executive privilege," Paul Kane writes in The Washington Post.

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, spoke at Georgetown University on Wednesday night, and made some comments about his supporters that would guarantee an Internet firestorm if spoken by anyone else. "Everywhere I go, it seems like we are going to win with 80 percent of the votes," Paul said, per the Washington Examiner's Jeff Dufour and Patrick Gavin.

"It seems like we are supported by the fringe Internet . . . but I don't know where they are."

Ready to Obamify your vocabulary? (Get your Baracktorate of Baracketry in the study of Baracktology.)

The kicker:

"If you want that kind of a liberal Democratic course as president, then you can vote for him." -- Mitt Romney, on John McCain, three full weeks ago.

"I am honored today to give my full support to Senator McCain's candidacy for the presidency of the United States." -- Mitt Romney, on Thursday.

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