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First thoughts: Obama's tough night

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Obama's tough night: Last night wasn't a good debate for Obama. Period. But it wasn't a great debate for Clinton either. Of course, that may not matter to her campaign -- in a two-way debate, it's not about which candidate narrowly wins, but which candidate gets pummeled in the post-debate reviews. And Obama is getting pummeled because, well, he did get pummeled, a bit by Clinton and a little bit by the moderators. In the first 40 minutes of the debate, most of the questions were focused on Obama's negatives (except for a lone Bosnia-sniper question to Clinton, with no follow up) and that's what helped create what was a near disastrous performance for the front-runner. Obama was weak in a lot of his answers on his personal negatives. (Did he really compare Tom Coburn to a one-time '60s radical/terrorist?) Meanwhile, Clinton piled on, particularly (and surprisingly, actually) on Bill Ayers, the former '60s radical who has tenuous ties to Obama. We're not sure if Clinton's piling on ever is good for her in the long run -- see her current poll standing -- it created some post-debate issues for Obama. Many news organizations will feel compelled to do Ayers stories in the next few days (and they already have). While some may question the fairness and relevancy of the Ayers issue, it's not going to be good for Obama.
 
*** Backlash? This debate is going to lead a lot of Obama supporters to ratchet up the calls on Clinton to either withdraw or tone down the attacks. Clinton supporters will point to this debate as proof that he's not yet ready for the general, that's why she should stay in, and that's why superdelegates should overturn the winner of pledged delegates. Still, Obama supporters -- and probably some neutral Democrats, too -- are going to be livid at how damaging this debate was to both of them. And the calls for getting the primary over with are going to rise. Indeed, per an aide, the Obama campaign is going to try to seize on last night's negativity by announcing the support of Pennsylvania voters "who have switched their allegiance from Clinton to Obama, largely because of her negativity."

VIDEO: NBC Deputy Political Director Mark Murray gives a post-game analysis of last night's debate and looks ahead at the approaching Pennsylvania primary.

*** Where we go from here: Overall, with the spotlight on him very bright, Obama didn't step up. He got rattled early on and never picked his game back up. Clinton wasn't very warm (outside of he first few minutes), but she didn't have the spotlight on her very bright. And as we've noted here quite a few times, whenever the spotlight is on one candidate, the other seems to benefit. Last night, the spotlight was on Obama, and for a short period of time, expect Clinton to benefit. But the question is whether she can sustain any benefit since as the negativity goes on, she pays a bigger price than Obama. Let's see what Pennsylvania decides in five days. A big Clinton victory and this debate will be seen as an important turning point. But a narrow victory (less than five points) and she could find herself facing more calls to get out.

*** Two other takeaways: Could last night's true winner be John McCain? That appears to be the scoring by quite a few pundits. One other thing, and you can take this to the bank: that was the final debate of the primary season. The Obama folks still control the debate schedule and until they don't, don't count on more debates. The control could change, but not before May 6.

*** The delegate count: Obama picked up an Oklahoma superdelegate, add-on Reggie Whitten. Clinton now leads in superdelegates 257-235. Since Sunday, Obama has picked up five supers to Clinton's zero. With his three elected superdelegate pick-ups yesterday, Obama has moved past Clinton among the group (U.S. Senators, Reps and governors): 96-94. In the overall count now, Obama leads by 142 (1,651-1,509). He has a 164 pledged-delegate lead (1,416-1,252).

*** Flash Gordon: All three presidential candidates meet with British PM Gordon Brown at the British embassy in DC today. Obama goes at 9:00 am ET, McCain goes at 10:00 am ET, and Clinton goes at 11:00 am ET. Why do we have visions of the three presidential candidates all waiting in the waiting area -- like at the doctor's or dentist's office? Per NBC's John Yang, Brown also meets with President Bush today and will hold a joint news conference (two questions from British reporters, two questions from the White House press corps).

*** On the trail: Elsewhere today, Clinton stops by Haverford College, tapes an appearance on Colbert, and attends a block party in Philly; Obama heads to North Carolina, stumping in Raleigh and Greenville; and Bill Clinton has a whopping six campaign events in Pennsylvania.

Countdown to Pennsylvania: 5 days
Countdown to North Carolina, Indiana: 19 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 201 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 278 days
 
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