From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** We move on: Democrats can forget about looking ahead to the general election, at least for now. Weary political reporters and campaign aides might want to think about canceling those spring vacation plans. And voters in Wyoming, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania will want to brace themselves for the political circus that's about to arrive in their states. By winning Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island, as well as having a very good night on the delegate front (more on that below), Clinton stopped Obama's 11-contest winning streak and keeps the race going. No doubt these were impressive wins for her -- her candidacy was on the line, and she came through in the clutch. In short, she did what she had to do, and more. But that also doesn't change the delegate math or the fact that Ohio and Texas always favored her. Remember that the Clinton campaign has even agreed that this is a race for delegates. And remember that polls showed her with significant leads in both states as of three weeks ago (in Ohio, she led by 21 points as of mid-February). But wins are wins -- especially decisive ones -- and we move on…
*** Over to you, Sen. Obama: And we move on to Wyoming and Mississippi, where Obama probably holds the edge and will add to his delegate lead. But between then and Pennsylvania's primary on April 22 -- which is a seven weeks away -- how does Obama respond? Heading into last night's contests, he played the front-runner strategy, largely staying positive (although he did jab her in fliers and radio ads). But does he now start making more forceful contrasts? And in which direction does he go? Iraq? Clinton's actual experience? Her electability? Her tax returns (which she says she won't release until Tax Day)? And does he try to start working the refs the way Clinton's team did? After the tough press Obama received in the past few days, as well as all the comeback stories Clinton is getting today after losing 11 in a row, is it more difficult for Clinton to play the media-is-taking-it-easy-on-Obama card? The burden's now on Obama to prove that he's tough enough to take on Clinton. Can he figure out how to go negative on her without making himself look like just another politician? In fact, isn't that exactly what the NAFTA story did to Obama -- it made him look like just another politician, who will say one thing to one audience and whisper something else to another?
*** McCain's good news: Last night's biggest winner, however, wasn't Clinton. It was McCain. Not only did he hit the magic number to wrap up the GOP nomination (he crossed 1,191 and now stands at 1,230), but he now gets to watch Clinton and Obama spend their millions battling one another -- and not him -- over the next several weeks. McCain now has the time to begin raising money, reaching out to conservatives, and building a national campaign staff. As we've said before, a Dem race that lasts into April and perhaps beyond is the best news the Republican Party has received in quite some time. Just askin': Would McCain's photo-op with Bush have happened today had Obama emerged last night as the de facto Dem nominee? Now, McCain can get a lot of the party stuff out of the way now, while the media is focused on the Clinton-Obama showdown.
*** The delegate count: Based on preliminary results of last night's contests (the Texas caucuses are not yet factored in), here's where the Democratic delegate count stands: Obama 1,518, Clinton 1,429. The NBC News Hard Count has Obama at 1,307 to 1,175 for Clinton after last night's voting. The superdelegate count stands at Clinton 254, Obama 211. Here's how the states broke down: VT: Obama 9-6; OH: Clinton 73-62 (six unallocated); RI: Clinton, 13-8; TX: Clinton 46-34 (113 unallocated). That's a net gain of 23 pledged delegates for Clinton. But before figuring out the Texas mess, Clinton had a net of approximately 13 delegates. If Obama wins the delegate battle in Texas (which the allocation formulas seem to indicate), he'll cut that 13 net by as many as 6. However, one estimate in Texas has Obama netting no more than one after the caucus, giving Clinton the possibility that she'll net more than 10 delegates when March 4 is all said and done. While not MAJOR progress on the pledged delegate front, it's impressive nonetheless since so many folks predicted her not even netting 10 delegates last night.
*** The popular vote: On this front, Clinton also made huge inroads here. In the states that have awarded delegates, Obama's popular vote lead dropped two points to 49%-47%: He's won 12,920,961 votes to Clinton's 12,322,695 votes out of more than 26 million cast. Toss in Florida and Obama's nearly 600,000 vote lead is cut to 300,000: 13,497,175 to Clinton's 13,193,681. Finally, if you count Clinton's vote haul from Michigan -- where she was the only major Dem on the ballot -- she actually overtakes Obama by a slim 30,000 votes, 13,521,832 to Obama's 13,491,175.
*** When candidates attack: In the build-up to Wisconsin, the Clinton campaign began to hammer Obama (on those Deval Patrick lines, refusing to debate, and even on Social Security), but those attacks didn't work. Obama ended up with a 17-point victory there. But heading into last night's contests, the Clinton camp turned up the volume -- not quite to 11, to borrow a line from Spinal Tap, but still pretty high. They jumped all over the NAFTA/Goolsbee story, as well as Tony Rezko's trial They unveiled that 3:00 am TV ad, followed by one blasting Obama for not conducting any hearings on the subcommittee he started chairing last year. And Clinton began deriding Obama as someone who only gave a speech in 2002. Want proof that the negative campaigning and bad press made a difference? In Texas, among those who decided within the last three days (21% of all voters), Clinton defeated Obama, 61%-38%. In Ohio, she won by similar margins among the group (9% of all voters), 63%-38%. She also won in Ohio with the 12% that made up their minds the day of the primary, 54%-43%, and those that decided last week by the identical margin. The question is whether the Clinton campaign can sustain the attacks over the long haul without it damaging her. Remember that in the past, voters haven't been all that receptive to Clinton being on the attack.
*** "If I could turn back time…": It's also worth noting that the way in which the Obama campaign handled the NAFTA/Goolsbee story obviously didn't work out that well. Would the Obama campaign have been better served if they had been upfront about Austan Goolsbee's meeting with the Canadian consulate on that Friday, when the Clinton campaign first seized on the story? And should they have had Goolsbee hold a press conference to answer reporters' questions? One thing is pretty clear: The approach they decided on didn't fare that well. How Obama found himself on the defensive on NAFTA -- which Bill Clinton signed! -- turned out to be one of the more interesting developments leading into yesterday's contests.
*** The race factor. One thing that should give the Obama camp some concern heading into Pennsylvania is how race ended up playing last night, especially in Ohio. Per NBC's AnaMaria Arumi, 18% of white Ohio voters in the exit polls said race was important to their vote, and 75% of those people voted for Clinton. Those numbers are comparable to what we saw in southern states. But they're higher than in neighboring Missouri, where a comparable number (17%) said that the race of the candidate was important to their vote and the vote split was 10 points less -- 65% to Clinton. In Texas, 10% of whites said that race was a factor, and they went 65% for Clinton as well.
*** Just asking: After last night's contests, and with the race moving on into Pennsylvania, doesn't the DNC have to do something about Florida and Michigan? What say you, Howard Dean? The DNC chairman can't sit and hope this Florida-Michigan debacle goes away. While no one believes Dean will be the ultimate powerbroker to decide the nominee, he can play powerbroker on this issue. If he doesn't, it will be the ultimate black mark on his tenure.
*** On the trail: Clinton is in DC; Huckabee is in Arkansas; McCain meets with President Bush at the White House, heads to an event at the RNC, and then goes to West Palm Beach, FL for a fundraiser there; and Obama flies to Chicago.
Countdown to Wyoming: 3 days
Countdown to Mississippi: 6 days
Countdown to Pennsylvania: 48 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 244 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 321 days
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