The Note: Thinking About Tomorrow

If these are the waning days of the Clinton era in Democratic politics, there's a certain symmetry to it all. Bill and Hillary Clinton are going out like they came in: Fighting -- vibrant, brash, indignant -- and seeming to thrive on the fact that the world appears aligned against them.

For a quiet end, this sure is noisy: Rounding out your holiday weekend are the RFK comment and its aftermath, Bill Clinton screaming something about a cover-up of polls "they" don't want you to see ("they're" at it again!), and early rumblings in advance of Clinton's last best shot to change the campaign dynamics -- Saturday's to-be-protested DNC meeting in Washington..

It will all be over soon -- we think. "When Hillary Rodham Clinton finally exits the 2008 Democratic presidential race, she will end a decades-long, power-couple streak of unique political energy, savvy ideas, colossal policy flops and raw ambition dressed in pants suits and briefs, not boxers," AP's Calvin Woodward writes. They won't be going far, and yet: "Soon, though, there will be no Clinton running for president or about to. Imagine that."

A week from today, the DNC Rules & Bylaws Committee will have already spoken -- and so will all the voters in all the states and jurisdictions on the calendar. Then we count down as the superdelegates either continue their march until Obama's nomination is a mathematical certainty -- or the super-d's wholly and entirely reverse course and hand it to Clinton. (Place your bets.)

Obama is closing in fast on 2,026. "When the primaries end, I think, we'll be where we need to be," Obama strategist David Axelrod tells the New York Daily News' Michael Saul. "We'll be at the number we need to claim the nomination."

Yet: "One week from this evening, what will we be asking?" ABC's Jake Tapper asked on "Good Morning America" Tuesday. "We'll be saying what will Sen. Hillary Clinton do -- but the other key question . . . will be, has Barack Obama achieved the magic number to secure the nomination? Because in all likelihood, there will be a new magic number."

Adds ABC's George Stephanopoulos: "Next week this is almost certain to end. . . . Once these contests are done, you're going to see several dozen superdelegates go his way."

It should all be over soon. This political analysis brought to you by former President Jimmy Carter: "I think a lot of the superdelegates will make a decision quite, announced quite rapidly, after the final primary on June 3," he said over the weekend. "I have not yet announced publicly, but I think at that point it will be time for her to give it up."

Or maybe it won't be. This political analysis brought to you by former President Bill Clinton (tossing meat that's going to be hard to get back from inside the cage): "I have never seen anything like it. I have never seen a candidate treated so disrespectfully just for running," he said in South Dakota Sunday, per ABC's Sarah Amos. "She will win the general election if you nominate her. They're just trying to make sure you don't."

By the numbers: Obama is now 51 delegates away from 2,026 (the current magic number). He is 202 delegates ahead of Clinton, per ABC's delegate scorecard.

There may well be a new magic number after Saturday -- but still, Clinton, D-N.Y., has to at least start thinking about tomorrow again. "Many Democratic senators said they expect Clinton to work doggedly for Obama this summer and fall, and they agreed that if she does, whatever hard feelings that linger from the primary race will vanish," Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post.

"But a bigger question is whether, like Kennedy, she will shelve her presidential ambitions, especially if Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wins in November. The 2012 election would coincide with the end of Clinton's second Senate term, effectively turning her into a lame duck. A run for New York governor would hasten Clinton's departure by two years," they write.

Advice from someone who's been here before: Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. "She's got great capacity -- she was a good senator before, and she can be a great senator in the future," Kennedy said (speaking before his recent diagnosis). The question, he said, is "what she does with this experience."

It may not be so easy to return to the day job.

"While she has received millions of votes, stirred thousands of Americans at rallies, made hundreds of appearances and is just scores of delegates short of her goal, defeat would still return her to the Senate as No. 36 out of 49 Democrats," Carl Hulse reported in Monday's New York Times. "But the seniority arithmetic is only the beginning. There is also the personal challenge of returning to a club where more Democratic members, some quite pointedly, favored Senator Barack Obama and spurned her."

Trouble on the home front, too: "Even as she continues her longshot presidential bid, Hillary Rodham Clinton faces a political rift in New York, where black leaders say her standing has dropped due to racially charged comments by her and her husband during the campaign," Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times. "African American elected officials and clerics based in New York City say Clinton will need to defuse resentment over the campaign's racial overtones if she returns to New York as U.S. senator."

Clinton doesn't seem ready to go home -- not yet. She lays out her case in an extraordinary New York Daily News column Sunday: "I am running because I still believe I can win on the merits," she writes. "I am not unaware of the challenges or the odds of my securing the nomination -- but this race remains extraordinarily close, and hundreds of thousands of people in upcoming primaries are still waiting to vote. As I have said so many times over the course of this primary, if Sen. Obama wins the nomination, I will support him and work my heart out for him against John McCain. But that has not happened yet."

"She claims she is actually uniting the party by giving all voters a chance to play a part in the process of choosing the Democratic Party's presidential candidate," ABC's John Hendren reports.

But there's a flipside to her perseverance -- as Clinton's chances dwindle. "Clinton has always claimed to be the cold-eyed realist in the race, and at one point maybe she was," Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post column. "Increasingly, though, her words and actions reflect the kind of thinking that animates myths and fairy tales: Maybe a sudden and powerful storm will scatter my enemy's ships. Maybe a strapping woodsman will come along and save the day."

Don't expect too much at Saturday's Rules & Bylaws Committee meeting. "The argument is likely to fall of its own weight, because it is a mountain of wishful thinking," Michael Tackett writes for the Chicago Tribune. "The DNC already decided that Florida and Michigan should be penalized for trying to leapfrog the primary calendar. If the party is to stand for anything, it will uphold its rules."

The flap over Clinton's mention of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination on Friday may serve as a useful bookend to the Clinton years -- a distraction that adds up to a whole lot of not too much.

"This weekend's uproar over Hillary Rodham Clinton invoking the assassination of Robert Kennedy as rationale for continuing her presidential campaign is an especially vivid example of modern journalism as hyperkinetic child -- overstimulated by speed and hunger for a head-turning angle that will draw an audience," Politico's John F. Harris writes. "The truth about what Clinton said -- and any fair-minded appraisal of what she meant -- was entirely beside the point. . . . Clinton's error was not in saying something beyond the pale but in saying something that pulled from context would sound as if it were beyond the pale."

While things come full circle: "The Clinton campaign in 1992 used some of the same tactics that Mrs. Clinton and her supporters now decry, like declaring the nomination secure early and encouraging party leaders and the news media to climb on board," Jim Rutenberg writes in The New York Times.

Another key endgame player: Howard Dean, the DNC chairman who has a chance to prove his many critics wrong this week -- or not. "Now he finds himself in a familiar position -- the center of a controversy -- though in an unfamiliar role: peacemaker," The Boston Globe's Lisa Wangsness reports. "Whether Dean can broker a compromise and amicably resolve the Florida and Michigan crisis -- and then stitch together his party after this year's bruising nomination battle -- could go a long way toward determining who is the next president. Some are skeptical about his ability to finesse such a delicate, high-stakes situation."

Clinton supporter Lanny Davis outlines a best-case scenario for his candidate in a Politico column.

Meanwhile, the general election has begun without Clinton. While she campaigned in Puerto Rico over the weekend (next Sunday's primary gives her a chance to run up the popular vote), the battle was on in the Southwest, with both Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., targeting the region in recent days. "With political winds blowing their direction across the region, Democrats see an opportunity to pull the states into their column. That could be especially important as Obama's prospects dim in onetime swing states in the East, such as West Virginia," per the Los Angeles Times.

Memorial Day provided ready subject matter for a general-election debate: "Senator John McCain stood before hundreds of flag-waving veterans and their families on Monday and vowed not to waver in his support of the Iraq war. 'Even,' he said, 'if I must stand athwart popular opinion,' " Jeff Zeleny and Michael Falcone write in The New York Times. "Senator Barack Obama addressed a separate audience of veterans and received vigorous applause when he declared, 'As many of you know, my intention is to bring this war in Iraq to a close and to start bringing home our troops in an orderly fashion.' "

McCain says he'll bring Obama with him on a trip to Iraq: "He really has no experience or knowledge or judgment about the issue of Iraq and he has wanted to surrender for a long time," McCain told the AP's Liz Sidoti and Barry Massey. "If there was any other issue before the American people, and you hadn't had anything to do with it in a couple of years, I think the American people would judge that very harshly." (Um -- the economy, senator?)

Speaking of uncomfortable photo-ops -- it's McCain and Bush together on Tuesday, at a fundraiser in Arizona. "As of now the fundraiser is closed, and only one photo opportunity -- at the airport -- is planned," ABC's Jake Tapper reports. "Look to see if any public displays of affection (PDAs) or respect (PDRs) show up in your newspaper or on the news."

Planned public events have been made private, at the request of the McCain campaign, per Politico's Mike Allen.

It will be "the first time in nearly three months that the Republican presidential candidate will be seen beside the man he hopes to succeed," Laura Meckler writes in The Wall Street Journal. "With Mr. Bush's popularity at a record low, the McCain campaign has made sure that television footage of the two men together will be minimal."

Why let a man with Nixon-like approval ratings near the same building you're in? "McCain, whose fundraising totals are dwarfed by those of Democratic candidate Barack Obama, needs Bush to bring in money and signal to conservative Republicans that he can be trusted," Bloomberg's Hans Nichols and Edwin Chen write.

And McCain's coattails haven't really been tested yet: "Republicans nationwide are expecting Arizona Sen. John McCain to save their party and bring hope to the entire ballot this fall. But he hardly lifted a finger in three recent special elections where his party lost seats," per Roll Call's Nathan L. Gonzales.

Will the real anti-lobbyist candidate please stand up? "As John McCain and Barack Obama intensify their battle for the White House, they are competing for the mantle of reform, with each claiming that he has done the most to shield his campaign from the taint of lobbyists," per the Los Angeles Times. But the strategists behind those efforts are senior aides with a more-than-passing resemblance to -- what else? -- lobbyists."

"Obama is well ahead of McCain in restricting lobbyist participation in his campaign," the Times continues. "But the history of both candidates is peppered with campaign operatives, policy advisors and others who have clear links to the long-standing but often scandal-tinged practice of making money by trying to influence politicians."

Newsweek's Michael Isikoff has new details of a group formed by David Axelrod's company that pushed for (but didn't lobby for?) an electricity rate increase. "Neither Axelrod nor his partners at ASK ever registered as lobbyists for Commonwealth Edison -- and under Illinois's loose disclosure laws, they were not required to," Isikoff writes. "But the activities of ASK (located in the same office as Axelrod's political firm) illustrate the difficulties in defining exactly who a lobbyist is."

Everything you need to know about economics in the fall campaign: "It's John McCain the reckless budget buster vs. Barack Obama the record tax hiker," the New York Post's Carl Campanile writes. "That's how the presidential rivals are trying to portray each other's starkly different economic plans."

Watch where they go: "Obama and McCain have been at each other regularly over the last several weeks, and their clashes seem at times not so much a contest of ideas or ideals but rather bristling displays of competitive masculinity," Slate's John Dickerson writes. "They've traded insults and taunts, mostly over how they'd behave as commander in chief, in an escalating mano a mano. On the current trajectory, one of them is soon likely to drop and do a one-armed push-up or chew on cut glass."

Obama again says his meeting may not necessarily be with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- and the RNC is just getting started on this one.

Obama body man Reggie Love gets The New York Times profile treatment -- and Obama gets the most out of a close aide who happens to be a former two-sport star at Duke. "Compared with the even-tempered and self-controlled Mr. Obama, Mr. Love is raffish, always joking with the Secret Service, offering closed-fist high-fives to members of the news media and making frequent appearances in the daily pool reports," Ashley Parker writes. "At a V.F.W. hall in Indiana, he helped out when the senator did not want a second Budweiser, taking it off Mr. Obama's hands."

The Sked:

Obama campaigns in Las Vegas Tuesday, while Clinton hits Montana, and Bill Clinton campaigns in Puerto Rico.

McCain gives a speech on nuclear security in Denver, before heading back to Arizona for a fundraiser with President Bush.

Veepstakes:

"The Bachelor"-style weekend in Sedona is over -- and no roses, yet. They all got some one-on-one time, but nothing specific: "There was never any explicit talk whatsoever about a short list, about Vice-President, any of that," said Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La.

Glimpses from a possible Western White House, from The New York Times' Michael Falcone: "The comings and goings of Mr. McCain and his guests offered only a few clues. On Saturday a convoy of vehicles left the ranch heading for the nearby town of Jerome, where Mr. McCain and a group that included Mr. Jindal and Mr. Romney had lunch. At other times, Mr. Romney and his wife, Ann, were seen driving a white Ford Mustang with black racing stripes. The gathering appeared to wrap up on Sunday afternoon when Mr. McCain and his motorcade left for Phoenix."

The Boston Globe's Lisa Wangsness writes up former governor Mitt Romney's chances: "While Romney's aides say that he is simply trying to help his party, some political observers say that he appears to be auditioning to be McCain's running mate, and that he has a chance at getting the nod. Analysts say his relative youth, executive experience as governor and in the corporate world, and finance credentials could help compensate for the weaknesses of McCain, who has admitted that the economy was not his strong suit," Wangsness writes. "But McCain seemed to detest Romney during the primary - by New Hampshire, McCain was openly scorning the former Massachusetts governor as a disingenuous flip-flopper."

Romney is buying a new home in Southern California, per the AP's Glen Johnson. (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R-Calif., is term-limited from running again in 2010, for what it's worth.)

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman on the dream ticket: "Mainly it's up to Mr. Obama to deliver the unity he has always promised -- starting with his own party," Krugman writes. "What about offering Mrs. Clinton the vice presidency? If I were Mr. Obama, I'd do it. Adding Mrs. Clinton to the ticket -- or at least making the offer -- might help heal the wounds of an ugly primary fight."

Thinking about choices who would help a potential president govern (call it the Cheney model, minus the attitude), New York Times columnist David Brooks has some short-list candidates for Obama -- Sam Nunn and Tom Daschle -- and McCain -- Rob Portman and Tim Pawlenty.

Robert Novak does a Kathleen Sebelius takedown. Of the Democratic governor of Kansas, he writes: "She is allied with the aggressive Kansas branch of Planned Parenthood in a bitter struggle with antiabortion activist District Attorney Phill Kline. There is substantial evidence she has been involved in what pro-life advocates term 'laundering' abortion industry money for distribution to Kansas Democrats. Kansas is the fiercest state battleground in the abortion wars, making Kathleen Sebelius the national pro-choice poster girl."

The President:

On the question of presidential credibility. . . . Douglas Feith, former undersecretary of defense for policy, excerpts his new book in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. "In the fall of 2003, a few months after Saddam Hussein's overthrow, U.S. officials began to despair of finding stockpiles of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The resulting embarrassment caused a radical shift in administration rhetoric about the war in Iraq. . . . The stunning change in rhetoric appeared to confirm his critics' argument that the security rationale for the war was at best an error, and at worst a lie. That's a shame, for Mr. Bush had solid grounds for worrying about the dangers of leaving Saddam in power."

Feith concludes: "To fight a long war, the president has to ensure he can preserve public and congressional support for the effort. It is not an overstatement to say that the president's shift in rhetoric nearly cost the U.S. the war."

Some Memorial Day fun: It's the White House press office vs. The New York Times editorial board. "Once again, the New York Times Editorial Board doesn't let the facts get in the way of expressing its vitriolic opinions -- no matter how misleading they may be," press secretary Dana Perino said Monday in a written statement.

Barr None:

Sorry, Paulites: Your Libertarian candidate for president is former rep. Bob Barr. "Georgia's Bob Barr won a long and tense battle Sunday for the 2008 Libertarian Party's presidential nomination and now faces the daunting task of doing what no third-party candidate has done: Win in November," Aaron Gould Sheinin writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Barr, who until 2006 was a Republican, took 54 percent of the vote after Las Vegas odds-maker Wayne Allyn Root dropped out following the fifth ballot and endorsed Barr. Delegates subsequently selected Root to be Barr's running mate."

Scattered defections from the GOP have "some Libertarians thinking Barr could turn the fledgling party into a magnet for disaffected conservatives, gain national attention, and, perhaps, even draw votes away from Republican John McCain in close states as Ralph Nader did to Al Gore in Florida in 2000," McClathcy's Steven Thomma writes.

Kennedy Update:

Sen. Ted Kennedy was out sailing on Memorial Day -- but no word yet on his treatment decisions, or his return to work. "Under pristine skies and with strong gusts, Senator Edward M. Kennedy this afternoon steered his 50-foot schooner from Nantucket to a mooring beside his beach-front compound, leading many of the sailboats in the final leg of the annual Figawi Race," David Abel writes in The Boston Globe.

Bloomberg's Al Hunt sums up the bipartisan good wishes swirling around the senior senator from Massachusetts. "Several people report that in private conversations, Bush, who is biting in his criticism of most congressional Democrats, reserves respect, bordering on awe, for Kennedy. Like more than a few other conservatives in the capital, the president wishes he had someone as effective on his side," Hunt writes. "Ted Kennedy's legacy, in some ways, is even deeper, and perhaps more enduring, than those of his martyred brothers. . . . He is and will be the gold standard for excellence in the Senate."

Hill Races:

"Twice as many veterans of the Iraq war are running for Congress than in 2006, and this year Republican candidates outnumber Democrats," USA Today's Martha T. Moore reports. "Although many of the veteran candidates still face primaries and some are long shots, the outcome in November could well increase the number of combat veterans serving in Congress, a group that has been dwindling since 2000."

The Kicker:

"Though Mike's career in active politics is now over, we know his message does not end here." -- Statement to supporters of former Alaska senator Mike Gravel, who lost his bid to become Libertarian candidate for president.

"Mayonnaise; Salt and vinegar potato chips; Asparagus ("if no other vegetables are available, he'll eat it"); Soft drinks (he prefers water)." -- Barack Obama's "dislikes," per Obama body man Reggie Love.

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