Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton hears the phone ringing, and it's the sound of her last best shot at capturing the Democratic nomination.
"It's 3 am, and your children are safe and asleep," says her closing ad for Ohio and Texas. "Who do you want answering the phone?"
Yowsers. It's about as subtle as a blunt-instrument-of-a-message can be. And it worked for Walter Mondale and Lyndon Johnson, as George Stephanopoulos pointed out on ABC's "Good Morning America" Friday: "This is the nuclear option. It's either going to work or it's going to blow back," he said. (It's Roy Spence, trying to recreate his Mondale magic.)
The $35 million raised by Clinton this month just might buy her another four or five days of loyalty from her supporters, and it surely will get her latest message (among many others) in the necessary circulation in Ohio and Texas.
It also would purchase about two-thirds of Sen. Barack Obama's fundraising month. And that message is getting old for Camp Clinton. (Some well-funded Obama pushback -- the ad featuring retired Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, praising Obama as the right candidate on foreign policy, is coming back into circulation.)
As we enter what may be the twilight of the Clinton era in Democratic politics, Clinton, D-N.Y., is stuck in uncomfortably familiar territory. Despite the distinctly sharper message, for all the loyalty and dedication of her supporters (and raising $35 million this month despite the February blues is real cause for celebration for Terry McAuliffe and company), a nomination may be slipping away here: By the same measures the Clinton team is citing, supporters of Obama, D-Ill., are fired up and ready to go -- and then some.
Clinton found the fundraising surge "heartwarming," she said on the trail, but even McAuliffe's enthusiasm has to be curbed by this: Obama is expected to top $50 million when February's receipts are counted, ABC's David Chalian reports. (Ponder that figure -- 29 days, $50 million.)
Her frustration is palpable -- and understandable. Her core message about Obama isn't changing, but it isn't getting -- or, at least, hasn't gotten -- through. "I think the best description actually is in Barack's own book," Clinton told ABC's Cynthia McFadden in a "Nightline" interview Thursday, "where he said that he is a blank screen and people of widely different views project what they want to hear."
"He just hasn't been around long enough," Clinton continued. And she learns the downside of an inevitable candidacy: When you're knocked from your perch, nobody forgets that once were the frontrunner: "I'm still being treated like that -- in terms of people coming after me."
"Every so often I just wish that it were a little more of an even playing field, but, you know, I play on whatever field is out there," Clinton said.
How much sympathy would a lawsuit earn her? The Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Jay Root: "The Texas Democratic Party is warning that its March 4 caucuses could be delayed or disrupted after aides to White House hopeful Hillary Clinton raised the specter of an 'imminent' lawsuit over its complicated delegate selection process. . . . Democratic sources said representatives from each campaign had made it clear they are keeping all their options open but that the Clinton campaign in particular had warned of an impending lawsuit."
(If the Clinton campaign was really caught off guard by the Texas system, what better example do you need of lack of preparation for post-Feb. 5 states? And if they were aware of the quirks, isn't it a little late to be trying to get the rules changed?)
Amid signs that she's falling behind in Texas, what makes this period episode painful at Camp Clinton is the sense that everything they know how to do is being done, yet nothing is really shifting.
"The display of fundraising muscle came even as Clinton (N.Y.) slipped in national polls and suffered several setbacks at the ballot box. She said more than doubling what she had raised in January has left her well positioned for another primary-season comeback," Matthew Mosk writes in The Washington Post.
But: "The most reliable sign that Obama remains the better-financed candidate is on television sets in Texas and Ohio, where he has aired nearly twice as many campaign commercials as Clinton."
Obama is planning a Monday evening two-minute ad buy across Ohio and Texas, ABC's Sunlen Miller reports, as he tries to close this race out.
Yet Obama knows he's had match point before. "Remember New Hampshire," he told reporters on board his plane Thursday. ABC's David Wright, Sunlen Miller, and Andy Fies: "Obama sought to lower any expectations he might win those two states, saying he'll be happy if Clinton doesn't achieve a blow-out in Ohio and Texas."
He's closing with a much different message than Clinton: Obama told the Cincinnati Enquirer Thursday that Clinton's "natural inclination when she's campaigning has been to draw very sharp lines and paint Republicans as folks who just have to be crushed and defeated. . . . I do think that there is that sense of aggrievement on her part that makes if difficult to essentially bring the country together."
What has to give Obama pause is that the attacks are flying from all directions. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is already focused on defining Obama for the general election, and he found an interesting way to portray Obama as the candidate of the past (no small feat for a 71-year-old man).
McCain "sought to portray the Democratic front-runner as representing the Iraq politics of the past by focusing on the decision to invade in 2003 rather than what to do now," ABC's Jake Tapper and Bret Hovell write. Said McCain: "What we should be talking about is what we're going to do now. And what we're going to do now is continue this strategy which is succeeding in Iraq."
(Though how's this for a senior moment? "I am a proud conservative, liberal Republica -- conservative Republican," he said, catching himself, ABC's Jake Tapper reports. "Hello?" he said as the crowd laughed. "Easy there.")
Slips of the tongue notwithstanding, McCain is seeking to unite the conservative base by railing against the Democrats. "Far ahead of rival Mike Huckabee in delegates and the polls, Mr. McCain has taken advantage of the lack of meaningful primary competition to highlight the differences between himself and the eventual Democratic nominee," Wayne Slater writes in The Dallas Morning News. "And while he mentioned both Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton by name, his sharpest criticism was aimed at the Illinois senator in what sounded like a rehearsal for the general election campaign."
President Bush offered up some unsolicited advice from his press conference podium on Thursday: focus on the primary, he warned. He "strongly criticized Barack Obama's expressed readiness to meet with foreign leaders cast as tyrants, warning that such discussions 'can be extremely counterproductive' and 'send the wrong signal,' " James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times. "He also challenged Democrats' skepticism about the North American Free Trade Agreement, and reminded Obama that Al Qaeda has been seeking to establish a base in Iraq 'for the past four years."
Former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., is getting into the act as well: "If we were doing the Master Card commercial we'd simply say we know what some of the costs are. Some of the items on his agenda? Priceless," Huckabee said (uncharacteristically botching a punch line), per ABC's Kevin Chupka.
Don't leave out the chairman of the Joint Chiefs: "We need to be prepared across the board for what a new president will bring," Admiral Mike Mullen said, ABC's Jonathan Karl reports. "I do worry about a rapid withdrawal. . . [that would] turn around the gains we have achieved and struggled to achieve and turn them around overnight."
"The shifting tone offers a glimpse of the Republican playbook as the party adapts to the prospect that it will be running against Mr. Obama rather than Mrs. Clinton," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times.
"It is a reminder that should Mr. Obama win the nomination, he will be playing on a more treacherous political battleground as his opponents -- scouring through his record of votes and statements and his experiences before he entered public life -- look for ways to portray him as out of step with the nation's values, challenge his appeal to independent voters and emphasize his lack of experience in foreign policy and national security."
This is, naturally, a subject the Clinton folks don't mind seeing explored a bit early: "The truth is, if he is ever in a general election, a lot of positions he took in 2003 and 2004 will come back to haunt him in a big way and a lot of the vetting that didn't happen will happen," Clinton strategist Mark Penn tells Nagourney. "The independent and Republican support that he has had will evaporate really quickly."
That's where this latest dust-up, over supposed comments made by top Obama supporters on NAFTA, comes into play. McCain jumped on it before Clinton would or could: "I don't think it's appropriate to go to Ohio and tell people one thing while your aide is calling the Canadian Ambassador and telling him something else," McCain said.
From CTV: "The Obama camp did not respond to repeated questions from CTV on reports that a conversation on this matter was held between Obama's senior economic adviser -- Austan Goolsbee -- and the Canadian Consulate General in Chicago. . . . [Goolsbee] refused to say whether he had such a conversation with the Canadian government office in Chicago. . . . Sources at the highest levels of the Canadian government -- who first told CTV that a call was made from the Obama camp -- have reconfirmed their position."
The CTV story is being denied by the Obama campaign and the Canadian Embassy. "It didn't happen," embassy official Roy Norton tells ABC's Jennifer Parker. Said Obama: "It wasn't true."
The connection may have been between Goolsbee, a University of Chicago economics professor, and Georges Rioux, the Canadian Consul General of Chicago; both refused to discuss their conversations with Parker, though Goolsbee asserted that he did not call Rioux or the Canadian ambassador.
Regardless of the back-channel communications that may or may not have taken place, both Obama and Clinton are engaging in a rather large pander-a-thon on NAFTA. "Cranking up their populist rhetoric, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are outbidding each other as they attack NAFTA before their showdown in Ohio's Democratic presidential primary Tuesday," Brian Mooney writes in The Boston Globe.
"But opting out of NAFTA or even amending the agreement would be foolhardy, unrealistic, or at least very difficult, according to several trade policy analysts who span the political spectrum."
Clinton and Obama are providing an incomplete portrait of the labor and environmental standards in NAFTA, McClatchy's Kevin G. Hall reports. "Canada and Mexico, however, already subscribe to the core standards of the International Labor Organization. Mexico has subscribed to 70 ILO conventions, and Canada has adopted 28 of them," Hall writes. "The United States has agreed to only 14. That's eight fewer than the number of global labor agreements accepted by China, the source of most U.S. job dislocation."
The Financial Times' Edward Luce sees both candidates -- and particularly Obama -- tacking left on the economy. "Until a few weeks ago Barack Obama's economic platform was the most centrist of the three Democratic contenders remaining after John Edwards, the flag-bearer of the left, dropped out in late January. Since Super Tuesday on February 5, that has changed."
Yet NAFTA -- championed, of course, by former President Bill Clinton -- is emblematic of Sen. Clinton's challenge in the final days before March 4, Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh writes. "Obstacles from the past sit athwart the comeback route she's trying to navigate," he writes. "Whatever her private misgivings, NAFTA is a fundamental part of her husband's legacy; further, her efforts to distance herself from the trade deal have run up against her own past comments praising it."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., isn't running, but did anyone expect him to leave the stage quietly? "Mr. Bloomberg hinted at possibilities, including endorsing a candidate, financing television ads on key issues, or using a national organization to advance his agenda, much as he has with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a nonprofit group he used last year to run advertisements in states with key presidential nominating contests," Nicholas Confessore and Diane Cardwell write in The New York Times. "But Mr. Bloomberg may find that shouting from the sidelines is less effective -- and far trickier -- than taking to the field himself."
He's already shaped the race -- and get ready for some bipartisan veepstake buzz. It makes Bloomberg ABC's Buzz Maker of the Week.
Ralph Nader is running, and he found someone to run with him: Matt Gonzalez (don't feel bad -- we had to Google him, too). The 42-year-old former San Fracisco supervisor is "beginning a climb as steep as some of the streets in his hometown," Patrick May writes in the San Jose Mercury News. Said Gonzalez: "They've put us in an awkward position -- either we never run for office, and the problems never get fixed; or run, try to win votes on substance and get criticized for it."
(Sounds like a Nader guy.)
The San Francisco Chronicle's Zachary Coile and Cecilia M. Vega bring the cold water: "Ralph Nader's choice of San Francisco lawyer and activist Matt Gonzalez as his running mate isn't likely to propel the consumer advocate to victory in his fifth presidential campaign since 1992. But it offers Gonzalez -- a former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who narrowly lost his 2003 bid to be the first Green Party mayor of a major U.S. city -- a platform to try to influence the debate in the presidential race."
All the major candidates work Texas on Friday. Get details of their public schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
Also in the news:
An Obama ally wants to clear up any confusion as to whether McCain is eligible to run for president. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., "introduced legislation that would declare that any child born abroad to citizens serving in the United States military would meet the constitutional requirement that anyone serving as president be a 'natural born' citizen," The New York Times' Carl Hulse writes.
Obama signed on as a cosponsor late Thursday, per the AP's Libby Quaid.
What's in a name? Michelle Obama sees a "fear bomb" in her husband's middle name. "They threw in the obvious, ultimate fear bomb," she said of her husband's 2004 Senate race, per the Chicago Tribune's Mark Silva. "We're even hearing [that] now. … 'When all else fails, be afraid of his name, and what that could stand for, because it's different.' "
Obama is delivering some tough talk to black crowds in Texas. Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times: "He drew wild cheers as he told a mostly African-American crowd that parents need to shape up, turn off the TV, help their kids with their homework and stop letting them grow fat eating Popeyes chicken for breakfast."
Said Obama: "Y'all have Popeyes out in Beaumont? I know some of y'all you got that cold Popeyes out for breakfast. I know. That's why y'all laughing. ... You can't do that. Children have to have proper nutrition. That affects also how they study, how they learn in school."
(Anyone take Obama for a "y'all" guy?)
The issues look a little different in Texas than in Ohio. "For Texas voters, it isn't quite the economy, stupid," Bruce Tomaso and David McLemore write in The Dallas Morning News. "With conditions still relatively healthy here -- thanks to high oil prices, a still-vibrant technology industry and strong foreign trade -- pocketbook issues don't seem to loom as large for Texans as for, say, voters in Ohio, which also holds its primary Tuesday."
There are few more politically perilous positions to be in these days than to be a black superdelegate sticking with Clinton. "Nasty letters, phone calls, threats they'll get an opponent, being called an Uncle Tom," Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), a Clinton supporter, tells Politico's Josephine Hearn. "This is the politics of the 1950s. . . . A lot of members are experiencing a lot of ugly stuff. They're not going to talk about it, but it's happening."
Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., tells USA Today's Martha T. Moore: "Phone calls and people have sent me notes indicating 'The time has come for you to move in a different direction.' "
The question is no longer whether Obama is black enough. Here's a sign of progress: People are now asking whether actors are black enough to play Obama. "Debate over that question has been pinging around the Internet since [Fred] Armisen, a veteran cast member, donned darker makeup to portray the Democratic candidate for the first time Saturday," Paul Farhi writes in The Washington Post.
(And Farhi reports that another Clinton/Obama sketch is in the works for Saturday's new "SNL.")
An event purporting holding out the promise of "Bill in blackface" has been stricken from the Clinton campaign's Website, after the Rocky Mountain News' M.E. Sprengelmeyer brought it to the campaign's attention. From the listing: ""We've hired some high-end comedic talent to ease the way into Primary Day! Want to see HRC in cat-scratch mode? Bill in blackface? How about Mark Penn doling out pizza crusts and doughnut holes to the volunteers? We've got it all!"
More slippage? "Now some gay voters, who have been among Clinton's most stalwart supporters and helped her defeat Barack Obama in Democratic presidential primaries earlier this month, may be drifting toward the Illinois senator, according to political activists and campaign officials," Bloomberg's Kim Chipman writes.
The Nation's Ari Berman has an interesting take on the Democratic race as a referendum on the tenor and tactics of Howard Dean. "The race for the Democratic nomination is a window into how the candidates view the future of the party, which is being shaped in large part by Dean's efforts. Are Clinton and Obama similarly committed to Dean's fifty-state strategy? How much faith would each, as the Democratic nominee, put in the party's grassroots?" Berman writes. "Dean and Obama have understood how the party is changing--and have embraced it. Clinton, thus far, has not."
Arianna Huffington takes note of an extraordinary coincidence of timing: "Should Barack Obama end up winning his party's nomination, he will give his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on August 28 -- 45 years to the day Martin Luther King delivered his 'I Have a Dream' speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial."
Gas at $4 a gallon? "That's interesting. I hadn't heard that," President Bush said at his news conference. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank had: "Uh-oh. The president, once known for his common-guy skills, sounded eerily like his old man, who in 1992 appeared surprised that supermarkets had bar-code scanners."
Milbank continues: "On Wednesday, the $4-a-gallon forecasts had been on the front page of the New York Times, and on NBC's 'Today Show' and CBS's 'Early Show.' In the days before that, the prediction -- made by AAA, among others -- was in the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the New York Post, the Dallas Morning News, even the Kansas City Star. The White House press secretary took a question about $4 gas at her Wednesday press briefing. A poll last month found that nearly three-quarters of Americans expect $4 gas."
"Are you better off now than you were when this disappointing show began?" -- Hillary Clinton, in a message delivered on Letterman Thursday that, per Politico's Ben Smith, "is either fitting, or not, depending on whom you ask."
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