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First thoughts: How Hillary will close

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** How Hillary will close: Everyone seems to be looking for any little hint into how Clinton is closing this campaign. The last thing she wants is for the not-so-funny SNL "sore loser" parody to become conventional wisdom. (By the way, anyone else sense that SNL -- which was pretty tough on Obama early on -- is trying TOO hard to win over Obama folks with that cheap-shot filled parody?) Clearly, the Clinton campaign wants to see what superdelegates think after Clinton wins by 25-30 points tomorrow. It will likely be her largest victory since Arkansas, which she won, 70%-26%. Does that mean anything? Clinton hopes so. Yet the Los Angeles Times made a good point over the weekend: Wouldn't it be worse for Obama if he were losing primaries to a non-candidate? Isn't she doing him a favor at this point by at least going through May 20?

*** Clinton as veep: Here's something folks aren't talking about: Rank-and-file Democrats who like both Obama and Clinton (and remember, a majority of Dems do like them both) will find it odd that she's not being seriously considered for Obama's veep. So there is going to have to be a dance. All of us smarty-pants, Inside-the-Beltway types may know and/or think this is a bad idea, but that isn't what Joe or Jane Democrat in Iowa or Joe and Jane Democrat in Florida is going to think. Clinton will have to let Obama off the hook in some way, whether the Obama campaign likes that or not.

VIDEO: NBC Political Director Chuck Todd gives his first read on the tightening superdelegate race and Obama's pivot towards a general election strategy.

*** Not quite a flood, but...: Obama has pulled within two in the NBC News count of taking the lead in what was once Clinton's formidable superdelegate lead. Obama picked up six superdelegates over the weekend, including Arizona congressman Harry Mitchell, add-ons from Ohio and Utah, one from California and two switches from the Virgin Islands. Clinton gained one Saturday -- an add-on from Massachusetts -- but lost the two from the Virgin Islands for a net loss of one. Here are the counts: PLEDGED: Obama 1,590-1,426; SUPERS: Clinton 276.5-275; TOTAL: Obama 1,865-1,702.5. Since last Tuesday's primaries, Obama has picked up 19 to Clinton's net of 1.5.

** Vetting staff: Hamas vs. juntas: Wow, what a weekend in staff purges. Both Obama and McCain had to push folks out who could prove to be embarrassing to their campaigns. Just as McCain was getting some traction on his Hamas hits on Obama, he had to watch two staffers connected to a powerful GOP consulting firm resign due to the firm's ties to the Myanmar junta. If this guilt-by-association start to the general between McCain and Obama is a taste of what's to come, then folks are going to get frustrated quickly with the tone of the campaign. There's always a conflict of interest that could get blown up depending on events out of the campaign's control. For instance, would Myanmar ties been a problem had that cyclone not hit the country last week?

VIDEO: Does Sen. Hillary Clinton have an exit strategy? NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

*** Joint forums: Now that both the McCain and Obama camps are warming to the idea of holding joint forums during the election, who stands to benefit the most? Does McCain benefit because he's struggling to draw enthusiastic crowds when he campaigns and because of the depth and breadth of his debating/town hall abilities? Or does Obama stand to benefit by standing next to McCain enough that swing indie voters don't see the experience difference in the two over time? If both sides see more upside than downside, then this will happen more than a few times. The biggest motivation for both campaigns to agree to this: It cuts out the media and the commission from the debate/forum conversation -- something campaigns hate. They like to have their own control and simply force the media to cover them roadblock style.

*** Five big turning points: For the rest of this week, we're going to focus on what we think are the five big turning points of this campaign, which put Clinton in the position she's currently in: on the brink of elimination. Some will be obvious, and some will be points we think were under-appreciated at the time. We'll start with an under-appreciated one: Obama's Illinois residency. From his blowout win in Wisconsin and his initial launch in Iowa to the Super Tuesday squeaker in Missouri, Obama's candidacy was propelled as much by geography -- states touching Illinois -- as it was by race. Take Missouri, for example. Had Obama not won a single swing-state primary (not caucus) on Super Tuesday, Clinton would have had a VERY powerful talking point that night, because she would have won every state primary (not caucus) that matters. But Obama's Missouri squeaker (which probably was only possible because of the shared media market of St. Louis and because of McCaskill's endorsement) made the focus on the delegate fight, rather than states won. This also brings us to a fact that could have Dems a tad nervous: Obama might be the first Midwesterner as the Dem nominee since Humphrey and Stevenson before him. Neither won. Then again, considering how important the Midwest battleground is this time, Dems may have stumbled into a geographically strong nominee.

*** The general pivot: Speaking of Missouri, guess where Obama is going to spend West Virginia primary day? The Show Me State -- in fact, he's going to be stumping in Rush Limbaugh's hometown of Cape Girardeau. With national TV deciding to cover the West Virginia primary as another Election Night, there clearly was going to be an opportunity for Obama to showcase himself in some form to attempt to take focus off of the likely landslide victory Clinton will enjoy.

*** It's not easy being green: As we and others have pointed out, despite McCain's maverick reputation, when it comes to most of the big issues (Iraq, taxes, health care, and the courts), there are now few differences between him and President Bush. But when campaigning today in Portland, OR, McCain will focus on an issue -- climate change -- where he differs with the Bush Administration. "The facts of global warming demand our urgent attention, especially in Washington," he will say, per excerpts of the speech he will deliver today. "I will not permit eight long years to pass without serious action on serious challenges. I will not accept the same dead-end of failed diplomacy that claimed Kyoto." The speech also coincides with a new TV ad on climate change that the campaign will begin airing in Oregon. Yet pegged to McCain's emphasis on the environment today is a Washington Post piece noting what appears to be a mixed record on the issue. "[A]n examination of McCain's voting record shows an inconsistent approach to the environment: He champions some 'green' causes while casting sometimes contradictory votes on others." 

*** Pickup opportunities? McCain's swing through the Pacific Northwest -- in Oregon today and Washington tomorrow -- brings him to two potential swing states that lean Democratic. We say "potential," however, because Obama has shown more strength in these two states than Clinton. So there is some doubt of just how competitive McCain can remain in these two states if Obama is his foe.

*** On the trail: Clinton spends her whole day in West Virginia, hitting Montgomery, Clear Fork, Logan, and then Fairmont, where she attends a rally hosted by Gov. Joe Manchin; McCain, as mentioned above, is in Oregon; and Obama has an event in Charleston, WV and later attends a rally in Louisville, KY. Also, Bill Clinton makes four campaign stops in Oregon.

Countdown to West Virginia: 1 day
Countdown to Kentucky and Oregon: 8 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 176 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 253 days
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