To the iconic scenes that dance in our mind's eye in this campaign -- alongside Hillary Clinton dodging sniper fire and Mitt Romney hunting big game -- we add another classic:
President Barack Obama has just been inaugurated, and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is chasing him down, shouting his middle name -- with Louis Farrakhan at his side, for company.
Whether this is the vision foremost in the minds of superdelegates -- or if it's more like one of President John McCain, stealing a victory in what should be a lock of a Democratic year -- are really the only questions that matter at this point in this wild race.
Every passing day seems to give superdelegates new reasons to be nervous about their frontrunner -- and puts more pressure on Obama to show that voters don't (and won't) see Wright's visage and flee.
"Should it become necessary in the months from now to identify the moment that doomed Obama's presidential aspirations, attention is likely to focus on the hour between nine and ten this morning at the National Press Club," Dana Milbank writes in his Washington Post column.
"It was then that Wright, Obama's longtime pastor, reignited a controversy about race from which Obama had only recently recovered -- and added lighter fuel."
Obama's challenge -- with key contests a week away, Pennsylvania's reverberations still being felt, and the good Reverend Wright apparently unable to shut his esteemed trap -- is to show that voters can see Obama as distinct from Wright, no matter how sharply his former pastor's words undercut his campaign message.
"As Obama struggles to close out his party's nomination, his message of hope and reconciliation on race and politics has a competing framework, that of the far less conciliatory rhetoric of Wright," Gannett's Chuck Raasch writes.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign builds on its frame on Tuesday, with a top-of-the-morning endorsement from Gov. Mike Easley, D-N.C., well-timed for a week before the state's critical primary.
"An Easley endorsement would be the first endorsement for Clinton from a major North Carolina political figure," per the Raleigh News & Observer.
"Easley does not have the same sort of political machine that Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania used to help deliver votes for Clinton in that state. But Easley is popular with rural, white, blue-collar Democrats, the sort of voters that Clinton has successfully targeted in wins in Pennsylvania and Ohio."
"Other superdelegates may have been waiting for his cue, said Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster who most recently advised former Sen. John Edwards," Mark Johnson reports in the Charlotte Observer.
How does Wright fit into this? "Democratic sources tell ABC News [Wright is] unquestionably worrying superdelegates about Obama's electability," ABC's Jake Tapper reported on "Good Morning America" Tuesday. "That's why these next nine contests are so key."
This would be bigger than Easley -- if it happens, and it may not even have to happen to have already happened: Whither John Edwards -- and, of course, his wife? "Mrs. Clinton's supporters, in particular, are anxious for the Edwardses to speak up about whom they support," Julie Bosman reports in The New York Times.
The sentence that will set tongues a-wagging: "Mrs. Edwards, her husband's closest and most trusted adviser, has made it clear that she favors Mrs. Clinton; aides said she had recently tried to persuade Mr. Edwards to do the same," Bosman writes.
And polling helps provide some of the raw materials for that Clinton frame: "Hillary Rodham Clinton now leads John McCain by 9 points in a head-to-head presidential matchup, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll that bolsters her argument that she is more electable than Democratic rival Barack Obama," AP's Liz Sidoti writes. "Obama and Republican McCain are running about even."
Rep. Tom Cole, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, may be playing a game here, but Camp Clinton will take the quote: "I think he is the weaker [Democratic] candidate," Cole, R-Okla., told reporters Monday.
From Obama's perspective, it's hard to imagine a worse star turn for Wright, who chose not just to go on a publicity blitz, but to add to the considerable YouTube library that may -- along with an astonishing selfishness -- constitute his lasting legacy in politics (assuming Obama doesn't take him up on that offer of serving on the ticket).
"Obama's controversial former pastor was defiant as he spoke to a room packed with non-journalistic supporters, defending himself, dismissing Obama's criticism of him as mere political expedience, and jokingly offering himself as a vice presidential prospect," ABC's Jake Tapper and Nitya Venkataraman report.
They continue: "He clearly was not doing Obama any favors, not only by reappearing before a ravenous media thus distracting from Obama's attempt to relate better to white working class voters in Indiana and North Carolina, but by implying Obama's condemnation of some of his sermons was not sincere."
Obama needs a new storyline. "The Wright story presents potential peril for Obama, increasing the urgency for the campaign to shift the focus," Christi Parsons and Mike Dorning write in the Chicago Tribune.
This is punditry Obama could have managed without: "He didn't distance himself," Wright said of Obama, drawing howls of disapproval from Chicago. (And did he need to let the world know that he was praying privately with the Obamas on the day of his presidential announcement?)
No apologies from Wright -- not for suggesting the US is to blame for 9/11, that the government created AIDS to harm black people, or for his close association with Farrakhan.
Wright was "brimming with defiance and in-your-face bravado," per the New York Daily News' Michael Saul: "For Obama, Wright's leap onto the national stage could hardly come at a worse time, a week before the Indiana and North Carolina primaries."
"At a moment when Barack Obama is struggling to win over white voters worried about the economy, a series of public appearances by his former pastor is threatening to revive a tempest over race, patriotism and religion that the Democratic presidential front-runner hoped he had quashed," Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times.
Said David Axelrod, understating the case: "I think candor requires me to say it's not ideal."
This at least seems more credible than ever: "He does not speak for me," Obama told reporters Monday in North Carolina, per ABC's Sunlen Miller. "I think certainly what the last three days indicate is that we're not coordinating with him."
Who believes in coincidences? The New York Daily News' Errol Louis points out that Monday's National Press Club event was organized by Barbara Reynolds, an ordained minister and former USA Today editorial board member.
"It also turns out that Reynolds -- introduced Monday as a member of the National Press Club 'who organized' the event -- is an enthusiastic Hillary Clinton supporter," Louis writes. "I don't know if Reynolds' eagerness to help Wright stage a disastrous news conference with the national media was a way of trying to help Clinton -- my queries to Reynolds by phone and e-mail weren't returned yesterday -- but it's safe to say she didn't see any conflict between promoting Wright and supporting Clinton."
The silence from Clinton and Sen. John McCain tells you what you need to know about the political fallout. "Hillary Clinton and John McCain unwrapped the gift of Barack Obama's former pastor in private Monday, letting the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's words do the work for them," Michael McAuliff writes in the New York Daily News.
The right likes Wright: "The Rev. Jeremiah Wright has taken Barack Obama's critically acclaimed race speech in Philadelphia, ripped it into bits, and tossed it in the air to serve as confetti for his parade through the media," National Review's Rich Lowry writes.
"If Rev. Wright continues to talk, the burden that Sen. Obama carries gets bigger and bigger," former House speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., told ABC's Barbara Walters on "Good Morning America" Tuesday.
Sabotage? "Rev. Wright's actually a very angry person," Gingrich said. "He's angry at Sen. Obama for trying to be disingenuous."
"The Rev. Jeremiah Wright went to Washington on Monday not to praise Barack Obama, but to bury him," New York Times columnist Bob Herbert writes.
Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson offers Obama advice: "Politically, by surfacing now, he was throwing Barack Obama under the bus," he writes. "Sadly, it's time for Obama to return the favor."
Ditto The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan: "Obama needs not just to distance himself from Wright's views; he needs to disown him at this point. Wright himself, it seems to me, has become part of what Obama is fighting against: the boomer, Vietnam era's obsession with its red-blue, white-black, pro and anti-America fixations."
Wright stays publicly silent on Tuesday, but the North Carolina GOP fills the void by finally airing its new ad -- in a masterstroke of slow-rollout marketing, since the ad still appears to lack that quaint proposition known colloquially as a real budget.
Yet anti-Obama money is flowing: "Republicans now are ready to place a $500,000 bet that Obama will be a heavy burden on down-ballot Democrats," Politico's Josh Kraushaar reports. "That's the approximate amount of advertising purchased so far by the National Republican Congressional Committee and GOP allies to link Democratic congressional hopefuls in Mississippi and Louisiana to their party's potential presidential nominee."
But it's worth remembering that, since Wright's more inflammatory snippets became public six weeks ago, Obama has added 45 superdelegate endorsements, compared to Clinton's 11, per ABC's political unit. Since Super Tuesday, the tally is 84-14.
"Despite his loss in Pennsylvania and other campaign bumps, Barack Obama is heavily favored to win what will be the final and decisive contest for the Democratic presidential nomination -- the 'invisible primary' for the convention votes of party leaders," Jackie Calmes writes in The Wall Street Journal.
"Democrats in both camps say that for many, these superdelegates' decisions to endorse someone -- or stay uncommitted -- reflect their answer to the question: What is best for my political future?"
This remains key: "Many superdelegates increasingly seem to share the view that ultimately they should support the candidate with the most pledged delegates," Calmes reports.
Obama added another endorsement Monday, this one with a psychological boost attached: Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., "put Obama over the top after his long slog to catch Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had a head start in winning the support of her peers," Jonathan Weisman reports in The Washington Post. "Obama now has 14 [Senate] endorsements to Clinton's 13."
(Per ABC's Karen Travers, in the Senate superdelegate race, Obama's up 15-12; Obama and Clinton both get their own votes, but Clinton loses two at the convention because Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., have been stripped of their votes along with their state delegations.)
And of the superstar of superdelegates -- there's only one Bill. "What is clear, among insiders, is that Mr. Clinton is playing a big -- and some say expanding -- role within the operation, one that might be sacrificing part of the accumulated prestige of his long public career for the cause of returning his wife (and himself) to the White House," Mark Leibovich writes in The New York Times.
It's ex-president as "bad cop": "His purple-faced, squinty-eyed, finger-shaking tirades have been a recurring feature of the 2008 campaign, usually generating unwelcome attention, but sometimes conveying a message -- that Mr. Obama's antiwar credentials are not quite what he claims, for example -- that other supporters of Mrs. Clinton might be reluctant to transmit."
Yet -- here's a distinction that may actually move votes. (Just ask the truck drivers who paralyzed downtown Washington Monday.)
"Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton lined up with Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, in endorsing a plan to suspend the federal excise tax on gasoline, 18.4 cents a gallon, for the summer travel season," John M. Broder writes in The New York Times.
"But Senator Barack Obama, Mrs. Clinton's Democratic rival, spoke out firmly against the proposal, saying it would save consumers little and do nothing to curtail oil consumption and imports."
Camp Clinton gets it: "My opponent, Sen. Obama, opposes giving consumers a break from the gas tax," Clinton said in North Carolina, per the write-up by the New York Post's Carl Campanile. "I understand the American people need some relief."
"Obama's opposition to the so-called gas tax holiday provided yet another venue for Clinton and McCain to team up on the Democratic presidential front-runner," Mike Dorning and Rick Pearson write in the Chicago Tribune.
(Flashback to 2000: "One of my fundamental disagreements during this campaign with my opponent was when he called for the repeal of the gas tax," Clinton said in her first Senate campaign. That same year, Obama supported a bill to drastically cut the Illinois tax on gasoline.)
A perfect day for McCain, R-Ariz., to talk healthcare. His fleshes out his proposals with a 10 am ET speech Tuesday in Tampa, Fla. -- sounding very much like a Republican.
"John McCain spent much of last week emphasizing how he's a different kind of Republican. This week, he focuses on his plans for health care, which are more aligned with President Bush and other Republicans," David Jackson writes in USA Today.
"McCain . . . wants everyone to get a tax credit to either buy insurance or offset the taxes on health care coverage obtained through work. The Arizona senator says variety and competition will help bring down costs. Bush has a similar tactic, offering tax deductions for health care costs."
"In Sen. John McCain's perfect health care world, individuals would each seek the ideal health insurance policy in a competitive marketplace that would drive down premiums even as prevention and healthier living reduces the cost of care," The Washington Post's Michael Shear writes. "That's the vision McCain will outline Tuesday morning as he launches a week-long discussion of health care and his efforts to improve quality and increase access."
"Democrats see pre-existing conditions as his Achilles' heel," ABC's Teddy Davis and Talal Al-Khatib write. "Unlike plans offered by Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, McCain would not require insurance companies to cover individuals without regard to pre-existing conditions. Instead, he is proposing to create a subsidized high-risk insurance pool."
From McCain's speech, per his campaign: "The key to real reform is to restore control over our health-care system to the patients themselves. Right now, even those with access to health care often have no assurance that it is appropriate care."
His answer to Democrats: "There are those who are convinced that the solution is to move closer to a nationalized health care system. They urge universal coverage, with all the tax increases, new mandates, and government regulation that come along with that idea. But in the end this will accomplish one thing only. We will replace the inefficiency, irrationality, and uncontrolled costs of the current system with the inefficiency, irrationality, and uncontrolled costs of a government monopoly."
McCain backs up the message with a new TV ad Tuesday -- just him and the camera, in a nice contrast with the Democrats' bickering. "Let's give every American family a $5,000 refundable tax credit so that they can go out across state lines and get the insurance policy that suits them best," McCain says in the ad. "I can characterize my approach on health care by choice and competition, affordability and availability."
McCain's first big "Victory" fundraiser -- expected to raise $4 million -- will be held May 7 in New York City, The Washington Post reports.
With the Democratic race lingering, the DNC is trying to soften up McCain with its "100 years" ad -- and drawing some blowback. "The spot is a modest effort by the relatively cash-poor party headquarters to do what the far better financed campaigns of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are too busy fighting each other to do themselves: press a challenge to Mr. McCain, whom one of them will face in the fall -- and who has been able to campaign this spring without sustained challenge from Democrats," Jim Rutenberg writes in The New York Times.
It may be easy to miss, Rutenberg points out: "The Democratic Party had only $5.3 million in the bank at the end of March -- when the Republican National Committee had $31 million -- and its new campaign is limited, costing about a million dollars for three weeks on the cable networks."
The RNC wants it pulled down: "The Republican National Committee, calling the ad an illegal misrepresentation of McCain's statement, is calling on television networks and stations to pull it," per the Chicago Tribune's Mark Silva.
President Bush holds a 10:30 am ET press conference at the White House. From Press Secretary Dana Perino: "He will deliver an opening statement (approximately 8 minutes long) regarding Americans' understandable anxiety about issues affecting their pocketbooks. He will also call upon Congress to send him sensible and effective bills that will help Americans weather this difficult period and keep our country moving forward."
Obama on Tuesday retreats to hoops: He got a tour of the Dean Dome with UNC Coach Roy Williams, and played early b-ball with members of the men's team (including NCAA player of the year Tyler Hansbrough -- and no, Obama didn't sink a single basket).
Then it's a full day of Tarheel campaigning, with a pre-taped appearance alongside his wife on Rachael Ray's program mixed in -- more fun visuals (he hopes) to replace loops of the loopy Wright.
Bill Clinton is also in North Carolina, while Sen. Clinton hits Indiana, where her 3 pm ET meeting with the Indianapolis Star editorial board will be Webcast live.
Get all the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
Also making news:
The third branch makes things interesting: "By a 6-3 vote in a closely watched election-year case, the Supreme Court on Monday upheld Indiana's strict voter-identification law, rejecting the claims of Democratic and civil-rights challengers that the law infringes on the right to vote," Joan Biskupic writes for USA Today.
Watch for more. "Voters across the nation may soon find themselves having to show a government-issued ID before casting their ballots as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision Monday upholding Indiana's voter ID law," Maureen Groppe reports in the Indianapolis Star.
"The Supreme Court's decision Monday to uphold Indiana's photo ID law in elections will permit Republican-dominated legislatures in nearly a dozen other states to pass legislation that liberal political advocates say will disenfranchise poorer, Democratic-leaning voters," McClatchy's Greg Gordon writes.
The impact could be immediate, given the fact that it was an Indiana case: The ruling hands Obama "a serious setback days before a pivotal primary battle," The Hill's Alexander Bolton reports. "The voter ID law would disproportionately affect African-Americans and 18- to 34-year-old voters, two important constituencies for Obama."
A pro-Clinton 527 is pumping $700,000 into an Indiana campaign targeting Obama on the economy, Greg Sargent reports for Talking Points Memo.
The Boston Globe's Peter Canellos finds Obama (perhaps purposefully) fuzzy on affirmative action: "Affirmative action isn't a vision, but a policy designed to give preferences to students whose opportunities have been limited by past discrimination," Canellos writes. "Obama left unclear whether he was talking about creating actual written affirmative-action plans to favor lower-income whites, Hispanics, women, or others whose circumstances may be less fortunate."
Rezko tidbit: "Democratic White House hopeful Barack Obama is giving $2,300 in presidential campaign contributions to charity -- money he got from Aiham Alsammarae, a dual U.S.-Iraqi citizen who posted more than $2.7 million in property to help spring Tony Rezko from jail," Chris Fusco writes in the Chicago Sun-Times.
Veepstakes update: "I've got the job I want," Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., told Jay Leno Monday night (learning the right answers, fast). Yet: "It would be like saying I'm not going with that pretty girl to the prom before she asks you," Jindal said in not entirely ruling anything out. But: "I want to be Governor of Louisiana. If they let me I'd like to run for re-election."
In case you aren't sick of the White House Correspondents' Association dinner yet, check out the celebrity arrivals at the Bloomberg party.
"I'm open to being vice president." -- Rev. Jeremiah Wright, rather clearly joking, turning talk of a "dream ticket" into a Democratic nightmare.
"It was a brilliant speech." -- Former Washington mayor Marion Barry, after listening to Wright's National Press Club appearance.
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