The Note: Bills & Chills in Battle of Wills

As we revel in odd pairings -- Wall Street reels on the same day that Gov. Eliot Spitzer peals away; Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John McCain cross paths in Baghdad; not to mention the 5-12 match-ups that will consume much of the nation this week -- the most immediate problems facing the Democratic presidential candidates are revealed in a three-pack of questions.

1. The question the Obama campaign doesn't want asked: If the nomination really is clinched, why hasn't anyone told all the superdelegates?

(And what would remedies for Michigan and Florida tell the only audience that matters anymore? Will they matter more or less than old comments made by a retired pastor?)


2. The question the Clinton campaign doesn't want asked: If voters are having second thoughts about Sen. Barack Obama (if, that is, the "downward spiral" has begun), why does Obama have a bigger delegate edge than he did two weeks ago?

(And why are Iowa Democrats (more sure than ever of their choice?)

3. The question that the Democratic Party really doesn't want asked (now that the party's dirty big secret is out -- that votes and voters don't matter, not necessarily): Are the superdelegates willing to overturn the will of the people?

(And how do they judge that will, exactly?)

Whether or not his weekend laundry airing left Obama, D-Ill., with new bills to pay -- and regardless of whether Clinton can wine or dine her way to any more super-support -- the race's fundamentals are the same (if not enhanced by those unpredictable Iowans): Obama now leads by 129 delegates, per ABC's count, and he will still be leading (probably by a significant margin) whenever the voting ends.

(Close your eyes and imagine what Camp Clinton would be saying if Clinton had an edge anywhere near that level by the time we started filling out brackets.)

Only one candidate is the beneficiary of these comments, made unequivocally by a savvy politician whose voice may matter: "If the votes of the superdelegates overturn what's happened in the elections, it would be harmful to the Democratic Party," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on "This Week."

And that stance holds even if another candidate pulls ahead in the popular vote: "It's a delegate race," said Pelosi, D-Calif. "The way the system works is that the delegates choose the nominee."

Actually, that's not the system works, at least not entirely -- and certainly not if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign has anything to do with it.

But could this be former President Bill Clinton setting the bar his wife needs to clear to have a realistic shot? Superdelegates will "have to choose, if there is a difference" between the leader in delegates and the leader in the popular vote, he told ABC's Robin Roberts in an interview broadcast on "Good Morning America" Monday.

Said the former president (mixing spin with substance as only he can): "If Senator Obama wins the popular vote then the choice will be easier, but if Hillary wins the popular vote but can't quite catch up with the delegate votes, then you have to just ask yourself, which is more important, and who is more likely to win in November? I don't know that it'll be an easy decision, but that's what leaders sign up for."

As of this moment, Obama leads the popular vote by about 130,000 -- and that includes Florida and Michigan's disputed elections. Take them out, and the gap is in the 700,000-vote range.

The former president's broader message (this time, as Senior Statesman): "If we just chill out here and let all the voters have their say, my gut is it's gonna come out all right," Clinton said. "We should just let the Democrats decide. This is a tough choice for them. . . . And you know I have my strong convictions, but I might be wrong."

(Of course, then there's Campaigner Clinton, never far from the service: "This is the first election in history that I can remember where experience -- and having, actually, experience as a change maker -- should be a disability for being elected," Clinton told college journalists in New Orleans on Sunday, showing that his memory may go back 15 years but does not extend 16 years. He added: "Contrary to the myth, I went through South Carolina and never said a bad word about Sen. Obama -- not one.")

Pelosi is not alone in wanting the delegate vote to count: "While many superdelegates said they intended to keep their options open as the race continued to play out over the next three months, the interviews suggested that the playing field was tilting slightly toward Mr. Obama in one potentially vital respect. Many of them said that in deciding whom to support, they would adopt what Mr. Obama's campaign has advocated as the essential principle: reflecting the will of the voters," Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zeleny report in The New York Times.

This may be the most important words spoken, on the prospect of a nomination fight settled by superdelegates at the convention: "There is not a superdelegate that I have spoken to who wants that to happen," said Gov. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va.

Add Mario Cuomo to the list of the deeply concerned: "It would be ruinous to the Democrats to get to the convention without an arrangement of some kind," the former New York governor told Bloomberg TV's Al Hunt.

Count your delegates before they're snatched: Newsweek's Michael Isikoff writes that the possibility of delegate-poaching -- of stealing away pledged delegates -- is more than idle, academic chatter. "A 'good conscience' reason for a delegate to switch, [Clinton adviser Harold] Ickes told NEWSWEEK, would be if one candidate -- such as, say, Clinton -- was deemed more 'electable.' If delegates believe she has a better chance in November than Obama, Ickes said, 'you bet' that would be a reason to change their vote."

If there is an excuse for overturning the delegate lead, it's that Democrats want a winner, just maybe more than they'll insist on seeing democracy flourish inside the Democratic Party. "That wouldn't be an easy decision for the superdelegates under any circumstance. It is even tougher because current evidence provides no clear verdict on which candidate would compete more effectively against McCain," Ron Brownstein writes in National Journal.

"Indeed in early general election polling, Obama and Clinton display many of the same strengths and weaknesses against McCain that they have shown against each other," Brownstein continues. "The emerging picture indicates that against McCain, Obama might cast a wider net than Clinton, but also need to plug more leaks in his boat."

The supers are moving, just slowly. "Mr. Obama has gained the support of about 60 superdelegates in the last month while Mrs. Clinton added more than half as many," Megan Thee writes in The New York Times.

"Still, just under half of the total 795 Democratic party leaders who will cast votes at the convention have not expressed a preference for either candidate. Some say they will vote according to their state's primary or caucus while others want to see how the next few months of the campaign play out."

After spending Friday and Saturday unloading Rezko and reverend baggage, Obama's tax returns are set to be released soon -- as Obama sharpens his attacks on disclosure.

"Sen. Barack Obama's campaign on Sunday boosted its efforts to paint Sen. Hillary Clinton as a secretive politician who has failed to disclose vital information, a charge that prompted her camp to complain of negative campaigning," Jason George and John McCormick write in the Sunday Chicago Tribune.

Obama campaigns in Pennsylvania on Monday, and is planning a major speech Tuesday on race, per ABC's Jake Tapper, in a week that will also bring him through North Carolina and Oregon.

Clinton marks the fifth anniversary or the Iraq war with a "major policy speech" Monday morning in Washington.

The Clinton message, per a memo to "interested parties" sent Monday morning: "With the fifth anniversary of the invasion upon us, the onus is now on Senator Obama to demonstrate what he did to act on that 2002 speech when he got to the U.S. Senate. . . . This week, the Clinton Campaign will continue to discuss which candidate is ready to be Commander-in-Chief on day one. We will urge Senator Obama to show that he hasn't simply amassed five years of words, that his record on ending the war is one of action."

This closing line: "At the end of the day, the true test for a president is not the speeches he or she delivers -- it's whether he or she delivers on the speeches."

It's not yet clear whether Obama can shift the spotlight -- which, after all, just found him -- to Clinton. "Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama is entering a new phase of scrutiny as he grapples with the fallout from statements by his longtime spiritual adviser and the indictment of a former political patron," Christopher Cooper and Nick Timiraos write in The Wall Street Journal.

So Wright is as wrong for Obama as Rezko is, but is it over? Conservatives say no, arguing that "Obama waited too long to distance himself from Wright and the matter will be raised by his Democratic opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, or by Republicans should he win the Democratic Party's nomination," USA Today's William M. Welch writes.

Says columnist Charles Krauthammer: "This, I think, is a huge story because it contradicts the whole persona and appeal of Obama as a man who transcends race."

"This is the worst crisis the Obama campaign has faced," Peter Wehner writes for National Review. "It has done deep and perhaps long-term damage by calling into question the judgment and credibility of the junior senator from Illinois. And it badly undermines Obama's claim that he is a figure who can bind up America's racial wounds."

New York Times columnist William Kristol repeats Ronald Kessler's claim that Obama was in church's the pews last July 22, when Wright blamed the "arrogance" of the "United States of White America" for much of the world's suffering.

The Obama campaign pushes back on that, saying the candidate was traveling to Miami that day.

This is some defense the Obama campaign may not want. ABC's Jake Tapper reports on the weekend press release from the Trinity United Church of Christ: "Nearly three weeks before the 40th commemorative anniversary of the murder of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.'s character is being assassinated in the public sphere because he has preached a social gospel on behalf of oppressed women, children and men in America and around the globe."

How's this for a close? "Sunday is still the most segregated hour in America," the press release says.

It's not just the church blaming the media: "The forces of division have started to raise their ugly heads again," Obama said Saturday, per the Chicago Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet. "And I'm not here to cast blame or point fingers because everybody senses that there's been this shift. You know, that you've been seeing in the reporting."

This all matters in part because Obama hasn't closed the deal with the key swing group: white men. "The results in Ohio in particular raised questions about whether Obama can attract support from this crucial demographic," Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post. "They also brought to the forefront the question of whether racial prejudice would be a barrier to his candidacy in some of the major industrial battlegrounds in the general election if he becomes the Democratic nominee."

Obama, writes the AP's Ron Fournier, is displaying a touch of arrogance as a campaigner. "Privately, aides and associates of Obama tell stories about a boss who can be aloof and ungracious. He holds firmly to views and doesn't like to be challenged, traits that President Bush packaged and sold under the 'resolute' brand in the 2004 election," Fournier writes.

"Voters won't cut Obama as much slack on the humility test because he's sold himself as something different."

And when it's time to hold votes, Clinton is getting an odd source of help, Scott Helman reports in The Boston Globe. "Spurred by conservative talk radio, GOP voters who say they would never back Clinton in a general election are voting for her now for strategic reasons: Some want to prolong her bitter nomination battle with Barack Obama, others believe she would be easier to beat than Obama in the fall, or they simply want to register objections to Obama."

Even without new voting, Obama built on his delegate edge by 10 over the weekend, with help from that state where his run began: in Iowa.

"He did that in part by picking up at the conventions more support than Clinton from supporters of John Edwards," Thomas Beaumont writes in the Des Moines Register. "He also posted big margins in Iowa's largest counties and edged Clinton in some counties she carried on caucus night."

Yet the forecast is clear: More and more and more campaigning. Even Pennsylvania is far from looking like the clincher. "The primary will be important, but not all-important," Larry Eichel writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "It will not turn out to be just another contest. But it's not looking anything like a final confrontation either, not unless Barack Obama can stage a come-from-behind victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton."

"The Democratic race has entered its World War I phase, a bloody fight between two adversaries making only the most incremental of gains," Jonathan Martin and Mike Allen write for Politico. "And there is no reason to think either side will emerge from the trenches anytime soon."

As for Michigan and Florida -- nothing in place yet, meaning a negotiated settlement is the most likely way out of Howard Dean's nightmare.

Things look stalled in Michigan: "State lawmakers looking at a Democratic presidential primary redo in Michigan appear to be locked in a standoff heading into a crucial week: Legislative leaders say the U.S. Sen. Barack Obama camp needs to agree to the repeat election before legislation is written, and Obama supporters say they must see the bill before signing off on the plan," Mark Hornbeck and Deb Price write for the Detroit News.

Things aren't much better in Florida: "As the Florida Democratic Party gets ready to decide Monday whether to pull the plug on a long-shot bid to restage the state's presidential primary by mail, it faces a larger question: Is there a Plan B?" Lesley Clark writes in the Miami Herald.

"Democrats say there are a few options -- though none that the state party controls -- to give the state's voters a voice in picking the Democratic presidential nominee. Most of them, though, have as many political flaws as the technical hurdles involved in mailing ballots to the state's 4.1 million Democrats."

And Gov. Charlie Crist may be wearing more than one hat. "Mr. Crist, a career politician 15 months into his first term as governor, may well have other motives" in seeing Florida's delegates seated, Abby Goodnough writes in The New York Times.

"Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York won the state's unsanctioned Democratic primary on Jan. 29 by a wide margin. So seating the 210 delegates from Florida or allowing a revote could help her become the nominee of her party."

The New York Times' Julie Bosman looks at the human toll (and no, Clinton spokesman Doug Hattaway is NOT sleeping in that photograph -- just meditating on possession arrows in preparation for March Madness). At least Clinton spokesman Jay Carson squeezed in his (delayed) wedding, Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor has gone nine weeks without a day off.

Vice President Dick Cheney on Monday visits Baghdad, in a surprise visit that happens to coincide with Sen. John McCain's congressional trip to the region. "Like McCain, Cheney is in Iraq as part of a wider tour to the Middle East," Reuters' Tabassum Zakaria writes. "Cheney will also visit Saudi Arabia, Jerusalem, the Palestinian territories, Turkey and Oman on a nine-day tour."

McCain is keeping a low profile this time -- no trips to markets yet. "Unlike a previous trip to Iraq, in which he was criticized for his optimistic pronouncements about progress and security, McCain's visit on Sunday was largely out of the public view," The Washington Post's Joshua Partlow writes. "U.S. Embassy and military officials stressed that the visit was not a campaign event. McCain apparently did not travel with reporters or make press statements."

AP's Ryan Lenz looks at McCain's Iraq trip by the numbers: "The Iraq war, to which the probable Republican presidential nominee has linked his political future, will be five years old Thursday. Around that date, the U.S. military is likely to suffer its 4,000th death in the war. And McCain's arrival Sunday coincided with the 20th anniversary of a horrific chemical weapons attack in northern Iraq."

"McCain says his trip is as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, not as the presumptive GOP presidential nominee," ABC's Jake Tapper reports. "But on Thursday, McCain will hold a fundraiser at Spencer House in London for Americans living abroad -- $1,000-$2,300 per person."

"Before he left, the Arizona senator told reporters that he was traveling overseas as a 'member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and not as the nominee of my party,' " Patrick W. Sullivan writes in the New York Daily News. "But the trip was expected to produce photo ops with the likes of Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander, and many Iraqi political leaders, which could bolster McCain's strong campaign stance on national security."

More from the trip: "John McCain is vowing a fight to win over Jewish voters, and even hopes to break Ronald Reagan's record Jewish support for a GOP candidate," Carl Campanile writes in the New York Post. "The presumptive Republican presidential nominee will visit Israel tomorrow and is expected to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other leaders."

Also in the news:

Watch the political terrain shift: It's going to be a tense day on Wall Street -- and things could get really ugly, really fast. "The Federal Reserve took dramatic action on multiple fronts last night to avert a crisis of the global financial system, backing the acquisition of wounded investment firm Bear Stearns and increasing the flow of money to other banks squeezed for credit," Neil Irwin and David Cho write in The Washington Post.

"The sale of Bear Stearns and Sunday night's move by the Fed to offer loans to other securities dealers mark the latest historic turns in what has become the most pervasive financial crisis in a generation," per The Wall Street Journal's lead-all story.

"The issue is no longer whether it will yield a recession -- that seems almost certain -- but whether the concerted efforts of Wall Street and Washington can head off a recession much deeper and more prolonged than the past two, relatively mild ones."

Yes, the Democratic battle that may never end is fun for Republicans -- and watching Spitzer, D-N.Y., leave office Monday afternoon is great theater -- but the GOP can't ignore the broader warning signs confronting the party.

"If Republicans needed any more evidence of how difficult this fall may be, the past week had it all, analysts said," Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post. "The Illinois race demonstrated new levels of disaffection, the party's efforts to go on offense elsewhere were thwarted by recruiting failures, and the NRCC scandal will divert campaign resources and could frighten off badly needed contributors, they said."

Time's Jay Newton-Small keeps an eye on the 28 congressional freshmen who still haven't declared their choices. "They've been in office just 14 months -- about as long as Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama have been running for president -- but it's possible that the fate of the Democratic Party may just lie in their tender hands," she writes.

McClatchy's Matt Stearns sees a looming clash inside the GOP, over -- again -- immigration. "Congressional Republicans continue to push a hard line on illegal immigration, even though that could hinder John McCain's efforts to win over Latino voters in November," Stearns writes.

"Since McCain clinched the Republican presidential nomination earlier this month, conservative Republican senators have introduced a series of tough illegal-immigration measures. In the House of Representatives, immigration hard-liners are trying to force a vote on an enforcement bill, with the support of some conservative Democrats."

Lines have already started forming outside the Supreme Court for Tuesday's arguments on the D.C. gun case, ABC's Jan Crawford Greenburg reports. "The Court, for the first time in 70 years, will confront one of the most vexing constitutional questions: Does the 2nd Amendment protect an individual's right to 'keep and bear arms' or does it only protect a state's right to a 'well regulated militia?' "

Bloomberg columnist Al Hunt wants to see it become a major campaign issue: "In a country wracked by gun violence, this should be a hot topic among presidential aspirants. It isn't," Hunt writes. "Democratic Senators Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois and, less surprisingly, the likely Republican nominee, John McCain of Arizona, are ducking the issue."

The kicker:

"It has now been 730 days, 13 hours, 53 minutes and nine -- no, 10 seconds and counting since Obama agreed to be a guest on 'Fox News Sunday.' " -- "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace, seeking to prod Barack Obama to come on the program.

"No one knows if it's the Clintons, a rogue agent or a Rove agent." -- Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., an Obama backer, on the source of scurrilous anti-Obama e-mails, to The Nation's Ari Berman.

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