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First thoughts: Bush's gift to Obama

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Bush's gift to Obama: When President Bush -- thousands of miles away in Israel -- decided to fire his thinly veiled shot at Obama yesterday, it was a giant gift to the Illinois senator and his campaign. Why? One, it essentially kept Clinton on the sidelines just two days after her big West Virginia victory. Two, Obama's opponent was no longer Clinton or McCain, but the man with the 27% job-approval rating. And three, it rallied Democrats to Obama's side. Even neutral Dems, like Joe Biden, Rahm Emanuel and Harry Reid, quickly leapt to Obama's defense. Some Democrats might be deeply divided right now. Pro-choice women are angry at NARAL's endorsement of Obama; Clinton supporters are upset that Obama is looking like the eventual nominee; and some African Americans are unhappy with the Clintons. But what's the best way to unify them all? Give them an excuse to turn their attention to Bush. And this will all play out another day -- and will likely extend into the weekend -- as Obama will respond this afternoon to Bush at his rally with Tom Daschle in South Dakota, NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports. Obama will react to both what he considers Bush's politicization of foreign policy and the substance of Bush's attack.

*** The power of Bush: Regardless of whether you believe Bush yesterday did the right thing or not as far as the unwritten rules of partisan politics, it is a reminder of how the president can toss an issue grenade into the middle of the campaign and change the narrative in a nanosecond. But we have to ask: Did anyone in McCain's orbit get a head's up on this? After all, Bush's remarks -- and then McCain's response to them -- overshadowed McCain's big "2013" speech that he gave to put more room between himself and Bush. They also undercut that very speech after McCain essentially agreed with Bush's assessment. As the Obama campaign pointed out, McCain delivered "a lofty speech about civility and bipartisanship in the morning, and then embrace[d] George Bush's disgraceful political attack in the afternoon." Now, McCain's past (and possibly contradictory) statements on Hamas are gaining fresh scrutiny today with an op-ed by Jamie Rubin in today's Washington Post.

*** Understanding the reality: Another example of how unifying Bush's speech yesterday was: Clinton also leapt to Obama's defense, even though she has disagreed with him on this issue of negotiating with unsavory world leaders without preconditions. "This is the kind of statement that has no place in any presidential address, and certainly to use an important moment like the 60th anniversary celebration of Israel to make a political point seems terribly misplaced," Clinton said. But earlier in the day, as NBC's Ron Allen pointed out, Clinton gave few hints that she's still fighting for the nomination. "Maybe we're getting a bit ahead of things, maybe its just the place and time, maybe its that we're all looking for clues about her intentions, but the vibe feels different," Allen wrote. And as a top Clinton aide told NBC's Mitchell: "People understand the reality, but they are still loyal to her." It's striking how the Edwards endorsement, and then Bush's volley from Israel, quickly changed the subject after Tuesday night's contest in West Virginia.

*** Johnny Got His Gun: Meanwhile, McCain is making news on a couple different fronts today. First, despite not always being on the best of terms with the National Rifle Association, McCain speaks at the organization's annual meeting in Louisville, KY. "Senator McCain has asked us to come and speak, and our members are looking forward to hearing what he has to say," the NRA's Wayne LaPierre told the Louisville Courier-Journal earlier in the week. "We've had some disagreements with him in the past as everyone knows. We're not foolish enough to ignore the vast numbers of areas in which we agree McCain has been a friend of the Second Amendment."

*** Why didn't they do this two months ago? The other McCain news is that the campaign is paying more attention to his campaign's links to lobbyists. After two staffers had to resign because of their ties to lobbying Myanmar, campaign manager Rick Davis "e-mailed to McCain's entire staff a memo entitled 'McCain Campaign Conflicts Policy' -- Effective Today" that includes a questionnaire asking about previous professional activities," the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder reported. "One of the questions asks: 'Have you ever lobbied for a foreign government?'" The Politico's Ben Smith added that McCain's campaign "asked a prominent Republican consultant, Craig Shirley, to leave his official campaign role and released a new conflict of interest policy Thursday after a Politico inquiry about Shirley's dual role consulting for the campaign and for an independent '527' group opposing the Democratic presidential candidates."

*** Five big turning points: In the latest Atlantic Monthly, Josh Green profiles Obama's record-breaking fundraising machine. "[W]henever I think about the quarter billion dollars he has raised so far, the image that leaps to mind is Scrooge McDuck diving joyously into his piles of gold," he writes. But in our final installment of the big -- yet underappreciated -- turning points in the Obama-Clinton, we remind you about this: It was Clinton, not Obama, who had the fundraising edge heading into the 2008 contests. At the end of last year, Clinton had nearly $38 million cash on hand. And although that amount included the $10 million transfer from her Senate campaign account, as well as lots of money that could only be used in the general election, it eclipsed Obama's $18.6 in the bank. But once we entered the New Year, the rest was history: Obama went on to raise a million (or more) a day, while Clinton, although still raising plenty of money, ran out of cash and is now more than $20 million in debt. This turning point -- when Clinton went from money leader to being essentially broke -- can't be overstated. And it's also worth noting that this is the second-straight cycle that the candidate who raised the most money heading into the nominating contests (Howard Dean won that honor in '03) will probably not be the nominee.

*** Delegate count: Just when we thought this superdelegate stuff couldn't get any weirder, Indiana Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D), who had told NBC's Mike Viqueira after the Indiana primary that he'd cast his superdelegate vote for Clinton because she won his district, revealed that he actually voted in the PRIMARY for Obama. He said he's still going to vote for Clinton at convention, so for now, we'll leave him in Clinton's column in the NBC NEWS count. PLEDGED: Obama 1599 to 1447; SUPERDELEGATES: Obama 291.5 to 276.5; TOTAL: Obama 1,890.5 to 1,723.5.

*** On the trail: Clinton is in Oregon, where she campaigns in Springfield and Salem before heading to Portland to participate in a televised town hall with undecided voters; McCain stumps in West Virginia and then travels to Louisville, KY, where he speaks at the National Rifle Association's annual meeting; and Obama is in South Dakota, where he holds a rural town hall in Watertown and attends a rally in Sioux Falls. Also, Bill Clinton makes five stops in Kentucky.
Countdown to Kentucky and Oregon: 4 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 172 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 249 days
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