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First thoughts: Going back to Cali

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Going back to Cali: Both Bill Clinton and Mitt Romney return to California today, as it appears the biggest prize on Super Tuesday is actually living up to the hype. Since Florida, a day hasn't gone by without a Clinton campaigning in the Golden State -- it's become that important to the Clintons. The good news for the Clinton campaign is that California counts if they win by a vote or 10 points. Once again, the Obama campaign is seeing expectations get out of control for them. Two days ago, getting close to Clinton in California would have been a "victory." Now? Losing will be a disappointment to them and in the eyes of the media. Yesterday's L.A. rally featuring yet another celebrity endorsement (Maria Shriver), certainly adds to the Obama hype. By the way, how important is early voting to the Clinton camp these days in both California and Arizona? How likely is it Clinton loses Election Day voters in both states, but gets her margin of victory via the early vote? If Clinton wins the Golden State, it will be because of those folks who made up their mind weeks ago…

VIDEO: NBC Political Director Chuck Todd offers his first read on the effect early voting might have on the outcome of the Golden State's election results and resulting delegates.

*** Speaking of Cali... :  Romney goes back today for an unscheduled stop, as apparently the polls show it closer than the experts think. Remember, California is a Republicans-only primary, so if there ever was an electorate for Romney to target, it's this one. Plus, the state awards delegates via congressional district -- not winner-take-all -- so there are plenty of delegates to grab even if Romney loses the statewide vote to McCain, who may have too much of his vote clumped in certain areas. And then there's -- again -- the early vote issue. Remember, when California started voting in January, McCain had yet to win a primary. Romney's the only campaign that had the resources to target the early vote in January; will this preparation pay off for him tomorrow night?

*** Obama under the scope: In the last 48 hours, we've seen a spate of stories questioning Obama's rhetoric and record. From nukes to guns, the Illinois senator is getting some scrutiny on the issue front. It's unclear if any of this penetrates the electorate before tomorrow, but going into the post-February 5 campaign, one can see how it could be Obama under the microscope instead of the Clintons -- a change from the last two weeks. Of course, Clinton's mandate for universal health care is getting a fair share of scrutiny as well: The RNC yesterday happily passed around an AP clip, which noted that Clinton "might be willing to garnish the wages of workers who refuse to buy health insurance to achieve coverage for all Americans." By the way, how ecstatic are the Republicans that this Democratic race is likely to go on and now will get nastier? With half the country out of the way, both camps are going to be more comfortable going negative in these smaller state contests, be it Virginia on February 12 or Wisconsin a week after that. Remember, the party that settles its nomination last usually loses the general

*** Edwards watch: Meanwhile, if Edwards was going to endorse anyone in order to influence the Clinton-Obama race, that endorsement might come today. But a former Edwards spokesman tells NBC/NJ's Tricia Miller that and Edwards endorsement today would be pretty unlikely. However, it is interesting to see just how many former Edwards backers are now supporting Obama. Per Miller, Reps. GK Butterfield, Jim Oberstar, and Raul Grijalva; former NARAL head Kate Michelman; California SEIU and the Transport Workers Union; and former Edwards rural adviser Dave "Mudcat" Saunders are all now backing the Illinois senator. Yet the Clinton campaign passed a list of names of former Edwards endorsers who are now supporting Clinton. Those people include three DNC members (thus superdelegates and frankly more lucractive "gets"), and several state representatives and party activists in California, New Jersey, Tennesse, and Colorado.

*** Just asking: Is it a coincidence that as Clinton is no longer leading in general election match-ups against McCain, her lead over Obama in national polls has narrowed? Or is it the other way around? Yesterday's Washington Post/ABC poll had McCain beating Clinton, 49%-46%, yet Obama beating McCain, 49%-46%. And according to a new Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll, McCain leads Clinton, 45%-41%, while Obama beats McCain 45%-43%.

*** Just asking, part II: Did Mitt Romney jinx Tom Brady and the Patriots? Romney yesterday told reporters -- including NBC/NJ's Erin McPike -- that he emailed Brady his best wishes for the Super Bowl. Will the McCain campaign use that against Romney while campaigning in Boston today? It's just the type of thing McCain would say. Should be interesting.

*** Just asking, part III: Home state love. Check out the poll differences in Illinois vs. New York (and we can't wait to see some polling on the GOP side in Massachusetts). Can Obama do better in New York than Clinton does in Illinois? And why does it matter? Delegates. If Obama can break 65-70% in key districts in Illinois, he'll get some bonus delegates, ditto with Clinton in New York. Both need to run up the score in their home states. Interestingly enough, though: Clinton is saturating the New York airwaves while Obama is only advertising in St. Louis (more for targeting Missouri than Illinois). We'll see which strategy pays off. And speaking of delegates, a quick Dem tutorial for folks watching the delegate fight: The threshold for bonus delegates depends on the number of delegates up for grabs in a particular state or district. The range is anywhere from 59% to 70%, so check your rules before playing the allocation game.

*** On the trail: Clinton campaigns in New Haven, CT and Worcester, MA, holds her national town hall at 9:00 pm ET, and appears on Letterman; Huckabee is in Tennessee and Arkansas; McCain stumps in Boston and New Jersey before holding a press conference in New York City; Obama holds rallies in East Rutherford, NJ, Hartford, CT, and Boston; Paul is in North Dakota and Minnesota; and Romney hits Tennessee and Georgia before heading back to California.
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 1 day
Countdown to Chesapeake Tuesday: 8 days
Countdown to Ohio and Texas: 29 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 274 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 351 days

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