The question that is now astoundingly close to being the most urgent one in the presidential race: Does Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton see a distinction between the good of the Clintons, the good of the Democratic Party, and the good of the country?
On the night that Clinton needed a resounding victory, it was Sen. Barack Obama who emerged on top -- and, by bouncing back from the biggest challenge to his candidacy, went a long way toward answering the questions that had left him battered and bruised (not even counting what happened on the basketball court).
Clinton, D-N.Y., lost precious ground in delegates, votes, and momentum -- with margins that all-but wiped out her pick-ups from Pennsylvania two weeks ago. They both won a state, but Obama's was bigger, and was called far earlier; under the Wright-infused circumstances (and given the Clinton Campaign's intense late efforts) his margin in North Carolina was jaw-dropping, while hers in Indiana was jaw-clenching.
Obama, D-Ill., now needs only about 37 percent of the remaining delegates to clinch the nomination, per ABC's political unit -- and he holds a 164-delegate edge before the superdelegate movement we can almost certainly expect the day after his biggest campaign night in months.
"This nomination fight is over," ABC's George Stephanopoulos said on "Good Morning America" Wednesday. "More superdelegates will come out today for Barack Obama --they will come three, four, five at a time, and this nomination will be locked up. . . . People close to her say that she's more likely to stay in if she feels cornered in by the party leaders."
ABC News' Kate Snow confirmed this morning that Clinton made three new loans totaling nearly $6.5 million to her campaign over the last month, two of them following her win in Pennsylvania.
He's not a superdelegate, but this morning former Sen. George McGovern, an early Clinton backer, decided to endorse Obama's run -- urging the New York senator to abandon her presidential bid.
As the tough conversations begin inside Camp Clinton (Clinton Wednesday will be huddling privately to gauge the reaction of uncommitted superdelegates, in addition to a buck-up-the-troops, midday event in West Virginia), the candidate herself has to decide whether and how to make a last push -- with nothing less than the Clinton legacy in the Democratic Party at stake.
The Clinton campaign quickly labeled the night a "tie-breaker" -- except the campaign hasn't been tied since February, and things broke in Obama's direction.
"A split was not a draw," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times. "If anything, Mrs. Clinton's hopes for overtaking Senator Barack Obama dwindled further on Tuesday night. . . . The result was so tight as to deprive her of the kind of clear-cut victory that would make it easy for her to fend off calls for her to drop out, raise money and campaign on into West Virginia in advance of a primary there next Tuesday where her campaign is confident of doing well."
"Clinton officials were increasingly worried that superdelegates, absent some overwhelming new evidence to make the case for Clinton, would move toward Obama to put an end to a race that many are worried is harming their chances in the fall," Perry Bacon Jr. and Anne Kornblut write in The Washington Post.
Says a "senior Clinton official": "We lost this thing in February. We're doing everything we can now . . . but it's just an uphill battle."
The only results-interpreters who matter now are the superdelegates, who just might like what they see in a candidate who's finally shown he can hold his own on the biggest of stages.
"Barack Obama not only nearly clinched the Democratic nomination Tuesday night. He also answered a big question about the fall campaign," Newsweek's Jonathan Alter writes. "The glass jaw that Hillary Clinton and John McCain thought they saw turned out to be an illusion. In the jingle of the old Timex watch ads, he took a licking and kept on ticking."
An Obama campaign official, ready to keep the superdelegate stream flowing on Wednesday, tells The Note: "Based on our calls last night, the significance of the results is not lost on anyone. No should expect an avalanche, but last night was a key moment for those waiting to make up their mind."
Those calls will get easier: "His resounding victory in one state and strong finish in the other could convince party leaders known as superdelegates that he had weathered questions about his electability and a controversy over inflammatory comments by his former pastor," USA Today's Susan Page writes. "The supers have had enough," Democratic strategist Joe Trippi says. "I think it's going to end very quickly."
"What do President Bush and Hillary Clinton have in common? Neither had an exit strategy ready," Matthew Dowd writes at his ABCNews.com blog. "The curtain on the long Clinton Broadway campaign is coming down. It hasn't hit the floor yet, but it's real close."
Drudge, with all appropriate restraint: "THE NOMINEE."
The New York Post: "TOAST!"
Questions in smart Democratic circles this Wednesday: Does she stay in to leave on a high note -- after a win in West Virginia, perhaps -- or persist and leave on a low note? Does she linger until Obama clinches the pledged count -- in all likelihood, May 20? Will she stay in for the rest of the contests -- or jump before she's pushed? Just how much goodwill do the Clintons, collectively, have left to burn?
(Could the Goracle have known something we didn't? "I think the odds are overwhelming that it will tip rather decisively in one way or the other before the convention even meets," Al Gore told NPR's "Fresh Air" on Tuesday.)
Should she choose to soldier on, Clinton's battle includes a war on the calendar, as well as a war on math. "Clinton is preparing to push the contest beyond the voting phase of the process and into the realm of committee meetings and credentialing rules," Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times.
Clinton's voice -- and her husband's body language -- offered the barest hint of resignation Tuesday night, as she spoke of her family's efforts in the past tense, and promised her support for Obama even as she vowed to press on. "She was not the relentlessly upbeat Clinton of victories past," ABC's Kate Snow and Eloise Harper report. "And in contrast to other primary night parties, Bill Clinton stood unsmiling behind her for much of the speech."
"West Virginia, a week from tonight. And then Kentucky and Oregon after that. And then Disneyland," Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe tells the Indianapolis Star. Add the Star's Mary Beth Schneider and Maureen Groppe: "Clinton might need Disneyland to win, given the delegate math."
All those mentions of the campaign Website did not come by accident: "Clinton advisers acknowledged that her campaign was short on cash, refusing to say if the Clintons have had to lend the campaign more money following a $5-million loan in January," Newsday's Glenn Thrush and Craig Gordon report. "And they said that yesterday's results would make it harder for them to tap new donors."
Obama now has "new ammunition as he seeks to persuade Democratic leaders to coalesce around his campaign," Jeff Zeleny writes in The New York Times. His speech last night, Zeleny writes, "carried the unity themes of a convention speech."
Even before the votes were counted Tuesday, Camp Clinton began staking out the battle to come. 2,209 is the new 2,025, as the Clinton campaign would have it -- the new magic number the magical result of counting votes in Michigan and Florida that the campaign has always known would count for nothing under Democratic National Committee rules.
"They were legitimate elections," Clinton told reporters Tuesday, per ABC's Kate Snow and Eloise Harper.
Peer with us through the looking glass: "Since Clinton is unlikely to reach 2,025 delegates before Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois does, they simply have declared a new number as the target," ABC's Jake Tapper writes.
That argument she'd been building for superdelegates looked much stronger 24 hours ago. "Clinton failed Tuesday to decisively win the Hoosier State -- despite it's wealth of the rural, blue-collar, low education voters that have typically supported her," ABC's Jennifer Parker writes. The results "may be a turning point" in this race that's desperately been looking for one.
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright's reemergence didn't prompt a Democratic revolt. The key demographic groups that Clinton has owned were still hers, but less so than they've been.
"While a socioeconomic gap continued [in Indiana], compared with Pennsylvania Clinton did 5 points less well, and Obama 5 points better, among whites with less than $50,000 in household incomes; there was a similar shift among middle income whites, together helping to draw the contest much closer than Clinton's 10-point Pennsylvania victory," ABC Polling Director Gary Langer writes.
"He won in some important places last night, particularly in Indiana, and he has made some inroads in areas that had been Senator Clinton's core constituency," Dante Chinni writes for the Christian Science Monitor, as part of its new "Patchwork Nation" project. "Obama won a big 'Emptying Nest' county (Allen), a community with a large share of older voters. He won a few 'Monied 'Burbs' counties immediately around Indianapolis (Boon and Hamilton) that are well above 90 percent white. He also won an 'Immigration Nation' county (Elkhart), which has a good-size Hispanic population."
But if you're looking for reasons for Clinton to stay in the race (and she might just be doing that): "Clinton's one hope is that superdelegates would see weakness in Obama's continuing problem in winning over whites," McClatchy's Steven Thomma writes.
Even North Carolina, where Obama won by 14 points, wasn't an across-the-board sweep. "Clinton carried almost two-thirds of the white Democratic vote here, and many of those voters told exit pollsters they would not support Obama in November if he's the Democratic nominee," Barbara Barrett writes in the Raleigh News & Observer.
The results "underscored some of the Illinois senator's weaknesses and the party's fissures," per The Wall Street Journal's Jackie Calmes, but Obama "remains in much better shape than Sen. Clinton." "And Tuesday's results undercut her effort to build on her recent big victories in Pennsylvania and Ohio to raise questions among party leaders about Sen. Obama's electability," Calmes writes.
"Her fond wish is to seat the pledged delegates from the rogue states of Michigan and Florida in a way that is advantageous her and damaging to Barack Obama," Politico's Roger Simon writes. "Her desperate hope is then to persuade the superdelegates to overturn the will of the pledged delegates and make her the Democratic nominee. To achieve this, she needs momentum, spin and fear. . . . If she becomes known as the candidate who was willing to destroy her party in order to gain the nomination, she is likely to lose not just the nomination but also her political future."
"It's over," writes New York Daily News columnist Michael Goodwin. "Barack Obama now wears the crown of inevitability. Unless he falls off a cliff, or the Rev. Jeremiah Wright pushes him, he is going to be the Democratic nominee."
"She lost the argument for her own candidacy," John B. Judis writes in The New Republic.
ABC's Jake Tapper offers Clinton an 11-point to-do list. No. 1: "Win in West Virginia next week -- dispatch Bill asap." No. 11: "Pray."
The super-D's now matter far more than any voters, with apologies to the good Democrats of West Virginia, Oregon, Kentucky, and Puerto Rico. "The number of undecided superdelegates, about 270, now outnumbers the pledged delegates, 217, available in the remaining six contests," Christina Bellantoni writes for the Washington Times.
If Clinton stays in, get ready to learn the intricacies of the Rules and Bylaws Committee: "The vote that may have the greatest impact on determining the Democratic presidential nominee may not be the elections held yesterday in Indiana and North Carolina or the one next week in West Virginia, but rather one taken by 30 party insiders set to meet here at the end of the month," Russell Berman writes in the New York Sun.
Everyone deserves a break on the trail -- but only Obama really gets it, with a down day in Chicago. Clinton will take a timeout from her tough private talks with superdelegates and donors for a noon ET event in Shepherdstown, W.Va., on Wednesday.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., talks human rights and foreign policy at a town-hall meeting in Rochester, Minn., and ends the night as Jon Stewart's guest.
From McCain's Wednesday speech (if there's any oxygen for Republican news): "Confronting evil has never been easy -- in our age or any other. But the failure to do so affects even those who are complacent with our own blessings and secure in our human rights. Accepting the degradation of values we believe are universal is to relinquish some of our own humanity. America was founded on the belief in the inherent dignity of all human life and that this dignity can only be preserved through shared respect and shared responsibility."
Get the day's full political schedule in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
Also making news:
Forget Wright -- what about Rush? ABC's Jake Tapper writes up the latest from "Operation Chaos." "There were anecdotal reports of big turnout in Republican precincts in Indiana -- with, presumably, Republican voters asking for Democratic presidential ballots," he writes. "Were they Republicans swept up in Clintonmania or Obamamania? Or did they have something more devious on their minds?"
Huffington Post's Sam Stein crunches some numbers: "Thirty-six percent of primary voters said that Clinton does not share their values. And yet, among that total, one out of every five (20 percent) nevertheless voted for her in the Indiana election. Moreover, of the 10 percent of Hoosiers who said 'neither candidate' shared their values, 75 percent cast their ballots for Clinton." The Chicago Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet obtains the Obama campaign talking points on El Rushbo: "Republicans are so scared of Obama that they're actually skipping their own primary to vote against him," they read. "That's a stunning testament to the threat that Obama will pose to Republicans come fall."
Watching Michigan: "Michigan Democratic Party leaders will meet today to consider a compromise on seating the state's disqualified delegates at the national convention," Sean Lengell writes in the Washington Times. "The proposal, offered by four prominent Michigan Democrats, would give Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton a 10-delegate edge, 69-59, for her victory in a race that did not include rival Sen. Barack Obama on the ballot."
(Guess what? Ten won't be enough.)
And for fun: "Governor Deval Patrick tells audiences a funny story about donating to Barack Obama as an Illinois state Senate candidate, yet after a media inquiry, he said yesterday that he can't find proof of any such contribution," the AP's Glen Johnson reports. "A review by the Associated Press of records on file in Springfield, Ill., where Obama served in the Legislature for six years and his campaign committee filed its finance reports, didn't find a donation, and a separate search by Patrick and his campaign staff since last week failed to find any evidence of it."
"I'm not anxious to be playing the role of party elder. I just turned 60 -- which is the new 59." -- Al Gore, on National Public Radio.
"Where's my beer?" -- Barack Obama, grabbing a Pabst Blue Ribbon Tuesday in North Carolina, in an iconic moment from a well-lubricated and memorable campaign.
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