When you've spent 35 years getting ready for Day One, why not spend the rest of the 36th year (and even what might be the last 12 days of your campaign) continuing to talk about it?
The Texas showdown wasn't quite another California lovefest, but Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton brought out no new major messages or attacks. The internal debate seems settled: There will not be a dramatic new appeal by the candidate we were once told everybody heard of but nobody knew.
She kept up her general argument (experience matters) and one specific critique (Obama = Xerox) but kept acting like Sen. Barack Obama was her friendly, talented (if sometimes naughty -- copying off your friends!) little brother, and not an extremely serious threat to her political existence.
After losing 11 straight contests (and with polls tight in her two must-win states) she needed something game-changing in Thursday night's debate, with only that and an Ohio debate Tuesday standing out as big dates before March 4. It's hard to argue that she got what she was looking for.
"Was that a white flag waving over Texas?" AP's Ron Fournier writes. "Clinton ducked several chances to criticize Obama and repeatedly went out of her way to stress similarities in her next-to-last chance to corner the front-runner in a debate before Ohio and Texas vote."
ABC's Kate Snow writes that even after Clinton clamored for more debates, "she did not use the opportunity to strike a game-changing blow. And it was her final comment of the night -- after an hour and 40 minutes of debate -- that drew the biggest response."
That moment probably was the closest approximation of her poignant New Hampshire scene since her eyes started welling up in that diner on primary-eve. "You know, the hits I've taken in life are nothing compared to what goes on every single day in the lives of people across our country," Clinton said, in an exchange that was quickly YouTubed and fashioned into a fund-raising appeal.
(And she closed with a clever zinger: "We're going to be fine. . . . I just hope that we'll be able to say the same thing about the American people.")
But, writes Snow: "Given the tight nomination battle she finds herself in, some may read that comment as a poignant admission that she may not end up as the party's nominee." Said ABC's George Stephanopoulos, unless she turns things around fast, "That almost felt like the first draft of a concession speech."
Could her "no matter what happens" line have been a signal that she's willing to let March 4 settle this thing out -- that, if she loses one of her two must-wins, she won't split the party in a summer-long delegate battle?
"Clinton seemed to surrender, graciously," The Nation's John Nichols writes.
Asked about the exchange Friday morning on ABC's "Good Morning America," Clinton told Diane Sawyer, "I intend to win. . . . For us, it's not so much about what happens to each of us individually, but it's what happens to the people I see every day."
A few other nuggets from the interview: Clinton said she wouldn't buy into her husband's contention that Ohio and Texas are must-wins: "I don't make predictions." She said she has had "conversations" with former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., over the past few weeks. And she forget to check www.delegatehub.com -- she put the magic delegate number at 2,025, not the 2,208 the Clinton campaign is saying it is (if Michigan and Florida count).
At the debate, her sharpest words came over Obama's words -- the lines he borrowed from his friend and supporter Gov. Deval Patrick, D-Mass. "Lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in, it's change you can Xerox," she said, drawing boos and hisses from the crowd in Austin.
(But who's the one whose message seems unoriginal these days? And if Obama is Xerox, what if Clinton is Hydrox: a more mature -- yet ultimately less successful -- brand?)
"It was not clear that Mrs. Clinton, in the toughest position of the campaign for her, had done enough to change the course of the contest," Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times.
"Mrs. Clinton appeared relaxed at times as she made her case. At other points, she looked as if she could not wait to deliver punches or respond to Mr. Obama's remarks. Still, little that she said appeared to rattle him."
"Her goal was to undercut her rival's credentials to lead the nation," Wayne Slater writes in The Dallas Morning News. "But she had to do it without seeming disagreeable, and in the end, she seemed to fall short of the goal: raising enough questions about his qualifications to stem the Obama tide 12 days before Texas and Ohio vote."
The Wall Street Journal's Christopher Cooper and Amy Chozick found the moment "elegant", but add: "Still, the debate didn't seem to provide the much-needed turning point for the New York senator to slow the momentum of her Illinois rival."
As for Obama, he "was wonky and detailed enough to set heads nodding in Capitol committee rooms, but delivered probably the most effectively boring debate performance in recent presidential politics," Peter Canellos writes in The Boston Globe.
The stakes on Tuesday: The new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows a dead heat in Texas (Clinton 48, Obama 47), and Clinton with a slight edge in Ohio (50-43). "Differing demographic and political profiles in Texas and Ohio change pieces of the puzzle -- but both contests look close, with more than enough moveable voters to tip the balance either way," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes.
Among the warning signs for Clinton: "Obama beats Clinton in the perception that he's got the best chance of winning in November by 47-36 percent in Texas and 48-37 percent in Ohio."
"The closeness of the races in Texas and Ohio underscores the challenges facing Clinton over the next 12 days of campaigning as she seeks to end Obama's double-digit winning streak in their battle for the Democratic nomination," Dan Balz and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post.
"Clinton advisers have expressed optimism about her prospects in the two contests, but the new polls suggest that the momentum Obama achieved in his string of victories has turned both into true battlegrounds."
The bar has been set (and won't move much lower than this position): Per the Times' Healy and Zeleny, "Clinton advisers have said Mrs. Clinton must win the Texas and Ohio primaries by at least 10 percentage points if she has any hope of catching up with Mr. Obama in the delegate count, particularly because he has shown momentum recently at picking up support from elected officials who count as superdelegates."
And the January FEC report tells part of the story of the tough spot she finds herself in. Per The New York Times, there's the nearly $100,000 went for party platters and groceries before the Iowa caucuses, $25,000 for rooms at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and $5 million in a single month to consultants -- including $3.8 million to Mark Penn's firm (now topping $10 million [!!] in billing for the campaign).
The report "appeared even to her most stalwart supporters and donors to be a road map of her political and management failings," the Times' Michael Luo, Jo Becker and Patrick Healy report. "Several of them, echoing political analysts, expressed concerns that Mrs. Clinton's spending priorities amounted to costly errors in judgment that have hamstrung her competitiveness against Senator Barack Obama of Illinois."
"The spread between what Clinton and Obama have paid their top aides is striking," Dan Morain writes in the Los Angeles Times.
"In numerous instances, Clinton has paid vastly more for staff and accouterments and less on the services that directly win votes. Clinton paid $266,000 to communications director Howard Wolfson last month. . . . Obama's communications director, Robert Gibbs, receives $144,000 a year."
Seriously, though -- $95,000 at a Hy-Vee in West Des Moines? (This week only, that would purchase 95,959 pounds of split chicken breasts, or 53,672 pounds of Hy-Vee brand butter.)
"At the time, the idea seemed like evidence of Clinton's massive turnout operation, but in hindsight it indicates Clinton's support was soft compared to Obama's hungry army of first-time voters," Geoff Earle reports in the New York Post.
"The heavy spending helps explain why Clinton's camp ended the year $7.6 million in debt, not including her $5 million loan to her campaign."
All that spending hasn't helped Clinton from staying a half-step behind the Obama team over the past two-plus weeks: "Her straits represent a massive failure of planning and organization," the Christian Science Monitor's Linda Feldman writes. "Her campaign operated on the assumption she would have the nomination effectively locked up with the 22 contests on Feb. 5, and it spent accordingly. The lack of a Plan B has left her scrambling for cash and organizing late in the post-Super Tuesday contests."
But the Clinton campaign can hope that more stories like this take root: "Obama once visited '60s 'terrorists' " reads the headline on Ben Smith's Politico piece. Smith describes William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn as "two of the most notorious -- and unrepentant -- figures from the violent fringe of the 1960s anti-war movement."
"Now, as Obama runs for president, what two guests recall as an unremarkable gathering on the road to a minor elected office stands as a symbol of how swiftly he has risen from the Hyde Park left to a man closing in fast on the Democratic nomination for president," Smith writes.
Ayers was at SUNY-New Paltz on Thursday. "In his lecture yesterday, Mr. Ayers did not mention Mr. Obama or make any direct reference to the Weather Underground," Christopher Faherty writes in the New York Sun. "Asked after the event about his relationship with Mr. Obama, Mr. Ayers said he had no comment."
Over to the Republicans -- gee, you think the Times has any more scandals it can splash about Sen. John McCain -- you know, just to make sure he's the nominee and all?
Conspiracy theories aside, McCain, R-Ariz., went head-to-head with the nation's most influential media organization -- and he won the news cycle. And yet -- this is still a story the McCain campaign would very much liked to have seen buried forever.
The McCain team had plenty of time to prepare for this day -- and the plan called for a prompt press conference where McCain literally answered every last question.
"He may have a reputation for being hot-headed, but this morning in Toledo, Ohio, a serene McCain took questions from reporters until they ran out of them, answering a clear, definitive 'no' when asked about details from the Times story," ABC's Jake Tapper and Nitya Venkataraman report.
But: "At the very least, the controversy threatens to tarnish McCain's image not only as a maverick who stands up to special interests but as a 'straight talker.' "
That was McCain's focus at the press conference: "At no time have I ever done anything that would betray the public trust or make a decision which in any way would not be in the public interest or would favor anyone or organization," he said.
What better statement on how the story landed than this: By the end of the day, both the McCain campaign and the RNC were raising money based on a story that suggested the McCain had an affair with a lobbyist. "The presumptive Republican presidential nominee and his allies went on the offense as they dismissed the charges," Laura Meckler and Susan Davis write in The Wall Street Journal.
It's just possible that the whole story was a net-plus, particularly if it gives conservative voices cover to support McCain.
The right-wing talk radio crowd may dislike McCain, but they really, really dislike The New York Times. They offered "tepid support for the presumptive Republican nominee by dismissing the New York Times story," ABC's Jennifer Parker writes.
Rush Limbaugh: "There is nothing in it here that you can say is true." Sean Hannity: "It is beyond disgraceful."
And there's a big element of told-you-so. Limbaugh: "If you let the media make you, you are subjecting yourself to being able to let the media destroy you." Laura Ingraham: "I ask the McCain campaign this question: Do you need talk radio now?"
The story just might have blown over already; after 36 hours in the public realm, there's been no significant reporting that advances the storylines.
"McCain squarely faced the cameras and microphones and directly and unequivocally answered each uncomfortable question, leading many observers to suggest that his only real long-term exposure might come from whether at some point it turns out he lied or misspoke while rebutting the assertions," Dan Nowicki writes in the Arizona Republic.
Yet, after that morning press conference, the media-friendly McCain was a man hunkered down for war. "Before McCain boarded his plane, reporters were asked to sit farther back than usual on the plane," Newsweek's Holly Bailey reports. "And when McCain finally boarded the plane, he failed to offer his usual wave at reporters and opted to quickly take his seat."
"Anytime John McCain declines to speak to the press, something horrible must be happening," Time's Michael Scherer writes.
"The 2 p.m. press conference was canceled, despite the chairs and riser that had been set up for the cameras. The candidate was ushered out of the building, with his family and staff. The press was ushered off to a hotel for three hours in a mirrored dining room, until McCain finished a fund raiser."
A fascinating figure in all of this remains John Weaver -- the only McCain aide who went on the record with the Times. He told ABC's Jake Tapper that he has always been looking out for McCain's best interests: "From the moment I left the campaign until today, not one day -- not one -- has gone by that I haven't reactively or pro-actively talked with the campaign leadership, with state leadership about how the campaign and how to win. To suggest anything else is wrong, a lie and meant to do nothing but harm."
New York Times columnist David Brooks explores the Weaver-Rick Davis rivalry -- getting to the core of John McCain. "Davis is a creature of the political mainstream. He is even-tempered and charming. He is a lobbyist and a friend of lobbyists. He is a good manager. In policy terms, his tastes tend toward the Republican center," Brooks writes.
"Weaver is a renegade. He has a darker personality. He's not a member of elite Washington circles and resented the way McCain would occasionally get pulled into them. Weaver is a less effective bureaucrat, but his policy instincts are more daring and independent. The Davis-Weaver rivalry has lasted for so long because John McCain has a foot in each camp."
As for the press end of things, Gabriel Sherman's piece in The New Republic (the one that might have pressed the story into print) is relatively rough on the Grey Lady.
"The publication of the article capped three months of intense internal deliberations at the Times over whether to publish the negative piece and its most explosive charge about the affair," Sherman writes. "It pitted the reporters investigating the story, who believed they had nailed it, against executive editor Bill Keller, who believed they hadn't. It likely cost the paper one investigative reporter, who decided to leave in frustration."
And the story so quickly turned into one of those journalistic navel-gazing episodes that the Times is set to answer questions -- including those from more than 2,400 comments -- on Friday.
Former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., is holding his fire: "I only know him to be a man of integrity. Today he denied that any of that was true, I take him at his word," he said, per ABC's Kevin Chupka.
McCain's management of the story that could have derailed his candidacy makes him ABC's Buzz Maker of the Week.
It is very possible that another story that broke yesterday will have a bigger long-term impact on McCain. "The nation's top federal election official told Sen. John McCain yesterday that he cannot immediately withdraw from the presidential public financing system as he had requested, a decision that threatens to dramatically restrict his spending until the general election campaign begins in the fall," Matthew Mosk and Glenn Kessler write in The Washington Post.
This is, potentially, a very big deal: "If the FEC refuses McCain's request to leave the system, his campaign could be bound by a potentially debilitating spending limit until he formally accepts his party's nomination. His campaign has already spent $49 million [against a $54 million cap], federal reports show. Knowingly violating the spending limit is a criminal offense that could put McCain at risk of stiff fines and up to five years in prison."
Check out the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
Also in the news:
Obama campaign lawyer Bob Bauer is issuing some schoolyard legal threats at the organizers of the new pro-Clinton 527: "This is not a case where there's shades of gray. This is not a case where there is room for argument. This is not a case where they will be spared by some version of Philadelphia lawyering," Bauer said, per ABC's Teddy Davis and Sunlen Miller. "This is going to wind up being a very, very miserable experience for the people involved. Maybe, in some cases, life changing." (Wow -- no he didn't!)
"Is that guy for real?" responded Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the American Ledership Project, per the New York Daily News' Michael Saul.
DNC Chairman Howard Dean weighs in on the role of superdelegates -- and Camp Clinton can't like what it's hearing. "They are going to follow the wishes of the voters in their states, and I'll tell you why. They are elected by the voters in their states," Dean tells National Journal's Linda Douglass. "Superdelegates are not cigar-smoking people who take corporate jet rides from lobbyists. Superdelegates are elected by the same people who went and elected the other delegates."
Also from Dean, on McCain: "He doesn't seem to really have an ethical compass."
The Wall Street Journal's Jackie Calmes looks at Obama's recent success among the superdelegates: "The superdelegates aren't party bosses of old, and they are as split as the voters have been," Calmes writes. "Those few who lately have taken sides are tipping to Sen. Barack Obama. Contrary to the conspiracy theorists warning of backroom deals against the will of voters, these superdelegates have committed to the Illinois senator because voters in primaries and caucuses have given him 10 straight victories, and a lead in the separate pledged delegates won as a result."
Sorry, Chelsea: The DNC's youngest superdelegate, 21-year-old Marquette University junior Jason Rae, is going with Obama, despite that breakfast with the former first daughter, ABC's Karen Travers reports.
Is this the sound of a drumbeat starting? "We do think it is time to bring this nomination process to a close," "Change to Win" chair Anna Burger said on a conference call with reporters, per ABC's Teddy Davis and Sunlen Miller. "It could be time for her to realize that change is happening and it is happening for Barack Obama."
On the radar screen: The Rezko trial is set to begin March 3, giving Obama a bit of a distraction on March 4.
A downside of the mega-rallies: "Security details at Barack Obama's rally Wednesday stopped screening people for weapons at the front gates more than an hour before the Democratic presidential candidate took the stage at Reunion Arena," Jack Douglas Jr. writes in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "The order to put down the metal detectors and stop checking purses and laptop bags came as a surprise to several Dallas police officers who said they believed it was a lapse in security."
Ohio math isn't quite as bad as Texas math -- but it isn't much better. "By most electoral standards, a 60 percent to 40 percent win is an old-fashioned trouncing," Jessica Wehrman explains in the Dayton Daily News. "But should either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama win by that margin in Rep. John Boehner's 8th Congressional District on March 4, it won't have much impact at all."
"Ohio was supposed to be Hillary Clinton's firewall," Bloomberg's Lorraine Woellert and Kristin Jensen write. "Instead, Senator Barack Obama has cut into all her strengths heading into the March 4 Democratic primary, as he did in the last 11 presidential-nominating contests, and Clinton is fighting for her political life."
"You have to laugh to keep from crying." -- Hillary Clinton, informed by ABC's Diane Sawyer that she has now been a presidential candidate for 398 days.
"Fun day. Fun day." -- John McCain, calling out to the press as he boarded his campaign plane after an interested 24-hour stretch.
"Feller, how you feeling, man? I've asked you twice. You look like you're a little pale. . . . Have you vomited yet today?" -- President Bush, to AP's Ben Feller, aboard Air Force One.
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