PHILADELPHIA -- So much has changed since last they met -- but then again things look pretty much the same.
Nearly two months since the Democrats last debated -- and nearly 12 months since their first forum -- things have come full circle in a race where the frontrunners have flipped.
The pressure once again is on Sen. Barack Obama to exceed expectations Wednesday night at 8 pm ET at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center -- and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is looking to close the deal in Pennsylvania, and look beyond.
Not that the stakes are the same; Obama's answers may be more closely watched than Clinton's, but there is only one delegate leader going into the debate, and there will only be one coming out of it.
The debate is Obama's best chance to take on questions over two controversies that have sidetracked his candidacy; his charge is to answer concerns about his views and his electability.
Clinton, D-N.Y., needs to demonstrate she's still in control of Pennsylvania -- her perilous path still intact despite distractions and obstacles of her own -- and sow the kind of serious doubts about Obama she needs to spring in the minds of superdelegates.
Yet the polls are looking more sweet than bitter for Obama, D-Ill.: The new ABC News/Washington Post national poll gives Obama an 11-point edge on the question of whom Democrats would like to see as the nominee -- and shows a spike in Clinton's negative perceptions.
"Barack Obama has knocked down one of the three tent poles of Hillary Clinton's campaign for president, surging ahead of her as the candidate Democrats see as most likely to win in November," ABC Polling Director Gary Langer writes.
"Democrats by a 2-1 margin, 62-31 percent, now see Obama as better able to win in November -- a dramatic turn from February, when Clinton held a scant 5-point edge on this measure, and more so from last fall, when she crushed her opponents on electability," Langer writes.
The battle "appears to have taken a toll on the image of Clinton, who was once seen as the favorite," Dan Balz and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post. "In the new poll, 54 percent said they have an unfavorable view of Sen. Clinton, up from 40 percent a few days after she won the New Hampshire primary in early January. . . . In hypothetical general-election matchups, Obama holds a slim, five-point lead over McCain, while McCain is three points ahead of Clinton, which is within poll's margin of error."
She's got a narrow lead in Pennsylvania -- but that's about it. The Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll has Clinton up 46-41 in Pennsylvania, but down 40-35 in Indiana, and 47-34 in North Carolina.
"Barack Obama is leading Hillary Clinton in two of the next three Democratic primaries, an advantage, if it holds, that would allow him to sew up the nomination," Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla writes.
"Hillary Rodham Clinton may not be headed toward the blockbuster victories she needs to jump-start her presidential bid -- even in Pennsylvania, the state that was supposed to be her ace in the hole," Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times. "The survey found the New York senator leading Barack Obama by 5 percentage points in Pennsylvania, which votes next Tuesday. Such a margin would not give her much of a boost in the battle for the party's nomination."
Another Pennsylvania poll, from Franklin & Marshall: "Clinton clung to a lead of 46 percent to 40 percent for Obama among likely Democratic voters, with 14 percent undecided. In March, Clinton led 51 percent to 35 percent," Catherine Lucey writes in the Philadelphia Daily News. "But experts said that the survey may not fully show the impact of Obama's statements last week that small-town Americans are 'bitter' over their economic status and 'cling to guns or religion.' "
It's an 11-point margin in Gallup's daily tracking, Obama 51, Clinton 40.
To date, neither the Rev. Jeremiah Wright nor the "bitter" comment has broken Obama's stride (what can slow this guy?). (Maybe people ARE bitter -- and maybe they're not digesting the rest of what Obama said.)
From the Los Angeles Times' poll write-up: "In Pennsylvania, the flap [over Wright] seems to have marginally helped Obama more than hurt him: 24% said his handling of the issue made them think more highly of him; 15% said it made them think less highly of him; 58% said it made no difference in their views."
Has "bitter" bounced Obama back, too? "Who says Pennsylvanians aren't bitter, particularly when it comes to their politics?" Brett Lieberman writes in the Harrisburg Patriot-News.
"In a series of interviews with The Patriot-News this week, voters in small Pennsylvania's towns said Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was dead on when he said it is understandable if many folks like them are 'bitter.' But they hold out little hope that Obama, Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton or John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, will make their lives any better."
Is Obama untouchable? "Time after time, from the beginning of the campaign to now, the media has called Obama on a 'major' gaffe or presented his reaction to an event as a 'major problem only to figure out a week later that Obama hasn't suffered a bit and Hillary Clinton numbers have dropped back down to about 40%," blogs The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder.
As for the debate: "With limited opportunities to alter the direction of the race, Clinton must aim to take advantage of the spotlight and continue to cast doubt about Obama's electability in November," Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown writes. "Heading into the debate after some of the toughest weeks of his campaign, Obama will have to lure back voters who may grown uneasy with his candidacy."
"Although past one-on-one debates between the New York and Illinois senators have been virtual lovefests, the terrain is different this time because Clinton is running out of room," Carla Marinucci writes in the San Francisco Chronicle. "Many political observers believe she must put the pedal down hard tonight if she hopes to convince all-important superdelegates that she alone has the muscle to take the Democratic fight on to the general election."
The dust-up over the "bitter" comments "appears to have hardened the views of both candidates' supporters and stirred anxiety among many Democrats about the party's prospects in the fall," Jeff Zeleny writes in The New York Times.
"The closing week of the Democratic primary race in Pennsylvania is awash in fresh accusations of elitism and condescension. After sparring over those topics from afar, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama will come together Wednesday evening at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia for their first debate in nearly two months, which will be televised nationally on ABC."
Clinton is trying the underdog thing out for size -- and we'll see if it fits on the debate stage. "At recent campaign appearances from Aliquippa to Scranton to Philadelphia, Clinton talks about 'fighting' for working people, jabs her opponent, and describes herself as somebody who can take a punch," Thomas Fitzgerald writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"While some see a risk of seeming too combative, Clinton seems comfortable in the scrappy role. Strategists believe that voters relate better to the woman trying so visibly to win their support than they did to the prohibitive front-runner earlier in the campaign."
Former Bill Clinton adviser Doug Schoen wants the kitchen sink -- for real this time. "As the underdog, Clinton's positive message will not work unless she is able to undermine Obama's candidacy," Schoen writes in a Washington Post op-ed.
"She needs to argue that his values are out of step with voters, as evidenced by his recent comments about why people are religious or seek to own guns. She also must argue that because of Obama's lack of legislative accomplishments, he is ill-equipped to achieve what he sets out to do."
But here's a problem: "She has lost trust among voters, a majority of whom now view her as dishonest," Anne Kornblut and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post. They include some tasty morsels of campaign infighting: "The Bosnia incident and the way the campaign handled it have left advisers divided over what a candidate can do after such a steep drop in trust."
Another problem: resources. "The two campaigns have bought at least $4.5 million of time for commercials in the closing week. According to industry sources, Obama has bought more than $3 million of time, breaking the Pennsylvania record he set last week," Larry Eichel and Amy Worden write in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Clinton has purchased at least $1.4 million, her largest buy to date in Pennsylvania."
Obama is using those dollars to take the high road -- kind of sort of. Obama's new uses footage of the jeers Clinton got Monday when she brought up the "bitter" comment at a campaign event. Says the ad: "There's a reason people are rejecting Hillary Clinton's attacks. Because the same old Washington politics won't lower the price of gas or help our struggling economy. Barack Obama will represent all Americans. He offers a new approach."
And will voters buy Obama as an elitist? "Barack Obama is talking up the fact that his single mother was once on food stamps and that he only recently paid off student loans -- part of a full-court press to avoid being painted by Hillary Clinton and Republicans as an elite liberal," Nick Timiraos and Amy Chozick write in The Wall Street Journal.
(This sort of talk can help his approval ratings -- but not if he refuses to engage altogether. "I have tried to figure out how to show restraint" to avoid harming the eventual nominee, Obama said Monday. "Sen. Clinton may not feel that she can afford to be as constrained.")
Michelle Obama is making the case, too. "Now when is the last time you've seen a president of the United States who just paid off his loan debt?" she said Tuesday in Haverford, Pa., per ABC's David Chalian. "But, then again, maybe I'm out of touch."
Colbert: "You're a very good-looking lady. . . Do you think your husband would be OK with me having said that?" Colbert asked.
Obama: "You know, he might be a little ruffled."
Colbert: "Ruffled enough to come on my show?"
Obama: "Well maybe if you sang to me, it would make him a little jealous."
But there's a base of support out there for Clinton that may never go for Obama, and the Chicago Tribune's Mike Dorning gets to the heart of it.
"Despite Obama's humble origins in a family of modest means and early days as a community organizer in economically ravaged neighborhoods on Chicago's South Side -- a biography he emphasizes on the campaign trail -- his public persona shows more of the polish of an Ivy League institution," Dorning writes. "Obama's fast rise in politics may provide him the advantages of a newcomer but it also suggests a charmed path through life. That contrasts with Clinton's well-known marital and political travails."
Is an image of Obama as elitist beginning to gel? "The odor of elitism is like onion breath: It's quick to acquire, hard to mask," Michelle Malkin writes for National Review. "In Philadelphia, he passed up the hometown cheesesteak -- gloppy, artery-clogging, and blue-collar (yum!) -- for a nibble of Spanish-imported, $100/pound ham."
And will this clip start to make the rounds? This is Michelle Obama, at a Jan. 31 rally for her husband's campaign in Delaware: "Barack's a lawyer, I'm a lawyer, everybody we know are lawyers. I'm sure half the people in this audience are lawyers."
Interesting data point: "it is Obama, not Sen. Hillary Clinton, who has received the majority of donations from" small towns in Pennsylvania, Huffington Post's Sam Stein reports.
And this: The Clinton campaign trumpeted the support Tuesday of 100 Pennsylvania mayors, but only 19 made the event. Quips ABC's Jake Tapper: "McCheese Still On the Fence; Quimby a No-Show."
Obama on Wednesday picks up the endorsement of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "For us it is the candidates' vision and character that loom as the decisive factors in this race," the editors write. "One candidate is of the past and one of the future. The litany of criticisms heaped on Sen. Obama by the Clinton camp, simultaneously doing the work of the Republicans, is as illustrative as anything of which one is which. These are the cynical responses of the old politics to the new."
Super-D for Obama: Rep. Andre Carson, D-Ind., is set to endorse Obama on Wednesday, the Indianapolis Star reports. "The endorsement, the first that a current Hoosier member of the U.S. House has made in the presidential race, will be a coup for Obama."
Some (mostly unwelcome) honesty from Clinton supporters. "It's Gettysburg," Gov. Ed Rendell, D-Pa., says of the Pennsylvania primary, per The Washington Post's Libby Copeland. "If the North lost at Gettysburg, it was over."
And: "Rep. Barney Frank said the trailing Democratic presidential candidate should drop out of the race by no later than June 3 -- the date of the two last Democratic primaries -- even if it is the candidate he supports, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton," per the AP. Added Frank (the brother of Clinton aide Ann Lewis): "Probably sooner."
Tell us this isn't made for cable: "At least some New York Democrats have reportedly been pitching the Executive Mansion as a kind of consolation prize for Mrs. Clinton -- a face-saving exit to the presidential primary that they believe she cannot win and that, they fear, is tearing the party apart," The New York Times' Nick Confessore writes. Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson doesn't leave wiggle room: "There are no circumstances under which Senator Clinton will run for governor."
It is not -- repeat, NOT -- all about him. "I think there is a big reason there's an age difference in a lot of these polls," former President Bill Clinton said Tuesday, per The Boston Globe's Scott Helman. "Because once you've reached a certain age, you won't sit there and listen to somebody tell you there's really no difference between what happened in the Bush years and the Clinton years; that there's not much difference in how small-town Pennsylvania fared when I was president and in this decade."
Obama addresses concerns of Jewish voters, in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "There has been a really systematic effort to suggest that I'm not sufficiently pro-Israel,'' he said. "The fact that my middle name is Hussein, I'm sure, does not help in that regard. . . . Again some of this dates back to the '60s between the African-American and the Jewish community as a consequence of [Louis] Farrakhan. There was flap about some of Jesse Jackson's statements during his presidential race, so I inherit all this baggage."
And: "The fact is though that nobody's has been a more stalwart ally of Israel."
(Watch those superlatives, senator. Flashback to March 12, 2007, in an interview with the Des Moines Register: "Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.")
How does this play in the primary? "A senior McCain adviser vowed Tuesday to keep Barack Obama's controversial depiction of small-town Americans alive through November," ABC's Teddy Davis reports.
Said McCain adviser Steve Schmidt: "This is an important and defining moment in the race because it opened up a window into how Barack Obama feels about the people in this country and it will be an issue that continues to be spoken about, certainly by the McCain campaign, for the duration of Sen. Obama's candidacy."
The RNC is filling out its hypocrisy arsenal against Obama. USA Today's Dilanian takes on Obama's ad claim that he doesn't "take money from oil companies"; no candidates do, since corporate contributions are illegal, and he does take money from employees of oil companies.
"The episode underscores the pitfalls confronting a candidate who rails against special interests while raising $193 million and counting -- the most of any presidential campaign," Dilanian writes. "Obama's fundraising tests the limits of his claim that he is independent of Washington's influence industry because he doesn't take money from federal lobbyists and PACs."
More from Dilanian's report: "Obama accepts money from spouses of federal lobbyists. . . . Obama accepts contributions and fundraising help from state lobbyists. . . . Obama is raising more than his opponents from executives of some of the corporate interests he criticizes."
Your Rezko nugget of the day, from the Chicago Sun-Times' Michael Sneed: "Dem presidential contender Barack Obama's handlers may be telling the press Obama has NO 'recollection' of a 2004 party at influence peddler Tony Rezko's Wilmette house, but a top Sneed source claims Obama not only gave Rezko's guest of honor, Iraqi billionaire Nadhmi Auchi, a big welcome . . . but he made a few toasts!"
The New York Post's Maggie Haberman writes up the "delicate dance" over guns that Obama and Clinton find themselves in. (Wednesday is the anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre.)
"In a state where the largest city, Philadelphia, has so many gun murders that it's been dubbed 'Killadelphia,' there are also 250,000 members of the National Rifle Association -- and the Legislature just defeated a bill aimed at tracing stolen guns," Haberman writes. "Navigating the politics of guns leading up to next Tuesday's Democratic primary has become tough for both Clinton and Obama, who are trying to play to both sides in a primary with a patchwork demographic."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., used Tax Day to define his economic proposals in the broadest way to date. "The speech . . . afforded the clearest view to date of what McCainomics might look like," Michael Cooper writes in The New York Times.
"There was a dash of populism, as Mr. McCain criticized executive pay and corporate wrongdoing. There was a strong supply-side bent, with Mr. McCain focusing on cutting corporate taxes and making permanent the Bush tax cuts that he once opposed. And there was a decidedly less hawkish note on deficits."
"McCain, who has pledged to balance the federal budget if elected, did not mention the budget deficit," The Boston Globe's Brian Mooney writes. "But he did criticize fellow Republicans, as well as Democrats, for fiscal irresponsibility."
The piece with the strongest dose of populism: "McCain also proposed a gas tax holiday between Memorial Day and Labor day of this year, eliminating the 18 cents per gallon federal levy that consumers pay for a gallon of gasoline during the busy summer travel months," ABC's Bret Hovell, Tahman Bradley, and Teddy Davis report. "That is expected to cost between $8 billion and $10 billion dollars, but would only be a one time expense."
"The thrust of McCain's approach would be to limit the size of the government, though the presumptive Republican nominee also recently proposed rescuing as many as 400,000 homeowners facing the threat of foreclosure," Michael Finnegan writes in the Los Angeles Times.
"Though the package of ideas drew support from some economists for its pledge to cut taxes and simplify the tax system, many analysts called the proposed holiday in the 18-cents-a-gallon gas tax a gimmick. Others questioned whether McCain's plans would bloat the federal budget deficit."
Is McCain shifting on litmus tests? Tuesday on MSNBC, he made it sound like former governor Tom Ridge, R-Pa., couldn't be chosen for a spot on the ticket because he supports abortion rights. "I don't know if it would stop him but it would be difficult," McCain said.
The Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody unearths this quote from 2000: "I would not rule out anyone on the basis of any single issue including the position of abortion."
ABC's Teddy Davis and Talal Al-Khatib see McCain shifting perhaps a bit on the policy of "rogue-state rollback" he endorsed in 2000.
Surely the most important story impacting McCain this week: The McCain campaign is blaming an intern for swiping recipes and passing them off as Cindy's own on the campaign Website. "Apparently a web intern of ours appointed an unknowing Rachel Ray to be our Senior Director for recipe policy," said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds.
Obama meets with Philadelphia Jewish leaders Wednesday morning, and Wednesday night's Democratic debate is the day's marquee event. Ninety minutes of debating time spread over a two-hour nationwide ABC broadcast, starting at 8 pm ET.
I'll be live-blogging from inside the Constitution Center in Philadelphia at ABC's Political Radar.
Lots of pomp and ceremony at the White House on Wednesday, with Pope Benedict XVI making his official visit. From the White House: "Marine Band performs National Anthem of the Holy See. A simultaneous 21 gun salute sounds from the Ellipse. Marine Band performs National Anthem of the United States. Musical Troop in Review. Ms. Kathleen Battle sings 'The Lord's Prayer.' " (And yes, the White House actually calls it the "popemobile.")
The New York Sun's Nicholas Wampshott: "Benedict XVI's arrival in Washington last night heralds a series of events intended to show solidarity with President Bush at a time of anxiety about Islamic fundamentalism, which threatens both America and the Catholic Church, and the president's pursuit of the war on terror."
Remarks from the president and the pope at 10:40 am ET.
The president also announces a new climate change "strategy" on Wednesday. "In a speech in the Rose Garden, Bush will lay out a strategy rather than a specific proposal for curbing emissions," per the AP's Deb Riechmann.
Also in the news:
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., is willing to star at the Republican National Convention on behalf of McCain's candidacy, The Hill's Manu Raju reports. "If Sen. McCain, who I support so strongly, asked me to do it, if he thinks it will help him, I will," Lieberman said.
(We'll have to check the rules on this, but does this require Lieberman to challenge Chris Matthews to a duel?)
Mitt Romney's audition continues -- with (what else?) a flip-flop, per the AP's Glen Johnson. Romney Tuesday, on CNN: "I can tell you that for a person who's spent over 25 years in Washington, D.C., working on economic policies from the days of [Ronald] Reagan and throughout the current time, Senator McCain is very well aware of the spending programs in Washington, which ones need to be cut back, which ones need to be grown."
Romney in January: " 'Washington talk' says that somehow, because you've been in Washington, and you've been on a committee, that you somehow know about how the jobs of this country have been created."
Former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., abandoned his candidacy at last, but Huck PAC will live on. "Huck PAC is committed to helping Republicans regain control of the House and Senate, regain a majority of governorships and elect John McCain as the 44th President of the United States," according to the mission statement. (Good luck with that.)
Good news for Obama (not to mention the Republican Party): Alan Keyes is back (seriously). He's left the GOP and is now considering running for president on the Constitution Party line, he announced Tuesday. "Symbolic of Keyes' break with the Republican Party is a caricature of the GOP logo -- upside down -- on the front page of his website," his site states.
Some party committee squabbling: "Democratic Party officials said they will file a complaint today with the Federal Election Commission alleging that a conservative political group has illegally coordinated its advertising with a Republican Party campaign committee in advance of a May 3 special election in Louisiana," Paul Kane writes in The Washington Post.
"The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the fundraising and campaign arm for House Democrats, alleges that the script for a television ad purchased by Freedom's Watch, an independent conservative political committee, can be traced to the National Republican Congressional Committee."
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., "is suffering a recurrence of Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system, and will undergo a new round of chemotherapy," per Bloomberg's James Rowley.
Peace prevails (for a day) on the Hill: "Dangling the popular highway funding bill as his hostage, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) struck a deal Tuesday night with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to dislodge a handful of President Bush's stalled appellate court nominees," per Roll Call's Erin P. Billings.
The DC Madam was found guilty on Tuesday. ABC's Justin Rood: "Jurors deliberated for less than a day before reaching their verdict, after listening to four days of sad testimony from more than a dozen former prostitutes and three clients. Deborah Jeane Palfrey had maintained that she ran a 'sexual fantasy services' outcall escort firm which prohibited illegal activity by the women who worked for it. She said she was unaware of sex between her clients and the women who worked for her."
If you're not enthralled with the debate -- Vice President Dick Cheney and comedian Mo Rocca are the entertainment at the annual Radio-TV Correspondents' Dinner Wednesday night in Washington. (MC Rove gets the night off.)
"I'm pretty certain I can take him." -- Barack Obama, looking forward to a one-on-one match-up with President Bush.
"I think I'll go ahead and put that on. Because I appreciate your service." -- Obama, putting on a flag pin at least for one day.
"Makes me bitter." -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., deadpanning when asked whether the extended primary campaign will hurt the party.
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