PHILADELPHIA -- Hope may float, but it doesn't always soar.
Probed, prodded, pressed, and punched, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., enters the final stretch in Pennsylvania coming off a debate that was probably his roughest -- a full-on, mostly grim, moderately ugly outing of the questions that swirl around his candidacy.
The debate at the National Constitution Center may not change a thing about a nomination fight that could already be settled. But it wrapped up in an unwieldy package the case against the Democratic frontrunner -- and tossed both candidates' dirty laundry into the Philadelphia air.
It laid bare the stark choice for Democratic voters -- and, of course, for the superdelegates whose lap the race could fall into -- while offering a contrast where style is the substance.
"Barack Obama last night staked his presidential campaign on the idea that the American people will look beyond the inevitable gaffes and errors and character attacks of a 24-hour campaign cycle to meet the challenges of a 'defining moment' in American history," Peter Canellos writes in The Boston Globe.
"Hillary Clinton staked her campaign on the idea that Americans won't -- and that her tougher, more strategic approach to countering Republican attacks is a better way for Democrats to reclaim the White House."
"The choice between the candidates crystallized tonight," Washingtonpost.com's Chris Cillizza writes. "It is not, fundamentally, a choice about issues or even ideology -- it is a choice about approach."
Obama (tired?) has had few campaign evenings as trying as Wednesday. "It could not have been the performance Obama wanted to have six days before the state's primary, at a time when he needed to reassure voters," Thomas Fitzgerald writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"At its core the debate boiled down to this familiar argument: Obama saying that politics itself was broken, its games not worth playing, and Clinton saying that skill at the game was crucial."
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., relished the chances presented to her -- cognizant of the fact that this might have been the final time she and Obama met in a debate. And both candidates have rather clearly memorized the briefing books by this point.
"Mrs. Clinton did not let an opportunity pass as she repeatedly challenged Mr. Obama on his record and views -- assisted, as it turned out, by vigorous questioning by the two moderators from ABC News, Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos," Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times.
"The result was arguably one of Mr. Obama's weakest debate performances," they write.
"He at times appeared annoyed as he sought to answer questions about his former pastor, his reluctance to wear an American flag pin on his lapel and his association in Chicago with former members of the Weather Underground, a radical group that carried out bombings in the 1960s that were intended to incite the overthrow of the government."
"This was a tough debate, especially for Barack Obama," ABC's David Wright reported on "Good Morning America" Thursday. "Hillary Clinton almost seemed to look past the Pennsylvania voters and address the superdelegates, raising questions about Obama's electability."
Clinton seemed to come to the night aware of her rising negative numbers -- her jabs were sharp, but she repeatedly returned to the need for a Democrat (any Democrat) to win.
Yet among the debate's most memorable lines: her concession, when pressed, on whether that winning Democrat can be Obama: "Yes. Yes. Yes. Now, I think I can do a better job." (Superdelegates may need a bit more than that.)
That's the AP's Beth Fouhy's lead: "Hillary Rodham Clinton said emphatically Wednesday night that Barack Obama can win the White House this fall, undercutting her efforts to deny him the Democratic presidential nomination by suggesting he would lead the party to defeat."
But the heat belonged mostly to Obama: "The encounter, particularly in the early stages, seemed more like a grilling of Obama on a Sunday-morning talk show than a debate between the two candidates," Anne Kornblut and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post.
It was a "tense and grim encounter," per the Philadelphia Inquirer's Larry Eichel. "Obama, who seemed on the defensive for much of the conversation about personal vulnerabilities, said that such topics -- including the fact that he rarely wears an American flag lapel pin -- distract people from dealing with the more pressing matters of economics, health care and foreign policy."
The Chicago Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet saw a dry run for the general: "If Obama does become the Democratic nominee -- highly likely, even if he does not do well in the April 22 Pennsylvania Democratic primary -- Wednesday's debate could be seen as a preview of what Obama will be hit with by the Republicans."
That was Clinton's warning -- as argued in what's really a case to superdelegates: "They're going to be out there in full force," she said of Republicans in a general election. (And they have company.)
"The debate -- while its impact on Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary could be negligible -- also seemed to buttress the central argument of Clinton and her husband against Obama's candidacy: that he will be an inviting target for John McCain in the fall," writes Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown.
"In fact, the questions essentially constituted the Republican case against Obama in a general election."
It was a good night to be a Republican: "The big winner wasn't either Democrat. It was Republican John McCain," Philip Klein writes for The American Spectator.
Among the takeaways: The "dream ticket" is a shared nightmare. "Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton carved each other up, sometimes gingerly and sometimes ferociously, in a debate Wednesday night that focused on some of the worst moments of the presidential campaign and the candidates' ability to win election in November," The Chicago Tribune's Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons write.
To the incoming fire, Obama offered what's become a stock response: The attacks, he said, were part of the old politics he's trying to change. (The question becomes whether he'll get that chance.)
The grades from Mark Halperin, of Time and ABC News: B+ for Obama: "Subdued and secure, but often peevish and cross, seemingly fed up with Clinton's fight and impatient to claim the nomination (the less attractive part of his personality shining through)," he writes. "A surly, tepid night for Obama, but he still emerged stalwart and in the lead."
Clinton grabs a B: "Created a dilemma for herself with contradictory messages about Obama's electability. . . . "Can she and her advisers ever argue again privately that Obama is unelectable?"
For Obama, the evening was symptom of a shifting terrain -- and, perhaps, cause of more problems. "The mere fact that at least five damaging issues were thrown at him within 30 minutes was testament to how much the race has changed," Michael Goodwin writes in his New York Daily News column.
"My bet is that his ineffective answers on Wednesday night will mean more doubts among voters and more concern among Democratic superdelegates about whether Obama is electable in November."
The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan comes away disappointed in Obama: "This was his worst performance yet on national television," he writes. "He seemed crushed and unable to react. This is big-time politics and he's up against the Clinton wood-chipper. But there is no disguising the fact that he wilted, painfully."
Among the lingering questions for Obamaland to explain on Thursday: Are you you're your campaign never pushed the Bosnia story? And whose handwriting was it on that gun-control questionnaire?
Obama said "his handwriting does not appear on a 1996 questionnaire stating support for a ban on the manufacture, sale, and possession of handguns," ABC's Teddy Davis and Talal Al-Khatib write. "The Democratic presidential frontrunner made this claim even though a copy of the original document suggests otherwise."
And both candidates took unwelcome trips to the Weather Underground. The New York Times' Larry Rohter and Michael Luo provide the background.
Obama and Clinton both have last-dash Pennsylvania tours on tap (and here's hoping they switch to light beer, in deference to their waistlines).
Another superdelegate signs on with Obama on Thursday (and the Obama campaign has been nothing if not savvy in trickling these out). Oklahoma's Reggie Whitten: "I believe this is a defining moment, not only for our Party, but also more importantly for our country."
Per an Obama aide, the campaign on Thursday will roll out Pennsylvanians who have switched their allegiance from Clinton to Obama, citing the tone of her campaign.
With Clinton's purported 1995 comments about working-class Southerners -- "Screw 'em" -- making the rounds anew, a third witness comes forward. "I was there. I hope people have heard of me," Boston College professor Alan Wolfe writes on The New Republic blog.
And this: "A lot of people compare Barack Obama to Bobby Kennedy. To me, he most resembles Bill Clinton, at least the Bill Clinton I knew then."
Obama made an abnormal amount of news for a debate day -- three new superdelegates (including North Carolina reps. Mel Watt and David Price), one (very hefty) tax return, and one endorsement by the rock star of rock stars.
The Boss takes sides (and does it put Obama on the glory road to the promised land?): Obama "speaks to the America I've envisioned in my music for the past 35 years, a generous nation with a citizenry willing to tackle nuanced and complex problems, a country that's interested in its collective destiny and in the potential of its gathered spirit," Bruce Springsteen wrote in a letter to fans on his Website, per ABC's Sunlen Miller and Nitya Venkataraman.
The Philadelphia Daily News helps Obama tell a different story on Thursday. The endorsement editorial: "The long slog through 44 primaries and caucuses has confirmed for us that Sen. Barack Obama's vision of change -- and the way he plans to pursue it -- is what we need right now. Badly."
Lucky for Obama, one of those Pennsylvania voters who was so offended by Obama's "bitter" remarks in the Clinton commercial is actually a registered New Jersey voter who's already cast his ballot, the Chicago Tribune's Josh Drobnyk. Says Scranton-born Clyde Thomas: "I see Pennsylvanians for what they are. I grew up with the values of Pennsylvanians."
Obama can afford plenty of arugula these days: Running for president is quite good for books sales, it turns out. "Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, reported income of $4.2 million last year, including $3.9 million from book royalties," Nick Timiraos and T.W. Farnam write in The Wall Street Journal.
"That puts the Democratic presidential candidate among the highest-income earners in the country, and represents a big jump from the nearly $1 million that the Illinois senator made in 2006. . . . The release of the returns comes as Sen. Obama tries to contain a controversy over remarks he made about small-town America that rivals said show he is an out-of-touch elitist."
Obama also spent time Wednesday morning working on his relationship with the Jewish community. "In a meeting at Rodeph Shalom synagogue on North Broad Street, the Democratic candidate said his links to the Jewish community predated his entry into politics and would extend beyond this campaign," per the Philadelphia Inquirer's Larry Eichel.
Sen. Clinton is sure Obama can win, but her brother -- maybe not so much. "At the beginning of this campaign she was judged the most competent and experienced," Hugh Rodham said Wednesday on the trail in Pennsylvania, per Paul Peirce of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "What do we want to elect [now] . . . the most incompetent and inexperienced?"
Here's a fun one: 75-year-old Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., says Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is too old to be president. "It's no old man's job," Murtha said, per ABC's Eloise Harper. (Fortunately, you're never too old to hand out earmarks to defense contractors.)
Greg Sargent of Talking Points Memo has a detail you'll hear about again: "In most of Pennsylvania's markets, the only TV ad Hillary is running right now is a negative one -- the spot hitting Obama over his 'small town' comments, a political ad buyer who tracks buys in Pennsylvania tells me."
All three presidential candidates meet with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown Thursday morning in Washington, and Obama campaigns in North Carolina (with his new superdelegates) while Clinton returns to Philadelphia.
Clinton follows Michelle Obama onto "The Colbert Report" Thursday night.
Get all the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
Also in the news:
Maybe Bill Clinton will be a net-plus in Pennsylvania -- he's working rural areas hard. "While the campaign has employed the strategy for months -- partially to wring out from every state as many delegates as possible -- it may be paying new dividends in Pennsylvania, thanks to Sen. Barack Obama's comments last week that some small-town residents were 'bitter' and therefore 'cling' to religion and guns while voting against their own interests," Timothy McNulty writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Don't look for Pennsylvania to end the campaign, Democratic strategist Dan Payne writes in his Boston Globe column. "Regardless of what happens Tuesday in the Democratic presidential primary in Pennsylvania, Hillary Clinton will not quit. Call it Divine Right or chutzpah, the Clintons believe she is entitled to the presidency. They've been planning it since their days at Yale," Payne writes. "They are also convinced Barack Obama will be clobbered in a general election, on a par with George McGovern and Michael Dukakis."
Among the endorsements Obama really doesn't want: "We don't mind -- actually we like Mr. Obama. We hope he will [win] the election and I do believe he is like John Kennedy, great man with great principle, and he has a vision to change America to make it in a position to lead the world community but not with domination and arrogance," Hamas political adviser Ahmed Yousef said in a weekend interview.
A frail Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., sought to hang on to his chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday with a "carefully scripted but brave, even boffo, performance," David Rogers writes for Politico.
"But for all Byrd's success, the circus atmosphere takes its toll, and his admirers worry that the 90-year-old West Virginian risks diminishing himself -- and his legacy -- by continuing to hold onto what's become a husk of a chairmanship when he is so much more. . . . The hard political reality is that when a new Congress and a new administration take office next year, Byrd can't expect to handle the workload of the Appropriations chairmanship, unless his health and strength greatly return."
"Though he read most of his statements from pages filled with extra-large type while being closely attended by staff members, he frequently ad-libbed to emphasize his deep opposition to the war: 'Dead, dead, dead,' he intoned of the more than 4,000 killed while fulminating about the conflict's cost as a 'whopping, whopping $600 billion, spelled with a "b," ' The New York Times' Carl Hulse writes. "He called correctly on his colleagues, listened intently to the testimony and forewarned war protesters in the audience to keep quiet."
Clinton and Obama are being pushed toward populism, per the write-up by Bloomberg's Matthew Benjamin. "Protectionist and populist sentiments run strong among Democrats in three states holding presidential primaries, showing why the campaigns of candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are moving in those directions," Benjamin writes.
Get ready for Cindy McCain to guest host on "The View" on Monday (No recipes, please.)
"I don't know how you have done it for 15 months. I am bone tired after two weeks." -- Newly installed Clinton strategist Geoff Garin, to Obama adviser Robert Gibbs, in Wednesday's post-debate spin room.
"Shut up." -- Sen. Robert Byrd, to a reporter who asked how he responds to those who question his ability to run a committee.
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