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First thoughts: Obama's opportunity

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
COLUMBIA, SC/TAMPA, FL -- It's been a tough last seven days for Barack Obama. It began with his loss in Nevada, a contest where most polls showed him trailing Clinton; still, many -- buying the spin from Team Clinton -- viewed him as the favorite there because he won the Culinary Workers Union endorsement. Next came the CNN debate, the aftermath of which put the Obama camp on the defensive (over Rezko, single-payer health care). And as the New York Times' Jeff Zeleny put it this morning, "For all of the sunny self-assurance that has propelled him to this juncture … Mr. Obama grappled to find a balance between defending himself against accusations he called distorted and promoting a message of hopeful change in a state that is essential to his bid for the presidency." Yet today's Democratic primary in that state -- South Carolina -- presents him with the opportunity to put the past seven days behind him and give him momentum heading into February 5. Indeed, if we learned one thing from Clinton's victory in New Hampshire (besides being more cautious about reading polls), it's that victory and momentum can come out of frustration, disorganization, and total chaos.

*** Will Clinton once again win the expectations game? As for Hillary Clinton, there have been several signs that her campaign is downplaying expectations in South Carolina, despite its strong ad buy and deploying Bill and Chelsea to campaign here. For instance, Hillary skipped the state for two days (on Tuesday and Wednesday) to campaign instead in February 5 states. The campaign also seems to be trying to make Florida as relevant as possible, even though the state won't be awarding delegates. And now we get word that Clinton won't even be in South Carolina tonight. Rather, she'll head to the February 5 state of Tennessee. (By the way, this is a page out of the '92 Clinton playbook -- always be in a state that's about to vote, not a state that's already voted.) Nevertheless, remember that Clinton led in South Carolina polls until early December, and that this is a state her husband carried in 1992.

*** The Edwards factor: Finally, there's John Edwards… If Obama ends up winning this contest, he can in part thank the former North Carolina senator, who seems to be splitting the white vote with Clinton. Edwards also appears to be riding some momentum with his Mr. Nice Guy approach after Monday's vicious debate between Clinton and Obama. "While Senator Clinton and Senator Obama seem intent on tearing each other down, I'm intent on building you up," Edwards says in a new radio ad. Moreover, his campaign actually has been outspending both Obama and Clinton on TV ads this past week. In fact, according to our sources, Obama's ranks THIRD in TV-ad spending here over the past week. Overall, Edwards will have spent more on TV ads in South Carolina than either of the two front-runners combined ... that's right, combined! Could he finish second here? And what would that mean? Edwards staked his entire candidacy on doing well in the first four contests, especially Iowa. And, unless the unexpected happens, he will finish 0 for 4 -- a result that would only increase the number of vultures circling over his candidacy.

*** Things to keep an eye on: As much as we'd like for race to not be a part of the picture, it is. In 2004, the makeup of the Democratic primary electorate in South Carolina was 51% white and 47% black. In that contest, Edwards won over 50% of the white vote and narrowly won the black vote over Kerry, 37%-34% with Sharpton getting 17%. Overall, Edwards beat Kerry, 45%-30%, followed by Sharpton at 10%. Turnout was just under 300,000 in 2004. Also of note, 24% of the 2004 Dem electorate was independent. What does that mean for today? Well, the most recent MSNBC/McClatchy/Mason-Dixon poll anticipates an electorate that's 55% African-American and 42% white. Obviously, the Obama campaign hopes the electorate today is closer to Mason-Dixon's survey than the 2004 exit poll. And that's basically THE number to watch for -- the black-white split. More importantly, what will the white number be for Obama? In the last poll we conducted, Obama received just 10% of the white vote; that was a 10-point drop from a week earlier. Also, watch how black women break. In the poll and on the ground, young, black women tend to support him, but not older ones necessarily

*** The basics: Polls in South Carolina open at 7:00 am ET and close at 7:00 pm ET. There are 45 pledged delegates at stake. The primary is open, so Democrats, independents, and Republicans can all vote -- provided they didn't participate in the GOP primary last week. And how about this: Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Edwards, Gravel, Kucinich, Obama, and Richardson will all be on the ballot, per the state election commission.

*** Bill's Jedi mind tricks: So Bill Clinton apparently isn't interested in just messing with Obama's head; he's also turned his attention to McCain. Here's what Bill said yesterday: "[Hillary] and John McCain are very close. They always laugh that if they wound up being the nominees of their party it would be the most civilized election in American history and they're afraid they'd put the voters to sleep because they like and respect each other." OK, anyone else think Clinton's up to something? Could Mitt Romney's campaign in Florida have asked for a better soundbite from the ex-president than the one he provided yesterday? Seriously, just as Romney and McCain are sparring over Republican credentials, here comes Bill Clinton insisting that McCain and Hillary Clinton are "very close." At some point, that's going to be turned into a TV ad or a radio ad or an attack direct mail piece. Talk radio will have a FIELD day with that one. Of course, the McCain folks could try and convince the right that this is Bill Clinton using his Jedi mind tricks on them, but will they listen; Are these the conservative droids voters are looking for? By the way, is there an op-ed page in America that doesn't have someone writing negatively about Bill's role in this campaign? Bob Herbert's column today was pretty rough. Once South Carolina is over, are we looking at Bill Clinton becoming the sole focus of attention over the next week leading into February 5?

*** The Florida sideshow: It's also interesting to see the Clinton campaign work the non-binding Florida primary vote so hard. First, the campaign releases a statement promising to sit the Florida delegation at the convention. Then, a few hours later, the state's senior Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson, endorses Clinton (a rare recent red-state endorsement for her). Clearly, the Clinton campaign is nervous Obama gets a head of steam out of South Carolina today, and they'd like to blunt the momentum a tad. A convincing straw vote finish on Tuesday could do that. Will she hold a rally that night so that there is something for the news channels to dip into and she can give a victory speech? Tuesday night gamesmanship on the Democratic side will be interesting to follow. Sure, we'll be focused on the incredible McCain-Romney race in Florida and the potential end of the Giuliani candidacy. But seeing how Clinton declares victory in Florida and watching Obama handle the night will make for a good sideshow.

*** Florida's main event: What a difference a day makes. Thursday night, the Republican candidates wanted nothing nasty to do with each other. A day later? And it appears McCain decided to use all of his negative oppo against Romney and vice versa. Does McCain regret not using some of his negative Romney message in Thursday's debate? Because yesterday, he couldn't avoid the topic. Will this be how things close in Florida with McCain-Romney in a knock-down drag out?

*** On the trail: On the Dem side, Clinton has various events in South Carolina before heading to Nashville, TN, where she holds a town hall this evening; Edwards, who spend his entire day in the Palmetto State, stumps in Mt. Pleasant and Columbia, where he holds his Election Night party; and Obama also is in the state, and he has his Election Night party at the Columbia Convention Center. On the GOP side, Giuliani, Huckabee, McCain, and Romney are all in Florida, although Huckabee later travels to an event in Birmingham, AL. 

Countdown to Florida: 3 days
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 10 days
Countdown to Chesapeake Tuesday: 17 days
Countdown to Ohio and Texas: 38 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 283 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 360 days

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