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.

"The erosion of support among Democrats and independents raises the stakes in Tuesday's Indiana and North Carolina primaries, which represent a chance for Obama to reassert his claim to a Democratic nomination that seems nearly in his grasp," Page writes.

"A defeat in Indiana and a close finish in North Carolina, where he's favored, could fuel unease about his ability to win in November. Such results also could help propel Hillary Rodham Clinton's uphill campaign all the way to the Democratic convention in August."

New Obama supporter Joe Andrew set the expectations bar right where Obama doesn't want it: "You're going to see him coming back," the former DNC chairman said on "Fox News Sunday." "I think he's going to win both because of this energy, this excitement, and because of the fact that people realize that he's got some real plans here, not just political pandering."

(Per the Washington Times' Christina Bellantoni: "Clinton aides seized on the remark within minutes and sent reporters a YouTube clip. They also revived talk of a months-old Obama campaign spreadsheet that had predicted he would win Indiana by seven points.")

A fresh storyline for Obama to explain -- just when you were wondering why James Hoffa Jr. feels so strongly about his candidate. "Sen. Barack Obama won the endorsement of the Teamsters earlier this year after privately telling the union he supported ending the strict federal oversight imposed to root out corruption, according to officials from the union and the Obama campaign," Brody Mullins and Kris Maher write in The Wall Street Journal.

"It's an unusual stance for a presidential candidate. Policy makers have largely treated monitoring of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters as a legal matter left to the Justice Department since an independent review board was set up in 1992 to eliminate mob influence in the union."

The Obama campaign confirmed it to the Journal, but Obama muddied the water on "GMA": "I wouldn't make any blanket commitments. What I've said is that we should take a look at what's been happening over at the Teamsters and all unions, to make sure that in fact, you know, organized labor is able to represent its membership and engage in collective bargaining. . . . The union has done a terrific job cleaning house, and the question is whether they're going to be able to get treated like every other union."

Voting in Indiana and North Carolina can answer the questions swirling around Obama's candidacy -- or not.

Bloomberg's Al Hunt predicts a superdelegate flood if Obama sweeps both states: "If Obama wins those contests on May 6, the Democratic nomination will be over. There are scores of so-called superdelegates waiting to embrace the Illinois senator. Victories in the two states will open the gates, even Clinton supporters acknowledge privately," Hunt writes.

"Conversely, if Senator Clinton, 60, of New York wins in both states, that would take the odds of an Obama nomination from near certain to merely even," Hunt adds.

That's behind Clinton's all-out populist assault in Indiana, where she hopes gas prices and guns will arm her for a big victory in Tuesday's primary. (And we're guessing she'll spend part of the morning learning the difference between Matt Lauer and Tim Russert.)

"I'm not going to put my lot in with economists," Clinton told ABC's George Stephanopoulos, on "This Week" in Indianapolis on Sunday, attacking what she called "elite opinion" on the subject of a gas-tax holiday. (But seriously -- and remembering presidential preference for one-handed economists -- ALL the economists have this one wrong?)

A new mailer takes on Obama on gun control. Per ABC's Jake Tapper: "Her name may be 'synonymous with gun control,' as an NRA official recently told me, but Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, is attacking Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, on guns in a new mailer being sent to Hoosiers." "What does Barack Obama really believe?" the mailing asks.

Clinton's 40-minute stump speech was pared back to a 16-minute assault on Obama on Sunday, per ABC's Eloise Harper. "There is a big difference between us, who understands what you are going through and who can you count on to be on your side to get the solutions that are going to help you for a change, instead of [helping] the folks who are already doing very well," Clinton said.

"Mrs. Clinton's advisers said she was increasingly sounding populist notes to portray Mr. Obama as out of touch, as she sought to court working- and middle-class voters, two groups that helped her win the Pennsylvania and Ohio primaries," Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times.

"Clinton advisers have cast the Indiana primary in particular as a must-win for her; Mr. Obama, meanwhile, once suggested that it could be a 'tie-breaker' in the Democratic nominating fight, though he backed away from that assertion on Sunday," they write.

Gas prices pit Clinton's I'm-with-you approach against Obama's let's-change-Washington argument. And it hardly matters that nobody has a plan that would realistically help drivers this summer.

"To suspend the tax takes an act of Congress -- and none of the Democratic leaders who control the House and Senate has signed on to lifting the gas tax, so that means it won't happen," Lynn Sweet writes in the Chicago Sun-Times.

"The Clinton team has got to know this, but they are betting voters will see Obama's opposition to the gas tax holiday as an academic -- read that elitist -- argument."

President Bush remains noncommittal on lifting the gas tax: "I told them we'd look at it, but you know, this is a problem that's been a while in the making, and it's going to be a while [before] we solve it," the president told ABC's Robin Roberts on "GMA" Monday morning, from the White House lawn, as part of the new "Wonders of America" series.

"I understand the pinch," he said. "It troubles me a lot. . . . We'll analyze some of these suggestions. But the key is that we think, you know, long-term for America, that we diversify away from oil, and that we're wise in build[ing] new refineries and increase supplies."

And the president isn't exactly standing by his prediction that Clinton would be the Democratic nominee, pointing out that he also chose the Detroit Tigers to win the American League last year: "I'm not a very good political forecaster. We'll let the Democrats decide. I believe John McCain will be living up there."

(Actually, that's not as bad a bet as it once was -- though you might want to stay away from the Tigers again this year.)

Both Obama and Clinton want to be underdogs going into Tuesday's voting, and their last major speeches in Indiana on Sunday were full-blown working-class appeals: "In back-to-back speeches before state Democratic activists in Indianapolis on Sunday night, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama each offered themselves as the candidate who can best deliver change to voters' paychecks, at gas pumps and to the power-brokers in Washington," Mary Beth Schneider and Maureen Groppe write in the Indianapolis Star.

Bill Clinton is appealing to higher powers. "I didn't come here to ask you to vote for my wife," Clinton told a church crowd in Asheville, N.C., per ABC's Sarah Amos. "I came here to ask you to pray for her. And to vote. Do whatever you want. Show up. Our country is in dire distress."

This is where the power of prayer meets the muscle of politics: "Hillary Rodham Clinton, stung last week by the defection of a prominent superdelegate, could lose the backing of more of these Democratic Party leaders and elected officials if she fails to make significant gains in the remaining month of presidential nominating contests, several California superdelegates said this weekend," Scott Martelle writes in the Los Angeles Times. "Two of the five superdelegates aligned with Clinton who spoke at the annual California Democratic Convention here said they would reconsider their support if rival Barack Obama maintained his lead in elected delegates and the popular vote after the last contests on June 3."

Then there's Clinton's "nuclear option" -- essentially forcing the party to seat the Michigan and Florida delegations, per Huffington Post's Tom Edsall. But beware the collateral damage: "Her top strategists say privately that any attempt to deploy it would require a sharp (and by no means inevitable) shift in the political climate within Democratic circles by the end of this month," Edsall writes.

"With at least 50 percent of the Democratic Party's 30-member Rules and Bylaws Committee committed to Clinton, her backers could -- when the committee meets at the end of this month -- try to ram through a decision to seat the disputed 210-member Florida and 156-member Michigan delegations. Such a decision would give Clinton an estimated 55 or more delegates than Obama, according to Clinton campaign operatives."

(What other fun things would it give Clinton -- other than riots in Denver, perhaps?)

Clinton wants us to see her as a fighter. And yet: "This kind of language and pugilistic imagery, however, also evokes the baggage that makes Mrs. Clinton such a provocative political figure," Mark Leibovich and Kate Zernike write in The New York Times. "For as much as a willingness to 'do what it takes' and 'die hard' are marketable commodities in politics, they can also yield to less flattering qualities, plenty of which have been ascribed to her over the years. Just as supporters praise her 'toughness' and 'tenacity,' critics also describe her as 'divisive,' 'a dirty fighter' or 'willing to do anything to win.' "

(Great detail from the 1992 campaign, from James Carville: "She was the one who named it 'war room.' ")

Obama needs to put this bad stretch behind him: "The Illinois senator hopes that wins this week will stop the bleeding from a difficult campaign stretch," AP's Liz Sidoti writes. "Maneuvering for advantage and trying to put the controversy over his former pastor behind him, Obama sought Sunday to portray Clinton as a political opportunist on both Iran and her gas-tax plan."

Among the lessons of the Wright affair: "When you are in national politics, it is always good to pull the Band-Aid off quick," Obama said on "Meet the Press." (Is that more or less true for self-inflicted wounds?)

Sunday's swipe came on Clinton's threats on Iran: "It's not the language we need right now, and I think it's language reflective of George Bush," Obama said, blasting her for "bluster and saber rattling."

Clinton was happy to look tough on the subject. "We want to create some upward pressure that sends a very clear signal to the supreme leader and to Ahmadinejad and others, that going forward on nuclear weapons is not a free choice for Iran," she said on "This Week."

On the trail, Obama is closing small: "Sen. Barack Obama has returned to a page in his playbook that served him well during early state nominating contests, ditching arena-style events for thousands in favor of more intimate interaction with potential voters," Christopher Cooper and Nick Timiraos write in The Wall Street Journal.

David Axelrod, conceding mistakes in run-up to Ohio and Texas: "The images were of him talking to people but not people talking to him." Clinton spokesman Phil Singer had a different take: "I think it's clear the Obama campaign is running scared right now."

In Indiana, Obama is the son of a Kansan who lives in neighboring Illinois. "Barack Obama, who for much of the presidential campaign has drawn attention to his unusual origins, offered himself up yesterday to Indiana voters as a simple Midwestern family man who could relate to their economic challenges based on his own experience," Sasha Issenberg writes in The Boston Globe.

Another super-D for Obama on Monday: DNC member Kalyn Free.

Yet Obama enters this stretch with his weaknesses exposed -- leaving superdelegates with their eyes wide open.

The Washington Post's Alec MacGillis looks at Obama's efforts to introduce a "new patriotism" to the political landscape -- if he can get past some old politics. "Joining in the criticism has been Obama's rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has stoked party anxieties about his electability by warning about the charges Republicans will make against him, while making some herself," MacGillis writes. "In effect, she is countering Obama's attempt to reframe the patriotism debate with a far darker -- and, some would say, more realistic -- analysis of the political landscape."

Once again -- and stop us if you've heard this before -- this week is highly unlikely to settle anything. "Barring the unexpected -- a blowout in either state, or twin victories by either Obama or Clinton -- the probable outcome is a continued stalemate," Mark Z. Barabak and Cathleen Decker write in the Los Angeles Times.

"That would give each candidate incentive to keep running at least until June 3, the last day of the primary season: Obama because of his seemingly insurmountable lead in nominating delegates and the popular vote, and Clinton because of doubts sown in recent weeks about Obama's general-election viability."

A stalemate, however, does not mean a tie: "But as the election season grinds toward a close, the pressure on Clinton to change the dynamic of the contest has grown more pronounced," Barabak and Decker write.

"With just a handful of smaller states left to vote after Tuesday, the candidates aren't looking to surprise voters or build traditional political momentum," Politico's Ben Smith writes. "Rather, they are aiming to impress a small but important audience: the more than 250 Democratic Party officials, or superdelegates, who have yet to publicly back a candidate. That means Clinton, who trails in the overall delegate count, is the one praying for lightning to strike."

Rhodes Cook uses a New York Times op-ed to make the Clinton argument: Depending on how you count the primaries and caucuses (and isn't that always the catch), Clinton could surpass Obama in the popular vote if she runs up the score in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Indiana, Cook writes. "If Mrs. Clinton can catch Mr. Obama in the popular vote, she could paint the race as a repeat of the election of 2000, with herself in the role of Al Gore and Mr. Obama as George W. Bush -- a desirable position, needless to say, for a Democratic candidate."

For those looking for Guam to settle this thing -- sorry. Obama carried the territory by seven whole votes (pending a possible recount), meaning the pledged delegates will be split 2-2 (and Obama picked up another super).

Louisiana-6 may have answered a few questions, or not. Democrat Don Cazayoux carried the traditionally Republican district, despite ads linking him to Obama.

"Not only were Democrats able to increase their majority in the House, but Mr. Cazayoux emerged the winner despite a multimillion-dollar national and local effort to nationalize the race by defining him as a liberal Democrat in lockstep with Mr. Obama," The Wall Street Journal's Susan Davis writes. "As a result, the victory could also aid the Illinois senator in making his case to uncommitted elected superdelegates wary of how the top of the ticket could affect their own races in November."

The victory "was interpreted by leading Democrats on Sunday as a sign that Republicans would fail in their efforts to damage Congressional candidates by tying them to national figures and presidential contenders," Carl Hulse writes in The New York Times. "The election marked the second time this year that Democrats have taken over a seat in a Republican stronghold" -- the first being former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's district in Illinois.

Yet this time it's Republicans arguing adamantly that elections can be nationalized (what hath Rahm wrought?): "What we do know is that a Democrat was clearly favored to easily win this election before Republicans invoked the names of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi," the National Republican Congressional Committee wrote in it's post-election spin memo, per ABC's Jake Tapper. "This should come as a warning shot to Democrats. The elitist behavior of the Democratic frontrunner and the liberal and extremist positions that he and his fellow Democrats in Congress have staked their claim to, do not appear to be as salient as they once hoped."

Forget Congress: Cazayoux matters now because he becomes an uncommitted superdelegate.

Pause to reflect on the president's prediction: Could Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., realistically expect to find himself in a stronger position six months before Election Day?

"John McCain's reputation as a patriotic war hero gives him a shot at the White House despite a horrible political environment for Republicans, surveys show," Carl Campanile writes in the New York Post.

The McCain campaign is already dealing with the age issue (which may itself get old by fall). "Veterans of both campaigns agree that with McCain as the GOP nominee, age will again be an issue -- and say the Reagan and Dole experiences offer the McCain team some best-case and worst-case scenarios on how to deal with it," Politico's Jonathan Martin writes.

The most dramatic way to take the issue on: "In separate conversations last week, no fewer than four McCain staffers and advisers mentioned as a possible vice-presidential pick the 36-year-old Louisiana governor, Bobby Jindal," Bill Kristol writes in his New York Times column. "They're tempted by the idea of picking someone so young, with real accomplishments and a strong reformist streak."

Clinton and Obama both squeeze in North Carolina and Indiana stops on Monday. Clinton will be in Indianapolis Tuesday night, while Obama appears to be NC-bound.

Bill Clinton takes it easy Monday, with nine (9) events in the Tarheel State.

Also making news:

Obama picked up the endorsement of the Charlotte Observer on Sunday: "Do the Democrats need a restoration of the past, or is it time for a change?" the editorial reads. "Nominating Sen. Obama would send a powerful message to the world. . . . . His personal story would make it plain that America is changing for the better. His appreciation of the need for international cooperation is a welcome change from the Bush administration's know-it-all, go-it-alone tendencies."

Clip and save, for the lay of the North Carolina land: "Glance back at Sen. Hillary Clinton's schedule over the weekend, and six of her eight locations were small cities or distant suburbs, like Gastonia and Mooresville," Mark Johnson writes in the Observer. "Here's why: They are among a handful of crucial battleground zones that could go a long way in determining who wins North Carolina's presidential primary on Tuesday."

"Sen. Barack Obama will do well in urban and heavily black counties. Clinton will do well in rural white counties, especially in the mountains," Johnson continues. "That means the state and its 115 delegates largely come down to two crucial territories. First are the counties surrounding the big urban counties, places that are part rural, part suburban, like Gaston and Union. Second are rural counties that include a small city, such as Wilson or Wayne out east."

In Indiana -- whether it's Limbaugh or love of the game -- get ready for a GOP influx in the Democratic primary. "There is . . . evidence that a good number of Indiana Republicans may pull a Democratic ballot on Tuesday just to vote for -- or against -- Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama," Dan McFeely writes in the Indianapolis Star.

The Chicago Tribune's Rick Pearson profiles Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.: "Just how well Bayh serves the Clinton campaign in Tuesday's primary could say as much about the Indiana senator's continued appeal -- including a possible national role as a running mate or Cabinet member -- as it does about the durability of Clinton's White House bid."

The Boston Globe's Brian Mooney looks at the split among Catholic Democrats: "If Obama has a weakness among Catholics, it is with those who fit into other demographic subdivisions: women and older, less educated and lower-income voters, groups that Clinton has attracted," Mooney writes.

While Bill Clinton has sought to avoid making the national news, he's been busy in the sticks: "How could one of the most famous men in the world be used effectively without becoming the premier attraction and overshadowing his spouse?" Eli Saslow writes in The Washington Post.

"Only here, in rural North Carolina and places like it, did Clinton finally discover an answer. He campaigns vigorously, but usually in places where the spotlight can't chase him. He seeks laudatory local news coverage but avoids attention from the national press."

The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley sums up an extraordinary Sunday morning: "Together, 'Meet the Press' and its rival 'This Week with George Stephanopoulos' provided an arresting tableau of the reversal of fortunes in the Democratic race. Mrs. Clinton was forceful, confident and at times even frisky as she easily deflected questions from Mr. Stephanopoulos and members of a town-hall-style meeting in Indianapolis. Mr. Obama, usually the one to see the humor in politics, instead looked grave and dispirited."

On the subject of press coverage -- the MSM could use daily reminders now on its favorite frenemy.

"The man who tried to soar above politics has been brought back to earth by the same media organizations that helped fuel his spectacular rise," writes The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz. "Obama aides, for their part, are somewhat taken aback at the abrupt turn of events. They didn't mind the pundits declaring for weeks that Clinton had virtually no chance to win the nomination, but now believe the result is a huge imbalance in the level of media scrutiny. The staff is constantly fielding questions from reporters digging into Obama's background in places from Chicago to Honolulu."

A fascinating Chelsea take in Sunday's Washington Post, from Ian Shapira (who almost managed to score an audience with the first daughter herself while on staff at The Daily Princetonian): "Chelsea has been winning kudos in this campaign as an effective surrogate for Hillary Rodham Clinton, but I keep wondering whether she's an effective representative for us," writes the 29-year-old Shapira. "We're ironic, sarcastic and self-deprecating, a reflection of the pop culture and politics that played out while we grew up in the 1980s, 1990s and onward. . . . So how does Chelsea fit in with the rest of us? It's complicated."

The kicker:

"He's always had a crush on me." -- Hillary Clinton, referring to Rush Limbaugh, on ABC's "This Week."

"As an official celebrity, I know my endorsement has just made my mind up for you." -- Tom Hanks, announcing his support for Barack Obama.

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