The Note: Whispered Shouts

Who is more stubborn -- the uncommitted superdelegates, the Clintons, or the math?

Who has the most to lose if the Democratic race lingers -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bill Clinton, or Sen. Barack Obama?

Who has the most to gain -- Sen. Clinton, Obama, or McCain? (Think for four years or so before answering that one.)

Who is Obama running against now -- Clinton, McCain, or himself?

Will we see an exit that's a Mitt Romney (crisp and timely), a Mike Huckabee (a few weeks too late), or a Ron Paul (non-existent)?

Fortunately, the Democratic Party has seen fit to empower superdegates to sort out such questions. And as everyone takes a breath in this new stage of the campaign, the flood has been stalled -- but enough lips are moving to keep the water churning.

It means, perhaps oddly, that the clash of the titans is set to become a kinder, gentler campaign. For Clinton, the surest way to end the race now would be to attack. Obama also benefits from non-engagement: The more he can ignore Clinton and look forward to his battle with McCain, the less hard work we has to do later.

To the math: Four superdelegates -- including a switcher from Clinton -- joined the Obama train on Wednesday, putting Obama within three in the tally of party insiders, per ABC's count. (He trailed by 60 as recently as Super Tuesday.)

That doesn't count former senator George McGovern, D-S.D., whose switch to Obama on the even of Clinton's visit to South Dakota may get a mention or two for another day.

It also doesn't count the dozens of party leaders who are offering carefully calibrated -- if unsolicited -- advice. (If you listen carefully, you'll hear a drumbeat.)

"What I think a lot of us are worried about is the grinding and grinding on with this, and how tough it's going to be to come back and run a top-notch campaign in the fall," Gov. Phil Bredesen, D-Tenn., an uncommitted superdelegate, tells Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla and Laura Litvan. "In a good marriage it's OK to fight, but there are just things you don't say and places you don't go and can't get back from."

"Her only leg to stand on with the superdelegates was to win the popular vote," Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., another uncommitted superdelegate, tells Roll Call.

"The air is completely let out of them," Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., also uncommitted in the race, told The Wall Street Journal about his congressional colleagues who support Clinton. "They are resigned to the fact that it's probably not going to work out."

Even staunch supporters want an explanation: "I think the race is reaching the point now where there are negative dividends from it, in terms of strife within the party," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told reporters Wednesday. "I think we need to prevent that as much as we can."

"I urge her to take the day off and think very seriously about doing what's best for the country and best for the party," Clinton supporter Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., told The Hill. "I got straight A's in math."

"It's improbable to suggest she'd be at the top of the ticket," says another Clinton backer, Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla.

"It's her decision to make and I'll accept what decision she makes," said a suddenly less-than-voluble Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

As the rug gets tugged out from under Clinton's feet, Obama tries to grab a corner of it Thursday on Capitol Hill, when he meets behind closed doors with superdelegates. Clinton, meanwhile, hits three time zones on the trail -- and maybe-still-happy warrior who, deep down, knows the realities of the race.

This is one case where whispers are being heard as if they're shouts: The superdelegates don't have to go public to push Clinton -- yet (though how long before those who might want a spot on the ticket see the value of a well-timed shove?). And the message from the Obama campaign is sharper for being lighter.

"There was no shortage of other ways to signal, suggest, insinuate or instigate the same thing," AP's David Espo writes. "And certainly no need to apply unseemly pressure to a historic political figure, a woman who has run a grueling race, won millions of votes and drawn uncounted numbers of new Democratic voters to the polls."

Democrats are (mostly) giving the Clintons the space they've earned. But "whethers" are becoming "whens," and don't think the Clinton campaign doesn't get it -- most of the campaign, anyway.

"Some Clinton advisers were resigned to their candidate's likely loss. They have turned in favor of her bowing out for party unity, according to several who asked not to be named," The Wall Street Journal's Jackie Calmes and Susan Davis write. "Only a few are said to be urging her to fight on, even to the Aug. 25-28 convention in Denver. Among these voices, the loudest belongs to her husband, former President Clinton, according to one longtime Democratic Party insider and Clinton supporter."

"Clinton advisers hope to ride out the rest of the week, knowing there will be talk about whether she will quit the race," per The Washington Post's Dan Balz, Anne Kornblut, and Perry Bacon Jr. "They think that a big victory in West Virginia would give her a new platform to make a case for herself."

But one Clinton adviser sums up the challenge: "If the supers weren't buying it before, it's hard to see how they'll buy it now."

That hastily arranged event in West Virginia Wednesday was all about symbolism; the likeliest scenario still keeps Clinton in through the final contests, June 3.

"You can turn elections in a day," Clinton said Wednesday night at a fundraiser in Washington, per ABC's Eloise Harper. "Too many people have fought too hard to see a woman in this race."

She makes her case in an interview with USA Today's Kathy Kiely and Jill Lawrence, and it's rather patently about race: "I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on," Clinton said, arguing that "Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me."

"There's a pattern emerging here," Clinton said.

She's right, but it's a near-certainty that the pattern she's talking about is too late to matter.

Time magazine declares it over -- Obama's on the new cover, with the headline, "And the Winner Is . . . "

Here's an intriguing reason to stay in: "This is what some people close to the Clintons are talking about: Is there a way to negotiate a settlement with Barack Obama to have Sen. Clinton on the ticket?" ABC's George Stephanopoulos reported on "World News" Wednesday night. "Would Sen. Clinton take it? I think if it was offered in the right way, yes."

"There are people -- intermediaries -- discussing this very scenario," Stephanopoulos added on Thursday's "Good Morning America." Responded Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson: "She hasn't indicated any interest in it."

Maybe it will end sooner than we think -- and sooner than Clinton says. "As adamant as Mrs. Clinton appeared on Wednesday, several advisers said that how long she would stay in the race was an open question," Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times. "Some top Clinton fund-raisers said that the campaign was all but over and suggested that she was simply buying time on Wednesday to determine if she could raise enough money and still win over superdelegates, the elected officials and party leaders who could essentially hand Mr. Obama the nomination."

Clinton soldiers on -- for now, at least. "Trying to prevent further defections, Clinton today furtively met with superdelegates on Capitol Hill," per ABC's Jake Tapper, who reports that former John Edwards campaign manager David Bonior will endorse Obama's candidacy Thursday, citing Obama's seemingly insurmountable lead.

"She proposed an unlikely path to the nomination that involved: winning four out of the last six Democratic contests; successfully pushing the party to recognize delegates from disputed contests in Michigan and Florida against party rules; and winning the support of a vast majority of the remaining uncommitted 250 or so superdelegates, who have been breaking for Obama overwhelmingly."

It starts with some wins, as Wolfson outlined on "Good Morning America" Thursday. "We've got a lot of fight left in us," Wolfson said. "It is critically important to do well in the upcoming states, and we could narrow the gap significantly if we do that, as we expect to."

On the prospect dividing the party, Wolfson added: "The fact that Sen. Obama is having the kind of problem that he's having in winning over blue-collar voters, that's a fact, and it's a fact whether I say it on this show or not."

"She's now reduced to pursuing two potentially divisive options that could hurt the party: Magnify the racial fault line in the party by stressing Obama's inability to win white working-class voters and press the party to change its rules and seat unsanctioned delegations from Florida and Michigan at the national convention in August," McClatchy's Steven Thomma writes.

She's got to dial back the media judgment, too: "Hillary Rodham Clinton may be short on delegates, money and time, but she faced an even more ominous and intractable impediment Wednesday: a growing consensus in the media that her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination is doomed," James Rainey writes in the Los Angeles Times.

Then there's the money. As countless candidates know, financial fumes only last so long. "The options are limited for Clinton because she is at a huge financial disadvantage," Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post. "The campaign announced that she has loaned her campaign another $6.4 million, on top of the $5 million she provided in January. But she will be no match for Obama."

Stephanopoulos reported on "GMA" Thursday that the campaign's debt could be $20 million or more at this point -- perhaps the biggest factor in how long the Clinton campaign will continue.

That argues for an early exit, Huffington Post's Tom Edsall writes. "One of the most inviting is the near certainty that the Obama campaign would agree to pay back the $11.4 million she has loaned her own bid, along with an estimated $10 million to $15 million in unpaid campaign expenses." And: "If she loses -- as appears increasingly likely -- her stature in the Senate will depend, in part, on whether she is ultimately seen as helping or hurting Obama's chances in November."

Obamaland may not be on the attack rhetorically, but watch for poaching: "The Obama camp has begun recruiting Clinton loyalists to take positions with his team across the country," Ken Bazinet reports in the New York Daily News. "Looking to expand staff as Barack Obama moves more securely to land the Democratic presidential nomination, Team Barack has begun talks with veterans of the Clinton White House and other campaigns. The Obama camp is hoping to recruit field organizers, finance officials and press officers, a campaign source confirmed."

If she goes on, it can't be on the attack. "The voice she is listening to now is the one inside her head," Time's Karen Tumulty writes in a piece explaining what went wrong. "Clinton's calculation is as much about history as it is about politics. As the first woman to have come this far, Clinton has told those close to her, she wants people who invested their hopes in her to see that she has given it her best."

What's another month between friends -- or, for that matter, rivals? "A scenario that emerged after talking to several Democrats involved in the Obama and Clinton campaigns is this: Clinton stays in until the June 3 last primaries in South Dakota and Montana, contingent on her winning some of the remaining contests along the way," Lynn Sweet writes in the Chicago Sun-Times.

"That's enough time for any image repair, more fund-raising and to make her summary speeches," Sweet continues. "That would preserve her legacy and keep her future options intact. But that also means that Clinton and Obama cut out nasty campaigning, which I think they want to do because it serves them both to end on a high note."

The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder raises another possible scenario: "Two campaign advisers said that they believe Clinton should stay in the race through May 20 so she can depart the race in the glow of a solid victory in Kentucky."

Now, for Obama, it's Hillary who?

"Barack Obama hasn't managed after months of political combat to force Hillary Rodham Clinton out of the presidential race, so he's about to try another approach: ignoring her," Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times. "Confident that he has built a near-impregnable lead, his campaign aides said Wednesday that Obama would begin shifting his focus toward the general election."

ABC's David Wright reported on "World News" Wednesday that Obama plans to start campaigning soon in general-election states that have already voted -- even though those states have already voted in the primaries.

"Obama is expected to continue pressing the message of party unity that he rolled out Tuesday in Raleigh, N.C., while increasingly turning his attention to presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain and gearing his travel schedule toward general election states," Politico's Carrie Bodoff Brown and Ben Smith write.

The New York Times' Adam Nagourney sees one of Obama's challenges as moving beyond the Clinton era: "After 16 years, the Clinton era may be coming to an end, presenting Democrats with a historic but potentially wrenching transition and a challenge to Senator Barack Obama as he seeks to reconcile a deeply divided party," he writes. "The Clintons are in many ways a security blanket for many in the party; they may not be easy to quit."

That could be the easy part of his to-do list. USA Today's Susan Page outlines Obama's tasks ahead: "Navigating a half-dozen final, smaller contests and clinching the 2,025 delegates needed for nomination. Uniting a divided party and appealing to base voters who have been cool to him. And pivoting for a fall election against Republican John McCain, who's had a three-month head start."

Obama's new focus is just as well -- since Republicans already have their eyes on him. Republicans "have greatly stepped up their criticisms of Senator Barack Obama in recent weeks while practically ignoring Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton," Michael Cooper writes in The New York Times.

Michigan Democrats have a plan to bring to the DNC, with a proposal that would give Clinton 69 delegates, and Obama 59.

But it's fair to say Jimmy Carter isn't a fan. He went on Leno Wednesday night to argued against awarding delegates to Florida and Michigan. "It would be a catastrophe for the party," the former president said, saying that the states "disqualified themselves" by jumping the line.

Obama on Thursday keeps it private, with superdelegate meetings but no public schedule. It's full-on campaign mode for Clinton, with one of those race-against-the-time-zone days that bring her to West Virginia, South Dakota, and Oregon.

Bill's back to his barnstorming, in West Virginia on Thursday.

Actually, it's a full-Clinton push: "Clinton the candidate is staging a Capitol lawn rally in Charleston, Clinton the ex-president is barnstorming in a five-town blitz and Clinton the onetime first daughter is campaigning in Shepherdstown," Mannix Porterfield writes in the Beckley Register-Herald.

Get the full political schedule in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

Also making news:

While you were busy trying to track down uncommitted superdelegates, John McCain was on Jon Stewart's program Wednesday night to announce his running mate. That's right, it's everyone's favorite No. 2, Dwight K. Schrute.

Stewart suggested that he choose Sen. Clinton, but McCain didn't jump at the opportunity to make history: "I don't want to look in the camera and say that I would ever do that," he said.

It was a big night in New York for McCain otherwise: He raised $7 million for his campaign and the national party at his biggest fundraiser to date, ABC's Bret Hovell reports.

The New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller writes up McCain's outreach to the right: "Senator John McCain appealed to religious conservatives on Wednesday with pledges to prosecute sex traffickers, fight Internet child pornography and make religious freedom a priority in American diplomacy."

One reason he's paying attention to the base, or should be: "A substantial percentage of voters -- about one-fourth -- still showed up to vote against him in the three most-recent Republican presidential primaries," the Washington Times' Stephen Dinan writes. "With just a handful of small-state contests left, Mr. McCain has won less than 45 percent of the 19 million votes cast in the Republican primaries so far. In 2000, Mr. Bush won 62 percent of Republican votes."

Newt Gingrich sounds the GOP alarm: "Either Congressional Republicans are going to chart a bold course of real change or they are going to suffer decisive losses this November," the former House speaker, R-Ga., writes for Human Events. "The Republican brand has been so badly damaged that if Republicans try to run an anti-Obama, anti- Reverend Wright, or (if Senator Clinton wins), anti-Clinton campaign, they are simply going to fail."

Rush Limbaugh's "Operation Chaos" gets page-one Washington Post treatment. But Limbaugh has ended the operations, saying he wants Obama to be the party's pick, because "he would be the weakest of the Democrat nominees." Said Rush: "He can get effete snobs, he can get wealthy academics, he can get the young, and he can get the black vote, but Democrats do not win with that."

Forget the "Dream Ticket": The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes proposes Obama-Rendell. "As governor of a major state, [Gov. Ed Rendell, D-Pa.] automatically a national political figure. He's also a former general chairman of the Democratic national committee, which means he's a party man who gets along with Democrats of all types. Though he backed Clinton, he's not identified with any Democratic faction or constituency group."

"Jewish problem," anyone? Obama wishes Israel a happy 60th birthday in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot. "The 60th anniversary is also an ideal time to celebrate this special relationship between our two countries," Obama writes. "Washington and Jerusalem not only share ideals and values, but we share common interests. The bond between Americans and Israelis remains unshakable. It is a tie that every American president (whether Democrat or Republican) has and will continue to uphold."

The kicker:

"I totally learned that Soulja Boy dance for nothing." -- Mike Gravel, unsuccessfully lobbying Obama Girl, in a new video that surely marks an appropriate end to the Democratic primary.

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