It comes down to this for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton: What can a 20th debate bring that the previous 19 haven't?
By now, we get it -- there's the 35 years of experience, the battle scars, the 10-point plans, Day One. But one more time (with feeling now) -- in a "change" election, where Democratic voters have shown no inclination to look backward, how exactly is it that Clinton, D-N.Y., will help them look forward?
As one debate veteran joins Sen. Barack Obama's bandwagon, it's Clinton's last chance to hit reset before the voters of Ohio and Texas determine her fate -- and her challenge is to bring Obama down a bit while building herself up. If Monday's terrain-shifting speech is preview, the arrows will obscure the olive branches at Cleveland State -- and it won't matter what outfits the candidates wear.
Barring a major misstep (and practice makes perfect), not even a last debate is going to change everything, or even reverse a months-long trend line. But at least, this time, (we think) we know which Clinton we're going to get: Expect sharp contrasts (and sharp language) in snowy Cleveland Tuesday at 9 pm ET, in what could be the last Democratic debate of the cycle.
Ladies and gentlemen, your closing argument: Clinton "assailed rival Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., as unwise, inexperienced, impulsive and indecisive -- in short, a risk to the nation," per ABC's Jake Tapper and Eloise Harper.
If you want to get Democrats' attention, compare a rival to George W. Bush: "We've seen the tragic result of having a president who had neither the experience nor the wisdom to manage our foreign policy and safeguard our national security," Clinton said Monday.
The speech "was part of an effort that the former first lady's advisers say is aimed at 'raising the stakes' in the contest," Perry Bacon Jr. writes in The Washington Post (though as omens go, the fact that she lost her voice mid-way through wasn't forgotten).
"Over the next week, Clinton will seek, in sometimes dark terms, to frame the challenges facing the next president in the hopes that it will reinforce the experience argument that failed to stop Obama from winning 11 straight contests so far."
It's "kitchen sink" time, Patrick Healy and Julie Bosman write in The New York Times.
It "reflects her advisers' belief that they can persuade many undecided voters to embrace her at the last minute by finally drawing sharply worded, attention-grabbing contrasts with Mr. Obama," they write.
But "they said she would try to avoid making harsh personal attacks on Mr. Obama, particularly since Mrs. Clinton drew widespread attention and praise at the debate last week for saying she was 'honored' to be on the same stage with him."
Clinton needs to make this a choice, not a referendum. As targets go, there's NAFTA, 527s, pilfered words, the experience gap, the untested-media-darling thing, and (big maybe here) nefarious insinuations, as epitomized by what was either a clumsy attempt to get a photo of Obama in African garb into circulation or a clever attempt to make Clinton look desperate.
(That last dust-up -- we trust -- settles on the second day, its motives and message shrouded to all but Mr. Drudge.)
But darkness is beginning to settle on the campaign -- and not in the way Clinton wants. This remains a "change" election where she is the status quo. What if Obama has grown in stature because of his relative lack of experience -- his freshness -- not in spite of it?
Winning is making Obama look like a winner (novel concept). The numbers back it up: It's Obama 54, Clinton 38 in the latest New York Times/CBS national poll; three weeks ago, they were tied at 41.
"In the past two months, Senator Barack Obama has built a commanding coalition among Democratic voters, with especially strong support among men, and is now viewed by most Democrats as the candidate best able to beat Senator John McCain in the general election, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll," per the Times' Robin Toner and Dalia Sussman.
"Mr. Obama has made substantial gains across most major demographic groups in the Democratic Party, including men and women, liberals and moderates, higher and lower income voters, and those with and without college degrees," they write. "But there are signs of vulnerability for Mr. Obama, of Illinois, in this national poll: While he has a strong edge among Democratic voters on his ability to unite and inspire the country, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York is still viewed by more Democrats as prepared for the job of president."
The AP-Ipsos poll finds similar movement: "The Associated Press-Ipsos poll highlights how the bottom is falling out among some supporters of Clinton, the New York senator, since the last survey was taken two weeks ago," Alan Fram and Trevor Tompson write.
Another poll to bake things in: "The sense that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is more electable than Hillary Rodham Clinton has trumped concerns about whether he has the experience necessary to be a good president, a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds," USA Today's Susan Page writes.
"The air of inevitability that once surrounded Clinton has shifted to the Illinois senator, now seen by seven in 10 Americans as the likely Democratic nominee."
Forget the infighting, the contradictory messaging, and the strategic blunders. Another novel concept: Obama could be winning every bit as much as Clinton is losing, per The New York Times' Adam Nagourney.
"There is one factor that, more than anything else, may prove to be the root cause of Mrs. Clinton's troubles: Senator Barack Obama," Nagourney writes. "If Mrs. Clinton ends up losing the race, the real reason may be nothing more than she was not better than an opponent she could never have anticipated."
The Obama train picks up a passenger on Tuesday: Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., becomes the first former candidate (among those who stuck around for the voting) to make an endorsement, dropping his promise to remain neutral in the race at a 9:30 am ET press conference in Cleveland.
Chelsea Clinton (profiled Tuesday evening on ABC's "Nightline") understands the stakes: "I think we do have to win in Texas," she said Monday night in Lubbock, per ABC's Kate Snow. "And I think we will win in Texas if we work hard."
Add Dee Dee Myers to the second-guessers: "I think the campaign [has] in many ways been poorly run, which I don't think anyone expected from her given all her experience and experienced people she surrounded herself with," Myers told NY1 News.
And don't underestimate the magnitude of this concession: Harold Ickes tells The Boston Globe's Susan Milligan that it would it will be nearly impossible for Clinton to end the primary season with a majority of pledged delegates. Said Ickes: "She would have to win percentages in those states that are just plain unattainable."
The Washington Post's Dana Milbank writes up the "alternate universe" of Camp Clinton, on display for reporters Monday at a Christian Science Monitor Breakfast.
"To keep the press from declaring the race over before the voters of Ohio and Texas have their say next week, Clinton aides have resorted to a mixture of surreal happy talk and angry accusation," Milbank writes.
"Yesterday, Ickes played the good cop. 'We think we are on the verge of our next up cycle,' he reported."
It's "full recriminations mode" for the Clinton campaign, Mike Allen and John F. Harris write for Politico.
"Looking backward, interviews with a cross-section of campaign aides and sympathetic outsiders suggest a team consumed with frustration and finger-pointing about the apparent failure of several recent tactical moves against Barack Obama," they write.
"Looking forward, it is clear Clinton's team has only a faint and highly improvisational strategy about what to do over the next seven days. Simply put, there is no secret weapon."
For all that (and it's quite a lot to swallow) . . . the long-awaited Obama scrutiny is coming.
ABC's Terry Moran profiled Obama's years in the state senate on Monday's "Nightline." It's a portrait of a hard worker with a pronounced cautious streak.
"Whatever it was, he didn't want to stick his neck out, he didn't want to risk alienating some group," said one former colleague, state senator Daniel Cronin, a Republican. "And that sort of ambivalence is sort of scary when you think about a guy who wants to become commander in chief."
With some thanks to Ralph Nader, more questions are being asked about Obama's position on Israel. "More than a year into his run for president, Obama is still explaining his record, relationships and religion to Jewish voters," Lynn Sweet reports in the Chicago Sun-Times.
"Obama is taking criticism from the left and the right as he is facing crucial votes in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, states with significant Jewish populations."
"Jewish and Israel-related issues are bubbling to the surface of the presidential contest as senators Clinton and Obama tussle over the Jewish vote in Ohio and Republicans seize on Ralph Nader's new claims that Mr. Obama until recently harbored 'pro-Palestinian' views," Josh Gerstein writes in the New York Sun.
"On Sunday morning, Mr. Obama spent an hour trying to address the concerns some Jewish leaders in Cleveland had about his candidacy. Last night, President Clinton's ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, arrived in Ohio for two days of meetings that Mrs. Clinton's campaign arranged to reach out to Jewish voters and rabbis."
Hello, Mr. Rezko: "The name of Democratic presidential front-runner Barack Obama is likely to brush up against the impending federal corruption trial of Antoin 'Tony' Rezko as the result of a judge's ruling Monday," Bob Secter writes in the Chicago Tribune.
"U.S. District Court Judge Amy St. Eve, who is presiding over Rezko's trial, told prosecutors they could introduce evidence to support allegations that Rezko used straw men to make political contributions on his behalf."
His lack of experience does matter to some, per the Washington Times' Rowan Scarborough.
"Members of Washington's military and defense establishment are expressing trepidation about Sen. Barack Obama, as the Illinois senator comes closer to winning the Democratic presidential nomination and leads in national polls to become commander in chief," Scarborough writes.
The Washington Post's Alec MacGillis asks: What if Obama is all about his speeches?
"His campaign's key turning points have nearly all involved speeches, and his supporters are eager for his election-night remarks nearly as much as for the vote totals," he writes. "But his success as a speaker has also invited a new line of attack by his opponents."
There's Obama's differing takes on outside spending -- differing, it seems, based on whether the spending is for him or against him. "The powerful Service Employees International Union -- whose local chapters helped John Edwards in the Iowa caucus -- is now pouring cash and manpower into helping Senator Barack Obama in the Texas and Ohio primaries," Leslie Wayne writes in The New York Times.
The Columbus Dispatch's Mark Niquette and Catherine Candisky notice that Obama didn't have a crisp answer when asked by a voter Monday whether the changes he's talking about will take place in time to help her.
"I think it's going to take . . . my goal is in my first term to get us on the right track," Obama said. "Now, how that plays out for people individually, is I want to provide them relief as quickly as we can but the only way we're going to do that is by you guys sharing your stories. I mean, I hope members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are listening."
Are reporters beginning to realize that there's no reason to heart Obama? "He is establishing himself as the candidate who keeps the most distance from the national media," Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown reports.
"Reporters covering Obama can no longer move freely among the thousands of zealous supporters at his events -- unless the reporter receives a staff escort through the security gates. . . ."
"And the traveling press corps has been shut out of monitoring Obama's satellite interviews with local media outlets, which is a normal practice on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign. On top of that, the traveling media has been tussling with Obama aides to keep conversations with the candidate on his campaign plane on the record."
(Chalk this up as one big McCain advantage if they end up meeting in the general election.)
As for the Drudge-stoked story of the day on Monday, the picture is officially out there -- and yet the earth still spins on its axis. It was political grist before David Plouffe and Maggie Williams started sparring over it, and by the time the candidates got involved late Monday, it was one of those great bouts over nothing and everything.
"The notion that they would try to use this to imply in some way that I'm foreign, I think is, you know, unfortunate," Obama told Dallas/Ft. Worth radio station WBAP.
"These are the kinds of political tricks and silliness you start seeing at the end of campaigns."
"Let's just stop and ask yourself: 'Why are you -- why is anybody concerned about this?' " Clinton told ABC Dallas affiliate WFAA-TV. "This is one more attempt by my opponent's campaign to change the subject."
So let's change the subject -- just like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would like to. This is one of those comments and one of those days where McCain is very happy that the Republican fight is just about over.
Per the AP's Liz Sidoti: "John McCain said Monday that to win the White House he must convince a war-weary country that U.S. policy in Iraq is succeeding. If he can't, 'then I lose. I lose,' the Republican said. He quickly backed off that remark. 'Let me not put it that stark.' "
It doesn't quite work that way: "Nevertheless, Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, made clear that he believed his prospects in November would rest in large measure on the way the situation in Iraq played out," Michael Luo writes in The New York Times.
McCain is using this window (while the Dems still fight on) to walk back his comment about a century-long war in Iraq, ABC's Bret Hovell and Ron Claiborne report.
He reminded himself of the comment that Obama or Clinton will want to make famous, and then explained: "My friends, the war will be over soon," he said. "The insurgency will go on for years and years and years. But it will be handled by the Iraqis, not by us. And then we decide what kind of security arrangement we want to have with the Iraqis."
McCain's broader challenge: disentangling himself from President Bush. "One drawback for McCain: On three major issues -- Iraq, the economy and health care -- he has embraced Bush's unpopular policies," Bloomberg's Ed Chen writes.
"McCain's need to calibrate his relationship to Bush evokes memories of then-Vice President Al Gore's ambivalence toward Bill Clinton during the 2000 presidential campaign, during which Gore mostly sidelined his boss. A key difference: Clinton was popular and his policies enjoyed wide public support." (And Gore lost.)
ABC's Claiborne sees McCain moving beyond the distraction of last week -- but threatened by a new one.
"McCain seemed to have put behind him the bruising end to the last week during which he was accused in the nation's premier newspaper of having an 'inappropriate relationship' with a female lobbyist," he writes. "But the unresolved issue of whether the Republican presidential candidate can opt out of public campaign financing still looms over the candidate."
Former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., just wants one itty-bitty New York Times takedown.
"I'm kind of hoping The New York Times will take me on and run a nasty front page story -- may be the best thing that could happen to me, certainly was to him," Huckabee said, ABC's Kevin Chupka reports.
And he's still waiting for a Macaca moment: "One word can end a guy's political career, one word, and it's over."
Four tread in Ohio on Tuesday -- McCain in Cincinnati and West Chester, Mike Huckabee in Columbus and Mason, while the Democrats settle in to rock Cleveland Tuesday night. Get all the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
I'll be live-blogging the debate from Cleveland, from 9 pm to 10:30 pm ET, at ABCNews.com's Political Radar.
Also in the news:
Get ready for some Texas-style GOP mischief in the Democratic primary, with Republicans eager to find a way to vote against Clinton, Bennett Roth reports in the Houston Chronicle.
"An unusually large number of Republicans and independents may cast their votes in the Democratic contest next week, a prospect that could tip the outcome of what polls show is now a tight race," Roth writes.
"Even though polls show that Clinton would be a weaker candidate against McCain than would Obama, experts say Republicans, who have long expressed a visceral distaste for Bill and Hillary Clinton, want to prevent her from being on the ballot in November."
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. covers the McCain-related questions that a questionable story didn't put to rest.
"Even if the sex goes away, the underlying questions raised last week in the story for which the New York Times took such grief are unlikely to disappear," he writes.
"The Times has been rightly chastised for improperly opening the door on McCain's private life. But the window it opened on the candidate's relationship with Washington's special-interest world will not close anytime soon, especially if McCain's explanations keep raising new questions."
New York Times columnist David Brooks offers a dissenting view. "McCain has fought one battle after another against lobbyists and special interests," he writes.
"Over the course of his career, McCain has tried to do the impossible. He has challenged the winds of the money gale. He has sometimes failed and fallen short. And there have always been critics who cherry-pick his compromises, ignore his larger efforts and accuse him of being a hypocrite."
USA Today's Ken Dilanian does some accountability reporting on the Democratic candidates. "Both Democratic presidential candidates, who promise to curb the influence of corporate lobbyists in Washington, helped enact narrowly tailored tax breaks sought by major campaign contributors," Dilanian writes.
"Obama seems to have calculated that such labels can be distracting - that some voters have negative associations with the term liberal that obscures their support for such Democratic priorities as affordable healthcare and higher education for all," he writes.
"He may be right. But his reluctance to own the term in a forthright way is somewhat surprising because Obama has said he wants to be a transformative figure like Ronald Reagan, whose crusade against liberals and big government has dominated American political discourse for almost 30 years."
Maybe experience doesn't matter -- at least not to Democratic primary voters.
"If all goes well for Sen. Barack Obama, he will ace tonight's debate in Cleveland, chalk up decisive wins in Texas and Ohio next week and lock down the presidential nomination, an amazing feat for someone who was a state legislator just three years ago," Todd J. Gillman writes in the Dallas Morning News.
"Democratic rivals got little traction arguing over the past year that he lacks the experience needed in a commander in chief. The 10 million voters who've backed him in primaries so far didn't seem to mind."
Slate's John Dickerson has an interesting take on Monday's photo fallout: "The swift reaction from the Obama forces was good damage control and even better umbrage-taking, a political tactic that has been elevated to a high art in the 2008 campaign," he writes.
"There was once a time when campaigns didn't respond to items like this for fear of giving them too much publicity. But if done correctly, candidates can exploit flamboyant displays of public upset to gain attention, raise money, put their opponents on the defensive, and distract from an unfavorable story."
This is no two-for-one deal -- right? ABC's Jake Tapper notices Bill Clinton sliding into the first person: "So Hillary says, in 2005, the United States Congress adopted the Bush-Cheney energy bill, which gave $27 billion in subsidies to nuclear, oil, and gas and coal. The only thing that was justified was clean coal, because countries are going to be using that. We have to figure out how to take the carbon dioxide out of it. The rest of it is waste. If you elect me, I'll repeal those subsidies. And put them into a strategic energy fund that will create American jobs for America's future with clean energy."
Obama and Clinton want to renegotiate NAFTA, but their fellow Democrats aren't so crazy about that idea, ABC's Teddy Davis writes. "The practicality and advisability of such a position was questioned Monday evening by four fellow Democrats who serve with them in Congress," he reports.
John Edwards is back -- but not to make an endorsement, at least not yet. Per ABC's Raelyn Johnson, "Edwards is stepping out of the shadow of his recently failed presidential bid, joining a grassroots campaign to showcase the cost of the Iraq war and focus on defeating Republican frontrunner Sen. John McCain in the fall."
Will Ralph Nader be spoiler? Well -- it's not quite certain that he was in 2000, per ABC's Gary Langer. "Whether Nader indeed cost Al Gore the presidency is less of an open-and-shut case than you might think," he writes. "And whether we'll see another storm so perfect that a 2.7 percent candidate can be even accused of tipping the balance is hardly a sure bet."
Romney for Congress? Josh Romney, that is. The 32-year-old tells the Deseret News' Lisa Riley Roche that he's considering a House run in Utah. With instincts like this -- how can he miss? Says Josh Romney of his father's loss in Iowa: "It killed a lot of my dad's momentum, to be honest. (That was really damaging." The Iowa caucuses, you may recall, were the first contests of the 2008 cycle.)
"I don't need to hurt Hillary. She is doing a fine job of that herself, along with her idiot husband. Karma is an interesting thing." -- Gennifer Flowers, putting the tapes she says document her affair with Bill Clinton up for auction.
"As we all know in this city, I have a very short memory." -- Harold Ickes, informed by ABC's David Chalian that Obama now holds a delegate lead of a size that Ickes once said would be "significant."
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