As the candidates and their party pause to ponder what it is they've created in this interminable campaign, seven immutable truths about the battle for the Democratic nomination:
1. Nobody is getting to 2,024 without a whole lot of help from superdelegates (any number announced on Thursday will not constitute a pro-Obama flood, and with apologies to Howard Dean, the Democratic Party is getting exactly what it bargained for).
2. Neither candidate is close to closing the deal with the vast majority of those still on the fence (and before the Clinton campaign can convince more of them to sign on, she's got to stop the eruptions of anger emanating from insider her inner circle).
4. Do-overs are for playground football (but if they're good enough for Florida and Michigan, cancel those summer vacation plans, too).
5. Talk of a Clinton-Obama ticket is so premature it's hilarious -- if not for the fact that it's more than a little patronizing for the candidate who's behind to suggest the frontrunner may make a nice partner. (And we look forward to hearing why Sen. Clinton thinks a man who's not ready for Day One is ready for Day Two.)
6. Polls like this will serve to calm calls for quick resolution to the race (but does anyone think Sen. John McCain will go seven clear weeks without picking up ground?).
7. Sen. Barack Obama has at least as much to prove to the Democratic Party as Clinton does (and, possibly, quite a bit more).
Obama, D-Ill., remains the race's clear frontrunner -- and he will be as long as he maintains a delegate lead anywhere close to the level he now enjoys (109, per ABC's latest count, despite Tuesday's washout).
But he faces continued skepticism from an anxious party that desperately wants to win. Three chances to close out Clinton have passed him by, and this is not the first time he's come out saying it's time to fight.
"After defeats in two of the most populous states, he also sounded like a chastened candidate in search of his lost moment," Michael Powell and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times. "Mr. Obama once again failed to administer an electoral coup de grâce, and so allowed a tenacious rival to elude his grasp. Now, after appearing nearly invincible just last week, he faces questions about his toughness and vulnerabilities — never mind seven weeks of tramping across Pennsylvania, the site of the next big primary showdown."
If his talk about taking the fight to Clinton sounds familiar, that's because it should: "He picks up the cudgel, and then sets it down," Powell and Zeleny writes. "The problem is that Mr. Obama has built a campaign persona as the man of hope, a young candidate with oratorical skills who promises to build bridges across the ideological divide."
This is Obama dipping his toe in the water, again: "Obama returned to Chicago for a brief rest, pledged to campaign for 'a few more weeks' and challenged the media to more thoroughly examine Clinton's record," John McCormick writes in the Chicago Tribune. Said Obama: "If the suggestion is somehow that on issues of ethics, or disclosure or transparency, that somehow she's going to have a better record than I have and will be better able to withstand Republican attacks, that's an issue that should be tested."
"The point we want to raise is that the vetting of Hillary Clinton has yet to start -- that the hard questions have not been asked of Senator Clinton," said Obama strategist David Axelrod, per ABC's Sunlen Miller.
But that wasn't being raised last week (at least not by Obama himself) -- back when the Obama campaign was on a jaunty kind of cruise control -- and every missed opportunity makes it harder for Obama to pick up the fight. Clinton gathers more evidence for her explicit argument (that she's more qualified, and a better fit for important presidential states) and her implicit argument (that she's flat-out tougher and better prepared to run a general election).
Time to fight back: "He knows what game he's playing now," Time's Michael Duffy and Nancy Gibbs write.
Obama tells Time: "If she continues, as over the last week, to bring up real estate transactions and the character of our supporters who have provided donations to our campaign, then we will make certain that she has to answer those same questions with respect to herself, her husband and her campaign."
Clinton, D-N.Y., should have been (and basically was) riding high on Wednesday, but stories like this have a nasty way of bringing that to an end. It would seem that Mr. Mark Penn, pollster/strategist/(outside) adviser, has a diminishing number of friends. "With a flurry of phone calls and e-mail messages that began before polls closed, campaign officials made clear to friends, colleagues and reporters that they did not view the wins as validation for the candidate's chief strategist," Peter Baker and Anne Kornblut write in The Washington Post (in what reads like a repurposed campaign obit).
"Clinton now faces the challenge of exploiting this moment of opportunity while at the same time deciding whether the squabbling at her Arlington headquarters has become a distraction that requires her intervention," they write.
Among the very many juicy morsels: "Three times, campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle and senior adviser Harold Ickes tried to hire another national pollster so Penn would not be the one to test his own message, campaign sources said, and three times they were rejected."
(And, in one of the classic campaign conversations of this or any year, comes this contribution to American democracy: "[Expletive] you!" Ickes shouted. "[Expletive] you!" Penn replied. "[Expletive] you!" Ickes shouted again.)
Cue the GOP smiles. And Karl Rove leads the party into laughter over the delegate stand-off: "In a real irony, the Democratic Party will settle its nominee battle with the aristocratic device of superdelegates -- party apparatchiks, interest group leaders and elected officials, many of whom gained their post years ago," Rove writes in his Wall Street Journal column. "What happens if a bloc of superdelegates remains uncommitted until the convention? And what will happen to Florida and Michigan, which presently have no delegates? The last convention with only 48 states represented was 1956."
For Clinton, it's not a direct path, but she sees daylight. "[Clinton] advisers sketched out a new scenario for overcoming Obama's delegate lead: a Clinton win in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary in April and then persuading the more than 300 uncommitted superdelegates who are poised to decide the race that she would be the stronger general-election nominee," Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post. "Clinton's team has assigned 20 staffers to focus exclusively on the superdelegates, one official said."
Clinton didn't vastly reorder the race with her victories, but she did earn herself seven weeks to make a case against Obama that's only started to come into focus. "Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's victories in the primaries on Tuesday barely dented Senator Barack Obama's lead in delegates, but they seemed to slow the Democratic Party establishment's move in his direction while giving her campaign time to try to turn the race in her favor," Adam Nagourney and Carl Hulse write in The New York Times. "Mrs. Clinton appeared to have frozen the race in place, and slowed the flow of superdelegates into Mr. Obama's camp."
Clinton (grabbing the cover of the new Time) is ready: "After years of battling the scandal machine that Hillary Clinton once called the 'vast right-wing conspiracy,' she and her inner circle feel well prepared for this sort of fight," Time's Karen Tumulty and David Von Drehle write. "Students of the Clintons' long career have noted that they do better in a scrape. Combat brings them to the balls of their feet; by contrast, they tend to spring leaks on calm seas. Clinton's successful attacks broke Obama's 12-win streak that had buoyed him through a month of victories, and her advisers now feel they have put a stick in the spokes of his momentum."
The supers stay put (at least for now). Bloomberg News' Kristin Jensen and Julianna Goldman: "A group of uncommitted 'superdelegates' were ready to make a show of support for Obama by trying to pressure Clinton to give up, said Tim Roemer, a former congressman who's rounding up backers for Obama. Now, after her wins in Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island, many will still back Obama without calling on Clinton to quit, he said."
Stubborn old math -- and frustratingly egalitarian rules -- reside at the heart of the current standoff. "Using the ABC political unit's delegate calculator, in the unlikely event that Clinton sweeps all twelve remaining contests with 55 percent of the vote, she will have 1,793 delegates, and will still trail Obama, who will have 1,841 delegates," ABC's Jake Tapper reports.
"If Obama were to sweep the dozen contests with 55 percent of the vote, he will end up with 1,902 delegates and Clinton will take home 1,732. He, too, would fall short of the magic number 2,024."
Is it possible to do it without the supers? Assuming no super-changes, Obama "would need to win 77% of all the remaining pledged delegates to hit the magic number of 2,024 to secure the nomination. That is highly unlikely due to the proportional delegate allocation rules in the Democratic Party," ABC political director David Chalian writes. "Clinton would need to win 94% of all the remaining pledged delegates to hit the magic number of 2,024."
"The scenario leaves the Democratic Party facing a stalemate with a variety of chaotic endgame scenarios - and a chance that a long, bloody contest could rip the party apart while giving Republican John McCain a leg up in his White House run," Geoff Earle writes in the New York Post.
Both have big questions that need answering: "Barack Obama must show he is able to close the sale with voters, an ability that has eluded him at several moments this winter," Larry Eichel writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "And Hillary Rodham Clinton needs to figure out a way to close the delegate gap in the weeks to come. Her victories in Ohio and Texas, though rejuvenating for her candidacy, didn't do much on that score."
Then there's Michigan and Florida. "Contrary to the Obama campaign's contention, Clinton's best chance to cut into his delegate lead may still lie ahead. Attention is focusing on the dispute over delegates from Florida and Michigan, barred by the Democratic National Committee from the August convention because the states broke party rules by moving up their primary dates," Brian C. Mooney writes in The Boston Globe.
(How long before the RNC agrees -- if for no other reason than to stir up some mischief on the Democratic side?)
"Officials in Michigan and Florida are showing renewed interest in holding repeat presidential nominating contests so that their votes will count in the epic Democratic campaign," Nedra Pickler reports for the AP. "The Michigan governor, along with top officials in Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign and Florida's state party chair, are now saying they would consider holding a sort of do-over contest by June."
If that doesn't happen -- ready for that rules fight? "It would be an absolutely gigantic fight that would spill over not only to the convention floor, but to the streets of Denver," Democratic strategist Tad Devine tells The Wall Street Journal's Jackie Calmes. Writes Calmes, "If Sen. Clinton pushes the matter too hard, she could alienate the very 'superdelegates' she now needs."
All of this is Howard Dean's worst nightmare -- and though Dean says he's not concerned, is this a hint of a deal to come? "Democratic leaders don't pick presidential nominees anymore -- voters do that," Dean told ABC's Robin Roberts on "Good Morning America Thursday. (And yet -- how does one divine the will of the voters in a race this tight?) "I'm not worried about this. The voters have done a great job. . . . We may well have a clear-cut winner."
And he's willing to listen to proposals from Michigan and Florida, as he made clear in a statement released Wednesday night. "They have to be seated within the rules," Dean said on "GMA." "What you cannot do is change the rules in the middle of the contest."
If there's any doubt about the Clinton campaign's take on this, James Carville on "GMA" called it "unbelievable" that the DNC can't find a way to have Florida and Michigan represented. And (surprise!) no caucuses. "Who would argue against having a primary?" Carville told Diane Sawyer. "Why wouldn't anybody want to empower as many people as possible to make a decision like this?"
Another little wrinkle: "Frustrated by the impasse, two prominent Clinton supporters" -- Leon Panetta and Bob Kerrey -- "said the only fair resolution might be to place both Clinton and Obama on the ticket, though one would have to renounce presidential ambitions and stand for vice president," Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times. "Thus far, neither has shown any interest in the No. 2 job."
That was Clinton's suggestion on "The Early Show" on Wednesday, prompting a smile from Obama: "I think it is very premature to start talking about a joint ticket," he said, per ABC's Jennifer Parker's look at the "dream ticket" speculation.
Carville didn't rule out the possibility of Clinton accepting the No. 2 slot: "She's a loyal American and a loyal Democrat, and I'm sure she will do what's in the best interest of her party and her country," he said on "GMA."
But Carville was on message for his candidate: "I think that she's going to be the nominee," he said. Asked whether Clinton would choose Obama, he said, "There's a good chance of that. . . . Democrats like both of their candidates, and I think whoever the nominee is is going to have to look a their primary opponent and give serious consideration to him." (Yes, "him.")
This really is what the party should have known it would get. "Proportional allocating of delegates is working as intended," Democratic strategist Dan Payne writes in his Boston Globe op-ed. "It's expressing the voters' view: They like them both. Nevertheless, it prolongs the agony. Thanks to the GOP's winner-take-all primaries, John McCain barely broke a sweat."
On the Republican side, McCain, R-Ariz., got to enjoy a White House photo op that was eight years in the making on Wednesday. (And we all got to enjoy a little presidential jig that's nothing compared to the tap-dancing that's taken place in the long, complicated relationship between these two men.)
"It has been a rocky path that has led to President Bush's Rose Garden embrace of the newly anointed Republican presidential nominee John McCain but today at the White House the former competitor presented a united front for the party," ABC's Nitya Venkataraman, Bret Hovell, and Jennifer Duck report. McCain "needs Bush's help with the party's conservative base, but any ties to Bush could alienate moderate Republicans and independent voters who are key to a possible McCain victory in November."
Newsday's Tom Brune recalls some of the history: "Eight years ago this week, McCain angrily quit his upstart presidential bid, blasting Bush and even hinting at a third-party bid through aides. It was not until two months later, in May, that McCain finally came out for Bush. Even then McCain had to be prodded by reporters to actually use the word 'endorse.' In his irreverent way, McCain then said, 'I endorse Gov. Bush' six times in a row."
(As ABC's John Berman recalls, the Bush campaign didn't even know for certain the day before that 2000 event that McCain would be endorsing Bush. And somehow, McCain found time to meet with Al Gore before sitting down with his party's presumptive nominee.)
This is Democrats' opportunity to smile. "Democrats seized on the sunny Rose Garden tableau, charging that McCain would offer voters nothing more than a third Bush term with policies in lock step with the current officeholder," Jill Zuckman writes in the Chicago Tribune.
Said Howard Dean (whose DNC posted video of the endorsement event on the party's Website): "John McCain just doesn't get it."
The Washington Times' Stephen Dinan has a look at the Bush-McCain relationship that Republicans will either love or hate. "Democrats argue that Sen. John McCain is just a continuation of President Bush's time in office, but if so, that's mostly because Mr. Bush has moved toward Mr. McCain on issues, not the other way around," he writes.
"As one of the dominant legislators of the past decade, Mr. McCain staked out positions on liberalizing immigration laws, overhauling campaign-finance rules, increasing troops in Iraq, addressing global warming and even cutting pork-barrel spending -- only to see Mr. Bush tack toward him on each issue."
McCain gets to enjoy the spoils of having wrapped up his nomination early. "McCain enters the next phase of the campaign with time to devise a national-election strategy and hone his positions on critical issues, both of which could give him an advantage over his eventual opponent," Ronald J. Hansen and Dan Nowicki write in the Arizona Republic. "McCain figures to benefit from a political cease-fire by fellow Republicans and can tend to fundraising and developing his base."
He can use the head start. "A surge of Democratic allegiance is boosting Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton alike in match-ups against John McCain, with change vs. experience as the roadmap for voter preferences in the 2008 general election," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes. "Obama's advantage over McCain is the bigger one in this ABC News/Washington Post poll, a 12-point lead compared to Clinton's 6-point edge."
One thing to work on, fast: "McCain is losing three in 10 conservatives to either Obama or Clinton, far more than he likely could stand to see slip away." As for the value of that that endorsement -- Bush's approval rating is back at his career low, 32 percent, in the new poll.
McCain is using his down time to travel overseas this month, per ABC's Bret Hovell. On his campaign plane Wednesday, McCain said simply that soon he'd like to go back to Iraq and would like to go to Afghanistan.
Sen. Clinton stresses national security Thursday afternoon in Washington, then heads to Canton, Miss., to speak at a Mississippi Democratic Party dinner. And Bill Clinton hits Wyoming on behalf of his wife's campaign. (One thought -- will we ever see them campaign together in public again? It's been a month now . . . )
Also in the news:
Obama grabs the first-ever Rolling Stone presidential endorsement. "There is a sense of dignity, even majesty, about him, and underneath that ease lies a resolute discipline," Jann S. Werner writes. "It's not just that he is eloquent -- with that ability to speak both to you and to speak for you -- it's that he has a quality of thinking and intellectual and emotional honesty that is extraordinary."
An aggressive Obama push doesn't make Tony Rezko go away, Lynn Sweet warns in the Chicago Sun-Times. "Throwing a spotlight on Clinton's lack of transparency on taxes however, does not abrogate that Obama still has a list of outstanding items about his relationship with Rezko that needs further explanation," Sweet writes. "What Clinton does or does not disclose can't be used as an excuse by Obama, who is making transparency an issue. He either has a standard or he is making tactical decisions."
"Barack Obama has an Archie Bunker problem," Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla writes. "The white, blue-collar voters personified by the 1970s fictional television character cost Obama yesterday. His Democratic presidential rival, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, beat him 54 percent to 44 percent in industrial Ohio, and 58 percent to 40 percent in heavily Catholic Rhode Island."
Who could have imagined that old Mississippi comment could have come back to haunt Clinton? "Sen. Barack Obama's supporters in Mississippi took Sen. Hillary Clinton to task Wednesday over comments she made about the Magnolia State while on the campaign trail last year," Michael Newsom writes in the Biloxi Sun Herald. "But a Clinton campaign official said her words about Mississippi are being taken out of context."
The quote: "I was shocked when I learned Iowa and Mississippi have never elected a woman governor, senator or member of Congress," Clinton told the Des Moines Register, back in the days when surely Super Tuesday would handle everything. "There has got to be something at work here. How can Iowa be ranked with Mississippi? That's not the quality. That's not the communitarianism, that's not the openness I see in Iowa."
Target: PA. "For the next seven weeks, with brief breaks to visit Wyoming and Mississippi, Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton will be focusing on one state: Pennsylvania," Martha T. Moore writes in USA Today. "They will be trekking from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and back again in pursuit of the last big stash of delegates -- 158 -- that could give one of them a stronger claim to the presidential nomination."
Fire up the expectations game. "Experts said Pennsylvania is hardly a lock for Clinton, but the issues, conditions and demographics favor her," Brett Lieberman writes in the Harrisburg Patriot News. "Illinois Sen. Barack Obama should do well in most urban areas, particularly in Philadelphia, where most of the state's black voters live, but also places like Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and the city of York. 'For the most part, Clinton should win the rest of the state,' said Democratic media consultant Larry Ceisler."
How long before this hits the trail as an issue? A letter from the State Department to members of Congress claims that the Iraq war resolution "could be used to justify a continued U.S. presence in Iraq once the current United Nations mandate expires," ABC's Kirit Radia writes. (Yes, that's the 2002 resolution Clinton voted for and Obama said he would have voted against.)
The Canadians are steamed over the leaked NAFTA memo. "Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Wednesday that the leak of a Canadian diplomatic memorandum about Senator Barack Obama's position on Nafta was unfair to his campaign for the Democratic nomination and possibly illegal," per The New York Times.
But maybe Harper isn't really all that upset -- or that eager to call the plumbers. "Did Harper or his team try to meddle in the Ohio primary for political or ideological reasons?" Michael Blanchfield writes in The New Republic. "We will likely never know unless something like a smoking gun is produced. . . . But setting aside the issue of leaked diplomatic cables, it is no secret that the anti-NATFA rhetoric that Obama and Hillary Clinton were using in Ohio did not charm Canada's Conservatives."
Beliefnet.com's Dan Gilgoff reports on the latest from the McCain makeover: "John McCain's campaign has begun quietly reaching out to conservative Christian activists, including onetime Mike Huckabee supporters, but those activists remain highly skeptical of the Arizona senator and his ability to rally the GOP's evangelical base in November," he writes.
One of the very many reasons the Bush-McCain photo-op cuts both ways is revealed by The Boston Globe's Farah Stockman, who reports from the Cayman Islands. "Kellogg Brown & Root, the nation's top Iraq war contractor and until last year a subsidiary of Halliburton Corp., has avoided paying hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Medicare and Social Security taxes by hiring workers through shell companies based in this tropical tax haven," Stockman writes.
"More than 21,000 people working for KBR in Iraq - including about 10,500 Americans -- are listed as employees of two companies that exist in a computer file on the fourth floor of a building on a palm-studded boulevard here in the Caribbean. Neither company has an office or phone number in the Cayman Islands," she writes.
"The Defense Department has known since at least 2004 that KBR was avoiding taxes by declaring its American workers as employees of Cayman Islands shell companies, and officials said the move allowed KBR to perform the work more cheaply, saving Defense dollars."
Knight Kiplinger blogs on the (in his opinion, overstated) Obama-JFK comparisons: "As Kennedy did in 1960, Obama is inspiring idealistic young voters to get involved in the political process and public service. Like Kennedy, Obama is seeking to unite Americans of disparate races and backgrounds. Like Kennedy, Obama is a young man of great charisma and personal charm, but with a modest record of legislative accomplishment in the Senate, due to brief service. And that's where the Kennedy-Obama similarities end. On the substance of their positions and policy inclinations, the differences are enormous."
The Ron Paul presidential campaign is coming to a slow end, but the revolution continues, ABC's Z. Byron Wolf reports. "There are decisions being made," Paul spokesman Jesse Benton tells Wolf. "Whether carrying on the campaign or starting an organization, no decision has been made."
"I'd tell him to be careful about who he names to be the head of the selection committee." -- President Bush, offering some vice-presidential selection advice to John McCain. (Dick Cheney, you'll recall, chose himself way back when.)
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