April 25, 2008 -- Pennsylvania was Sen. Barack Obama's chance to salt away his lead, answer the demographic questions about his candidacy -- and put the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in his rearview mirror.
It was a nice thought. Make that oh-for-3 -- and objects in that mirror are now uncomfortably close.
Pennsylvania's wake has left Obama arguing that he's still ahead (and doing so on the side of not counting votes in two key states), explaining why he can't close the deal (despite the fact that it's not clear Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton can even make a deal work) -- and coping with the sudden, very public reemergence of that pastor he wished would spend the next six months in East Paraguay.
Lurking just off-stage for all of this is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., refueling for the fall but also well into a savvy act of political positioning (and more than happy to pick up any Democrat's pieces when the time is right).
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright's interview with PBS' Bill Moyers -- to be broadcast Friday -- (followed by a PR blitz that includes weekend appearances in Dallas and Detroit and a speech at the National Press Club in Washington Monday) vaults Wright back into the public eye after six weeks of silence.
Maybe he'll convince the public that he was misunderstood, his fiery words taken out of context. Or maybe (stop us if you think we're off) he's supplying oxygen and dry brush to the flames that have threatened to engulf Obama.
"When something is taken like a sound bite for a political purpose and put constantly over and over again, looped in the face of the public," Wright says, "that's not a failure to communicate. Those who are doing that are communicating exactly what they want to do."
He may be correct -- but even trying to set the record straight ensures several more weeks of soundbites he and Obama don't get to choose.
"Barack Obama's biggest headache is back," Michael Saul writes in the New York Daily News.
"Wright, who for four decades built his reputation on straight talk and imperviousness to politicians, has been atypically quiet in recent weeks, canceling four appearances, declining all interview requests and bowing out of a news conference with other clergy," Manya A. Brachear writes in the Chicago Tribune.
That silence ends with a thud. The reverend wants context? As ABC's David Wright pointed out on "Good Morning America," his line about the chickens "coming home to roost" were actually referring to comments made by a former US ambassador, Edward Peck (who is white).
But: "Left out of the original sound bites broadcast on Good Morning America were Wright's version of how America was built on terror, his description of the United States 'as an arrogant, racist, military superpower,' and comments on the wealth or success of Oprah Winfrey, Colin Power, Condoleezza Rice and Tiger Woods," ABC's Brian Ross, Avni Patel, and Rehab El-Buri report.
And Wright offers this judgment of Obama -- perhaps the most damaging words from the interview. "He responded as a politician," Wright said of Obama.
Thanks in part to Wright, Obama is already the star of GOP advertising: Ads have popped up in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and New Mexico, tying local candidates to Obama and his more controversial associations.
It's a flash-forward from the general election campaign that just might have an impact on the primary.
"The flurry of attacks underscores how Republicans and their allies are sensing opportunity in the increasingly battered image of Obama, whom many Democrats have viewed as their best hope for appealing across ideological lines and helping their party win in conservative areas," Peter Wallsten and Peter Nicholas write in the Los Angeles Times. "The ads also are playing into a debate among Democratic officials about Obama's electability in November."
Superdelegates know better -- but can Obama resist this pressure, while standing on the side of disenfranchisement? "Seizing on her Pennsylvania primary victory, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and her surrogates are renewing their efforts to have the disputed Michigan and Florida convention delegates seated and pushing the argument that she now leads in the total number of votes cast when the tallies in those two states are included," John M. Broder writes in The New York Times.
Obama is being pressed into demonstrating electability; a letter to superdelegates, citing polling and fundraising numbers, is his latest gambit, per Washingtonpost.com's Chris Cillizza.
But Obama's argument is weaker, post-PA. "Democrats lost the past two presidential elections by nominating candidates who had trouble connecting with down-scale white voters," National Review's Rich Lowry writes. "They are about to do the same, but with their eyes wide open."
Clinton met privately with superdelegates while in Washington late Wednesday and early Thursday. "Sources told the Daily News that Clinton was pressing particularly hard on North Carolina's ex-quarterback Rep. Heath Shuler and freshman Indiana Rep. Brad Ellsworth, both from states with primaries on May 6," David Saltonstall writes in the New York Daily News.
(Good questions in political circles this Friday: How much of the $10 million the Clinton campaign claimed to raise in the immediate aftermath of Pennsylvania was actually raised? And of that total, how much is for the primary, not the general that may never be?)
And that debt -- more like $15 million, when you factor in Clinton's loan to her own campaign, per The Boston Globe's Foon Rhee.
Could Clinton, D-N.Y., be getting a hand from an unlikely place in making her case? "In a blink of an eye, the media has jumped ship from the Obama campaign and become a crucial Clinton ally, pressing just the message -- that Obama is a likely loser in the general election -- that Hillary and her allies have been promoting for the past six weeks," Huffington Post's Tom Edsall writes.
"For Hillary, the shift is a potential lifesaver as she struggles to keep her head above water; without it, she would, metaphorically, drown."
The Clinton campaign takes its war over what's fair to the op-ed page of The Washington Post. "So let me get this straight," Clinton strategist Geoff Garin writes. "On the one hand, it's perfectly decent for Obama to argue that only he has the virtue to bring change to Washington and that Clinton lacks the character and the commitment to do so. On the other hand, we are somehow hitting below the belt when we say that Clinton is the candidate best able to withstand the pressures of the presidency and do what's right for the American people, while leaving the decisions about Obama's preparedness to the voters."
Garin continues, "The bottom line is that one campaign really has engaged in a mean-spirited, unfair character attack on the other candidate -- but it has been Obama's campaign, not ours."
Not everyone quite sees it that way. Friday's slap-down comes courtesy of Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the highest-ranking black member of congressional leadership, who issues a harsh judgment of former President Bill Clinton's conduct, and his wife's campaign.
"Black people are incensed over all of this," Clyburn tells The New York Times' Mark Leibovich. "I think black folks feel strongly that this is a strange way for President Clinton to show his appreciation."
Adds Leibovich -- in the sentence that should most worry denizens of Camp Clinton, should they wrest the nomination from Obama: "Mr. Clyburn added that there appeared to be an almost unanimous view among African-Americans that Mr. and Mrs. Clinton were committed to doing everything they possibly could to damage Mr. Obama to a point that he could never win in the general election."
Clyburn still hasn't endorsed -- but in an interview with Reuters' Richard Cowan, he used words including "scurrilous" and "disingenuous" to describe Sen. Clinton's campaign tactics. "There's a difference between dropping out and raising all this extraneous scurrilous stuff about the guy [Obama]. Just run your campaign," Clyburn said. "You don't have to drop out to be respectful of other people."
"They're hell-bound to make it impossible for Obama to win" in the general election, said Clyburn.
The damage with black voters be irreparable, the AP's Sonya Ross writes. "Black people might revoke Clinton's honorary brother card if, out of his pain, he keeps hating on Obama. He's treating the Illinois senator like an unworthy heir to his racial legacy," she writes. "It's Clinton who looks small. He continues to whine about the trouble he's caused himself."
Yet if Obama is indeed nearing the finish line, he's stumbling his way home -- surely worse for the wear. "A few months ago the Obama campaign was talking about transcendence. Now it's talking about math," New York Times columnist Paul Krugman writes. " 'Yes we can' has become 'No she can't.' "
Early talk of a sharper Obama seems to have been overblown. "Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton shuffled slogans, staff and tactics in the wake of her primary losses," Politico's Ben Smith writes. "But Obama and his advisers, after a third major primary defeat in two months, say they are sticking with the game plan that brought him this far."
Could he be just a tad . . . "Meet Professor Obama, the sometimes aloof campaigner who can come across as a bit smug and has been known to talk about such things as arugula, an upscale leafy green, in places like corn-fed Iowa," the Chicago Tribune's John McCormick writes.
"While his powerful oratory often wins praise, attending Obama campaign events can sometimes feel like sitting in a classroom, albeit with a lecturer decidedly more fiery than your average college professor."
Will the grown-ups come to the rescue? DNC Chairman Howard Dean, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are staying in regular contact on how, when, and whether to press superdelegates to end the race, Reid said Thursday.
Reid said they would push party insiders to make up their minds by July 1. "The three of us, we may write a joint letter, we might do individual letters," said Reid, D-Nev., per ABC's Jake Tapper. "We are in contact with each other. What we will do, unless something comes up, we'll do it together."
But first -- more voting. A new Indianapolis Star poll has it Obama 41, Clinton 38 -- with 21 percent undecided. Key data points: "Among Hoosiers who said they would vote in the general election -- a statewide sample of voters with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points -- Obama beat McCain 49 percent to 41 percent. Clinton broke even with McCain, with both backed by 46 percent of those polled," the Star's Mary Beth Schneider writes.
Don't expect a blowout: "Veteran Indiana Democrats warn that the state's complicated voting mosaic raises the prospect of another hard-fought stalemate that could fail to conclusively transform the Democratic presidential race before the party's August convention in Denver," Stephen Braun writes in the Los Angeles Times.
Yes, Indiana matters a great deal, and now comes the Clinton pressure on North Carolina, with Ace Smith (fast acquiring mythical status) dispatched to run her Tarheel State campaign, knowing that she's got to keep it close.
"If Clinton wins in Indiana and is able to score an upset, or even lose by a small margin, in North Carolina, her comeback would probably gain fresh momentum," Perry Bacon Jr. writes in The Washington Post. "A lopsided Clinton loss would essentially negate any recent gains she has made in delegates, in the nationwide popular vote and in persuading superdelegates to support her."
"Sen. Clinton wants to avoid the kind of blowout loss to Sen. Barack Obama she suffered in South Carolina in January," Amy Chozick writes in The Wall Street Journal. "She is trying to demonstrate the breadth of her support to Democratic elected officials and other superdelegates who will sway the decision on the party's nomination."
With black voters constituting more than a third of North Carolina Democrats, Obama goes into the state with an edge: "Heavy support from the Triangle -- and from supporters of John Edwards -- helped Democrat Barack Obama outraise Hillary Clinton nearly 3 to 1 among N.C. donors last month, reflecting his huge cash advantage heading into the state's May 6 primary," Jim Morrill and Ted Mellnik write in the Charlotte Observer.
Obama on Friday unveils a 50-state voter-registration drive -- which he slipped up and announced a day early, per the Chicago Tribune's John McCormick.
McCain, meanwhile, should be ignored at the Democrats' peril. It's not exactly subtle, but it's savvy: So far, he's managing to put just the right amount of daylight between himself and President Bush to enhance his brand without alienating the GOP base.
On Thursday, he used the ready-made symbolism of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward to make his case. "Never again will a disaster of this nature be handled in the terrible and disgraceful way it was handled," said McCain. "It will never, ever happen again."
"In all candor," McCain said, "if I'd been president of the United States, I'd have ordered the plane landed at the nearest Air Force base and I'd have been over here."
The setting spoke for itself: "Photographers, camera people and reporters packed onto two flatbed National Guard trucks that led the way were there to bear witness to spectacle: a Republican running for president in an overwhelmingly Democratic, black neighborhood," ABC's Ron Claiborne reports.
McCain told ABC's Claire Shipman: "I may not get the majority of votes in Selma, Ala., and I understand that. But I want to assure them that when I'm president, I'm going to be president of all the people."
"Mr. McCain ticked off a long list of mistakes by the current administration, saying there were 'unqualified people in charge, there was a total misreading of the dimensions of the disaster, there was a failure of communications,' " Elisabeth Bumiller writes in The New York Times.
"The pointed critique was one of his harshest assessments yet of the Bush presidency and came as he has been moving to corral restive elements of the Republican Party -- and the Bush donor network -- behind his candidacy."
"McCain's week-long tour was less focused on winning votes in Alabama and Kentucky, two states that he is expected to carry in a general election, than broadcasting a national message," Time's Michael Scherer writes. "The McCain campaign is now focused squarely on exploiting the ongoing Democratic infighting between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, by building the McCain brand."
"Operation Separate-From-Bush is fully underway in the McCain campaign," Jennifer Rubin writes for Commentary.
Per McClatchy's Matt Stearns, "Democrats denounced McCain Thursday as a hypocrite. They pointed out that McCain voted against creating a commission to investigate the federal response to the disaster. They also accused him of wanting to privatize FEMA because of his suggestion that the federal government partner with the private sector to handle some aspects of emergency response, such as delivering supplies."
That's not the only vein for that argument: The Washington Post's Jonathan Weisman recalls McCain's maverick days on tax cuts and fiscal policy. "Now that he is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, however, McCain is marching straight down the party line," he writes. "The economic package he has laid out embraces many of the tax policies he once decried: extending Bush's tax cuts he voted against, offering investment tax breaks he once believed would have little economic benefit and granting the long-held wishes of tax lobbyists he has often mocked."
Weisman adds: "McCain's concerns -- about budget deficits, unanticipated defense costs, an Iraq war that would be longer and more costly than advertised -- have proved eerily prescient, usually a plus for politicians who are quick to say they were right when others were wrong. Yet McCain appears determined to leave such predictions behind."
And a little Clinton-McCain tussle developed out of New Orleans -- one of those fights neither side really minds. "Sen. McCain said he might want to tear down the Ninth Ward instead of rebuilding it," Clinton said. "But I went to the Ninth Ward after Katrina and met with people there and saw the destruction and I saw the resilience in their eyes and they deserve our help to rebuild and regain their lives and their homes."
Responds McCain: "I made it clear -- and the governor [of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal] has too, who was with me -- that that's a decision that individuals make.
The New York Times' Matt Bai, on McCain's tour this week: "Democrats scoff that Mr. McCain is a man running against the moment," Bai writes. "But he is also a candidate who enjoys, perhaps more than any other Washington politician, a reputation as a reformer who puts country above party, even when his views are unpopular."
As long as pastors are in the news . . . Bloomberg's Hans Nichols reports on a detail you'll hear about again. "John McCain's pastor ends his sermons with an altar call, beckoning any stirred souls to the front of his 3,500-seat 'worship center' to publicly dedicate their lives to Jesus Christ. In McCain's 15 years of attending Dan Yeary's North Phoenix Baptist Church, the pastor says, the Arizona senator has never made that walk." Said Yeary: "All I can tell you is that John and I have had some interesting conversations [about faith]. And we'll have more."
Just launched Friday on ABCNews.com: McCain's veepstakes choices, a running list of 20 potential choices for a spot on the ticket. (Gov. Jindal, McCain's companion Thursday, debuts at No. 10.)
No. 1 on the list -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty, R-Minn. (Per The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, Ken Mehlman was overheard at a Pawlenty fundraiser jokingly calling him "45" -- as in, the one who comes after 44.)
"Obama Watch" comes to an end: The junior senator from Illinois makes his "Fox News Sunday" debut this weekend.
But first: Obama campaigns Friday in Indiana, and will talk gas prices in a news conference.
He caps his evening with some 3-on-3 "pick-up basketball" -- surely the most stage-managed pick-up game since Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes (we'll miss you) worked the street-ballers over.
(Says hoopster/RNC spokesman Alex Conant: "Let's hope Barack Obama throws fewer elbows on the court than he does on the trail.")
Clinton campaigns Friday in North Carolina and Indiana, while McCain hits Arkansas and Oklahoma.
President Bush on Friday tells us we're getting our rebate checks (spend, spend spend!), then makes a quick trip to the state of his birth (Connecticut) before attending his final White House Correspondents Association dinner as president, Saturday night. (And Vice President Dick Cheney will be there, too, to hear Craig Ferguson's schtick.)
Among the '08ers, John McCain will not attend, but his mother and daughter, Meghan, will, aboard Straight Talk Express.
Get all the schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
Also making news:
Obama picks up a superdelegate: Rep. David Wu, D-Ore. "Wu disagreed with criticism of Obama over recent comments about rural voters," The Oregonian's Jeff Kosseff reports. "Obama's 'intellectualism,' Wu said, 'may sometimes give people the wrong impression. But I think that at a very personal level, he really gets it.' "
Some confusion over the controversial ad being put up by the North Carolina GOP, over McCain's objections. "The North Carolina Republican Party is going forward with plans to air a controversial ad featuring the Rev. Jeremiah Wright despite a Thursday claim by a senior McCain adviser that the ad would not air," ABC's Bret Hovell, Tahman Bradley, and Teddy Davis report.
McCain adviser Charlie Black had said the ad was "pulled," though he later acknowledged that he was mistaken.
At least two North Carolina stations are declining to air the ad, per the Charlotte Observer's David Ingram.
A person to watch in the McCain orbit: Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., profiled Friday by National Journal's Richard E. Cohen. "The only Jewish Republican in the House, Cantor has assumed a pivotal role in helping the McCain campaign build support -- and raise money -- in the Jewish community," Cohen writes.
Justice Antonin Scalia has a book coming out, so that can only mean one thing: a media blitz worthy of Rev. Wright. (Attention journalists: Make sure you're allowed to press "record.") On "60 Minutes" Sunday, he offers some advice to those who are still upset over Bush v. Gore. "Get over it. It's so old by now," Scalia said. On his political views: "I am a law-and-order guy. I mean, I confess to being a social conservative, but it does not affect my views on cases."
Huffington Post's Rachel Sklar has all you need to know about the White House Correspondents Dinner -- including why Bloomberg has some competition for VIPs this year.
"Have you ever heard of the unicameral legislature?" -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., asked how she can get the fair-pay bill passed, at a press conference featuring journalists' children at "Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day."
"Some of us superdelegates will have their feelings hurt, but if they don't give us a vote maybe they can give us a cape instead, so we can feel super." -- Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., on superdelegate status, per the Washington Examiner's Jeff Dufour and Patrick Gavin.
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