The Note: Clinton Comeback?

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?

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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."

Yet even getting as far as March 4 is a challenge -- just keeping her supporters' chins up is a task unto itself. "There is a real emphasis on holding what we have," Harold Ickes tells Adam Nagourney in a New York Times profile. "We are very aware of the pressure on delegates and the need to hold them."

Nagourney has Ickes "stepping out front to make the public case for Mrs. Clinton, at a time when campaign advisers have pressed to lower the profile of her chief strategist, Mark J. Penn." Says the man himself: "I'm a little dismayed by the lack of fight on the part of our staff."

This doesn't help: "Something's happening in America, something some of us did not see coming," John Lewis tells the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Bob Kemper. He's not the first -- and is unlikely to be the last -- to go from Clinton to Obama: "I support his candidacy for president and will cast my vote for Sen. Obama as a superdelegate at the Democratic convention," Lewis said.

This is a tough dance for Clinton -- Texas in particular is tight. And Clinton can't afford perceptions that the primary is over -- a sentiment that Wednesday's combatants (Obama and McCain) are only too happy to foster.

McCain, R-Ariz., was thrilled to lecture Obama in the wake of Tuesday's debate, and Obama was equally thrilled to push back. "Al Qaeda is in Iraq. . . . It's called Al Qaeda in Iraq," McCain lectured Obama, per ABC's Jake Tapper and Bret Hovell. Countered Obama: "I have some news for John McCain, and that is that there was no such thing as al Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq."

Anyone doubt what the general election might look like? Your preview, as Tapper laid out Thursday on ABC's "Good Morning America": "John McCain attacking Barack Obama as naive and weak on national security, Obama striking back by reminding voters of McCain's stalwart support for the very unpopular war in Iraq."

"The exchange highlighted what could become a seminal issue in a general election campaign between McCain and Obama, who is the Democratic front-runner," Christi Parsons and Rick Pearson write in the Chicago Tribune. "The exchange between the two served to further subdue Clinton's role as she looks to Tuesday's primaries in Ohio and Texas to try to stop Obama's momentum."

"The flurry suggested the two White House front-runners are ready to mix it up now even as they wait to see if next Tuesday's primaries put Hillary Clinton in the rearview mirror," Michael Saul writes for the New York Daily News.

McCain will be endorsed by former senator Howard Baker, R-Tenn. (off the Thompson train), Thursday morning in Houston, per McCain's campaign.

Another McCain-Obama battle continues to bubble up: Obama's "challenge to his rivals has boomeranged into a test of Mr. Obama's own ability to balance principle and politics in a very different context," David Kirkpatrick and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times.

"After taking in $100 million in donations, Mr. Obama is the one setting fund-raising records, presenting a powerful temptation to find a way out of his own proposal so that he might outspend his Republican opponent. And the all-but-certain Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, is short on cash and eager to take up the fund-raising truce."

It may be that McCain-Obama match-up that prompted the day's other big news: Everyone's favorite Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent mayor is not running for president. So says the headline on Michael Bloomberg's New York Times op-ed, but the "but" is big: His endorsement, he writes, is out there -- ensuring that his name (and his ego) will stay in the mix.

"I will continue to work to steer the national conversation away from partisanship and toward unity; away from ideology and toward common sense; away from sound bites and toward substance," Bloomberg, I-N.Y., writes. "And while I have always said I am not running for president, the race is too important to sit on the sidelines, and so I have changed my mind in one area. If a candidate takes an independent, nonpartisan approach -- and embraces practical solutions that challenge party orthodoxy -- I'll join others in helping that candidate win the White House."

And let the veepstakes silliness begin. "Bloomberg is uniquely positioned to complement Obama's strengths and compensate for his weaknesses," Josh Greenman writes in the New York Daily News. "Obama has built much of his campaign on leading America past Washington's bitter, paralyzing partisanship. This is how Bloomberg has governed, albeit in a very liberal city, and it's precisely the message he has been delivering on the national stage."

On the trail -- this is not the time for nonpartisan approaches, not with raging primaries still to be fought out.

On board his campaign plane Wednesday night, Obama was handed a pillow by a reporter, and then "zilch, nada, nothing. He took the pillow -- but not the bait. He handed the pillow back discreetly with no reaction," ABC's Sunlen Miller reports.

ABC's Charlie Gibson -- anchoring "World News" from Chicago Thursday and Friday -- goes behind the scenes with the gang at Obama campaign headquarters in the Windy city, and interviews the top two campaign officials: David Plouffe and David Axelrod.

As Obama seeks to close things out, former president Bill Clinton doesn't seem to like the perception of the Big Dog being muzzled. (Would you?)

He's getting a bit feistier on the trail, per ABC's Sarah Amos, telling a Houston crowd that his wife would be better for the space program (have fun with that one) and getting a bit sharper in his comparisons: "I think you want somebody who will change your lives -- not just the politics of Washington," Clinton -- yes, Clinton -- said.

His wife has her husband's old campaign slogan in mind as she works Ohio: "Focusing on the economy is very important to me because if we don't turn it around we're going to have twin challenges," Sen. Clinton told reporters Wednesday, per ABC's Kate Snow and Eloise Harper.

Her new campaign flourish, Snow and Harper report: "So meet me in Ohio!"

Clinton talks poverty Thursday in rural Ohio (one last play for an Edwards endorsement?). "Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton is offering a plan to improve childhood nutrition and setting a goal to reduce by half the 12 million youngsters living in poverty over the next dozen years," AP's Mike Glover writes.

"A package of proposals, to be unveiled Thursday, includes a 'comprehensive' early education initiative that starts with nurse's visits for pregnant women, lets children begin the Head Start program earlier and calls for universal pre-kindergarten programs."

We'll see how this figures in -- this is too juicy for Clinton to pass up in Ohio. "Barack Obama has ratcheted up his attacks on NAFTA, but a senior member of his campaign team told a Canadian official not to take his criticisms seriously, CTV News has learned," per the station's Website.

"Within the last month, a top staff member for Obama's campaign telephoned Michael Wilson, Canada's ambassador to the United States, and warned him that Obama would speak out against NAFTA, according to Canadian sources."

The Obama campaign tells ABC's David Wright that Sen. Obama does not make promises (such as his vow to reopen NAFTA) that he doesn't keep.

Not a good sign in a must-win state: "Obamania is a scene being repeated across Ohio and throughout the country in presidential battleground states," Darrel Rowland and Catherine Candisky write in the Columbus Dispatch.

"While Democratic rival Sen. Hillary Clinton is packing small college venues and high-school gyms with enthusiastic crowds that in normal years would be considered stellar, the turnout for Obama at major college and professional arenas is setting a new standard for attendance at political events for primary elections."

Meanwhile, the White House plays a small role in some presidential politics. Per ABC News, "The White House on Wednesday blamed the Clintons for a month-long delay in the release of some 11,000 pages of records relating to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's years as first lady, despite Sen. Clinton's contention at Tuesday night's debate that she has 'urged that the process [of releasing documents] be as quick as possible.' "

"Quick as possible" does not necessarily mean before March 4: Clinton aide Bruce Lindsey said he'll finish reviewing the documents within the next two weeks, and then it's up to the White House to authorize final release.

(Fodder for the president's 10:05 am ET press conference? Surely he can play a bit of pundit-in-chief. But first, per ABC's John Cochran, it will be FISA, housing, Iraq and reauthorization of PEPFAR, the anti-AIDS initiative.)

As for Clinton's tax returns -- the ones she said at Tuesday's debate she'll release "once I become the nominee, or even earlier" -- this from AP's Mike Glover: "Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton says she won't release her tax returns until she has the Democratic presidential nomination in hand, and not before tax filing time comes in mid-April."

And you thought McCain had problems with the FEC? "Mr. McCain's likely nomination as the Republican candidate for president and the happenstance of his birth in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936 are reviving a musty debate that has surfaced periodically since the founders first set quill to parchment and declared that only a 'natural-born citizen' can hold the nation's highest office," Carl Hulse writes in The New York Times.

Said former solicitor general Ted Olson, who is researching the issue for the McCain campaign: "I don't have much doubt about it." (Maybe that sounded more confident than it reads.) Writes Hulse: "Lawyers who have examined the topic say there is not just confusion about the provision itself, but uncertainty about who would have the legal standing to challenge a candidate on such grounds, what form a challenge could take and whether it would have to wait until after the election or could be made at any time."

Get the candidates' daily schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

Also in the news:

Matthew Dowd has an intriguing look at how race and gender HAVEN'T dictated the race. "If Hillary ends up losing, it will be because she never had a vision or a message that resonated with the majority of voters and that many voters were looking for a change candidate, and not a candidate who held out their Washington experience as crucial," Dowd writes in his ABCNews.com column. "If Obama, for some unknown reason stumbles, it will be because voters no longer believed that how he conducted his campaign matched his rhetoric of hope and healing or that he made some big gaffes highlighting some preparedness argument."

The Los Angeles Times' Maria L. La Ganga and Mark Z. Barabak look beyond the Obama's middle-name flap to look at how Obama's candidacy is changing political conversation. "In his yearlong quest to win the White House, the Democratic senator from Illinois has changed the rules of political engagement, forcing his rivals to step delicately in a normally no-holds-barred arena," they writes. "As the possibility grows that voters may bestow the nation's highest public office on an African American, serial public apologies -- largely by Democrats -- show just how sensitive race remains. What is less clear is how race could help or hinder Obama, who has struggled to keep it in the background."

A pro-Clinton 527, Americans for Progress (seriously -- do they put any creative thought into these names at all?), has the perils and pitfalls of race in mind, per the New York Sun's Josh Gerstein. From the mission statement: "As a group of Multi-Cultural men we intend to ensure that gender and racial bias do not consume the hearts and minds of the American people. We stand on a platform that neutralizes the forces of gender and race bigotry so Americans can focus on the issues."

Bill Cunningham's not apologetic: "Obama supporters and liberals are playing the race card on this, as they often do," he told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "They're making this a racial issue. If people have a problem with Obama's name, they should talk to his parents."

The Boston Globe's Michael Kranish remembers back to McCain scandals past. "McCain's emergence as the likely GOP nominee, combined with the rising volume of anti- lobbying rhetoric in the presidential campaign, has brought renewed attention to the Keating Five case, prompting questions about what McCain learned from it, what he's accepted was wrong, and whether he now is stepping back from some of his own scrutiny of his past errors," Kranish writes.

George Will has a long memory: "Although his campaign is run by lobbyists; and although his dealings with lobbyists have generated what he, when judging the behavior of others, calls corrupt appearances; and although he has profited from his manipulation of the taxpayer-funding system that is celebrated by reformers -- still, he probably is innocent of insincerity," he writes of McCain. "Such is his towering moral vanity, he seems sincerely to consider it theoretically impossible for him to commit the offenses of appearances that he incessantly ascribes to others."

It's all about labor in Ohio, USA Today's Jill Lawrence reports. "Unions and their concerns -- topped by jobs, trade and health care -- are highly visible in Ohio in advance of Tuesday's pivotal Democratic primary," she writes. "The state's political leaders say whoever has the best economic message will win -- the primary, the nomination and the general election."

The Toledo Blade endorses Obama: "It has become clear during the year-long primary campaign that he eclipses Sen. Hillary Clinton as the strong­est possible candidate to run in the general election against the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain."

A Texas peek: "Even as Texas has become a crucial state for the Democrats, Hillary Clinton has been noticeably absent, except for a stop in Austin last Thursday for the Texas debate and brief visits to campaign workers afterward," Kate Alexander writes in the Austin American-Statesman. "Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, meanwhile, has been no stranger to Austin, holding a large rally on Congress Avenue on Friday night and scheduling a town hall meeting on economic issues today."

Clinton (slightly belatedly) is both denouncing and rejecting (the new standard) comments made by a prominent Dallas supporter, Adelfa Callejo. Callejo said that black politicians have done little for Hispanics and that Barack Obama "simply has a problem that he happens to be black," according to The Dallas Morning News. She went a bit further with the Morning News Wednesday night: "I have been told by a lot of people that they did not trust him because he is black."

Bad sign from the world of super-delegates: "Prominent supporters of Hillary Clinton have begun to defect or go wobbly just as she faces crucial primaries next week in Texas and Ohio," Jay Root writes in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, a superdelegate, switched from Clinton to Obama. . . . Earlier this week, a popular San Antonio elected official, Tax Assessor-Collector Sylvia Romo, abandoned Clinton and threw her support to Obama." Said Romo: "I was sort of disappointed, at least here in Texas, with their lack of organization."

One million donors and counting for Obama. "He has more donors now than the Democratic National Committee had in the 2000 election," Colby College's Anthony Corrado tells the New York Post's Maggie Haberman. "He is almost a political party unto himself."

The New York Times' Andrew Jacobs has a good look at the pressure black Clinton supporters are coming under. The lede: "The way Eugene R. Miller was hemming and hawing about Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, you would have thought he was trying to sell igloos in the Sahara."

ABC's Matthew Jaffe explores some holes in Obama's security: "Despite the intense security ring protecting the presidential candidate, questions remain about security, especially among the huge crowds the candidate draws," Jaffe writes. "There are visible signs that security around the senator is increasing."

HuffingtonPost's Sam Stein picks up a sliver of difference between Clinton and Obama on Iraq: Obama has taken his name off of the Feingold-Reid bill because cutting off funds for the war doesn't go far enough. (!) "Senator Obama has long said that he would only support Iraq legislation that has an end date for the removal of troops," an Obama spokesman tells Stein.

RNC Chairman Mike Duncan made the TV rounds Wednesday talking up Obama as the do-nothing chairman of the Subcommittee on European Affairs, building on Clinton's debate line. (Which itself may have been building on RNC research -- it pays to read to the end of RNC research documents.)

All of the remaining candidates say they'll visit Africa as president. From the ONE campaign: "On the heels of President Bush's trip to Africa, ONE members delivered more than 100,000 signed petitions to the presidential candidates urging them to visit Africa if elected. After receiving the petitions, Senator Hillary Clinton, Governor Mike Huckabee, Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama promised to make that visit, if elected, and position issues of global poverty and disease as essential foreign policy priorities."

Ralph Nader unveils his running mate at a noon press conference at George Washington University. (We miss Winona LaDuke.)

An interesting glimpse at a Senate race: Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is taking on MoveOn.org rather directly. "Collins is hoping a provocative video of flag-burning war protesters will turn her Democratic opponent's support from an anti-war group into cash for her own campaign," Jonathan Kaplan writes in the Portland Press-Herald. "Collins, a Republican, has sent potential out-of-state contributors a Web-only fundraising solicitation that includes a link to a video attacking the liberal group MoveOn.org and its support of Democratic Rep. Tom Allen."

GOP strategist Todd Domke has some fun in his Boston Globe op-ed, traveling to 2020 to look back. "Bill Clinton: Yo, Diary -- I had lunch with John McCain today. We reminisced about 2008. I said, 'You know, I didn't sink Hillary on purpose.' He just winked. I wonder what he meant by that."

RIP William F. Buckley Jr. -- and don't miss The National Review's incredible range of stories.

ABC's Jake Tapper collects some "Saturday Night Live" skits we won't see the Clinton campaign quoting anytime soon -- including "Real Stories of the Arkansas Highway Patrol."

The kicker:

"I don't answer those humiliating questions. But whichever one it is, I look good in 'em!" -- Barack Obama, to US Weekly, declining to respond the "boxers or briefs" question that Bill Clinton so famously answered in 1992.

"I think I'll just go into the Oval Office and sit at the desk and say, 'Wow, this is really cool." -- Obama, on "Ellen," on the first thing he'd do as president.

"I guess his grandmother died again." -- President Bush, explaining Manny Ramirez's absence from a White House ceremony congratulating the Boston Red Sox. "Just kidding," he added. "Tell Manny I didn't mean that."

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