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First Thoughts: Obama's back to the wall

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Obama's back against the wall: After Pennsylvania, a lot of folks -- including us -- figured that Obama would win North Carolina by as much, or even more, than Clinton won the Keystone State, thus erasing the gains she made there in delegates and the popular vote. But the race in Carolina is tightening from the double-digit lead he once held; a new Research 2000 poll has him up by seven points, 51%-44%. After several days of Jeremiah Wright dominating the news -- plus some new polls showing an erosion of support -- Obama's back is against the wall, at least in terms of perception and momentum. Of course, almost every time a candidate's back has been against the wall this campaign (think Clinton and McCain in NH, Obama and McCain in SC, and Clinton in OH and PA), that candidate has flourished. Will Obama continue the trend? His appearance on Meet the Press this Sunday might offer some clues.

VIDEO: NBC Deputy Political Director Mark Murray gives his first read on the tightening North Carolina race and previews Tuesday's primary there and in Indiana.

*** The front-runner spotlight: Should Tuesday's results end up giving Clinton more momentum and extend this race even longer, it could be the worse thing to happen to Clinton. Why? It could invite the dreaded front-runner spotlight. Think about it: None of the remaining candidates has done well when the media spotlight was on them the brightest. The most intense coverage McCain received was in the first six months of 2007, the worst six months of his campaign and the period of time he was the closest thing the GOP had to an inevitable nominee. Clinton's toughest coverage came from about October 2007 to March 1, 2008, the worst six months of her campaign and the time she was considered the inevitable nominee. Now, it's Obama's turn in this version of "kill the man." Remember that game? Where the goal was for everyone to tackle the person with the football? Welcome to political kill the man, in which the media and opponents have successfully tackled McCain last year, Clinton earlier this year, and Obama now. Of course, someone has to survive this war of attrition. We're not going to find new candidates to tackle, are we?

*** 96 hours to go: Indiana and North Carolina are the two biggest states left on the calendar (sorry Puerto Rico, we know you may have a higher turnout than Indiana and more voters, you won't have more delegates). And because of the fairly large and swing nature of Indiana and North Carolina, it's fair to say that if either candidate sweeps the contests, it's going to be a major turning point in the campaign. An Obama sweep, and Clinton might not last the week. A Clinton sweep, meanwhile, and a contested convention is guaranteed.  A split decision, and the trickle to Obama by uncommitted superdelegates probably continues and Obama keeps up his successful limp toward the finish line.

*** The over and under: So with this in mind, let's have some Vegas-like fun. If Vegas were charged with setting the line, our best guess is that Clinton would be giving three points in Indiana, while Obama would giving five points in North Carolina. This doesn't mean this is the prediction for either state we're making, this is simply the margin of victory projection that we think would invite an even amount of money being bet on each candidate. If you actually could find someone to take a bet on the margin of victory for both candidates, you'd need to ask yourself this question when looking at the polling: Where will undecideds go? Does Obama nab any of these undecideds? There are some analysts who believe Obama won't win many of them in either North Carolina or Indiana. And if that's the case, watch out -- both states could be VERY surprising. Undecideds haven't broken for Obama since February. Is this a race deal? So while folks aren't lying to pollsters about support for Obama, those who want to vote against Obama on race are saying they are undecided.

*** Bill works it hard in Carolina: The Clinton campaign clearly seems to smell something in North Carolina. Bill Clinton is barnstorming the state like nobody's business on Monday. He's got nine -- count 'em NINE -- stops on Monday.  Phew. One of us has argued that Hillary wouldn't have gotten this far without Bill, and can't get across the finish line because of him. BUT, if she pulls the upset in North Carolina, it will be Bill's victory. It's just stunning how well he's working these small southern towns. In fact, whoever the nominee is, Bill may be showing the playbook for how to use the former president: send him to these Ruby Red Southern states and let him do his thing. He may be gaffe-a-week prone on the national stage, but sending him to the rural white parts of the South might be a smart move if he'll agree to do it -- if Obama's the nominee. Perhaps the only way he'll agree to campaign this hard in the fall in these areas is if his wife's on the ticket. And it's this last point that we think many of us have overlooked: Has Clinton stayed in this race for so long against all delegate math odds because she wants to force Obama's hand on the No. 2 slot?

*** The day in delegates: Today, Obama camp unveiled another former DNC Chair, Paul G. Kirk. Yesterday, Clinton added four superdelegates to her total; Obama added two, including a switch from Clinton. Clinton got four New York add-ons (Obama will get three after the Illinois convention this weekend) and CT DNC member John Olsen (president of the state AFL-CIO). But Clinton lost a key IN supporter Joe Andrew, a former DNC chair appointed by Bill Clinton. Obama also got TX DNC member John Patrick, the state AFL-CIO vice president. The count: SUPERDELEGATES: Clinton 272-250; PLEDGED: Obama 1,490-1,334; OVERALL: 1,740-1,606.

*** Louisiana special watch: In Louisiana tomorrow, there's a special election between Don Cazayoux (D) and Woody Jenkins (R) to replace Rep. Richard Baker (R), who resigned his seat to take a lobbying job. And as it stands right now, after the Democrats captured Denny Hastert's seat earlier in the year, Democrats are well positioned to win a second GOP-held district. The reason, says David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, is that Cazayoux appears to be the better candidate. "Democrats have a better candidate… I think the candidate is important in a special election," in which turnout is usually low. The Republican groups -- the NRCC and Freedom's Watch -- have tried to nationalize this race by linking the conservative Cazayoux to Obama and Pelosi on taxes and health care. But Democrats believe that by nationalizing the race, especially bringing Obama's name into the mix, will help boost the turnout of African Americans, who make up about 35% of the district.

*** Don't you forget about me: By the way, Guam votes tomorrow (or is Sunday or did it take place yesterday; that whole International Dateline confuses us). Four pledged delegates at stake.

*** On the trail: Clinton campaigns in North Carolina, stumping in Hendersonville and Greensboro and speaking at the North Carolina Democratic Party Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Raleigh; McCain campaigns in Colorado, where he holds a health care town hall and speaks to reporters before heading to Arizona; and Obama has a morning event in Hammond, IN, then goes to the Tar Heel State, holding a rally in Charlotte and also speaking at the J-J Dinner in Raleigh. Also, Bill Clinton campaigns in Indiana and Michelle Obama is in North Carolina.
Countdown to North Carolina, Indiana: 4 days
Countdown to West Virginia: 11 days
Countdown to Kentucky and Oregon: 18 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 186 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 263 days
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