The Note: Pillow Fight

If this was the kitchen sink, maybe it's beyond time to call a plumber.

What may have been the last Democratic debate was a tense and substantive affair, featuring two candidates at the top of their games (and who know all the plays a little too well by now).

It was also as exhausting as it was exhaustive, with two candidates who at this point could recite each other's lines rote. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., set the fast-paced tone for the evening -- but it didn't look quick enough to match the steady countdown to March 4, not for a campaign that's winless since Feb. 5.


Clinton now has six days to turn things around, and as she seeks to do more than simply slow Sen. Barack Obama's train, she'll now have to do it without the benefit of again sharing a room with her rival.

Clinton's tools were all on display Tuesday night at Cleveland State -- attacks on campaign tactics, healthcare differences, trade, questionable supporters, and (of course) his relative lack of experience -- yet Obama, D-Ill., more than held his own.

Clinton "was forceful, determined and, in moments, clearly frustrated with her underdog status and what she seems to see as a deck stacked against her," ABC's Jake Tapper and Eloise Harper write. "Obama painted Clinton as nothing less than a whiner, saying her campaign tactics against him have been consistently negative."

She probed plenty of areas that she can (and will) continue to exploit, but knocked no balls out of any park.

The debate "did little to change the overall shape of the race, which may play to Obama's advantage but will also make the final six days of campaign crucial to both candidates," Dan Balz, Anne Kornblut, and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post.

"By the end of the night, there was little evidence that Mrs. Clinton had produced the kind of ground-moving moment she needed that might shift the course of a campaign that polls suggest has been moving inexorably in Mr. Obama's direction for weeks," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times.

"It has been a continued source of frustration for her and her campaign. That did not change Tuesday night in Ohio. Mr. Obama, if anything, seemed an even more elusive target."

If there's a comeback narrative left in this campaign, now might be a good opportunity to start unfurling it.

And it was either Clinton's great misfortune or grand strategic play that her most memorable attack targeted not Obama but . . . the news media. "If anybody saw 'Saturday Night Live,' you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow," Clinton said, oddly suggesting that getting asked questions first is an example of media bias.

"When you're behind by as much as Sen. Clinton is write now . . . you have to strike a knockout blow. And she didn't," ABC's George Stephanopoulos said Wednesday on "Good Morning America."

As for the complaint about the tone of questioning, Stephanopoulos said, "Sen. Clinton has a point: She's being treated like the frontrunner . . . Now that doesn't mean that it makes sense to complain about. You never get helped in a debate by complaining about the referee."

(For the record, in the two debates before Tuesday night's, Clinton got the first question in 14 of the 25 rounds of questioning, Jake Tapper reported on ABC's "Good Morning America" Wednesday.)

(And NBC's Brian Williams did offer Obama a couple of queries that Amy Poehler could have rolled her eyes at: "How were her comments about you unfair? . . . How did you take those remarks when you heard them?")

Beat-the-press has particular resonance with her embattled staff and supporters -- but it may actually have taken Clinton herself off-message. As closing arguments go, when was the last time you saw a press-is-unfair strategy pay dividends -- in a Democratic primary, no less?

"Poor Hillary," AP's Ron Fournier writes of the "new tactic in Tuesday night's debate: self-pity." He continues, "It is not unusual for politicians to feel sorry for themselves. Obama is not above whining about criticism and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, has one of the thinnest skins in politics. But the New York senator's poor-me attitude punctuated a jarring week of shifting strategies from a desperate Clinton camp."

"It wasn't Clinton's most flattering moment; she seemed perilously close to declaring some sort of vast media conspiracy," Joanna Weiss writes for The Boston Globe. "But it seemed a calculated moment for Clinton, too. Last night, as she played the role of the frustrated challenger, she also tried to prove that righteous indignation can be a political asset."

Maureen Dowd pronounces the attack a dud in her New York Times column: "Beating on the press is the lamest thing you can do. It is only because of the utter open-mindedness of the press that Hillary can lose 11 contests in a row and still be treated as a contender."

In what might have been their last chance to face down each other -- and demand the collective attention of the entire media for at least a new cycle or two -- Clinton suffered from the same dynamic she benefited from back when she was ahead comfortably in the polls. Debates are graded on curves, with frontrunners controlling the arcs.

Newsweek's Howard Fineman: "Bottom line, on my scorecard: a tie at best, and certainly not enough of a win for Clinton to change the dynamics of the nomination contest, which Obama is poised to lock up."

Time's Michael Duffy: "Clinton tried time and again to draw sharp distinctions between herself and Obama, and argue that the differences matter; while Obama, turning aside most of the distinctions large or small, used his time to rise above the arguments, elevate the conversation and invoke the larger causes that dominate his campaign speeches. In this regard, Obama narrowly but unmistakably out-pointed Clinton, with the potentially decisive Ohio and Texas primaries less than a week away."

"Clinton dominated much of the debate -- for good or bad,"'s Chris Cillizza writes. "She repeatedly sought to take the fight to Obama over his campaign tactics, his commitment to universal health care, his alleged naivete on foreign affairs, and even his initial unwillingness to use the word 'reject' when decrying the endorsement he received from Louis Farrakhan. But Obama successfully parried most of Clinton's offense and even turned some of her aggressiveness against her -- as when he painted the difference between rejecting and denouncing Farrakhan as part of the old politics he was running to change."

It was Obama who this time offered gracious words at the close -- but Clinton again "seemed to hint -- as she had appeared to in Austin -- at the possibility of her own defeat," Politico's Ben Smith writes. "It's been an honor to campaign," Clinton said. "I still intend to do everything I can to win, but it has been an honor, because it has been a campaign that is history making."

From here Clinton seeks to stretch out a maddeningly short week, with daily themes -- children, veterans, GOTV -- that suggest a deliberate calmness, notwithstanding the external and internal pressures.

(The Obama campaign, meanwhile, celebrates its millionth donor on Wednesday. One million people have given his campaign money. It is February.)

Speaking of those pressures, this is a tough spiral for Clinton to pull out of. (What is it about the Clinton campaign that frees journalists to publish obituaries this early? It's always worth remembering that Clinton was dead twice before -- going into New Hampshire and Super Tuesday -- yet she's still in the mix.)

"Some close friends and counselors, in fact, now believe the only winning strategy left to the once-presumptive Democratic nominee is an exit strategy," Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News.

"That advice presupposes Clinton is doomed, and for now it's difficult to challenge that conventional wisdom. Six days before the do-or-die Ohio and Texas primaries, the prospects of game-changing blowouts by Clinton are slipping. Even many Clinton optimists admit Barack Obama is poised to capture Texas, and her Ohio lead has dwindled as Obama's claims that her NAFTA embrace exported working-class Buckeye jobs began scoring."

On Tuesday, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., issued the call Clinton may be hearing a lot of in a week or so, depending on what happens in Ohio and Texas. "It's now the hour to come together," he said Tuesday. And he tells ABC's David Wright that he wants off any veepstakes lists: "I'd rather be chairman of the Senate Banking Committee."

A big hint from Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., that he may get off the fence soon: "I don't think this race is over. But I may make a decision and do an endorsement," Richardson told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. He added that he doesn't feel bound to support Clinton just because New Mexico voted for her: "It was very close, Wolf, it was like half a percent. . . . So I think I have flexibility."

Given the current backdrop, the Clinton campaign is focusing more on keeping superdelegates uncommitted than on getting them to support Clinton, Tom Edsall reports for HuffingtonPost. "Top Clinton aides are pleading with uncommitted super delegates to hold off making any commitments, fearful that any commitments they make would be to back Obama, not Clinton," he writes. (How's that for a role reversal?)

If we get that far (April 22), that Pennsylvania firewall is looking about as secure as those crumbling edifices in Ohio and Texas. Clinton's Keystone State lead is down to six points (49-43) after standing at 16 just two weeks ago, per a new Quinnipiac University poll out Wednesday.

A new national poll is out Wednesday to underscore the electoral shifts: It's Obama 48, Clinton 42 in the Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times survey, with Obama "increasingly viewed as the Democrat best equipped to beat [John] McCain," Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla writes.

"Barack Obama is surging ahead of Hillary Clinton in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, though he would face a tough general election against Republican John McCain, who enjoys an advantage on national-security issues."

If Democrats needed another reason to want the nomination fight wrapped up soon, this might serve: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., beats both Clinton and Obama in hypothetical head-to-heads. (Notice how nothing unites a political base quite like having a name to run against.)

"Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain poses a stiff challenge to either of his potential Democratic opponents in the general election," Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times.

"The findings underscore the difficulties ahead for Democrats as they hope to retake the White House during a time of war, with voters giving McCain far higher marks when it comes to experience, fighting terrorism and dealing with the situation in Iraq."

As for McCain, here's guessing Bill Cunningham won't be invited back to many campaign events -- and McCain hasn't scored himself many invites to lunch dates with the right-wing radio cabal.

More remarkable than Cunningham's rant -- three mentions of "Barack Hussein Obama" are par for his radio rant-show course -- was McCain's response. "McCain apologized three separate times for Cunningham's remarks," ABC's John Berman reports.

"He said he takes 'responsibility' for him being here but says he has no idea who chose him and says he doesn't know him and didn't hear the comments when they were uttered but was told about them before he came on stage."

(Sorry -- but did the McCain campaign really not know who this guy was?)

McCain's condemnation of Cunningham brought a mocking rebuke from Rush Limbaugh, and real anger from Cunningham himself. Said Cunningham, in a video posted on his Website (one that included no middle names): "I'm angry at McCain. Why would John McCain repudiate me? I've been able to unite McCain and Obama against me. I might become a supporter of Ralph Nader."

(Don't miss the Rob Portman twist. Taking the stage right after Cunningham, Portman said: "Willie, you're out of control again. So, what else is new? But we love him." Then, alongside McCain at the new conference where he denounced Cunningham, he said he didn't hear all of his comments, per the Cincinnati Enquirer's Howard Wilkinson: "Bill Cunningham is a radio host who is often controversial," the possible McCain running mate said. "That's, I guess, how he makes his living.")

But McCain did win a fan in Obama. "It is a sign that if there is a McCain-Obama general election, it can be intensely competitive but the candidates will attempt to keep it respectful and focused on issues," said Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton.

For now, McCain is too mired in arcane FEC regulations to give much mind to an angry base or a future rival. Nothing -- not even McCain's position on immigration -- produces GOP cringes quite like the prospect of being capped at spending $5 million over the next six months.

McCain's $4 million loan is presenting one very large problem for his campaign, The Washington Post's Matthew Mosk reports. "Questions about the legality of the deal have turned the fine print of McCain's borrowing into a source of intense scrutiny among leading campaign lawyers," Mosk writes. "Several suggested McCain has landed in a legal bind: If McCain used the promise of public financing to secure the loan -- as Democrats suggest -- he faces strict spending limits. If public funds were not involved -- as [McCain lawyer Trevor] Potter argues -- that poses other problems."

And the FEC still doesn't have enough members to even render a decision. "FEC fingerpointing continues as questions remain about Republican presidential contender Sen. John McCain's obligation to the public financing system," ABC's Jennifer Duck and Z. Byron Wolf report. "If the posturing on Capitol Hill is any indication, this is not an impasse with a resolution in sight."

Also in the news:

Consistency alert: USA Today's Jill Lawrence collects a few debate exchanges that could be heard about again. "Obama hedged about whether he would take public money for the general election if he is the nominee, as he once said he would. Clinton was vague on when she'd release her tax returns except to say not before the next primaries."

Another key point: "The protectionist tone of the Democratic presidential race is reaching new heights as senators Clinton and Obama vowed last night to withdraw America from the North American Free Trade Agreement if Mexico and Canada do not agree to renegotiate the terms of the pact," Josh Gerstein writes in the New York Sun.

Happy birthday, Chelsea Clinton. And she's spending it on the campaign trail, as ABC's Kate Snow and Jeanmarie Condon report. "In the past three months, Chelsea, who turns 28 today, has gone from silent daughter to confident campaigner," they write.

"She knows her mother's stand on the issues, sometimes better than the staff who accompany her. She's fielded questions on everything from health care to 'net neutrality,' becoming a consummate politician. If Chelsea is bothered that she's had to put her life back in New York on hold, she never lets it show."

As for Chelsea's dad, "The long campaign has taken some of the fight out of the Big Dog," John M. Broder writes in The New York Times. "The growling and snapping Bill Clinton the nation saw before the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries has been muzzled and leashed."

"He is being kept as far from the news media as possible to prevent any more of the red-faced, finger-wagging tirades and freelance political commentary that polls say cost Hillary Rodham Clinton a lot of support, particularly among black voters," Broder continues. "What he lacks in passion he makes up for in sheer volume of words."

ABC's Jake Tapper fact-checks a Clinton NAFTA mailer that purports to rely solely on the "record" to push back at Obama. "But what she offers is certainly not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," Tapper writes. "The quotes about Obama and NAFTA she uses are completely out of context."

Ann Richards' two sons "are objecting to an Internet video published by Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign that suggests their mother would have supported Clinton," AP's Nedra Pickler reports. But the campaign got permission from Richards' youngest daughter, Ellen: "believe that if my mom were alive today that she would be stumping across Texas and around the country supporting Hillary for president," she said in a statement.

The New York Times has another campaign enemy -- this time it's the Clinton folks lashing out at the Grey Lady, after the newspaper refused to publish a letter pushing back at Patrick Healy's Sunday piece painting a grim portrait of the mood inside Camp Clinton. The letter reads: "The unnamed advisers and aides the story relies on speak for nobody but themselves. The rest of us -- thousands of her supporters, friends, members of her staff and volunteers -- are working tirelessly each and every day and night, because we believe in Hillary."

Obama's church gets some tax scrutiny. "The IRS is investigating the United Church of Christ over a speech Sen. Barack Obama gave at its national meeting last year after he became a candidate for president, the denomination said Tuesday," writes the AP's Rachel Zoll. "Obama, an Illinois Democrat, belongs to the 1.2 million-member Protestant group through his Chicago congregation."

Your daily Rezko update: "In their strongest language yet, federal prosecutors said Tuesday that Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration granted access and influence to Antoin 'Tony' Rezko because of his prowess as a fundraiser for the governor," Jeff Coen and John Chase write in the Chicago Tribune.

The Chicago Tribune's Jim Tankersley looks at Ohio's distress: "Neither candidate . . . comes close to offering a full menu for replenishing Ohio's economic plate. Their speeches draw cheers, but they largely neglect what research suggests are the roots of decay in Youngstown and the Rust Belt: a lack of education, investment and marketable ideas."

Key point: "Put another way, the demographics that make Ohio ripe for the sort of big March 4 win Clinton needs to revitalize her campaign -- a high concentration of low-income voters who didn't earn a college degree -- also are hurting the state's economic competitiveness."

Think Texas Democrats are jazzed? "More votes already have been cast in this year's Harris County Democratic Party primary than in any previous primary for at least the last 30 years, officials said Tuesday," the Houston Chronicle's Alan Bernstein reports.

The New Republic's Michael Crowley catches up with David Duke (!) -- and get this: He doesn't hate Obama. Writes Crowley: "Thus far, Obama is largely delivering on his promise as a post-racial candidate -- and hilariously confounding the worldview of white supremacists at the same time."

More on McCain and his dealings with the FCC: "A public broadcasting activist is accusing Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign of lying in its statements rebutting last week's New York Times story about McCain's connections to Washington lobbyist Vicki Iseman," ABC's Avni Patel reports.

McCain's not the only Republican who's worried about money. "House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) challenged Republicans on Tuesday to get off their 'dead asses' and start raising money for the National Republican Congressional Committee," Politico's Patrick O'Connor reports.

ABC's Jake Tapper has details of the 12 minutes of darkness that descended on an Alabama CBS affiliate -- coinciding quite neatly (for the Bush Pioneer station owners) with the "60 Minutes" segment alleging a Karl Rove plot against former governor Don Siegelman, D-Ala.

Need some pointers on how to become a political insider without really trying (or, at least, how to sound like one at a cocktail party or an online forum)? Wall Street Journal columnist Lee Gomes has your bookmarks ready.

The kicker:

"Whatever." -- Hillary Clinton, after stumbling through attempts to pronounce Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's last name.

"Having seen Senator Clinton try and fail, I think he didn't want to try." -- Obama strategist David Axelrod, explaining to the Washington Times why his candidate didn't venture an attempt at pronouncing "Medvedev."

"Maybe later in the week, or next week, if this continues." -- Gov. Eliot Spitzer, D-N.Y., perhaps less than fully helpful to the Clinton campaign in saying when he plans to hit the trail on her behalf.

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