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First thoughts: The campaign gap

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro 
*** The long campaign gap: It's been three weeks since the last primary (Mississippi on March 11), and it's three more weeks until the next primary (Pennsylvania on April 22). That gap appears to be hurting Clinton this week in the same vein that the five-week gap between New Hampshire and Super Tuesday in 2000 hurt Bill Bradley when he had nothing to point to after narrowly losing New Hampshire that year: With no primary to fight, the candidate in the lead gets to look stronger and more insurmountable than perhaps he or she would have had there been a primary or two in between. Clinton is dealing with this constant should-she-stay-or-should-she-go drumbeat because there's nothing else to point to right now; there isn't even another debate for another two-plus weeks. Another advantage that Obama holds right now is money. The Clinton campaign is maintaining that its cash flow is good, but just asking: What happened to those constant Clinton announcements a month ago that they were bringing in $1 million-plus a day online? And how is it that Obama outspent Clinton 5-to-1 on TV last week, per TV ad analyst Evan Tracey? Obama spent $2 million on ads in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and North Carolina, compared with Clinton's $400,000 in Pennsylvania.

VIDEO: NBC Political Director Chuck Todd offers his first read on John McCain's "100-year" problem, the voting gap and Bill Clinton's busy schedule.

*** The enthusiasm gap: Despite some of the hand-wringing that the Obama-Clinton contest has gone on too long and could damage the party in November, here's some news that should cheer up weary Democrats. Per NBC/NJ's Matthew Berger, there have been 101,499 new Democratic applications and 132,688 switches to the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania since January 1. That's compared with 32,191 citizens who have signed up on the Republican roles and 13,937 who have switched to the GOP. Overall, Democrats hold a 4.1 million-to-3.2 million registration advantage over the Republicans in the state. Sure, some of the new voters registering to vote in the upcoming Democratic primary could be Limbaugh Republicans. But this activity -- plus the fact that there are nearly a million more registered Democrats in this very important battleground state -- should be welcome news to the Dems. Meanwhile, Obama's supporters seem to be backing away from the getting-out refrain. Could it be that the constant Clinton argument of "Let everyone's vote be heard" is helping her in the remaining states? Do Pennsylvania, Indiana, and North Carolina voters want to vote in a primary that counts and therefore are turned off by any push to end the race?

*** The 100-Year War: Not a day has gone by recently when the McCain campaign or the RNC hasn't pushed back aggressively when either Obama or Clinton has mentioned -- in some fashion -- that McCain wants to keep US troops in Iraq for 100 years. They know the legend of the comment has gotten out of hand (much like Al Gore inventing the internet), and they are trying VERY hard to put the toothpaste back into the tube. They are petrified that it becomes the one thing everyone thinks they know about McCain and Iraq. The McCain campaign, in fact, declared victory of sorts when it passed around Obama's statement yesterday that McCain's 100-year comment referred to a peacetime commitment (a la South Korea) and not a 100-year war. The RNC also issued a release on the matter this morning. "With Barack Obama finally acknowledging today John McCain does not support a 100-year war in Iraq, we expect that he will answer his own calls for a more honest debate and stop playing crude politics with such an important issue," McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said in a statement. Still, this 100-year comment has taken on a life of its own, and even though McCain's folks believe the facts are on their side, so did Al Gore's folks when it came to the internet and Love Canal.

*** But is this still ground on which the GOP wants to fight? Yet here is what Obama said yesterday: "Well we've been in South Korea for 50 years … and we're spending $10 billion a month in Iraq right now. Which means that John McCain is willing to sign up for the prospect of spending as much as $150 billion or more each year for who knows how long. That is something that the US can't afford, and I think that is going to be a debate we are going to have in the general election should I be the nominee." This is why it's important how the Iraq debate in the fall is framed. If it's framed as who can get troops out faster, the Dem is going to win that argument. If McCain can shift the debate frame to who can keep Iraq stable and win this war, he has a chance. The question, of course, is whether the public has the stomach for a recommitment to winning in Iraq.

*** Clinton-Gore redux? One of the best rumors of the day is this idea that Al Gore is pondering a Clinton endorsement in exchange for a place on the ticket. Apparently, Gore wants to relive the Clinton-Gore years with Hillary in the Oval Office as long as he gets to own the climate issue. In addition, this sets up Gore to perhaps run in four years as one of the ways Clinton enticed Gore into doing this was a promise of serving just one term. It's a stunning development that's completely believable on a day like this, April 1. By the way, be prepared for lots of  "Clinton's dropping out" jokes today, and if you can't figure out why, then you need to get a sense of humor.

*** Back to school: McCain begins the second leg of his "Service to America" tour with a speech this morning at his alma mater, Episcopal High School in Alexandria, VA. Per excerpts of his remarks, McCain will focus on the value of education. "I doubt I will ever meet another person who had the impact on my life that my English teacher at Episcopal High School did," he is expected to say. "But I know there are many Americans who should teach and could influence children as beneficially as he did me. All children should have a teacher like I had, who they remember when they have children and grandchildren as one of the most fortunate relationships in their lives." In addition, McCain does Letterman tonight. It's also worth pointing out that McCain's speech in Mississippi didn't necessarily get a huge pickup in newscasts and today's newspapers. Yet another sign of his difficulty breaking through the Obama-Clinton storyline?

*** On the trail: Elsewhere today, both Clinton and Obama remain in Pennsylvania -- in fact, they both have stops in Wilkes-Barre. Clinton begins her day touring MJ Donovan Company in Philadelphia, then speaks to the state AFL-CIO in Philadelphia, then does an economic town hall in Wilkes-Barre, and finally holds a rally in Erie. Obama, meanwhile, starts by holding a town hall in Wilkes-Barre and then heads to another one in Scranton.

*** Bill watch: Also today, Bill Clinton campaigns in Montana, after spending time in Oregon. In the last few weeks, no one has kept a busier schedule than Bill -- not even Hillary or Obama has done more events in more states, it seems. Seriously, count up the individual events he holds in a day and you'll see this is a guy that's actually doing more daily events than his wife or her chief rival. More importantly, why is it the campaign believes sending Bill in first to a new primary state is the way to go? Apparently, he's headed to Puerto Rico soon -- again before Hillary.
Countdown to Pennsylvania: 21 days
Countdown to North Carolina, Indiana: 35 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 217 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 294 days
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