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First thoughts: Mr. Front-runner

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** The statistical front-runner: No matter how one slices the election results from last night, there's no denying that Obama is the statistical front-runner. He's got a 100-plus pledged delegate lead and even has the lead if you factor in superdelegates. Here's our math: The NBC News election unit hard count stands at 1078 to 969. If you factor in the unallocated pledged delegates, our estimate rises to approximately 1128 to 1009 in Obama's favor (margin of error +/- 5 delegates). Toss in the superdelegates and Obama's lead is 1306 to 1270 (again +/- 5 delegates). What does this mean? For Clinton to overtake Obama for the pledged delegate lead -- which we think is the single most important statistic for the superdelegates to decide their vote -- she'll have to win 55% of the remaining delegates. Assuming next week goes Obama's way in Wisconsin and Hawaii, that percentage rises to 57%. Toss in likely Obama victories in Vermont, Wyoming, Mississippi, Oregon, Montana, and South Dakota, then Clinton's percentage need tops 60% of the remaining delegates available. And this is simply for her to regain the pledged delegate lead… 

VIDEO: NBC Political Director Chuck Todd offers his first read on Barack Obama taking a clear lead in the Democratic delegate count.

*** Staying on the statistical front: Check out these cumulative vote totals for primaries and caucuses to date:
States Awarding Delegates
                    Total Vote        %
Obama          9,373,334       50%
Clinton          8,674,779       46%
Others           726,095          4%

With Florida
                    Total Vote         %
Obama          9,942,375        49%
Clinton          9,531,987        46%
Others           984,236          4%

With Florida and Michigan
                     Total Vote         %
Obama          9,942,375         47%
Clinton          9,860,138         47%
Others          1,249,922          6%

*** Follow the leader: So no matter how you slice the total popular vote, Obama is the leader. He's at 50% in states that have awarded delegates; he's at 49% and leads Clinton by 3 points in states where both their names were on the ballot, and his lead is big enough that he leads even when you factor in Michigan where Obama's name wasn't on the ballot. Why does this popular vote total matter? Because it's yet another important talking point when wooing superdelegates. How many supers will be comfortable voting against the candidate who's leading in the pledged delegate count and the total vote count?

*** So now what? This Democratic race has two finish lines. One could be as early as March 4. An Obama victory in either of the big states would probably put the pledged delegate count out of reach for Clinton and would allow Obama to disprove the idea that he either can't win Latinos or blue-collar white Democrats. Should Clinton sweep those big March 4 states, the race goes on to the end and becomes a rhetorical fight over stats and polls. The stats being the ones we've cited above (the pledged delegate count and the national vote totals), as well as the Democratic candidates' standing against John McCain in the national polls. But one other thing to ponder: No one ever writes off a Clinton. How do we know? If Clinton were in the position Obama's in right now, how many folks would be writing Obama's obit?

*** The rhetorical front-runners: Watching all three post-Chesapeake Tuesday speeches last night, one could sense the two candidates who believed they were headed to the general election. Obama and McCain spoke back-to-back, and it was as close to a debate as two have had. Obama's speech was laced with more McCain references than any of his speeches to date. He regularly referred to "Bush-McCain" ideas. In response, McCain had some biting shots at Obama; McCain wordsmith Mark Salter, after all, knows how to take a poke at an opponent.

***

Hope vs. platitudes: Some choice McCain excerpts last night at Obama:  "Hope, my friends, is a powerful thing. I can attest to that better than many, for I have seen men's hopes tested in hard and cruel ways that few will ever experience... To encourage a country with only rhetoric rather than sound and proven ideas that trust in the strength and courage of free people is not a promise of hope. It is a platitude… I do not seek the presidency on the presumption that I am blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save my country in its hour of need. I seek the presidency with the humility of a man who cannot forget that my country saved me." That last line was probably the most pointed. Of course, the Obama folks will point to the dramatic generational contrast that's being set up. McCain's backdrop last night? A couple of retiring and aging pols, joined by a crowd of 250. Obama's backdrop? Seventeen-thousand screaming believers of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. 

*** Dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge: As for McCain, he dodged a bullet in Virginia. Obama almost propelled Huckabee to an upset victory in the Old Dominion. How? Because Obama drew a bunch of independents and even a chunk of moderate Republicans, making the Virginia GOP electorate a lot more conservative than it was eight years ago. But McCain survived, and now the calendar gets a lot tougher for Huckabee. Wisconsin has similar rules as Virginia, meaning McCain could face a far more conservative electorate because of Obama's appeal to independents and Republicans, but the evangelical base in Wisconsin is not nearly as large as it is in Virginia. The numbers suggest McCain should officially secure the GOP nod on March 4. 

*** Edwards watch: Did anyone else find this quote in today's New York Times a bit interesting? "You can't make a judgment until Ohio and Texas," said Jonathan Prince, who was a senior adviser to John Edwards of North Carolina, who quit the race two weeks ago. "In this campaign, every time he has surged ahead, voters take a pause. If momentum keeps slamming into a wall, than you do have to come down to the numbers." Is this what Edwards is thinking about in an eventual endorsement? 

*** Is it still 2006? Two incumbent members of Congress from Maryland -- Al Wynn (D) and Wayne Gilchrest (R) -- lost their primaries last night.

*** On the trail: Clinton is in South Texas, where she campaigns in McAllen (which, for the reporters covering her there, has the best Tex-Mex in the world), Robstown (home of famous Joe Cotton's BBQ), and San Antonio; McCain is in DC, where he holds a media avail with GOP members of Congress and later raises money; and Obama is in Wisconsin, where he stumps in Janesville, Waukesha, and Racine.

Countdown to Hawaii and Wisconsin: 6 days
Countdown to the MSNBC debate in Ohio: 13
Countdown to Ohio and Texas: 20 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 265 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 342 days

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