From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Judgment Day: In what has become the craziest -- yet most entertaining -- presidential primary cycle in memory, one thing has been pretty reliable: Almost every time a candidate's back has been against the wall, that person pulled out an important victory. We saw it in New Hampshire, where Clinton and McCain badly needed wins to keep their campaigns alive. We saw it in Michigan, where Romney had to triumph in his native state after finishing second in both Iowa and New Hampshire. And we saw it in South Carolina, where Obama needed a big win after earlier losses in New Hampshire and Nevada. With Obama rattling off 11-straight wins since Super Tuesday and widening his delegate lead, Clinton's back is yet again against the wall as we head into today's contests Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Does she follow the pattern and pull out impressive wins in these states? Or does she meet the same fate Romney did on Super Tuesday after losing in Florida the week before: winning in some states, but not by enough to keep the candidacy alive? Fasten your seatbelts, folks. This should be a fun ride tonight.
*** The spin: So how do we measure success or failure tonight? There is no doubt that Clinton has more riding on tonight's contests than Obama does; both Ohio and Texas are must-wins for her. She can continue her campaign by winning just Ohio, but for her to have a legitimate chance to close Obama's delegate lead, she needs to win three out of the four (Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island) -- and win decisively in at least one of the big states. But the Clinton campaign doesn't seem to be in agreement. "We are very optimistic about our chances of success in Ohio and Texas," communications director Howard Wolfson said yesterday. "If the outcome is otherwise, we can discuss it then." However, this is also an opportunity for Obama to knock Clinton out. If he doesn't do it tonight, when does he do it? Then again, even if Clinton narrowly wins both Ohio and Texas, Obama's team believes the math has already knocked her out. "There's the cold, hard reality of the [delegate] math," campaign manager David Plouffe said on a conference call yesterday. "They keep trying to move the goal posts but at some point you run out of field."
*** Other things to watch: Here are a few very plausible scenarios: Obama could net more delegates out of Vermont than Clinton does out of Ohio. Clinton can win both Ohio and Texas, 52%-48%, and lose the overall delegate battle tonight, thanks to how both Texas and Ohio award more delegates in African-American heavy areas as well as those crazy Texas caucuses. Speaking of Texas, Obama likely has a five-point cushion on the delegate front, meaning he could lose the state by five points and still net delegates. How will the media handle Clinton winning two states but Obama winning the most delegates tonight? Who wins the night? Bonus question: Who do we reward the state of Texas to if Clinton wins the popular vote in the primary but Obama nets the most delegates? And finally, for all the talk of bias against Clinton's campaign in the media, does anyone believe any other candidate could have lost 11-straight contests, be this far behind in delegates, and be simply two victories away from being back in the game? One thing the media has done is they've given Clinton every chance she wants to write her own comeback story. She gets another shot today.
*** The basics: At stake tonight are a total of 370 delegates. Texas is the biggest prize with 193 of them (126 proportional by senatorial district in the primary, 67 determined by the caucuses afterwards). In most parts of the Lone Star State, polls open at 8:00 am ET and close at 8:00 pm ET, but in El Paso and the surrounding area, they close at 9:00 pm ET. The caucuses take place immediately after polls close. In Ohio, 141 delegates are up for grabs (92 proportional by congressional district, 49 proportional by statewide vote). Polls in the Buckeye State open at 6:30 am ET and close at 7:30 pm ET. There are 21 delegates at stake in Rhode Island, where polls close at 9:00 pm ET. And there are 15 delegates up for grabs in Vermont, where polls close at 7:00 pm ET.
*** The absentee factor: Yesterday, NBC/NJ's Mike Memoli reported that there are signs Obama might have the early-voting edge in Ohio. Indeed, these contests could very well be the first ones in which early/absentee voting actually benefits Obama, because that voting will have started after Obama went on his post-Feb. 5 run. Factor in some bad weather -- lots of rain -- expected in Ohio, and does that cut into Clinton's lead there?
*** McCain's dream scenario: There are at least two people hoping Sen. Hillary Clinton does well tonight -- Clinton, of course, but also McCain. (Perhaps we should include the Canadian government, but that's another story…) The last thing McCain needs right now is to face a de facto Democratic nominee by the name of Sen. Barack Obama. For now, McCain's has an incredible challenge in front of him: He has to build a national campaign. He does not need a presumptive Democratic opponent on March 5. But if Obama comes roaring out of Tuesday's contests as the de facto nominee, it's going to be a tough few months for the GOP. But not so much if the Dem contests move into Pennsylvania and beyond. Why? Think back to 1996. Obama's $75 million fundraising months will be money that's used to define McCain between now and the conventions. If McCain gets more time to get his campaign structure together, he can minimize the time he's vulnerable to being dramatically outspent.
*** Hitting the magic number: Speaking of McCain, the Arizona senator does have an opportunity to hit the 1,191 magic number to lock up the GOP nomination -- if you factor in the delegates he picked up from Romney, as the AP has. Including some of Romney's delegates, McCain has garnered 1,032 delegates. So that means he needs to win 159 out of the 256 delegates at stake in tonight's contests to hit the 1,191 number. Look for many a network to declare McCain the presumptive GOP nominee assuming he does win Texas.
*** Florida watch: We should have mentioned this yesterday, but Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) has suggested that his state could have a do-over Democratic primary race. That idea set of speculation that Crist's offer is pure politics intended to keep the Dem contest alive to benefit McCain, whom the governor has endorsed. Just asking: Will the GOP-controlled legislature be willing to use taxpayer dollars to fund a Democratic do-over? Also, as clever as this may be to Republicans who would love the Dem primary to go on and on and on, is it really a good idea to encourage the two Dems to spend a bunch of time in Florida and erase McCain's current advantage in the state?
*** Remember these guys? Down the ballot tonight, it will be interesting to see how both Kucinich and Paul -- who face primary opposition for their congressional seats -- fare tonight in Ohio and Texas, respectively. Does Kucinich, in particular, face any backlash for his back-to-back quixotic White House bids? And by the way, Paul still hasn't withdrawn from the presidential race… We've already seen quite a few incumbent House members lose when turnout goes unexpectedly up (see Maryland).
*** On the trail: Clinton is in Columbus, OH for her Election Night party; Huckabee has his in Dallas, TX, as does McCain; and Obama hold his Election Night party in San Antonio, TX.
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 245 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 322 days
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