The Note: Bitter Tastes

We had our clues back in the arugula-wilting Iowa sun (and one does have to wonder whether his lanky frame is better suited for windsurfing than bowling).

Maybe Sen. Barack Obama's biggest fear should never have been becoming Jesse Jackson. Maybe it should have been becoming John Kerry.

With just a few sentences that emerged Friday and marinated over the weekend, Obama made himself into Mike Dukakis, Al Gore, and Kerry, all rolled into one effete, aloof, unelectable package. Or, at least, that's how the denizens of Camp Clinton are playing it -- and when they grab hold of a message frame, it's hard to make them give it back.

Obama's challenge this Monday is to put an end to the firestorm that's already consumed three days' worth of tone-shifting explanations -- and appears likely to burn right up to Wednesday's debate, and perhaps next Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary.

Obama, D-Ill., on Monday launches a new ad featuring his most important Pennsylvania supporter, Sen. Bob Casey. "He's tired of the political games and division that stops anything from getting done," Casey, D-Pa., says in the ad. "Barack Obama knows Pennsylvania's hurting."

And Obama plans to use an appearance at the Associated Press' annual meeting "to turn the table on the question of who is most in touch with the American people," per his campaign. (Obama watchers have seen this play before -- using a miscue to build a bridge back to his core message.)

Obama wants to talk about the general election (and who can blame him?): "John McCain's 26 years in Washington have not left him in touch with what America needs to lift its workers right now, and if he wants a debate this fall about who's out of touch with the hopes and struggles of working America, that's a debate Barack Obama's happy to have," Obama spokesman Bill Burton says in previewing Monday's speech.

Obama is pushing back at Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, too. On Sunday, "Sen. Obama accused Sen. Clinton of playing politics, and his campaign said she would say or do anything to get elected," Amy Chozick and Nick Timiraos write in The Wall Street Journal.

Said Obama, dialing up the sarcasm while speaking to steelworkers in Pennsylvania: "I expected this out of John McCain, but . . . I'm a little disappointed when I start hearing the exact same talking points coming out of my Democratic colleague, Hillary Clinton. She knows better. Shame on her."

"She's talking like she's Annie Oakley!" Obama added, per ABC's Sunlen Miller. "I want to see that picture of her out there in the duck blinds."

We're more likely to see Dick Cheney in native tribal dress -- though the whiskey shot was a nice touch.

Asked Sunday to pinpoint the last time she fired a gun or attended church, Clinton "seemed frustrated," per Shailagh Murray and Perry Bacon Jr. of The Washington Post (and may have helped Obama change the subject -- will Clinton as woman-of-the-people fly?). "That is not a relevant question for this debate," Clinton said. "We can answer that some other time. I went to church on Easter, so . . . but that is not what this is about."

Still Clinton, D-N.Y., is honing her argument -- hitting Democrats where they're bruised: "We had two very good men and men of faith run for president in 2000 and 2004, but large segments of the electorate concluded that they did not really understand or relate to or frankly respect their ways of life and I think that has been an issue for voters," she said at Sunday night's CNN-televised "Compassion Forum."

"Elitist and divisive" was the tag she used -- paging Al Gore and John Kerry. (And those "I'm Not Bitter" buttons were quick-thinking -- but will they do anything more than fire up those who were already supporting Clinton?)

(Didn't Clinton and Obama look absolutely thrilled to see each other at the "Compassion Forum"? Should make Wednesday's debate an interesting study in body language.)

"The next few days will tell the tale of whether Barack Obama's comments about the people of small-town Pennsylvania wind up dooming his chances of winning the state's Democratic presidential primary," Larry Eichel, Thomas Fitzgerald and Angela Couloumbis write in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "And so will the reaction to the counteroffensive that he launched last night."

"Anyone who hasn't heard about the word 'bitter' by now will know about it when the candidates debate Wednesday night in Philadelphia," they add

"This has done some damage," ABC's George Stephanopoulos said on "Good Morning America" Monday. "I think the other question right now is, did Sen. Clinton go a little bit too far?"

This remains a storyline that favors Clinton on basically all levels -- defining Obama in a negative light, giving her an opening to draw a contrast, and practically by itself making an argument that's ready for superdelegate consumption.

"In a message clearly intended for undecided superdelegates, whose votes could still go to her favor, Mrs. Clinton said that she believed that she is more electable than Mr. Obama and that Republicans could use his comments against him," Julie Bosman writes in The New York Times.

Superdelegates need very big reasons to be convinced that Democrats should shun democracy. "It remains to be seen whether the reaction to the statements will actually [affect] the polls or simply serve as fodder for the punditocracy," Time's Jay Newton-Small writes.

"But the comments could potentially help Clinton not only in Pennsylvania, but also with winning over undecided super delegates who might otherwise be reluctant to go against the popular will of the voters."

It put Clinton on offense again -- providing a psychological boost to a campaign that couldn't buy a break. As if Clinton needed a reason to stay in the race, Obama found it for her.

"Some friends describe Clinton as seeing herself on a mission to save Democrats from themselves," Politico's John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei write. "Her candidacy may be a long shot, but no one should expect she will end it unless or until every last door has been shut."

ABC's Jake Tapper points out that Obama backers have "attempted to focus their pushback away from the most controversial part of his remarks to an elite crowd at a San Francisco fundraiser. . . . While the description of small town Pennsylvanians as 'bitter' is certainly impolitic, many political analysts say it's what follows that adjective that is potentially so alienating -- the notion that small town folks 'get bitter' after which 'they cling to guns or religion, or antipathy to people who aren't like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.' "

New York Daily News columnist Michael Goodwin is looking for more contrition: "He should get off his Ivy League horse and apologize to the millions of Americans he insulted," Goodwin writes. "As it stands, he has confirmed he doesn't understand or respect them."

But here's a counterpoint: "Despite carping from Hillary Clinton and annoying yapping from her surrogates (really, it's like turning on the lights at night in a puppy farm), I take no offense," John Baer writes in his Philadelphia Daily News column. "What's offensive to me is suggesting that small-town, working-class, gun-toting and/or religious Pennsylvanians are somehow injured by a politician's words. Are you kidding me?"

Will this dog, well, hunt? "The political question here, of course, is whether the Clinton and McCain campaigns can exploit Obama's remarks to tag him as an 'elitist' -- a label, their focus groups probably tell them, that can really hurt," Bob Shrum writes at Huffington Post.

"Ironically, Obama's the one raised by a single mother. He's the one who only recently finished paying off his student loans. He doesn't know what it's like to have $100 million. The opponents who are attacking him are the ones who inhabit that financial neighborhood."

Regardless, Clinton has her new storyline -- just in time for the only pre-Pennsylvania debate, ABC's forum in Philadelphia on Wednesday.

"The debates offer the clearest national focus, and that means Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton must make a decision: mount a feisty new assault on Senator Barack Obama, or present a more congenial face to the public," John Harwood writes in The New York Times.

"Inside Obama's inner circle, aides conceded they are not sure where the issue might lead, although it is likely to set the tone and raise the stakes of the Wednesday night debate between Clinton and Obama in Pennsylvania," Perry Bacon Jr. and Shailagh Murray write in the Sunday Washington Post.

"They described Obama as frustrated with himself for word choices such as 'cling' and references to hot-button issues including religion and guns, but also stunned at the uproar over what to him seemed a fundamental fact of American life."

(How much does that last sentence tell you about the Democratic frontrunner?)

Clinton strategist Geoff Garin sees it as fair game in conversations with superdelegates: "I don't think that the kinds of attitudes that Senator Obama expressed are consistent with Democrats doing what we need to do to win a general election," Garin tells Talking Points Memo's Greg Sargent.

(Is Garin really in charge? That's the question Robert Novak asks in his Monday column: "Immediately after Mark Penn resigned as Hillary Clinton's chief strategist a week ago, he was on the phone with at least two prominent Democrats to assure them that nothing had changed. He said that -- though lacking a title now -- he still was polling and crafting her message, adding that he had just participated in a top-level conference call. De facto retention of Penn signaled a desire to defeat Barack Obama at any cost.")

Yet the only superdelegate gain since the story broke Friday has been Obama's: Minnesota DNC member Nancy Larson. "It's looking more and more that the one person who can do it is Barack Obama," Larson tells the AP.

"I don't know if it hurts him any more than the Bosnia remarks that Clinton made" hurt her campaign, Edward Espinoza, an uncommitted California superdelegate, tells the Los Angeles Times' Peter Nicholas.

Not a good sign for Clinton: "In more than a dozen interviews here, even conservative Republicans couldn't muster the sort of outrage over Obama's remarks that Clinton backers were expressing Sunday," USA Today's Ken Dilanian reports. "Several McCain supporters here said the comments wouldn't play well among rural Americans. But nearly everyone allowed that, in fact, many small-town residents are indeed bitter."

This is still not the campaign Clinton mapped out for herself, writes Susan Milligan of The Boston Globe. "That harder-edged persona -- intended to present her as tougher than Obama -- has won her greater support among some elements of the electorate, especially blue-collar voters, pollsters say. But it has also come at a cost, as Clinton continues to be hamstrung by public impressions of her as divisive and untrustworthy," Milligan writes.

"Instead of tapping the nostalgia many Democrats have for the peace and prosperity of the Clinton White House years, many lawmakers in both parties said, the Clinton campaign has reinforced their opponents' characterization of a couple relentless in their quest for power," she writes.

The episode may change many things about the race (and may yet cost Obama Pennsylvania), but it doesn't touch the math. The (wink-wink) non-endorsing former President Jimmy Carter said on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" that party insiders should not overturn the will of the people -- though he added that "any superdelegate who wishes to deviate from that opinion should be perfectly free to do so."

This warning from Carter (ascribing to the Pelosian view of what's right for the party): "It would be a very serious mistake for the Democratic Party . . . if a candidate had the majority of popular votes, the majority of delegates and a majority of states -- all three -- were the superdelegates to vote contrary to that, I think it would be very difficult to explain."

Maybe the pages were put to bed before Friday afternoon, but some Pennsylvania newspapers don't seem bitter. Obama nabs the endorsement of the Allentown Morning Call, which offers three reasons for its choice: "The first is the quality of his campaign. . . . The second is his message of hope and change. It conveys a vision of the nation's future that is in tune with the tenor and consensus of most Americans. And third, and most important for the Democratic Party at this moment in history, there is Sen. Obama's ability to inspire."

And -- Clinton's family history aside -- Michael Scott's hometown paper goes with Obama, too. "The real difference lies in their likely ability to build the consensus needed to realize their vision," reads the endorsement in the Scranton Times-Tribune. "The advantage, in that regard, clearly lies with Mr. Obama."

McClatchy's David Lightman looks at an intriguing factoid from the PA polls: "Clinton's strongest core of support -- white women -- is beginning to erode in Pennsylvania, the site of the critical April 22 Democratic presidential primary, and a loss here could effectively end her White House run," Lightman writes.

Staying in Pennsylvania, Newsday's Glenn Thrush and Nia-Malika Henderson see Obama facing troubles with Catholics. "Catholics are among the most powerful swing voting blocs in American politics; they backed the winner in seven of the last eight presidential elections," they write. "And Obama's failure to connect with a majority of Catholics in the Democratic primaries is one of his campaign's biggest headaches - one that poses a major threat to his chances of winning heavily-Catholic Pennsylvania next week and the big prize in November."

The Washington Post's Shailagh Murray, on Obama's best allies in Pennsylvania: A pair of abortion-rights-opposing Democrats -- Casey and former rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind. "Casey and Roemer have chosen to ignore Obama's legislative record, and are promoting the Democratic presidential candidate to their antiabortion allies as someone who could achieve a new consensus on the issue," Murray writes.

Obama and McCain address the AP's annual meeting on Monday -- and take questions. And Obama and Clinton appear separately at a forum in Pittsburgh sponsored by the Alliance for American Manufacturing, with Clinton set to outline new steps on trade enforcement. The Democrats cap their evening at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Philadelphia.

Also in the news:

Just in time for the next round of cable-news firing squads, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright breaks his public silence. At a sermon in Norfolk, Va., Sunday, "The closest he came to political commentary or the recent controversy was to point out that, including 'George W. to Uncle Bubba,' Americans have difficulty helping their neighbors," Manya A. Brachear writes in the Chicago Tribune. "He also aimed a dig at pundits by comparing scuttlebutt to the storm that Jesus quelled."

Said Wright: "That's all gossip is . . . a windstorm . . . hot air. . . . But it causes damage."

He had some choice words for the media, per the Chicago Sun-Times' Art Golab. "Fox News can't understand that. [Bill] O'Reilly will never get that. Sean Hannity's stupid fantasy will keep him forever stuck on stupid when it comes to comprehending how you can love a brother who does not believe what you believe," Wright said at a funeral sermon Saturday.

The DNC is doing its best to soften up Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in this period where he can run without the inconvenience of an actual opponent.

Per ABC's Tahman Bradley, "The Democratic National Committee is set to file a complaint in federal court against the Federal Election Commission, saying the regulatory agency has failed to act on a request to investigate and take action against Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential-nominee-in-waiting, for reversing his decision to use public money in the general election."

And just as soon as there's a Democratic nominee, money could be the least of McCain's problems.

With a big economic speech on tap for Tax Day, McCain needs to start doing the hard work of repairing the fabric of the conservative coalition, Bloomberg's Al Hunt writes. "McCain is an authentic man. On subjects such as foreign policy, national security and political reform, his passion is palpable, his knowledge impressive. That's one of his appeals to political independents," Hunt writes. "To retain this, while winning the enthusiasm of the conservative coalition, will be a challenge."

Among the reasons for skepticism: "Don't expect any public testimonies of faith from presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, who is not demonstrative about his religion but who embraces a Baptist faith that is based on salvation," Andrea Billups writes in the Washington Times.

In the meantime -- it's profile time. Ralph Vartabedian of the Los Angeles Times takes a crack at McCain's early years: "A review of Navy records and interviews with more than a dozen of his former colleagues paint a picture of a commander who was lionized by his troops as a war hero and respected by aviators as a fair and effective manager. He had rugged good looks and a common touch, and was fiercely loyal to those who worked for him, his former colleagues say.

"But those Navy records also cast some doubt on the importance of a claim McCain makes in his autobiography -- that he took bold steps to improve the readiness of the squadron," Vartabedian continues. "Some of McCain's contemporaries don't recall key parts of a management initiative that he describes in that book. And although the squadron was well-run under McCain, it appeared to be no better managed than before he arrived or after he left, according to interviews and records."

Some profiles, also, of the top members of Team McCain. The New York Times' Kate Zernike on Charlie Black: "Mr. Black is easing Mr. McCain into his new role as standard bearer for a party that the senator has clashed with and even snubbed over the years. Mr. Black has done so in the quiet way that has made him such an enduring player in Washington."

The Boston Globe's Sasha Issenberg, on Mark Salter: "As coauthor of a pair of memoirs and nearly every considered word out of McCain's mouth, Salter has transformed his boss into a character worthy of literature, enlivening his inner conflicts and drawing out his motivations. Salter has given the blunt McCain a new voice as a reflective narrator of his own actions - made evident in the 'imperfect servant' line, in which our protagonist earns our trust by acknowledging his flaw."

Don't lose track of Bill: Sen. Clinton's "recent stern comments on China's internal crackdown collide with former President Bill Clinton's fundraising relationship with a Chinese Internet company accused of collaborating with the mainland government's censorship of the Web," Stephen Braun writes in the Los Angeles Times. "Instead of taking his standard speaking fees, which have ranged from $100,000 to $400,000, Clinton accepted an unspecified private donation from Alibaba to his international charity, the William J. Clinton Foundation."

If President Bush does go to the Olympics, he'll be breaking with historical precedent. "In more than 100 years since the modern Olympic movement began, presidents have never attended the games outside the United States," ABC's David Wright reports.

Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., opens a window on the Clinton operation for Mark Z. Barabak of the Los Angeles Times: On the 3 am ad: "That upset me," Richardson said. On "ham-fisted phone calls from Clinton backers, who questioned Richardson's honor": "That really ticked me off," Richardson said. And on whether he ever promised Bill Clinton he wouldn't endorse Obama: "Sometimes people hear what they want to hear," he said.

Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla isn't forgetting independent voters: "The presidential contenders are focused on securing their base. Republican Arizona Senator McCain, 71, is targeting conservatives, while the Democrats, Senators Clinton of New York, 60, and Obama of Illinois, 46, are chasing blue-collar voters. Yet it is the independent voters who shaped both parties' fields and may decide who will become the next president."

Fascinating look at the Wright affair's impact on the race, in Sunday's St. Petersburg Times. Wes Allison talks to white voters in Pennsylvania: "They're the type of Democrats who ultimately may decide whether America takes a historic leap and elects Obama. Rather than improve their understanding, the whole episode fed their distrust, despite national polls to the contrary. It is not hard to find loyal Democrats in Scranton who say they don't plan to vote for Obama, even if he is the nominee."

The St. Pete Times' Ben Montgomery spends time with black voters: "That Obama is on stage at all means something. He is black, he is on the verge of securing the Democratic nomination for president in a year when the Democrat could really win, he is a mainstream politician with a fringe candidate biography. He is a lesson."

It's not just Clinton who wants Kerry, D-Mass., in the news. The National Republican Senatorial Committee on Monday marks the ninth birthday of the last Kerry bill to become law with an online greeting card.

The kicker:

"Every time I get around you we start drinking, senator." -- Mayor Tom McDermott of Hammond, Ind., over shots of Crown Royal.

"You have all these economically insecure white people who are scared to death." -- Bill Clinton, in September 1991.

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