Throw out the poll numbers, the fundraising figures, the ad wars, even the delegate math: On Tuesday, the challenge for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is no more and no less than survival.
Texas and Ohio headline four states that vote on Tuesday, and while the Clinton dynasty/legacy isn't on the ballot, it isn't very far removed from it, either. Anything other than a clear victory for Clinton (though what that means is already subject to debate) will heighten calls for her to cede the Democratic nomination fight to Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
For Clinton, the big contests are must-wins -- period, the end. After 11 straight losses, her campaign is running out of states to slow Obama's momentum, and running out of explanations for why Obama's victories shouldn't matter.
Even overwhelming Clinton margins on Tuesday are unlikely to significantly trim Obama's delegate lead, which stands at 110 coming into the day, according to ABC's delegate scorecard.
That makes this one of those days where spin and perceptions will count as much as the votes themselves. Victory will be in the eyes of the beholder -- and not all behold equally.
"The big question: What constitutes a 'win'?" Jackie Calmes writes in The Wall Street Journal. "If the New York senator gets large majorities of the popular vote in both states, she will clearly keep fighting for the Democratic nomination, at least until the next major primary in Pennsylvania on April 22. If she loses both, she will face tremendous pressure to drop out of the race. The latest polls suggest, however, that the outcome is likely to be muddier than either of those scenarios."
"The more decisive the outcome, the easier her choice," John Harwood reports in The New York Times. "Should Mr. Obama sweep all four contests, her hopes will plainly be extinguished. Should she carry Ohio and Texas -- as her husband, former President Bill Clinton, said she must to retain a shot at the nomination -- she will no doubt fight on to the next big battle, on April 22 in Pennsylvania, and, perhaps, all the way to the convention in Denver. Trickier to handicap would be a split decision."
Keep an eye on a tiny subset of voters -- the undecided superdelegates. It's those party leaders' interpretation of momentum and electoral feasibility -- in short, whether they consider Clinton's Tuesday performance a "win" -- that will determine whether she can continue to stay in the race.
ABC's George Stephanopoulos reported on "Good Morning America" Tuesday that Clinton is "not going to give up so long as there's a realistic path to the nomination," but added that those close to Clinton say she's "realistic about the necessity of getting out if she does lose today."
"If she loses both, I think there's no question that she will be getting out of the race," Stephanopoulos said. "If she wins Ohio and loses Texas, I think it will be very difficult for her to go on. . . . But I think if it's close, she may find a way to stay in."
(If it's a close call, does anyone doubt that Clinton will find something -- anything -- to point to as a hopeful sign?)
By the numbers: Democrats on Tuesday will award 370 delegates, the largest batch up for grabs in any one day other than Super Tuesday. The two big prizes are Ohio, where the tattered industrial base gives Clinton an edge going in, and Texas, where the diverse demographics (and bizarre delegate selection rules) may favor Obama.
Republicans will choose 256 delegates -- and with Texas, Ohio, and Vermont winner-take-all states, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., could finish the evening essentially clinching the nomination; by ABC's count, McCain is only 225 delegates shy of the magic number.
Polls close at 7 pm ET in Vermont, with Ohio polls closing at 7:30 pm ET, and Texas and Rhode Island wrapping up voting at 9 pm ET. (The Texas caucuses start 15 minutes after polls close for primaries.)
Wintry, nasty weather could impact turnout in Ohio, with rain expected in Vermont and Rhode Island and a brilliant day on tap in the Lone Star State.
The forecast is clear in Texas, but that's more than can be said about the chances of easily interpreted results. Two-thirds of the state's delegates will be chosen in a primary, with the remaining delegates selected at the evening caucuses. Far more delegates are at stake in (Obama-friendly) parts of the state that have voted heavily Democratic in recent elections.
"Neither [campaign] expects a knockout punch for the Democratic presidential nomination" in Texas, R.G. Ratcliffe writes in the Houston Chronicle. "The complex system of Texas delegates being chosen by both popular vote and through caucuses makes it possible for the popular vote winner to come up short in delegates."
Said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe: "The mostly likely outcome is you're not going to see a huge delegate shift one way or another."
While the stakes are clearly higher for Camp Clinton, Obama's campaign enters what could be its crowning day with an uneasy, defensive sense about it. He's had two previous opportunities to hasten an end to the contest -- in New Hampshire, and on Super Tuesday -- and a third failure would extend the race by at least seven weeks, until Pennsylvania votes April 22.
A confluence of events -- particularly the start of the Tony Rezko trial, and new details of conversations between a campaign adviser and a Canadian official about NAFTA -- have helped give Clinton her first sustained and coherent messaging in weeks. (And led to one very combative press conference that Clinton sure hopes won't be the last of its kind.)
"I'm just getting warmed up," Clinton said in Ohio (describing a campaign that had long hoped to be cooling down by now).
Per Anne Kornblut and Perry Bacon Jr. of The Washington Post: "Clinton advisers claimed fresh signs of momentum and continued to attempt to raise doubts about Obama on Monday, questioning his trade policies and ties to a Chicago developer. Clinton (N.Y.) predicted victory and insisted that a comeback is on the horizon."
"A week into a late series of attacks designed to stoke voter doubts about Obama, Clinton went on the offense in advertisements and remarks," Jill Lawrence and Kathy Kiely write in USA Today. "She aired a new ad critical of the Illinois Democrat for not holding hearings in his job as chairman of a Senate subcommittee on Europe, suggesting he should have looked into NATO operations in Afghanistan."
Clinton may finally be succeeding in instilling doubts about Obama -- the 3 am phone call ad was the start though not the clincher. "Under heavy pressure from Democrats in both camps to score wins today, the Clinton campaign stepped up its attacks on Obama yesterday, shifting from criticism of what it calls his lack of substance to an assault on his character and putting Obama on the defensive hours ahead of the voting," Susan Milligan and Scott Helman write in The Boston Globe.
Yet time is running short for a comeback. AP's David Espo reports on DNC Chairman Howard Dean's growing concerns about a divided party -- in a story that's as intriguing for its timing as for its content. "Senior Democrats have begun to speak out in private as well as public about the impact a continuation of the bruising campaign might have in a fall confrontation with Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee-in-waiting," Espo writes.
"Several Democrats said the party's chairman, Howard Dean, told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last week he was concerned about the possible impact of a nominating campaign that stretched through the end of the primaries in early June," Espo reports.
"Dean also said that if the party is divided going into next summer's convention, it would remain that way afterward, even if the differences were papered over in the four days in Denver."
Clinton's prospects for staying in the race get something of an intra-party boost in the new ABC News/Washington Post poll. She's down 50-43 to Obama nationally, but Democrats appear to be having too good a time to want this race to come to an end just now
"Democrats by more than a 2-1 margin say Hillary Clinton should stay in the presidential race even if she loses either the Texas or Ohio primary today. But if she fails in both, fewer than half say they'd want her to fight on," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes. "Many, in that case, have another idea for Clinton: the vice presidency." (Here's guessing she doesn't have the same idea in mind for herself.)
The poll confirms Obama's demographic advantages: "Obama's edge is built on strong support among the types of voters who have lifted him to 11 consecutive wins since Super Tuesday," Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta write in The Washington Post. "Nearly six in 10 men and 45 percent of women support Obama, putting him roughly on par with Clinton among women. White women and older voters preferred Clinton by wide margins. And in a twist, Obama has the edge among mainline Democrats, who prefer him over Clinton by 10 percentage points."
Clinton has the long run on her mind: "In the early part of last century, a lot of our nominating contests went to the convention," she told The Dallas Morning News' Christy Hoppe and Todd J. Gillman. "I don't think it will, but it has been an unusual election this year."
Obama told ABC's Terry Moran on Sunday that Clinton's attacks are looking "desperate," but Clinton offers a different view: "National security is one of the most important issues in a presidential election," Clinton told ABC's Jake Tapper, "and it certainly will be against Senator McCain. If Senator Obama doesn't want to debate national security with me, I don't know how he'd debate it with Senator McCain."
If you're not sure Clinton wants to find an excuse to stay in, don't miss this quote: "Success is whatever happens Tuesday," one "top Clintonista" tells the New York Daily News. Countered Obama campaign manager David Plouffe: "They keep moving the goalposts, but at some point you run out of field."
Newsday's Glenn Thrush: "When asked to define success today in Ohio, Texas, Vermont and Rhode Island, Clinton said: 'Winning. Winning. Winning, that's my measure of success -- winning.' She wouldn't say if that meant winning states or a majority of delegates."
For Clinton, it's all about raising doubts about Obama: "Clinton advisers suggested that today's results, rather than dramatically altering the delegate count, could signal that some Democrats are starting to have second thoughts about Obama being the party's nominee," Ken Herman and Scott Shepard write in the Austin American-Statesman.
If it's national security in Texas, it's jobs and trade in Ohio, where what the Clinton campaign is calling "NAFTA-gate" could play a major role. The memo from Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee to Canadian consulate officials gave Clinton the opening to argue that Obama had "basically done the old wink-wink -- 'Don't pay any attention, this is just political rhetoric,' " per the Los Angeles Times.
"The Obama campaign acknowledged the meeting but continued to deny that there was any inconsistency between Goolsbee's private comments and Obama's public position," per ABC's Jennifer Parker, Teddy Davis, and Kate Snow, who provide a link to the memo itself. The Canadian embassy is mostly backing up the Obama campaign's account, but a statement "indirectly called into question the Obama campaign's claim that Goolsbee was contacted in his capacity as a University of Chicago professor rather than in the context of his role as an Obama adviser," the ABC team writes.
Clinton brings the message together: "I know Sen. McCain has a lifetime of experience that he would bring to the White House, and Sen. Obama has a speech he gave in 2002," she said, per the Columbus Dispatch's Mark Niquette.
Then there's Tony Rezko, and the questions the Obama campaign is allowing to stay unanswered: Obama "wouldn't disclose how many fundraising events Rezko hosted for him or who attended, saying such requests 'can just go on forever,' " Rick Pearson and John McCormick write in the Chicago Tribune. "As his news conference came to an end, reporters continued to shout questions about Rezko but Obama walked out, saying the campaign was 'running late.' "
Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times: "On Sunday, the chief strategist for the Obama campaign disagreed with my conclusion where I wrote that Obama has not talked to reporters who know the Tony Rezko story the best. For more than a year, that has been a pretty small group of investigative journalists -- from the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune. I checked with the Sun-Times reporters before I wrote my column and rechecked again. They all said they have never had a chance to discuss Rezko with Obama."
It was Clinton's traveling press corps that had to use a men's locker room -- urinals and all -- as a filing center, but it was the Obama press corps that was frustrated on Monday. "An exasperated Barack Obama scurried away Monday from the toughest news conference of his campaign, telling reporters who kept shouting questions that he'd spent enough time on the grill," Michael Saul writes in the New York Daily News.
"A smiling Obama strode out to a news conference at a veterans facility here" in San Antonio, Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post. "But the grin was quickly replaced by the surprised look of a man bitten by his own dog."
Obama cut off questions, but Milbank adds: "The questioning, however, has only just begun."
Obama's not on the Rezko witness list, but if the race lingers on, so will this issue. ABC's Brian Ross and Avni Patel: "Sen. Barack Obama's name could well come up in the trial of his longtime friend and accused Illinois fixer Tony Rezko, according to Chicago lawyers following the case."
Asked by ABC's Terry Moran whether he would testify, Obama responded, "I don't know what my legal obligations would be. And so yeah, I would leave that up to lawyers." (He skip that class at Harvard Law?)
If it comes anywhere close to that, Obama apparently wants to hear about it first-hand. This tidbit from the Sun-Times' blog: "A woman sitting in on jury selection was identified as attending court 'for Obama,' when a courtroom security officer asked all the people in an overflow courtroom to identify their organizations."
Yet it's Clinton who lacks the clear path to the nomination. "Barack Obama may have trademarked the word "hope," but it's Hillary Rodham Clinton whose campaign is now based as much on vague aspirations as on a plan," Politico's Ben Smith writes. "Clinton's campaign is barreling forward into the climactic March 4 primaries and beyond, hoping not just for convincing victories in Ohio and Texas tomorrow, but for some other, yet unknown, turn of events."
ABC's Karen Travers and Teddy Davis write up some things to look for in Tuesday's contests, in The Note's "Sneak Peek": "Given the quirks in the Texas delegate selection process, it is possible that Clinton could finish ahead in the Texas popular vote and still just break even or possibly lose the delegate count (as she did in Nevada)," they write.
"If this happens, the race will be thrown into ambiguity since her allies will likely want to spin any win as a victory while her critics will argue that she should step aside because she is not going to catch Obama in pledged delegates."
"Could Ohio end up looking like Wisconsin, with Obama scoring big wins in urban areas that will trump her support across the state?" Travers and Davis write. "Party officials say to keep an eye on Southwest Ohio where there is an emerging Democratic voter that is upper middle class, educated, white collar and new to the party. These voters were not there in 2004 when John Kerry narrowly lost the state to President Bush and could be a source of support for Obama."
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern plays the expectations game for Clinton: Redfern said Clinton "needs an 8-point victory margin in Ohio and Texas to remain in the race against Mr. Obama," Tom Troy writes in the Toledo Blade. "She must, in my opinion, make that kind of show. It's not an either-or," Redfern said. "If we don't have a nominee sooner rather than later, it makes it increasingly difficult to defeat John McCain."
"This is it," writes the Cincinnati Enquirer's Howard Wilkinson. "Ohio voters will go to the polls today and either continue the remarkable momentum of Barack Obama's campaign machine or breathe new life into Hillary Clinton's fading hopes. And, along the way, they will likely put an exclamation point on Republican John McCain's miraculous campaign turnaround."
On the Republican side, McCain can no longer be bothered with former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark. The day before he appeared likely to lock up the nomination, "McCain focused most of his comments to reporters on foreign policy, calling the Russian election of a successor to President Vladimir Putin 'clearly rigged' and 'unfortunate,' " Michael Shear writes in The Washington Post.
He left the political prognostication to his campaign manager Rick Davis: "With wins in these states, John McCain will go 'over the top' and secure enough delegates to win the Republican nomination for President of the United States," Davis wrote in an e-mail to supporters.
At least they're having fun on the Huck-a-plane. Per ABC's Kevin Chupka, Huckabee is the latest victim in the game of "nap tag": "As former governor Mike Huckabee slept, his daughter Sarah snuck a sign near him reading: 'If I Close My Eyes This Feels like Air Force One.' "
Obama spends primary night in San Antonio, and if Clinton chooses to address the evening's results this time, she'll do it from Columbus, Ohio. McCain celebrates in Dallas, while Huckabee holds his part in the Dallas suburb of Irving.
ABC's Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos will be in Dallas Tuesday evening for "World News" and for election results.
I'll be live-blogging the results starting Tuesday afternoon at ABCNews.com's Political Radar.
Also in the news:
When good presidential campaigns go bad. . . . Rep Ron Paul, R-Texas, (still a presidential candidate) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, (formally out of the presidential race) both face primary challengers for their House seats on Tuesday.
"Just weeks after quitting the presidential battle, [Kucinich] is fighting for his political survival," reports the BBC's Jamie Coomarasamy. "For the first time in his 12-year congressional career, the idealistic son of a truck driver, who was Cleveland's youngest mayor and who made headlines last year by claiming to have seen a UFO, is facing a real, terrestrial challenge -- from within his own party."
"Rep. Ron Paul is expected to defeat Chris Peden, a member of the city council in Friendswood -- even though Paul technically is still a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, thanks to a longstanding Texas law that allows him to seek both offices simultaneously," CQ's Greg Giroux writes in his round-up of down-ballot primary action.
Politico's Martin Kady II and Patrick O'Connor have the beat on McCain's latest campaign move: "Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain has engaged a leading GOP lobbyist to coordinate his message and travel schedule with congressional Republicans -- the most concrete sign yet that the biggest battleground in the 2008 presidential race may not be Pennsylvania or Ohio or Florida's I-4 corridor but rather the floor of the United States Senate."
The Los Angeles Times' Robin Abcarian writes up Bill's last stand. "This may be Clinton's last hurrah, his last chance to bend the will of the American people his way. If his wife doesn't win decisively in either Texas or Ohio today, dreams of a second Clinton presidency will probably evaporate. There will be no debate over what to call the first male presidential spouse -- first gentleman? first laddie? -- nor a way to prove that the relative peace and prosperity of his White House years were no historical fluke."
The documents are coming -- at least some of them. "The National Archives said Monday it expects to release Hillary Rodham Clinton's schedules as first lady later this month, but has asked a judge to delay the release of thousands of her telephone logs for one to two years," per the AP's Andrew DeMillo.
Rush Limbaugh was quick to hit the apology button after a caller said after a caller said her daughter thought Obama looked like Curious George -- yes, the cartoon monkey. "Limbaugh, who laughed at the caller's comments, later apologized explaining he didn't know anything about Curious George," ABC's Tahman Bradley reports.
Said Rush: "I was laughing because I was being polite, but I had never heard of Curious George." (What was his childhood like?)
"Wait wait guys, c'mon now -- I just answered like eight questions." -- Barack Obama, wrapping up a too-brief news conference on the day before voting that could leave him as the Democratic nominee for president.
"It is pretty pathetic." -- Hillary Clinton, on why she was appearing on "The Daily Show" the day before the most important set of contests of her political career.
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