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First thoughts: Iraq is back

From Chuck Todd and Mark Murray
*** Iraq is back: Overshadowed in the last few weeks by the economy, the horserace, and even the recent back-and-forths over Geraldine Ferraro and Rev. Wright, the issue of Iraq returns to the campaign trail today. Just before the war's five-year anniversary, John McCain is in the country, as is Vice President Cheney. Meanwhile, at George Washington University in DC, Clinton gives a speech this morning on Iraq. Per the New York Times, Clinton will discuss "her plan to begin withdrawing American troops within 60 days of coming into office… She was also expected to attack Mr. Obama over a recent statement by a former foreign policy adviser, Samantha Power, in which she said the Iraq withdrawal plan Mr. Obama had outlined while campaigning was a 'best-case scenario' that he would revisit once in office." But is that the pot calling the kettle black? Earlier this month, the New York Sun reported that retired Gen. Jack Keane, who had briefed Clinton on Iraq and who had been asked to be a campaign adviser on military issues, said he had "no doubts whatsoever that if [Clinton] were president in January '09 she would not act irresponsibly and issue orders to conduct an immediate withdrawal from Iraq." This should be a week the Obama campaign was looking forward to but it's not obvious he's going to get the advantage on Iraq that, perhaps, his campaign expected a few months ago.

VIDEO: NBC Political Director Chuck Todd offers his first read on the presidential candidates' focus on the Iraq anniversary and not the economy situation.

*** Obama's Iowa sweep: So the trashing of the caucus process was not good for Clinton's campaign, which got killed at the Iowa county convention re-caucus. Obama picked up an additional nine delegates, mostly from Edwards' January 3 haul. The overall delegate take for each candidate: 25 for Obama (that's up from 16 ); 14 for Clinton (that's down one from her 15); and six hung with Edwards (down from 14). That takes Obama's pledged lead over Clinton to 1,409 to 1,250. With the superdelegates thrown in (253 for Clinton, 217 for Obama), the delegate count stands at Obama 1,626, Clinton 1,503. This is more evidence that the outsider candidate (Obama) continues to beat the insider candidate (Clinton) at the ultimate insider game: the battle for delegates in odd county convention processes.

*** Full disclosure: After releasing all of Obama's Rezko records and sitting with Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times reporters on Friday, the Obama campaign has upped the ante for Team Clinton. Yesterday, the Obama camp asked Clinton to release all of her tax records, disclose all of her earmarks, and make the donations to the Clinton presidential library and foundation public. The Clinton camp, in response, says Obama should release his tax returns for every year he's been in public office and every earmark he requested as a state senator. The pushback is obvious: try to cloud the lack of disclosure in the Clinton campaign with questions of lack of disclosure on the Obama front. This is the road the Obama campaign clearly wants to go down. The question is whether bareknuckles politics ultimately hurts Obama's image or whether a fight for disclosure brings back the bad news of the Clinton years Democratic voters -- and superdelegates -- might be tired of.

*** Clinton's super problem: By our count, the Clinton campaign hasn't publicly announced the support of a new superdelegate since just after February 5. Indeed, since Super Tuesday, Obama has gained 47 new superdelegates, while Clinton has lost seven (including Eliot Spitzer). Does Clinton have a bigger problem on the superdelegate front than folks realize? Why do we think party leaders -- who saw the Democrats lose governorships, state legislatures, and the control of Congress during the Clinton years -- suddenly jump on board the Clinton campaign? Isn't this the reason the Clinton campaign has only been able to keep uncommitted supers from climbing board Obama's bandwagon but they haven't been able to woo a new super to their side in a month? ? Isn't this also an explanation for why the Clinton campaign has done so poorly in the caucuses? The caucuses are made up of the activists who follow this stuff closer and think about things like electability and who can help the party keep Congress, etc. If Clinton's not winning over caucus activists, why should we believe she'll win over a large enough chunk of superdelegates to overcome Obama's pledged delegate lead? Ultimately, her best chance is to convince supers that Obama is completely unelectable on par with McGovern, an argument that might have been helped a tad by Rev. Wright.

*** Just askin': Just how lucky is McCain that the political media world's focus is on Clinton vs. Obama? Otherwise, wouldn't his Iraq trip -- with Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman -- be getting a lot more scrutiny, as would the fact that he's using taxpayer dollars to pay for a campaign trip? If there were two nominees right now, would McCain have even tried this? Probably not, since everything he was doing would be under more scrutiny.

*** I am liberal, hear me roar: While Clinton will be talking withdrawal from Iraq at George Washington University, across town in DC, the liberal Take Back America conference -- which famously booed Clinton over her Iraq views in 2006 and 2007 -- begins today. The confab, sponsored by the Campaign for America's Future, today features a speech by Donna Edwards, who beat incumbent Rep. Al Wynn (D) in a primary last month and hears from Sen. Jim Webb later tonight. The theme of the conference, organizers told First Read last week, is that 2008 has an opportunity to be a sea-change election for the Democrats.

*** It's the economy… : Today should be a major Iraq day, and instead it appears Washington (and New York) and the media will be consumed with the economy. The campaigns are all prepared for an Iraq week, but don't seem to be prepared for a week dominated by the economy. None of the three candidates has been aggressive about reacting to what's actually going on with the economy. All have plans about housing and taxes, etc. But none seem to be tempted into talking about why there's a credit crunch or what's going to pull the country out of this economic funk. And surprisingly, the media isn't demanding answers from the candidate on their prescriptions for the economy.

*** On the trail: Elsewhere today, Clinton heads to Albany after her Iraq speech to attend David Paterson's swearing-in ceremony; McCain remains overseas; and Obama is in Pennsylvania, where he stumps in Monaca and Scranton.

Countdown to Pennsylvania: 36 days
Countdown to North Carolina, Indiana: 50 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 232 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 309 days

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