As we learn that Mayor Michael Bloomberg is out, and Sen. John McCain is only possibly in (how much doubt does Ted Olson not have about his constitutional eligibility for the presidency?), it already feels like the general election has begun.
But before we get there, the challenge that will consume the next five days: Can a Clinton campaign built for power, not speed, move extremely quickly to claim the only commodity that matters to her right now?
That would be momentum, not delegates -- they don't really matter to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton anymore, because Clinton has already essentially lost the delegate race (a fact that both campaigns recognize and concede).
Barring unforeseen circumstances (an utter and total collapse -- think Rudy + Fred + Hillary, squared), Sen. Barack Obama will finish the primary season with more pledged delegates than Clinton (though not enough to clinch the nomination). He's closing the superdelegate gap as well (Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., quickens that pace by making his switch official).
The only road back for Clinton, D-N.Y., involves capturing a whole lot of momentum in a very small amount of time. Winning (the popular vote, at the very least) in Ohio and Texas is a must -- or March 5 will bring an exodus of fundraisers and superdelegates both (and, just maybe, staffers, too).
"Aides to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), coming to terms with the idea that she must win contests in both Texas and Ohio next week or face enormous pressure to drop out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, are pouring all of the campaign's dwindling resources into the March 4 primaries," Anne Kornblut and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post. "With each passing day, her climb appears steeper."
If she makes that climb, that gives her quite a hill to roll down. Winning the next big states would put her back in the game precisely because she's been counted out. The message fits the narrative: I'm tough, tested, ready -- and Obama can't close the deal.
Oddly, amid the spin and counter-spin, Clinton needs the stakes to be huger than huge March 4 if Comeback is to be Character. "Sen. Clinton's best hope, many party strategists say, may be a split decision," Jackie Calmes writes in The Wall Street Journal. "Yet anything short of a double win likely will raise pressure on Sen. Clinton from the Democratic establishment and big donors to clear the field for Sen. Obama."
With the delegate race lost (though not quite "won" by Obama, either), only big wins matter anyway. Rather than gaining a delegate edge, "Clinton instead may need to rely on chemistry, a chain-reaction set off by big wins in the March 4 races and in Pennsylvania in April that will persuade wavering delegates that she's the stronger candidate to face the Republican nominee in November," Bloomberg's Hans Nichols and Catherine Dodge report.
She just might have some life left: "Inside a bad night in Cleveland is a glimmer of hope," Bloomberg News columnist Margaret Carlson writes. "She's at about the same low point she reached in New Hampshire when women rallied to her side as they saw the smile fade and exasperation and sorrow take its place."