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First thoughts: A Super Day

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** A Super Day: It isn't always that reality lives up to the hype. But this election -- which for the last two years has been billed as the most wide open since 1928 or 1952 (take your pick) -- seems to be one of those times. And this Super Tuesday, the single biggest primary day in US history, becomes the latest chapter in most exciting primary season in our lifetimes. On the GOP side, the front-runner McCain has the opportunity tonight to pretty much lock up the Republican nomination by running the table. Or Romney could pull off several upsets, particularly in California, which would allow him to keep his White House hopes alive. Things in the Dem race aren't as clear. Looking at the narrowing polls, Obama has the opportunity that would have been unthinkable just a week ago: beat Clinton across the country, even in Clinton strongholds (CA, NJ, CT), which would pull the Democratic contest in his direction. Or Clinton could do what she did in New Hampshire: defy those polls, hold onto those strongholds, and capture some of the toss-up states (like MO and AZ). Most likely, however, Clinton and Obama will split up the delegates pretty evenly, moving the contest to Feb. 12 (DC, MD. VA), Feb. 19 (WI, WA), and March 4 (OH, TX). Obama himself predicted a "split decision" on TODAY and Morning Joe.

*** Looking for the break: But campaigns rarely deliver split decisions, and that's why it's possible that the Democratic electorate could break one way or the other. What if undecideds all go one way? And don't assume we think we know which direction they will break. We could easily explain how women power a break for Clinton, allowing her to win most states on the board today -- just as we could easily see undecideds breaking Obama and him cutting into Clinton's massive advantages among women and Hispanics thanks to a surge of younger voters that alter the makeup of electorates. The polls over the last week seem to indicate momentum is on the side of Obama, but we've all seen this movie before (think New Hampshire).

*** So many questions: Super Tuesday also has the potential to answer several other questions. One, is Clinton the de facto incumbent in this race? If she is, it's going to be a long night for her campaign since she's well under 50% in a number of states. Why does this matter? Because if she's perceived as the incumbent, look for undecideds to break decidedly to Obama. Then again, a number of us thought undecideds would break for Kerry against Bush in '04, and that didn't happen. Two, what will have a greater impact on viewers Tuesday night: racking up delegates or racking up states? As the New York Times' Nagourney writes today, "The delegate count might matter more officially, but the state results could count more politically, and that will be the central tension of the night." And three, in how many states will McCain break the 50% threshold, and should that matter? There are five primary states in particular that McCain could sweep (AL, GA, MO, OK, TN) that he'd lose if he were facing a two-way contest.

*** Romney's last stand: Michigan saved Romney at a time he needed saving politically. This time, he's asking California to do the same. Here's what Romney said last night in Long Beach, CA: "We'll look with eagerness as to what happens in California." That sounds like someone who is counting on California to send him a message.

*** The basics: A total of 24 states hold primaries or caucuses today (22 for the Democrats and 21 for the Republicans). At stake are a combined 2,600-plus delegates -- more than 80% of the total numbers of delegates needed to win the nomination in both parties. Each state awards delegates differently (winner take all, proportional by statewide vote, proportional by congressional district, or some combination of the two). But what's truly "at stake" in the voting -- and this is an important distinction to make -- are "pledged delegates," who are publicly bound in theory to a candidate at the national convention. There are numerous unpledged delegates (the "superdelegates" on the Dem side) whose arms can be twisted into changing their minds. Polls close as early as 7:00 pm ET in Georgia and close as late as 11:00 pm ET in California. (And don't forget those Alaska caucuses, which will provide results around midnight ET.)

*** How to count delegates: On the Republican side, it's VERY easy; there are enough winner-take-call states to allow anyone who did ok in high school algebra to follow along. The Democratic side is not so easy: The threshold for winning an extra delegate (from 3-3 in a six-delegate district to 4-2 to 4-3 to 5-2 in a seven-delegate district etc.) changes. Then you add in the superdelegates. The Clinton campaign claims about a 100-delegate advantage among the supers. So if she gets any delegate advantage tonight, then she'll claim a 100+ delegate lead early and often. Obviously, Obama's folks would like to win the night on the delegate front, so that Clinton's super lead is cut into the double digits. Speaking of the spin war, both the Clinton and Obama campaigns did their best yesterday to lower expectations, with Team Clinton reminding folks this could be a convention fight (can you say Florida and Michigan credential fight?) and the Obama folks reminding the media that Clinton's still the favorite tonight to win more delegates and more states. The truth? As always, somewhere in between!

*** The celebrity factor: Is there such a thing as too much celebrity help? It seems as if the rich and famous are coming out of the woodwork for Obama. Notes NBC/NJ's Aswini Anburajan: "Chris Rock and Scarlett Johansson recorded automated get-out-the-vote phone calls for Obama that went out yesterday, while singer Dave Matthews endorsed him on his website. Kate Michelman lent a feminist weight to his candidacy this weekend. And who can forget Oprah? These heavyweights, whether celebrities or politicians, have fanned out across the country to provide testimony to the potential of a Barack Obama candidacy." Usually, a candidate that wins the Hollywood primary doesn't always do as well in the rest of America. Obama might need to start worrying about looking too out-of-touch. Sure, the celebrities can help turn out the casual voter he's been targeting (particularly the youth), but celebrities can give a false sense of self-worth for the campaign, which is something Camp Obama may need to start worrying about.

*** On the trail: The locales for the candidates' election night parties shouldn't be surprising: Clinton is in New York City; Huckabee is in Little Rock, AR; McCain is in Phoenix; Obama is in Chicago; and Romney is in Boston. Elsewhere today, Clinton votes in Chappaqua, NY at 7:40 am ET; Huckabee attends the West Virginia GOP convention before heading back to Little Rock to vote at 3:15 pm ET; McCain holds rallies in New York City and San Diego before heading to Phoenix; and Romney attends the West Virginia GOP convention and holds a media avail in Charleston, WV before heading to Massachusetts.

Countdown to Chesapeake Tuesday: 7 days
Countdown to Ohio and Texas: 28 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 273 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 350 days

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