This time, the sharp blades of spin cut in both directions: Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton both have must-win contests on Tuesday -- and the Democratic contest just might be lurching toward something political scientists call a "conclusion."
But not so fast: Delegates will become an increasingly precious commodity after Tuesday; your stat for the day is that nearly as many delegates (187) will be awarded in Indiana and North Carolina as will be in all the remaining contests combined (217). And Indiana figures to be one of the last contests where the outcome is realistically in doubt.
Obama looks to end a long losing streak (and put the roughest stretch of his campaign behind him), while Clinton looks to continue her improbable winning streak. Whether those results have any relationship to actually winning or losing the nomination will depend on how they're interpreted by that tiny crowd of voters that sees its super-powers growing by the day.
For both Obama and Clinton, Tuesday marks the last best chance to add delegates -- and, more importantly in the long arc of this nomination fight, make their cases to the superdelegates.
"It will be an opportunity for Mrs. Clinton to make the case that Democratic sentiment is swinging in her favor, and to slice into Mr. Obama's lead in pledged delegates and in the popular vote," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times, where he outlines three scenarios for the day's results. "For Mr. Obama, it is a chance to tamp down talk that Mrs. Clinton has exposed him as a flawed general election candidate."
The takeaway: Tuesday is unlikely to end anything: "The most likely split would be Mrs. Clinton winning Indiana and Mr. Obama winning North Carolina. That would almost surely mean the race would go on," Nagourney writes.
"Today is likely to be 'Groundhog Day': Six more weeks of this campaign," ABC's George Stephanopoulos reported on "Good Morning America" Tuesday, pegging Clinton for a 4-to-8-point victory in Indiana, and Obama for a solid win in North Carolina.
The Washington Post's Dan Balz sees Tuesday's contests answering questions on everything from the Wright effect to the politics of gas prices, and offers this viewer's guide: "North Carolina holds the potential to shake up the Democratic race. Clinton rightly called it a possible game-changer last week. Simply holding Obama's expected victory down into the single digits will be described by the Clinton forces as a moral victory and could signal continuing problems for Obama among white voters."
If the day ends the way polls predict, keep this in mind: The team that's down in the standings late in the season can't afford to split doubleheaders.
Obama's magic number is growing smaller by the day: Three more superdelegate endorsements Monday (including two in Maryland) bring Obama's overall delegate lead to 144, per ABC's delegate scorecard -- and Clinton's advantage among the supers is down to a slim 10.
The likeliest result would deposit us somewhere in the neighborhood of the status quo. For Clinton, one win is enough to justify another month of campaigning: "If her campaign gains momentum out of Tuesday's primaries, the next six contests in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Montana and South Dakota may afford enough opportunities for victory to sustain her campaign at least through June 3," Charles Mahtesian and David Mark write for Politico.
"While a split decision -- such as Clinton winning Indiana and Obama winning North Carolina -- could leave the contest unchanged, either candidate could change the dynamic of the race heading into the final weeks by winning both on Tuesday," McClatchy's Steven Thomma and Margaret Talev write.
"Clinton needs a game changer and Obama needs a closer," Lynn Sweet writes in the Chicago Sun-Times.
Camp Clinton sets some expectations with Drudge: "The campaign now believes a 15 point loss [in North Carolina], or more, would not be surprising. Her team will work hard throughout the day to lower all expectations in North Carolina. The campaign hopes media attention will stay fixated on the competition in Indiana, where 72 delegates are on the line, and Clinton internals show a 10-point victory!"
In Indiana, polls opened at 6 am ET and close by 7 pm ET, with 72 delegates are at stake in Tuesday's voting. The Indianapolis forecast: partly cloudy and mild.
In North Carolina, polls opened at 6:30 am ET and close at 7:30 pm ET, and a total of 115 pledged delegates will be awarded. It's looking cloudy but dry in the Tarheel State.
Voting is expected to be heavy in both states: "Primary madness has overtaken the state. Turnout is expected to obliterate previous records," Matthew Tully writes in the Indianapolis Star. "And while many Democrats fear the sniping between Obama and Clinton will leave their party divided and weakened, imagine how many activists, volunteers and young supporters this process has created. The ramifications of this historic political stretch will be felt for years, even decades."
"Lines formed at polling places before daybreak this morning in the Charlotte area and across North Carolina, amid signs of a record turnout today in North Carolina's first significant presidential primary election in two decades," Peter St. Onge and Steve Lyttle report in the Charlotte Observer. "Longtime N.C. political observers say that 1.5 million voters may participate in the historic Democratic primary."
"Now it's up to the voters, who are expected to turn out today in record-busting numbers in the most consequential North Carolina presidential primary in decades," Barbara Barrett and Rob Christensen write in the Raleigh News & Observer. "Already, more than 470,000 residents have cast ballots early in one-stop voting that closed Saturday."
It took them long enough, but Obama and Clinton finally settled on a real policy difference that actually does speak to their candidacies in a broader sense: the gas tax. "Never before have two presidential campaigns staked so much on 18.4 cents," Bloomberg News' Catherine Dodge writes.
Dueling ads tell the story. Obama ad: "Her attacks do nothing but harm." Clinton ad: "What's happened to Barack Obama?" (Sounds like the title of a future magazine piece.)
Obama calls lifting the tax a "phony scheme" -- connecting it to his message of the need to change Washington -- while Clinton is using her proposal to suspend the gas tax to portray her opponent as out-of-touch.
"People live in the short run. People get up every day and have to go fill up their tanks," she said Monday, per ABC's Eloise Harper.
Both candidates have found a way to define themselves through their very different stances: "Standing up to a proposal that even Clinton supporters see as pandering has allowed Obama to revisit his most successful days as a fresh voice uninhibited by Washington's habits," E.J. Dionne Jr. writes.
A last burst of polling to sustain us through this burst of voting: The AP-Ipsos national numbers have Obama down six points and Clinton up four in the space of two weeks, giving Clinton a 47-40 lead.
Obama assessed the Rev. Jeremiah Wright fallout Monday, with ABC's Terry Moran on "Nightline": "I don't think people believe that somehow I subscribe to some of the views that Rev. Wright expressed," Obama said. "There are probably some Democrats that are worried about what Republicans might do, and so, they are thinking more strategically what this means for a general election campaign."
(And Obama showed James Carville that he has "cojones" -- yes, plural: "James Carville is well-known for spouting off his mouth without always knowing what he's talking about," Obama told "Nightline." "And I intend to stay focused on fighting for the American people because what they don't need is 20 more years of performance art on television.")
One way to measure the damage of Wright's wreck: "Wright's comments have received extensive coverage within the Chicago media market, which covers 20 percent of Indiana's expected Democratic vote, so extra attention will be paid to the outcome in northwest Indiana," John McCormick and Rick Pearson report in the Chicago Tribune.
The past few weeks could be best remembered for turning two millionaire senators with Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Wellesley degrees into beer-swilling blue-collar champions. "The presidential race has turned into a riveting competition for ordinariness," Eli Saslow writes in The Washington Post.
"On the campaign trail these days, Clinton, D-N.Y., has repackaged herself as a working class hero, while branding Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. -- who grew up working class with a single mother sometimes on food stamps -- an elitist," ABC's Jake Tapper reports.
"Few politicians in American history have carried less of a reputation for 'Cheers'-like camaraderie than the senator from New York," Peter Canellos writes in The Boston Globe. "But that stereotype has been cast aside by many voters, replaced by its positive twin: The same steely-eyed characteristics that made Clinton seem cold now make her seem purposeful; what was once seen as calculation is now determination."
She's gotten a big assist from the "rural hit man" -- Bill. "Away from the major media markets -- and far from the circus atmosphere that envelops a modern presidential campaign -- [President] Clinton is visiting small towns that seldom see national political candidates, much less presidents," per ABC News. "It channels his intense energy in a productive manner, engenders vast goodwill in parts of the country that feel neglected -- and ensures that the former president isn't overshadowing his wife."
Fear not: Obama's in on this regular-guy action, too: "Forget the eloquent speeches, the elegant suits and the Ivy League pedigree; Barack Obama is not so different from you, just a regular guy," Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times. "With an eye to white working-class voters, Obama has recalibrated his image to bat away impressions that he is out of touch, an elitist."
"For the last 10 days leading up to Tuesday's primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, Mr. Obama's campaign has unfolded against a choreographed backdrop of factory floors and farmsteads, dinner tables and diners," Michael Powell and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times. "He has talked less often of the audacity of hope and more often of the anxieties of middle-class Americans, while throwing in allusions to Nascar, fatty foods and beer, and playing the occasional game of basketball."
Says Obama: "I filled up my own gas tanks." (Self-serve? Impressive.)
And Stevie Wonder himself closed out Obama's campaign in Indiana Monday night: "Downtown swarmed with people. Thousands lined up to get into the event in a line that stretched several blocks," per the Indianapolis Star.
Don't miss the trade contortions (because you know the Republicans aren't): "Weeks after slamming the North American Free Trade Agreement in Ohio, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have retooled their messages for Indiana and North Carolina, states that have made gains from free trade amid losses elsewhere," Nick Timiraos writes in The Wall Street Journal.
Two endorsements we won't be getting: The Edwardses. In an interview with People magazine on the eve of the primary in their home state, John and Elizabeth run through the pros and cons of both Clinton and Obama -- and wind up on the fence.
Says John: "I think it's a great symbolic thing to have an African-American who could be president."
Elizabeth: "What about the great symbolic thing about a woman . . ."
John: "It's important. It's important. . . . I know it."
If and when it gets to this, these comments will be worth remembering: "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been making statements that appear to benefit Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), despite saying he's neutral in the Democratic presidential primary," Manu Raju writes in The Hill.
Reid disagreed with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in one potentially important regard: "I think superdelegates have the opportunity, the ability and the right to vote for whoever they want, and I think that's what they should do," Reid, D-Nev., told NPR last week.
There are limits to Reid's patience: After the last ballots are cast June 3, Clinton and Obama will have "days, not weeks" to make their case to the superdelegates, Reid tells USA Today's Kathy Kiely. She writes, "Reid said he intends to be the last of the party's leaders to declare a preference in the presidential primary, but he doesn't believe he'll be waiting much longer. 'I think it will end pretty soon' after the last primary, he said."
There may not be limits to the Clintons' determination: As The Washington Post's Dan Balz smartly points out, probably the most important states remaining on the calendar already voted -- sort of: Michigan and Florida.
Camp Clinton is "signaling its willingness to wage a divisive battle with front-runner Sen. Barack Obama through the summer," Christina Bellantoni writes in the Washington Times. The campaign is sticking by its contention that the magic number is 2,208 -- not 2,025. "That's what we believe is the standard for deciding this -- who has the majority of the total delegates including Michigan and Florida to decide the nomination," said Clinton strategist Geoff Garin.
If this insight takes hold . . . The Los Angeles Times' Mark Z. Barabak seeks to calculate coattail quotients: "Many Democrats also calculate that Obama, more than New York Sen. Clinton, can inspire legions of new voters -- particularly young people -- to turn out in November. They see a greater potential to draw independents and crossover Republicans as well," he writes.
James Carville is worried about healing the divisions, and he's got a textured explanation for why: "The winner, with help from the loser, is not only going to have to bridge the fissures within the party but also to find a way to re-embrace those racial and gender identity voters who now find themselves aligned with a new wing of the party," Carville writes in the Financial Times.
The candidates choose their venues carefully for Tuesday evening; it's more fun to celebrate victory. Clinton's election-night party will be in Indianapolis, while Obama closes out his night in Raleigh, N.C.
Get all the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek" -- which also includes some key indicators to watch for, such as Indiana turnout: "The northwestern corner of the state is the most Democratic -- around 20-25 percent of the total Democratic votes on Tuesday could come from this region. This area also has a large African-American population, in cities like Gary and South Bend."
I'll be live-blogging the election results as they roll in Tuesday evening at ABCNews.com.
Also making news:
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chose a big day in the Democratic race to talk about judges -- but something tells us he'll be asked about something else before he has the chance to get his message out.
"I didn't vote for George Bush," is the quote Arianna Huffington attributes to McCain shortly after the 2000 election. "I didn't either," added his wife, Cindy, per Huffington, in a piece that calls out the media for its supposed love affair with McCain.
McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds tells The Washington Post: "It's not true, and I ask you to please consider the source." Mark Salter goes further: "Why would she make something up? Because she's a flake, and a poser, and an attention-seeking diva. And that's on the record."
As for Tuesday's message: "John McCain steps out of his comfort zone Tuesday to address his judicial philosophy, a hot-button matter for social conservatives that encompasses abortion, guns and gay rights -- all topics on which Sen. McCain has rankled the right," Laura Meckler writes in The Wall Street Journal. "At Tuesday's speech at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., he will articulate a conservative judicial philosophy and the principles he would use to appoint justices to the Supreme Court."
He'll be joined by an out-of-hiding former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn. (sure to bring a round of veepstakes buzz).
And McCain will hit all the right buzzwords, per excerpts released by his campaign, with a paean to "judicial self-restraint": "I will look for people in the cast of John Roberts, Samuel Alito, and my friend the late William Rehnquist -- jurists of the highest caliber who know their own minds, and know the law, and know the difference. My nominees will understand that there are clear limits to the scope of judicial power, and clear limits to the scope of federal power."
Can anyone reach Tom Tancredo for comment? "Using a Mexican holiday, Cinco de Mayo, as a launching point, Mr. McCain's presidential campaign announced a Spanish-language Web site (www.johnmccain.com/ espanol), and said the senator from Arizona will speak to this year's National Council of La Raza convention in San Diego in July to try to court Hispanic voters," Stephen Dinan reports in the Washington Times.
It won't be settled with a drinking contest, but a Teamsters flap roiled the race for a spell on Monday. "The Obama and Clinton campaigns traded charges over the issue Monday, accusing each other of being inconsistent on positions regarding the oversight board," Brody Mullins and Kris Maher write in The Wall Street Journal. "Sen. Clinton's campaign said Sen. Obama was contradicting earlier promises when he said on ABC's 'Good Morning America' Monday that he 'wouldn't make a blanket commitment' to the union."
"The Teamsters union vigorously denied on Monday that its decision to endorse Senator Barack Obama in the presidential race was in any way tied to Mr. Obama's statement that federal supervision of the union had run its course," Steven Greenhouse reports in The New York Times.
Clinton sounded as open to the idea of lifting the consent decree as Obama did, in their meetings with the Teamsters last March: "You can't go around dragging the ball and chain of the past," she said.
Where do you think David Brooks comes down on the gas-tax issue? "Clinton signaled that she wasn't going to concede even an inch to the vast elitist conspiracy," Brooks writes in his New York Times column, referring to Clinton's appearance on ABC's "This Week." "She wasn't going to feel guilty about ignoring the evidence. She was going to stomp on it, flay it and leave it a twisted mass of jelly quivering on the ground. She was going to perform the primordial duty of an alpha dog leader -- helping one's own."
McClatchy's Greg Gordon compares the Clinton tax returns to the Senate financial disclosure documents: "Sen. Hillary Clinton excluded nearly $24 million of her husband's earnings from Senate financial statements from 2004 through 2006, capitalizing on rules that permit senators to limit disclosures of some of their spouses' income," he writes.
Gordon continues: "Her decision, while fully consistent with Senate rules and norms, delayed the release of financial information about former President Clinton's soaring income until the couple released their tax returns in early April, under pressure from Democratic presidential rival Barack Obama. By then, about 40 states had completed their Democratic primaries and caucuses, meaning that those voters didn't get a clear look at Bill Clinton's finances."
The New Republic's Adrienne Johnson Martin profiles Clinton operative "Ace" Smith -- tagged as the "anti-Mark Penn." "Unlike so many other big-time strategists--particularly big-time Clinton strategists -- he's thought of as someone who doesn't seek the limelight, a behind-the-scenes guy who'd just assume it be about the candidate," Martin writes.
Anyone think we'll hear about this again? "Leading conservative advocacy groups have signed onto a letter that will press President Bush to reinstitute regulations that would strip federal funding for family planning groups if they refer patients to abortion doctors or share facilities with abortion providers," The Hill's Alexander Bolton writes. "If Bush follows through on their demand, it will almost certainly create an uproar in the Democratic-controlled Congress."
AP's Deb Riechmann has the details on the Jenna Bush wedding, set for Saturday at the ranch: "Here's the lowdown: Jenna, 26, will wear an Oscar de la Renta gown with a small train. More than 200 friends and relatives will attend the outdoor ceremony with dinner and dancing. A tent is being erected at the Western White House. The bride has 14 attendants, who are known not as bridesmaids, but members of the 'house party.' Barbara Bush, Jenna's twin, is the maid of honor. She helped Hager make decisions about the ring. The diamond, a Hager family heirloom, was reset in a ring that also features sapphires." The kicker:
"I was minding my own business and Clinton came in and the short version is he used the mayor of Los Angeles to distract me while hitting on my date." -- Rush Limbaugh, referring to Bill Clinton on Fox News, returning the favor a day after Hillary Clinton said Limbaugh has "always had a crush on me."
"Thanks to the Internet, I can order new pantsuits 24/7. There's your pantsuit joke, Dave. Are you happy now?" -- Hillary Clinton, doing the Letterman "Top 10" reasons why she loves America.
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