The Note: Hillary's Choice

Some politicians miss cues (sorry, Mike Huckabee, but jokes -- like campaigns -- rise and fall on the timing).

Some see cues and ignore them (welcome back, Ralph Nader, and this no joke -- but no keen grasp of timing, either).

For others, the cues are just starting to be delivered -- and we may see soon whether gentle tones from the orchestra are enough to convince a candidate to exit the stage (or whether the director will have to cut straight to commercial).

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Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., could fast be approaching the decisive moment of her campaign. She has eight days to slow the juggernaut that is Sen. Barack Obama's campaign -- or those tentative voices (heard now even among denizens of Camp Clinton) asking her defer to the good of the party will rise into shouts.

Her internal struggle pits the Clinton campaign against the Clinton legacy. The Clintons, of all people, know you can't stop thinking about tomorrow -- and they have many tomorrows in Democratic politics regardless of how this campaign turns out.

Viewed another way, Sen. Clinton is already at the decisive moment of the campaign -- down though not yet out, and in desperate need of new line of attack that can shake up a race that's tipping against her.

She found a defiant new voice on Sunday, her outrage joining sarcasm and incredulity over the fact that she finds herself at this point: "I could stand up here and say lets just get everybody together, lets get unified," Clinton said, per ABC's Eloise Harper.

"The sky will open, the light will come down celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know that we should do the right thing, and the world will be perfect."

She's focusing on an Obama mailer on trade that she describes as deceptive -- but more generally, she is trying to focus attention on a rival who has never gotten the same scrutiny she has.

"Clinton traded her usual wonky style this weekend for a fiery, populist tone," Perry Bacon Jr. and Alec MacGillis write in The Washington Post. She's channeling John Edwards: "You are not going to wave a magic wand and have the special interests disappear," said Clinton.

This is the tactic she'll ride into Tuesday's debate in Cleveland -- the one where she said over the weekend she wants to have a debate with Obama "about your tactics and your behavior in this campaign."

"If you're not wiling to be pinned down, if you continue to put forth misleading information about one of the most important issues we face, namely how to get everyone health insurance, then what is it that people are really hanging on to as people cast their votes?" Clinton tells the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody.

"I think there is a big difference between talk and action. And there certainly is a difference between the words of Sen. Obama's speeches and the actions of his campaign."

But pardon us if we thought we'd detected a closing argument or two before. "She tried TV ads saying he ducked debates. She accused him of plagiarism. She disparaged his huge crowds. She called his attacks on her shameful and dishonest. On Sunday, Clinton turned to ridicule," Michael Finnegan and Mark Z. Barabak write in the Los Angeles Times.

"Clinton's string of tactical adjustments comes amid Obama's 11-contest winning streak, which has given him the lead in delegates to the party's national convention."

"For Hillary Clinton in particular, this week is do or die," ABC's Jake Tapper reported on "Good Morning America" Monday. "Her shifting tone may symbolize internal tensions within the campaign as to how to wage the fight this week."

Camp Clinton is hoping for a swing in the pendulum of media sympathy and scrutiny -- and they hope every reporter in the country saw the opening skit in the return of "Saturday Night Live."

"The obvious bias of the pundits dancing on Hillary's grave. It's the only dance they know," Bill Clinton said Sunday, per ABC's Sarah Amos.

That frustration appears to boil over onto the Drudge Report on Monday -- with the picture of Obama dressed as a Somali elder that a Clinton aide is reportedly convinced we'd be seeing "on the cover of every magazine if it were HRC." (If it really is the work of someone associated with the Clinton campaign, it has atypical fingerprints all over it -- and it's an interesting call on a day where Clinton is giving a "major" speech on foreign policy.)

In a rare week without a primary or a caucus, everyone gets to breathe -- though not for long. "Two weeks as the underdog on the brink of elimination could cast Mrs. Clinton in a more sympathetic light," John Harwood writes in The New York Times.

"And the lull before March 4 could lower the temperature for the hotter candidate." Said Obama strategist David Axelrod: "I'd be lying if I told you we won't miss February."

The candidate sees inspiration in the signs at her rallies, AP's Beth Fouhy writes. "In Houston last night, it was, 'We Want Experience, Not An Experiment,' and 'The White House Is No Place for Training Wheels,' " Clinton said at a Boston fund-raiser Sunday. "People are starting to say, 'Hey, you know, we've got two candidates. We've been a little more focused on one than the other in terms of asking hard questions."

She can try to change that by asking those questions herself on Tuesday, and through a pitter-patter attack on the stump. But the stakes are larger than her campaign.

"If Hillary Clinton attempts to disembowel Obama and fails, there might be a backlash that could reduce her stature in the Senate and Bill Clinton's reputation as an elder statesman," John F. Harris and Mike Allen write for Politico.

A twist on the dilemma: Even if she wins Texas and Ohio by substantial margins, she will almost certainly still trail Obama in the delegate count. "If Hillary Clinton wanted a graceful exit, she'd drop out now -- before the March 4 Texas and Ohio primaries -- and endorse Barack Obama," Newsweek's Jonathan Alter writes in an agenda-setter.

"Withdrawing would be stupid if Hillary had a reasonable chance to win the nomination, but she doesn't," Alter writes. "To win, she would have to do more than reverse the tide in Texas and Ohio, where polls show Obama already even or closing fast. She would have to hold off his surge, then establish her own powerful momentum within three or four days."

One of the reasons she's not going anywhere anytime soon: "Who will tell her that it's over, that she cannot win the presidential nomination, and the sooner she leaves the race, the more it will improve chances of defeating Sen. John McCain in November?" columnist Robert Novak writes.

Yet the warnings from Clinton supporters are starting to roll in, tentatively. Here's an early Clinton backer, Gov. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., still confident but maybe not for long: "I do think it is important that we get on to coalescing around a candidate."

Here's a Clinton-backing Kennedy, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who told a crowd in Maryland last week that she now expects Obama to win the nomination, per Taegan Goddard of PoliticalWire. "She said that she called the Clinton campaign and advised that they 'go out on a high note' but her advice was politely dismissed," Goddard reports.

Here's a Texas state representative, Aaron Pena, who said he's staying committed to Clinton but nonetheless showed up dancing at an Obama rally: "I will maintain my commitment," he said. "But it appears to be increasingly evident who's going to win."

We turn to Justice Biden for what may be the majority opinion. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on "This Week": "I'm not at all worried that super delegates are going to be rolling in and taking a position that's contrary to what the majority of, or the majority of individuals or states have done, in terms of their preferences. You're going to see those of us who are super delegates falling in line, in effect, with where the party is, in my view," he said.

Maybe concerned Clinton supporters are a step ahead of themselves -- or maybe it's Obama who's ahead of himself. "Aides to Barack Obama are putting the squeeze on Democratic officials, urging them to get aboard the campaign 'sooner rather than later,' " Ginger Adams Otis and Kathianne Boniello report in the New York Post.

Don't get cocky, kid: "Barack Obama has a Barcalounger manner about him these days, padding about those campaign stages like a man commanding his den," Michael Powell writes in the Sunday New York Times. "The trouble with electoral fevers is that they can burn out."

With a new Quinnipiac Poll showing Clinton up 51-40 in Ohio, Obama is stoking the Buckeye State fires by taking on Clinton on trade, blaming her for NAFTA: "She has essentially presented herself as co-president during the Clinton years," Obama told supporters in Loraine, Ohio, per ABC's Jake Tapper. "The notion that you can selectively pick what you take credit for and then run away from what isn't politically convenient doesn't make sense."

There's a tenor of gloom to the Clinton coverage -- if not the Clinton operation itself -- and nothing short of winning (and winning big) will turn it around. "Some supporters said they had discussed how to raise with Clinton the subject of withdrawing from the race should she fail to win decisively on March 4. One option was to wait a day or two and then dispatch emissaries to former president Clinton to urge him to make the case," Anne Kornblut and Shailagh Murray wrote in Saturday's Washington Post.

"If she is not temperamentally suited to reckon with the possibility of losing quite yet, advisers say, she is also a cold, hard realist about politics -- at some point, she is known to say, someone will win and someone will not," Patrick Healy writes in the Sunday New York Times.

Sage words to introduce Ralph Nader, who declared his presidential candidacy on Sunday with the defiant tone he's brought to his previous runs. Per ABC's Jake Tapper and Kim Randolph, he rejects the "spoiler" tag: "If Democrats can't landslide the Republicans this year, they ought to just wrap up, close down, emerge in a different form," Nader said on "Meet the Press."

"While political analysts said that Nader is unlikely to repeat his performance in the 2000 election, in which he won nearly 3 million votes, his presence on the ballot could still have an impact if the contest is close," Charlie Savage writes in The Boston Globe. No Democrat is happy with this: "He is ancient history and rapidly turning himself into a joke," said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic media consultant.

It's easy to remember 2000, but it's hard to imagine him doing better than he did in 2004, when he garnered .3 percent of the vote nationwide, per the Chicago Tribune's Mark Silva.

Said Clinton: "Obviously, it's not helpful to whoever our Democratic nominee is." Said Obama: "He seems to have a pretty high opinion of his own work."

"Yesterday was the high moment of his campaign in 2008," ABC's George Stephanopoulos said on "GMA." "History is repeating itself pretty much as farce."

On the Republican side -- does anyone remember the story that rocked the race last week? Surely The New York Times public editor, Clark Hoyt, remembers: "A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did," Hoyt wrote in his Sunday column. "And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide."

While Mike Huckabee was yucking it up with the "SNL" cast, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was picking up another 38 delegates, in US territories that voted over the weekend.

But McCain is concerned not with delegates but with dollars. His struggle to get out of the public-financing system for the primaries could be a major distraction; the thought of spending only $5 million over the next six months does and should make GOP operatives physically ill.

It does, however, make the DNC quite happy, which is why Howard Dean was quite willing to make some weekend mischief. "The national Democratic party wants campaign finance regulators to investigate whether Sen. John McCain would violate money-in-politics laws by withdrawing from the primary election's public finance system," AP's Jim Kuhnhenn reports.

Said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers: "Howard Dean's hypocrisy is breathtaking, given that in 2003 he withdrew from the matching funds system in exactly the same way John McCain is doing today."

This could take a while to get sorted out: "The situation is complicated by the current state of the FEC," Russell Berman writes in the New York Sun. "Squabbling over presidential nominees between the Bush administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress has four of the six seats on the commission vacant. The panel therefore lacks the four commissioners required for a quorum and cannot rule definitively either on Mr. McCain's attempt to withdraw from the system or on the forthcoming DNC complaint against him."

Clinton's delivers a "major foreign-policy speech" at George Washington University on Monday -- a chance to reframe the debate a bit (and, perhaps, sharpen her critique of Obama). Obama and McCain, meanwhile, campaign in Ohio.

Also in the news:

Previewing a possible general-election theme, Obama on Sunday vowed to push back aggressively at suggestions by Republicans and others that impugn his patriotism, ABC's Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller report. "The way I will respond to it is with the truth -- that I owe everything I am to this country. You will recall the reason I came to national attention was a speech in which I spoke of my love for this country," Obama said.

Bloomberg's Al Hunt sees a defining moment coming for Obama on the issue of campaign financing. "If Obama trips up, it's not likely to be over . . . any skeleton or scandal. It would be if his sense of genuineness erodes," Hunt writes. "Obama is a big campaign- finance reformer and gave every indication he would participate in this system in a 2008 general election. . . . Obama has waffled over the last week."

The Los Angeles Times' Mark Z. Barabak profiles some "Obamacans." "They are surfacing in surprising numbers," Barabak writes. "Though some observers question their commitment, they are blurring -- for now, at least -- the red-blue lines that have colored the nation's politics for the last several years."

This is a storyline Obama loves to see in Texas: "Ronald Reagan had his 'Reagan Democrats.' And now, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has turned the tables on the Republican Party with his 'Obamacans,' disaffected Republicans who are flocking to the Democratic presidential candidate the way disenchanted Democrats backed Reagan, though in smaller numbers," Scott Shepard writes in the Austin American-Statesman.

With a slightly spooky Dallas dateline, The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny breaks through the hushed concerns about Obama's safety. Says Obama: "Obviously, it was an incredible national trauma, but neither Bobby Kennedy nor Martin Luther King had Secret Service protection." Gerald Posner, who has written on the King and JFK assassinations, provides this squirm-inducing quote: "Barack scares those of us who think of the possibility of an assassination in a different way," Posner said. "He represents so much hope and change. That is exactly what was taken away from us in the 1960s."

USA Today's Kathy Kiely looks at the "generation gap" in Texas, writing that it's "clouding Clinton's hopes for a momentum-changing victory in Texas." "On paper, Texas should be Clinton country," Kiely writes. But "younger voters are a constituency that appears to be fueling what U.S. Rep. Gene Green of Houston, a Clinton backer, calls 'the Obama phenomenon.' "

The Dallas Morning News' Gromer Jeffers Jr. writes up another Obama advantage in Texas: "In his fight for Texas, Barack Obama has a sure-fire weapon that could bring down Hillary Rodham Clinton and ultimately win him the Democratic nomination for president. Black voters in the state's urban centers give the Illinois senator a solid base from which to mount his Lone Star campaign."

Clinton needs a big Ohio win, but Gov. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, thinks it could be close: "It will be hard fought and perhaps a narrowly decided victory but I do think that she will win Ohio," Strickland said on Bloomberg Television. Adds Strickland, on one of the issues of the moment: "Bill Clinton has told me personally that Hillary was not in favor of Nafta when it passed."

National Review's Byron York plays veepstakes for McCain: "He needs a running mate who will be a contrast to him in a few key ways -- younger, more knowledgeable about economic issues, and, especially, more conservative," York writes. "But if McCain selects a running mate whose conservative credentials are beyond dispute, he'll be choosing a candidate who likely disagrees with him on some issues of great importance to the Republican base."

Gov. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., tells York on immigration: "I'm the right-wing nut -- you've got to remember that."

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, R-Minn., looked good in his early tryout on Fox News on Sunday, saying of Obama, "When he says, 'Yes, we can,' we also have to ask the rest of the question, which is, 'Do what?' "

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, doesn't want to be on McCain's short list: "I don't want to be vice president. I do support Senator McCain. I think he is a hero," she said on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."

The Houston Chronicle's Richard S. Dunham profiles a (for now) quiet McCain adviser who has played an important series of inside and outside roles: former senator Phil Gramm, R-Texas. "For the past half-year, Gramm, a Texas A&M economics professor before he was first elected to the Senate, has been a man of all seasons for the McCain campaign," Dunham writes. "He has been an economic adviser, a strategist, unofficial budget director, a friendly face to a sometimes-beleaguered candidate and an all-around fireman."

Clinton's pressure on Obama is doing Republicans favors, Jennifer Rubin writes in the American Spectator. "By ridiculing his empty rhetoric and messianic style of politics, Clinton forced Obama to show his hand," Rubin writes. "After his victory last week in Wisconsin and again at the Austin debate, Obama revealed himself to be the most liberal candidate since George McGovern."

An RNC clip-and-save: "A review of the two candidates' records shows that both senators have shifted positions on numerous issues as the competition for votes has become more intense," Michael Dobbs writes in The Washington Post. "In some cases, the shifts have been subtle, a change of emphasis rather than an obvious reversal. But on other issues, both candidates are saying things that are quite different from their previous positions."

Kind words Obama could probably do without: "This young man is the hope of the entire world that America will change and be made better," Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan said Sunday, per the AP's write-up. "This young man is capturing audiences of black and brown and red and yellow. If you look at Barack Obama's audiences and look at the effect of his words, those people are being transformed."

Some interesting hedging on CNN from Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. Asked whether he supports McCain, he responded: "At the appropriate time, then I'll have something to say about it." (He's no Nader guy -- but maybe another independent, who happens to be the mayor of New York, is on his mind?)

The March 4 Texas primary has at least one other race worth watching. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is still a presidential candidate -- but he also has a serious primary challenge on his hands, per ABC's Z. Byron Wolf. "The D.C. neocons think their old dream is about to come true," Paul wrote in a fundraising appeal to supporters. "They think they can defeat me in the Republican congressional primary in Texas March 4. And you know what? They may be right."

The kicker:

"When it's time for me to go, I'll know, and I'll exit out with class and grace." -- Mike Huckabee, life imitating art imitating life imitating art, refusing to leave the "Weekend Update" table on "Saturday Night Live."

"You think everybody just has a crush?" -- Barack Obama, in an editorial board meeting with the Toledo Blade, explaining his appeal as a candidate.

Greatest fundraising invite of the year -- and the Oscar goes to, Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C. (Props to whomever convinced him to dance.)

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