The Note: Running, Scared

If change has been the watchword of the 2008 race, the weary rivals for the Democratic nomination enter the next critical week in their never-ending race in agreement: They desperately want to change the subject.

"I don't intend to lose," Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who has grown too accustomed to losing of late, told ABC's Diane Sawyer Monday on "Good Morning America." On his opponent's promise to temporarily lift the gas tax, he added: "We shouldn't pretend that we're offering them something" in terms of immediate relief at the pump.

No predictions from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- but no let-up in her aggressive populist appeal, either.

"We started out so far behind, and clearly have made up some ground," Clinton, D-N.Y., said on "GMA." On the gas tax -- the surprise issue No. 1 of the race this week: "I feel like goldilocks here. I want to lift the gas tax, and I want to pay for it. . . . It's about time people in public life said let's come up with solutions for, you know, the great majority of Americans."

Suddenly -- and oddly -- Obama and Clinton have found plenty of issues to argue about in the closing days before Tuesday's next round of voting. But that's not what's driving the storyline -- not at this late stage.

The basic dilemma for both candidates on the eve of the primaries in Indiana and North Carolina: Obama just may be winning the nomination even while he's losing it. And Clinton could be losing it even while she's winning.

That's doesn't sound like a fair game (though they have at least played by the same rules). Which is why Obama is trying to do something more than just run out the clock. And it's why Clinton needs something dramatic -- a "game-changer," as she herself has said, if she harbors any realistic hope of an overtime comeback.

James Carville provides the (colorful) color commentary. "The onus is on her," Carville tells Newsweek's Eleanor Clift. "She's got to do better than tie. If she wins Indiana and North Carolina, she's the nominee. She's got to shock the system, and she may be shocking it."

And what else to you need to know about the final Clinton pitch than this? "If she gave him one of her cojones, they'd both have two," Carville said. (Do the math.)

ABC's math says that, Obama continues to build to his delegate lead; with Guam providing a 2-2 split that gives Obama a robust 142-delegate edge.

Obama sees himself bounce back to 50-38 in the new New York Times/CBS poll -- but warning signs abound: "a substantial number say that [Obama's relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright] could influence voters this fall should he be the Democratic presidential nominee," Adam Nagourney and Marjorie Connelly write in the Times.

Attention, superdelegates: "The survey suggested that Mr. Obama, of Illinois, had lost much or all of the once-commanding lead he had held over Mrs. Clinton, of New York, among Democratic voters on the question of which of them would be the strongest candidate against [Sen. John] McCain, of Arizona."

Much different (and, for Obama, more worrisome) results from the USA Today/Gallup Poll: In the space of two weeks, Obama went from up 10 to down seven. "Barack Obama's national standing has been significantly damaged by the controversy over his former pastor, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds, raising questions for some voters about the Illinois senator's values, credibility and electability," Susan Page writes in USA Today.

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