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First thoughts: A Dem split decision

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** A split decision: The Clinton and Obama campaigns engaged in a furious game of spin before Super Tuesday, but Obama might have put it best when he said on TODAY and Morning Joe yesterday that it would end up being a split decision. In fact, after they traded state after state last night, it reminded us of "Rocky I" -- lots of drama, lots of punches landed and received, and ultimately a draw. And just like with that movie, we're now headed to a sequel to find a true winner. It looks like Obama, by the narrowest of margins, won last night's delegate hunt. By our estimates, he picked up 840 to 849 delegates versus 829-838 for Clinton; the Obama camp projects winning by nine delegates (845-836). He also won more states (13 to Clinton's eight; New Mexico is still outstanding), although she won the most populous ones (California and New York). And Obama's argument that he might be the most electable Democrat in a general election was bolstered by the fact that he won nine red states versus four for Clinton. Yet with Clinton's overall superdelegate lead (259-170, based on the lists they've released to us), and when you toss in the 63-48 lead Obama had among pledged delegates going into Super Tuesday, it appears Clinton has about 70 more overall delegates than Obama does (1140-1150 for Clinton versus 1070 to 1080 for Obama). It's that close, folks…

VIDEO: Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama talks with TODAY's Matt Lauer Tuesday about the pending Super Tuesday vote.

*** Obama's opportunity and challenge: The calendar for the next couple of weeks favors Obama, as we head into February 9 (Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington State); February 10 (Maine); February 12 (DC, Maryland, Virginia); and February 19 (Hawaii and Wisconsin). In fact, in a conference call it held with reporters on Monday, the Clinton campaign seemed like it was conceding those states when it didn't mention those states, but said it was looking ahead toward March 4 (Ohio and Texas; don't forget Rhode Island and Vermont) after Super Tuesday. Obama can certainly feel good about last night: He went toe-to-toe with Clinton in a Super Tuesday contest that once seemed to favor her. And he's on pace to have a significant financial advantage over Clinton. But as the AP's Ron Fournier writes, "Obama still has much to prove. The potential for setbacks and mistakes is high." At some point, the question will have to be asked: When or how can he put her away? Of course, last night proves that Clinton faces that very same question regarding Obama.

*** How nasty will it get? Now that a majority of the country has voted and the delegate battle is THISCLOSE, the likelihood that both campaigns will decide it's ok to go negative is high. Someone needs a knockout, particularly Clinton since she appears to have the bigger resource problem. The good news for Clinton is that the burden of expectations is on Obama; any victory between now and March 4 for Clinton will be deemed an upset and Clinton has fed off of hyped-up Obama expectations. Clinton's camp needs to peel away white men from Obama; Obama needs to peel away downscale women from Clinton. Appealing to both key demographic groups could easily lead the campaigns down the low road. By the way, what will have a greater effect on the media regarding what happened last night? The results from this weekend's events or the first wave of national polls? If Clinton is ahead in the national primary (which, by the way, should that include states that already voted? What say you pollsters?), does that mean Clinton won Super Tuesday? If Obama continues to be stronger than Clinton against McCain, does that tip things to Obama? Bottom line, as important as the delegate fight is, the national polls and the C.W. they create will be very influential, particularly with superdelegates, who are finger-in-the-wind deciders at this point.

*** McCain's win and Huck's surprise: If the name of the game is accumulating delegates, then McCain was definitely the winner on the GOP side last night. NBC's delegate total for last night (as of 3:15 am ET) was McCain 423, Romney 130, Huckabee 102, and Paul 5. The big surprise of the night was Huckabee's sweep of the South. We knew that he would end up hurting Romney in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and West Virginia, but we didn't anticipate him winning those states. And as a result, McCain ended up having a good night -- but not a great one. The attention now turns to Romney, who won Massachusetts, Utah, and the caucuses in the Mountain West, but little else. California was Romney's shot at a symbolic win to keep his White House hopes alive. But he fell short there, and looking at the calendar, it's hard to see where Romney could pull off a significant win to wrest the front-runner title away from McCain. Romney has to make the decision to stick in this race to March 4 (and spend in very expensive states, i.e. Texas and Ohio). This isn't about testing whether he can stop McCain in Virginia; the decision he's making today is about staying in for another four weeks.

*** Inside the exits: Looking inside the Democratic exit polls (per the last wave we saw), it is striking to us just how predictable Clinton and Obama voters are. Nationally, Clinton won among women (52%-45%), and Obama won among men (53%-42%). Obama won big among voters ages 17-29 (59%-38%), and Clinton won big among those 60 and older (55%-38%). Obama won the African-American vote (82%-16%), while Clinton won Latinos (61%-37%). Obama did seem to do better among whites (with 43% of that vote); in fact, Obama won white men (49%-44%). And Obama won among those making $200,000 or more (52%-46%), while Clinton won among those making less than $50,000. On the GOP side, McCain narrowly beat Romney among self-identified Republicans (38%-37%), among moderates (52%-24%), and those who said they were "somewhat conservative" (40%-36%). Yet among those identifying themselves as "very conservative," it was Romney 48%, Huckabee 26%, and McCain 19%.

*** Just asking: As the Washington Post asks today: What if George Allen hadn't uttered the word "Macaca" back in 2006? It's likely that he and McCain would be the GOP finalists right now…

*** London calling: And speaking of McCain, Sky News is reporting that he will be passing through London on Friday, and has requested a meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

*** On the trail: Not surprisingly, there isn't that much activity the day after Super Tuesday. Clinton appears to be down; McCain holds a press conference in Phoenix before heading to DC; Obama also holds a press conference -- in Chicago -- before traveling to DC and then Baton Rouge, LA; and Romney is in Boston, where he has no public events.

Countdown to Chesapeake Tuesday: 6 days
Countdown to Ohio and Texas: 27 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 272 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 349 days

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