The Note: No They Can't

If you can place the following items in ascending order, you just might win yourself a photograph with Sen. Barack Obama (or maybe not):

- The number of people who are really on Sen. John McCain's short list.

- The number of points Sen. Hillary Clinton needs to win Pennsylvania by for it to be a "win."

- The number of superdelegates who will declare their allegiance before April 22.

- The number of words Michelle Obama and Teresa Heinz Kerry would speak to each other if not for this campaign that provided them a stage to share Wednesday.

- The number of "Rocky" references we'll hear before Philadelphians render a judgment (and we thought the number of sequels was interminable).

In case you thought there was any room left for subtlety in the race, ABC's George Stephanopoulos confirms the whispers: The Clinton message on Obama (the one that counts -- the one to superdelegates) is clear, harsh, and pretty close to irrevocable.

Stephanopoulos reported on "World News" Wednesday that Sen. Clinton told Gov. Bill Richardson flatly, "Barack Obama cannot win, Bill. Barack Obama cannot win.' "

Yet here's a wrinkle, from a source with direct knowledge of Richardson's conversations with the Clintons: Richardson himself told Sen. Clinton and former President Clinton that he didn't think Obama could win, back when he was (according to the Clintons) telling them earlier this year that he wouldn't endorse Obama. "Too inexperienced," Richardson said, the source tells ABC News.

(We should see what the March fundraising numbers have to say on this subject on Thursday.)

Clinton is taking a (much-needed) break from Obama-bashing to train her fire on McCain, her campaign recalling that her audience remains, primarily, Democrats who may grow weary of another few months of party self-destruction.

So now Clinton is dialing up McCain -- and yes, it's always 3 am in this world. "John McCain just said the government shouldn't take any real action on the housing crisis, he'd let the phone keep ringing," the new ad says.

Over at Camp Clinton, 3 am is their favorite time of day or night -- not just because they're generally still awake at that hour (sleep being the right and property of the frontrunner) but because that ringing phone reinforces her core message: She's ready.

"Could it be that the Clinton camp and the Obama camp have reached an understanding that further fire at each other will only damage the party?" The New York Times' Katharine Q. Seelye writes. "Is there a temporary cease-fire while they work out the status of delegates from Michigan and Florida?"

No, and no. But: "The new spot, which is the first Democratic ad to mention McCain by name, does advance two of her objectives: it keeps the focus on the economy and it allows her to tout her general-election strength in key battleground states," ABC's Teddy Davis, Talal Al-Khatib, and Jan Simmonds report.

"Clinton's decision to target McCain indicates how the Democratic candidates may be toning down their attacks on one another so as not to weaken the party ahead of the November general election," Maeve Reston and Noam Levey write in the Los Angeles Times. "But Clinton aides said the ad also reinforced their argument that the senator from New York is more electable than the senator from Illinois."

Yet the McCain campaign's dismissive response (and quick Web ad pushback) does as much to encapsulate the state of the race: "For Clinton these days," said McCain spokesman Steve Schmidt, "the call at 3:00 am is more likely, 'Senator, you just lost another superdelegate.' "

Another superdelegate endorsement on Wednesday, by Gov. Dave Freudenthal, D-Wyo., has allowed Obama to pull even with Clinton "in endorsements from top elected officials, with a surge in support from congressional freshmen and governors from Republican-dominated states," Bloomberg's Nicholas Johnston and Lorraine Woellert report.

"Obama, an Illinois senator, has the support of 99 Democratic U.S. lawmakers and governors, compared with Clinton's 96 -- a dramatic turnabout since the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, when Clinton, a New York senator, had more than double Obama's support within this group, 91 to 43."

But could there be hope yet out of Florida? Not a single detail of how, but tea-leaf readers saw a different DNC Chairman Howard Dean in a meeting with Florida's congressional delegation.

"Howard Dean said for the first time Wednesday that he will do everything he can to seat Florida's delegates at the presidential-nominating convention in Denver," Tamara Lytle writes in the Orlando Sentinel. "The Floridians said the chairman's promise to work to seat Florida's delegation was a breakthrough in the impasse that has left state Democrats wondering whether they would be left out of the August convention."

"State Democratic leaders said the pledge sets a new tone for how Florida will be treated and puts pressure on the presidential candidates to work out a compromise," Larry Lipman and Michael C. Bender write for Cox News Service. "Dean said he was so confident Florida's delegation would be seated that hotel rooms have been reserved, but he would not say where." (Why do those last six words tell us more than the preceding 17?)

The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder has details on why the good doctor is so confident: "Sources close to the DNC's rules and bylaws committee say that the [Jon] Ausman challenges WILL be heard -- and that if the votes are there, some Florida delegates could be seated -- temporarily -- by the end of April. (The seating would likely be appealed to the credentials committee, but we'll cross that suspension bridge when we pay the toll for it.)"

(Stay tuned now for state-level efforts to press superdelegates to commit to having Florida and Michigan voters count.)

USA Today's Susan Page suggests a Democratic endgame, complete with a time and place: "The primary in North Carolina on May 6 now looms as a pivotal final showdown," she writes. Says Joe Trippi: "Every day you see increased pressure on Hillary Clinton about why she's staying in, and if she could win in North Carolina it would shut down that kind of talk and open up the possibility she could get there. . . . But if he wins in North Carolina, I think you're going to see things close up very quickly."

Or maybe it's Indiana we should be watching: "Sen. Hillary Clinton needs to show strong support among white, working-class voters in coming primaries to mollify those in the party who say she should pull out of the race," Amy Chozick writes in The Wall Street Journal. "While the most prominent test comes April 22 in Pennsylvania, her bigger challenge may be two weeks later, in Indiana."

The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut writes up the dark tales that make their way into the Clinton stump speech: "In hushed tones, sometimes with palpable sadness in her voice, Clinton tells dark, difficult anecdotes picked up on the campaign trail. They often relate to health matters, culled from her conversations with voters, and are designed to illustrate a policy point," she writes.

"For Clinton, the approach seems to bring together her best skills, especially her ability to listen to voters she meets. In speeches that sometimes wear on and sometimes derail into deadening policy, sharing bleak stories can focus the audience's attention."

And yet: "At moments she seems almost carefree, which is a jarring image for someone who has been called upon by members of her party to give up her quest for the Democratic presidential nomination," The New York Times' Katharine Q. Seelye writes.

"Linking Mrs. Clinton's cause with a larger one has been successful before. Call it the New Hampshire effect. She gets backed into a corner, takes a few days to find her footing (or her voice), then fights back against a perceived injustice -- the 'boys' club,' the news media, the disenfranchisement of voters."

The Boston Phoenix's Steven Stark sees the pressure on Clinton to drop out as fundamentally unfair. "Clinton is being held to a different standard than virtually any other candidate in history. That's being driven by Clinton fatigue, but it's also being driven by a concerted campaign that examines every action the Clintons take and somehow finds the basest, most self-serving motivation for its existence."

Thomas Fitzgerald of the Philadelphia Inquirer wraps up the Obama bus tour: "He sipped a Yuengling in Latrobe; fiddled with a Slinky in Johnstown; tasted a chili dog and bowled a 37 in Altoona; fed a calf in State College; sampled homemade chocolates in Lititz; toured a garment factory in Allentown; and nibbled on cheese at Philadelphia's Italian Market," Fitzgerald writes.

"Obama made populist appeals to the working-class voters who have been hesitant to support him in other states."

Karl Rove, at least, is having a grand old time. On the possibility of a Clinton comeback, he tells GQ's Lisa DePaulo, "The odds are long, but improbable things have happened almost every month in this race. . . . We got two well-matched opponents going at each other hammer and tongs. It's fun to watch."

And this, on confronting Obama for having written that he had called the United States "a Christian nation." "First he denied that I was in the book! And then he denied that it said that I said that it was a Christian nation. And then when I pulled out the thing [he had a copy of the offensive page with him] and showed it to him, he sort of blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. And I thought, That's who he is. I mean, look, he may claim that he's for a different kind of politics, but that was a cheap shot."

Just words? The Los Angeles Times' Noam Levey has an interesting and well-documented look at Clinton's efforts to end the war, the ones she's been "working day in and day out in the Senate to provide leadership" on.

"Since Democrats took control of Congress, Clinton has done relatively little to advance legislation to force the Bush administration to withdraw from Iraq, according to congressional records and lawmakers and staff members who have worked on the issue," Levey writes. "Instead, Clinton largely remained on the sidelines of the congressional debate, her legislation ignored as the Senate focused on measures developed by lawmakers who were more central to the legislative drive to end the war."

Here's a way to burnish those credentials (we suppose): "Possibly to avoid being one-upped on Indiana national security politics, former President Bill Clinton told a crowd in Columbus, Indiana, today that his wife had tried to join the Army," ABC's Jake Tapper reports. "(Add that Bosnian sniper fire, and you might have something there that Julia Roberts would want to option.)"

McCain's next stop on the bio tour is Jacksonville, Fla. The latest golden words from Mark Salter, per the McCain campaign: "There are greater pursuits than self-seeking," McCain plans to say (assuming the teleprompter works this time).

"Glory is not a conceit. It is not a decoration for valor. It is not a prize for being the strongest, the most clever, or the boldest. Glory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself, to the cause, to your principles, to the people on whom you rely, and who rely on you in return. No misfortune, no injury, no humiliation can destroy it."

Probably of (slightly) greater concern to McCain than anything Clinton can say: Former rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., is "likely" to announce his Libertarian Party candidacy for president on Saturday, at the Heartland Libertarian Conference in Kansas City, the Washington Times' Stephen Dinan and Ralph Z. Hallow report.

"Republican campaign pros said a Barr bid could range from causing them some damage all the way to being the equivalent of Ross Perot's 1992 presidential bid," they write.

In the meantime, McCain is turning his attention to running mates (and again surprising his own staff in his conversations with the press). So far, it's about 20 names on his not-so-short list.

"That selection process is just one of many parts he has been putting together, bit by bit, as he pivots from his shoestring comeback primary blitz to a full-blown nationwide race for the presidency," Newsday's Tom Brune writes.

"One month in, the way those pieces are fitting together -- the structure, financing and message of his emerging campaign -- appears to reflect McCain's personality, with all its strengths and weaknesses."

A light campaign day for the Democrats: Obama is down in Chicago, and Clinton is raising money in California while sitting down with Leno Thursday night. Get the day's full political schedule in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

Also in the news:

The White House press charter got itself grounded -- in Romania. "It's always something. First the hotels, now the plane," Peter Baker writes for The Washington Post. "The White House press charter that ferries journalists, presidential staff and Secret Service agents whenever the president travels has been grounded."

For when President Bush returns, The New York Times' Sheryl Gay Stolberg sets the agenda: "For a man who came into office as the nation's first M.B.A. president, Mr. Bush has sometimes seemed invisible during the housing and credit crunch. As the economy eclipses Iraq as the top issue on voters' minds, even some Republican allies of the president say Mr. Bush is being eclipsed and is in danger of looking out of touch."

All together now: Al Gore is not going to endorse. But that doesn't make dropping his name any less potent in the Democratic campaign. Per ABC's Sunlen Miller, asked if he'd consider a Cabinet post for Gore, Obama responded, "Not only will I, but I will make a commitment that Al Gore will be at the table and play a central part in us figuring out how we solve this problem. He's someone that I talk to on a regular basis, I'm already consulting with him in terms of these issues."

Next for McCain: It's economy time, the Chicago Tribune's Jill Zuckman reports. "He will shift to a predominantly economic message on April 15 -- tax day -- with a major speech laying out his economic vision," she writes. "And he plans to stick to talking about the economy for at least the next several months, advisers said."

The Boston Globe's Michael Kranish has details on McCain's struggles with proposing a healthcare plan that squares his circles: "He says the country must provide access to healthcare for all our citizens, and that 'we need to help people who need it.' But McCain also wants to shrink government's role in healthcare and doesn't want to impose regulations on insurance companies," Kranish writes.

"As a result, McCain's aides have been scrambling to come up with ways to satisfy those who want more coverage without violating what they call McCain's conservative principles on the issue."

Elizabeth Edwards thinks she knows plenty about McCain's plans, and she stays in the fray with a blog posting at ThinkProgress that. "Despite fuzzy language and feel-good lines in the Senator's proposal, I do understand exactly how devastating it will be to people who have the health conditions with which the Senator and I are confronted (melanoma for him, breast cancer for me) but do not have the financial resources we have," she writes. "In very unconfusing language: they are left outside the clinic doors."

Politico's Jonathan Martin finds a conspicuous absence from the McCain stump. "Traversing the country this week on a tour of places that have shaped his life and informed his values, John McCain spoke in strikingly personal language to introduce himself to the American public," Martin writes. "But missing so far is any significant mention of religious faith."

We do hope that Michelle Obama and Teresa Heinz Kerry see more of each other this year. "Michelle and I have become good friends mostly through the Blackberries," Heinz Kerry -- introduced in Pittsburgh just as "Teresa Heinz" -- said Wednesday. "Heinz Kerry spoke in a miasmic whisper," writes The Boston Globe's Sasha Issenberg.

"Michelle Obama brought a politician's cadence to her fifty-minute speech, delivering spitfire observations that built naturally towards applause lines."

Maybe they have more in common than we realize? "Both independent-minded political spouses, they're also both known for occasionally tart-tongued, provocative statements that have sent their handlers into overdrive," Mackenzie Carpenter writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

New politics, anyone? As the Democrats look for ways to deal with the housing crisis, both Obama and Clinton "rely on close advisers who had oversight roles at financial institutions that went bust because of subprime loans," USA Today's Ken Dilanian writes.

"Clinton's campaign manager, Maggie Williams, earned at least $175,000 serving from 2000-07 on the board of Long Island-based Delta Financial, which filed for bankruptcy last year after a history of high-cost loans to low-income borrowers, according to public records. Obama's national finance chairwoman, Penny Pritzker, was chairwoman of the board of a Chicago-area bank in 1993 when it adopted a subprime business strategy that regulators say ultimately led it to collapse in 2001."

The kicker:

"Yeah, well, whatever. Just take it. I won't be smiling. Because you're wearing me out. . . . No no, you've been really rude about it. Just take a shot." -- Barack Obama, losing patience with a would-be photo-taker in Philadelphia.

"Do you, don't you, want me love you?" -- Mike Gravel, singing (sort of) "Helter Skelter," in one of the most deeply weird videos ever recorded by a candidate for president.

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