The Note: Testing Time

Cue the grown-ups: More than tearing itself apart, the Democratic Party is splitting itself in half -- and there aren't too many big voices around who can (or will) do anything about it.

Consider that, in a space of a week, we have gone . . .

. . . from writing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's obituary to reserving rooms in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and beyond (and watching the Clintons speculate -- more deviously than idly -- on running mates).

. . . from knowing that Ohio and Texas are the two most important states on the calendar to realizing that Florida and Michigan actually are (and from watching the Democrats thrash at each other up over superdelegates to watching them tear each other up over Florida and Michigan -- again).

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. . . from crowning Sen. Barack Obama to wondering how much he wants it and back again (while pondering Clinton's campaign turmoil anew).

. . . from studying the delegate count to discovering that it (almost) no longer matters in this race (math is stubborn -- and you've got to love a game where Wyoming has almost as much bearing on the margin as Ohio and Texas -- but are we really going back to talk of delegate-poaching?).

. . . from watching Sen. John McCain worry about his party's unity to watching him lock down the big minds and bigger wallets (though measuring up the Denny Hastert legacy suddenly seems quite easy, at least in his old district).

Into this weary chaos, what does this week bring? An election in Mississippi on Tuesday that appears likely to extend Obama's delegate lead (110 at latest count, per ABC's delegate scorecard*).

Maybe some resolution to the Florida and Michigan debacles. Perhaps another aide or two from somebody's campaign being pressured to resign over a dumb comment that means precisely nothing (who benefits from this sort of just-another-typical-campaign silliness?).

And surely continued nastiness between Clinton, D-N.Y., and Obama, D-Ill., that does speak to something larger about them both, even if it takes the party backward. Obama's Wyoming win did get him his first news cycle in maybe two weeks (and how many of those can you lose without costing yourself superdelegates?), but the testing of Barack Obama -- and Hillary Clinton -- has only just begun.

"It is tempting to say that the Clinton campaign's plan is to burn the village in order to save it -- that Hillary Clinton believes that Democrats, hypnotized by Obama, are making a historic mistake from which only she can rescue them," The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza writes.

"And it is tempting to add that this means the political destruction of the man who is still most likely to be the Democratic nominee."

Says Clinton strategist Mark Penn (eager to claim credit again?): "Independent and Republican support is diminishing as they find out he's the most liberal Democratic senator." Yet Lizza quotes a Clinton adviser who offers a more candid assessment: "Inside the campaign, people are not idiots. Everyone can do the math," the adviser says. "Everyone recognizes how steep this hill is. But you gotta keep your game face on."

(The New Yorker piece is headlined "The Iron Lady," and the new issue's cover has Obama reaching over Clinton -- in bed -- to try to grab the red phone; do 3 am phone calls adjust for daylight savings? Meanwhile, Newsweek puts Clinton by herself its cover under the headline, "Hear Her Roar.")

We get it -- Clinton is tough enough -- but the game face is hard to keep for a campaign that once prided itself on its discipline. Yet another week opens with tales of Clinton campaign infighting (even as we wait for the first such story to emerge out of Obamaland.)

"Even as Mrs. Clinton revived her fortunes last week with victories in Ohio, Rhode Island and Texas, the questions lingered about how she managed her campaign, with the internal sniping and second-guessing undermining her well-cultivated image as a steady-at-the-wheel chief executive surrounded by a phalanx of loyal and efficient aides," The New York Times' Adam Nagourney, Patrick Healy, and Kate Zernike write.

It seems that the candidate of Day One took a few weeks and months to get the knack of campaign management. "Mrs. Clinton, at least until February, was a detached manager," the Times trio writes.

"Juggling the demands of being a candidate, she paid little attention to detail, delegated decisions large and small and deferred to advisers on critical questions. Mrs. Clinton accepted or seemed unaware of the intense factionalism and feuding that often paralyzed her campaign and that prevented her aides from reaching consensus on basic questions like what states to fight in and how to go after Mr. Obama, of Illinois."

Some adult supervision would be nice here. But Bill Clinton is otherwise occupied, Howard Dean is disinclined (or ill-equipped) to play the voice of reason, and Al Gore still must be convinced to step down from his mount.

Enter House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in what will not be the last such comment if this campaign lingers as long as we now expect it to. "There is absolutely no question that I have concerns about the attacks that are being made on one candidate or another," Pelosi said Friday, per the San Francisco Chronicle's Zachary Coile.

On Monday, the Obama campaign turns to foreign policy and national security, with three former armed-service secretaries citing his judgment (without Obama himself present) at a news conference in Washington.

Wyoming matters in part because a fresh victory allowed Obama to take control of the narrative again, at least for a day or two.

"Sen. Barack Obama's campaign sharply criticized the tactics of his rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, charging her campaign with attempting 'to deceive the American people just so that they can win this election,' " Perry Bacon Jr. writes in The Washington Post.

After Mississippi votes Tuesday, Obama won't have contests to derive any bounce from: Six long weeks of nothingness descend on the campaign -- plenty of time for some media madness.

New York magazine's John Heileman wonders whether Obama can withstand the new media scrutiny that's coming his way: "It's clear to anyone with two eyes in his head that the kid-gloves days are over for Obama," Heileman writes.

"Suddenly, the press is treating him more like it has handled Clinton since, er, day one. As a front-runner, in other words. The shift in tone and temper is coming as something of a shock to Obamaland, and not least to the candidate himself."

Though the whole press corps hasn't turned on him yet, as The New Republic's Noam Scheiber writes.

"In truth, the press hasn't turned on Obama. There are simply two different press corps covering him, and the crankier one carried the day in San Antonio [at Obama's contentious press conference last week]. In some respects, the split resembles the now-familiar divide in the Democratic electorate between blue-collar voters and affluent liberals."

First, though, another chance at victory for Obama, who campaigns in Mississippi Monday.

"The Illinois senator is favored to win tomorrow's Mississippi primary, where more than one third of the state's electorate is African-American," Nick Timiraos writes in The Wall Street Journal.

"The primary is also open to Republicans and independents, who have favored Sen. Obama but who polls show may favor Sen. Clinton in the state."

(Clinton and her surrogates have hit Mississippi repeatedly in the past week, but on Monday she is back to her habit of skipping ahead to contests that favor her: She spends the day campaigning in Pennsylvania.)

The race is back to even nationally: A new Newsweek poll has it Obama 45, Clinton 44 in the wake of her March 4 victories.

The fact that the Democrats are running even while running out of contests is why Michigan and Florida suddenly matter plenty, all over again. The likeliest scenario involves mail-in voting, Sudeep Reddy writes in The Wall Street Journal.

"Even if a consensus emerges, the answer to a key question -- who would pay for mail revotes -- remains up in the air," Reddy writes.

DNC Chairman Howard Dean didn't exactly sound eager to jump in the fray -- not that he doesn't want this solved, and not that he wasn't quick to answer "yes" (before taking his answer back) when asked if he'd like to see Michigan and Florida vote again.

"States have got to put a plan on the table first, and when they do, we'll take that to the campaigns," Dean said Sunday on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."

Dean added this ominous comment: "Well, you can't not let it go to the floor. That's going to depend on what the candidates want to do." (And this, which may serve as a nudge to Camp Clinton: "Whoever has the most delegates will have an edge in the credentials committee. And whether they seat them or not is their business.")

Deadlines loom: "The possibility of holding new primaries by the Democratic National Committee's deadline of June 10 becomes less likely every day there's not a deal," Wes Allison writes in the St. Petersburg Times.

You known things are getting fun when *Al Sharpton wants to get involved.* The reverend heads to Florida Monday to collect names of resident who skipped the primary because they thought it wouldn't matter.

"Sharpton is threatening to sue the Democratic National Committee if it counts Florida's primary results in the official presidential delegates tally," the New York Sun's Grace Rauh writes.

Bloomberg News' Al Hunt is looking for some elder Democratic Party statesmen to jump in -- not to solve the superdelegate issue, but to settle Florida and Michigan. "The Democratic Party in the U.S. needs a senior figure -- George Mitchell, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter -- to avoid a political train wreck," Hunt writes.

"The clock is ticking. If the Democratic Party leadership continues to dawdle, put Michigan and Florida in the John McCain column for the November election."

Then there's the superdelegates -- and the battle-lines are drawn there, too. "I don't see how we can possibly do anything other than respect the will of the people who have voted in caucus and primary states all over the country," Obama backer Tom Daschle said on "Meet the Press," saying such a scenario "would be a travesty for the party and for the country."

As for the Clinton campaign's views of all of this, former DNC chairman Steve Grossman (and Clinton backer) offers a suggestion in a letter to all superdelegates. "Even though the very party rules that provide for super delegates contemplated that we would exercise those independent judgments and fulfill those responsibilities, there are those who believe that we should confine ourselves to adding up numbers," Grossman writes.

"For the moment, super delegates who are not committed to either candidate should resist the blandishments of those who would trivialize their roles in the nominating process, and their responsibilities to the party, and to the country, about which we care so deeply."

Grossman appears to be getting his wish -- for now. "Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's trio of victories over Sen. Barack Obama last week appears to have convinced a sizable number of uncommitted Democratic superdelegates to wait until the end of the primaries and caucuses before picking a candidate," Dan Balz wrote in Sunday's Washington Post.

If it comes down to it, they will both have strong arguments: "Barack Obama says he's won more states, Hillary Rodham Clinton says she's won bigger states, and both say their primary-season performance makes them the more electable Democratic presidential nominee," Jill Lawrence writes in USA Today.

And don't miss Clinton herself dropping this oh-so-casual hint, in explaining to Newsweek's Suzanne Smalley why the delegate gap may not be what it seems: "Even elected and caucus delegates are not required to stay with whomever they are pledged to." (Are we going there again, senator?)

Also in the category of mischief -- wondering if Bill Clinton has given this Clinton-Obama dream-team notion any thought?

"I know that she has always been open to it, because she believes that if you can unite the energy and the new people that he's brought in and the people in these vast swaths of small town and rural America that she's carried overwhelmingly, if you had those two things together she thinks it'd be hard to beat," the former president said Saturday in Mississippi, per ABC's Sarah Amos.

(Really, is that what SHE thinks?)

As for what HE thinks: "You won't see me as a vice presidential candidate -- you know, I'm running for president," Obama told a Montana TV station, ABC's Sunlen Miller reports.

Daschle calls it out for what it is: "It's really a rare occurrence -- maybe the first time in history -- that the person who is running number two would offer the person who is running number one the number two position," he said on "Meet the Press."

"It's a dream team all right, as in dream on," New York Daily News columnist Michael Goodwin writes. "It's a fantasy because, in the Clintons' pitch, naturally, she is on top of the ticket and Obama is her No. 2. That's rich of her, considering that Obama leads in both the delegate race and the popular vote. Forget those pesky voters - Hillary has declared herself the winner!"

"Of course, the more bitter this fight gets, the less likely the chances of reconciliation," ABC's Jake Tapper reported on "Good Morning America" on Monday.

But before Democrats go too hard on themselves over a primary that's splitting the party down the middle, take heart: a Saturday special election with Big Implications has a Democrat, Bill Foster, taking over for former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

There's symbolism in Hastert's seat, but here's why Illinois 14 matters: "The 14th District historically has been very Republican, re-electing Hastert with 60 percent of the vote in 2006 and giving President Bush 55 percent of the vote in 2004," James Kimberly writes in the Chicago Tribune. "Foster's victory is further evidence of the changing suburban landscape.

The heart of the district is made up of fast-growing communities where farmland has given way to subdivisions and new residents don't necessarily have familiarity with local politics."

Why Illinois 14 matters, part two: "It is a stunning rejection of the Bush Administration, its Republican allies, and presidential nominee John McCain," DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider wrote in a post-victory memo.

Why Illinois 14 matters, part three: "The NRCC spent nearly $1.3 million defending the seat, a significant percentage of the $6.4 million the committee showed on hand at the end of January," Washingtonpost.com's Chris Cillizza writes.

"That is a major investment of limited resources -- only to come up empty." Why Illinois 14 matters, part four: "Foster noted in his speech that he now becomes one more pledged superdelegate for Obama in the senator's primary race against Hillary Clinton," Abdon M. Pallasch and Dan Rozek write in the Chicago Sun-Times.

As for the Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting, it's time for McCain, R-Ariz., to refill those coffers and recharge those batteries.

"Sewing up the Republican presidential nomination while the Democratic candidates continue to battle each other has given Senator John McCain a valuable commodity: time he can use to unite a fractured Republican Party, ramp up his lackluster fund-raising and transform his shoestring primary operation into a general election machine," Michael Cooper and Michael Luo write in The New York Times.

"His first order of business, though, will be an intense focus on raising money, with some 20 or 30 events a month," they write. "Mr. McCain is inheriting not only many of the advisers to President Bush, but also important fund-raisers who helped him raise record amounts of money."

And he's got plenty of time to focus on choosing a running-mate: "Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain's age and past health problems may be concerns as he chooses his running mate," ABC's John Cochran reports. "The names most mentioned are energetic, young governors, including Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah, and Charlie Crist of Florida."

The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes has a former governor in mind -- and claims to have plenty of influential company in that regard. "[Mitt] Romney has allies in the Bush wing of the Republican party," Barnes writes. "President Bush favors him as McCain's veep. Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, preferred Romney over McCain in the primaries, but never endorsed him publicly. Karl Rove, the president's political strategist, has hinted that he considers Romney to be McCain's best running mate."

The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg has a veepstakes suggestion for McCain: "If McCain really wants to have it all -- to refurbish his maverick image without having to flip-flop on the panderings that have tarnished it; to galvanize the attention of the press, the nation, and the world; to make a bold play for the center without seriously alienating 'the base' -- then he can avail himself of a highly interesting option: Condoleezza Rice."

But before he gets to any of that, McCain is set to visit the Middle East. "Republican presidential candidate John McCain will arrive in Israel on March 18 as part of a delegation of senators visiting the region," Yitzhak Benhorin reports for Ynetnews.com.

"The schedule for the trip has not been released yet, but it is expected to be a brief, one-day visit during which McCain will meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak."

Also in the news:

McCain will have some company in the Middle East. From the White House Monday morning: "President Bush has asked the Vice President to travel to Oman, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank, and Turkey for discussions with these key partners on issues of mutual interest."

The New York Times surveys McCain's health, and finds things generally good, but: "Mr. McCain has yet to make his full medical records or his physicians available to reporters," Lawrence K. Altman writes.

"At least three times since March 2007, campaign officials have told The New York Times that they would provide the detailed information about his current state of health, but they have not done so. The campaign now says it expects to release the information in April," a timetable confirmed by McCain Sunday night on "60 Minutes."

"So Mr. McCain's prognosis for the recurrence of melanoma can be gauged only by talking to experts not connected with his case," Altman writes. "Those experts say his prospects appear favorable."

The Wall Street Journal writes up the tax-status investigation of Obama's church. Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. "and his successor's repeated enthusiastic promotion of their famous parishioner may be running afoul of federal tax law, which says churches can endanger their tax-exempt status by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office," the Journal's Suzanne Sataline writes.

The Sunday New York Times looked at Obama's Senate record (such as it is), with Kate Zernike and Jeff Zeleny focusing on "the two competing elements in Mr. Obama's time in the Senate: his megawatt celebrity and the realities of the job he was elected to do.

He went to the Senate intent on learning the ways of the institution, telling reporters he would be 'looking for the washroom and trying to figure out how the phones work.' But frustrated by his lack of influence and what he called the 'glacial pace,' he soon opted to exploit his star power. He was running for president even as he was still getting lost in the Capitol's corridors."

The AP's Nancy Benac explores Clinton's foreign-policy experience (such as IT is). "To hear Hillary Rodham Clinton tell it now, she had a lot more going on as first lady than she let on at the time," Benac writes.

"There is little doubt that Clinton was an exceptionally activist first lady. . . . But Clinton is taking credit for accomplishing more than some of those who were active in foreign policy during the Clinton years recall."

Clinton loses a "Hillraiser": Mehmet Celebi, a Turkish-American financier who backed a film that was widely seen as anti-American, is no longer raising money for the campaign, ABC's Jake Tapper reports.

Tina Brown comes off the trail impressed by Clinton's grit: "Perhaps she deserves to prevail simply because she's tougher -- tougher than the media following ashen-faced in her wake, and clearly tougher than the other Democratic and Republican candidates who've already gone down in flames," Brown writes for Newsweek (which puts Clinton on its cover, headline: "Hear Her Roar."

"There is still romance to the idea of a woman in the White House, spattered and compromised though Hillary's candidacy might be."

Among the reasons Wyoming mattered: "Barack Obama's victory in Wyoming tonight is an opportunity to remind of the Fundamental Strategic Error committed by the Clinton campaign, an instance where we can link an actual strategic decision made by the campaign to the current delegate predicament it finds itself in," Marc Ambinder writes in his Atlantic blog.

"That is, of course, the decision to allow Obama to run up the popular vote margins in the states holding caucuses, thereby directing an artery of delegates directly into Obama, one that Clinton seemed singularly uninterested in, and as later contests proved, incapable, of, clashing."

The battle for Pennsylvania: "Advisers to Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are mapping out strategies for success in Pennsylvania that focus on its two major metropolitan areas but leave few parts of the state untouched over a six-week brawl that will offer ample time to spread out and dig in," Josh Drobnyk writes in Allentown's Morning Call.

Phase II, at long last: "After an acrimonious investigation that spanned four years, the Senate Intelligence Committee is preparing to release a detailed critique of the Bush administration's claims in the buildup to war with Iraq," Greg Miller writes in the Los Angeles Times.

"The long-delayed document catalogs dozens of prewar assertions by President Bush and other administration officials that proved to be wildly inaccurate about Iraq's alleged stockpiles of banned weapons and pursuit of nuclear arms. But officials say the report reaches a mixed verdict on the key question of whether the White House misused intelligence to make the case for war."

What's it going to take for politicians to realize that using Barack Obama's middle name is a bad idea? "I will tell you that if he is elected president, then the radical islamists, the al Qaida and the radical Islamists and their supporters Will be dancing in the streets in greater numbers than they did on September 11th," Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said Friday, per Radio Iowa's O. Kay Henderson. "They'll be dancing in the streets because of his middle name."

The kicker:

"It's Obama. Call me." -- Text message on Samantha Power's cell phone, per a Men's Vogue profile that published before she was forced to resign from the Obama campaign Friday for calling Clinton "a monster" in a newspaper interview.

"Go down in the basement, open the panel on the furnace. You'll see a red button. . . ." -- Amy Poehler, as "Hillary Clinton" on "Saturday Night Live," dispensing some 3 am advice to "President Obama." l

"For there's Condi and Dick, my old compadre, talking to me about some oil rich Saudi, but soon I'll touch the brown brown grass of home." -- President Bush, singing to the tune of "Green Green Grass of Home," at the Gridiron dinner Saturday.

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