Those campaign buses (and planes and trains) making their way across Pennsylvania this weekend will be carrying an awful lot of baggage (and they -- along with a certain television network -- may have picked up a fresh load back at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia).
For Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., a "win" in a debate will only be relevant or remembered if Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary reflects it -- and only running up the score really counts.
For Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., a difficult debate can be erased by keeping it close in the Keystone State -- but he can add Bill Ayers to the list of names that will follow him for as long as he's a candidate.
Yet all those "questions" and "doubts" probed at the debate and beyond only matter if superdelegates see them -- and a certain point, it's actions that matter, not words (with apologies to Obama).
And so far . . . nothing.
"Despite giving it her best shot in what might have been their final debate, interviews on Thursday with a cross-section of these superdelegates . . . showed that none had been persuaded much by her attacks on Mr. Obama's strength as a potential Democratic nominee, his recent gaffes and his relationships with his former pastor and with a onetime member of the Weather Underground," Patrick Healy writes in The New York Times.
It may be the voting that (shockingly) counts: "If there were some moments of concern reflected in the debate -- the talk of Mrs. Clinton's high unfavorability ratings, Mr. Obama's flashes of annoyance -- they all doubted that those moments would be deal-breakers, either," Healy writes. "Instead, most of the superdelegates said they wanted to wait for the results of at least the next major primaries -- in Pennsylvania on Tuesday and Indiana and North Carolina two weeks later -- before choosing a candidate."
As Obama sought to turn post-debate fire on the debate itself -- and as both candidates took a truthiness break Thursday night -- the first day after what may have been the last debate brought movement toward only his direction: Two new superdelegates give Obama a 145-delegate edge, per ABC's delegate tracker.
(Clinton's margin among the supers is down to 20 -- some people must agree with Clinton that Obama can beat Sen. John McCain.)
For the supers -- and for the press -- wins aren't necessarily wins: "Anything less than a double-digit victory could solidify the perception that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is the inevitable Democratic nominee, sparking a flow of superdelegates to his side," Amy Chozick writes in The Wall Street Journal. "Her goal must be to change the dynamic of the race, raising doubts about Sen. Obama's ability to carry states like Pennsylvania and lifting her chances of replicating the win in Indiana on May 6."
Count Dr. Dean among those who want an answer -- now. "I need them to say who they're for -- starting now,'" DNC Chairman Howard Dean said of superdelegates, on CNN. "We cannot give up two or three months of active campaigning and healing time. . . . We've got to know who our nominee is."
But don't discount the degree to which these leaders are becoming followers: "Where once power flowed downward from party chieftains and elected officials to voters, figures like [Rep. Robert] Brady [D-Pa.] -- who answers to different constituencies as a ward leader, party boss, congressman, and superdelegate -- are for the first time feeling strong pressure from those they represent," Sasha Issenberg writes in The Boston Globe.
Said Brady -- whose heavily black Philadelphia district is likely to lean Obama: "I'm kind of hoping my district will tell me what to do."
Who's in a rush, anyway? "Dozens of uncommitted superdelegates with sway over the Democratic presidential nomination say Pennsylvania's primary on Tuesday won't be the decisive factor in their choice between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama," Fredreka Schouten writes in USA Today. "Instead, they told USA TODAY and Gannett News Service, they will choose by July 1, a deadline suggested by Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean."
Obama sought to brush off his debate performance, "both literally and figuratively," per ABC's Sunlen Miller. "That's her right to kind of twist the knife a little bit," Obama said. "That's what you got to do," he added with a laugh. "That is also precisely why I'm running for president to change that kind of politics."
(And Barack Obama as Jay-Z? The Atlantic's Matthew Yglegsias picks up on the brush-off that was "somewhere between a dog whistle to the kids and a reverse Sister Souljah.")
Obama "attempted to get back on the offensive Thursday, arguing that his candidacy offers a clear departure from the attack politics and trivial issues that he said have dominated presidential campaigns and led to gridlock in Washington," Shailagh Murray and Perry Bacon Jr. write in The Washington Post. "Obama and his team appeared taken aback by some of the negative reviews of his performance in the 90-minute debate."
(And in case you were wondering -- Obama doesn't seem keen on committing to a 22nd debate, in North Carolina or elsewhere. "I could deliver Senator Clinton's lines," Obama said, per the Charlotte Observer's Jim Morrill and David Ingram.
"I'm sure she could deliver mine." We'd tune in for that.)
Former President Bill Clinton was "tickled" by the debate -- and it helps to have a selective memory, or at least selective hearing. "Well, they've been beatin' up on her for 15 months," he said, per ABC's Sarah Amos. "I didn't hear her whining when he said she was untruthful in Iowa or called her the senator from Punjab."
The Boston Globe's Susan Milligan sees a shift in tactics for the stretch: "While Barack Obama slammed his rival for attacking him in Wednesday night's debate, Hillary Clinton sought yesterday to convince voters she is likable, sparing Obama from harsh rhetoric and jokingly noting that she's nicer than some people seem to think," she writes.
"As the bile settled from the Democrats' hard-edged debate the previous evening, Mrs. Clinton sought to project a softer, more nurturing image than the stern figure on the debate stage," writes James O'Toole of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"When asked by a supporter what he should say to prospective voters while canvassing this weekend, she replied: 'You know, just knock on the door and say, "She's really nice," or, you could say, "She's not as bad as you think."
Obama's connection to former Weather Underground members is coming in for a fresh round of scrutiny. "Some of the old fault lines were visible again Thursday as Sen. Barack Obama's suddenly defensive presidential campaign sought to distance him from Bill Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, aging academics who planted bombs in the Capitol, the Pentagon and other buildings to protest U.S. government policy," Bob Drogin and Dan Morain write in the Los Angeles Times.
"The evidence linking Obama, who was born in 1961, to the two former militants, now in their 60s, remained thin, despite the appearance of a slickly produced, anonymously issued five-minute video titled 'Obama's Terrorist Connections' on YouTube that sought to exploit the alleged tie," they add.
"Front-runner status brings unexpected headaches, and Sen. Barack Obama continues to show he's not immune," Christine Bellantoni and S.A. Miller write in the Washington Times.
Headline in The Wall Street Journal, clipped and saved by the 527 crowd: "Woods Fund Could Become Obama's 'Swift Boat.' "
ABC's Jake Tapper: "Which is worse, using this 'guilt by association' technique, his being on a board with [Ayers] and having been to his house for a key political meeting? Or Bill Clinton commuting Evans' sentence and pardoning Rosenberg? Or is it all equally disturbing? Or equally irrelevant?"
Obama is helped by the fact that he was a bit too young to have been there and done that. "Once again, a presidential campaign is refighting the 1960s," McClatchy's Stephen Thomma writes. "Unlike all those baby boomers, Obama was a kid at the time. Nonetheless, his apparently casual relationship with Ayers since then still threatens to drag him into the dangerous political crosscurrents of the time."
Obama got a hand from his mayor: "Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, whose father was famously not so sympathetic to anti-war protesters, is coming to the defense of Barack Obama for his friendship with former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers," Mike Dorning and Rick Pearson write for the Chicago Tribune.
And Obama may be helped by the fact that the aftermath of the Philly debate is focusing on the network that brought it to you. The Philadelphia Inquirer's debate follow-up: "The morning after Wednesday night's presidential campaign debate in Philadelphia, the names on the nation's lips were . . . Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos."
"The media post-mortem -- which boiled over in more than 17,600 comments posted on the ABC Web site alone -- also touched on questions that had long been simmering in the protracted Democratic campaign over the role of moderators in televised debates, to say nothing of political journalists generally," Jacques Steinberg writes in The New York Times.
"If there was a common theme, it was that Mr. Gibson and Mr. Stephanopoulos had front-loaded the debate with questions that many viewers said they considered irrelevant."
Said Stephanopoulos: "We thought it made sense to deal with the core controversies," he said, by way of explaining those early questions. All of them, he said, went to "what has become the No. 1 issue between the candidates -- who can win in November?"
Steinberg continues: "But Mr. Stephanopoulos said that after digesting much of what had been sent forth in the blogosphere on Thursday morning, he would have approached one critical aspect of his job differently. 'I could imagine moving up some of the questions,' he said. 'You can differ over that.' "
Howard Kurtz, in The Washington Post: "Some commentators praised ABC's handling of the debate, the only such clash before Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary, but the critics were far more vocal. Greg Mitchell, editor of the trade publication Editor & Publisher, called the debate 'shameful.' "
Moveon.org gets into the act, with an anti-ABC petition.
Does Obama risk underlining the point if his backers blame the messengers? "The louder Obama's fans whine, the more obvious it is that their candidate bombed and that tough questions are Obama's kryptonite," Jennifer Rubin blogs for Commentary. "It would be best for the Obama supporters to say it doesn't matter, they're all only words, words, words. Oh, wait: maybe not. . ."
The AP's Walter Mears sees both Democrats grappling with the "gaffe tax." "It cost President Gerald R. Ford his momentum in the final phase of his losing 1976 campaign. It stalled Jimmy Carter four years later. It is being levied on Obama now, with Hillary Clinton trying to push up the cost while seeking a bye for her own misstatements."
The New York Times' David Brooks sees Obama coming back to Earth. "He sprinkled his debate performance Wednesday night with the sorts of fibs, evasions and hypocrisies that are the stuff of conventional politics," Brooks writes. "When Obama began this ride, he seemed like a transcendent figure who could understand a wide variety of life experiences. But over the past months, things have happened that make him seem more like my old neighbors in Hyde Park in Chicago."
A different debate take, from Princeton professor Julian Zelizer: "These complaints are not exactly fair. They assume the existence of a higher level of politics than we have had for a long time," Zelizer writes at Huffington Post. "As frustrating as it might be, the truth is that the quality of our political debate has greatly diminished over the course of the twentieth century. Since the late 1900s, and especially since the 1950s, we have lived in an era where political campaigns revolve around character and personality with an emphasis on scandal and gaffes."
Interesting take on "bitter" from the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer's editorial page. "Sadness is the right response to Barack Obama's now famous riff on small-town America," Kevin Ferris writes. "What's really sad is the end of the promise Obama offered from his first appearance on the national stage at the Democratic convention in 2004. There, and in subsequent speeches, was the hint that this was a man who believed in reaching out, who would be fair to all sides, who could respect those with whom he disagreed."
For some lighter fare -- all it took was the magic of Stephen Colbert to bring Obama, Clinton, and former senator John Edwards together for an evening. Clinton fixed his technical problems -- and his makeup. "Wow, Sen. Clinton. You are so prepared for any situation. I just don't know how to thank you enough," Colbert said.
And Colbert let Obama add to the show's "on notice" list: "Manufactured political distractions, you are officially on notice," Obama concluded.
But it was Edwards who was the evening's highlight. Joking about the white-male vote -- and the courtship of one white-male voter in particular -- he noted that he's still undecided in the race: "On the other hand, I don't want James Carville to bite me," said Edwards, D-N.C.
More tax forms this Friday, from McCain, R-Ariz., with an 11 am ET release. (And we see that Obama is the poor one.)
Politico's Jonathan Martin offers a glimpse of the still-emerging McCain campaign: "For reasons of financial necessity, personal preference and plain politics, John McCain is gearing up to run one of the least traditional presidential campaigns in recent history," he writes.
"McCain will lean heavily on the well-funded Republican National Committee. He will merge key functions of his campaign hierarchy with the RNC while also relying on an unconventional structure of 10 regional campaign mangers," Martin continues. "And finally -- and perhaps most importantly -- McCain will rely on free media to an unprecedented degree to get out his message in a fashion that aims to not only minimize his financial disadvantage but also drive a triangulated contrast among himself, the Democratic nominee and President Bush."
Next up for McCain: "John McCain plans to spend next week reaching out to African-Americans, displaced factory workers and people living in poverty -- voters not usually associated with the Republican Party," David Jackson writes in USA Today. "Starting Monday, the presumptive GOP nominee for president will stop in Alabama's 'Black Belt,' then move on to the struggling steel town of Youngstown, Ohio, and the Appalachian region of Kentucky. The Arizona senator is also trying to make it to New Orleans, which is still recovering from 2005's Hurricane Katrina."
The Pennsylvania we never found gets explored by Obama and Clinton -- Obama campaigns from Erie to Philly, and Sen. Clinton hits PA and NC while Bill works more small Keystone State towns.
"This Week with George Stephanopoulos" makes its Newseum debut on Sunday, and Sen. McCain is the first guest in the new studio.
Get all the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
Also in the news:
Some endorsement hints (maybe) from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y. Bloomberg "said Thursday his endorsement will go to the most straight-talking candidate and predicted 'at least we'll have an adult in office who can lead and can accomplish something,' " AP's Sara Kugler writes.
Is Chelsea's (relatively) free ride over? "For the first time, she is facing the kind of scrutiny that has bedeviled the candidates and their surrogates along the campaign trail," Robin Abcarian writes in the Los Angeles Times.
"During a long day of campaigning in Oregon on Saturday, she mentioned at two different stops that during the course of the campaign a 7-year-old and an 11-year-old had separately asked her 'with terror in their eyes' what will become of the Social Security system. It's possible they were precocious, or that their parents put them up to it, but one skeptical blogger wrote afterward that the story was "stunning in its absurdity."
Shocker: "(When asked for details, such as where and when Clinton met the children, the campaign could not provide them.)"
Obama news on guns: "Some Illinois gun control advocates recall Senator Obama as a 'friend' who represented a 'solid vote' in favor of increased restrictions on firearm sales, but they said he was never forced to vote on an all-out ban on handguns as a member of the state Senate," Russell Berman writes in the New York Sun.
Not that that's likely to be a message that breaks through: "Obama perhaps has larger problems on the issue now," James Oliphant writes in the Chicago Tribune. "His comments earlier this month about residents of small-town American who 'cling' to their guns because of fading economic prospects reaffirmed for many gun-owners what they had long suspected, that he is, in fact, an anti-gun candidate masking his true nature."
A flag follow-up: "Barack Obama's on-again, off-again wearing of the U.S. flag pin - and his misleading debate answer about it -- could come back to haunt him in a fall campaign," Michael Saul writes in the New York Daily News.
Bloomberg's Ryan J. Donmoyer and Matthew Benjamin run McCain's numbers: "John McCain's plan to cut taxes and balance the budget wins praise from fellow Republicans. Economists and nonpartisan analysts say his numbers don't add up."
Clinton is still being badly outspent in Pennsylvania -- but she's getting a touch of help. "The American Leadership Project, a 527 group supportive of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton that recently began broadcasting commercials in Pennsylvania, increased its purchase of television time today in the state," Michael Luo reports in The New York Times.
News from everybody's favorite Alabama scandal: "The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday asked former White House adviser Karl Rove to testify about claims that he influenced a federal corruption case against former Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman of Alabama," AP's Ben Evans reports.
"Who do you like better: your mother or your father?" -- Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., torn in the Democratic primary race.
"Try toggling the input." -- Hillary Clinton, working out Stephen Colbert's technical difficulties.
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