The Note: Eliot's Mess

Here we thought a proposal on driver's licenses was about all the damage Gov. Eliot Spitzer, D-N.Y., could do to his favored candidate.

With apologies to Mississippi -- voting in presidential primaries on Tuesday, with polls closing at 8 pm ET and 33 Democratic convention delegates at stake -- the day's politics are being swamped by a plotline that would have been rejected by the producers of "The Wire."

It turns out Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., didn't need a Ken Starr impersonator -- here's the reminder of scandals past that she'd rather not be coping with just as she's gotten control of the campaign's trajectory again. (Once she's learned what she needs to about this case, does she denounce, reject, or -- the Clinton Standard -- denounce AND reject?)

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The Spitzer thunderbolt appears to mark the stunning, early end of a once promising political career. Even if he chooses to stay in office (less than likely, at this point) he forever wears the scarlet sobriquet "Client 9."

It's too delicious a storyline to live down, not when you've made as many enemies -- and done so as gleefully -- as Spitzer. Sen. Barack Obama may not ever have to go to the gutter, not if the gutter decides to show its rusty face on its own, in the personage of Clinton's home-state governor (and superdelegate).

"He stands close to ruin's precipice, this tireless crusader and once-charmed politician reduced to a notation on a federal affidavit: Client 9," Michael Powell and Mike McIntire write in The New York Times. "The tawdry nature of his current troubles -- to be caught on tape arranging a hotel-room liaison with a high-priced call girl, according to law enforcement officials -- shocked even his harshest critics, though not all were surprised that he would risk so much."

After the apology -- complete with the political ritual of an uncomfortable wife at a podium -- Spitzer "returned to his Fifth Avenue apartment and remained there on Monday night, receiving counsel from his advisers and weighing a possible resignation," Danny Hakim and William K. Rashbaum write in The New York Times. "One law enforcement official who has been briefed on the case said that Mr. Spitzer's lawyers would probably meet soon with federal prosecutors to discuss any possible legal exposure."

The New York Post: "HO NO!"

The New York Daily News: "PAY FOR LUV GOV."

If consignment to tabloid hell is the first piece of punishment visited upon political scoundrels (and good luck controlling a media firestorm in Gotham) what's next for Spitzer?

It's his (not to mention Clinton's) misfortune that this comes in the hyper-politicized heat of a presidential race (one his name has already been close to), in that stage of the game where every possession takes on added meaning.

Clinton, who counts Spitzer among her superdelegates (though she also has the support of his would-be replacement, Lt. Gov. David Paterson), gets the next move. Until or unless Spitzer resigns (or is run over by the campaign, like Mitt Romney, who deftly maneuvered his bus right over Sen. Larry Craig) he will be a walking, talking distraction to a campaign that would rather not revive memories of marital infidelities.

"However devastating this is for the Spitzer family, it can't exactly be good news for the Clinton campaign," Katharine Q. Seelye writes in The New York Times. "One is the human level of family anguish for the Spitzers. For Mrs. Clinton, it has to be a painful reminder of her own family saga. On the political level, the intense focus on the drama in Albany may divert attention and sap energy in New York State, Mrs. Clinton's home base."

Clinton, so far, is no-commenting. "It was a blow to Clinton, who recently had intensified her criticism of rival Barack Obama's relationship with Antoin 'Tony' Rezko, a political patron on trial in federal court in Obama's hometown of Chicago for alleged fraud and corruption," AP's Beth Fouhy writes.

"While not personally close, Clinton and Spitzer have been friendly colleagues since the former first lady first ran for the Senate in New York in 2000. Her aides said Clinton deeply respected Spitzer's work during his two terms as state attorney general, where he became a national crusader against corporate corruption and Wall Street investment excesses."

The real damage comes with laughter. No. 1 on Letterman's Top 10 list of Spitzer excuses Monday night: "I thought Bill Clinton legalized this years ago."

And the political blowback has begun: "The National Republican Congressional Committee called on five Democratic candidates in swing districts in New York to disavow Mr. Spitzer and return donations he made to their campaigns. The messages also included photographs of the Democratic candidates appearing alongside Mr. Spitzer at public events," Nick Confessore writes in The New York Times.

Confessore continues, "Advisers to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democratic candidate for president, watched the news unfold with morbid fascination, according to one campaign official. Some felt sorry for the governor, the official said, and some did not, recalling how Mr. Spitzer's controversial plan to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants caused Mrs. Clinton to stumble on the campaign trail last year."

Even the location of the alleged tryst brought its own (uncomfortable) historical memories. "In selecting the Mayflower, he chose the same hotel believed to have been used for assignations by John F. Kennedy, and the very place where Monica Lewinsky stayed when she testified about her tryst with Bill Clinton," The Washington Post's Dana Milbank writes. "A couple of blocks in either direction are the Jefferson, where Clinton adviser Dick Morris met a prostitute, and the Westin Grand, where defense contractors were said to have provided prostitutes to government officials."

Quick resolution is the option Camp Clinton most desires -- even the juiciest of tabloid stories need oxygen, and a resignation would take most of the air out of Room 871. It's hard to imagine Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., hoping to get much traction with attacks based on Clinton's associates -- but this is one of those cases where the scandal speaks rather sufficiently for itself.

And it comes as Obama starts to learn to speak up for HIMself. He's grown tired of this condescending talk of a "dream ticket": with his 111-delegate lead, it's he who should be in the position of making suggestions of offers, he told Camp Clinton on Monday.

"I don't know how someone in second place is offering the vice presidency to the person in first place," Obama said in Mississippi, per ABC's David Wright, Sunlen Miller, and Andy Fies. "If I'm not ready how come you think I'd be such a great VP?"

"They are trying to hoodwink you," Obama added, per Scott Helman of The Boston Globe.

Per The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny and Julie Bosman: "Mr. Obama felt compelled Monday to try to stop the chatter by offering his most expansive answer yet on the issue. With a steady smile, his tone ranged from amused to mocking to derisive."

Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times: "The Obama campaign is trying to solidify Obama as the front-runner -- important in wooing the superdelegates -- and the vice president talk from the Clintons was seen as presumptive and diminishing."

(On superdelegates, since March 4, it's Obama with four new endorsements, Clinton with none.)

On the vice-presidential talk, Clinton tells ABC's Jake Tapper: "This thing has really been given a life of its own." (Yes, and it was brought into existence by Clinton and her husband.)

Clinton backer Gov. Ed Rendell, D-Pa., (fast becoming our favorite surrogate of the cycle) says he'd be happy with Clinton-Obama or Obama-Clinton: "That would be great either way," Rendell said, per The Washington Post's Perry Bacon Jr. "I'd be happier if she were the presidential candidate, but I think that would be a good thing. We need to come together."

Credit Clinton communications chief Howard Wolfson for a solid effort in trying to thread the needle: "Senator Clinton will not choose any candidate who has not, at the time of choosing, passed the national security threshold, period," Wolfson said, per ABC's Teddy Davis. "But we have a long way to go between now and Denver."

Anyone ready for a crash-course in Clintonism? "Asked what Obama could do to prove his worth by August, Wolfson avoided the question," Peter Slevin writes in The Washington Post.

Obama pushes back at Clinton's experience claims in a Tuesday morning memo. Writes Greg Craig: "There is no reason to believe, however, that she was a key player in foreign policy at any time during the Clinton Administration. She did not sit in on National Security Council meetings. She did not have a security clearance. She did not attend meetings in the Situation Room. . . . The Clinton campaign's argument is nothing more than mere assertion, dramatized in a scary television commercial with a telephone ringing in the middle of the night."

And a fresh comment emerges Tuesday as likely campaign fodder. Clinton backer Geraldine Ferraro has the blogs buzzing by attacking "a very sexist media" in an interview last week with the Daily Breeze of Torrance, Calif.: "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," she Ferraro said. "And if he was a woman [of any color' he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."

Camp Clinton is saying this does not reflect the campaign's sentiments. (But since when has that been enough? Ferraro is a member of Clinton's campaign finance committee.)

This busy Tuesday brings actual real-life voting Mississippi, where 33 delegates will be awarded proportionally in Tuesday's primaries. Polls open at 8 am ET and close at 8 pm ET, and then follows a six-week stretch with no voting -- plenty of time for spin to become reality in the run-up to Pennsylvania, the next state on the calendar.

It's a mild day in Mississippi, with a good chance of rain across much of the state.

"A close race between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama will draw more voters to the polls today than the last presidential primary, state officials predict," Natalie Chandler writes in the Clarion Ledger.

"Most of the polls predict that Obama will win the state, but both candidates have campaigned hard in Mississippi during the last several days. Obama made his first appearance in the state Monday, and the Clinton campaign has hit the state hard since Thursday," Michael Newsom writes in the Biloxi Sun Herald. "Democrats expect record turnout for the primary."

Obama is heavily favored going in (the state is 37 percent black, and more than half of primary voters are expected to be African-American) but margins -- as the Clinton campaign is fast learning -- count. And the results could take on outsized meaning as the first primaries held since Clinton revived her candidacy with wins in Ohio and Texas last week.

"Mississippi's large black electorate in Tuesday's voting makes it fertile ground for Obama, who has swept the other Deep South states and has pulled huge margins among black voters," AP's Chuck Babington writes. "Clinton, the New York senator and former first lady, campaigned in the state last week, but by Monday was in Pennsylvania, where the primary is April 22."

Time's Jay Newton-Small recalls that black voters didn't swamp the polls in Texas -- a result the Obama campaign sure hopes isn't a trend that carries into Pennsylvania (where blacks have been about 13 percent of the Democratic electorate in recent elections).

"For better or for worse, today's results are likely to be picked over again and again for any kind of trends -- blacks, whites, men, women, young, old -- as Mississippi is the last state to vote for the next six weeks, until Pennsylvania's April 22 primary," Newton-Small writes. "As they like to say in Mississippi, this election will now start running slower than molasses rolling uphill in January."

The primary itself continues as a bitter battle with no apparent end on the horizon. "The groups that for months have energized the Democratic campaign and have given Democrats high hopes -- blacks, women and young voters -- are increasingly sniping at each other, raising concerns that the battle could create problems in the November election," Jonathan Kaufman writes in The Wall Street Journal.

Smart hands are getting worried. Says former Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile: "The Clinton backers are as adamant as the Obama people. The undertones [about race and gender] are the kind of cultural fault lines that lead to divisions. It is alarming and sickening."

The New York Times' Adam Nagourney sees Clinton coming close to GOP talking points: "It is one thing for Mr. McCain to say he would be better at protecting the American people from danger than Mr. Obama. It is another for Mrs. Clinton to say it," Nagourney writes. "Should Mr. Obama win the nomination, Mr. McCain will cite Mrs. Clinton as an expert on Mr. Obama's shortcomings as a commander in chief many times. And should Mr. Obama lose in November, it's a good bet that when the when the finger-pointing starts, Mrs. Clinton would be one of the top targets for recriminations."

As we enter a period of the campaign where the clock moves more slowly, the pressure will be on Obama to find the appropriate balance in responding to attacks. "As Hillary Rodham Clinton throws harder punches – a strategy that analysts say helped her win the Ohio and Texas primaries a week ago – how hard can he hit back without undercutting his message of uplift?" Ariel Sabar writes in the Christian Science Monitor.

And what can Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., do other than smile? As he prepares for his European trip next week, McCain got a check-up on Monday and reported that "everything's fine" with his physical condition, Dan Nowicki writes in the Arizona Republic.

Said McCain: "I got the full cancer check a couple of weeks ago, with my dermatologist," McCain said. "[On Monday] I just went through a regular routine. . . . Like most Americans, I go to see my doctor fairly frequently."

The AP's Jim Kuhnhenn and Matthew Daly have new details of McCain's role in the Airbus-Boeing competition. "Top current advisers to Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign last year lobbied for a European plane maker that beat Boeing to a $35 billion Air Force tanker contract, taking sides in a bidding fight that McCain has tried to referee for more than five years," they write.

"Two of the advisers gave up their lobbying work when they joined McCain's campaign. A third, former Texas Rep. Tom Loeffler, lobbied for the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. while serving as McCain's national finance chairman."

The Washington Post has an interesting read about a Cuban psychoanalyst who interviewed McCain while he was a POW -- and who displays the newspaper clipping to prove it. "[Fernando] Barral said McCain was 'boastful' during their interview and 'without remorse' for any civilian deaths that occurred 'when he bombed Hanoi,' " the Post's Manuel Roig-Franzia writes. "McCain has a similar recollection, writing in his book that he responded, 'No, I do not' when Barral asked if he felt remorse."

And this: "Barral said he follows U.S. politics in clippings sent to him from friends and relatives abroad, and has taken a shine to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) because he 'represents change.' 'I don't know if McCain would be a good president,' Barral said. 'And I don't care.' "

Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. offers up a liberals' guide to bashing McCain: "Liberals can't ignore their past praise of McCain and trash him now just because he's the Republican nominee. After all, isn't he the guy many liberals once wanted the GOP to nominate?" he writes.

"Yet neither does it make sense for liberals to ignore all the issues on which they disagree with McCain -- for starters, his commitment to continuing the occupation of Iraq indefinitely, his flip-flopping on those tax cuts, his opposition to government-sponsored universal health coverage -- even if aspects of his persona are appealing."

Obama and Clinton skip ahead to Pennsylvania on Tuesday -- just six weeks away -- while McCain is in St. Louis and New York City. And Spitzer watch continues in Albany. Get the candidates' schedules in The Note's Sneak Peek.

Also in the news:

More on Spitzer: "The federal investigation of a New York prostitution ring was triggered by Gov. Eliot Spitzer's suspicious money transfers, initially leading agents to believe Spitzer was hiding bribes," ABC's Brian Ross reports. "It was only months later that the IRS and the FBI determined that Spitzer wasn't hiding bribes but payments to a company called QAT, what prosecutors say is a prostitution operation operating under the name of the Emperors Club."

"Spitzer, who made his name by bringing high-profile cases against many of New York's financial giants, is likely to be prosecuted under a relatively obscure statute called 'structuring,' according to a Justice Department official," Ross reports. "Structuring involves creating a series of financial movements designed to obscure the true purpose of the payments."

"It's Schadenfreude time on Wall Street," Aaron Lucchetti and Monica Langley write in The Wall Street Journal. "The news stunned traders on Wall Street, where Mr. Spitzer long has been viewed with fear and contempt. Some view the revelations as a huge hypocrisy for a man, who as New York's attorney general, had aggressively pushed for ethics and fair play on Wall Street earlier this decade. People who clashed hardest with Mr. Spitzer are among those crowing the loudest."

The New York Post demands Spitzer's resignation.

As does the New York Daily news.

Here's why Spitzer's career has already ended: "In his elected time he talked, he pointed the finger, he preached, he denounced, and he called up others and threatened," Newsday columnist Dan Janison writes. "Now that he has evidently earned the designation 'Client 9' in a federal affidavit involving prostitution charges, Spitzer's political life is over."

Among the many reasons Republicans are smiling over the Spitzer affair: "The accusations that New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer patronized a high-priced call girl tarnishes, if not undermines, the Democrats' attempt to portray the Republican Party as the party of corruption in this year's elections, even as it probably ends his own political career," Donald Lambro writes in the Washington Times.

Slate's Christopher Beam: "In the end, the Spitzer fallout is more likely to damage the party than Hillary's candidacy. For the past eight years, most of the lying, cheating, child molestation, and public sex has been the proud reserve of Republicans (or at least they excel at getting caught). The Spitzer scandal could flip that story line toward Democrats."

Clinton's playing up her roots in Pennsylvania: "Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York got a raucous welcome from her father's old neighbors yesterday as she kicked off her Democratic presidential drive for the delegates and big-state momentum that Pennsylvania will award in six weeks," James O'Toole writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton returned yesterday to the city where she was baptized to kick off her campaign for the Pennsylvania presidential primary," Thomas Fitzgerald writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., (an Obama backer) has a Michigan and Florida solution that the Obama campaign would be thrilled with: "Split up the delegations, let 'em each have 50% of it and move on," Dodd said, per the AP.

The Boston Globe's Peter Canellos looks at the fallout from the Samantha Power resignation. "If there was a warning for the Obama campaign, it was not about the dangers of negative campaigning. It was about the importance of having a consistent message and an effective chain of command," Canellos writes. "Power was the third Obama adviser to stir up a cloud of dust in recent weeks by apparently substituting his or her own views for Obama's."

Obama is now blaming the Clinton campaign for leaking the photo of him in native garb, after first saying he took Clinton at her word, ABC's Jake Tapper reports. "When in the midst of a campaign you decide to throw the kitchen sink at your opponent because you're behind, and you start, your campaign starts leaking photos of me when I'm traveling overseas wearing native clothes of those folks, to make people afraid," Obama said Monday on the trail.

Obama's name emerged at the Rezko trial on Monday. "As an Illinois lawmaker, Barack Obama was one of eight state officials consulted on appointments to a state board which later became involved in what prosecutors describe as a fraud scheme," ABC's Justin Rood and Melissa Murphy report. "That information was contained in a June 2003 memo from a national Democratic official introduced this morning as evidence at the trial of Antoin 'Tony' Rezko, a Chicago-area developer and political operative facing corruption charges."

What about those Clinton tax returns? "After weeks of intense pressure, and more than a year after announcing her presidential candidacy, Sen. Hillary Clinton has offered little explanation for why she has delayed releasing the tax returns made public by most other Democratic presidential candidates in recent years," ABC's Avni Patel reports.

(If you want them to get lost in some Spitzer ether, why not release them today?)

Al Franken looks like he's getting his match-up with Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn. "Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Ciresi abandoned his nearly year-old campaign Monday, saying continuing would create a fight within the Democratic Party," Rachel E. Stassen-Berger writes in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

The kicker:

Client 9 "would ask you to do things that, like, you might not think were safe -- you know -- I mean that . . . very basic things." -- Defendant Temeka Rachelle Lewis, in prosecution's complaint in the prostitution ring implicating Gov. Spitzer.

"I said I'd buy Dick some champagne. . . . I'm sure he's happy. I'm sure everybody on Wall Street is happy." -- Andrew Sabin, friend of Dick Grasso, stating consensus Wall Street opinion on Spitzer's fall from grace.

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