The political initiation of Barack Obama, in five acts:
I. Wherein the current president welcomes him (sort of) as a possible successor to the throne.
II. Wherein robed men and women in the Golden State remind him how difficult his race will be.
III. Wherein the protagonist finds a symbol that shows either political maturation, downright pandering, or nothing much at all.
IV. Wherein his probable opponent unsheathes a sword that warns him of what a dangerous race it will be.
V. Wherein bands of supporters of an aged dynasty remind him that nothing in this realm comes without a price.
John Edwards and NARAL and the steelworkers and the superdelegates -- that's all well and good. But perhaps we can thank 43 for handing this potential 44 the keys to the kingdom of the general election.
The most intriguing part of the political fallout of President Bush's speech to the Knesset Thursday: He didn't even have to mention Sen. Barack Obama's name to spark a firestorm back home.
The second most intriguing part: The way the Democratic establishment rallied to his defense, even though his name wasn't mentioned -- kind of felt like a general election.
"Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along," President Bush said in Jerusalem.
Then the corker: "As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: 'Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.' "
No. He. Didn't.
"The episode placed Mr. Bush squarely in one of the most divisive debates of the campaign to succeed him, as Republicans try to portray Mr. Obama as weak in the fight against terrorism," Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jim Rutenberg write in The New York Times. "It also underscored what the White House has said will be an aggressive effort by Mr. Bush to use his presidential platform to influence the presidential election."
This is another way to describe the same speech: "President Bush to Barack Obama: You're a fool," per the New York Daily News write-up.
Don't forget Obama's problems with Jewish voters -- but this is a debate Obama doesn't mind, not at this stage of this campaign. "Obama has called for talks with the leaders of Iran and Syria but has staunchly opposed any such meetings with Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and which the U.S. and Israel label a terrorist organization," Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune.
Obama: "George Bush knows that I have never supported engagement with terrorists, and the president's extraordinary politicization of foreign policy and the politics of fear do nothing to secure the American people or our stalwart ally Israel."
For the defense: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ("beneath the dignity"), Rep. Rahm Emanuel ("partisan politics stops at the water's edge"), and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joe Biden ("get a life").
"Democrats angrily called the comment a veiled shot at Obama, who has advocated dialogue with Iran and Syria, but not the Palestinian group Hamas," Michael Abramowitz reports in The Washington Post.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was ready to play: "It does bring up an issue I will be discussing with the American people, and that is: Why does Barack Obama, Senator Obama want to sit down with a state sponsor of terrorism?" he told reporters Thursday, per ABC's Bret Hovell and Jennifer Parker.
How does this impact it? James P. Rubin uses a Washington Post op-ed to relate this Q&A with McCain, from two years ago: "Do you think that American diplomats should be operating the way they have in the past, working with the Palestinian government if Hamas is now in charge?" McCain: "They're the government; sooner or later we are going to have to deal with them, one way or another."
Who's happier with this fight? "It's hard to know who needs whom more," Massimo Calabresi writes for Time. "Bush is struggling to keep his presidency relevant, and injecting himself into the presidential campaign is a sure way to do that. At the same time, Obama is happy for any opportunity to tie Bush to Republican nominee-to-be John McCain's side."
California Court Ruling
The gay-marriage battle is joined anew, this time because of judges in California, who join their brethren in Massachusetts as conservative fundraising icons. The ruling overturning a state ban on gay marriage will resonate all through the fall, when a state constitutional amendment enshrining the ban will be on the state ballot.
None of the three major presidential candidates support gay marriage, and all oppose a constitutional amendment banning it.
And if you think that fact will take the issue off the fall's political table, you are not old enough to remember 2004. For beleaguered Republicans, looking for a message, there's nothing like a bunch of activist judges to get juices (and money) flowing.
The ruling "could help Republicans by serving up a red-meat issue to rally conservative voters," Zachary Coile writes in the San Francisco Chronicle. "The issue is not one Illinois Sen. Barack Obama or New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton would prefer to see front and center -- polls show the public trusts the Democrats more on key issues like health care and the economy."
But who's really happy with this fight? "The court's Thursday ruling was not necessarily good news for the presidential candidates, on whom it could exert problematic pressure," Phil Willon and Patrick McGreevy write in the Los Angeles Times.
"Republican John McCain's success depends on melding a fractious coalition of GOP conservatives -- who are among those pressing for a ban on same-sex marriage -- with independents and conservative Democrats who tend to recoil from candidates campaigning on social issues," they write. "The decision could encourage Democratic interest groups to press [Democratic] candidates to extend their support for civil unions to same-sex marriage itself."
"It should offer a test of whether the issue is resonant in American politics or whether it has fallen to the side of the road, as many Democrats and some Republicans say," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times.
Yet: "There is considerable debate whether the marriage issue helped Republican candidates in 2004. And it seems questionable if voters are going to find it compelling this year, at a time when the country is facing a prolonged war, an ailing economy and skyrocketing gasoline prices, the issues that Mr. McCain and the two Democratic candidates are confronting on the campaign trail every day."
McCain isn't wont to talk about it -- ABC's George Stephanopoulos predicts a campaign "conspiracy of silence" on the issue -- but gay marriage looms with huge potential for the GOP.
ABC's Teddy Davis: "Opponents of same-sex marriage could try to inject Thursday's California ruling into the presidential race by pointing to Sen. Barack Obama's unambiguous support for fully repealing the federal Defense of Marriage Act." That position means Obama would go further than Clinton, who only wants tweaks to the law her husband signed.
This is what it looks like for a party to fall in line behind the man who looks every bit the new standard-bearer. The United Steelworkers Union followed NARAL and John Edwards in supporting Obama -- as well as some of his delegates, and a few more supers, per The Wall Street Journal's Susan Davis.
Obama picked up four more superdelegates Thursday, to Clinton's none. Just a week after taking the super-D lead, his edge in that category is up to 29, per ABC's count -- with every one tilting the playing field a bit more against Clinton.
The Obama campaign is claiming commitments from seven of Edwards' 19 pledged delegates -- so far.
"What had been a daily trickle of new endorsements of Barack Obama has become a steady daily stream with Thursday's announcements of support from the United Steelworkers union, the president of the Communications Workers of America and two influential California congressmen," Gannett's Brian Tumulty reports.
As for Michigan and Florida -- good luck with that. "Interviews with those considering how to handle the two states' banished convention delegates found little interest in the former first lady's best-case scenario," AP's Nedra Pickler reports.
Said Rules and Bylaws member Alice Germond: "Probably what we will come up with will not make everybody or anybody completely happy, which will mean that we did a good job."
Obama is planning on hitting Florida right after the next round of voting, with a Wednesday rally in downtown Tampa. "Tampa Bay is the first stop of a three-day Florida campaign swing that includes Orlando and South Florida. Obama is trying to make up for lost time in Florida, having boycotted the state's officially meaningless primary in January along with Michigan's," Adam C. Smith writes in the St. Petersburg Times.
With the May 31 committee meeting likely settling things, why will those last contests June 3, in Montana and South Dakota, matter? "Bragging rights, momentum and symbolism," USA Today's Martha T. Moore writes.
But first -- Kentucky and Oregon. Bill Clinton wants voters to stay away from "them." "They've tried to bury her more times than a cat's got lives," he said in Louisville, per the Herald-Leader's Steve Lannen.
Could enthusiasm be dropping for Obama? (At least he won't lose by 41 points -- we assume.) Dante Chinni of the Christian Science Monitor writes that the "political climate has changed" in key parts of Kentucky.
The New Republic's Michelle Cottle lets some Clinton insiders write the campaign obit: "We didn't lay a serious glove on him until the fall," writes one. "We ran a frontrunner campaign in a party that punishes frontrunners," writes another. One more choice quote: "There was not any plan in place from beginning to end on how to win the nomination."
Even President Bush has no fury like women scorned. Some women are threatening an Obama boycott, others are pressing their case with the media to have Michigan and Florida count, and still others are simply steamed with NARAL for endorsing Obama.
NARAL's decision "has created an uproar among some of its affiliates and other abortion-rights advocates," Katharine Q. Seelye writes in The New York Times. "Clinton supporters in the blogosphere said they perceived it as a badly timed gratuitous slap at Mrs. Clinton as she grapples with the likely end of her quest for the presidency."
How she's pushed out matters -- and her supporters know belittling when they see it. "At some point along the way, Hillary Clinton became 'poor Hillary' and it stuck," Libby Copeland writes in The Washington Post. "There is something about that woman -- that woman! -- that refuses to bend, and something about a large portion of this country that despises her for it. The person who once conjured a vast right-wing conspiracy now refuses to exit a race she's almost surely lost, and it Drives. People. Crazy."
This is unlikely to help Obama smooth things over: "Americans weary of 'bittergate' can rejoice. It's time for 'sweetiegate,' " Jennifer Harper writes in the Washington Times, a day after Obama's exchange with (and apologetic voicemail for) a Detroit TV reporter. "The presidential election has veered onto another odd tangent, courtesy of Sen. Barack Obama, who uttered not an epithet nor insult against blue-collar workers -- but a term of endearment."
If she loses, is it sexism? Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh thinks not: "Bluntly put, it wasn't sexism that has brought Clinton to her current plight. Rather, Obama and his team have out-thought, out-sought, and out-fought Clinton and hers. As a candidate, Clinton is smart and tough - but Obama has proved the one who better met the moment."
Visions of McCain
That was one interesting speech. Not just because it was delivered from the year 2013 -- but because it marked a point-by-point explanation of McCain's vision for the country, and for a White House that would look very different than President Bush's.
He portrayed "his first term in the White House as a departure from the Bush administration on issues from foreign policy to how he will deal with the Congress and the media," Scott Martelle writes in the Los Angeles Times. The speech "signaled an attempt to revive his image as a political maverick -- seen as key to appealing to the same independent voters that Democrats hope will help them win the White House."
The big headline prediction: that most US troops would be out of Iraq by January 2013. "Mr. McCain set forth a sweeping, extraordinarily positive vision of what the world would look like in 2013, when, he said, he would have been in the White House for four years," Elisabeth Bumiller writes in The New York Times. "The remarks, which offered no proposals for how he would achieve that vision, were an effort by Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, to define himself and the rationale of his candidacy to voters before he has a single Democratic rival who will try to do it for him."
This will be fun to grade against if McCain wins the election. "Promises for a McCain administration: a less-partisan Washington, a new League of Democracies to solve world problems, solvent Medicare and Social Security, and conservative judges populating the nation's courts," writes The Wall Street Journal's Laura Meckler.
The Los Angeles Times' Paul Richter sees the Iraq withdrawal goal as a shift to the center by McCain -- the same direction, incidentally, that Obama is heading. "After launching their candidacies with opposite positions on the Iraq war, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama seem to be edging toward a middle ground between them," he writes.
Responded Clinton: "This is not the first time Sen. McCain has predicted victory in Iraq."
These stories are continuing: "Sen. John McCain secured millions in federal funds for a land acquisition program that provided a windfall for an Arizona developer whose executives were major campaign donors, public records show," Matt Kelley writes for USA Today.
As do these -- a clean hit from Politico's Ben Smith: "John McCain's campaign asked a prominent Republican consultant, Craig Shirley, to leave his official campaign role Thursday after a Politico inquiry about Shirley's dual role consulting for the campaign and for an independent '527' group opposing the Democratic presidential candidates. The campaign also released a new conflict of interest policy barring such arrangements."
Looking Toward November:
Michelle Obama is in the GOP crosshairs: The online video from the Tennessee Republican Party plays her "proud of my country" line six times, per the AP's write-up.
There was a time in the campaign where this could have been a very big deal: "I have enormous sympathy for the foreign policy of George H. W. Bush," Obama tells New York Times columnist David Brooks. "I don't have a lot of complaints about their handling of Desert Storm. I don't have a lot of complaints with their handling of the fall of the Berlin Wall."
Slate's John Dickerson plays out the foreign-policy debate to come: "The quickest way to understand the emerging foreign-policy debate between John McCain and Barack Obama is to look at the unpopular world leader each is trying to turn into the other's running mate. McCain has picked Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for Obama, and Obama has selected George W. Bush for McCain."
McCain faces his only-sometime allies at the National Rifle Association Friday in Louisville, Ky., with a host of other bold-faced GOP names cycling through as well.
Don't miss McCain's "Saturday Night Live" cameo this weekend.
Obama campaigns in South Dakota, and while Sen. Clinton hits Oregon, former President Bill Clinton works Kentucky hard.
It's Israel and Saudi Arabia Friday for President Bush, then Egypt this weekend before heading back to Washington.
Get all the full political schedule in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
On the Hill:
Try unpacking this vote: "An odd coalition of angry Republicans and antiwar Democrats yesterday torpedoed a $162.5 billion proposal to continue funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving the House to pass a measure that demands troop withdrawals, bans torture and expands education benefits for returning veterans," Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post.
Per Roll Call, it was "a victory for anti-war Democrats but a surprise to their leadership."
While we're chronicling the president's diminished sway: "The stage is set on Capitol Hill for the second veto override of the two-term Bush presidency," ABC's Z. Byron Wolf reports.
"The vote was 81-15 at on the so-called Farm Bill, which, depending on your perspective is either an oversized $289 billion ham hock of irresponsible pork barrel spending for rich farmers and race horse owners or a much-needed lifeline to the agriculture industry, family farmers, billions for school lunch programs, food banks, poor families on food stamps, and a vehicle for the interesting new measure to require a country of origin label on your food."
Department of GOP Angst
That ugly loss in Mississippi sure has legs.
Behold as the map expands: "The sharp surge in black turnout that Senator Barack Obama has helped to generate in recent primaries and Congressional races could signal a threat this fall to the longtime Republican dominance of the South," Adam Nossiter and Janny Scott write in The New York Times. "Some analysts suggest that North Carolina and Virginia may even be within reach for the Democratic nominee, and they point to the surprising result in a Congressional special election in Mississippi this week as an indicator of things to come."
"The Democrats aren't the ones falling apart, the Republicans are," Peggy Noonan writes in her Wall Street Journal column. "The Republicans? Busy dying. The brightest of them see no immediate light. They're frozen, not like a deer in the headlights but a deer in the darkness, his ears stiff at the sound. Crunch. Twig. Hunting party."
Editorial in the Washington Times: "The Republican Party appears exhausted, even at times bereft of new ideas. Republicans must speak to voters' economic insecurity, their anger over rising fuel and food prices, stagnating middle-class incomes and the need for attractive but realistic health care options. If Republicans fail, they don't stand much chance six months from now."
Edwards, D-N.C., was in New York Thursday, and reporters caught up to him to get him on the record on the inevitable question: "I have no interest in running for VP," Edwards said, per ABC's Raelyn Johnson. Asked about the possibility of serving as attorney general, he said, "I don't have any thoughts about any of that."
(Clinton, asked about the endorsement Thursday, was sure to point out one person who hasn't endorsed Obama: "Well I have a great deal of respect for Senator Edwards. And he and I have a lot in common; I particularly have a lot in common with Elizabeth Edwards," she said, per ABC's Eloise Harper.
Fred's back (hope he had a pleasant rest), blogging at TownHall.com, and he's optimistic. "Conservatism is alive and well in America; don't let anyone tell you differently," former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., writes in his new blog. "Now isn't the time for conservatives to be looking for a tailored message or a politically expedient route to victory if the end result is going to be the inevitable slide toward the liberalization and secularization of America, and the growth of government and loss of freedom that inevitably ensues."
Gov. Tim Pawlenty, R-Minn., just saw his stock go up with reporters and party activists.
From the AP report: "Governor Pawlenty signed a bill Thursday that will allow local governments to extend bar hours until 4 a.m. in the seven-county Twin Cities metropolitan area during the [Republican National] convention. The current cutoff time for bars is 2 a.m."
Best gift ever: Per financial disclosure documents, Vice President Dick Cheney gave President Bush a pair of night-vision goggles. We are not making this up. The Kicker:
"I understand when you're running for office you sometimes think the world revolves around you -- that is not always true and it is not true in this case." -- White House press secretary Dana Perino, explaining that President Bush did not intend a swipe at Barack Obama.
"Did we know this could be construed as being about Obama? Yes, of course." -- White House source, to ABC's Jon Garcia.
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