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First thoughts: Obama boxed in?

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Boxing Obama in on Iraq? Lost yesterday in the frenzy over Scott McClellan's new book was McCain's blistering attack on Obama over the fact that the Illinois senator hasn't been to Iraq since 2006. Indeed, the RNC even released an online clock counting the days since Obama last visited the Middle East country. Then later in the day, the New York Times reported that Obama is considering a trip to Iraq; his campaign, in fact, has been discussing such a trip for weeks. Has McCain boxed Obama in on this issue -- because if he does actually go to Iraq, will it look like McCain's idea? There are certainly a few other pros to McCain's line of attack here: It moves the issue terrain to ground on which the Arizona senator is comfortable (Iraq), and it makes McCain look like the knowledgeable and experienced one. "The important thing is for him to go and see the facts on the ground and the success we are achieving," McCain said yesterday. But there are a couple of cons, too. For starters, this debate will spur news organizations to whip up the video of McCain's widely panned stroll through that Baghdad market, evidence that politicians don't always see everything when they visit Iraq. But more important, if Obama DOES go, it could provide him a real commander-in-chief moment. As conservative commentator Jennifer Rubin puts it, "He might be able to … show he is not 'afraid' to get out and meet with the troops and commanders. He might even impress some voters that he is fluent enough in national security matters to be a credible commander-in-chief." Short-term gain for McCain, potential long-term opportunity for Obama? Perhaps.

*** Replaying Clinton's greatest hits: McCain's attack on Obama yesterday also included this line: "Sen. Obama is the chairman of important subcommittee that has the oversight of what's going on in Afghanistan. He has not held one single hearing on Afghanistan." Later in the day, a McCain spokesman released this statement: "In 2004, Barack Obama said he had the same position [on Iraq] as President George W. Bush." Um, haven't we heard this stuff before -- from Clinton and her campaign? In fact, there is a danger here for McCain in recycling Clinton's greatest hits on Obama over the last several months. For one thing, the attacks seem a bit dated (Afghanistan and the subcommittee?) Two, they didn't exactly work for Clinton, did they? Then again, perhaps they might work better with general election voters. But so far, they haven't been a silver bullet. Some non-connected McCain watchers have been warning the campaign against recycling the same lines of attack on Obama -- don't hit him on the obvious weaknesses (inexperience); instead try and hug him on his supposed strength (non-polarizing) and lay claim to being the, well, reformer with results. But that sounds like Clinton's "solutions" gambit, doesn't it?

VIDEO: NBC Political Director Chuck Todd gives his first read on what Scott McClellan's new book means for McCain and looks at the Florida and Michigan delegate math ahead of this weekend's DNC meeting.

*** Still dominating the news: Per NBC's John Yang, as Scott McClellan starts trying to explain his book -- as he did on TODAY this morning -- and as the chorus of Bush loyalists both inside and outside the White House continue their defense, the White House has nothing to try to push this story out of the headlines. Mr. Bush is on the final day of his Western swing, where he has two events: a meeting with the head of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City and a fundraiser for a Republican House challenger in Kansas, both closed to coverage. He returns to the White House around this evening. McClellan will appear on Olbermann tonight, as well as on Meet the Press on Sunday. This is turning into a five-day news story -- minimum. And that's not just unhelpful to Bush as he attempts to repair his image even a little, but also to John McCain, who doesn't need White House Bush drama eating into his coverage. Also, nevermind how McClellan has stepped on Clinton's final attempt to bring attention to the Florida-Michigan process.

VIDEO: See McClellan's exclusive interview with TODAY's Meredith Vieira.

*** The circus comes to town: Speaking of drama, Saturday's DNC rules committee hearing is promising to be a potential circus, as Clinton supporters appear to be preparing for fairly loud protests -- something the Obama campaign is reminding reporters that they could do but are choosing not to. The Clinton campaign is denying fanning the protest front, but they aren't discouraging the demonstrations either. And then there are the conspiracy theories popping up in the left blogosphere that Republicans will be secretly showing up Saturday in order to cause chaos and make the party look ridiculous on national TV. As for the actual meeting itself, there's one more angle you ought to be aware of: a 50% cut and a halving of the delegates is not the same thing. For instance, if Florida delegates are seated in their entirety, but only have their vote counted as a .5, then Clinton will net approximately 19 delegates out of the state. But if the delegation is cut in half, that's done in every congressional district as well as statewide, then suddenly Clinton's advantage is only a net of six. That's right, the complicated nature of the DNC delegate selection process will be a good reminder to math majors everywhere that a 50% cut is not the same as a halving of an individual number. Go figure...

*** Ron Paul watch: It's worth noting that the Idaho Republican primary was Tuesday, and Ron Paul got 24% of the vote there. "[I]n Tuesday's little-noticed Republican primary in Idaho, the iconoclastic Texas congressman had his best showing so far…," the Boston Globe writes, adding, "Paul's showing came despite making only one campaign stop in the state" and that "Paul's supporters have been making waves in state GOP conventions, hoping to secure a speaking role for him, plus a say on the party platform, at the national convention in September." Uncommitted got 6% in Idaho while McCain got the rest -- 70%.

*** Veepstakes/battleground watch: In today's veepstakes news, Michael Bloomberg criticizes all three presidential contenders (Clinton, McCain, Obama) for not always standing up to special interests… Joe Lieberman had to step down from the pro-Iraq war group Vets for Freedom because it's running 527 ads against Obama… Lieberman refused to throw Pastor John Hagee under the bus and will attend the pastor's summit in July… And don't forget to check out our GOP veepstakes tournament on MSNBC.com. By the way, not a single one of our business execs will make it past the first round. Also, in state battleground news, a new Michigan poll has McCain leading Obama, 44%-40%, but toss in Romney and Clinton as the McCain and Obama running mates and the result flips with Obama-Clinton leading. Hmmm….

*** The delegate count: Obama picked up four more superdelegates yesterday and one this morning, which brings him within 44.5 of the required 2,026 (which, of course, will likely go up after Saturday depending on how the Michigan and Florida delegations are seated.) The NBC NEWS Delegate Counts: PLEDGED: Obama 1,649 to 1,500; SUPERDELEGATES: Obama 320.5 to 283.5; EDWARDS PL.: Obama 12 to 0; TOTAL: Obama 1,981.5 to 1,783.5.

*** On the trail: Clinton remains in South Dakota, holding rallies in Huron and Watertown; McCain has a town hall in Greendale, WI and fundraises in Milwaukee afterward; and Obama is down in Chicago.

Countdown to Puerto Rico: 3 days
Countdown to Montana, South Dakota: 5 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 159 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 236 days
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