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Johnson Up Huge In SD

Republicans looking for a few wins in Senate races around the country could be disappointed this year, as a new poll shows one of their potential pick-up opportunities could be dramatically out of reach. While Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu remains a top target, South Dakota's Tim Johnson is farther from vulnerable, especially given that Republicans have yet to even recruit their top target.

The poll, conducted by the Feldman Group for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, surveyed 500 likely voters between 2/25-27 for a margin of error of +/- 4.4%. Johnson and former Lieutenant Governor Steve Kirby were surveyed.

General Election Matchup
Johnson 70
Kirby 19

Despite spending most of last year recuperating from a life-threatening brain clot in late 2006, Johnson gets high marks on favorability and job performance. 79% of state voters say they view him favorably, while 72% say Johnson is doing an excellent or good job as a Senator.

Republicans have yet to actually seal the deal with Kirby, though Democrats are having fun with the fact that so many other potential candidates passed on a race against Johnson before the GOP found him. Republicans, though, say a website the DSCC has set up -- -- shows Johnson still has reason to worry. Still, with a 51-point lead, Johnson should be resting easily today.

Well, If THAT Qualifies...

What, exactly, qualifies someone to be a member of Congress? A clear plurality of incumbent members are lawyers, though there are doctors, farmers, law enforcement officers, former CIA and FBI agents and an assortment of others, ordinary and bizarre (Tom DeLay was an exterminator). If it's education, the vast majority of members have college degrees, and the ones who don't are pretty smart anyway.

Former Mizzou football star Brock Olivo set the bar a little lower. "Not only was I football player, but I also was in social studies class, and I have a passion for how this country works," he told the AP. Olivo, who played for the Detroit Lions for four years before working for a foundation in Washington, is one of three top Republicans running to replace Rep. Kenny Hulshof, who is running for governor.

Olivo would not be the first former football player in Congress. Seattle Seahawk great Steve Largent served until 2002, when he resigned to make an unsuccessful bid for governor of his native state of Oklahoma. Democrat Heath Shuler, best known in Washington for throwing more than twice as many interceptions than he did touchdowns, most of which came with the Redskins, is now a member of Congress. Other sports stars have made it to Washington in recent years, including Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning, the Kentucky Senator, and track star Jim Ryun, who lost to Democratic Rep. Nancy Boyda last year.

As over-qualified as Olivo might be, having aced social studies, he still has to face State Reps. Danie Moore and Bob Onder in Missouri's August 5 primary. The winner will face either State Rep. Judy Baker, House Speaker Steve Gaw or Marion County Commissioner Lyndon Bode, all of whom are running on the Democratic side.

The district, which had elected a Democrat for generations before Hulshof's 1996 victory, is mostly rural, comprising the northeastern corner of the state. President Bush won 55% there in 2000 and 59% in 2004, but with the right candidate, Democrats think they might actually be able to steal Hulshof's seat, even as he runs for governor and will look to run up big margins in his home area.

Dems Close In On Control of NY State Senate

While Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were busy throwing elbows Tuesday night, voters in Clinton's home state pushed Democrats an inch closer to an important milestone. Democrat Darrel Aubertine, a state assemblyman, surprised political observers by winning a northern New York State Senate seat in a special election over Republican William Barclay, whose father, the New York Times reported, once held the same seat.

The Dem pick up in this special election, made necessary by a Republican incumbent's retirement, puts the GOP in the tenuous position of holding just a 32-30 seat advantage in the legislature's upper chamber, and marks the party's seventh loss in recent years. Though a state senate seat may not sound terribly important, control of the upper chamber will be critically important when the state undergoes redistricting in two years, as we wrote in August.

After 2010, representatives of the Governor, the Assembly Speaker and the State Senate President will meet to redraw congressional and legislative district lines. Democrats hold the governor's mansion, though incumbent Eliot Spitzer will have to seek re-election in 2010, and own a wide majority in the Assembly. Taking back the Senate would put control of redistricting entirely in their party's hands.

Should that happen, not only will Democrats be able to redraw Senate borders to help their party win a new majority there, they will also be able to redraw Congressional borders and endanger some of the state's six Republican delegates to Washington. New York will lose two seats next year, meaning at least a few members of Congress will be forced to run against fellow incumbents.

If Democrats control the process, they will likely force Republicans together, or into districts that overwhelmingly favor the Democratic incumbent. The party will also be able to draw new Democratic voters into seats they hold tenunously, including those of freshmen Reps. Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hall and Michael Arcuri.

Republican seats currently held by Reps. Jim Walsh, who is retiring, John McHugh, Randy Kuhl and Tom Reynolds could be in danger. All three represent upstate New York, where Democrats have seen a resurgence and have captured both legislative and Congressional seats in recent years. Democrats also might be able to draw borders that weaken Republicans Vito Fossella and Peter King, who represent Staten Island and Long Island, respectively.

All sixty-two state senate seats are contested every two years, giving Democrats two more opportunities to snag victories in the chamber. They only need one seat to do so, as well: Lieutenant Governor David Patterson, a Democrat, would cast any tie-breaking votes.

National organizations favoring both parties, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and the Republican State Leadership Committee, consider the Empire State Senate a top priority, and competitive races there typically cost millions of dollars. And Senate President Joseph Bruno told the New York Post that he's not giving up without a fight.

Before redistricting comes, huge amounts of resources will be devoted to keeping or capturing one seat in what has become one of the most crucial battlegrounds in the country.

Clinton's Daisy Ad

Hillary Clinton is nothing if not committed to winning this presidential contest. As she sees the clock wind down, though, Clinton has to pull out all the stops to pull out what seems like an increasingly improbable victory. Now, with the aid of veteran ad man Roy Spence, she has done so, as ABC's Nitya Venkataraman reports.

In a new ad (complete with Stephanopoulos analysis), set to air in the closing days before crucial Texas and Ohio primaries, Clinton takes half a page from Lyndon Johnson and half a page from Walter Mondale to suggest, again, that Barack Obama is not ready to be president.

"It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. But there's a phone in the White House, and it's ringing. Something's happened in the world," a deep-voiced narrator intones, as children sleep in the dark. "Your vote will decide who answers the call. Whether it's someone who already knows the world's leaders, knows the military. Someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world. It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?" Clinton, answering a phone, says she approves the ad.

The spot is perhaps the toughest Clinton can be without overtly claiming an imminent terrorist attack. Reminiscent of Johnson's "Daisy" ad in 1964 and Mondale's 1984 primary ad, depicting a shrieking red telephone and asking voters who they wanted on the other end.

It's no wonder comparisons should be made to Mondale's spot, which Gary Hart later credited for seriously damaging his credibility. The two spots are very similar, and Spence, who came on board the Clinton team after New Hampshire, created both.

Some will claim the ad is over the top, but Clinton had to emphasize her experience somehow. In a way, it's surprising that it's taken this long; that with just a weekend left to get her message out, she's waited until now to make her case in the strongest way possible.

The ad is certainly no "Daisy." "These are the stakes: To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die," Johnson thunders over a nuclear fireball. "Daisy" was so controversial that it ran a total of one time. Even Mondale's ad, which lasted longer than a single run, had a sharper tone.

Political admaking, in short, is becoming more subtle, and at the first hint of overtness, many cry wolf. That limits a candidate's ability to make up big deficiencies quickly. Still, if Obama prevails in the primary, expect a much harsher version of the ad, with John McCain offering the tag line.

Update: Obama chief David Plouffe hit back hard in a morning conference call with reporters. "Senator Clinton had her red phone moment. She had it in 2002. It was on the Iraq war. And she and John McCain and George Bush all gave the wrong answer," Plouffe said. "This is about what you say when you answer that phone."

Morning Thoughts: Learning Something New

Good Friday morning. Think of Leap Day as a gift, an extra day to learn something new. Like this: The Ottawa Senators fired their coach yesterday, a move coming 18 games before the end of the season. We were just shocked to learn that the NHL still exists. In Washington, DC, where the Caps remain three wins out of the playoffs, here's what's making news:

-- The Senate takes up a measure to prevent certain home foreclosures this morning, though no roll call votes will be recorded. Meanwhile, the Senate Homeland Security Committee takes up reform of the intelligence community. The House is not in session today, and President Bush has a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

-- A new survey for the Pew Research Center is just the sort of ammunition Hillary Clinton needs as days wind down before Ohio and Texas vote. Despite Barack Obama's lead over John McCain in recent polls, Clinton maintains she is the candidate with a better shot of winning the general election. She's been tested, she argues, while Obama has not, and the exploitation of any Obama weakness by McCain and Republicans will be too much for the rookie to bear. The survey shows most voters say Obama has not provided enough information about his policies, while a plurality says he wouldn't be tough enough to handle foreign and national security affairs. If only Clinton could get the average voter to read polls.

-- But the poll has great news for McCain, who has spent every waking moment trying to steer the conversation to Iraq and the war on terror: Public attitudes on Iraq are shifting, as more Americans say progress is being made -- up 18% in the past year (including Angelina Jolie). That gives Republicans hope that their guy has a chance this fall: The more a person thinks the war is going well, the more likely they are to cast a ballot for McCain. Even more importantly for McCain, slightly fewer people say the war was the right decision, but his argument hinges on convincing Americans he's the right guy for the future. That argument, so far, is working.

-- On the Democratic side, everything is coming up aces. The two candidates will have raised a combined total of $80 million or more for the month of February -- $50 million for Obama, about $35 million for Clinton, many people report. That's more than McCain has raised in his entire campaign. If either Clinton or Obama are seriously thinking about public financing when they can write their own checks, they need their heads examined.

-- Still, that much money pouring in means both candidates remain viable, and both have to focus on each other while McCain can cruise without too many stumbling blocks. Obama wants to end that on Tuesday, with a final blow that could knock Clinton from the race. His camp has bought two-minute advertisements in every market in Ohio and Texas for Monday afternoon, Chuck Todd reports. Clinton, trying to stay afloat, will hold another town hall meeting similar to the nationally broadcast one she held before February 5. Both teams are planning a long pass, and both have very different goals.

-- Not all is well in McCainville. Even when he gets a prominent, base-coalescing endorsement, it turns out to be a political liability. McCain, who was backed yesterday by well-known evangelist John Hagee, is taking serious heat from Catholic League chief Bill Donohue, who alleges that Hagee has spent years fighting and insulting the Catholic Church. "Senator Obama has repudiated the endorsement of Louis Farrakhan, another bigot. McCain should follow suit and retract his embrace of Hagee," Donohue wrote in a statement.

-- Mike Huckabee, meanwhile, was also irritated by the endorsement: He thought he should have gotten it, as NBC/NJ's Matt Berger writes. Huckabee criticized the minister for playing politics instead of standing on principle, saying Hagee told him the endorsement came because he figured it was about time to get on McCain's winning team. Huckabee's run is likely coming to a close, but as it does, he's looking more aggressive. In the long run, staying in the race an extra few weeks is not going to hurt his own career nearly as much as mounting bitterness at his party's nominee.

-- Relocation Of The Day: Former Maine Governor Kenneth Curtis has abandoned his state for the sunny climes of Florida, the Ellsworth American wrote recently (that's the same paper that ran a series on Maine as the "whitest state"). Curtis, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, probably didn't realize that his move fundamentally altered the national playing field. Curtis had pledged support to Clinton, DemConWatch reports, but because he's now a Florida resident, Curtis has lost his vote in Denver. That means the number of eligible super delegates is down to 794, and Clinton has lost another one, not to Obama, but to Florida. The way this winter is going, wouldn't you do the same?

-- Today On The Trail: Obama meets voters at an American Legion outpost in Houston before heading to a prayer meeting in Brownsville. Later, he'll hold a rally in Selma. Clinton is in Dallas for the funeral of a police officer who died after her motorcycle crashed during a Clinton motorcade. Later, Clinton has rallies planned for Waco and San Antonio. McCain has a town hall meeting in Round Rock, Texas, followed by a media availability, while Huckabee rallies in Lubbock and College Station before making himself available to the media in Fort Worth and Houston.

Musgrave Faces Daunting Challenge

Colorado Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave faces yet another strong challenge in her bid to keep the state's Fourth District in Republican hands this year. Musgrave will face Betsy Markey, a small businesswoman and local activist running unopposed in the Democratic Primary after Eric Eidsness, a third-party candidate in 2006 who aided Musgrove's re-election, recently ended a repeat bid.

It would seem that Musgrove, who represents a solidly Republican district, would have little difficulty winning reelection. Yet Musgrave has managed only marginal victories in recent years. She won her seat in 2002 with 55% of the vote after popular Republican Bob Schaffer left the seat in his ultimately failed bid for the Senate. In 2004, facing the same challenger, she was labeled the "one-trick pony" for her anti-same sex marriage focus and squeaked past her opponent with 51% of the vote.

In 2006 she received only 46% of the vote (the lowest reelection percentage of any winning incumbent). Had 3rd party candidate Eric Eidsness not run and taken 11% of the vote away from Musgrave's Democratic rival, Musgrave might well have lost.

And so comes the 2008 campaign, in which Democrats are licking their chops in hopes of knocking off the vulnerable Republican from a GOP district who always seems to get away. A poll conducted in April of last year revealed that only 39% percent of voters wanted Musgrave reelected.

Health care will be the most important issue in the campaign, a less polarizing issue for a Democrat to take up in a Republican district, Markey campaign manager Anne Caprara told Politics Nation. Markey will be heavily criticizing Musgrave for her vote against the State Children's Health Insurance Program, echoing a national theme. Caprara says the other major criticism of Musgrave will be her vote against last year's farm bill, a move that will not play well in the district's eastern, more rural counties. Caprara also points to the district's two large growing counties of Larimer and Weld whose new occupants are predominantly Democratic and Independent voters.

Musgrave is working hard to redefine her image. She is no longer the 'gay marriage' congresswoman but the one visiting local diners focused on the bread and butter issues. Jason Thielman, Musgrave's campaign manager, told Politics Nation that "Betsy will be vulnerable because she has a story but no record. She's in lock step with the very extreme liberal position of Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama."

While no public polling is available, Musgrave is a member of the NRCC's Regain Our Majority Program, set aside for the most vulnerable incumbents. Her 2006 campaign benefited from $1.8 million in ads from the NRCC, though it's unclear how much of that she will be able to rely on this year.

Through December 31, Musgrave reported her campaign had $760,483 on hand, almost a quarter of a million short of what she had at the same time of the 2006 campaign. Markey is in better shape financially than Musgrave's 2006 opponent was at this time of the campaign. At the end of the fourth quarter, she maintained $286,000 in the bank.

Markey is among those attending a DCCC retreat in Washington, and the campaign committee sees the seat as one of their top pickup opportunities. Like many Democrats running for Congress, Markey is hoping the huge surge in first time voters for the presidential caucuses last month will translate into large turnout for the congressional race in November.

With Eidsness a non-factor this year, Musgrave could be in trouble. If Markey can win big among an expanded Democratic base and pick up significant support from independents, she could very well pull off the upset.

-- Greg Bobrinskoy

GOP Gov Up In Dem VT

It may be one of the most solidly Democratic states in the country, but Vermont likes its incumbent governor, who just so happens to be a Republican. A new poll, conducted for WCAX-TV, shows three-term Republican Jim Douglas running well ahead of his rivals from the Democratic and Progressive Parties, making it likely someone so conservative he passed out bumper stickers for Barry Goldwater will win a fourth term.

The poll, conducted by Maryland-based Research 2000 between 2/19-21, surveyed 400 likely voters for a margin of error of +/- 4.9%. The poll tested Douglas, former Ambassador Peter Galbraith, a Democrat, and activist Anthony Pollina, who has said he will run as a Progressive.

General Election Matchup
Douglas 53
Galbraith 22
Pollina 15

Galbraith has not officially entered the race yet, though national and Vermont Democrats are hoping he does. Without Pollina on the ballot, the party even thinks the contest could be competitive come November. But Douglas, the state's first governor since Howard Dean left office, has defeated tough candidates before. In 2002, he beat Dean's Lieutenant Governor by three points, even though a former Republican was in the race running as an independent.

In 2004, Douglas hammered Democrat Peter Clavelle, who had served for years as mayor of Burlington, by a whopping 59%-38% margin even as John Kerry took almost 60% of the vote that year. Two years later former State Senator Scudder Parker did only marginally better, losing to Douglas 56%-41%. Still, Democrats have picked up state legislative seats at an impressive clip; they now hold an overwhelming 23-7 majority in the state Senate and a 93-49 majority in the House, aided by six Progressive state representatives as well.

Democrats have a long way to go to knock off Douglas, but they have their opportunities as well. Vermont is one of just two states, along with neighboring New Hampshire, that makes its governors run every two years instead of every four. Democrat Pat Leahy, the state's senior senator, is an institution, while freshman Democratic Rep. Peter Welch is unlikely to face a real challenge this year.

Leahy's colleague in the Senate, Bernie Sanders, is a former Socialist, the first elected to the House since 1926, who owns seniority with the Democratic caucus. Though he declined to run as a Democrat during his 2006 Senate bid, the Vermont state party put him on the ballot anyway, where he won 94% of the vote. Though he was vastly outspent, he cruised to election by a 65%-32% margin.

That could be good news for Douglas: The state elected a Socialist and a Republican, in the same year, by wide margins. Though the Democratic nominee will probably carry the state easily, if Douglas can survive the GOP's miserable 2006 fortunes with popular Sanders on the ballot, he should be able to survive any Democratic wave as well.

Two Tough Fights In NC

Both Democrats and Republicans face contentious and close fights in primaries to replace retiring North Carolina Governor Mike Easley, a new poll shows. While Democrats appear in better position to keep the seat, Republicans are holding out hope that they can steal one of the last remaining southern governorships still in Democratic hands.

The poll, conducted by the Civitas Institute, was conducted among 800 likely voters between 2/20-21. The margin of error for the overall survey is +/- 3.7%, while the Democratic subsample, of 400 voters, is +/- 5% and the Republican sample, of 296 voters, is accurate to within +/- 6%. Democrats Beverly Perdue, the state's Lieutenant Governor, and State Treasurer Richard Moore were surveyed, along with Republicans Pat McCrory, the mayor of Charlotte, State Senator Fred Smith, former State Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr and businessman Bill Graham.

Democratic Primary Election Matchup
Perdue 28 (-6 from last poll, in 1/08)
Moore 23 (-1)

Republican Primary Election Matchup
McCrory 18 (-1)
Smith 17 (+3)
Graham 5 (-7)
Orr 4 (-1)

The primary, to be held on May 6, remains wide open on both sides. National Republicans prefer McCrory, the best-known candidate in the GOP field, to other candidates, but his more moderate voting record could prove a problem to the Republican electorate. A runoff, if needed, will be held June 24.

McCain's Math Problem

Technically, the Republican race is not through yet. John McCain still finds himself short of the 1,191 delegates necessary to win the GOP nomination, even though Mike Huckabee, the last remaining serious challenger in the race, is still doing his best in Texas and Ohio. While Huckabee can't win either, he's become such a problem that McCain has severely altered his schedule this week to handle what has to be an increasingly irritating pest.

Last week, McCain began what looked like a general election schedule. He raised money in Indianapolis, met workers at a Ford plant in Wayne, Michigan before raising money near Detroit, and even spent some time in Washington. He started helping down-ballot candidates as well, holding a fundraiser for businessman Jim Oberweis in Illinois that raked in $250,000.

But this week the story has been different. After today, McCain will have held events in four cities in Texas and four cities in Ohio so far this week. His campaign has not made public events in any other states in the near future.

McCain, it seems, just wants this thing over with, something he could, hypothetically, achieve come Tuesday. By RCP's count, McCain is 172 delegates shy of taking the nomination. Together, Ohio and Texas offer 228 delegates, plus 17 from Vermont and 20 from Rhode Island. Vermont and Rhode Island are likely to give the lion's share of their delegates to McCain -- the Green Mountain State delivers all its delegates to the statewide winner, while Huckabee has expended no effort in Rhode Island.

Still, McCain will need a big margin to finish the race off on March 4. Assuming he takes every delegate from the two New England states, he will need 135 of the 228 Texas and Ohio delegates to secure the nod. With McCain up by nearly 30 points in the latest RCP Ohio Average and ahead by 18.7 points in the last RCP Texas Average, he just might do it.

If he falls short, the March 11 primary in Mississippi will be the last chance for him to end the nominating contest before Pennsylvania, on April 22. Until he reaches 1,191 pledged delegates, though, McCain will have to deal with Huckabee. His public travel schedule sends a clear message: McCain wants this thing over with.

Obama Hits Two Milestones

Barack Obama picked up endorsements from North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan and civil rights icon and Georgia Rep. John Lewis yesterday, pushing him, for the first time, over 200 super delegates. Dorgan joins fellow North Dakotan Kent Conrad and three super delegates from South Dakota, including ex-Senator Tom Daschle, Senator Tim Johnson and Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, while Lewis jumped onboard after undergoing what he characterized as a difficult journey.

Obama's lead in pledged delegates has fueled a post-Super Tuesday bounce in super delegate support as well. He sits atop 201 super delegate votes, while Clinton has 255. At one time, the New York Senator had a 90-delegate advantage, MSNBC reports. Obama has cut that margin virtually in half in a matter of weeks. About 340 supers remain uncommitted.

Obama's campaign also announced yesterday the campaign had received donations from one million people, something no campaign has reached during primary season. That's far ahead of rival Hillary Clinton, The Caucus blogs, though both camps are in the middle of massive voter outreach drives in advance of contests in Texas and Ohio.

Clinton's team made more than a million phone calls to potential voters in February, and the new goal is to make 1.5 million more before Tuesday's vote. Obama is in the middle of his own million-call drive, and the campaign blog reports they've made 410,000 by yesterday morning. And just in case, the campaign has opened a headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi, in preparation for that state's March 11 primary.

But, having closed the super delegate gap with Clinton, once seen as key to her strategy of taking down a brokered convention, will there be a contested election by the time attention turns to Mississippi?

Morning Thoughts: Bloomberg For Veep!

Good Thursday morning. Baseball has officially begun in Arizona and Florida, meaning the long national nightmare is over. Here's what Washington is keeping an eye on this morning:

-- The Senate takes up legislation seeking a report on American strategy against Al Qaeda, while the House today will vote on postal facility renaming bills and a measure to establish a Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. Ralph Nader announces his running mate in a noon press conference at the National Press Club, while President Bush meets with his economic team.

-- "If a candidate takes an independent, nonpartisan approach -- and embraces practical solutions that challenge party orthodoxy -- I'll join others in helping that candidate win the White House," writes New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, offering a New York Times op-ed finally slamming the door on a potential White House bid. One thing that might challenge both parties' orthodoxy: Selecting the Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent businessman as their vice presidential nominee. Speculation runs rampant.

-- We mentioned yesterday that news has not been good for John McCain, whether it's trouble with the FEC or trouble with the New York Times. But what if he's entirely ineligible to run for president because he was born in the Panama Canal Zone? As the Times writes today, George Romney was born in Mexico, Lowell Weicker was born in Paris and Barry Goldwater was born in Arizona when it was still a territory. Chester A. Arthur is said to have been born in Vermont, though rumored to have been born in Canada. With the first three, the debate was a non-issue -- they all lost. McCain, though, could win, and he's not joking around: He's asked former Solicitor General Ted Olson to put together a legal brief arguing that McCain, born in a U.S. military installation, is eligible.

-- This is not going to be the last time this story comes up: A few weeks ago, it was the Clark County, Washington, Republican Party publishing the Muslim emails as fact. A few days ago it was a radio host warming up the crowd at a McCain event using Barack Obama's middle name in hopes of scoring points against him. The same day, the Tennessee Republican Party sent out a press release employing the same tactic. Every time it happens, regardless of its effect on voters, it just looks bad, and national Republicans know it. The RNC warned the Tennessee GOP that, should the incident happen again, they would be publicly repudiated, as Jonathan Martin reports. McCain, who criticized the radio host, said he disapproved of the Tennessee party's move, too, per Fox News' Mosheh Oinounou. If McCain wants to be able to stop apologizing for his own party, those talking points are going to have to be distributed a little more widely.

-- One piece of good news for McCain: In the first few jabs of a general election matchup that will likely pit him against Barack Obama, he's holding his own and taking shots that have an ability to land. Seizing on Obama comments from Tuesday's debate, McCain had a little fun during a Tyler, Texas town hall: "I have some news" for Obama, McCain said, per the AP. "Al Qaeda is in Iraq. It's called 'Al Qaeda in Iraq.'" The back and forth escalated, but it works for both candidates; nothing fires up a Democratic base like arguing with a Republican, and vice versa.

-- When McCain first took on Obama, the younger senator sounded only shaky comebacks. But with practice comes skill, and Obama showed yesterday that he might just be catching on. "I have some news for John McCain," Obama retorted. "There was no such thing as al-Qaida in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq." The response avoided what Obama has done before -- play defense -- and instead forced McCain to respond to something. While some Democrats still feel ill at ease considering Obama's response, or lack thereof, to an eventual Swift Boat-style attack, it looks like he's learned that, when the ball is in his court, he's got to hit it back.

-- Obama can't spend all his time focusing on McCain, though: He's still got a primary to win. And rival Hillary Clinton is doing her best to make Obama's life leading up to March 4's Texas and Ohio primaries a nightmare. Clinton staffers know the two states are must-wins for her, the Post's Murray and Kornblut write, and to that end they're spending every nickel. Like she did before Super Tuesday, Clinton will hold a "Texas-size" town hall meeting that will be broadcast on cable on Monday night. So far, Clinton has spent about $4 million on advertising in Ohio and Texas, while Obama's up to $7 million. And while internal Obama polls show him trailing in both states, the two write, that gap is narrowing.

-- Friendly Neighbor To The North Of The Day: Both Obama and Clinton used harsh rhetoric over NAFTA in Monday's debate, alarming some Canadians with their goals of renegotiating the treaty. But within the past month, CTV reports, a senior Obama staff member called Michael Wilson, Canada's ambassador to the U.S., to warn him the harsh words were coming. The staffer said the criticisms should not be taken literally, the station reports. Clinton may have delivered the same warning, though both campaigns denied the reports. Ohio voters love to hear attacks on NAFTA, but Ottawa and Mexico City prefer the behind-the-hand reassurances.

-- Today On The Trail: Obama has town halls set for Austin and Beaumont before hitting a rally in Fort Worth. Clinton has a town hall in Hanging Rock, Ohio, before heading to Houston for a speech. McCain has town halls set for Houston and Richardson, Texas, while Mike Huckabee, who is still running, rallies in Texarkana and Waco before meeting the media, outside a private fundraiser, in Amarillo.

IA Dem Boswell Faces Primary Challenge

One might have thought that debate on the Democratic Presidential Primary in Iowa would be over. Yet a brewing Democratic primary in the state's Third District offers a look at how the Presidential race is percolating down to Congressional campaigns across the country. Incumbent Rep. Leonard Boswell, elected in 1996 and a backer of Senator Hillary Clinton, faces his first primary challenge from former state legislator and 2006 Gubernatorial candidate Ed Fallon, who is touting his support of Barack Obama as one among several reasons for why he should be elected as the "change" candidate.

Iowa soil has proven fertile for Democrats. Two of the state's five House seats switched to Democratic control in 2006, Democrat Chet Culver easily won the Gubernatorial election as well, and the presidential caucuses on January 3 saw more than 225,000 Democrats attend. Iowa's Third, based around Des Moines, remains a swing district that Al Gore carried by just one point in 2000 and Bush carried in 2004 by just more than 250 votes. Boswell is again a member of the DCCC's Frontline program, one of just five non-freshmen to make the list.

During his race for governor, Fallon positioned himself left of Culver and of former Rep. Mike Blouin, finishing third. This year, ahead of the state's June 6 primary, Fallon, who won the Third in his failed bid for Governor in 2006, is speaking across the district with messages he says are similar to Obama's.

In an interview with Politics Nation, Fallon emphasized Boswell's support for Clinton, who came in third in Iowa and third in the district. "He's out of step with the district," Fallon said of the incumbent. Fallon is trying to use Obama's success with younger voters to his advantage, claiming the large increase in young voters during the caucuses will help him in a campaign he says also receives large youth support.

As an economic populist Fallon is hammering away at Boswell's acceptance of money from political action committees. "You can't bash PACs and then enlist their support in your campaign", said Fallon. His platform emphasizes the need for changing a government that he says does little about global warming the environment, health care, poverty, and campaign finance reform.

Fallon is playing up the theme of his energetic youth -- at 49 years old -- against the old, establishment politician. While Fallon has said he is not making Boswell's age, 74, an issue, the topic has come up from time to time. Boswell's campaign dismisses any discussion of age, pointing out he is still younger than the state's senior Senator, Republican Chuck Grassley.

Citing rumors that Boswell will retire in the near future, Fallon claims that the redistricting, which will likely strip Iowa of a Congressional seat, will require an established Democratic candidate to run against Republicans Reps. Steve King or Tom Latham in a newly formed district. Boswell's campaign has countered in saying that an independent panel sets district lines and there is no idea what lines will be drawn.

First elected to the House in 1996, Boswell sits on the Agriculture Committee, and has accumulated a moderate voting record. Fallon is attacking him for voting too often with President Bush on issues like the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act. Anticipating being outspent by the entrenched Boswell, Fallon has turned to the netroots for assistance in raising cash.

If Fallon is going to have any chance at all of defeating a long-time incumbent, he is going to need a liberal base to decide on kicking the incumbent out. Obama won Iowa by out-organizing his competition, and Fallon, who is hitching himself to Obama's coattails, could take a page from a successful playbook and follow suit.

-- Greg Bobrinskoy

The Bright Stuff

As we wrote on Monday, Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright's entry into the race to replace retiring Republican Rep. Terry Everett gives Democrats hope in one of the most ruby-red areas in the country. A poll taken in October for the DCCC and released this week shows just how strong that hope should be.

The survey, conducted by Democratic firm Anzalone Liszt Research, an Alabama-based firm that has a long history of contracting with the DCCC, surveyed 400 likely voters between 10/2-4 for a margin of error of +/- 5%. Along with Bright, the poll tested State Rep. Jay Love and State Senator Harri Anne Smith, both Republicans.

General Election Matchups
Bright 43
Smith 38

Bright 46
Love 27

Bright's biggest benefit, Roll Call's John McArdle reports, is his home base. The Montgomery media market will cover about 60% of the district's voters, and Bright's high name recognition there will give him a leg up on Smith, Love or any of the other Republicans seeking the seat. Bright also boasts a high favorable rating in the area.

Still, the poll shows Bright under 50% against both Republicans, and in a long race, especially with a presidential contest at the top of the ticket, the GOP maintains an excellent chance at retaining the seat. The district is more than 29% African American, and while President Bush won by huge margins near 30 points both times he ran, it will be interesting to note black turnout this November.

If Barack Obama heads the Democratic ticket, Alabama's Second District could be one of a few he helps bring with him. If turnout among African Americans is up big, Bright has more than a fighting chance.

Kucinich Cruising In OH

Though Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich suspended his presidential campaign in order to focus more closely on his Congressional re-election bid, he may cruise to re-election, a new poll shows. The survey gives little hope to Cleveland City Councilmember Joe Cimperman, despite backing from Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and the influential Cleveland Plain Dealer, as Politics Nation's Kyle Trygstad wrote last week.

The survey, conducted by Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling, tested 470 likely Democratic voters on 2/25 for a margin of error of +/- 4.7%. Along with Kucinich and Cimperman, Barbara Anne Ferris, who challenged Kucinich in 2004 and 2006, North Olmstead Mayor Tom O'Grady and teacher Rosemary Palmer were tested.

Two important caveats about PPP polls: Most pollsters conduct surveys over at least two days in order to control for the occasional news story or event that could skew results. PPP Also conducts polls by auto-dial, meaning respondents are not screened by live interviewers. The method, also used by Rasmussen and SurveyUSA, is gaining popularity, but its accuracy remains in some doubt in polling circles.

Primary Election Matchup
(All / Men / Wom / Wht / Blk)
Kucinich 55 / 44 / 64 / 57 / 36
Cimperman 29 / 40 / 19 / 27 / 43
Ferris 5 / 6 / 5 / 6 / --
O'Grady 4 / 5 / 3 / 3 / 14
Palmer 1 / -- / 2 / 2 / --

Cimperman has made inroads when other earlier primary challengers have not. But, says Cleveland State political scientist Joel Lieske, he begins at a serious disadvantage. "Cimperman has been running some effective negative ads about Kucinich's neglect of his congressional responsibilities and his quixotic run for the presidency," Lieske said. But "Cimperman represents a ward that contains about 21,000 people. Kucinich is the incumbent of a district that contains over 675,000 people."

The race will be decided when Cleveland voters head to the polls, along with the rest of their fellow Buckeyes, on March 4.

Despite Worries, Carson Leads

Despite Democratic worries about their prospects of keeping the late Rep. Julia Carson's Indianapolis-based Seventh District, a new poll conducted for an Indiana-based political report shows her grandson, city-county councilmember Andre Carson, well ahead of his Republican rival.

The DCCC has spent more than $44,000 on keeping the seat, though while Republicans are excited for the prospects of State Rep. Jon Elrod, they have yet to follow suit.

The poll, conducted by Gauge Market Research for Howey Politics Indiana, surveyed 300 likely voters between 2/17-18 for a margin of error of +/- 5.7%. Andre Carson and Elrod were tested. 54% of the sample consisted of Democratic or lean-Democratic voters, while 39% were Republicans or those who leaned Republican. Seven percent were independents.

General Election Matchup with leaners
(All / Dem / GOP / Ind / Men / Wom / Wht / Blk)
Carson 54 / 85 / 15 / 43 / 50 / 58 / 38 / 90
Elrod 36 / 11 / 78 / 10 / 43 / 28 / 49 / 4

Carson's advantage comes primarily from African Americans, who say they plan to cast ballots for him by a more than twenty-to-one margin. The district is 29% African American, as was 28% of the poll's sample size. Many of the district's white voters are Republican -- in fact, despite the district being primarily urban, Republican Governor Mitch Daniels does almost as well within the Seventh District as he does statewide.

Carson boasts an impressive 42%-20% favorable-to-unfavorable ratio, while 93% of district residents know him. Only Daniels is better-known inside the district. Nearly three in four district voters know Elrod, though only half of those who know him have formed an opinion. He has a favorable rating of 27%, and 11% see him unfavorably. The poll has to be welcome news for Democrats, though the money the DCCC spent can provide some peace of mind.

Dems Get Top AK Recruit

DSCC chairman Chuck Schumer must be dancing in the streets this morning as his party scored a top recruit in the race against long-time Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. Politico's Josh Kraushaar reports Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, who has long been pursued as a promising recruit, will announce his intentions to run against Stevens in a 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time press conference.

The announcement is not unexpected: The DSCC has talked Begich up for months, and the mayor recently joined other city leaders in Washington. National Republicans have anticipated his entry into the race as well, launching a site called A poll conducted in December by Maryland-based Research 2000 also seemed to encourage a Begich run, as he led by six points in a heavily Republican state.

Stevens, under investigation for his role in a scandal surrounding VECO Corp., an oil services company whose top officials are cooperating with authorities, has work to do to return to voters' good graces. The poll showed just 39% of Alaskans have a favorable opinion of Stevens, while 58% say they view him unfavorably. Still, despite the uphill battle, Stevens filed for re-election last week, though he declined reporters' questions about the investigation.

Begich, along with impressive poll numbers, is not an ordinary Alaska Democrat. His father, Nick, served as Alaska's lone Congressman until 1972, when, while traveling around the state with then-House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, his plane crashed. The younger Begich was elected mayor of the state's largest city in a 2003 special election and re-elected in 2006 by a wide 15-point margin over his chief opponent -- we kid you not -- Jack Frost.

Begich's entry into the race gives Democrats a strong chance to take back a seat they have not held since before Stevens' appointment, in 1968. Stevens is only the second person to hold the seat since Alaska gained statehood, in 1959, while four people have held the state's other Senate seat, currently occupied by Republican Lisa Murkowski.

Morning Thoughts: Fighting Back

Good Wednesday morning. At the end of last night's debate, Keith Olbermann pointed out that Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated seven times for three hours a piece. With twenty debates under their belts, at an hour and a half each (at least), the remaining Democratic candidates have stood on stage longer. We still love it. Here's what Washington is watching this morning:

-- Th House takes up a bill on renewable energy and energy conservation this morning, while the House Energy and Commerce Committee will once again hear from top officials of Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, the National Hockey League and the U.S. Olympic Committee on the issue of drugs in sports. Meanwhile, keep an eye on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee as they take up the 2010 census. The battle over who and how to count could determine control of Congress for the next decade. The Senate, meanwhile, resumes consideration of a bill on troop withdrawal from Iraq, while the President meets with the Boston Red Sox and the prime minister of Czechoslovakia.

-- On the campaign trail, in what may be the last debate of the primary season, Hillary Clinton finally found her sea legs. Despite a few stumbles and a joke that fell flat as a pancake, the New York Senator was sharp, effective and tough. She hit rival Barack Obama on health care, on the war in Iraq, and even on an endorsement that he neither sought nor accepted from Louis Farrakhan. But after a long campaign, is it too late for Clinton's newfound debating skills to have much effect? With a week to go before Election Day, her performance was good, but it probably was not good enough or widely-enough seen to make it a game-changing moment.

-- Clinton was not debating in a void, though, and the gentleman to her left held his own quite well. Obama came ready for a fight -- not to start one, but to hit back -- and he did so effectively. In every debate this year, none of the Democratic front-runners has offered a line that sticks in minds as a home run (making one wonder if such a feat is possible anymore) but none have faltered, either. Democratic voters have to be happy with both candidates' performances, optimistic that either would perform well in November.

-- Obama's campaign seems to be riding high lately, though it strikes some that they may only just be holding back some floodgates that might burst at any moment. Tony Rezko goes to trial on Monday, and while no one has alleged any wrongdoing by Obama or any of his associates, the senator's name will come up in some capacity during the proceedings. The campaign fought back against a photo it said the Clinton campaign had spread of Obama in traditional Kenyan garb. And last night's question about Farrakhan caught the candidate in the middle of what NBC/NJ's Aswini Anburajan described as the campaign's "quiet offensive" to convince Jewish leaders that he is a friend of Israel, not a friend of Farrakhan.

-- Clinton tried to back Obama into a corner on the Farrakhan endorsement, saying she had rejected support from an anti-semitic third party in New York during her 2000 Senate campaign, a reference to Independence Party head Lenora Fulani, and wondering why Obama had not done the same. Obama could not have been prepared for the shot, but he auditioned his debate abilities again and accepted Clinton's premise, renouncing Farrakhan's support. Obama could not have won the exchange, and he recognized that. Instead, he cut his losses, and quickly.

-- Away from the debate stage, a more practical problem is asserting itself for Clinton: In must-win states like Ohio and Texas, she is being vastly outspent. Obama's team, aided by unions, and PowerPAC, which have endorsed the Illinois Senator, are outspending Clinton four-to-one in Ohio and between two- and three-to-one in Texas, Clinton strategist Mandy Grunwald told Ben Smith in the spin room last night. Those groups have already spent somewhere around $2 million, Top of the Ticket reports, though perhaps the biggest problem facing Clinton is that independent expenditures on her behalf have stalled. Perhaps, like the campaign itself, Clinton's backers thought the race would be over by Super Tuesday.

-- Waiting for a rival, John McCain isn't getting much attention these days, though every time he does crop up in a story, it's for a negative reason. He deftly handled the controversy brought up by the New York Times, but yesterday he had to walk back comments from a supporter who referred to Barack Obama's middle name in an effort to get a crowd excited. He's engaged in a running battle with the FEC, currently holding the title of the least effective organization in Washington thanks to a spat in the Senate, and despite being the presumptive Republican nominee is actually considering another debate with rival/hanger-on Mike Huckabee. Where's the positive news? Maybe it's time for McCain to hunker down and just raise money.

-- It is the battle with the FEC, though, that could have a lasting effect on the Republican. Democrats have wondered at the legitimacy of McCain's efforts to back out of public financing, which they claim he used as collateral when accepting $4 million in loans from a Maryland bank. Doing so, Democrats and the FEC have said, amounts to spending federal money, and that could lock a candidate into the system. In a letter to the FEC, McCain attorney Trevor Potter -- coincidentally, no doubt, a former FEC chairman himself -- said he and lawyers from the bank made sure not to use the matching money as collateral on the loan. In an interview with the Washington Post, the bank president said McCain was a strong enough fundraiser that the loan offered "little risk."

-- Still, the FEC is impotent at the moment, thanks to a disagreement between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell over how to fill four of the six vacancies on the panel. It is unclear whether the FEC, without a quorum, can force McCain to abide by the rules. McCain's campaign maintains several letters the FEC wrote recently are not actual findings, but opinions. The ramifications -- whether McCain has to abide by the $54 million limit in the primary season or whether he can exceed that amount -- could prove crucial to the contest this spring.

-- Hindsight Of The Day: Mark Penn "is a political pollster from the past," former Bill Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta told the New York Observer in an interview. The Clinton loyalist expressed dismay at the lack of planning on Hillary Clinton's behalf, as well as the underestimation of Barack Obama's appeal. Panetta's singling out of Penn focuses on a new way to look at politics, one Obama seems to have succeeded at achieving: Penn's method is "all about dividing people into smaller groups rather than taking the broader approach that was needed," Panetta said.

-- Today On The Trail: Obama rallies in Columbus before holding a town hall meeting in Duncanville, Texas and a rally in San Marcos. Clinton hosts an Economic Solutions Summit in Zanesville, Ohio before heading to town hall meetings in St. Clarisville and Belpre. McCain has a town hall in Tyler before hosting another in San Antonio. In both locations he will be available to the media.

MI Dems Take On Knollenberg

Nancy Skinner, the 2006 Democratic nominee in Michigan's 9th District, announced yesterday that she has ended her campaign for the seat, leaving state lottery commissioner Gary Peters with no major primary opposition in his quest to upset Republican Rep. Joe Knollenberg. Democrats had faced an expensive and divisive primary campaign between the two candidates.

The DCCC failed to recognize this seat as a pick-up opportunity in 2006, and offered Skinner no financial help. Despite outspending Skinner $3.1 million to $400,000, Knollenberg won by just a 52%-46% margin. Coupling the 2006 results with the fact that President Bush failed to win more than 51% here in both 2000 and 2004 makes this seat a Democratic target in 2008.

Peters reported raising $400,000 through the end of 2007, about $1 million less than Knollenberg. Skinner's exit should allow Peters to gather more donations as the only major Democratic candidate, and will enable him to save funds for the often expensive last few months of the campaign.

Knollenberg's moderate voting record, especially on social and foreign policy issues, has kept him in the good graces of the district since first coming to office in 1992. This affluent district, based in Oakland County just north of Detroit, had been trending Democratic until the 2001 redistricting removed the heavily-Democratic city of Southfield, maintaining the district's Republican lean.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Daniels Scores Big Lead

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels has not been a fan of polls this year, given that several have shown him trailing or only barely squeaking by opponents Jill Long Thompson, a former congresswoman, and architect Jim Schellinger. But a new survey may have Daniels rethinking his love -- or lack thereof -- of polls.

The poll, conducted 2/16-17 by Gauge Market Research for Howey Politics Indiana, surveyed 500 likely voters for a margin of error of +/- 4.5%. Daniels, Thompson and Schellinger were all surveyed. The sample was 52% Republican, 40% Democratic and 8% independent.

General Election Matchups with leaners
(All / Dem / GOP / Ind / Men / Wom)
Daniels 56 / 26 / 80 / 47 / 56 / 55
Thompson 33 / 62 / 10 / 28 / 33 / 32

Daniels 54 / 26 / 80 / 44 / 55 / 53
Schellinger 31 / 59 / 11 / 24 / 33 / 28

There is some good news for Democrats in the survey, though. Just 41% of respondents said they would want to see Daniels re-elected, while 43% said they preferred someone new. 40% of Hoosiers said the state is heading off on the wrong track, while only 37% say it's going in the right direction. Daniels' favorable rating is quite high, though, at 52%, versus just 23% who see him unfavorably.

For Democrats, the problem is one of name recognition. While Daniels is known by 96% of the state, just 21% say they know Schellinger, and a tiny 8% say they have an opinion about him. Long Thompson is known by only 42% of the state's residents, and only 22% know her well enough to form an opinion.

Daniels' turnaround may be attributable to his property tax plan, which 61% of respondents favor and only 25% oppose. Property taxes were a key reason former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson lost his bid for re-election last year in one of the most shocking upsets of 2007.

If Schellinger or Long Thompson can spend the money to define themselves early, Democrats could make life uncomfortable for Daniels. But at the moment, after several polls made the race too close to call, Daniels looks like he's clearly in the driver's seat. On the other hand, if he gets stuck in a long trial -- Daniels is spending today reporting for jury duty in Marion County, the AP reports -- maybe Democrats have a shot.

Craig Accepting Interns

Embattled Idaho Senator Larry Craig, who was admonished a few weeks ago by the Senate Ethics Committee for his role in a certain incident in an airport bathroom last summer, is accepting summer interns, his office announced today. The deadline, for Idaho college juniors and seniors, is March 15.

How many college kids will be walking into any of Craig's six offices, in Coeur d'Alene, Lewiston, Boise, Twin Falls, Pocatello or Idaho Falls?

Not many, we're guessing.

GOP Govs Raise Big Dough

The Republican Governors' Association raised a record $10.6 million at an annual gala last night in Washington, giving the only GOP campaign committee with a leg up on its Democratic rival a bigger boost. The event is also certain to boost the vice presidential prospects of -- or at least buzz around -- the lead organizer, someone who has already been proposed as John McCain's potential running mate.

Though Republicans own just 22 governorships, down from a peak of more than 30 during the 1990s, the haul is impressive, and much more than other recent Republican single events in Washington have raised. The RGA already had a cash lead over Democrats, hauling in more than $21.5 million last year and banking $9.2 million. The Democratic Governors' Association reported raising more than $12 million in 2007, with $7.2 million remaining on hand.

Any politician who can raise in one night almost half what the committee raised in an entire year is going to be noticed. But dinner chairman Mark Sanford, South Carolina's governor, might bring something more to his party than just money: Sanford, who endorsed McCain in 2000 as a congressman but stayed neutral in this year's contests, has been rumored as a potential number two on the McCain-led ticket.

Choosing Sanford could be a very popular move for McCain among his own base. Popular among Washington conservative groups around whom McCain has been a pariah, Sanford would bring a record on domestic issues, matters that are frequently seen as a McCain weakness. Both Sanford and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, rumored to be another top McCain choice, appeared this weekend on Fox News Sunday to show off their television skills.

President Bush headlined the gala, offering the 1,400 people crammed into the National Building Museum an upbeat assessment of his party's chances next year, including that Republicans would hold the White House. The event came at the end of a weekend of meetings among the nation's governors, eleven of whom face voters this year.

Foster Ahead Of Oberweis

In the race for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's exurban Chicago Congressional seat, scientist Bill Foster, a Democrat, has taken the lead, a poll conducted for his campaign claims. A Foster win in the March 8 special election would be national news, marking the first time since 1994 when a Speaker of the House was replaced by a member of the opposite party.

The poll, conducted by the Global Strategy Group, was conducted of 402 voters who said they were likely to cast ballots in the special election. The survey, conducted between February 21-24, had a margin of error of +/- 4.9% and tested Foster and businessman Jim Oberweis, the winner of the February 5 GOP primary. The sample consisted of 41% Republicans, 32% Democrats and 21% who said they were independents.

General Election Matchup
Foster 45 (+2 from last, 2/6-10)
Oberweis 41 (-4)

Foster is seen in a more favorable light by those who have yet to decide than Oberweis. Among that group, Foster is viewed favorably by 46%, while just 10% see him unfavorably. After a contentious GOP primary, Oberweis' numbers are lower, at 34% favorable to 25% unfavorable.

While Republicans have questioned the poll's integrity, a Foster spokesman told Politics Nation that the general election matchup was taken at the top of the poll and after only screening questions and party identification questions. Asking about a matchup after biographies are read to respondents can skew a poll's results; that was not the case in this survey. The party identification breakdown, reflecting the district's heavily GOP tilt, compared with the general election results also indicates that the contest is a real race.

It seems trite to say the election hinges on turnout, but for the first time in the history of the state of Illinois, voters will head to the polls on a Saturday, causing many to fear a low-turnout election, making results unpredictable. Whichever candidate has the best turnout operation will win, and both campaigns claim theirs is best.

This race will continue for a while, though: Foster and Oberweis not only secured their party's nominations for the March special, they also won nods to represent their parties on the November ballot. By then, one will have the power of incumbency.

DeGeneres Drops In On Clinton

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A Monday night fundraiser for New York Sen. Hillary Clinton on the campus of The George Washington University was interrupted for a few minutes when talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres broke in, interviewing Clinton for today's edition of her daytime show in front of her Los Angeles studio audience.

University students and attendees at the low-dollar affair heard what began as a standard stump speech from Clinton. After being introduced by Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, Clinton addressed universal health care, ending the war in Iraq and being ready for the presidency on "Day One." On this night, one day before the final debate before the March 4 primaries, Clinton declined to mention Illinois Senator Barack Obama, as she had during a speech earlier in the day and throughout a contentious weekend.

More than halfway through the event, DeGeneres suddenly appeared on a large screen behind Clinton, bringing the already raucous auditorium crowd to its feet for more than a minute before DeGeneres was able to speak.

The staged, long-distance interview began on a light note. "Will you put a ban on glitter?" DeGeneres asked. Clinton answered she would ban glitter for anyone over the age of 12.

DeGeneres got serious, asking about Obama's current 11-state winning streak, and asked Clinton, "What needs to happen to change the momentum?" This is where Clinton slipped. After DeGeneres's softball question, Clinton said, "We need to win Ohio and Michigan!" The crowd cheered anyway, before Clinton caught herself. "Wait. I mean Ohio and Texas. We already won Michigan," Clinton said.

DeGeneres asked if Clinton felt the media had been harder on her because she is a woman, and noted the recent Saturday Night Live episode, where the "Weekend Update" sketch made light of what some perceive as favorable coverage of Obama.

The mostly female audience screamed "Yes!" though Clinton would not go that far. "I'm asking the people of America to hire me for the toughest job in the world, which requires a person to actually stand up to whatever comes our way," said Clinton.

DeGeneres's interview with Clinton will be televised on her show Tuesday. According to the show's website, DeGeneres is also attempting to get Obama and Arizona Sen. John McCain to appear.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Renzi Staying, For Now

Arizona Republican Rick Renzi, indicted last week on thirty-five counts including embezzlement, extortion and money laundering, will remain in Congress, the Arizona Republic reports, causing what are certainly more headaches for House GOP leadership.

"Congressman Renzi did nothing wrong. We will fight these charges until he is vindicated and his family's name is restored," Renzi's lawyers said in a statement, the Republic writes. The move comes after Minority Leader John Boehner issued a statement that stopped just short of calling for the indicted member's exit. "I strongly urge Representative Renzi to seriously consider whether he can continue to effectively represent his constituents under these circumstances," Boehner said Friday in a statement.

Arizona and national Democrats have called on Renzi to resign quickly, wasting no time in dusting off the "culture of corruption" slogan that served their party so well in 2006. And Boehner has a point: After the investigation into Renzi became public, after FBI agents raided his wife's business last year, Renzi stepped down from the three committees on which he served.

Should Renzi step down, it might help national Republicans begin to rebuild their image. But it definitely won't help the party keep Renzi's seat. Geographically huge and encompassing a number of media markets, Republicans have yet to settle on a candidate, though 2002 candidate Sydney Hay, who lost to Renzi in a primary, and Corporation Commissioner Kris Mayes are the early front-runners.

On the Democratic side, former State Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick is the heavy favorite, both in Arizona and among Washington Democrats who are watching the race closely. With much more money than either of the Republicans, and given that she's been campaigning since last summer, Kirkpatrick would be a favorite to steal the seat in a special election, should Renzi resign.

Both national campaign committees would be forced to spend heavily on the district, and whoever wins a potential special election will gain a valuable story line: If Democrats win, it would be the first special election the opposite party has won this year, in six tries, and it would further the notion that national Republicans remain in bad shape. If Republicans win, despite Renzi's endorsement, they would be able to claim that the party has effectively moved on from 2006, as NRCC chair Tom Cole has claimed.

But either scenario is moot for now: With Renzi still in office, Republicans will keep subtly pushing him out the door while Democrats will continue to try and score points using the "culture of corruption" line, which has served them well in the past.

Morning Thoughts: It Ends Tonight

Good Tuesday morning. The weather in Cleveland, ahead of tonight's debate, is horrific, with visibility of no more than a few hundred feet. It's something of a feat that no candidate has been late to a debate in the twenty-something gatherings Democrats have held, along with a similar number on the Republican side. Under gray skies but with perfect visibility, here's what Washington is watching today:

-- The Senate has an ambitious agenda today, starting with final passage of a bill dealing with Native American health care. After weekly party meetings, the chamber will vote on cloture for a bill to redeploy troops out of Iraq and for a bill to require a report on U.S. strategy to defeat al Qaeda. Finally, the chamber will vote on a motion to proceed on the Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Tax Act, which has a measure attached that would prevent foreclosures. The House will take up a public housing bill and will rename still more post offices, while the president meets with former members of the cabinet to discuss free trade.

-- On the presidential campaign trail, today may be the most important of the entire Democratic campaign. Barack Obama is on the verge of earning enough momentum to topple the mighty Hillary Clinton machine, and if she can't stop him in a debate tonight on MSNBC, no amount of paid media is going to halt his progress. The Clinton camp, in a widely-circulated New York Times piece this morning, is going to throw the "kitchen sink" at Obama, according to one aide. Those attacks include shots at Obama's experience, his naivete and what she will characterize as other differences between the two. The last debate was friendly. It's safe to assume this one will not be.

-- Along with her inevitability argument, Clinton has also lost every other advantage she had over the rookie Illinois senator. Two polls out yesterday have Obama above 50% and Clinton under 40% nationally, an almost insurmountable lead. The NYT poll [pdf] shows people believe Obama will win the Democratic nomination by nearly a three-to-one margin, more Democrats would be satisfied (by a 79% to 69% margin) with Obama as the nominee than with Clinton. Anb by a two-to-one margin, more people say they believe Obama has the best chance of beating McCain in the general election in November, 59%-28%. Obama's favorable rating tops Clinton's, too, 69%-61%.

-- All the numbers don't mean much out of context, except to show that Obama is well ahead of Clinton in every category that matters. But look back over the past year: As late as the second week in December, Clinton was topping polls with over 50%, making her seem inevitable. Now, people believe otherwise, and they're happy about that apparent outcome. Given that Obama is viewed more favorably than Clinton, voters just tuning into the process now remain likely to simply pick the candidate they're most familiar with, but that's no longer Clinton; it's Obama.

-- It has long been the hypothesis of this column that Clinton, who still benefits from those who believe experience is most important in a presidential nominee, has fundamentally failed in one crucial aspect of the battle for the nomination: The campaign couldn't convince enough voters that experience was actually the crucial factor. If Obama wins on the backs of voters who value change over experience, it will not be because he is cutting into Clinton's base, it will be because he is bolstering his own, something she is not doing.

-- So Clinton has some major work to do in reversing key demographic groups, and she has to do it tonight. But many of the members of her coalition have already abandoned her. Take a deeper look at the CBS/NYT poll, thanks to CBS crosstabs and notice that Obama now has a 39-point edge among men, while Clinton's advantage among women is a paltry one point. John Edwards' core constituency, white men, have headed to Obama in droves: Clinton led among the demographic 38%-23% in January. Now, Obama is ahead among white men by a 61%-33% margin. Unfortunately for Clinton, even if she does land a knock-out punch, she might not get a large enough audience or have enough time to make it count. It may already be too late.

-- There is a Republican race, contrary to recent news coverage which has been dominated by Obama-Clinton spats, and John McCain is in the process of laying groundwork for the general election. "The war will be over soon. The war for all intents and purposes [will be over], although the insurgency will go on for years and years and years, but it'll be handled by the Iraqis not by us," McCain said in Rocky River, Ohio, per NBC/NJ's Adam Aigner-Treworgy. McCain has a lot of work to do to walk back his assertion that American troops might be there for 100 years, and it's going to take him months to effectively do that. If he can't, he said yesterday, he will lose (though he rephrased himself throughout the day, CBS' Dante Higgins writes).

-- Meanwhile, a group of liberal organizations will soon begin running what it promises is a $20 million campaign that will seek to link the war in Iraq with the economy, health care and other domestic ills, all issues that benefit Democrats. The first foray onto the airwaves, targeted at Washington, D.C.-area cable channels, features a mother hitting McCain for suggesting the U.S. might be in Iraq for 1,000 years. Two new backers of the group, which includes Center for American Progress,, and Americans United for Change, are John and Elizabeth Edwards. $20 million is a lot of money, and McCain will have to watch out for what could end up as the left's version of Swift Boat Veterans.

-- Sign Of The Apocalypse Of The Day: Candidates who are ahead do not call for additional debates. Clinton has done that. Candidates who are ahead do not get mad. Clinton has done that. Candidates who are ahead really don't complain about their coverage by the media, as long as they stay ahead. Now, the Clinton camp is beginning to blame the media for their woes. "Maybe some of it's [the Clintons'] fault, but the media does not like the Clintons," Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, DNC chair during Bill Clinton's presidency, told The Fix. Criticism of the media's positive treatment of John McCain has long echoed in Republican hallways. Will anyone outside Camp Clinton criticize the media for their coverage of Obama?

-- Today On The Trail: Obama meets the press before heading to the debate, at Cleveland State University. Clinton has a town hall meeting in Lorain before wandering over for the most important event of her political career. Huckabee will chat with the media in Cleveland before rallying in Columbus and Mason. And John McCain is in Cincinnati for a large gathering before holding a town hall in West Chester.

McCain's Happy Irony

Over the weekend, the Northern Mariana Islands allocated all nine of their delegates to the Republican National Convention to John McCain, putting him that much closer to officially locking up the Republican nomination, the Associated Press reported.

It is something of an irony that McCain, who led one of the investigations into imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff's illicit dealings, would pick up delegates from the Marianas. Abramoff served as a top lobbyist for the islands and helped steer legislation through then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay's office, actions that got both men in trouble. McCain's investigation of Abramoff centered on his use of non-profit anti-gambling organizations through which to direct money.

McCain has used his investigation of Abramoff to bolster his reputation as an outsider in the Beltway. "Ask Jack Abramoff if I'm an insider in Washington -- you'd probably have to go during visiting hours in the prison -- and he'll tell you and his lobbyist cronies of the change I made there," McCain said during a Fox News debate in South Carolina in January.

McCain will gladly take the delegates, but he might want to dispatch some talking points to island Republicans. "With [McCain] as president, I feel that we will have a better chance of being heard in Washington, D.C.," local GOP vice chair Ana Teregeyo told the AP. Some of the higher-ups who worked with Abramoff probably thought they already had an in.

This is the first year Republicans from the Northern Marianas have a say in their party's presidential election. The territory was admitted to the national GOP after the 2004 elections, AP says.

For the record, a flight from Saipan to Minneapolis from August 31 to September 5 would run delegates an affordable $1629.

Clinton Shrugs Off Subtlety

Hillary Clinton had a big weekend, during which she seemed to break through and finally find her sea legs in attacking Barack Obama. Whether those attacks will be too little, too late or not is an open question, but Clinton looked confident in suggesting Obama ought to be ashamed for what she said was a misleading mailer and, later, in mocking his call for bringing people together as naive.

Today, Clinton is seeing headlines about her rearming and going after Obama. But just in case anyone missed it, Clinton heads to a venue this evening that will give every reporter a real chance to see, first-hand, the new, tougher Hillary. Clinton will speak at a low-dollar fundraiser in Washington this evening, and it is likely she will keep up her hard-hitting tactics.

Many aspects of the Clinton appearance tonight look designed to attract media. She will address an audience at The George Washington University, just six or so blocks from the National Press Club and not much farther to the Washington Post and Associated Press bureaus here. The event is billed as a low-dollar fundraiser, entry to which some journalists would give their non-writing arm to attend, though tonight's is open to the press. And the place will be packed: Lisner Auditorium can seat a solid 1490 people.

Just in case journalists missed Clinton's sharp words, replayed endlessly on cable news networks this morning, they will conveniently have another chance to do so. By coming to Washington, the belly of the political beast, Clinton guarantees herself a big press presence, along with every outlet's undivided attention.

Dems Worried In IN?

As the fifth special election of the 110th Congress approaches, neither Democrats nor Republicans have scored a pick-up that might be seen as indicative of a coming wave. Each time a special election approaches, both parties work hard, and spend a lot of money, trying to upset their opponent in hopes that, in a vacuum, the victory will garner game-altering media attention.

So far, each party has been disappointed. Democrats were excited by their prospects in an Ohio special election, to replace the late Rep. Paul Gillmor, though Republican Bob Latta ended up winning big. Republicans trumpet farmer Jim Ogonowski's narrow loss to Democrat Niki Tsongas in Massachusetts, though Tsongas actually won by about the same margin Governor Deval Patrick took in the district on the way to a landslide victory in 2006.

Now, with the passing of Indiana Democrat Julia Carson, Republicans are again targeting a seat that Democrats should hold. As with the Ohio special election, when the GOP spent heavily to keep the seat in their hands, Democrats are spending money in Indianapolis to try to protect their territory. The expenditures have caused some in Washington to take notice: Could Democrats be worried about a district that trends strongly their way?

Since February 12, when the DCCC made its first expenditure in the race, the committee has dumped almost $45,000 into aiding Indianapolis City Councilman Andre Carson, the late Congresswoman's grandson, through mail and television advertising. The committee has also spent thousands on what it refers to as "field organizing." "The fact that Democrats in Washington have to expend resources and dispatch staff into a deep blue district just goes to show how flawed a candidate Andre Carson really is," NRCC spokesman Ken Spain told Politics Nation.

In the March 11 special election, Carson faces State Rep. Jon Elrod, and the race could be tight. While Democratic candidates carried the Indianapolis-centric district by wide 16- and 12-point margins in 2004 and 2000, respectively, Julia Carson's final few re-election campaigns saw more voters splitting their tickets and choosing her opponents. She won just 54% of the vote in 2006 against a Republican who spent only $74,000, and the same percentage in 2004 when her unknown challenger spent just $25,000.

This year, Elrod is said to be raising impressive money, though Andre Carson is as well. Republicans have another reason to be optimistic: Last year, voters around the city delivered a stunning defeat to Democratic incumbent Mayor Bart Peterson and several Democrats at the city level, all in response to a property tax increase and a new crime wave. If Elrod can capitalize on that same anger, he might give Republicans a chance.

"Special elections can't be taken for granted and you have to be diligent," said DCCC spokesman Doug Thornell. "It is clear that the only candidate in this race capable of providing the change the people of the Seventh District are seeking on issues like job creation and education is Andre Carson and we are committed to helping him in his Special Election effort. The last thing the people of Indianapolis need is someone like Jon Elrod who supports George Bush's agenda to keep our troops in Iraq and privatize social security."

If Carson pulls off the win for Democrats, he will join Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison as the only two Muslims in Congress. In fact, the 110th Congress is unique for introducing new religions into the body: Hawaii Rep. Mazie Hirono and Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson, both elected in 2006, are the only two Buddhists to have served in Congress as well.

Dem Competes In AL

When Rep. Terry Everett, an eight-term Republican from southeast Alabama, announced he would not run for re-election next year, Democrats crowed that yet another House Republican was abandoning ship. Still, few but the most optimistic Democrats thought the party had a realistic chance of taking the seat, which favored President Bush by 34 points in 2004 and by 23 in 2000. In fact, no Democrat has held the seat since 1965.

But tomorrow, Democrats will get a serious candidate when Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright makes his campaign official, the Montgomery Advertiser and the Associated Press report. Bright won re-election in 2006 by a wide 58%-33% margin, and in representing the state's second-largest city, he brings a solid electoral foundation to the race.

The district, which stretches from Montgomery south to the border with the Florida panhandle, includes most of the city, which has a population of just over 200,000, as well as several counties where African Americans make up a majority of the voting population -- they comprise nearly 30% of the district as a whole. Still, more conservative areas toward the south-central section of the state make up the bulk of the district's voters.

Bright will head to heavily Republican territory to make his announcement, speaking in Ozark, in the southeast corner of the state, at the Dale County Courthouse. His family, Bright said, comes from the area, where he grew up, and he told local media he wanted to make his announcement surrounded by family and friends.

The only trouble Everett ever faced was in his first election, in 1992, when he took just 49% of the vote against two candidates, one of whom was George C. Wallace, the former governor's son. In subsequent re-election bids, Everett never dipped below 63%. Bright may benefit, though, because the Mayor's office in Montgomery is non-partisan, meaning at least a few Republican voters in the district are used to casting ballots for him.

Still, the crowded Republican field is likely to produce a candidate who should be considered the favorite. State Reps. David Grimes and Jay Love are already in the race, as is State Senator Harri Anne Smith. Smith and Grimes have yet to file with the FEC, and Love loaned his campaign $300,000 and raised an additional $70,000 through December. Republicans will face off in the state's June 3 primary.

DNC Files McCain Complaint

In a rare Sunday conference call, DNC chair Howard Dean said his party will file a complaint today with the FEC over John McCain's effort to extricate himself from spending limits he originally agreed to months ago. After winning several early primaries, McCain asked to withdraw from the spending limits, a request the FEC generally agrees to if the candidate has not spent any federal matching money, the Washington Post writes.

But McCain has three problems: First, the FEC can refuse to allow a candidate to get out of his commitment if he has used the potential matching funds to secure a campaign loan, something the DNC argues McCain did. In fact, a loan of several million dollars made to his campaign did come when McCain was applying for the matching funds. As the GOP front-runner, McCain has the ability to raise millions more than he was able to in the primary, but the FEC may decide that, by using matching funds as collateral, he has effectively "spent" the money.

Second, McCain, the DNC argues, needs the FEC to act to allow him to withdraw. The commission issued McCain a letter last week making the same argument. Ordinarily, that would not be a problem. But thanks to a spat between Senate Democrats and Republicans, the FEC is currently made up of just two out of the six commissioners it is supposed to have. Party leaders in the upper chamber are at odds over how to fill the remaining four seats, and without a quorum of four, the body cannot act on anything, delaying a decision on McCain's campaign.

Finally, it is highly unlikely that McCain has not already violated some FEC rules. Accepting matching funds means the Arizona Senator would be limited to spending a total of about $54 million in the primary, which doesn't officially end until the GOP convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, in early September. FEC reports show McCain has already spent $48.4 million through January 31.

Assuming he did not spend a penny in the four days leading up to Super Tuesday, or in later contests this month, he would be left with just $5.6 million to spend in the remaining seven months of the campaign. But McCain's spending has barely slowed, especially after his camp pulled in more than $12 million in January. When FEC reports for February are due, on March 20, they will likely show McCain has easily busted through the $54 million limit. Then again, because the FEC cannot act on any complaints, he won't face penalties for doing so until at least two more commissioners are approved.

McCain's campaign and the Republican National Committee argued that Dean, in his threat to issue a complaint, was being hypocritical. Spokesman Brian Rogers said McCain is currently trying to pull out of the system in exactly the same way Dean did during his presidential run in 2004.

Until the FEC reestablishes a quorum, after the standoff between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell ends, McCain appears trapped in the system, but the agency cannot punish him. After they return, thanks to the complicated issues raised by the requests and complaints, it is likely the matter will wind up in court. A problem the McCain camp needs to prepare for: How will it look when the candidate who is most seen as a crusader for campaign finance reform is battling the FEC in court?

Gregoire Lead Up In UW Poll

Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, in D.C. for the National Governors' Association meetings, can't seem to stop getting good news. Fresh off her state's presidential caucus, in which she endorsed Barack Obama just days before his landslide win, a new poll shows the Democrat's own chances in November are looking up.

The survey, conducted among 300 registered voters between 2/7-18, was commissioned by the University of Washington and conducted by Pacific Market Research. Gregoire and former State Senator Dino Rossi, a Republican, were surveyed. The margin of error was +/- 5.6%.

General Election Matchup
(All / Dem / GOP / Ind)
Gregoire 54 / 92 / 8 / 56 (+7 from last poll, 10/07)
Rossi 42 / 7 / 87 / 39 (+0)

Rossi need not fold up the tent and go home, though, as the survey has a number of obvious question marks. Eleven days to contact just 300 voters is a long time, and the format by which survey participants were picked is a method other pollsters don't use: All of the 300 respondents were also surveyed for the October poll, a technique known as a "panel survey."

Too, Gregoire was highly visible around the state just before the February 9 caucuses, and her Obama endorsement -- coming as the state's two female Senators backed Hillary Clinton -- made her the most prominent Obama backer on the West Coast. It would not be surprising if Gregoire's image and name had been flashed before respondents dozens of times before and during the poll's life span.

Still, the message to Rossi is clear: As in 2004, when he lost by just over 100 votes, he is running a very steep uphill battle. He came close four years ago, but running against a well-financed incumbent is more difficult than running against a challenger. Other surveys, it is all but certain, will show Rossi closer to Gregoire than this one, but he very clearly has work to do to catch up.

Morning Thoughts: The Clinton Conundrum

Good Monday morning. Have heart, baseball fans, as the first spring training games are just a week away. In the meantime, here's what Washington is keeping its eye on this a.m.:

-- It's still President's Day in the Senate, but not in the slacking off kind of way: Senators, who head back to the chamber at 3 p.m. today, will begin their day by hearing George Washington's farewell address. Soon after they will continue to debate, and try to invoke cloture upon, a measure dealing with health care for Native Americans. The House meets at 4 p.m., when it will vote on a series of resolutions honoring, among others, the Alaska Army National Guard and Lieutenant General Russell Honore, of Katrina recovery fame. Congressmen will also vote on a renewable energy tax credit bill. President Bush meets today with the nation's governors, in town for their annual conference.

-- Ralph Nader is back in the presidential race, telling Meet the Press host Tim Russert he was frustrated by Democratic efforts to keep him off several states' ballots in 2004. How much of a factor he will be this year is unclear. After winning more than 2.5% of the vote in 2000, he took just 0.3% in 2004, and he promises he won't steal a victory from a Democratic candidate. "If the Democrats can't landslide the Republicans this year, they ought to just wrap up, close down, and emerge in a different form," he said. Barack Obama's biting response to a Nader candidacy: "My sense is is that Mr. Nader is somebody who, if you don't listen and adopt all of his policies, thinks you're not substantive. He seems to have a pretty high opinion of his own work."

-- Hillary Clinton is facing the toughest battle of her political career. Down in every measure -- popular vote, delegates, states won, money raised -- she is an underdog in the truest sense of the word. At fundraisers in Boston Sunday, and during stops in Rhode Island, Clinton said her supporters were urging her not to give up, and that she has no plans to do so through the March 4 primaries, AP's Beth Fouhy writes. Still, it seems Clinton, who claims she's reassured by her donors' support, is the one doing most of the reassuring. If she doesn't continue to reassure, she may not even make it to election day.

-- During those stops in Rhode Island, Clinton offered some of the most sarcastic criticisms of Obama of any candidate to date. Bringing people together, she said, might not be as easily said as done: "The sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect," she said, to laughter. Clinton's danger: That she irritates the next president and that she may jeopardize any political future she might have.

-- A bottom line for Clinton: Can she find a message that works against Obama? Everything she's tried so far, from the earliest days of the campaign, have yet to work. In the last few weeks, her shots at Obama have included charges of plagiarism, charges of avoiding debates, charges that his campaign literature was cause for shame, and, as above, outright ridicule. If any message is working against Obama, it hasn't become apparent yet, and the inconsistency of the Clinton message machine shows their frustration, the LA Times writes. Four new ads in Ohio and Texas don't help establish a very consistent message, either. John McCain's team is also taking notes about what works -- more accurately, what doesn't -- and coming up with new ideas.

-- The nation's governors, in town this week for their annual conference, are focusing heavily on energy The media, on the other hand, is focusing heavily on them, and, conveniently enough, doing so just as vice presidential speculation is heating up. Target number one is Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who endorsed John McCain early and has been by his side often. Pawlenty, Jonathan Martin writes, sat down with two top Politico editors, along with Dan Balz, David Broder, David Brooks and Bob Novak. He issued standard denials of interest on Fox News Sunday and CNN's Late Edition, denying that he's interested in the job. Still, with his name coming up this often, McCain has to at least include him on a short list.

-- "Half of the governors here are on some list," Pawlenty wisely said to the New York Times (add them to the above list), which promotes buzz and speculation around South Carolina's Mark Sanford, Florida Republican Charlie Crist and Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, as well as Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, Arizona's Janet Napolitano, Bill Ritter, of Colorado, ex-DNC chief and Pennsylvania CEO Ed Rendell and Ohio Governor Ted Strickland. A perfect way to poke and prod at the potential veeps, and it's safe to guess that at least McCain's campaign is keeping one eye on the meeting this weekend.

-- Far-Fetched Scenario Of The Day: It is "unlikely, but possible" that Mitt Romney will jump back into the Republican race if McCain keeps faltering, son Josh tells the Deseret Morning News, of Southern Utah, in this morning's paper. The only Romney who actually resides in Utah, Josh said he's been approached to take on the state's lone Democrat, Rep. Jim Matheson, in November, and that he hasn't ruled such a run out. Utah would be a good start for the 32-year old potential candidate: His dad raised a whopping $6 million from the state for his run, providing a great list from which to start making those finance calls. NRCC chair Tom Cole would love to see a Romney run in Utah.

-- Today On The Trail: Clinton gives a speech on foreign policy this morning at The George Washington University, this humble column's alma mater, before attending a fundraising reception there that evening. Obama holds a roundtable discussion in Cincinnati before rallying there, and later will head to another rally in Dayton. McCain is in Rock River for a town hall meeting and a chat with the press, and he will meet voters in Parma, Ohio later today. Huckabee is in Providence, Rhode Island, to visit a school before heading to Warwick for a rally.

Stevens Files For Re-Election

It has been said that Alaska has three industries: Tourism, oil and Ted Stevens. The influential 84 year old Republican Senator, who already holds the GOP record for Senate service, filed papers to run for re-election this year, this in spite of an ongoing federal investigation into his relationship with an oil services company. Stevens, appointed to the Senate in 1968, is seeking a seventh full term and may face the most difficult re-election of his career.

The investigation, which centers on testimony from VECO Corp. executives Bill Allen and Rick Smith, has already snagged several Republican state legislators. Allen has been a huge donor to Stevens' campaigns, and reportedly oversaw renovations on Stevens' house, outside Anchorage. Agents from the IRS and the FBI raided Stevens' house in July.

Speaking with reporters after filing, Stevens refused to discuss the investigation, the Anchorage Daily News reported, though the issue will certainly play a role in the campaign. Stevens maintains his innocence, and he refuses to talk about the investigation in order, he says, to avoid the appearance of trying to influence it.

Stevens has never won election with less than 60%, and re-election bids in 1996 and 2002 saw him win 77% and 78%, respectively. This time around, after much-publicized public relations snafus like the $250 million Bridge to Nowhere, Democrats sense an opportunity to steal a seat. National Democrats hope to entice Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich to run, but though Begich was in Washington recently, he has not announced a decision.

Stevens' colleague in the state's lone House seat, Republican Rep. Don Young, is also said to be involved in the investigation, and Democrats think they have a strong challenger in former State House Democratic Leader Ethan Berkowitz.

Both Begich and Berkowitz would have better chances than virtually any other Democrat in Alaska. A poll taken in early December, by Maryland-based independent pollster Del Ali, showed Begich leading Stevens by six points, thanks to a twenty-point lead among independents. Berkowitz led Young by seven points and led by twenty-two among independents.

Though they are long-time incumbents, Alaskans don't have very favorable impressions of either Stevens, who has a 39% approval rating compared with 58% who disapprove, or Young, whose 40%-54% split is only slightly better. If Republicans can't convince the two, who have represented the state for a combined 75 years, to step aside, the party may end up losing both seats.

IL GOP Nominee Drops Out

New Lenox Mayor and Chicago Ridge police chief Tim Baldermann, who won the Republican primary on February 5 in the race to replace retiring GOP Rep. Jerry Weller, is dropping out of the race, Roll Call's Matt Murray reports. A source close to the campaign told Murray the candidate didn't have the "time or energy" to run a campaign.

The GOP nominee had shown considerable reluctance to raise the money necessary to run a winning campaign. Baldermann, who once looked like a promising candidate, had only raised about $104,000 through mid-January. By contrast, State Senate Majority Leader Debbie Halvorson, the Democratic nominee, had raised more than $425,000 through the same period and maintained almost $400,000 in the bank.

Weller's Eleventh District is anchored south of Chicago and stretches from the shores of Lake Michigan through Joliet and sends fingers west and south through the state. Only marginally Republican -- President Bush won the seat by seven points in 2004 and just two points in 2000 -- it offers Democrats the best chance to pick up a seat in Illinois.

Baldermann is the second candidate to drop a bid after filing in Illinois. Former basketball coach Dick Versace, a Democrat who was running to replace outgoing Rep. Ray LaHood in a district that borders Weller's to the southwest, dropped out for what he described as personal reasons.

Despite his poor fundraising, Baldermann's exit is bad news for Republicans. The party may now appoint a replacement candidate, though the timing and method by which to do so is unclear. No other top candidate ran for the seat in the primary, and if Republicans can't find a candidate able to compete with Halvorson, Weller's seat will become one of their best pickup chances in the country.

Wrench In GOP's OR Hopes

When six-term Democratic Rep. Darlene Hooley told supporters she wouldn't run for re-election, House Republicans thought they had a clear opening in a seat that favored them. President Bush won the suburban and exurban Portland district twice, by thin margins of about 5,000 votes each time, and a political neophyte willing to spend his own money had given Hooley a tough race in 2006.

That newbie, businessman Mike Erickson, is running again, and after putting more than $1.5 million into his own race last year, Republicans think they have a good candidate running in a good seat. They cannot welcome the news, then, that Kevin Mannix, another Republican, is joining the race. Mannix, a former State Senator, former state Republican Party chairman and the party's gubernatorial nominee in 2002, when he came within three points of upsetting Democrat Ted Kulongoski.

Mannix has run for several other offices, including Attorney General, in 2000, and a repeat race for Governor in 2006 (he finished second in the primary). Having been involved in politics in the state for close to two decades, Mannix is well-known among Republican primary voters, which is both a plus and a minus for him -- the 2006 gubernatorial primary, particularly, got nasty as Mannix and businessman and eventual nominee Ron Saxton went after each other.

Erickson and Mannix will face each other in a May 20 primary before going on to a general election. While Democrats have to be excited about the GOP primary, they have the little matter of nominating their own candidate to deal with. Many names have been floated -- including former Monmouth Mayor Paul Evans, Clackamas County Commissioner Martha Schrader and her husband, State Senator Kurt Schrader and even current U.S. Senate candidate Steve Novick -- but no one has made their candidacy official.

After the primary, both candidates will have plenty of time to rearm and battle around a district that sprawls from the foothills of the Cascade Mountains to the Pacific coast and encompasses most of five counties. The seat, by November, could prove to be one of the closest and most heavily contested in the country.

Kucinich Faces 3/4 Fight

Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich may be facing the challenge of his career in the March 4 Democratic primary for his Cleveland-based 10th District seat. While Kucinich has had primary challenges before, Cleveland Councilman Joe Cimperman looks like the real deal: He's collected big endorsements and fundraising dollars in his quest to unseat the six-term incumbent.

Cimperman was endorsed -- twice, actually -- by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and he's got support from Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson. The newspaper wrote a glowing op-ed for Cimperman just two days after he announced his candidacy in December, and called on the other challengers to drop out to avoid a splintered vote, which would hand Kucinich another term.

In its most recent endorsement, the Plain Dealer wrote: "Voters on the West Side of Cleveland and in its western suburbs sent Kucinich to Washington in 1996. But since January 2003, much of his attention has been focused on an absolutely hopeless quest for the White House. ...The story is much the same in Washington, where Kucinich carries little influence in Congress or among the Democrats who run it."

Through the end of 2007, Cimperman had raised more than $200,000, far more than any other challenger, including Barbara Ferris, who won the Plain Dealer's backing when she challenged Kucinich in 2006. That year Ferris lacked the name recognition that Cimperman enjoys -- he's held office in Cleveland for the past decade. In 2006, Ferris garnered just 24 percent of the vote.

The Kucinich campaign is admittedly worried about the election. In a recently distributed press release, the campaign stated that Kucinich is "facing the toughest re-election campaign in nearly 12 years in the U.S. House," the Plain Dealer reported. The congressman has called on his celebrity supporters, recently campaigning around the district with actor Sean Penn, a long-time backer.

Still, Kucinich is popular in his district, and Cimperman will have to win over a large percentage of the electorate that has voted for the incumbent since he was first elected to the Cleveland City Council in 1970. Kucinich has many loyalists in the district who like his independent style, including local unions, to whom he has endeared himself because of his stance on trade issues.

"Cimperman's chances of beating Kucinich are remote, and, of course, even more remote for the others," said Alec Lamis, a political science professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "Obviously, Kucinich has lost support as a result of his presidential bid, but not enough to defeat him."

In a 1978 recall vote, less than year after becoming the youngest mayor in Cleveland history, Kucinich came a few hundred votes from being ousted from office. The following year, he was defeated for re-election and went into something of a political exile, from which it took him years to come back. A loss to Cimperman on March 4 may be a defeat Kucinich never comes back from.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Renzi Indicted In Land Deal

Outgoing Republican Congressman Rick Renzi has been indicted on federal charges, CNN and the Associated Press report this morning. Renzi, who has been under investigation for more than a year, will face 35 federal charges.

The incumbent, who announced early last year that he would not seek a fourth term in Congress, has faced ethical questions since the FBI raided his wife's business last year. After the raid, Renzi stepped down from his House committees under pressure from leadership.

The 26-page indictment implicates Renzi in a shady land deal, along with two former business partners, which allowed one of the men to trade land for plots owned by the federal government. That deal earned the ex-partner $4.5 million, the AP said.

The Arizona Republic reached Renzi in Virginia yesterday, where he declined to comment. Authorities will hold a 9:30 press conference in Phoenix -- that's 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time -- to outline the indictments.

Renzi's First Congressional District, which we mentioned earlier this week, is the largest, area-wise, in the state. It stretches from the Four Corners region to communities south of Phoenix and includes several Native American reservations.

Democrats are optimistic about State Representative Ann Kirkpatrick's chances in the marginally Republican district. Kirkpatrick has raised more than $400,000 since entering the race last summer and kept almost $300,000 in the bank through December.

Anti-tax activist Sydney Hay is the only major Republican in the race so far, but GOP officials are hopeful they can attract State Representative Bill Konopnicki to the race. Konopnicki declined to run earlier this year, but after several other prominent Republicans took a pass as well, he is said to be reconsidering his decision.

UPDATE: Another strong candidate for the GOP nomination is Arizona Corporation Commissioner Kris Mayes, who announced Tueday the formation of her campaign exploratory committee. Mayes has been mentioned as a possible candidate since Renzi announced his retirement in August.

Mayes has served on the Corporation Commission since 2003, during which time she helped instituted a renewable energy standard for energy utilities. Before that she worked as a politics reporter with the Arizona Republic, and interned for former Arizona Rep. Bob Stump while in college.

Mayes appears to already have a large support network, including the backing of former GOP Rep. Matt Salmon.

Shadegg Unretires

Reversing course on his recent decision to retire, Arizona Republican John Shadegg will run for re-election, he announced yesterday, following a week in which dozens of his fellow members of Congress urged him to reconsider, the Arizona Republic reports.

One hundred forty five Republican members in all signed a letter urging Shadegg to run again, as did more than thirty leaders of prominent conservative organizations, he said. Even a security guard at the Phoenix airport, Shadegg told reporters, encouraged him to give it one more go.

The reversal comes a week and a half after Shadegg's surprise February 11 announcement that he would step down. In the interim, several potential replacements had considered making bids, but with Shadegg back in, every Republican but former state legislator Steve May backed out.

After the September 2 primary, Shadegg will face Democratic attorney Bob Lord, who has raised an impressive amount of money for a little-known challenger -- he finished 2007 with over $500,000 in the bank, still a ways behind Shadegg's $863,000 but strong for a challenger nonetheless.

Washington Democrats are not so quietly talking their candidate up, though in his retirement announcement two weeks ago Shadegg said he had polling showing himself with a wide 30-point lead over Lord. The northern Phoenix district favors Republicans, but like the rest of the state the demographics are changing and Democrats are getting stronger.

Back in the race, Shadegg once again makes the Third District a Republican-leaning race, but, thanks to Lord's performance on the fundraising circuit, one to keep an eye on.

Morning Thoughts: Winding Down?

Good Friday morning. There's a snow storm hitting the Northeast, and once again Washington is just a little too far south to get anything but freezing rain. Here's what a freezing, wet Washington is watching today:

-- The Senate holds the final pro forma session of the President's Day recess, meaning the body has been in continuous session since at least August, if not earlier. It remains remarkable that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has so little trust in President Bush. Both chambers will reconvene on Monday. The President, back from Africa, is spending the day recuperating, and in the House, the chief administrative officer has revoked approval for the domain name "," CQ reports, and GOP leader John Boehner is not happy.

-- Democrats met in Austin last night for their second-to-last debate before voters head to polls in Ohio and Texas, and once again, Hillary Clinton failed to knock Barack Obama's socks off. But this event was different from others, in which Clinton attacked Obama outright or, as in the debate three weeks ago in Los Angeles, the two professed only pleasantries to one another: This time, Clinton didn't go for the jugular, and she passed up repeated opportunities to hit Obama on any number of issues.

-- Clinton has more troubles than Obama's momentum and her inability to stop it. Mark Penn and other top Clinton consultants raked in $5 million in January, as the campaign doled out $100,000 for party trays in Iowa and $25,000 for hotel rooms in Las Vegas, the New York Times fronts. That out of control spending, they write, has donors concerned. Top communications ace Howard Wolfson picked up $267,000 in January alone, while Mandy Grunwald is up to $2.3 million. That Clinton would spent millions on consultants was always assumed, and now, perhaps predictably, those consultants have become the targets of donor complaints. If Clinton doesn't pull off the nomination, Penn will be the target of more than a few jabs.

-- Recent polls are showing Clinton clinging to only a narrow lead in Ohio and Texas, which her husband has admitted are must-win states for her. Clinton leads by ten in the latest RCP Ohio Average, but she's up by just a 2.8-point margin in the RCP Texas Average. Her leads in both states once topped twenty points.

-- So consider the total picture: Clinton's lead is shrinking, she can't stop Obama's momentum and she's got few resources left in the bank. Obama can spend millions and, perhaps even more importantly, a lot of time in Ohio and Texas in coming weeks and steal those small leads right out from under her nose. Add in the fact that she didn't try to attack Obama at last night's debate, and that her last answer struck some as wistful -- "No matter what happens in this contest, I am honored, I am honored to be here with Barack Obama." It's hard not to conclude that the Clinton campaign is starting to acknowledge the possibility that her campaign might come to an end before the convention.

-- The Republican National Committee may have come to a similar conclusion. During the debate last night, the RNC did not send out releases hitting Clinton at all. "What we do is a reflection of political reality," RNC comms chief Danny Diaz told Marc Ambinder.

-- Clinton has one more chance to make a real impact, at a debate on Tuesday in Cleveland. Debates, at the moment, are her only chance to get anywhere near back in the race, as they are the only opportunity she has to knock Obama down a few pegs. Otherwise, she has to wait for Obama to slip, and he hasn't done so throughout the whole campaign. Relying on the other guy to screw up is never a good campaign tactic, as John Edwards found out, and when that becomes the only way to win, the meat of the contest may already be over.

-- Notice one thing we haven't talked about today? After dominating cable news coverage yesterday, after buzz on every political website and in every newspaper, the story involving John McCain and a Washington lobbyist, as published by the New York Times, is well off the front page today. Part of the credit goes to the Old Gray Lady herself, which seemed on the defensive from the first moments the story appeared on its website. But the lion's share ought to go to McCain strategists, who executed a textbook crisis response, as Martin and Allen write. McCain's team questioned the Times and successfully made it the story, not lobbyist Vicki Iseman.

-- McCain's morning press conference yesterday exhibited several noticeable and noteworthy traits that should warn anyone running against McCain about his political skill. First, he answered every question reporters threw at him for almost twenty minutes, and he answered them with unequivocal denials, essentially putting his reputation on the line. Wife Cindy McCain, too, stepped up to the mic, and her response was as strong and polished as his. McCain joked he should have just let his wife do all the talking.

-- Bad Idea Of The Day: From an internal email sent to students at The George Washington University: "Due to a winter storm warning issued by the National Weather Service, George Washington's Annual Birthday Bonfire will be moved to the indoor rain site at the Continental Ballroom." Despite faculty and staff's best efforts, to the best of this author's knowledge the building still stands.

-- Today On The Trail: Clinton has rallies slated for Dallas and Fort Worth before jetting off to rallies in Columbus and Toledo. Obama meets students at UT-Pan American in Edinburg, Texas, before delivering the stump speech at events in Corpus Christi and Austin. McCain has a town hall meeting and a fundraiser in Indianapolis before heading back to Washington.

Could Paul Lose?

Having represented Texas's Fourteenth District, an area larger than Massachusetts, since 1997, winning easily in his five reelection bids since then and galvanizing a stunningly enthusiastic grassroots movement for his Presidential campaign, Republican Rep. Ron Paul should be able to coast to another reelection for his House seat this year. Yet some political observers are claiming that Ron Paul may have a hard time winning the Republican Primary for his seat when Texas voters head to the polls March 4.

Rumors increased last week when Paul's campaign announced it was significantly scaling back its Presidential campaign and would concentrate on his Congressional reelection bid, causing speculation that Paul had reason to fear his seat is in jeopardy.

In an interview with Politics Nation yesterday, Friendswood city councilman Chris Peden, who is challenging Paul, said their internal polls did show him in the lead. "Our campaign staff wouldn't be working as hard if we didn't think we would win. We feel good about this campaign; momentum is growing in our favor," Peden said.

Paul spokesman Jesse Benton told Politics Nation that while the campaign can't take any votes in the district for granted, the campaign's internal polls show Paul with a "sizable lead".

Peden has been advertising himself as a "Pro-Life, Pro-Family, Christian conservative who believes in smaller government, the free market, and personal responsibility." He poses this in sharp contrast to Paul's libertarian positions which he says often conflict with the district's more mainline conservative views, including on foreign policy matters.

Peden is also hitting Paul hard for what he claims has been Paul's indifference to the interests of the district, such as Paul's opposition to funding NASA, the headquarters of which, due to 2004 redistricting, is now just a few miles from the district boundary. The Galveston County Daily News wrote this weekend that Paul was either less than fully informed or completely unaware of several problems within the district.

Just last week, two House incumbents in Maryland, Democrat Al Wynn and Republican Wayne Gilchrest, lost their respective primaries amid charges they were out of touch with their party's ideological base. Paul's campaign realizes that his only chance of losing the primary would be conservative voters moving over to support Peden. In response, Paul's campaign has been releasing news of endorsements from prominent conservative groups throughout the state.

The whirlwind of publicity Paul's presidential campaign has received has no doubt filtered into his district. He is also well liked by those who cite his history of personally reaching out to individual concerns of his constituents. An upset would certainly shock and outrage Paul fans across the country. The likelihood of that occurring depends partially on which campaign one believes.

-- Greg Bobrinskoy

Previewing Ohio Primaries

While Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battle for the Democratic nomination in Ohio on March 4, several congressional primaries are raging in the background. With three open seats, one filled by special election, and a few vulnerable incumbents, the make-up of the state's congressional delegation in 2009 is up in the air.

Republican Reps. David Hobson, Deborah Pryce and Ralph Regula are retiring at the end of the 110th Congress, leaving a couple competitive seats the GOP will need to fight to retain. In the 5th District, Rep. Paul Gillmor's death in September brought on what was thought to be a competitive special election, though Republican Bob Latta easily won the seat.

In the 2nd District, Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt is one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country, even though President Bush carried the district with 64% in 2004. Since coming to Congress through a 2005 special election, Schmidt has yet to carry an election by more than 5 points. Schmidt defeated Democrat Paul Hackett in 2005 by 4,000 votes. In 2006 she won the Republican primary by a similar margin, and then defeated Democrat Victoria Wulsin in the general election by just 2,500 votes, despite outspending her 2-to-1.

Schmidt caught a huge break a month ago when former Hamilton County Commissioner Phil Heimlich dropped his bid for the Republican nomination. By the end of 2007 Heimlich had more than $250,000 cash on hand, twice that of Schmidt. But the recent entrance to the race by State Rep. Tom Brinkman forced Heimlich to reconsider his chances due to the likelihood of a splintered vote.

However, if Schmidt wins the nomination, she will certainly face a tough and well-financed challenger in the general election. Wulsin, who also lost to Hackett in the 2005 Democratic special primary, is running again and in a heated primary race with attorney Steve Black, who last week loaned his campaign $195,000. Wulsin had raised $500,000 by the end of 2007 and had about $350,000 in the bank.

In the 16th District, no one under 35 years old was around when anyone but Regula represented them in Congress. State Senator Kirk Schuring is the favored candidate in the GOP primary in the district, just south of Cleveland, having received the incumbent's endorsement and a host of other local and state officials. Schuring, who has spent by far the most money of the Republican candidates, is in a three-person battle for the nomination.

The Republican winner will face the well-financed State Senator John Boccieri in the general election. Boccieri does not live in the district, and while he reportedly plans to move within district lines when the school year ends, he can expect to hear carpet-bagging attacks. The district leans Republican, as President Bush won 54% here in 2004, though in 2006 Regula garnered his lowest winning percentage since first coming to Congress in 1972. National Democrats are excited by Boccieri's chances, and they believe they have a real shot at the seat.

In the sprawling 7th District, Hobson has thrown his support behind state Senator Steve Austria, who raised about $300,000 more than any of the three other Republicans running for the nomination. The safely Republican district, which stretches from the southwest to the southeast of Columbus, gave President Bush 14-point margins in both his elections, and Democrats do not appear to be seriously contesting the seat. None of the six Democrats running were able to raise more than $10,000. The winner of the GOP primary figures to keep this traditionally Republican district in GOP hands.

Among the open Republican seats, Pryce's 15th District, just north of Hobson's and west of Columbus, is the most vulnerable to a Democratic challenge. President Bush won here in 2004 by some 2,000 votes, and in 2006 Pryce won by an even smaller margin against Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy.

A number of potential Republican candidates had declined to run following Pryce's August 2007 retirement announcement until State Senator Steve Stivers stepped into the ring in November. Kilroy had announced her candidacy almost immediately after conceding the close 2006 race.

Both candidates raised large sums of money through the end of 2007, with Kilroy topping $600,000 cash on hand. Stivers reported having $400,000 in the bank. Neither candidate will face a competitive primary, so both are already looking ahead to November.

Keep an eye on 1st District Republican Steve Chabot, whose district is based largely around Cincinnati. Chabot held off a well-financed challenge in 2006, and will face another tough general election race this year against State Rep. Steve Driehaus, who had some $400,000 cash on hand at the end of last year. Chabot, however, is in good shape financially, with $1 million in the bank.

6th District Democrat Charlie Wilson, whose massive district spans from Youngstown along the border with Pennsylvania and West Virginia to the southern reaches of the state, could also face a difficult election. The freshman congressman won a write-in contest in the 2006 primary after a snafu kept him off the ballot.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Netroots Star To Make NE Bid

After coming close to stealing a congressional seat in Nebraska in 2006, rancher Scott Kleeb, a Democrat, is making another bid to get Nebraska voters to send him to Washington. This time, though, his bid may be an even longer shot.

Kleeb looks likely to jump into the race to succeed retiring Republican Senator Chuck Hagel by Monday, sources tell the Lincoln Journal Star, setting up a primary with businessman and former Republican Tony Raimondo. The winner of the Democratic primary, to be held on May 13, will face former Governor and former Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

Johanns, who won statewide elections by wide margins, benefited from fundraising help from President Bush soon after announcing his campaign. After serving in the cabinet, he returns home to one of the most heavily Republican states in the country -- President Bush won by a two-to-one margin here in 2004. In just a few months on the trail, Johanns raked in a whopping $1.38 million through December, banking just over $1 million.

Kleeb came within ten points of beating now-Rep. Adrian Smith in a district that voted three-to-one for Bush that year. Kleeb raised more than $1 million last cycle, and he benefited from support in the lefty blogosphere. If Democrats have any chance of pulling off what would amount to the upset of the (admittedly young) century, Kleeb will need support from the entire party to build a campaign treasury to rival Johanns'.

Still, Kleeb, or Raimondo, will remain a heavy underdog to the well-known, well-funded Republican after the May primary. It's not impossible for a Democrat to win a state-wide election in Nebraska -- Senator Ben Nelson is serving his second term, and has offered praise for both possible Democrats -- but in a presidential election year, it will be exceedingly difficult.

Dems Have $28M Advantage

The campaign wing of the House Republican caucus narrowly outraised its Democratic counterpart in January, though the NRCC remains well behind the DCCC in total cash in the bank. FEC reports released yesterday show a minor victory for NRCC chair Tom Cole, but DCCC chief Chris Van Hollen retains bragging rights.

In January, the NRCC raised almost $3.8 million and has a bank account of $6.4 million. They retain a debt of slightly over $2.3 million. The DCCC raised just over $3.7 million and spent much more than Republicans. Democrats have $35.5 million in the bank and $1.7 million in debts and obligations.

Senate Republicans are in relatively better position with regard to their Democratic opponents. The NRSC raised $3.5 million in January, banking $1.2 million of that for a total bank account of $13.2 million. But the DSCC raised $3.9 million last month, a faster clip than the NRSC, and ended with $30.5 million cash on hand.

While Senate Republicans enjoy a smaller disadvantage than their House counterparts, their fundraising pace has been slower than each of the other three committees in recent months. They banked more than Democrats last month by spending $600,000 less than the DSCC.

While both Democratic campaign wings are easily outpacing their GOP counterparts in money in the bank, Howard Dean's Democratic National Committee fell farther behind Mike Duncan's Republican National Committee last month. The DNC raised $5.76 million in January and banked just $60,000, ending the month with $3 million in the bank and a $250,000 debt. The RNC, meanwhile, pulled in $11.8 million and kept more than $21.7 million in the bank.

In total, Democrats have a big fundraising advantage. Together, the three committees have $69 million in the bank, while Republican committees have $41.3 million lying around.

Lautenberg Still Low In NJ

A new Quinnipiac University poll again shows New Jersey voters are unwilling to let pollsters know their opinions. Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg, who has never been the most popular incumbent in his home state, once again finds himself in bad position going into an election year.

The poll, conducted 2/13-18, surveyed 1,803 registered voters for a margin of error of plus or minus 2%. Lautenberg and Senator Bob Menendez, a fellow Democrat, were surveyed.

General Election Matchup
(All / Dem / GOP / Ind / Men / Wom)
Lautenberg 37 / 66 / 9 / 29 / 33 / 40 (-2 from last, 9/07)
Generic GOP 30 / 8 / 66 / 29 / 27 / 35 (-6)

Neither Menendez nor Lautenberg have huge favorable ratings. Just 39% say they approve of Lautenberg's job as a Senator, and only 30% approve of Menendez's job performance. In both cases 31% disapprove of the senators' jobs.

But those low numbers are dangerous for Republicans as well as Democrats. New Jersey voters watch television in either the New York or the Philadelphia media markets, making investment in advertisements very expensive. Come October, this race will probably be closer than a ten-point affair, making it an attractive target for the NRSC.

But a week before the election, undecided voters in New Jersey remember they are Democrats, and Lautenberg could pull away, as Menendez did in 2006 and as Governors Jim McGreevey and Jon Corzine did during their elections. If Republicans decide to sink a few million dollars in the race late in the cycle, they could do little more than divert that money from more winnable races.

Lautenberg ended 2007 with more than $4.3 million in the bank, though he maintains about $2.1 million in debt. He will likely face either real estate developer Anne Evans Estabrook, who national Republicans appear to favor, or Joe Pennacchio, a conservative state assemblyman. Both could make an issue of Lautenberg's 84 years of age: 58% of respondents said Lautenberg is too old to serve another six years, while just 36% said it was not a concern of theirs.

Morning Thoughts: McCain's Moment

Good Thursday morning. One hundred twenty three years ago, the Washington Monument was dedicated here in Washington, while eighty-three years ago the New Yorker published its first issue. On a day that promises to be memorable in the 2008 campaign, here's what Washington is watching:

-- The House and Senate remain on recess until next week. The Senate Judiciary Committee is meeting, however, to decide the fates of three judicial nominees, while the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee takes up the touchy subject of the census. President Bush and his wife are in Monrovia, Liberia, to meet with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the last leg of his Africa tour.

-- But all eyes this morning are on John McCain, thanks to a New York Times article that is either a devastating bombshell or a hack of a hit job, depending on one's point of view. The story, describing anxiety among senior advisers over McCain's association with a lobbyist, has been ready to go for months, though the Times only now published it after holding the piece in December, a move that cause one of the story's authors to decamp to the Washington Post in protest. The McCain campaign was ready with a response, calling the story a "hit-and-run smear campaign." "He has never violated the public trust, never done favors for special interests or lobbyists, and he will not allow a smear campaign to distract from the issues at stake in this election," communications director Jill Hazelbaker said.

-- McCain's time as head of the Senate Commerce Committee is the story's cornerstone. If a lobbyist, any lobbyist, were to spend parts of 1999 and 2000 bragging about their access to a candidate whose message was as anti-lobbyist as possible, that would create appearance problems. The Washington Post, in their version of the story, relies more heavily on lobbyist Vicki Iseman's relationship with the campaign and the official office than with the Senator himself. Both pieces point to a meeting that took place at a cafe, centrally located in Union Station, one of the busiest locations in Washington, between Iseman and top McCain adviser John Weaver, at which Weaver said he told her to get lost, fearing the association between the two could trip up McCain's outsider message.

-- The campaign is not happy with the Times. McCain himself talked about the story with NYT chief Bill Keller. Still, when the Old Gray Lady published their story, tempers flared. Citing two blind quotes within the story, Salter said the reporting was beneath the Times. "Are these the standards of the New York Times? No. They are the standards of the National Enquirer," he told Time Magazine's Ana Marie Cox.

-- Adding more intrigue: "They did this because the The New Republic was going to run a story that looked back at the infighting there," Salter continued. "They decided that they would rather smear McCain than suffer a story that made the New York Times newsroom look bad." The New Republic admitted later that one of their writers is, in fact, working on a story about the Times' decision to spike the McCain piece in December.

-- As funny as it sounds, could a story like this, handled by the Times the way it was, actually be good for John McCain? Conservative columnist Mary Katharine Ham writes that a Times hit-job is the best way to get conservatives to rally around McCain, and others are focusing their vitriol on the newspaper, not their candidate. McCain, who will hold a press conference in Toledo this morning just as this piece is being published at 9 a.m. (turn on your television, it will be hard to miss), refused to comment last night, but while it will cause some headaches in the short run, conservatives could take this to mean the Arizonan is one of them.

-- Finally, the article also delved into McCain's involvement in the Keating Five scandal in the 1980s. After benefiting for years from wealthy Phoenix developer Charles Keating, McCain was criticized for questionable conduct by the Senate Ethics Committee along with three others. The scandal has played a central role in McCain's public career, not for any stain on his record but for the inspiration it gave McCain to work toward campaign finance reform. No one lost their seat because of Keating Five, but only McCain and former Ohio Senator John Glenn won re-election after the Ethics Committee spoke. Still, it's a scandal with a name everyone knows. Will the eventual Democratic nominee remind voters in the heat of a debate that McCain's name is associated with it? That might be one way to bring out the Copper Stater's legendary temper.

-- The McCain story has overshadowed virtually everything else this morning, but by tonight it will be reduced to a second-tier item. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama head to Austin, Texas today for one of two debates before four states vote on March 4, and the Austin American-Statesman is psyched. Clinton, trailing in momentum and delegates as she goes into the crucial contests, needs a big showing today, the Wall Street Journal writes, but how to take on Obama is another question altogether.

-- The disagreements are, not surprisingly at all, between media adviser Mandy Grunwald, who thinks aggression looks like desperation, and pollster Mark Penn, who wants more contrasts drawn, Adam Nagourney writes. If the Clinton campaign does not succeed in capturing the Democratic nomination, the narrative of the obituary could be all about the feud between these two Democratic heavyweights. So far, though, it looks like Penn is winning, as Clinton is just spending more time beating on her rival, the Post writes.

-- How crucial are upcoming debates? Clinton's poll numbers in Texas and Ohio are already slipping, and according to the strategist closest to the candidate, she's got to hold on for big wins. "You probably like it that this election has come down to Texas and Ohio. If she wins Texas and Ohio I think she will be the nominee. If you don't deliver for her, I don't think she can be. It's all on you," Bill Clinton told a crowd in Beaumont, Texas, according to ABC News. When the spouse sets the bar that high, backs really must be against the wall.

-- Good Fortune Of The Day: Imagine if the Times story were enough to bring McCain down. Noam Scheiber, of TNR, has a good series of connected dots: Blaire Hull. Jack Ryan. McCain. Scheiber's point: "Is it possible that Obama's the luckiest man in the history of civilization?"

-- Today On The Trail: Clinton heads to an event with early voters in Laredo before joining Obama at a debate, sponsored by CNN and Univision, in Austin. Mike Huckabee, who is still in the race, rallies in Houston before attending a fundraiser, then visits the Alamo before rallying at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. McCain has his 9 a.m. presser in Toledo before meeting voters in Perrysburg and attending a fundraiser. Later today he heads to a Ford assembly plant in Wayne, Michigan, just outside Detroit. He has a fundraiser scheduled for that city as well before overnighting in Indianapolis.

Garded Optimism

When talking with a large number of people, one notices common themes. Whether they are talking points or emerging trends, occasionally everyone just seems to be on the same page. In the course of reporting a separate article, this column noticed one such occasion that deserves mentioning.

One of the biggest surprises in the 2006 elections came from Wisconsin, where allergist Steve Kagen beat out State House Speaker John Gard to replace Republican Mark Green in Congress. It was not surprising, in and of itself, that Kagen, a Democrat, won: The Eighth District, while it has a Republican tilt, is certainly winnable for either party. What caught many unaware was that Kagen beat Gard, who is universally regarded as a very good candidate.

"He was our best candidate who didn't win last time," NRCC chairman Tom Cole told Politics Nation, referring to Gard. The former legislator, who is repeating his run for the seat, is seen by many as one of Republicans' top recruits in the whole country. Asked about challengers with whom they were impressed, several freshmen Republicans, including Reps. Kevin McCarthy, of California, Jim Jordan, of Ohio and Peter Roskam, of Illinois, all mentioned Gard's name independently of each other.

This year, it is likely that John McCain will win Kagen's Eighth District, which takes up much of the northeast quadrant of Wisconsin and includes Green Bay: President Bush won the district by nine- and eleven-point margins in 2000 and 2004. That should help the GOP nominee against Kagen, who won by a narrow 6,000-vote margin last cycle.

Gard has the ability to raise big money, too. Kagen spent about $3.2 million in 2006, while Gard dropped $2.8 million on his bid. Through December, Gard had raised more than $280,000, though Kagen, now the incumbent, has more than $660,000 in the bank. Kagen still owes himself almost half a million dollars in outstanding loans.

Gard isn't the only reason national Republicans are optimistic about the seat. Kagen has something of a reputation for getting himself in trouble. "You're in the White House and you think you're safe, huh? You recognize me? My name's Dr. Multimillionaire and I kicked your ass," Kagen said he told top White House strategist Karl Rove at a reception.

He bragged, too, that he had confronted Vice President Cheney and insulted Laura Bush, though the White House denied each of the three incidents. Kagen later had to apologize for his comments. "Kagen's given us a lot to talk about," Cole chuckled.

If Kagen can keep away from controversy through November, his cash advantage might be enough to keep the seat in Democratic hands. But if Republicans are anywhere near correct in their assessments of Gard, Kagen will have a bigger challenge than most House Democratic freshmen.

No Shows In MS

Former Congressman Ronnie Shows has dropped his bid for Senate, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reports. Shows cited his inability to raise the millions he thinks is necessary to steal the seat from interim Senator Roger Wicker, who replaced Trent Lott as the state's junior senator last month.

Shows, who represented the state in Congress until 2002, lost his seat to Republican Rep. Chip Pickering when the state lost a seat after redistricting and the two members were drawn into the same district. In his statement announcing his withdrawal, Shows heaped praise on former Governor Ronnie Musgrove, the remaining Democrat in the race.

Musgrove lost his bid for re-election as well, in 2003, when former RNC chairman Haley Barbour returned home and won the governor's mansion for Republicans. Musgrove has another uphill battle ahead of him in a state in which President Bush won almost 60% of the vote in 2004. No Democrat has been elected to the Senate from Mississippi since 1982, when John C. Stennis won his last term.

FEC reports show Musgrove is also in a financial tight spot. Wicker, a member of the House before being elevated to the upper chamber, ended 2007 with more than $550,000 in the bank. Musgrove has some time to build his own warchest, though. While Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood had wanted the special election to take place in March, Barbour interpreted state law differently and won the subsequent court battle, meaning the special election will take place on November 4.

The state's senior senator, Thad Cochran, is running for re-election as well, making Mississippi one of two states in which voters will cast ballots for both Senate seats in November.

Obama Lead Insurmountable?

Barack Obama's strong showings in Wisconsin and Hawaii last night netted him an additional 18 delegates, his campaign estimates, giving him a net lead of 159 pledged delegates. That lead, Obama chief David Plouffe suggested on a conference call this morning, is difficult, if not impossible, for Hillary Clinton's campaign to overcome. "We have opened up a big and meaningful delegate lead," he said.

To net that many more of the 1,000 or so pledged delegates remaining, "they need to win going away," Plouffe said. "The only way, in this system, to win delegates is by big margins." He estimated that, because of delegate selection rules in Ohio and Texas, the Clinton camp would have to win both states by as many as twenty points to win significantly more delegates than Obama.

Time, Plouffe said, is on Obama's side. "There's no doubt Senator Clinton started this [campaign in Ohio and Texas] with a big lead," he said. But "we're looking forward to a lot of time on the ground, which is a luxury we have not had" since January. Indeed, in many cases, Obama has been able to cut into Clinton's lead when he's had time on the ground. With two full weeks before Buckeyes and Longhorns vote, Obama has plenty of time to spend on the ground.

Even with big leads, though, Clinton might wind up with a bad election night. Exit polls from Wisconsin and earlier contests have started showing voters who had otherwise favored John Edwards, chiefly lower-paid white men, breaking hard for Obama once their guy was out of the race. In Wisconsin, Obama won white men by twenty-one points.

While women still make up the majority of the Democratic electorate, Obama looks to have muted Clinton's lead among them while racking up big margins among men. Having made such significant inroads in earlier states, Obama's path to victory -- real or in the expectations game -- in Ohio and Texas becomes much easier.

Plouffe declined an opportunity to offer a full-throated response to criticism yesterday from John McCain, who attacked Obama as offering an "eloquent but empty call for change." Plouffe said McCain would offer what he characterized as a third term for President Bush, but that time remains for their differences to be explored. "The general election is going to be a long general election, and we don't have much control over when that starts," he said.

Do Newspapers Follow Big Mo?

Newspaper endorsements, some political strategists will tell you, mean everything. Others will scoff and contend they mean nothing at all. Regardless of one's feelings, it is hard not to notice the trend of recent newspaper endorsements in the Democratic race: After winning a few primaries here and there, Barack Obama has been scooping up editorial page nods left and right.

Over the weekend, that trend continued. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Houston Chronicle and the Corpus Christi Caller-Times (incidentally, the paper that broke Dick Cheney's shooting accident) all wrote editorials backing Obama. In fact, going through some notes, it looks like it's been since February 1 since Clinton won an endorsement, that one from the Denver Post.

According to a quick count, Clinton has been endorsed by thirty-two editorial boards, including the Des Moines Register, the Las Vegas Sun, the Kansas City Star, the Orlando Sentinel, the Salt Lake Tribune and, of course, the New York Times. None of those papers represent states that voted after February 5. In fact, Clinton has no endorsements from newspapers circulating in Washington, Nebraska, Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Wisconsin or Hawaii.

Obama, on the other hand, has backing from fifty-five editorial boards. Editorial boards that reach large numbers of readers include the Arizona Republic, the Boston Globe, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, both major Chicago papers, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times.

From the eight states which have held nominating contests after February 5, Obama has won four endorsements, from the Journal Sentinel, both papers in Seattle, along with the alternative weekly The Stranger, and the Baltimore Sun. Obama already leads among post-February 19 papers: The Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Austin American Statesman, the Dallas Morning News and the Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as the Chronicle and the Caller-Times, have written endorsement editorials for the freshman Senator.

Papers that endorsed early could well have acted like many voters: They wondered whether Obama could get through a primary and were looking ahead to a general election, gauging electability as well as issues of character and experience. Once Obama started winning a few primaries, perhaps other ed boards decided he could win, so Clinton's electability advantage disappeared.

One major caveat -- much as we would like to, we don't read every paper in the country, so we could easily have missed a few endorsements. The counts above are approximately correct, and we count publishing groups as one editorial board. Still, whatever the reason for the recent dramatic shift toward Obama and the actual number of newspaper nods, the trend is clear: Post-February 5, the eleven papers that have endorsed have all chosen Obama.

Morning Thoughts: Badger State Blowout

Good Wednesday morning. In four years, can we all please make a concerted effort to pay more attention to Hawaii? Washington's not as cold as Wisconsin, but a trip to Hawaii's always welcome. Here's what Washington is watching this morning:

-- The House and Senate remain out of session for the week. The Senate Small Business Committee meets in Lake Charles, Louisiana, to examine business recovery in the southern party of the state after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The House Natural Resources Committee, meanwhile, heads to Miami, Oklahoma, to discuss Native American issues. President Bush, continuing his Africa tour, is in Ghana today, where he will meet with President John Kufuor, have lunch with Peace Corps volunteers and play tee ball.

-- Last night's elections were just about what everyone expected, aside from larger margins for Barack Obama than polls indicated. This morning, though, after reflecting on exit polls, Obama's victories look much bigger. Obama won men two-to-one, tied among women, won every age group under 65, and more people said he is most qualified to be commander in chief. It was the last number that stuck out so much: 51% of Badger Staters, asked who is most qualified, chose Obama, while 47% chose Hillary Clinton. That thud sound was Clinton's experience argument hitting the ground.

-- Obama won big margins in Milwaukee and in Southern Wisconsin, which includes liberal Madison. But he won convincingly in the Northern part of the state as well, and racked up a ten-point margin among those who made less than $50,000 and a 21-point lead among those making more than $50,000. It didn't matter if voters said the economy, the war in Iraq or health care was the most important issue -- Obama won all three subgroups. A quick note: Each news outlet weights their exit polls differently, so the numbers are a few points different in each. We're using CNN's weighting.

-- The overarching theme of last night: Barack Obama walked into a state Clinton should have won, given its demographics, and not only beat her, but beat her among voters who have so far made up Clinton's base. Clinton has made few inroads to Obama voters, while Obama is stealing as many of her voters as he can get his hands on. For good measure, he racked up another three-to-one victory in the Hawaii caucuses, the Honolulu Advertiser writes. If these trends continue, the Democratic Party's super delegates, who are causing so much anger and confusion, will be able to return to relative anonymity: Unless Clinton does something to turn her campaign around, Obama will be the consensus nominee come March 4.

-- Networks, once they had called Wisconsin, cut to Clinton rallying with union supporters in labor-heavy Youngstown, Ohio. Her speech, which her campaign had previewed for reporters, offered some of her harshest rhetoric yet against her opponent. Rubbing salt in the wound, and at the same time making sure Clinton's speech didn't win free media, Obama bounded on stage in Houston, Texas just moments later, where he spoke for a whopping 45 minutes. In politics, as in life, timing is everything, and that one had to sting the Clinton camp. Still, she called Obama afterward to congratulate him on his win, Andrea Mitchell reports.

-- At his own victory rally, also in Ohio, John McCain joined in the Obama shots, offering a preview of some of what's coming down the pike in the Fall. "I will fight every moment of every day in this campaign to make sure Americans are not deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change," McCain said. "I'm not the youngest candidate. But I am the most experienced." As Jonathan Martin notes, McCain warned of Obama promising a "holiday from history," a reference to the slack national security atmosphere of the 1990's. Watch as the Republican tries to make the election about terrorism. Few could pull that off like McCain, and if he does it again, Obama could be in real trouble.

-- Obama's press shop wasted little time in firing back, with spokesman Bill Burton labeling McCain's candidacy a "third term of George Bush's policies," ABC News writes. While top Republicans maintain that, because President Bush is not on the ballot next year, he won't be an issue, Democrats from Capitol Hill to the Obama campaign consistently accuse the GOP of a "third term" philosophy and label the entire opposing party as Bush Republicans. Yes, Bush won't be on the ballot, but Democrats must have significant polling on the subject, and it's not one that looks like it will go away.

-- Technically, the Republican race isn't quite over, and as McCain inches toward the GOP nomination, he's still contending with Mike Huckabee, who hasn't given up his windmill-tilting. Huckabee told the AP's Andrew DeMillo, the news org's top Little Rock writer, that ego isn't a factor in his continuing campaign. He just wants to deliver a message, Huckabee said. That message, though, could come to an end sooner rather than later. After a weekend stop in the Cayman Islands and while McCain was barnstorming through Ohio, Huckabee met with reporters in Little Rock, not somewhere else on the trail.

-- Opening Of The Day: A matchup between McCain and Obama will effectively end Michael Bloomberg's interest in a presidential race: His path through the middle has been scooped up by both the Democratic and Republican candidate. But maybe there's room for a populist on stage. With McCain, seen by some in the party as soft on immigration, as the GOP nominee, Americans for Legal Immigration has restarted its efforts to get CNN anchor Lou Dobbs to run for president, The Swamp reports. Dobbs hinted at the possibility in a recent Wall Street Journal article, and he might just have an ego big enough to go for it.

-- Today On The Trail: Obama has a campaign rally in Dallas, while Clinton heads to a reception in New York before holding her own rallies in Hidalgo and Brownsville, Texas. Mike Huckabee is in Plano, while John McCain campaigns in Columbus and Yellow Springs, Ohio. Tonight, he holds a media availability with Illinois Congressional candidate Jim Oberweis in Sugar Grove.

A Dem Deep In The Heart Of TX

Four-term Houston Republican John Culberson is not used to strong challenges, and there's no reason he should be: After winning a runoff election in 2000 to replace retiring Rep. Bill Archer, Culberson has won easy re-elections, his lowest vote total coming in at 59% in 2006.

His Seventh District, which includes the western part of Texas' largest city, was once represented by George H.W. Bush, and gave the former president's son wide 38- and 28-point margins in 2000 and 2004, respectively. But a new poll for businessman Michael Skelly, combined with Culberson's poor fundraising numbers, has at least a few Democrats optimistic. While Skelly probably has little chance in November, some of Culberson's poll results probably say something about the state in which the GOP finds itself.

The poll, conducted 12/5-12, surveyed 600 likely voters. Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the respected Democratic firm based in Washington, tested both Skelly and Culberson.

General Election Matchup
Culberson 52
Skelly 33

The wide 19-point lead, though, looks less impressive when just 44% say they will vote to re-elect Culberson. 34% say they will vote for someone new. Once undisclosed positive messages are read about each candidate, both wind up with 44%. Still, if those positive messages are not released within the poll memo, any results they purport to show should be taken with a hefty grain of salt.

Skelly is not the average opposition candidate in a GOP-favored district: He's raised more than $460,000 through the February 13 pre-primary filing deadline. The incumbent has raised $322,000, though Culberson has consistently spent more than he has brought in, leaving him with just $82,000 in the bank.

The district's heavy crimson hue makes Skelly's battle more than uphill: He's scaling the Matterhorn with little more than an ice pick. But with so much money in the bank, the Democrat could put the incumbent Republican in an uncomfortable position.

Could Edwards Nod Be Trouble?

In recent weeks, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have taken time off the campaign trail to sneak down to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to personally seek one of the most important endorsements left this campaign season. While several top Democrats remain uncommitted, few nods would generate headlines like John Edwards' blessing.

Reports have suggested Edwards is considering backing both candidates. While on the stump, he seemed closer to Obama's change message. But Edwards is also said to be considering Obama's lack of response to attacks as a potential weakness, leaving the door open for the one-time candidate to back Clinton, an outcome that would certainly carry considerable weight.

Edwards attracted support from lower-income white males, a group whose support would boost either Clinton or Obama to a majority. Whether those voters would follow Edwards is a separate question, but his endorsement would go a long way toward convincing many to coalesce behind one of the remaining candidates.

But Edwards' endorsement would require a careful choreography. While in the race, Edwards unabashedly acted as the attack dog, hitting Clinton as an agent of the status quo and, toward the end, criticizing Obama's perceived lack of willingness to fight. Edwards is much better at attacking opponents than Clinton or Obama: When they try to land a punch, Clinton comes off as shrill, while Obama can appear condescending.

If Edwards chooses to endorse, his nod would be portrayed not only as a choice for a candidate, but a choice against the other. The visual would be striking: Either two men would gang up on a woman, or two white candidates would take on a minority. If a campaign is considering how to roll out Edwards' endorsement, it would do well to put him on the stump as an entirely positive messenger. Any negativity could seriously blunt his positive impact, and even turn a benefit into a major liability.

On the other hand, Edwards may not decide to make an endorsement until a nominee is determined. Before leaving the race, he secured guarantees from both candidates that they would make solutions to poverty a central part of their campaigns. Given his support among the Democratic base, it is also likely he will play a role in the next Democratic administration. In a race that still looks neck-and-neck, an endorsement could only jeopardize his future. Edwards might calculate that, instead of risking backing the wrong horse, he would be better served by remaining above the fray and an acceptable cabinet member in either administration.

Close In Colorado

The open Senate seat in Colorado remains one of the most competitive races in the country, a recent poll suggests. Rasmussen released a poll last week that showed the two top candidates, Democratic Rep. Mark Udall and former Republican Rep. Bob Schaffer, statistically tied.

The poll showed Schaffer with 44 percent to Udall's 43 percent. A Rasmussen poll in November offered a similar outcome, with Schaffer garnering 42 percent to Udall's 41 percent.

This seat has been open for more than a year--longer than any other--after Republican Senator Wayne Allard became the first incumbent of the cycle to announce his retirement in January 2007. Both parties avoided the possibility of divisive primaries when prospective challengers dropped out of the race in deference to Udall and Schaffer.

Both candidates have already raised large sums of money and appear ready to go the distance in what will be a long general election campaign. Udall reported spending $1.4 million through the end of 2007, and still had $3.6 million cash on hand. Schaffer spent about half that amount through the end of the year, and reported having some $1.5 million cash on hand.

In a recent interview with Real Clear Politics, NRSC Chair John Ensign expressed optimism for Schaffer's chances, despite the Democratic Party's recent gains in state elections and President Bush's declining numbers between 2000 and 2004. These numbers explain Democrats' view of this seat as a top pick-up opportunity.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Kirk Faces Tough Fight

Four-term Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, one of the most moderate members of the GOP caucus, faces a repeat of what proved to be a surprisingly difficult challenge from 2006 when he managed just a six-point victory. Vote ratings place Kirk virtually in the middle of the House on economic, social and foreign policy issues, and is a prominent member of the centrist Tuesday Group and the Suburban Agenda Caucus, which sought to protect some of the most vulnerable Republicans last cycle.

Kirk's moderation has served him well in his district, which runs north of Chicago along Lake Michigan and close to the Wisconsin border. He is one of the few Republicans to represent a district President Bush lost not once but twice. Still, two years ago, marketing executive Dan Seals scored 47% of the vote to Kirk's 53%, the closest race the incumbent faced since his initial bid in 2000.

After Seals easily took care of former White House aide Jay Footlik in the February 5 primary, his campaign released a poll showing what could be another tight race. The poll, conducted by Democratic firm Garin-Hart-Yang between 2/7-8, surveyed 400 likely voters and tested Kirk and Seals.

General Election Matchup
Kirk 46
Seals 39

Seals keeps the Republican under the crucial 50% mark, but it's still an uphill battle for the Democrat. Kirk survived in 2006 because he is what NRCC chair Tom Cole refers to as a paranoid incumbent, one smart enough to see a difficult battle approach and to over-prepare in any case. Before the primary, Seals held about $625,000 in cash reserves, while Kirk had close to $1.8 million on hand. Making Seals' chances better, the DCCC did not target the seat last time around, though they are likely to do so this time.

Kirk outspent Seals almost two-to-one in 2006. But John Kerry won the district by a six-point margin and Al Gore by four points. While Kirk has survived tight races before, he may be the last Republican to hold the district for a long time. Whether his abdication comes as his own choice or when voters kick him out will depend on the incumbent's ability to survive what could be another terrible landscape for Republicans.

Morning Thoughts: The Real World

Good Tuesday morning. Now that you've celebrated the lives of Millard Fillmore, William Henry Harrison, James K. Polk and other presidents, it's time to get back to work. Here's what Washington is watching today:

-- Perhaps not satisfied with the four-day weekend, the House is out of session all week for a district work period. Because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's mistrust of President Bush runs so deep, the Senate will hold more pro forma sessions through the week. Still, some crucial work is being done: The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will hold a hearing on the impacts of reduced whale hunting on Maine's lobster population, which, members can be assured, will come with a taste test at Jeff's Catering and Convention Center in Brewer, Maine.

-- Sometimes the campaign is interrupted by that pesky thing called real life, and this morning two news items that are going to have legs are making big headlines. The first, which will actually appear in newspapers today, is the Bush Administration's decision to recognize the Republic of Kosovo, as The Swamp writes. The U.S. joins Britain, France, Germany and Turkey in recognizing the fledgling state, which has been administered by the U.N. since a NATO-led bombing campaign almost a decade ago. Russia and China, along with Serbia, vehemently disapprove of the move, but it's something a future president is going to have to consider: Taiwan and Russian separatists could also declare independence, setting off massive regional, and perhaps global, conflicts. Don't be surprised if Kosovo shows up in more than a few stump speeches.

-- The second story, which broke this morning, will lead major papers tomorrow: After nearly 50 years in office, Cuban President Fidel Castro announced he will step down, the ailing chief executive wrote in a letter that appears this morning in Cuban newspapers. While not unexpected, as the Miami Herald writes, the move comes less than a week before the National Assembly meets to pick a new Council of State, of which Castro is president. Castro hasn't been seen in public since July 2006, when he had stomach surgery. While brother Raul is expected to fill Castro's shoes, Vice President Carlos Lage and Prime Minister Felipe Perez Roque are also names to remember, the Washington Post writes.

-- Voters head to the polls today in Wisconsin and Washington State, while caucus-goers attend midnight (Eastern Time) meetings in Hawaii. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Mike Huckabee have all spent time in Wisconsin, and the latest RCP Wisconsin Averages have Obama up 4.3 points while McCain is well ahead on the GOP side. Only the Republican primary matters in Washington State, where Democrats allocated all their delegates by caucus on February 9, and only Democrats will caucus in Hawaii.

-- It is widely assumed that Obama is on his way to another sweep, but Clinton shouldn't be counted out of either Hawaii or Wisconsin just yet. In the Badger State, Obama has backing from the governor, from the congresswoman who represents the state's largest city and the mayor of that city. But Clinton's average voter lives there -- working class white men and women with less education than other parts of the electorate where Obama does well. Expect big Obama numbers tonight in Milwaukee and Madison, the state capitol and resident liberal bastion, while, if she has any chance of winning, Clinton should run up similarly wide margins in the state's northern half.

-- Hawaii, though, is Obama's home state. Add the fact that Hawaiians will caucus instead of cast primary ballots and it should be a runaway. But not so fast: In California, where Asian American voters made up 8% of the electorate, they broke 71%-25% in Clinton's favor. That was a greater gap than the 67%-32% she won among Latinos, though lower than Obama's 78%-18% win among African Americans. While just one in twelve voters in California are Asian, four in ten Hawaii residents are Asian. The state's senior Democrat, Senator Daniel Inouye, is backing Clinton, while Rep. Neil Abercrombie is backing Obama. In short, if Obama loses the state, his team will have plenty of reason to spin it as not terribly out of the ordinary.

-- An otherwise quiet weekend was shattered yesterday as the Clinton campaign accused Obama of plagiarism, hitting their opponent for supposedly lifting lines from Massachusetts Governor and major Obama backer Deval Patrick, coincidentally also a client of a certain David Axelrod. By some standards, the story blew up immediately: It spent most of the day on top of Drudge, which some believe is the measure of a story's success. Many writers suggest the charge is overstated, as does former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet, Atlantic columnist James Fallows and prominent liberal blogger Bob Cesca.

-- Still, the flap had some impact. "I'm sure I should have" given Patrick credit for the lines, Obama said at a news conference in Niles, Ohio yesterday, per NYT's Jeff Zeleny. Whether the accusation gained Clinton any votes, or robbed them from Obama, it did put him off message for a few hours, and in an era of 24-hour news cycles, sometimes that can make a heap of difference. No one, though, is calling Obama's borrowed lines anything like those of Joe Biden, in 1988. In fact, Obama's team counterpunched is suggesting Clinton has been using some of his lines from time to time as well, including that whole "fired up, ready to go" thing (which, to be completely fair, we've even heard John McCain use).

-- Overlooked Person Of The Day: As top Democrats from John Edwards to Al Gore mull how best to overcome what looks increasingly like a deadlocked convention, one name hasn't come up much: DNC chairman Howard Dean. As TNR's Eve Fairbanks writes, the Democratic chief showed up to at least one debate with a suspiciously fresh tan, and his influence has not been exactly widely felt. A recent letter exchange with NAACP chairman Julian Bond came off, in some minds, as weak and without offering solutions to the delegate situations in Florida and Michigan. He's come a long way from the scream.

-- Today On The Trail: Clinton rallies in Youngstown, Ohio, while Obama holds a roundtable and a town hall meeting in San Antonio before holding his own rally in Houston. Mike Huckabee, back on the trail -- though for how long no one is certain -- meets with the media in Little Rock. And McCain campaigns in Brookfield, Wisconsin before meeting the media and celebrating election returns in Columbus, Ohio.

Popcorn For The Mind

Happy Presidents' Day. As with Congress and the federal government, Politics Nation is taking a little breather today. While we do so, prepare for tomorrow's primary, in Wisconsin, and caucuses, in Hawaii, with these handy statistics:


Population: 5.6 million (90% white, 6% African American, 4.7% Hispanic, 2% Asian)

According to the 2000 census, a little over 22% of Wisconsin residents over 25 years old had earned a bachelor's degree or more. That's slightly below the U.S. average, estimated at 27%.

At 46.3%, Barack Obama has just a 4.3-point lead over Hillary Clinton in the latest RCP Wisconsin Average.

Super delegates for Clinton: Rep. Tammy Baldwin, DNC member Tim Sullivan
Super delegates for Obama: Governor Jim Doyle, Reps. Gwen Moore and David Obey, DNC member Stan Gruszynski


Population: 1.3 million (41% Asian, 23% White, 18% multiple races, 9% Hawaiian, 7% Hispanic)

Just over 26% of Hawaii residents are college graduates, barely under the U.S. average, while 29% of homes speak an Asian language and 66% speak English, one of the lowest rates in the country.

No polls have been conducted in Hawaii, but remember that Asian Americans broke harder for Clinton than even Hispanics did. It may be his home state, but Hawaii could be tough territory for Obama.

Super delegates for Clinton: Senator Daniel Inouye, DNC member Richard Port
Super delegates for Obama: Rep. Neil Abercrombie

Obama's No-Win On Financing

A year ago, at the beginning of his bid to secure the clean-up-Washington mantle, Barack Obama made a pact with John McCain that, if the two were to be their party's nominees, each would accept public financing for the general election. That agreement sounded far-fetched: At the time, McCain was in the middle of his high-profile free-fall in the polls, while Obama trailed Hillary Clinton by wide margins in virtually every poll.

Obama, pictured in Derry, New
Hampshire, in January, now faces
a difficult choice
Now, McCain is virtually the nominee-in-waiting. By his campaign's count, he has already surpassed the necessary threshold of delegates needed to win the GOP convention in St. Paul. Obama, too, is close to winning his side. He has Clinton against a wall; she needs wins in key states of Ohio and Texas in order to keep her campaign afloat. The scenario that the two candidates who most talk about reforming Washington will actually face each other in November looks more than possible, it looks probable.

Obama's own success has forced him to make a choice that opens him to attack either way. Both of his opponents, smelling potential weakness, are already hammering him, pushing him to make the choice that would give McCain a much better position from which to win the presidency.

After raising $32 million in January and about $100 million in 2007, Obama proved he can build a campaign warchest unlike any the American electorate has seen before. If he continued to raise the amount he achieved in January, Obama would have raised an additional $300 million this year, more than $100 million above John Kerry's spending in 2004. There is reason to assume that, once Obama clinches the nomination, his pace would actually pick up.

McCain, on the other hand, has never been seen as a strong fundraiser. He fell far short of his $100 million goal for 2007, raising just $40 million and ending the year with $1.5 million more in debt than he had in the bank. While his fundraising, as the nominee, will ramp up, it is reasonable to assume that, both because of McCain's slow pace and Obama's success, the Democratic candidate would have a giant financing edge over the Republican.

So McCain has something fairly significant vested in making sure both candidates stick to public financing. If they don't, Obama would be able to outspend him by leaps and bounds. If they do, McCain has a level playing field. In fact, given that the Republican National Committee has consistently outraised the Democratic National Committee, McCain would even be at something of an advantage, as the RNC could outspend its Democratic counterparts to better define the young senator.

McCain, seen here celebrating his
New Hampshire victory,
benefits either way
McCain has spent much of the last several days lambasting Obama's waffling on the promise. As Democrats have done to him in recent weeks, so McCain has begun targeting Obama with verbal shots, offering a preview of the general election to come, should they face off. "I expect Senator Obama to keep his word to the American people as well. This is all about a commitment that we made to the American people," McCain said in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on Friday, according to the Associated Press.

Clinton, on the other hand, made no such financing promise. Instead, she has based much of her campaign on the notion that she is the more electable candidate, and were she to face McCain, she would revel in her ability to outpace the Republican in fundraising. Her argument against Obama on public financing will likely be two-fold, and the first stage is already well underway.

"Last year, Senator Obama pledged to take public financing in the general election if the Republican nominee agreed to do so as well," Clinton communications ace Howard Wolfson said in a statement today, ahead of a conference call focused on the same issue. "Unfortunately, he broke that pledge this week. It now appears that Senator Obama made a promise to the American people that he is not keeping."

But the call for Obama to keep his word is a thinly-veiled trap. Should he do so, Clinton's electability argument will take on a new sense of purpose. If Obama is the nominee, she should argue, he will offer Republicans an opportunity to win. If she is the nominee, she can make the case to primary voters, she will show Republicans no mercy, making her the more electable candidate.

Obama faces two choices: First, he can take public financing, save some face now and open himself to new, stronger attacks on his electability from Clinton while providing McCain an even playing field. Second, he can back out and take a few weeks of assault from McCain and Clinton for going back on his word.

While financing a campaign is an issue few voters care about, choosing the second scenario could potentially cost him votes in a primary election. Choosing the first could risk the general election itself by giving McCain a chance Obama doesn't have to provide. The question cynics in his campaign have to answer: Do they really want to change the way politics works, or do they really want to win? The answer to that question will determine their choice on public financing.

Then again, if they decide they would rather change politics and increase their chances of losing in November, some Democrats, in February, March and April, could decide they would really rather just win.

Narrow WA Gov Race

We wrote yesterday of former State Senator Dino Rossi's golden opportunity to close the fundraising gap with incumbent Governor Christine Gregoire. A November poll, released today, shows keeping her fundraising advantage may be the least of Gregoire's worries, as a new poll shows her barely clinging to a lead.

The worst part: The poll was conducted by Democratic firm Grove Insights, of Portland, Oregon, and the same company that Gregoire used as her pollster in 2004. Conducted for Washington Conservation Voters, the poll surveyed 588 likely voters between 11/9-12 for a margin of error of +/- 4%. Gregoire and Rossi were surveyed.

General Election Matchup
(All / Ind)
Gregoire 43 / 30
Rossi 41 / 41

The incumbent Democrat enjoys just a one-point net approval on her job as governor, 49%-48%. And while the poll is older than the most recent look at the race, it tells a similar story to that of a University of Washington poll taken a few weeks earlier. In that poll, Gregoire led by just five points.

A poll out in mid-January, conducted by prominent Seattle pollster Stuart Elway, had Gregoire up by a more substantial 48%-35% margin. Still, being up just two points in a poll conducted by your old polling firm, a Democratic company so widely respected that they are one of just a few that conducts surveys for the DCCC, is not a good sign, and Rossi's camp wasted little time in pointing those facts out.

McCain, Obama Head To Aurora

Adding to the attention this competitive House race has already received, presidential candidates are now weighing in on the special election in Illinois's vacant 14th District. As we wrote Wednesday, both parties are showing optimism for winning the seat.

As the suburban Chicago Courier News reports, Democratic nominee Bill Foster's campaign announced yesterday that Senator Barack Obama has filmed a new TV ad with Foster. A day earlier, Republican nominee Jim Oberweis's campaign announced Senator John McCain will be attending a fundraiser for Oberweis next week.

This added interest shows how important winning the March 8 special election is, giving the winner the incumbency advantage in the November general election.

Of course, Foster still is not set as the Democratic nominee in November, as his primary competitor John Laesch refuses to concede, the Shaw News Service reports.

Though a first-time candidate, Foster is familiar with Congressional campaigns, as the Chicago Tribune writes. He claims to be the mastermind behind the get-out-the-vote effort in Pennsylvania's 8th District in 2006, helping Democrat Patrick Murphy oust Republican incumbent Mike Fitzpatrick in the suburban Philadelphia district. Republicans familiar with Oberweis' campaign scoff at the notion that Foster's formula provided the crucial boost to Murphy, who beat a Republican incumbent by 1500 votes in a district President Bush lost twice.

Strategists agree that turnout will be key to both the special election and the battle in November, likely featuring the same candidates. If Foster's model really worked in Pennsylvania, he has a a fighting chance this year.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Update: An outside group has branded Foster the "mad scientist," and agree with them or not, this web video's pretty clever:

GOP Approps Battle Settled

Though half a dozen Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee will retire at the end of the 110th Congress, Mississippian Roger Wicker's elevation from the lower chamber to Trent Lott's open Senate seat touched off a scramble in recent weeks for his vacated seat on the powerful panel. The fierce campaigning came to an end yesterday, when Alabama Republican Jo Bonner won the seat over several rivals.

The Republican Steering Committee, which assigns members to each of the standing bodies in the House, chose Bonner over several other members who ran active and intense, if short-lived, campaigns to convince leaders they deserved the seat more. Bonner will join fellow Alabama Reps. Robert Aderholt, a Republican, and Bud Cramer, a Democrat, on Appropriations.

Others in the running included an eclectic mix of members from across the country who plied Steering Committee members with a variety of arguments. Rep. Dave Reichert, of Washington State, and Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, of Colorado, are considered the members most vulnerable to Democratic challenges last year. Both said a seat on the committee would help firm up their re-election hopes.

Geography was also a factor. In a ten-page proposal to Steering Committee members, Reichert pointed out that he is the only Republican west of the Cascade Mountains from the Canadian border to Los Angeles, and that Democrats had spent $5 million trying to defeat him last year. Reichert also pointed out that, of the 29 Republicans on the panel, just four represented the West, including two from California and one each from Idaho and Montana. Adding another Washingtonian, he said, would create more balance.

Arizona Republican Jeff Flake also sought a seat on the panel, though for vastly different reasons. As one of the very few members who does not participate in the earmark process, Flake has spent years railing against out-of-control federal spending and has frequently offered amendments on the floor to strip earmarks from bills.

Given Republicans' new arguments against earmarks, and support for Flake from many outside conservative groups around Washington, many thought Flake might have a shot at serving as the committee's resident nay-sayer. Flake pointed out that Republican Leader John Boehner, a key member of the Steering Committee, is another member who does not accept earmarks. Still, Flake was seen by many as too much of a maverick on other issues to be rewarded with a rare opportunity to join the committee. It's not the first time Flake has found trouble on committees; at the end of the 109th Congress, he was booted from the Judiciary Committee when other, less senior members kept their seats.

Choosing Bonner, too, was seen as a rebuke of NRCC chairman Tom Cole, of Oklahoma, who had also made known his interest in serving on the panel, the Politico writes. Cole, whose NRCC lags far behind Democrats in cash on hand heading into this year's elections, told Steering Committee members a spot on the committee could help him raise more money and close the gap. Many felt that was the wrong message to send as Republicans try to cast themselves as reform-minded outsiders. A spokesman told Politics Nation that Cole withdrew his name from consideration before the Steering Committee made their decision.

Bonner, who also scored the nod over South Carolina Republican Henry Brown, was seen as a safe choice, according to Politico, and is a favorite of ranking member Jerry Lewis, of California. With Reps. Ralph Regula, Jim Walsh, David Hobson, John Peterson, Ray LaHood and Dave Weldon retiring next year, most candidates who tried this year will have another opportunity to run again in the next Congress.

Still, by picking a third member from Alabama, some believe Boehner and the rest of the Steering Committee passed up a chance either to inoculate Reichert or Musgrave from challenges this year or to reinforce their new message contrasting themselves with Democrats on spending and earmarks, by appointing Flake.

Franken Actually Electable?

A new poll again shows Republicans just why they should not scoff at comedian Al Franken's bid for Senate against Minnesota incumbent Norm Coleman. In fact, even as Franken and attorney Mike Ciresi battle for a convention win, both Democrats fare pretty well against the freshman incumbent.

The poll, taken by SurveyUSA for KSTP-TV between 2/11-12, surveyed 650 registered voters and tested Coleman, Ciresi and Franken, along with professor Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer and businessman Darryl Stanton, two other Democrats.

General Election Matchup
Coleman 47 (-1 from last, 11/6/07)
Franken 46 (+2)

Coleman 51 (+2)
Ciresi 40 (-3)

Coleman 58 (+5)
Nelson-Pallmeyer 30 (-4)

Coleman 58
Stanton 29

Franken, who has outraised Coleman several times this year but trails in cash on hand, is still taking shots from Ciresi, his chief rival, for being unelectable, the Associated Press reported earlier this week. The candidates, running for nominations from Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party -- a name unique to the state -- will meet at a convention that runs June 6-8. Assuming the two leading candidates honor their commitments to drop out barring a win there, the party will avoid a September 9 primary.

Morning Thoughts: Lone Star

Good Friday morning. We were so caught up with Valentine's Day fever that we missed one of the most important events of the year. Like swallows returning to Capistrano, Major League Baseball players and prospects flocked to Arizona and Florida yesterday to offer themselves for the teams. Back in Washington, here's what's making news:

-- The House is in pro forma session again today, having cut out early for yet another long weekend. The Senate joins them in fake session. House and Senate Republicans head to the White House to sit down with President Bush, having promised to stay in Washington until the FISA bill gets fixed. Later today, the president meets with Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the UN.

-- On the campaign trail, it is a dangerous strategy to rely on super delegates to win a convention, as Hillary Clinton is finding out this morning. Clinton lost at least five votes yesterday, and no election had even been held. Two supers moved from Clinton's column to the undecided camp, while three, including two fairly important ones, switched allegiances to Barack Obama: Reps. David Scott and John Lewis, both Georgia Democrats and the latter a Civil Rights-era giant, said they will cast votes for Obama. The Illinois senator won Scott's district with more than 80% of the vote, while Lewis' district went about 3-1 for Obama.

-- Having lost eight elections in a row, facing the fact that inevitability is not the answer, losing a key segment of the Democratic electorate -- African Americans -- by four or five to one margins, Clinton's road is getting more difficult by the day. Her strategy of building a big lead among super delegates worked, but now she's got to keep them in line. Given the fact they can change their own minds at any moment, that's not an easy task, and Scott and Lewis abandoning her could be just the tip of the iceberg. While Bill and Chelsea work the phones, uncommitted super delegates see the Clinton campaign is not inevitable even among their own ranks, making everyone's job inside the camp that much harder.

-- She did get some good news, though. After 17,000 provisional ballots were counted a week and a half late, Clinton won New Mexico by a slim margin of just under 2,000 votes. Exit polls had suggested Obama would pull out the victory in the Super Tuesday state. Clinton's win gives her 14 of the state's 26 delegates, and a reasonable storyline: Make no mistake, she's not completely out of next Tuesday's contests in Hawaii and Wisconsin. If she puts together two wins there, it may not stop Obama in his tracks, but it will once again pull her back from the brink of elimination.

-- Meanwhile, two major unions will jump on the Obama bandwagon, too. Clinton has long enjoyed more union backing than Obama, though she split her support with John Edwards, but today the Service Employees union and the United Food and Commercial Workers will announce they support Obama, CNN and the NYT report. SEIU had split when Edwards was in the race, with most state factions backing him but with the Illinois and New York chapters holding enough sway to prevent a national endorsement. As the two groups throw their support to Obama and try to bring the Democratic coalition together, one has to wonder: Is it more valuable to be first on board, or is it more valuable to be the group that tips the scales in the winner's favor, once and for all?

-- On the Republican side, Mitt Romney put his campaign's 280-something delegates behind John McCain yesterday at what had to be an uncomfortable presser at Romney's presidential headquarters in Boston. McCain and Romney sat down privately before the press conference, and in his speech thanking the governor for his support, McCain signaled that he would send Romney on the trail for House, Senate and Gubernatorial candidates. Is that a pretty clear signal that Romney won't be getting the veep nod? Regardless, Romney did the smart thing yesterday, putting himself in line for the 2012 race, whoever that might feature.

-- McCain's campaign claims Romney's delegates put their candidate over the 1,191 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. Mike Huckabee has yet to agree, though regardless of whether McCain is there already, he'll be there soon. Still, in an email to supporters obtained by Jonathan Martin, Huckabee said he is banking everything on Texas, which he says will cost the campaign an additional $1.5 million. JMart's wise point of the day: "Who would have guessed a year ago that the race would come down to Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee hanging on to the March 4 Texas primary as their last, best chance?"

-- Huckabee said Romney is just part of the "me-too crowd" while addressing reporters in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, per CBS's Joy Lin. Among the two, there was little love lost during the nasty campaign, in which Romney attacked Huckabee ceaselessly and still lost Iowa. But by joining the bandwagon, Romney is doing himself favors moving forward, either in cabinet consideration or in line for the 2012 nomination. By staying off the bandwagon even as McCain claims victory, has Huckabee gone from good-natured underdog to actually harming his future chances?

-- True, it's not clear whether Romney can actually donate his 282 (per NBC's count) delegates to his new best friend, but parties are looking into just what the rules are. Romney won a bunch of delegates in caucus states, whose national convention delegates have not actually been allocated yet -- meaning they could easily go with Huckabee or anyone else, if they wanted to -- while rules are unclear in states like Massachusetts, First Read reports. In the last few years, it has been fashionable to bash the calendar. Perhaps next year unclear party rules and super delegates will be the gripe of choice.

-- Bad Form Of The Day: As members of both parties gathered in the Capitol Rotunda to pay last respects to the late Rep. Tom Lantos, Florida Republican Lincoln Diaz-Balart called a procedural vote, sending both parties scrambling to fix the problem and pointing fingers for disrupting a service dedicated to the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress. As Mary Ann Akers reports, both parties erred, and both parties deserve the shame. Democrats did not recess the House during the service, while Republicans decided to try to pull a fast one. Everyone on the Hill, it would seem, owes the Lantos family an apology.

-- Today On The Trail: Clinton is campaigning in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Lyndhurst, Ohio. Obama has rallies scheduled for Milwaukee, Oshkosh and Green Bay, while McCain has town halls set for Oshkosh and LaCrosse before heading to a Reagan Day Dinner in Milwaukee. Huckabee hits a pancake house in Milwaukee before jetting off to the Cayman Islands for a speech.

Harris Up In NRCC Poll

Despite a nasty primary battle on Maryland's shore, State Senator Andy Harris looks like a safe bet to hold the seat for Republicans, a new poll conducted for the National Republican Congressional Committee shows. Harris, who defeated incumbent Republican Wayne Gilchrest by a wide margin on Tuesday, now turns his attention to Queen Anne County State's Attorney Frank Kratovil, who he will face in the general election in November.

The poll, conducted by Oregon- and Washington, D.C.-based Moore Information, was conducted 1/15-16 among 300 likely voters, for a margin of error of 6%. Harris and Kratovil were tested, alongside ballot matchups for a generic Republican and a generic Democrat.

General Election Matchup
Harris 37
Kratovil 22

Generic Ballot Matchup
Generic GOP 46
Generic Dem 31

The poll almost certainly included matchups between Kratovil and Gilchrest, along with State Senator E.J. Pipkin, another Republican who finished a distant third in the primary, given that it was taken almost a month before Marylanders headed to the ballot box.

Thanks to redistricting, several Maryland seats slightly favor Democrats while two others -- those held by Gilchrest and Rep. Roscoe Bartlett -- have heavy concentrations of Republicans lumped together. That means Democrats hold more seats, but that when one of the GOP-heavy seats comes open, the opposite party has only a slight chance to take it.

As a measure of the seat's Republican lean, the poll found that former Governor Bob Ehrlich was seen favorably by 66% of district residents, as opposed to the 23% who view him unfavorably. Incumbent Governor Martin O'Malley, by contrast, was seen favorably by just 30% of residents, along with the 54% who view him unfavorably. O'Malley handily beat Ehrlich in 2006.

Still, Republicans have to move quickly to coalesce behind Harris. The nasty tone of the primary has led to hard feelings, as Gilchrest has not called Harris to congratulate him on his win.

NM Races Set

Republican Senator Pete Domenici's retirement announcement in October initiated a trickle down of vacancies throughout the New Mexico congressional delegation, as the state's three House members have all filed for his seat. With Tuesday's candidate filing deadline, the races for the June 3 primary in the two open Republican seats are now set.

In the vast 2nd District, which covers roughly the southern half of the state, Rep. Steve Pearce leaves a safely Republican seat for his second shot at the Senate. He lost in the 2000 Republican primary for Senate before winning the open House seat in 2002.

Hoping to keep the seat in Republican hands, among others, is Ed Tinsley, a small business owner and rancher, and Aubrey Dunn, a retired bank president. The Republican nominee will start the general election with an advantage, as President Bush won 58% here in 2004. Both candidates reported having close to $300,000 cash on hand at the end of 2007.

Leading Democratic candidates include Dona Ana County Commissioner Bill McCamley, who has more than $200,000 cash on hand, and business owner Harry Teague, who reported having more than $350,000.

Teague's candidacy hit a major snag this week, however, when the Albuquerque Tribune reported that he and his company were named in a sexual harassment lawsuit by a former employee. Teague is specifically accused of ignoring a sexual harassment complaint by the former employee against a male coworker while she was working at one of Teague's companies. How long this matter remains in the news will greatly affect Teague's chances in the Democratic primary.

New Mexico's 1st District is centrally-located and tiny compared to the state's other two districts. The population of this swing district is 43% Hispanic, and gave John Kerry a 3-point win in 2004. It includes Albuquerque, the state's largest city, and some of its suburbs.

Rep. Heather Wilson has held this seat since 1998, when she won a special election with 45%. Her highest percentage since then has been 55%, with her closest margin of victory coming in 2006, when she defeated Patricia Madrid by 861 votes out of more than 200,000 cast. With Wilson vacating the seat, this is prime pickup territory for Democrats.

Leading the small pack of Democrats who have filed for the seat are Albuquerque City Councilor Martin Heinrich and former state Health Secretary Michelle Lujan Grisham. Heinrich reported having close to $300,000 cash on hand, and Grisham has about $100,000.

The leading Republican in the 1st District is Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White, who has close to $200,000 cash on hand. Also running for the nomination is State Senator Joe Carraro, who finished second in the Republican primary for Senate in 2006. However, Carraro has yet to file campaign finance papers with the FEC.

National Republicans clearly favor White, who has won several elections in a jurisdiction that covers the vast majority of the district. NRCC chair Tom Cole told Politics Nation last week that while Wilson has been one of the better candidates he's seen, White is even better.

Both parties will likely spend lots of money here, as Democrats eye a chance to expand their majority, and Republicans fight to hold on to one of their swing districts.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Chafee Backs Obama

Lincoln Chafee will back Barack Obama this year, the Associated Press reports. The former Republican senator from Rhode Island has been publicly flirting with backing the Democrat from Illinois for several weeks, but he will make a formal announcement during a conference call today.

Ohio and Texas present massive March 4 opportunities for Hillary Clinton, but the attention paid there causes smaller states Vermont and Chafee's Rhode Island, both of which also hold contests on the first Tuesday in March, to be overlooked. Only John McCain has been to either state lately -- he holds rallies in both states today, coincidentally.

Among incumbent elected officials, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is backing Clinton, as is Rep. James Langevin. Rep. Patrick Kennedy joined his father and cousin Caroline in endorsing Obama several weeks ago.

Rossi's Comeback Chance

New reports with the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission show former State Senator Dino Rossi with a big fundraising disadvantage in his second bid for governor. But the gap between incumbent Democrat Christine Gregoire and Republican Rossi is closing fast, and with the legislature in session, Gregoire's money advantage is only likely to get more narrow.

Gregoire has raised more than $4.6 million for her bid, PDC reports show, though she's spent a hefty $1.6 million along the way. Rossi, who has been in the race since October 25, has raised $2.2 million and spent a little over $630,000, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports. In 2004, the race, which Gregoire won by 133 votes, cost both candidates more than $6 million each.

Kelly Evans, Gregoire's campaign manager, defended the high burn rate, saying it had gone to building infrastructure that will be crucial come November. PDC reports show Gregoire spent more than $100,000 in December for research and consulting, likely indicating heavy spending on baseline polls. Gregoire's spending slowed significantly in January.

Rossi's opportunity to eliminate his opponent's fundraising advantage comes as the state legislature is in session, during which time no incumbent legislator or statewide elected official can raise money. The fundraising freeze is one reason Rossi quit the legislature before mounting his first bid, in 2004.

Raising $2.2 million in three and a half months is impressive, and given the freeze Gregoire faces, Rossi has another month to build his bank account. The state legislature adjourns its regular session on March 13, at the latest. A poll in mid-January showed Gregoire with a wide 13-point lead, though Rossi is well-known in the state and other surveys have showed both candidates running closer to even.

National strategists on both sides agree Washington presents the strongest Republican target for a pick-up in 2008. Top officials with the Republican and Democratic Governors' Associations each say the race will be costly.

McCain Hits The House

Presumed Republican nominee John McCain returned triumphantly to the House of Representatives yesterday, a body in which he served in the early 1980s, to address the House GOP conference about his presidential bid. His old colleagues, according to several Congressmen in the room, welcomed him back with open arms.

McCain meets the press along with, from left,
Roy Blunt, John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Adam Putnam
Republican leader John Boehner introduced the Arizona Senator, reminding colleagues how many districts McCain had visited to aid them with their own re-election bids, and while McCain himself acknowledged that there would be differences on the issues, "he struck all the right chords," one Republican said.

"There have been some that have been less than enthusiastic in the past," the Republican, who is close to McCain, recalled. But yesterday there was no grumbling, multiple congressmen told Politics Nation. The conference, another member said, has no choice but to back McCain, "He's the best shot we've got. And it's a good shot."

McCain revealed to the group that his son, Jimmy, a Marine, had landed safely in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Monday, home after a seven-month deployment. CNN reports McCain told members his son began his tour by witnessing improvised explosive devices frequently, but that, as a testament to the success of the surge, he ended his tour of duty handing out soccer balls to Iraqi youth. That elicited a standing ovation.

Later, at a press conference at the Capitol Hill Club across the street, McCain was endorsed by Boehner, House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, chief deputy whip Eric Cantor and Conference chairman Adam Putnam. McCain told the media the group had agreed there was work to be done to unite the party, First Read reports. Still, the show of unity is important, sending the message from top Republican leaders that their nominee deserves to be rallied around.

McCain's success depends not only on his appeal to independent voters, but to his ability to turn out the base and make sure mainstream Republicans are satisfied with his candidacy. Yesterday's conference with House Republicans will not fix long-strained relations completely, but members of Congress recognize, at least, that they have little choice other than to rally behind their party's new leader.

Morning Thoughts: 100% Recycled

Good Thursday morning, and happy Valentine's Day. Aside from where to find roses that aren't wilted or a hundred dollars a dozen, here's what Washington is watching today:

-- The Senate today begins debate once again on a bill regarding Native American health care.Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, SEC commissioner Christopher Cox and Fed chair Ben Bernanke head to the Hill to testify before the Senate Banking Committee. Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee takes up the budget for the entire lower chamber, where they will hear from the Sergeant at Arms, whose last name happens to be Livingood. Most legislative business will be taken care of this morning in the House, sending lawmakers home early yet again.

-- Hillary Clinton may have something to say about this, but John McCain and Barack Obama are increasingly turning their guns on each other. McCain has been mentioning the fact that Obama was rated the "most liberal" Senator by National Journal, while Obama is attacking McCain for not knowing much about the economy, as the Politico guys write. "John McCain is a great American hero, a war hero we honor his service. But economics is not his strong suit," Obama said in Richmond on Saturday. Watch Obama, the younger, less experienced candidate, turn that potential weakness on its head and argue that he's better on the economy than McCain, a one-time chair of the Senate Commerce Committee.

-- A chief argument Clinton has turned to lately is that she has been tested, while Obama has not been, and that he's never faced a negative attack. In fact, she's largely right, but as AdAge's Ken Wheaton points out, that's due to her failure to actually run a negative attack against him. Her new ad in Wisconsin can hardly be considered negative, but it does accuse Obama of skipping debates, after putting the candidates' images side by side. It's a simple ad, and it's the first time Clinton has gone after an opponent in the primaries.

-- Clinton will -- and should -- still dispute the notion that the race is all but over, and that Obama and McCain will face each other in the Fall. For starters, she's actually paying attention to Wisconsin, where she has lured Iowa manager Teresa Vilmain out of semi-retirement to run the state's operation, Newsday reports. Clinton will be in the state beginning Saturday, and she may not leave until Tuesday's primary. It's also where she's running that certain ad we mentioned above.

-- Another line of attack McCain will offer against Obama: That "hope" itself doesn't mean much, per a luncheon campaign manager Rick Davis held with reporters yesterday, per Hotline's Maura O'Brien. But they're not done with the primary, thanks to Mike Huckabee's persistence. Davis said he hopes to have the nomination wrapped up by March 4, which, while still plenty early, gives political writers another two weeks of stories based on McCain's inability to shut Huckabee down.

-- Davis is about to lose a top consultant, as Mark McKinnon's days with the McCain campaign are numbered, it appears. McKinnon, a former Democrat who left Texas to work for President Bush, is one of John McCain's top ad men, but he says he would feel uncomfortable writing the scripts that would be used to go after Barack Obama. So, if Obama is the Democratic nominee, McKinnon will sit this year out, according to the Swamp and others. McKinnon told National Public Radio that he will back McCain "one hundred percent," but that he will do so from the sidelines.

-- Still, Huckabee's inspiring little confidence in his own campaign when he doesn't bother to stay in the country to try and win votes. Huckabee will leave Wisconsin tomorrow to fly to the Cayman Islands to give a speech to the Young Caymanian Leadership Awards, CNN reports, and won't be back on the trail until Sunday. Huckabee will be paid for the speech, a practice the Politico noted in December, but if anything, it's probably hurting him electorally more than it's helping him financially. Meanwhile, it's a decision Politics Nation would probably make too, but for another factor: At 8 a.m., weather on Grand Cayman was partly cloudy and 77 degrees. At 7 a.m. local time in Milwaukee, it was just 25 degrees and overcast.

-- Spin Of The Day: Huckabee is still in the race, doing his best to deny McKinnon a job in any event. Regardless of trips to the Caymans, the man knows how to spin. A statement yesterday, on his losses on Tuesday: "We lost the battle of the beltway last night, but the beltway is not my turf -- the heartland is."

-- Today On The Trail: Clinton heads to Warren, Ohio to tour a factory and talk about the economy. She will later hold a round table in Dayton and rally in Columbus. McCain has media availabilities planned for Burlington, Vermont and Warwick, Rhode Island, where he will also hold a rally later today. Huckabee, meanwhile, rallies in Madison, La Crosse, Rothschild and Green Bay, Wisconsin. Obama, it looks like, is taking the day off.

Hastert Seat Brews Optimism

After a nasty Republican primary to replace House Speaker Dennis Hastert and a closer than expected race on the Democratic side, both parties claim optimism in the battle for the seat, which extends from suburban Chicago west to the state's border. The two winning candidates will face off both in a March 8 special election to replace Hastert and in November, for a new two-year term.

A new poll, conducted for scientist and businessman Bill Foster, the Democratic nominee, shows a tight race. Conducted by Global Strategies Group, a Democratic polling firm, the survey interviewed 525 likely voters between February 6-10, for a margin of error of 4.3%. Foster and businessman Jim Oberweis, the Republican nominee, were tested.

General Election Matchup
Oberweis 45
Foster 43

Opinions of President Bush run poorly in the district, as 60% say they have an unfavorable impression of the commander in chief. That, as well as Oberweis' association with Hastert, is an opening Democrats hope to exploit. Republicans, though, say that will be an ineffective line of argument. Too, Republicans point out problems with the poll, including that the sample included weekend days, which skews a sample, and that party identification breakdowns were not included in the release.

The GOP also points to the fact that more Republicans turned out in the state's February 5 primary than Democrats, despite the fact that native son Barack Obama headed the ballot. "It was a perfect storm for the Democrats," said one source close to the Oberweis campaign. "Obama's not on the ballot on March 8," another GOP source crowed.

Both candidates came through a difficult primary. Oberweis won an expensive and at times personal battle with State Senator Chris Lauzen, while Foster barely won a surprisingly close battle with an underfunded opponent who had run against Hastert in 2006. Both nominees spent heavily from their own wallets, though Foster spent more. The Oberweis campaign indicated it expected to spend another $1 to $2 million on the March special election, and Foster is expected to spend heavily as well.

DCCC and the NRCC spokespeople refused to comment on whether the two committees would target the district with independent expenditures, though a source at the DCCC said that while no decision had been finalized, the party is likely to wade in. Oberweis attended a meeting of the House Republican conference this morning, at which NRCC chairman Tom Cole urged fellow Republicans to help fund his campaign.

Foster and Oberweis will spend most of this year going head to head, both in person and over the airwaves. Given the personal nature of the primary, the race could end up as one of the most heated in the country.

Ex-Clinton Aide: Anyone But Hill

Former Democratic National Committee chairman David Wilhelm will endorse Barack Obama in an hour or so, the Associated Press reports. Wilhelm, who chaired the DNC during Bill Clinton's first term, ran day-to-day operations for Clinton's first presidential campaign in 1992.

This isn't the first time Wilhelm has chosen a candidate in 2008 not named Clinton. Wilhelm served as a top adviser to Joe Biden during his ill-fated presidential bid. In the past, Wilhelm has managed races for Senator Paul Simon, Biden, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, the current head of the city.

As a former chair of the DNC, Wilhelm is a super-delegate from Illinois.

McCain's Bad Timing

Last night, John McCain stopped a recent trend of losing primaries by sweeping the Potomac contests, and today, instead of racing back to the campaign trail, he is taking a victory lap on Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, he picked a time when several members could find a good reason to skip out.

House Oversight and Government Reform chairman Henry Waxman, the California Democrat who serves as a watchdog for everything in Washington, is currently reading an opening statement as New York Yankees ace Roger Clemens and his former trainer wait patiently to be grilled. McCain supporter Tom Davis, the Virginia Republican who once chaired the committee, is perched next to Waxman, ready to jump in.

The hearing is one of the rare times members of Congress find themselves on a wide range of television stations. Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and ESPN are carrying the hearing live, and as Waxman gets going, it is clear Clemens and Brian McNamee are not going to have an easy day. Congress, unlike former Senator George Mitchell, has the power to subpoena, and so far, they have used it.

It is somewhat ironic that McCain is speaking to Republican members of Congress as Clemens testifies on the Hill. McCain has long been an advocate of cleaning up sports, from boxing to baseball. While Waxman and his committee are taking a look at steroid use in baseball now, McCain began looking into testing players for drug use in 2004, when he served as chair of the Senate Commerce Committee. "Don't you get it?" McCain asked players union chief Donald Fehr at a September 2005 hearing.

If McCain misses a few members today because they prefer to nail Clemens down for his alleged steroid use, he's probably okay with it. If the hearing were happening in the Senate, McCain would probably be there himself.

Morning Thoughts: Roll On, Potomac

Good Wednesday morning. The candidates have abandoned Washington, Maryland and Virginia, and now we really know what Iowa voters feel like. Despite feeling lonely and abandoned, here's what Washington is watching today:

-- The Senate finished an at times contentious debate on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act yesterday, and this morning the upper body takes up the conference report on the Intelligence Authorization Act. The House takes up funding for NOAA and a bill on public housing, and the President signs the House version of the economic stimulus bill.

-- Barack Obama last night won sweeping victories in the three Potomac Primary states, making it eight contests in a row his campaign has won. The victories were not small, either: In Virginia, where Hillary Clinton was thought to have at least a chance of competing, Obama won what networks characterized as a "significant" win. Maryland, despite an extra 90 minutes of voting, wasn't close either, and despite a lack of polls and exit polls, the nets could have called Washington before voting even started; he won the District by a 3-1 margin.

-- John McCain had another night filled with more stress that he needed. It took networks half an hour to call Virginia, though Maryland was an easier win over former Governor Mike Huckabee. In the Commonwealth, Huckabee came from thirty or so points down to trail by just ten in late polls; he ended up losing by nine. The McCain campaign released a statement pointing out that it is now mathematically impossible for Huckabee to clinch the nomination, though with somewhere near 800 delegates, about three-quarters of the number required to secure the nomination, McCain isn't there yet either. Still, Huckabee is in Little Rock this morning, and his path down the campaign trail might be coming to an end.

-- A hugely important side note: Maryland Congressmen Al Wynn, a Democrat, and Wayne Gilchrest, a Republican, each lost their seats last night to challengers who positioned themselves farther to the left and right, respectively, than the incumbents. The margins were not small, either: State Senator Andy Harris, who spent more than $1 million on the race, beat Gilchrest by twelve points, while foundation executive Donna Edwards took out Wynn by a whopping 25 points. Both Harris and Edwards argued against the Washington status quo, and in both districts voters chose against incumbents. A number of Congressional incumbents facing re-election in November are taking note this morning.

-- Over the past week, Clinton and Obama have turned their fire on John McCain, who they assume will be the Republican nominee. During his victory party last night in Alexandria, McCain returned the favor, though only to Obama. "To encourage a country with only rhetoric rather than sound and proven ideas that trust in the strength and courage of free people is not a promise of hope. It is a platitude," he said. In case we hadn't gotten the message, he eschewed subtlety as he closed: "My friends, I promise you, I am fired up and ready to go." Those lines came minutes after Obama criticized McCain's Straight Talk Express for having "lost its wheels," as Jonathan Martin notices. The general election campaign has already begun, and if McCain's prediction of the Democratic winner is accurate at all, Clinton might just want to pack her bags now.

-- Speaking of packing one's bags, as we passed along last night, Clinton deputy campaign manager Mike Henry tendered his resignation on Monday, Chris Cillizza noted, making way for new campaign manager Maggie Williams to bring in their own team. Henry had been brought on board by Patti Solis Doyle, who left the campaign over the weekend. Meanwhile, The Atlantic's Josh Green, who has long been hot on the Hillaryland trail, offers a look at how Solis Doyle met her end with the campaign.

-- On Capitol Hill, more bags are packed. NRCC communications director Jessica Boulanger has left the committee, Politico's Patrick O'Connor writes. Boulanger, a former top communications guru for Rep. Roy Blunt, stepped down from her position, sources say, because of her perceived proximity to leadership, with whom NRCC chair Tom Cole has clashed repeatedly. Boulanger has a good reputation on Capitol Hill, and added to the committee's recent reporting scandal, a terrible national landscape and fundraising that has struggled, and failed, to keep up with Democrats', it seems like another sign of doom for House Republicans.

-- Pandora's Box Of The Day: Marc Ambinder points out that the Department of Homeland Security has yet to authorize the Secret Service to issue a detail to McCain, something that usually happens once a nominee is apparent. McCain, though, has always been reluctant around security, and prefers to be out on his own. Secret Service won't allow that once he's heir apparent, and Ambinder wants to know, given that Obama's code name is Renegade and Clinton's is Evergreen, what should McCain's Secret Service name be? Commenters take their shots. Our favorites: "Metamucil," the obvious "Maverick" (though some said "Iceman" or "Goose"), and the guy who suggested, for some reason, "Bret."

-- Today On The Trail: Obama gives what his camp is billing as a major economic address in Janesville and has town hall meetings set for Waukesha and Racine, Wisconsin. Clinton kicks off her South Texas campaign in McAllen, then rallies in Robstown and San Antonio. McCain meets the press and addresses House Republicans this afternoon before hitting a fundraiser in D.C., while Huckabee rallies in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. Ron Paul, meanwhile, addresses students at Georgetown University in Washington.

Even GOP Turnout High In DC

WASHINGTON, DC -- Turnout remains heavy throughout the Potomac area today, and on both sides. At Stuart Junior High School on Capitol Hill, just a few steps from Politics Nation Plaza, about 500 Democrats had showed up to cast ballots by 1 p.m., an elections clerk said.

Surprisingly, in a city in which just 19,000 people voted for George W. Bush in 2004, the clerks at Stuart have already run out of Republican ballots. Election officials here said they hadn't expected so many GOP voters to turn out, which they said indicated heavy excitement on both sides of the aisle.

No polls have been conducted of Washington voters, but many assume John McCain will carry the city. Still, the plethora of churches in and around the city suggest Mike Huckabee might have a fighting chance.

On the Democratic side, Barack Obama spent part of the morning shaking hands with voters at Eastern Market and at a Dunkin' Donuts in a popular business district on Capitol Hill. Both Obama and McCain later made their way to the Senate floor, where Obama received congratulations from Washington State Senator Patty Murray, a Clinton backer. Obama carried all of Washington's 39 counties in his romp on Saturday.

Polls close in Washington tonight at 8 p.m.

Veeps III: McCain's Minion

Our third look at potential vice presidential contenders tackles John McCain, the all-but-crowned Republican nominee. Unlike Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, McCain has problems with his own base, which will likely play a major factor in the selection process. Still, McCain has a history of seemingly intentionally irritating conservatives, so he could throw those concerns out the window and just pick whoever he likes.

Again, here are four serious choices, a long-shot contender and someone you'll never see on McCain's ticket:

Tim Pawlenty: The governor of Minnesota was one of McCain's earliest and loudest supporters. Unlike some, when McCain's campaign seemed to collapse, Pawlenty didn't abandon ship. McCain values loyalty, and Pawlenty's loyalty could be repaid with a nomination. Pawlenty has found electoral success, though by the skin of his teeth in 2006, in a traditionally Democratic state, and balancing the ticket with a Midwesterner could be just what Southwestern McCain needs. Republicans need Ohio to win an election, though Pawlenty could make the case for the GOP ticket in nearby Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, three states that chose presidential candidates by very narrow margins in 2004.

Mike Huckabee: In what has to be the most polite campaign in generations, Huckabee is still running against McCain, and though he can't win the race mathematically, he can prevent McCain from getting the necessary delegates to do so. That might force McCain's hand and make him hire Huckabee, or it could prove that the former Arkansas Governor is scrappy enough to be the attack dog. When thinking about running mates, McCain has to consider the possibility of a vice presidential debate, and regardless of who the Democrats pick, Huckabee could wipe the floor with them for a solid hour. McCain has never had the closest relationship with evangelical voters, something Huckabee knows about, and while anti-tax groups would scream bloody murder, picking Huckabee could go a long way toward healing McCain's rift with the base.

Mark Sanford: The governor of South Carolina would be the closest thing McCain could do to picking someone who irritates conservatives just for the heck of it. Sanford is widely admired by his constituents, but the Republican establishment in the Palmetto State are not fans. Sanford stayed on the sidelines this year, but in 2000 he, along with now-Sen. Lindsey Graham, were big McCain backers as members of Congress. Sanford is conservative, has a record of management, and while he doesn't bring anything geographically, he could solidify the GOP base in the South, something every Republican needs if they're to have even a chance at winning the White House. Picking Sanford could be tantamount to admitting McCain needs help in solid red country, but he still brings benefits as a governor.

Chuck Hagel: A fellow Vietnam veteran, if the war in Iraq once again comes to dominate the debate, Hagel would be a good choice if McCain tries to tack back toward the center. That's not to say McCain will change his position; he is invested, both personally and politically, in the success of the war. But Hagel's opposition to some parts of the war could send the message that McCain is more interested in success now than success later. Hagel, a businessman, would probably make business Republicans happy. Like McCain, though, Hagel's record on social issues is solid, but with little advocacy to which he can point. Some social conservatives might think Hagel, like McCain, is not really one of theirs despite voting records that tell the opposite story.

Longshot: Charlie Crist: The only reason the extremely popular Florida governor, who has a record on taxes and social issues that conservatives love but who attracts support from Democrats too, should be considered a long shot is his relatively short two-year tenure in the governor's mansion. Other than that, Crist is nearly perfect: He's well-tanned (and it looks real), he's from a swing state critical to any candidate's fortunes, and he is one of the most personable people in politics. His last-minute backing gave McCain just enough momentum to overcome Mitt Romney in Florida, a result that essentially made McCain the front-runner. Crist may not be on a ticket this year, but watch to see if he joins a ticket in the near future.

Bonus Longshot: Mitt Romney: As we wrote for Clinton, she could conceivably be forced to pick Obama if neither has the delegates necessary to carry the convention on their own. Should McCain's surprising underperformance against Mike Huckabee continue to an extent to which McCain cannot achieve delegates necessary to winning the nomination, Mitt Romney's 200-plus delegates could come into play. If McCain needed delegates to get over the top, and if he somehow cannot reach an agreement with Huckabee, Romney's collection could be the answer. The two men seem to intensely dislike each other, and Romney as vice president might be marginalized, but at least he would be vice president.

Never Going To Happen: Condoleezza Rice: More people selected Rice than any other candidate in RCP's Veepstakes, but the Secretary of State will simply never make her way onto McCain's list, short or long. An African-American woman on a Republican ticket would be great for the party, of course, but choosing Rice goes against McCain's needs for two reasons: He has so far resisted comparing himself with President Bush, and by selecting someone from the same administration that he is essentially running against, McCain would reverse himself on a central tenet of his campaign. Secondly, as Democrats at all levels of government crank out press releases accusing any member of the GOP of being a Bush Republican, if McCain picked an actual member of the Bush Administration, he would give the "third term" argument that much more plausibility.

Veeps II: Clinton's Revenge

Continuing our three-part, one-day series, we offer four serious candidates Hillary Clinton might consider for vice president, along with one long shot and one candidate who has no chance of joining Clinton on a ticket. Joining the junior senator from New York, you might see:

Evan Bayh: If Hillary Clinton gets the nomination, the electoral map will probably look as it has for the last few elections. Republicans will win the South and most of the Plains states, while Democrats will win the coasts and everyone meets in Florida and Ohio to battle it out, though Democrats will probably also make gains in the Southwest. For a traditional campaign, Clinton would need a traditional vice president, like Bayh. A two-term governor, a two-term Senator and a former Secretary of State, Bayh's Indiana neighbors Ohio, so many people there know him. Bayh would bring management experience, electoral clout and a polished, skilled demeanor to the stage. He might be a little boring, but many, including Bill Clinton, have said he will one day make a serious run at the White House, something he almost did this year.

Wesley Clark: Clinton would already run strong in Arkansas, a state that voted twice for her husband and twice for George Bush. Clark, an Arkansas native, could tip the state completely into the blue column. Also, Clinton's modus operandi throughout the entire campaign has been to project strength. One way she's done that: Never admitting that her vote for the war in Iraq was wrong, and not apologizing for it. Picking Clark bolsters Clinton in several ways. His military background fills in a resume gap, gives her someone who can credibly argue with John McCain's experience on the war (Having served, like McCain did, is good. Having been a four-star general and Supreme Commander of NATO is better.), and offers her the opportunity to make the case that her candidacy is not of Washington.

Tom Vilsack: The former Iowa governor couldn't manage to stay in the race, but his story is uniquely American: An adopted farm boy goes to law school and works his way up to become governor of his nice Midwestern state -- a state, by the way, that Bush narrowly won in 2004. Geographically, picking Vilsack makes sense, and his Midwestern roots would enable him to compete for votes in Ohio and elsewhere. Vilsack brings management experience and a solid record to the table, and he was an early backer of Clinton's. Though he couldn't deliver his state for her in early January, he worked his heart out, and he's essentially been auditioning for the role for months. The pick would come as close to a surprise without really being a surprise as the candidate could get.

Joe Biden: The only former candidate Clinton could really pick, Biden has foreign policy credentials unmatched by anyone except John McCain. Biden refrained from seriously attacking Clinton in the primaries, something she will surely remember, while offering a serious persona and a hefty resume. He's good in debates, too. His biggest drawback: A complete lack of geographical appeal. Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey will all go heavily Democratic, and while Pennsylvania could, conceivably, be a swing state, if Republicans have a good shot at it Democrats are going to lose anyway. But to contrast a vice presidential pick with McCain, who essentially owns the surge strategy, Biden, whose plan to partition Iraq into three states loosely organized around a federal government, is a pretty good choice.

Longshot: Barack Obama: Clinton does not like Barack Obama, and he seems to have pretty strong opinions about her as well. But if Clinton pulls ahead in delegates by a small margin, she may have no other choice but to offer the number two spot to Obama for the sake of party unity, and to avoid riots on the streets of Denver. Many have speculated for months about what they call a dream ticket, but it has always seemed unlikely that the two would wind up together. Only through force, exerted by some combination of super-delegates, Al Gore and Howard Dean, will they form a ticket. The necessity of such force seems to become more possible every day.

Never Going To Be: Bill Richardson: Speculation has mounted for months that Richardson was running for the sole purpose of serving as Clinton's vice president. But his performance in the race left much to be desired. After two disappointing finishes and too many bad debate performances to count, Richardson stepped aside, grew a Gore-esque beard and went home. His refusal to endorse a candidate doesn't bode well for his chances, and Clinton likely perceived that as an insult. Richardson, once the odds-on choice, now seems a safe bet for a plum ambassadorship or a top posting in the State Department, but little else.

Check back this afternoon for a look at John McCain's choices.

Veeps: The Case For...

As we wrote this morning, Barack Obama yesterday floated the idea that Virginia Governor Tim Kaine would be on his short list for a position in the administration. Convenient, given that Virginia holds its primaries today and given that Kaine is the most high-profile Democrat in the state who's chosen a candidate (Former Governor Mark Warner, running for Senate, has not backed a candidate, and neither has Senator Jim Webb).

Obama's public mullings about who would fill his cabinet and got us thinking, and the popularity of Veepstakes, over at the RCP Blog, got us wondering: Who would be a good fit for Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain? Today, we're offering the case for a few candidates for each contender in three different posts: Four real contenders, a long-shot hail Mary pick and one candidate to strike from the list.

We'll begin with the junior senator from Illinois, and that governor he was talking about:

Tim Kaine: Watch Virginia's voting pattern today. The incumbent governor, his predecessor and Webb have all won with huge margins in Northern Virginia's suburbs and exurbs, along with increasingly close contests in the state's southern third. If Democrats can tip Virginia toward their column, it will do a lot to getting the party back in the White House. John Kerry tried to woo North Carolina to his side by pulling John Edwards on board, a strategy that didn't work. Virginia is much closer to going blue than North Carolina, and picking Kaine could do the trick. Kaine is young, has management experience Obama lacks and can speak with a southern accent, which would help Obama at least keep the South close.

Kathleen Sebelius: The Kansas governor, like Kaine, helps Obama with management experience he lacks. Obama's outside-the-Beltway message would work well with a Midwestern Democrat elected in the reddest of red states, not once but twice, and he sort of owes her: Her endorsement, the day after the State of the Union, went a long way in advancing the storyline that Obama was starting to gain big-time red state backing, a great way to make the electability argument. And here's a bet to take odds on: If Obama picks Sebelius, she could even put her home state in play. That's not as crazy as it sounds; the Kansas Republican Party has long been split between conservatives like Sam Brownback and more moderate members like Pat Roberts and Bob Dole. Those moderates voted for Sebelius twice, and while they would most likely go with McCain, there's a chance for a big red state coup.

Claire McCaskill: After McCaskill's Obama endorsement, the two seemed attached at the hip. And while Obama won Sebelius' Kansas easily, he needed more help in McCaskill's Missouri, a state so close that several media outlets initially called it for Clinton before switching their projections. Missouri is a bellweather state, and a vice presidential nod could solidify its place in the Democratic camp this year. Plus, Obama the nominee will have just beaten Clinton, the first woman with a real shot at the White House, and he'll need to smooth some ruffled feathers with an important part of the Democratic base. As with Sebelius, picking McCaskill would go far toward healing those wounds. Don't forget, as well, that she was an auditor before winning the Senate seat. "When I was an auditor, stopping corruption in my home state," she could begin, feeding nicely into Obama's change message.

Jim Webb: Virginia's junior, and soon to be senior, Senator would, like Kaine, help move the state into the blue column. While Kaine brings managerial experience, Webb brings a military background, both as a member of the armed services and as former Secretary of the Navy, that both Democratic candidates lack. Webb fits the Obama message of bringing people together as well: A former Republican, he endorsed George Allen in 2000, then ran against him and beat him in 2006. A gun-toting ex-Marine former Republican Southerner would open a lot of new doors to Obama, probably as many, if not more so, than Kaine would.

Longshot: Mike Bloomberg: The billionaire Mayor, like Kaine and Sebelius, brings managerial experience to the table, and in a big way. Whether it's a Fortune 500 company he built himself or the largest city in America, he's been there, run that. And now that McCain looks like the GOP nominee, and assuming Obama wins the Democratic side, Bloomberg's hopes of swooping into the middle and attracting any votes for himself in the top spot have faded. The former Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent doesn't add anything geographically, but he embodies competent management that remains a nice contrast with the Bush Administration. If Democrats keep hammering the notion that any Republican embodies a third term for President Bush, they're going to have to come up with someone who has made government work, and Bloomberg could be just that candidate.

Never Going To Be: John Edwards: The one-time vice presidential pick is old news. Obama wants his endorsement, and he wants Edwards' voters, but picking him for the number two spot brings too many negatives. Obama's argument that he was right the first time about Iraq is a powerful contrast with McCain, so why have someone on the ticket who voted the wrong way? In fact, why have someone who has apologized for a number of votes he took? Republicans are going to hammer Obama for lack of experience and, therefore, a lack of judgment. Picking Edwards only gives the GOP more fodder.

Check back in an hour for Hillary Clinton's veep possibilities.

Morning Thoughts: Our Time Is Now

Good Tuesday morning. Today, voters in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia head to polling places while finally, for once, the Capitol Beltway gets its time to shine. Here's what District denizens are watching in the twelve hours before polls close:

-- The Senate debated FISA legislation late into the night last night, and today, votes on amendments and on final passage are expected. The House returns today for votes that would allow the Interior Secretary to handle water projects in the Santa Margarita River and in Orange County, California. The'll also take up four postal naming bills, two resolutions dealing with park boundaries and memorials, a resolution congratulating the New York Giants and a resolution designating a museum in Paducah, Kentucky as the National Quilt Museum of the United States. Wait, we haven't always had a quilt museum? The long national nightmare is over!

-- Maryland and Washington are the two forgone conclusions today, or so everyone believes. On the Democratic side, Barack Obama leads the RCP Maryland Average by 22 points. No polls have come out of the District yet, but given that 56% of the population in Washington is black, a demographic Obama is consistently winning in the high 80s, he's probably in pretty good shape here too.

-- It is in Virginia that the Clinton camp thinks it has any kind of shot today, and given proportional delegate allocation, she might even pick up a few representatives to Denver. Though Obama has support from most of the state's big-name Democrats, including all three Democratic members of Congress and Governor Tim Kaine, Clinton could do well in the state's southern third, areas Senator Jim Webb carried in his win over George Allen in 2006. Her campaign has held events in cities like Roanoke and Manassas instead of Arlington and Alexandria. That shows her camp thinks they can do better in the emerging exurbs than in the already-Democratic suburbs.

-- Watch Northern Virginia, an area where new residents are voting increasingly Democratic, become the key to the race. Obama enjoys a wide lead throughout the state, up by almost 18 points in the latest RCP Virginia Average. If he wins big, it will be because of margins in NoVA and Richmond, areas that have provided Democratic wins in recent Senate and governor's races. To boost that lead, why not dangle the prospects of a Secretary or Vice President Kaine?

-- John McCain is expected to win Maryland and the District easily. But wait, wasn't he supposed to win Washington State easily? McCain remains the front-runner for the Republican nomination, but has there ever been a nominee who has won a smaller percentage of contests or failed to snap up the mantle when it's been made available? Washington is a pretty heavily-churched area (there are at least five within blocks of Politics Nation Plaza), though the number of African Americans registered in the GOP primary is pretty low -- heck, the number of Republican voters at all is pretty low; just 19,000 people cast ballots for George Bush here in 2004. Be smart: Don't make any bets on Republican contests today.

-- In Virginia, McCain's position is even more tenuous. SurveyUSA is not a good poll to rely on for every-day horse race numbers, given the big swings to which they're prone. But the closer to election day, the more accurate they seem to get. In fact, when some pollsters had Obama winning California by huge margins, SurveyUSA had Clinton up ten on Election Day. In recent polling in the state, McCain enjoyed a 32-point edge late last week. This weekend, that lead shrunk to eleven points. The state has an evangelical population, and Mike Huckabee has done very well in the South. If Huckabee can steal just one contest, it will probably be Virginia and its 63 winner-take-all delegates.

-- One more note on the Democratic side, which shows just how Clinton's strategy has changed: "She has to win both Ohio and Texas comfortably, or she's out," one super-delegate who has endorsed the New Yorker told the Times. Clinton campaign advisers confirmed that opinion in the same article. Clinton's super-delegates, with whom she has always held a big lead over Obama, have an ability that other delegates do not have, making her foundation shaky: They can switch at any moment and back another candidate if that candidate looks like they could win the nomination shortly. It's beginning to look like another candidate can, in fact, win the nomination. If super-delegates have jumped so far, we must have missed them. If they haven't started, how far away can it be?

-- Among the GOP, a risky but probably pivotal strategy for John McCain: The candidate who had once opted into spending limits to get matching funds has now opted out, the Washington Times reports, in order to avoid limits that would have hamstrung him heading into the crucial months of dead time through the Summer. That's the period when President Bush spent millions defining Kerry, and McCain doesn't want to let Clinton or Obama define him similarly. It is highly unlikely that McCain will have the same financial resources as the other two, especially given their unreal ability to rake in funds over the internet, but he wants to -- and needs to -- be able to play virtually from the moment the Democratic nomination is decided through the general.

-- Peacemaker Of The Day: Vice President Al Gore will not endorse a candidate, CNN reports. Though he probably could have ended the race by backing Obama, or helped Clinton get back in fighting form by backing her, Gore finds himself in another position: Bill Clinton is backing his wife, John Kerry is backing Obama, leaving Gore to serve as the de facto party elder. If the two candidates can't beat each other by convention time, Gore will be the impartial arbiter who can bring the party together by settling disputes between the two. Come Denver, that's probably the best position, politically speaking, for him. Certainly it's better than where he found himself in 2004, having backed Howard Dean right before the collapse began.

-- Today On The Trail: McCain handles Senate business before heading to a Maryland fundraiser. He then hits Alexandria for an election night party. Obama will attend to his day job as well before fleeing Washington for a rally in Madison, Wisconsin, a state that holds a February 19 primary. Clinton will rally in El Paso, Texas.

Shadegg Surprises With Retirement

Arizona Republican John Shadegg surprised Copper State politicos this afternoon by announcing he will retire at the end of the 110th Congress. First elected in 1994 as part of the Republican Revolution, Shadegg was a staunch conservative who chaired the Republican Study Committee and made an unsuccessful bid for Minority Whip last year.

Shadegg faced what would likely have been a challenging re-election fight against Democratic attorney Bob Lord, though the incumbent would have retained the upper hand. Still, Lord finished the fourth quarter with more than $500,000 in the bank, and given the way Arizona has trended in recent years, he looked likely to give Shadegg a tough fight.

The state's Third District, which encompasses parts of northwest Phoenix and north through Maricopa County, is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. President Bush took 54% and 58% in 2000 and 2004, respectively, and Shadegg has mostly faced easy elections during his seven terms in office. Last year, though, he dropped below 60% for the first time, and against an opponent he outspent more than eleven to one.

In a statement, Shadegg said the decision to retire was not due to poor fundraising or a political hill too difficult to climb: He raised more money last year than any year previously -- FEC records show he finished 2007 with $860,000 in the bank -- and he referred to polling data showing him ahead of Lord by 31 points, as well as data showing a generic Republican beating a generic Democrat in head-to-head matchups.

Shadegg, who has long been rumored to be eying a Senate seat should John McCain or Jon Kyl step down, left the door open for a future bid. "My health is great; I have not felt better in years, and I expect to be involved in our nation's political discourse for decades to come," he said, per the statement.

Lord will not face an easy race even without Shadegg around. Early speculation about what Republican would run revolved around Sean Noble, Shadegg's chief of staff, who confirmed to Politics Nation that he is "looking very seriously" at a candidacy. Noble had been rumored as a potential candidate in the state's sprawling First District, though he declined to run in that seat.

Shaheen Keeps Big NH Lead

Former New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen has a big lead over Republican Senator John Sununu, a new University of New Hampshire poll shows, maintaining favorable ratings well above the incumbent's in an effort to win a rematch from the pair's 2002 battle.

The survey, taken between 1/18-27, interviewed 555 adults about the Senate race, for a margin of error of +/- 4.2%. Sununu and Shaheen, along with senior Senator Judd Gregg, were surveyed.

General Election Matchup
(All / Dem / GOP / Ind / Men / Wom)
Shaheen 55 / 85 / 11 / 54 / 50 / 59 (+1 from last poll, in 9/07)
Sununu 37 / 5 / 84 / 32 / 44 / 30 (-1)

Sununu's favorable rating has jumped six points from the last poll, to 46%, while his unfavorables decreased slightly. Shaheen's numbers barely changed, though at 57% favorable, she enjoys a much better statewide brand than her opponent. By contrast, Gregg is viewed favorably by 50% of the electorate, while 25% view him unfavorably. That could bode well for Democrats when they next face Gregg on the ballot: His favorable ratings topped 60% in April 2006, while his unfavorables have grown steadily from 15% in the same poll.

In better news for Shaheen, she leads in every one of the state's regions. Typically Republican North Country voters favor their former governor by a 58%-39% margin, while Sununu is even losing the heavily Republican Connecticut Valley by a 3-point margin, 47%-44%. Shaheen holds big leads in the voter-rich Manchester area, 52%-36%, and on the Seacoast, 62%-28%.

Even the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee should be happy with the poll. Both freshmen incumbent Reps. Carol Shea-Porter and Paul Hodes enjoy high favorable ratings, though sample sizes in each district number slightly below 300, making for a large margin of error. Shea-Porter is viewed favorably by a 43% to 17% margin, while her 2006 opponent, former Rep. Jeb Bradley, who is seeking re-election, has a slimmer 38%-25% favorable-to-unfavorable margin. Hodes is seen positively by 37% while just 18% say they view him unfavorably.

Lantos Passes Away At 80

Long-time Democratic Representative Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress, died this morning at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland, the Associated Press reports. He was 80 years old.

Born in Budapest, Lantos was one of those protected by Raoul Wallenberg before landing in the United States. After earning his Ph.D. from the University of Washington, Lantos taught in a San Francisco university before winning election to Congress in 1980. A foreign policy expert, Lantos took over chairing the House Foreign Affairs Committee when Democrats took charge this year.

Earlier this year, Lantos announced he had cancer of the esophagus and that he would not seek re-election. Known for his dedication to human rights -- he founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1983 -- Lantos never lost his thick Hungarian accent and the respect of colleagues on both sides of the aisle. He is survived by his wife, his two daughters and their 18 grandchildren.

Once a divided district, Lantos' 12th Congressional District, which includes the Southwest tip of San Francisco and several suburbs along the coast, is now safely Democratic. John Kerry won by 45 points in 2004, while Al Gore carried the district by 38 in 2000. After winning his first term by a narrow margin, Lantos did not face serious opposition through the rest of his career.

Lantos' reitirement announcement prompted former State Senator Jackie Speier to begin making serious moves toward a campaign, though it appeared she had planned to challenge Lantos in a primary. State Senator Leland Yee had also reportedly been considering a bid, though no announcement has been forthcoming. The winner of the district's June 3 Democratic primary is likely to win the general election easily.

What's Wrong With WA?

In 2004, Washington State Republicans screamed bloody murder when Attorney General Christine Gregoire won election to the governor's mansion by a margin of barely more than 100 votes. In recent years, several Washington State elections departments have lost absentee ballots, been woefully slow in reporting results and generally made a mess of the system.

This year, it is the state Republican Party that is coming under fire for mishandling results from Washington's Saturday caucuses. With 87% of precincts reporting, John McCain held a narrow lead of about 1.7% over Mike Huckabee, and Huckabee's camp was understandably unhappy when GOP chairman Luke Esser called the race for the Arizonan.

In a statement, Huckabee campaign chairman Ed Rollins, a veteran political operative, said it was a move he hadn't seen in four decades in politics. "It would be a disservice to every voter in Washington state to not pursue a full accounting of all votes cast," Rollins said. "That is an outrage."

The Huckabee campaign has dispatched lawyers to the state to sort the mess out, the second time in four years attorneys have argued over Washington's voting process. The Huckabee team is well aware of that fact: "Washington Republicans know, from bitter experience in the 2004 gubernatorial election, the terrible results that can come from bad ballot counting," the campaign said in a statement, according to the Seattle Times.

Meanwhile, state Republicans will allocate half their delegates to the national convention based on next Tuesday's primary, with which there have also been complications. The Associated Press writes thousands of ballots are being thrown out because voters aren't signing an oath declaring themselves Democrats or Republicans. In King County, the state's largest and home to Seattle, more than one in five ballots have been thrown out, elections officials said.

Though Politics Nation is a proud Evergreen Stater, it looks like Washington is getting better at botching elections than Florida is. The Sunshine State made a mess, regardless of final results, of the 2000 presidential contest as well as a 2006 congressional race -- though Rep. Vern Buchanan was found to have won in the end, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office released last week, it still took fifteen months to make that determination. The Rainy State took a lawsuit to decide the governor's race and now might have screwed up the Republican caucuses.

If the state has one more misstep, Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury might begin to get ideas about annexing Washington's elections department. He might have to: After the retirement of longtime Secretary of State Ralph Munro in 2000, no one in Washington can seem to get it right.

Morning Thoughts: Bring Out The Brooms!

Good Monday morning. The wind has died down in Washington, making travel much easier for candidates scurrying around the Chesapeake area a day before three states hold primaries. In their place, campaign ads have picked up, and noticeably. Now we know what it's like to be from Iowa. Here's what Washington's checking out this morning:

-- The Senate returns to Washington today to resume debating amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a measure on which Democrats and the White House seemed destined to fail to reach compromise. No roll call votes are scheduled today. The House is out of session, though the Financial Services Committee will look at housing insurance in disaster-prone areas, in Palm Beach, and the mortgage crisis, at New York City Hall.

-- Barack Obama went five for five this weekend, sweeping to big wins in Washington State, Louisiana, Nebraska and Maine, as well as getting a victory in the U.S. Virgin Islands (we refuse to count the Grammys). Polls in Maryland and Virginia don't look good for Hillary Clinton, either, making it possible, if not likely, that she will have to wait a full two weeks from February 5 to find her next win, in Wisconsin. But given Obama's win streak and support he has from Badger State Governor Jim Doyle, what happens if Clinton goes the remainder of February without a win? The race has reset, and every day Clinton doesn't win the news cycle is a day that makes wins in Texas and Ohio, on March 4, more difficult.

-- On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee had a good weekend, pulling in victories in Nebraska and Louisiana and narrowly losing the Washington State caucuses -- a result he's challenging, accusing state Republican Party chairman Luke Esser of making a premature call. John McCain still picked up delegates, inching toward the magic 1,191 needed to secure the GOP nomination, but a front-runner only barely surviving is certainly terrible for the storyline. Don't expect that pesky "conservatives hate McCain" narrative to go away any time soon. Still, Huckabee has trailed in a recent plethora of Potomac primary polls, and if he's going to deny McCain the number of delegates needed to win, Huckabee pretty much has to run the table.

-- But the biggest story has become the Clinton campaign, which, much like the post-Iowa atmosphere, again seems headed for or already in a deep tailspin. The campaign replaced manager Patti Solis Doyle with longtime Clinton loyalist Maggie Williams, a move that brings both benefits and drawbacks. It gives the press the opportunity to write stories about a Clinton comeback, once again, aided by a new team. John Kerry benefited from stories like that in 2004, when he switched campaign managers late in the game and came back to win a surprise upset in Iowa. The switch also allows Clinton to call the Potomac primaries a mulligan, given that her new manager was on the job for just two days before she faces voters here.

-- The drawbacks: A few days of negative stories at a time Clinton really can't afford them. All the signs of impending doom are there, and whether or not they continue, they send a consistent message to the press -- staffers who aren't getting paid, an emergency loan from the candidate and a new campaign team so late in the game. Marc Ambinder reports that the transition was always supposed to happen in the Spring, campaign advisers declared, and Clinton raised more than $10 million last week after the Super Tuesday results came in. Switching managers may have been necessary, and it offers a potential upside, but it's not what Clinton wants to talk about.

-- Meanwhile, Mike Huckaee is most certainly not going away, CBS's Joy Lin reports. And why should he? The Huckster's got more than 200 delegates and retains the ability to leave the GOP convention in the same amount of chaos that the Democratic side seems headed towards. Huckabee likes to say he majored in miracles, not math, but he knows this much: After becoming the overwhelming front-runner with Mitt Romney's departure last week, McCain has won exactly one of three contests, and even that's in dispute. McCain has the best chance to win the nomination, but if he can't seal the deal on the first ballot, Republican delegates are free to vote for whomever they like. Just wondering: Is that when Romney signs mysteriously appear on the floor of the convention hall in St. Paul?

-- To parallel that idea, Al Gore made a comment when accepting his Nobel prize that, were he to get back into politics, it would only be presidential politics. So a deadlocked Democratic convention, Gore might hope, would choose a consensus candidate, perhaps even the former veep. But at a time when two key factions of the Democratic Party -- African-Americans and women -- are battling to get their candidate on the ballot for an historical first, what message would it send to both groups to replace their favorites with ... another white male? Gore is an emerging hero to the Democratic base, but if smoke-filled rooms making the decision would incite riots and anger among half of the party's base, choosing Gore might be enough to set off joint riots.

-- John Edwards (remember him?) looks more likely to play an important role in making sure Gore doesn't get to be the consensus candidate. Edwards held a secret meeting with Clinton last Thursday -- she cleverly snuck away from Washington for a meeting at Edwards' Chapel Hill home -- and will meet with Obama today, also at his house, according to CNN. Despite months of hammering Clinton in debates and on the campaign trail, the Edwards team is said to believe Clinton's policies would actually be best for working-class Americans, Edwards' top priority. Obama's anti-Washington stands tug at the former candidates' heart strings as well.

-- Vaguely Insulting Metaphor Of The Day: Huckabee wants to make sure the Republican Party doesn't make the same mistake it made in 1976, when the party picked incumbent President Gerald Ford over upstart Ronald Reagan, per NBC/NJ's Matt Berger. That is, Huckabee says, when the party picked a moderate as opposed to a conservative who fires up the base. Reagan, as everyone knows, is the gold standard among Republicans. But comparing McCain to Ford, as Huckabee implicitly did, makes one just feel bad for a former president.

-- Today On The Trail: Obama will hold mega-rallies in College Park and Baltimore. Clinton hits a GM plant in White Mash, Maryland before heading to Charlottesville, Virginia. McCain is in Annapolis before rallying and meeting the media in Richmond, and Huckabee holds rallies in Richmond, Virginia Beach, Weyers Cave and Roanoke.

Candidates Hit By Bad Weather

FORT WASHINGTON, Maryland -- Sometimes, even the pressure of an impending election can be put on hold when Mother Nature has her way. High winds in the Washington, D.C. area have reaked havoc on last-minute campaigning ahead of the region's primaries on Tuesday, causing cancellations and delays for candidates. At a Hillary Clinton event in Manassas earlier this afternoon, supporters braved heavy gusts and watched more than a few large tree branches come down across the street.

In Fort Washington, just across the Potomac River from Washington, Donna Edwards, a congressional candidate running against incumbent Democratic Rep. Al Wynn, had to cancel an appearance at a local African American festival when the community center in which it was held lost power three times.

Clinton, planning to make stops in southern Virginia before reaching Maryland voters tonight, had to suspend an event planned for Roanoke this afternoon, citing inclement weather. She will attend a rally in Bowie, Maryland later tonight as planned, while husband Bill Clinton will hit Roanoke tomorrow.

Barack Obama campaigned in Alexandria today, on the Virginia side of the Potomac, before heading south to Virginia Beach. He will try the same Roanoke-to-Maryland route Clinton tried today, with a stop in Roanoke planned before a rally tomorrow night in College Park.

Super Saturday Thread

10:45 -- It was, as expected, a good night for Obama. A clean sweep, in fact, winning by huge margins in NE and WA and what looks to be a double digit margin in LA, if it holds. He also picked up 3 pledged delegates from the US Virgin Islands, according to Ben Smith, which is nothing to sneeze at given the way this race is going. Prior to this evening, Clinton held a 62 delegate lead over Obama (including super delegates), but when the smoke clears tomorrow morning Obama should probably edge ahead by the slightest of margins. - TOM BEVAN

9:35 -- Finally some results for the GOP in Washington. With 16% in: McCain 27, Huck 26, Paul 21, Romney 17. - TOM BEVAN

9:30 -- Exits in Louisiana look good for Obama and show a close race between Huck and McCain. - TOM BEVAN

9:05 -- With Louisiana polls just closed, it appears Obama will carry Louisiana as well. Still, exit polls appear to show Obama with less than a ten-point win, leaving the nets unable to make a call just yet. African Americans made up 44% of the electorate, which is high for a national average, but probably low for Louisiana, where 30% of the total electorate in 2004 was black. As Louisiana's population fled after Hurricane Katrina, did Mary Landrieu's chances of winning re-election to her Senate seat flee as well?

8:58 -- Once again, Democratic turnout is massive. Washington State Democrats say they're close to 200,000, which could more than double the previous record, set in 2004, the Seattle P-I reports.

8:33 -- The Seattle Times has virtually called the race for Obama. "Barack Obama coasting to victory in Washington," the Times' headline reads. "Obama way ahead in early returns," the Seattle P-I heads. No calls from the networks yet.

8:24 -- With 35% in, Obama leads with about 67% of the delegates from Washington State, compared with 32% for Clinton.

8:19 -- With 73% of the vote reporting, Barack Obama has won the Nebraska caucuses, NBC News projects. He's got 69% of the vote compared with 31% for Clinton. Washington State and Louisiana are still out. Clinton speaks at the Virginia Jefferson-Jackson dinner momentarily.

7:55 -- Just asking, it's now four hours after Washington's caucuses began. Both Democrats and Republicans are done. In Nebraska, it's been a similar length of time. Where are our results? AP expects Nebraska to begin reporting in about 5 minutes.

6:21 -- A heavily Democratic precinct in South Seattle gave four delegates to Obama and just one to Clinton. Nearly a hundred people attended that particular caucus, in the city's diverse 37th Legislative District, which has large African American, Latino and Asian populations. Meanwhile, Seattle Times political guru David Postman reports just 100 people showed up to caucus in all the district's Republican precincts -- of which there are 140. Don't extrapolate that to the entire state: The 37th District votes overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates in general elections. Still, it's yet another measure of massive turnout on the Democratic side.

6:10 -- The Clinton camp wants to make sure the media keeps results in proportion: "The Obama campaign has dramatically outspent our campaign in these three states, saturating the airwaves with 30 and 60 second ads. The Obama campaign has spent $300,000 more in Louisiana on television ads, $190,000 more in Nebraska and $175,000 more in Washington," the Clinton camp said in a statement released just now. "Although the next several states that hold nominating contests this month are more favorable to the Obama campaign, we will continue to compete in them and hope to secure as many delegates as we can before the race turns to Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania."

6:06 -- A sign of how lopsided tonight's Washington Democratic caucuses could be: At a precinct in Bellingham, a very liberal college town twenty minutes from the Canadian border, 83% of caucus attendees chose Obama. Clinton backers scored one delegate, undecided voters won a delegate and Obama will take ten delegates to the Whatcom County convention.

4:41 -- Not to kill the suspense, but we're not going to have any exit poll or entrance poll information to report today. The consortium is not conducting the polls today, saving their ammunition, perhaps, for the Potomac Primary.

4:20 -- Barack Obama currently holding a town hall in Bangor, Maine. The rest of today's schedule: Huckabee visits Walter Reed in Washington. Clinton and Obama are both in Richmond, Virginia, for state Democrats' Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. Tomorrow, Huckabee's on Meet the Press and Face the Nation. Obama's in Alexandria and Virginia Beach, while Clinton holds events in Catonsville, Maryland and Roanoke, Virginia

4:11 -- Just a thought: If Huckabee does well in today's Washington caucuses, as we wrote yesterday, credit his performance to an emergence of evangelical voters on the east side of Lake Washington. But along with Nevada, Washington has a smaller church attending population than any other state in the country.

4:07 -- Huckabee is already in the Potomac Primary states, addressing the media today in College Park, Maryland, just north of Washington D.C. Huckabee, who has long praised John McCain for being what he calls an American hero, took after his rival on campaign finance reform and other issues on which the two disagree. "We genuinely I think like each other," Huckabee said. Still, "there are contrasts."

4:01 p.m. ET -- As Washington State voters begin to caucus, one set of results is already in. With 76% of the precincts reporting, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has won the Kansas Republican caucuses by an overwhelming 62% to 22% margin. In the Evergreen State, expect a big day for Barack Obama.

Dems Still Counting In IL

The Democratic primary in the 14th District of Illinois isn't over yet, reports the Arlington Daily Herald. We reported yesterday that scientist Bill Foster had defeated 2006 nominee John Laesch by less than a point in the contest to decide the party's nominee for the November general election. While that outcome looks like it will stand, ballots that could matter are still being counted.

Absentee ballots have yet to be counted in Kane, DeKalb and Kendall counties, and Laesch has said he will not concede until all the votes are counted. However, there is a roughly 400-vote margin currently separating the two candidates, and only a total of some 175 absentee ballots in the three counties.

If Laesch, by some miracle, does win, either on the first count or in a recount, the Democratic Party will have picked two different candidates for the same seat. Foster won the simultaneous special primary to become the nominee in the March 8 election to fill the remainder of former Speaker Dennis Hastert's term.

The DCCC had backed Foster over Laesch, if not publicly then privately. Still, it wouldn't be the first time the party's favored candidate didn't make it through a primary. After Democratic activist Carol Shea-Porter beat out State Rep. Jim Craig for the right to face Republican Rep. Jeb Bradley in New Hampshire last year, the DCCC, which had been touting Craig's potential, all but abandoned the district. But in November, Shea-Porter won the seat in one of the biggest upsets of the year.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Surrogates Take Heat

Through more than two dozen contests, the Democratic race remains even. That should put to rest, once and for all, the notion that somehow the Clinton family controls the Democratic Party. Surely, if they owned the party, the race for the nomination would be over -- in fact, it probably wouldn't have begun. The idea that Bill Clinton is the world's best political strategist is one that should be re-examined, as well.

But while they haven't won yet, and very well may not win, the Clintons still hold a considerable amount of sway in the party, enough to make certain politicians think twice about bucking them and party staffers fear working publicly for an opponent. Hillary Clinton could still win, they think, and if she does, their future in the party could come to a swift and unglamorous end.

Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano is one of those feeling the heat. A former U.S. Attorney under Bill Clinton, Napolitano was one of the first of a wave of prominent Democrats to back Barack Obama, and she did all she could to help him win not only her state's primary, but caucuses in neighboring Nevada, where she served as a surrogate at several events.

Clinton won both the Nevada caucuses and the Arizona primary, and Napolitano's nod, Clinton backers in Arizona told the Daily Star, could come back to haunt her. Napolitano cannot run for a third term as governor in 2010, but she might have a political future if she decides to run for Senate, either a seat vacated by John McCain or by challenging the state's junior senator, Jon Kyl. Napolitano downplayed the importance of her own endorsement, but said it had helped close the gap from a 20-point Obama deficit to just an 8 point loss.

One radio host Politics Nation spoke to in Missouri said his callers echoed the concerns. Women particularly, radio host Mark Reardon, of KMOX Radio, said, were upset with Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill's decision to back Obama over Clinton. Still, McCaskill did better than Napolitano did: Obama actually won her home state.

In Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick and Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, all of whom backed Obama, couldn't come close to matching the clout of dozens of state legislators who backed Clinton. None of the three men had served in the state legislature in a state where machine politics still matter, and none could muster the same get out the vote power as local legislators or Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, another Clinton backer.

Kennedy's endorsement drew particularly harsh fire from the New York State chapter of the National Organization for Women, which slammed the liberal lion for abandoning women when it mattered.

Still, many back Obama proudly, if secretly. Former Clinton administration officials like Greg Craig, Susan Rice, Frederico Pena and others have long been on board with the Illinois Senator over their former boss's wife. Some, though, remain in the closet. ABC News met several former lower- and mid-level Clinton staffers at an apartment in Manhattan to watch the Clinton-Obama debate, and openly root for Obama. None would let the reporter cite their names.

Dem Out In Swing OR District

Six-term Oregon Democrat Darlene Hooley announced yesterday she will not run again this year, the Portland Oregonian reports. Hooley, 68, had been hospitalized late last year with a lung condition that prevented her from returning to Washington for a month. Her health troubles, combined with too much fundraising and travel between Washington and Portland, contributed to her decision.

Hooley's Fifth District rings suburban and exurban Portland to the South. Stretching south to Salem and west to the Pacific Ocean, the district includes both Oregon State University and the company that makes Tillamook cheddar cheese. The district holds heavily Republican and heavily Democratic areas, and the difference comes from Washington County, where independent voters determine the fates of candidates both in the Fifth and statewide.

The retiring Democrat, who first won her seat in 1996, has faced a series of competitive elections throughout her tenure, never winning with more than 57% of the vote and frequently finding the race much closer than that. In 2006, she beat Lake Oswego businessman Mike Erickson by a 54%-43% margin, though Erickson spent an impressive $1.8 million to Hooley's $2 million.

The district is competitive -- President Bush won it both times he ran, though by narrow margins of a little under 5,000 votes each time. National Republicans are excited for Erickson's chances this year; he's raised more than $170,000 so far and maintains over $130,000 cash on hand. Early in the cycle, that's not bad for the relatively inexpensive Portland and Astoria media markets.

The wealthy businessman has also shown a willingness to fund his own campaign, listing nearly $1.6 million in debts and obligations to himself in his year-end FEC reports. If he invests significantly more money in the race, he could outpace other candidates. Erickson will be aided by Senator Gordon Smith, who is running for re-election this year, though potentially wounded by a presidential battle. Once considered a swing state, Oregon is now safely in the Democratic column.

Possible candidates on the Democratic side include Senate President Peter Courtney, State Rep. Brian Clem and State Senator Kurt Schrader, along with his wife, Clackamas County Commissioner Martha Schrader. While Democrats will have to rush to catch up with Erickson on the fundraising front, the seat will not be a blow-out on either side. Both parties have a good chance at what will turn out to be one of the most competitive seats in the country.

Clinton Targets Obama, McCain

ARLINGTON, Va., Feb. 7 - Speaking to students and community members at Washington-Lee High School, less than five miles from the White House, Senator Hillary Clinton made the case for herself as the better candidate versus each of her two closest rivals, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain.

"Are you ready for change?" she asked as she began her speech, bringing loud cheers from the near capacity-filled gym bleachers.

Most of Clinton's speech focused on the economy, education, health care, foreign policy and the environment, but her mentions of Obama and McCain brought the loudest ovations from supporters.

Just hours after news broke that Mitt Romney would exit the race, Clinton continued making her case against the Republican frontrunner. "It appears Senator McCain will be the nominee," she said "I'm afraid he offers more of the same. He can see our troops being in Iraq for the next 100 years. I want them coming home within 60 days of my inauguration."

With the delegate counts about even between Clinton and Obama after 22 states voted on February 5, Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., could play a pivotal role in the race for delegates when all three hold primaries next Tuesday. A big win for either candidate could offer a springboard to the upcoming large states on the primary schedule. Texas and Ohio both vote on March 4.

Clinton mentioned Obama only once, but in doing so drove home to supporters what she feels is their most stark contrast. "The big difference between myself and Senator Obama is I think everyone should have health insurance," she said.

Though a large portion of the crowd likely won't be eligible to vote by February 12, Clinton asked that they, and people they talk to who will be voting, consider two questions before heading to the polls on Tuesday. "Who would be the best president on day one to walk into the Oval Office with two wars going on, with an economy falling apart and so much happening, and start solving our problems right away?" she asked. Clinton followed that by asking Democrats "who would be our best candidate to stand on stage with Senator McCain and talk about national security, the economy and all the other important issues?"

-- Kyle Trygstad

Morning Thoughts: Nothing As It Seems

Good Friday morning. Tomorrow's another election day, but with only three contests on each side, we're dubbing it Slacker Saturday and sleeping in accordingly. Before we get there, here's what Washington is watching:

-- Leading the news: The graceful and unexpected exit of Mitt Romney, who, in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, told supporters he would stand aside to prevent "aiding a surrender to terror" that he said would come if Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton became president. Romney's campaign got off to a great start in a classic sense: He was willing to build an organization, spend his own money to do so and build momentum while running a traditional campaign. But a combination of factors prevented Romney from realizing his potential, and as a businessman, NYT's Michael Luo writes, he decided to cut his losses.

-- Romney was dealt a bad hand, and he made some of his own miscalculations: Other candidates didn't like him, and he really had no ideological base within the national Republican Party. Contrast that with John McCain, who seemed universally respected by his opponents, and who at least had moderates and independents on his side, or Mike Huckabee, who only attracted ire from Fred Thompson and had evangelicals in his pocket. Romney never fully dealt with accusations that he was a politician of convenience, and it looked forever awkward to have a businessman try to fit in a social conservative's clothes. It didn't help, as Luo quotes one-time Romney political director Carl Forti, that the campaign paid attention to Rudy Giuliani as a chief rival and ignored Huckabee, who beat Romney in Iowa.

-- One thing that can't be overlooked: Romney's Mormonism was clearly a factor, the Wall Street Journal fronts. While it wasn't an overt reason for Christian conservatives to vote against him, it was certainly present in people's minds. Politics Nation spoke to several voters in Iowa especially who said they would be voting for anyone but Romney while professing their own evangelical credentials. When asked why, they maintained they would rather not say, though their implication was clear. Before Super Tuesday, one of the last images voters in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee would see was Romney at Mormon prophet Gordon Hinckley's funeral, the Saturday prior. It is ironic that Romney's Mormonism, in 2008, was a detrimental factor, whereas father George Romney's religion was a non-factor during his 1968 bid for president.

-- This isn't the last we'll hear from Mitt Romney: Four years from now, he'll be 65 years old, a full seven years younger than McCain is right now. He's suspended his campaign, which means he keeps his delegates as a bargaining chip for a primo convention speaking slot, and, if McCain ends up losing this year, don't be surprised if Iowa Republicans start getting early phone calls from the candidate who spent the most time there this year as Romney seeks their advice on a possible 2012 bid.

-- Romney's exit from the race is actually something of a mixed blessing for Mike Huckabee, who now has to beat McCain on his own instead of simply winning the largest share of a three-way vote. Plus, Huckabee has not won anywhere outside the South, save Iowa. The next contests where he might have a chance, in Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Virginia, are not favorable territory. Maryland has too small an evangelical population, Washington is all Beltway Republicans who are flocking to McCain, and even Virginia, Commonwealth native Jonathan Martin points out, offers more kitchen table voters than hard-core social issue voters. Then again, if McCain is assumed to be the GOP's presumptive nominee, wouldn't the state's independent voters head to Barack Obama's campaign, depriving McCain of those he needs to score an overwhelming victory? Chuck Todd thinks so.

-- Evangelicals have migrated west, too. See, for example, Rick Warren's mega-church near Anaheim, California. Huckabee could perform well in both tomorrow's Washington State caucuses and February 19's Washington State Republican primary. Half of the state's delegates to the GOP convention are allotted at each, whereas the state's Democrats allocate all their delegates via the caucuses. Huckabee's not going to win Washington, especially given the sheer number of the state's GOP establishment who will back McCain, but Christian conservatives are a growing part of the state's GOP electorate. That particular state's evangelical electorate will not have a dramatic impact on the presidential contest this year, but keep an eye on them as emerging trend-setters out west. If they take a cue from James Dobson, who endorsed Huckabee yesterday, they may turn out in larger numbers than expected.

-- On the Democratic side, Clinton is apparently back on financial track after an incredible two days of fundraising. After adding 40,000 new donors, Clinton earned $6.4 million over the internet in just two days following February 5. Staffers who once went without paychecks are back in the money, USA Today reports, and everything is looking up. Never mind, of course, that Obama raised $7.5 million in the same timeframe. What's behind Clinton's success? In New Hampshire, as women particularly saw the beginning of the end of a female candidate's campaign, they rallied to Clinton, giving her a massive gender gap over Obama. It would not be a surprise if the same factor were at work now: Clinton was forced to loan herself $5 million in January, and her natural base is coming home to make sure she doesn't have to do so again.

-- Both candidates are looking forward to March 4, when big prizes Texas and Ohio hold primaries. Clinton will begin to run advertising in both states next week, and they're already on the air in Nebraska and Washington, which hold contests tomorrow, and Maine, which caucuses Sunday. Obama is on the air in Louisiana and Washington, along with February 12 states Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. His aides wouldn't comment on future ad buys in Buckeye and Longhorn Country, though given the pace of his fundraising, it's hard to imagine he won't be on as early and as much as Clinton will be.

-- Political Lessons Of The Day: For months, this column was convinced that Romney was in best position to win the GOP nomination. His strategy of winning Iowa and New Hampshire and building momentum from there seemed the most sound of any candidate out there. Others argued for Rudy Giuliani, saying his national name recognition would carry the day. Fred Thompson had defenders who said the same thing. All three are now sitting on the sidelines, watching a guy who largely winged it on the precipice of accepting the nomination. Clinton, yesterday, looked like she was out of cash, but thanks to her strong fundraising performance, she seems, for now, back on track. The lessons: Even the best political plans often go awry, and as McCain has shown, more than just Lazarus have risen from the dead.

-- Today On The Trail: Remember when these ran a few paragraphs? Obama hits a rally in Seattle, something he's done a few times to packed houses and sold-out crowds. Clinton holds town hall meetings in Tacoma and Spokane, while John McCain starts with a national security roundtable in Norfolk before meeting the media, then heads to the Emerald City for a meet and greet. Huckabee heads to Kansas for rallies in Olathe and Wichita before holding a roundtable in Topeka and a rally in Garden City.

Strong Dem Runs In VA-11

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman Gerry Connolly will officially file today for Virginia's 11th District seat being vacated by Republican Rep. Tom Davis, the Washington Post reports. Davis's retirement announcement from the House at the end of January was a blow to Republicans who will have at least 28 House members not returning in 2009.

Davis's Northern Virginia district has been trending Democratic for years. Democratic candidates for governor and senator have won large majorities here in recent elections, and Democrats recently won control of the state Senate in part by defeating Northern Virginia Republican incumbents like Davis's wife, former State Senator Jeannemarie Devolites Davis.

"We think that the retirement of Tom Davis made this district one of the Democrats' top pick-up opportunities this year," said DCCC spokesperson Kyra Jennings. "The people of Northern Virginia are looking for someone more in line with their priorities. And we feel we have a strong list of candidates."

Already in the race for the Democratic nomination are retired naval commander Doug Denneny, physical therapist Lori Alexander, and former state legislator and U.S. Rep. Leslie Byrne, who held the 11th District seat for one term before Davis defeated her in 1994.

Byrne, who has run unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. Senate and lieutenant governor, reported having more than $100,000 cash on hand at the end of 2007. Connolly, who recently formed an exploratory committee and began raising money, said he's raised $200,000 in the past month.

On the Republican side, wealthy businessman Keith Fimian reported having more than $650,000 cash on hand, and already has the support of Davis. He will also likely avoid a costly and competitive primary, unlike the Democrats. National Republicans feel this will give him the edge in the general election.

"Keith Fimian is not only a successful businessman, but he has already been able to rally grassroots and financial support behind his candidacy," said NRCC press secretary Ken Spain. "The Democrat candidates have launched a battle against themselves over who can lurch the furthest to the left. We are confident that we can retain the seat."

-- Kyle Trygstad

Cole: Fear Clinton

In a wide-ranging interview with Politics Nation yesterday, National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Tom Cole went against conventional wisdom to suggest it is Hillary Clinton, not Barack Obama, who would present Republicans with the strongest challenge in November. "I think she is actually a stronger presidential candidate than he is," Cole said.

A former executive director of the Republican National Committee, political consultant and chair of the Oklahoma Republican Party, Cole is one of the rare members of Congress who knows something about politics outside his own district. As a political junkie of the first water, analyzing the other party's presidential contest is something he can do with some measure of objectivity, while throwing in a few message bombs as well.

"The Democratic Party is clearly in an incredible fight between it's head and it's heart right now," Cole said. "There's no question [Obama] is a brilliant orator, attractive figure, you know, potentially historic figure, but so is [Clinton]. If you look at it, I mean, he's to the left of her, which creates, you know, what we want to some degree, which is an ideological battle. Second, he's got the thinnest resume since Wendell Wilkie. And third, I'd argue he's not a very plausible commander in chief in a time of war."

"This idea that somehow Obama's going to bring Republicans, it just ain't going to happen," Cole continued. He characterized Obama's wins in red state primaries as misleading. "He's winning a lot of states now," Cole said. But "he's not going to carry South Carolina and Georgia and Alabama and places like that either. Or Idaho, I don't care how many people show up at a rally." Obama drew about 14,000 during a stop in Boise last week.

While some Republican strategists suggest a presidential contest is a silver bullet that will help their party pick up large numbers of seats, Cole is more cautious in his optimism. "The presidential race is broadly helpful to us, with the caveats that obviously, you got Obama on the ticket, that complicates things in Illinois. You got Hillary, that complicates things in New York," he said. "I would think if we have McCain, we probably have better chances in the couple of seats out there, the two or three seats out there we're interested in."

Check back with Politics Nation for more on our extensive interview with Cole, during which he laid out House Republicans' strategies and pointed to key seats his committee needs to defend and contest in order to inch back toward the majority.

Illinois Selects Cong Nominees

Illinois voters cast ballots for more than just the presidential race Tuesday night when they kicked off the first Congressional primary balloting of the 2008 season.

Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski survived another primary challenge in the 3rd District. After succeeding his father, Bill Lipinski, in this Cook County district in 2004, Lipinski has faced challenges from the left in the last two Democratic primaries.

This year, Lipinski defeated well-financed, yet splintered competition. Attorney Mark Pera outspent Lipinski 3-to-1, but with two other challengers taking votes, he was unable to keep up with Lipinski, who won with 53%. Lipinski will likely not worry as much about the general election after winning in 2006 with 77%.

The 3rd District primary was far from the only competitive race on February 5.

In the competitive and expensive Republican special primary race for former Speaker Dennis Hastert's 14th District seat, dairy magnate Jim Oberweis rode his personal bank account and Hastert's endorsement to a 56%-44% victory over State Senator Chris Lauzen. Oberweis also had some help from Lauzen, who made some critical errors during the campaign, including accepting -- and then returning -- some $100,000 from a company under investigation from the Illinois attorney general's office. This, as well as Lauzen using his status to secure Rose Bowl tickets, allowed Oberweis to use the corruption card and make it stick. Lauzen's criticism of Hastert did not help his cause either.

Oberweis will take on scientist Bill Foster in the March 8 special general election, the winner of which will serve the remainder of Hastert's term in the 110th Congress. Despite being the favorite of Washington Democrats, and enjoying a massive financial edge, Foster won a close race on the Democratic side, winning 49%-43% over John Laesch, the 2006 Democratic nominee for the seat.

Oberweis and Foster also won their parties' primaries to run in November's general election, though Foster's margin over Laesch was less than a point. Oberweis is the favorite here, as President Bush won the district with 55% in 2004. Still, the DCCC pointed to strong voter turnout as a reason to be excited. "Illinois Republicans chose to stay home rather than vote in a divisive primary while Illinois Democrats and Independents turned out in record numbers to stand for change in former Speaker Hastert's Republican leaning district," DCCC spokesman Ryan Rudominer said.

Elsewhere, State Rep. Aaron Schock won the Republican primary in the 18th District, which Rep. Ray LaHood will vacate at the end of the year. Schock, well-financed and a party favorite, won 72% of the vote against two big-spending competitors. After a late withdrawal, Democrats have yet to find a candidate to face Schock in November.

In the 11th District, where Rep. Jerry Weller is stepping down after his 7th term in office, Tim Baldermann, the New Lenox mayor and Chicago Ridge police chief, was the favorite going in to yesterday's primary, and came out with a 62% victory.

Baldermann will face a more challenging race in the general election against State Senator Debbie Halvorson, who faced no primary challenge and has $400,000 cash on hand. This district has already been selected for the DCCC's Red-to-Blue program, which financially supports viable Democratic candidates running for a Republican seat.

Two incumbents who could face a competitive general election include Democratic Rep. Melissa Bean and Republican Rep. Mark Kirk. Bean's district gave Bush 56% in 2004, and Bean garnered just 51% in 2006 against an opponent who spent more than $5 million. She will face Republican businessman Steve Greenberg, who spent close to $350,000 in the Republican primary, and will likely receive financial support from the NRCC.

"Republicans are well positioned to retain not only our open seats in Illinois," NRCC spokesperson Ken Spain said, "but we are prepared to be on the offensive against Melissa Bean in the fall." National Democrats also felt good about their prospects in the 11th and 14th districts, and liked their chances against Kirk in the 10th District as well.

Kirk won by just 6 points in 2006, despite outspending his Democratic opponent Dan Seals by about 2-to-1. Seals easily won the Democratic primary yesterday for the chance to take on Kirk again in November. The district gave John Kerry 53% of the vote in 2004, and if Seals can continue to raise money, his name recognition from the last election may be enough to make this race even closer than in 2006.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Everything To C Here

Republicans head to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Northwest Washington today, preparing to be wowed by the biggest names and brightest lights in the GOP. Vice President Dick Cheney joins Texas Governor Rick Perry, Bob Novak, George Will, Grover Norquist and, for the first time in his eight years in the White House, even President Bush will stop by to address the fawning masses.

So too will John McCain, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, and the stakes could not be greater. On Super Tuesday, McCain did not perform all that well among conservatives, and many in the movement say they would even be willing to undergo four years of Hillary Clinton if they could avoid McCain as their party leader. Romney was trying to set himself up as the conservative alternative, though his efforts fell short, thanks at least in part to Mike Huckabee's presence in the race.

Romney will head to the hotel today around noon, while McCain is set to be there around 3:00 p.m. How conservatives act toward both of them will be key not only to Romney's increasingly long-shot bid for the nomination but for McCain's own chances in November.

It's not as if McCain is unaware of the issue: He's already enlisted backer and conservative Senator Sam Brownback to reach out to Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council, and other righty leaders to soothe tensions and help McCain's cause, The Hill reports.

McCain had initially planned to show a video comparing himself to Ronald Reagan, though he has reportedly scrapped those plans and will be introduced instead by conservative Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn. The idea of a video had met with scorn from some conservative bloggers, who suggested it might backfire.

Will conservatives accept McCain and decide to back him, for the good of the party? Or will their leaders, led by Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, convince them to stay home? Check Politics Nation this afternoon for a full report on McCain's CPAC speech.

Morning Thoughts: Brother Can You Spare $5 Mil

Good Thursday morning. Pitchers and catchers report in mere days, and Politics Nation is seriously considering running off to become a ball boy in Florida or Arizona. Back in surprisingly warm Washington, here's what people are watching today:

-- The Senate is in session today after 41 senators voted to block a substitute economic stimulus package last night, even with the help of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, long absent from the chamber to the chagrin of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. On today's agenda could be the House version of economic stimulus and a bill on electronic surveillance. On the other side of the Hill, the House meets to consider a bill on college affordability and the Budget Committee gets its first, albeit delayed, look at the President's budget. Two Senate committees took up the budget earlier in the week.

-- President Bush today hosts a breakfast for a number of unconfirmed federal appointees, a move that had Reid and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin up in arms on the Senate floor yesterday. Reid claims to have attempted a compromise over the recent break, writes The Swamp, in order to move on 84 unconfirmed nominees, though the White House rejected any deal if Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel head Steven Bradbury wasn't included. The argument is a completely Washington one until someone tries to call a Senate Democrat an obstructionist. Then, a new option emerges: Will obstructionism charges stick, as they did to Tom Daschle, or will the issue just serve to remind people that President Bush is in the White House, and that Republicans want to approve his nominees?

-- The big news yesterday: Hillary Clinton has loaned her campaign a whopping $5 million. And, Mark Halperin reveals, some top staffers are working without paychecks this month. The moves smack of a campaign running out of money, a shocking situation for someone who raised more than $100 million last year and is already up to $13 million this year.

-- Could the Democratic race be over sooner than we thought, simply due to lack of funds for Clinton? By the way, Obama's response, as Ben Smith points out: An email from campaign manager David Plouffe urging donors to combat the loan, which has raised nearly $6.7 million since polls closed February 5 and 7:30 a.m. this morning. Apparently nine figures doesn't go as far as it used to.

-- Still, some Democrats remain convinced that disaster in the form of a contested convention is at hand, and that Howard Dean, chair of the DNC, is going to have to step in and do something about it. In an interview with a New York public affairs show, Dean said the party would bring both sides together if no deal were struck. "The idea that we can afford to have a big fight at the convention and then win the race in the next eight weeks, I think, is not a good scenario." Well it's a great scenario for John McCain, isn't it? Smoke-filled rooms on the Democratic side, a la 1968, would be great for the GOP, the Journal writes.

-- On the GOP side, John McCain is getting increasingly confident while trying desperately to act like he's running scared. His weekend sojourn to a security conference in Munich canceled so he can, in his words, wrap this thing up, some advisers think they've got the nomination sewed up. By their count, McCain has 775 delegates while Mitt Romney has 284 and Mike Huckabee holds 205. Huckabee, then, cannot reach the 1,191 threshold even if he wins all the remaining 963 delegates, while Romney would have to win an overwhelming majority to get there. "It's virtually impossible for Romney or Huckabee to be the nominee just based on the arithmetic," McCain senior adviser Charlie Black told reporters, according to NBC/NJ's Adam Aigner-Treworgy.

-- Still, Romney's not done yet. Campaign finance director Spencer Zwick told members of the finance committee yesterday that the campaign would target Republican nominating contests in Kansas, Washington and the Potomac area, calling the candidate's planned address to the Conservative Political Action Conference today "major." Mitt's son Tagg told NYT's Michael Luo the camp had hoped to do better than they did on Tuesday, but that there are no plans to drop out, and that the senior Romney could still put more money into the race from the family fortune. Still, the campaign knew that it needed to cross the 300-delegate threshold on Tuesday, and that failure to do so would make the road extremely difficult. It looks as if that bar was not met.

-- Two days after excoriating the media for leaving him out of the contest, Huckabee is getting ink too, and after winning five states on Tuesday -- states much bigger and with more prominence than most of the places Romney won -- the Arkansan has no plans of getting out. "As long as there are still votes and delegates, there's going to be one guy answering the bell every time there's a new round," Huckabee said, per the New York Times. Considering how Romney is doing and how Huckabee has done, Huckabee's continued presence is probably the straw that will break the Romney camel's back.

-- Peace-Maker Of The Day: As we mentioned, Obama and Clinton showed up for work yesterday to cast votes on the economic stimulus package, and though it might have been awkward for a moment, it was Ted Kennedy who broke the ice, making jokes at his own expense to Clinton and one of her chief backers, California Senator Dianne Feinstein. Obama joined in, and the four shared a few laughs, the Washington Post reported. Referring to Clinton's win in Massachusetts and the Patriots' loss in the Super Bowl, Obama backer Claire McCaskill zinged the old guy: "It's not been a good month for Ted in terms of contests," she said.

-- Today On The Trail: Obama holds an event at Tulane University in New Orleans before heading to Omaha for a rally, while Clinton holds a campaign event in Arlington, Virginia. McCain, Romney and Paul all address the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

A Tale Of Two Candidates

John McCain and Hillary Clinton entered last night as something like frontrunners -- indisputably for McCain, tenuously arguably for Clinton -- and left in very different states.

This morning, McCain will hold a press conference after winning nine states and somewhere around half the delegates available last night. Clinton, meanwhile, flies from New York to Washington to take votes on the economic stimulus package after winning at least eight states, including six of the nine largest, and nearly as many delegates as rival Barack Obama. Later, she will hold a press conference in Arlington, Virginia.

A measure of their relative success, though, can be found in how they will spend their time over the next week: Sky News, via First Read, reports McCain will likely head to a European security summit in Munich he has attended in recent years, and has requested a meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown during a stop in London.

Clinton, on the other hand, wants to spend more time debating Obama, AdAge writes. Only two kinds of candidates ever want to debate more: Those who are behind and those who have no money. Clinton's team certainly isn't running out of money, after raising $13 million in January (though it sure looks like it when Obama raises $32 million), but they may be starting to suspect that they're behind.

The normal reaction of a candidate in the lead, like Obama, is to stall on making commitments to future debates. With just a few days before the rapid-fire contests, though, Team Obama won't have to stall for long. It is likely, though, that the two will meet somewhere in the Washington, D.C. area on Monday before Tuesday's Potomac Primary.

NRCC Fraud Looks Bad

House Republicans have been briefed twice on an unfolding scandal that may put the committee's financial situation in question over the last several years, top Republicans with knowledge of the investigation tell Politico. The investigation, which centers on the committee's accounting over the last several years, remains murky, and committee employees are still staying quiet because the FBI is involved.

As Politics Nation first reported, the one-time employee involved, longtime NRCC comptroller Christopher Ward, was being employed as an outside vendor for both the NRCC and several other campaign committees. Politico reports several Republicans with knowledge of the investigation say the fraud, as NRCC chair Tom Cole described it in a statement last week, could go back several years.

The new scandal is yet another hit the NRCC has taken in a year full of political bumps and bruises. More than two dozen House Republicans will not return to Congress next year, a large number by any year's standards, and the committee's lack of financial resources -- they have $5 million cash on hand, compared with Democrats' $35 million, FEC records show -- make fending off what looks like another good year for Democrats all the more difficult.

Morning Thoughts: Wiped-Out Wednesday

Good Wednesday morning. No one needs sleep when they're hopped up on adrenaline (and Red Bull), especially after the biggest primary day in American history. A brief look, before we pass out, at what Washington is thinking this morning after Super Tuesday:

-- What happened last night? On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton won eight states and American Samoa, including California. Barack Obama won thirteen states. Republican John McCain won nine states, including California, while Mitt Romney took home seven primaries and caucuses and Mike Huckabee won five. New Mexico remained too close to call at 2 a.m., when this piece is written.

-- John McCain will be portrayed this morning as the big winner for Republicans. His night included wins in important delegate-rich states like New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Missouri and his home state of Arizona. But his wins also showed his inherent weakness: McCain lost to Romney in the Copper State among those who said illegal immigrants should be deported, and by a wide margin, and among those who said illegal immigration was their top issue. Plus, the front-runner didn't slam the door on the nomination, as he could have. Romney's campaign suggested early in the night that McCain underperformed, and they may be correct. McCain won, but he didn't dominate.

-- Mike Huckabee's post-election speech had a much different tone than his speech after South Carolina, in which he sounded depressed and resigned to his fate. Huckabee won some big states tonight, including Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and his home state of Arkansas, by a wide margin. He said the media had cast this as a two-person race, implying the lack of attention his campaign had received. He also suggested it is, in fact, a two-person race, though between himself and McCain, leaving Romney on the sidelines. Many continue to suggest that Huckabee remains a distant third, but he had a pretty good evening, and it will likely propel him to future contests. Huckabee suddenly finds himself in excellent position to win the anti-McCain primary and outlast Romney in the race.

-- Mitt Romney's night ended in disappointment, as networks called California for McCain early. In fact, in virtually every state where more than one candidate competed, Romney came in second, or worse. Only in Massachusetts, his home state, where McCain had campaigned on Monday, did Romney beat the competition. In his other wins -- in Minnesota, Utah, North Dakota, Colorado and Montana -- no other candidate showed up. In fact, he's only won one state, Michigan, when other candidates were heavily involved. That suggests Romney's ceiling is low, and the California loss was perhaps the final nail in the coffin of his campaign. Romney has a budget and strategy meeting in the morning, and after tonight, the moment he decides to keep his powder dry for another shot in four years looks like it is approaching rapidly.

-- Barack Obama had a mixed night. He began strong, demolishing Clinton in Georgia, but lost key states Massachusetts, Arizona and California. Still, he gets to say he won more states, and he won more delegates, than Clinton did, which is no small feat, and that he won in heavily red states like Alabama, Idaho, Kansas, North Dakota and Utah. The longer Obama draws this contest out, the better chance he has to introduce himself to voters, and the more he can cut into Clinton's lead. A big night on Super Tuesday was always part of Obama's plans; he got most of that wish, and he's set himself up in strong position for the next several contests.

-- Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, didn't have a bad night either. She won fewer states and fewer delegates, but she won the big enchilada in California, and by a wider margin than anyone expected. The campaign clearly didn't win Super Tuesday, but they didn't lose either. After early exit polls, circulated among the media in the afternoon, showed Clinton getting killed in several states she ended up winning -- those coming after polls repeatedly showed her losing ground to Obama -- her performance starts to look like something of a comeback, and that's the way her campaign will spin it. Still, the Clinton camp needs to figure out where its next win comes from, and they need to make sure it's a big one if she is to regain the lead.

-- The big winners tonight: Democrats, whose voters turned out more than Republicans by about a two-to-one margin (according to GOP "architect" Karl Rove). Their astonishing trend of everyone showing up continues, and at some point voting officials in future states -- there are still a lot of contests to go -- need to start printing up more ballots. Super-endorsers on the Democratic side, including Al Gore, Bill Richardson and John Edwards; as the contest continues through several later states, their nods become all the more valuable, and they can, in the case of Richardson and Edwards, write their own tickets. Gore, on the other hand, can make sure his pet issue of global warming remains front and center in the next Democratic administration.

-- The big losers tonight: Democratic surrogates, who did not have a stellar record of turning out their states for their preferred candidates. In Massachusetts, the state's three top Democrats, Deval Patrick, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, couldn't swing their state towards Obama. Same in Governor Janet Napolitano's Arizona, which despite her Obama endorsement went to Clinton, and Claire McCaskill, whose home state of Missouri barely went to Obama. Conversely, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius looks pretty good after delivering nearly three-quarters of her state's caucus delegates to Obama.

-- The big picture: For Democrats, the race goes on, and while no one gets to declare outright victory, Obama's team looks in much better shape than Clinton's does. Add in a huge fundraising advantage in January and Obama's path to victory looks a lot more plausible than it ever has. For Republicans, the race narrows, and the question may become not whether Huckabee steals votes from Romney, but whether Romney is stealing votes from Huckabee. Will leading conservatives start to take another look at Huckabee?

-- Incendiary Post Of The Day: Another big loser: Ron Paul, who despite assurances that he would finally do well enough in a state to make headlines, came in a distant third in Alaska. The Ron Paul era looks like it's come to a close, and libertarian Republicans may start looking to another candidate in the future. To stem the tide of angry pro-Paul emails, here's a name to mull: Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who considered running for the Libertarian presidential nomination in 2004. Johnson, some Paul fans suggest, could be a more attractive candidate in the future.

-- Today On The Trail: To be updated as the day progresses, but only McCain and Obama have public events scheduled thus far. Obama will meet the press in Chicago before heading to Washington, where Harry Reid will be happy to see him and get his vote back, at least for a little while, in the Senate. McCain chats with reporters in Phoenix at an airport, though his end destination hasn't been made public. Romney reportedly has a staff and budget meeting in Boston in the morning, though Clinton and Huckabee have not made their schedules public.

-- Pardon Politics Nation if we sleep in a little tomorrow. We're already preparing for Saturday's contests in Washington, Nebraska and Louisiana. Only three states? Wimpy. We're dubbing in "Slacker Saturday."

Just Can't Keep Up

Instead of trying to catch up with every state on PoliticsNation, check out the RCP Blog, where we're keeping track of each state as they come in.

Politics Nation's Hours on XM Radio's POTUS '08 tonight: 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Red Bulls: 2
Sleep: 0

Early Calls Good For Obama, Huck

Mike Huckabee is relevant. The Iowa winner, who has lacked news coverage of late, has now won three states, West Virginia, Alabama and Arkansas, as many as John McCain, who has won Illinois, Connecticut and New Jersey.

Barack Obama is having a good night too. Despite early exits, which looked good for Clinton, Obama has taken Georgia by a huge margin and looks set to make big inroads in what were supposed to be Clinton-friendly states like Connecticut.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has taken early states Tennessee, Oklahoma and Arkansas -- no real surprises, though it took a while for the nets to call Tennessee for her. Could this be the beginning of a bad night for the one-time overwhelming Democratic front-runner?

Early Exits: Good For Clinton?

The first wave of exits, which only characterize the demographics of the voting population, may show an early advantage to Hillary Clinton, though Barack Obama has reason to smile as well. And as AP reports, turnout is once again higher among Democrats than among Republicans.

About half of Democrats said the economy was the most pressing issue, while just 3 in 10 said the war in Iraq mattered most to their vote. Clinton has done better among economic voters, while Obama has done best among Iraq voters. Health care, another issue on which those who care most favor Clinton, makes up the top concern of another two in ten voters.

Younger voters are once again making up a smaller portion of the electorate, down from the 22% of the electorate in Iowa that was under 30. In general, the older the electorate, the better it's been for Clinton. As in other primaries, a much higher percentage of Clinton voters cited experience as most important -- about half -- while three quarters of Obama voters cited change as the top reason for favoring their candidate. Experience has generally made up a larger portion of Clinton's vote in previous contests.

Half of voters had made their mind up a month ago -- seemingly a good sign for Clinton, who led in many polls in Super Tuesday states -- while about one in ten voters made up their minds today and another tenth within the last three days. Those proportions are approximately the same as exit polls showed in Iowa and South Carolina, while more New Hampshire voters tended to make up their minds late. Still, that could be good for Obama: When voters broke late in New Hampshire, they broke away from him. If they're not breaking late in Super Tuesday states, they may not be breaking toward Clinton.

Huck Wins WV

Mike Huckabee will win the West Virginia caucuses, NBC News reports, with 52%. Huckabee came in second to Mitt Romney in the first round of voting, finishing with 33% to Romney's 41%, the AP reported earlier. John McCain, finishing third with 15%, survived to the second round, while Ron Paul finished fourth, at 10%, and was eliminated.

Amid rumors of a deal between backers of Huckabee and McCain, Huckabee secured 52% of the delegates in the second round, to Romney's 47%. McCain's goal in throwing support to Huckabee is designed to deprive Romney of a win early in the day. Huckabee will win all 18 of the state's pledged delegates. Nine of the state's remaining 12 delegates will be awarded during a May 13 primary.

Huckabee's win, though, could have adverse effects for McCain as well. The former Arkansas governor, whose home state borders delegate-rich Missouri, has been running a close second in recent polls there. The winner of the Show-Me State takes home 58 delegates through the winner-take-all system. An early victory should embolden Huckabee supporters in southern states that vote today as well. If Huckabee is a major factor tonight, it would be a major blow to Romney.

Voting Problems In AZ

Amid largely trouble-free elections so far this primary season, at least one campaign is worried about serious troubles in Arizona, where voters today are casting their ballots. John McCain is likely to score a big win on the GOP side, but among Democrats, the race is a fierce battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Clinton leads by 6 points in the latest RCP Arizona Average, but Obama has support from Rep. Raul Grijalva and Governor Janet Napolitano, giving him an organization on which to rely.

Clinton's camp, though, says funny business is going on at polling places around the state. Polling place locations have been changed and some names are missing from voter rolls. The Clinton camp just released a statement reminding voters they can cast provisional ballots. If problems are widespread, Obama's vote total could be affected as well, putting a new spotlight on what is already a closely watched barometer.

Still, it has been remarkable that the two biggest voting problems -- running out of appropriate stickers at some Democratic caucuses in Iowa and temporary shortages of ballots in New Hampshire -- have been relatively minor. Voting reforms must have come a long way since debacles in Florida and Washington State in recent years. A good sign of things to come for November?

McCain's Arizona Problem

John McCain will win all of Arizona's allocated delegates when polls close this evening. But come November, and even earlier if the Republican primary race continues beyond today's primaries, the Copper State could become a serious albatross around his neck.

McCain's legendary temper and maverick streak have irked members of the GOP on virtually all sides. No one knows that better than those who should be his biggest backers, the top leadership of the Arizona Republican Party. Instead, they are some of his most ardent foes, and McCain's actions earlier this year have done little to assuage their anger.

"The Senate immigration bill put everything into a complete tailspin out here," said one top Arizona Republican who didn't want to be named in order to offer an honest portrait of the situation. After McCain's strong support for comprehensive immigration reform, a bill on which he worked with Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, some in the state Republican Party made it their goal to derail his entire campaign.

One of those opponents is Rob Haney, chairman of an important legislative district for the Republican Party in Phoenix. "[McCain] has been disregarding us for years," Haney said, "siding with liberals against conservatives for years." Haney says that on issues beyond immigration, McCain is an unreliable vote. "When you take your chance with John McCain, you come out the big loser."

McCain and some more moderate Republicans have for years tried to steer their home state's party to the middle, especially on immigration, though they have been less than successful in doing so. In two key battles, McCain allies lost tough fights to replace foes who could cause harm. Former Governor Fyfe Symington ran against Haney for district chair, and came up short, while a former campaign aide to President Bush -- hardly a McCain flak, but pegged as one nonetheless -- ran for state party chair only to lose by four votes to Randy Pullen, another anti-immigration activist.

Activists' focus on immigration has damaged relations with more state politicians than just McCain. "The immigration debate of last year did create a stir, and there were a lot of folks who were not happy with Senator McCain or me," said Senator Jon Kyl, McCain's national campaign co-chairman and one of his top national surrogates. Haney criticized Kyl, along with Reps. Jeff Flake and John Shadegg, both of whom are backing McCain. "They want that Senate seat, so they're tripping over each other" to support McCain, Haney said.

Nowhere has the immigration debate caused such rifts within a state Republican Party. The top Republican who asked not to be named criticized what he sees as a party overwhelmingly focused on immigration. "One of the reasons they're not being a successful state party is because they're essentially an anti-immigration PAC," he said. "They have essentially thumbed their noses at the business community and the bigger donor community."

State Republicans last year lost two U.S. House seats -- those of retiring moderate Jim Kolbe and immigration hardliner J.D. Hayworth -- as winning Democrats held largely more moderate positions than their GOP counterparts. That, said Kyl, a former state party chair himself, shows what Arizona Republicans need to focus on this year. "Candidates and office-holders take positions on issues and have to stand or fall on the basis of how people react to that," he told Politics Nation. "The party can't possibly represent everybody on a particular issue. Their primary responsibility is to help support their candidates."

Still, those who oppose McCain were emboldened by wins at the state party level and set out to derail his candidacy. Several straw polls were set up, rigged, the top Arizona Republican said, to ensure another candidate would win and cause McCain embarrassment in his home state. Arizona has also been good to candidates other than McCain, most notably Mitt Romney, who's picked up about half the amount of money from the state -- $1.3 million -- that McCain has. McCain has earned close to $2.8 million from his home state, through September 30, according to the FEC.

There is little Haney or other anti-McCain advocates can do about today's results. Polls conducted in recent weeks show McCain with a significant lead of 16.3 points, according to the latest RCP Arizona Average. The state's winner-take-all rules mean even a narrow McCain win will give him a big boost of more than 50 delegates. "At this point, they are in a complete flailing spin trying to discredit McCain as much as they can, and they will do it to no avail," the Republican said of activists in his own party.

But while Haney and others won't be able to boost their favored candidate -- Romney -- to victory tonight, they might just make sure that McCain remembers them as thorns in his side long after polls close tonight. And if they do, McCain's already troubled relations with conservatives around the country could be exacerbated.

Immigration, after all, was the issue that harmed McCain's campaign so much last Spring, bringing his poll numbers down to a miserable level just near the double-digit barrier. Immigration hard-liners from McCain's own state reminding Republicans about his stands might be just the thing for Romney to investigate.

Morning Thoughts: Nothing To See Here

Good Tuesday morning. The air seems so calm, as it does every election day, though we know voters are scrambling to the polls and candidates are doing everything they can to get them out. On this, the biggest day of Primary Season 2008, here's what Washington is watching:

-- The Senate is in session today, where they continue working on an economic stimulus package of their own devising, as opposed to the House version. Democratic leaders added another billion dollars to the bill that would increase funding for heating bills for those with low incomes, a move seemingly aimed at a few Northeastern and Midwestern moderate Republicans who could be among the 60 votes needed to substitute their version. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and OMB Director Jim Nussle testify on the president's $3.1 trillion budget today as well. House leaders are apparently taking another few days to themselves, while President Bush hangs out with racing champ Jimmie Johnson today.

-- Today's festivities kick off in Charleston, West Virginia, where delegates to the state convention kick off at 9 a.m. and will report first. Hours later, at 7 p.m., Georgia slams its polling place doors. At 8 p.m., watch for Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Arkansas is finished by 8:30. Kansas, Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico and New York close at 9 p.m. Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and Utah finish up by 10:00 p.m., while California polls close at 11:00 p.m. And for those poor reporters who have to cover Alaska, their polling will finish at 1:30 a.m. Eastern time.

-- This column is putting a hard cap of 1 a.m. for bed time. More than 8 million voters will cast ballots in California, the San Francisco Chronicle predicts. 2 million early ballots and absentees will be released shortly after polls close, but the night is going to continue for a while. Los Angeles County, for one, predicts it will be at least 4 a.m. Pacific -- that's when most Washington-based writers will be on their second caffeinated beverage of choice -- until all their precincts are in. In fact, San Diego (strong McCain territory), San Bernardino and Riverside plan to be finished by 8 a.m. Pacific Time, right about the time tomorrow when everyone in Washington is beginning to entertain the notion of lunch. Bottom line: Don't punish yourself. Go to bed early. You'll sleep through hours of babbling about no decision being made.

-- The expectations game is in full swing: Advisers to Hillary Clinton raised the bar yesterday, saying they expect to be ahead in total delegates by tonight, while not raising it so high as to suggest the race will be over before March, at the earliest, or the convention, at the latest. Barack Obama backers said in a memo they expect to be within 100 delegates by night's end, which, says NBC's Mark Murray, is a low bar. Still, Mark Penn has a point: The race has tightened, but never underestimate what the voters (and a few tears) will do. Then again, is the real mood in Obama-land just less than restrained ebullience? For the first time, some on his team believe he can actually pull out a Super Tuesday win.

-- On the GOP side, the game is playing out favorably for everyone but John McCain. Mitt Romney needs only to survive, which might include a California win or at least a strong showing, to continue his race, if he wants to. Mike Huckabee needs to sweep the South -- a tougher goal, to be sure -- and be more than a place for Romney voters to hide. McCain, though, needs a big night to beat expectations, and he's starting by tamping down California's importance. McCain will likely win more states and more delegates, and the question for other campaigns then becomes: Will the media treat him as the conquering hero with any win, or will someone dare to suggest he underperformed?

-- One thing is clear: McCain and Romney don't like each other very much, and both of their campaigns think they have the silver bullet that could end the other's White House bid. Romney is up with a spot that might look more at home as a contender for the Oscar for short animation, hitting McCain on his perceived proximity to Hillary Clinton on many issues, while McCain has a spot on national cable slamming Romney for not being behind Ronald Reagan and suggesting he's not a true Republican. If this race continues beyond this evening's vote counts, more of the same mud will be slung.

-- McCain's problems go deeper than a few Romney ads, though. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh spent a large part of his show yesterday spewing vitriol at the Arizona Senator, and it's likely his three hours of air time today will be dedicated to the same task. Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, another person not exactly tight with Limbaugh, sent the radio host a letter urging him, for the good of the GOP, to stop bashing McCain, as Politico's Mike Allen writes. In the letter, Dole summarizes what may be the best hope of reuniting the Republican Party: "Two terms for the Clintons are enough," he wrote.

-- As Chris Cillizza points out, McCain knows how important the talk radio wing is to the GOP. He healed rifts with Jerry Falwell and others on the conservative right. Could a battle against the Clintons be enough to heal the new rifts? Then again, could lasting damage be done by the GOP's internal factions if McCain faces down with Obama? We thought these kinds of blood feuds were the Democratic Party's specialty.

-- Democrats have avoided name-calling on television ads, but that doesn't mean they're not taking their negative cases directly to voters. Hillary Clinton dropped mail in Tulsa, Oklahoma -- a state many believed she would win handily -- hitting Barack Obama on the "present" votes, as Ben Smith reports. More Clinton mail landed in Massachusetts, where the race is incredibly tight, suggesting Obama lacks a plan to curtail foreclosure rates, voted for "Dick Cheney's energy bill" and hits him on raising the Social Security tax cap, as National Journal's Linda Douglass reports. It's not all Clinton: Smith writes Obama's negative mail hit voters' homes last week.

-- Staffer Profile Of The Day: There are two ways to know you've made it. One: Be a clue in a New York Times crossword puzzle. Two: Get your very own dot matrix in the Wall Street Journal. If nothing else comes of this adventure, Carl Forti, a former official at the NRCC who now serves as Romney's national political director, has made it. The profile: A strategist leading up to Super Tuesday and the decisions he's got to make, including, perhaps most importantly, where to go for the Super Bowl.

-- Today On The Trail: Why don't presidential candidates just get absentee ballots? McCain has a last-minute rally in San Diego before heading home to Phoenix, where he'll hold an election-night celebration. Huckabee will be in Charleston, participating in the state's presidential nominating convention before heading home to North Little Rock and a party with supporters in the big city. Romney, too, is in Charleston, before heading back to Belmont, Massachusetts to vote and Boston to thank supporters. Clinton will do morning media hits around the country before voting in Chappaqua and thanking supporters in New York City, and Obama votes in Chicago before hanging out with several thousand of his closest friends to watch results roll in.

Previewing IL Primaries

While the country's attention tomorrow will be focused on the more than 20 presidential primaries, the first congressional primaries of the 2008 season will also take place in the Land of Lincoln. With three open seats, including a special election to fill the remainder of former Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert's term, the Illinois primaries will initiate some long, competitive general election races.

Republican Rep. Jerry Weller, stepping down from his 11th District seat, won just 55% last year despite a large fundraising advantage. Democrats are targeting this seat and have a candidate they like in State Senate Majority Leader Debbie Halvorson, who has close to $400,000 in her campaign treasury and is unopposed in the primary.

The favorite on the Republican side is Tim Baldermann, New Lenox mayor and Chicago Ridge police chief. He's raised more than $100,000 so far, and is being opposed in the primary by Terry Heenan and Jimmy Lee, the latter of which has outspent Baldermann but badly trails in cash on hand. The winner of the GOP primary will need plenty of financial support for the general election, as Halvorson has already made the DCCC's Red-to-Blue list, which promises generous fundraising support.

The special primary for Hastert's seat has been hotly contested on the GOP side, as we've reported earlier. The GOP and Democratic winners of the special primary will face off March 8 to fill the remainder of Hastert's term. They will likely be the same winners of the coinciding primary for the party nominations for the November general election, meaning the excitement from the special election will likely carry on through the next 10 months.

Dairy magnate Jim Oberweis is the front-runner on the GOP side. Having devoted a large amount of his own resources to the campaign, and having entered the race after running for office before, Oberweis owns a hefty head start in both name recognition and ad spending. What he might lack to State Senator Chris Lauzen, his chief opponent, in an established organization is made up with help from Hastert, who is backing Oberweis. Democrats are enthusiastic about Bill Foster, a scientist independently wealthy enough to stay financially competitive with Oberweis in a general.

Due to former basketball coach Dick Versace's precipitous exit from the race, there will be no Democrats on the ticket in Illinois's 18th District primary. The party will choose its nominee after February 5. So the only excitement will be on the GOP side, as three Republicans are spending big as they vie for the chance to succeed Rep. Ray LaHood, who's stepping down at the end of the year.

State Rep. Aaron Schock has spent more than $500,000 on the race. He's being opposed by television executive John Morris and Heartland Partnership CEO Jim McConoughey, who have both spent at least $250,000. Schock is expected to make it through the primary.

One incumbent tomorrow faces yet another difficult primary challenge. In Cook County's 3rd District, Rep. Daniel Lipinski's moderate record and what opponents call blatant nepotism makes him a biennial target in the primary. Three Democrats are giving serious challenge to the 2-term incumbent.

Mark Pera, a local high school board president, has outspent Lipinski by close to a 3-to-1 margin, and outraised him by more than $150,000. Pera's chances are probably the best against Lipinski, but Palos Hills Mayor Jerry Bennett has spent more than $150,000, and Army Lt. Col. Jim Capparelli dispersed about $85,000. The presence of the two other candidates could hurt Pera, an attorney, in his bid to knock off Lipinski, who four years ago became the Democratic nominee when his father, a long-time incumbent, dropped out at the last minute. The winner of the Democratic primary will be heavily favored in the general election.

-- Kyle Trygstad

McCain Plays Down CA

Many in the media have decamped to sunny California, and for good reason: The state not only provides the biggest targets to campaigns on both sides looking to score their share of the hundreds of delegates available tomorrow, it also allows reporters to stay up late as results roll in. Going to bed at 1 a.m. after the rest of the country has reported is a lot easier than going to bed at 4 a.m.

For at least one candidate, though, California will not be the story. John McCain, once an afterthought, then the front-runner, is seeing his poll numbers in the Golden State sink again. After enjoying leads as high as 19 points, just days after his New Hampshire win, and 13 points, in a CNN/Politico/LA Times poll last week, McCain now owns just a 2-point lead in the latest RCP California Average.

The news may be worse than that. A tracking poll for C-SPAN and Reuters, taken by Zogby, shows distinct movement toward McCain's chief opponent in California, Mitt Romney. After taking the lead yesterday, Romney is now up by eight points. A victory by such a small margin would only give Romney a few extra delegates -- the state allocates most of their Republican delegates in a winner-take-all by Congressional District fashion.

In anticipation of such a result, McCain's team has started downplaying expectations and California's relative importance. "We're going to do very well in the winner-take-all states in the Northeast," spokesman Brian Rogers told Politics Nation today. "California is a toss-up that, at the end of the day, won't be the big story [as long as] we pick up some delegates."

Rogers promoted the importance of states like New York and New Jersey, which award delegates to the statewide winner and in which McCain is far ahead. In fact, if Romney wins a majority in each of California's districts, he would win 170 convention delegates, twelve short of what McCain would win from victories in those two states and his home state of Arizona.

Even if a win in California left Romney at a disadvantage in the rest of the country, it would be a huge boost for a candidate who has looked, if not resigned to his fate, at least on the ropes and badly in need of a victory. A Golden State win could prove to the former Massachusetts governor that a one-on-one race against McCain really could turn to Romney's advantage, and in the end, that could make for a renewed interest in a long-term crusade against the Arizona maverick.

Freshmen Dems Are Rich

To continue our earlier post, a few other freshman Democrats who won districts carried by President Bush in 2004 are worth mentioning:

-- Chris Carney, in Pennsylvania's 10th District, was given some serious help in 2006 by the incumbent, who had been sued by his alleged mistress for physically assaulting her. That put the district in play for Democrats, and with Bush winning 60% here in 2004 and ethically-dogged former Rep. Don Sherwood out of the picture, the district is back in play for Republicans. Carney reported having some $763,000 cash on hand at the end of 2007, after raising $232,000 in the 4th quarter. He will need to keep up his fundraising, as two Republicans -- wheelchair manufacturing executive Dan Meuser and businessman Chris Hackett -- each reported having close to $400,000 cash on hand.

-- Jerry McNerney, in California's 11th District, came back from a 2004 defeat to upset incumbent Richard Pombo, the former Resources Committee chairman, in 2006. Bush won 54% in 2004 in this district positioned east of the Bay Area. Republicans are targeting this district; an assemblyman dropped out last year so the party's nominee would not need to go through a costly primary. Former Assemblyman Dean Andal appears he will be the nominee, and had a healthy fundraising year, finishing 2007 with close to $500,000 cash on hand. McNerney nearly doubled that amount, reporting $925,000 cash on hand.

-- Zack Space, in Ohio's 18th District, was also helped out in 2006 by a scandal-plagued incumbent. Former House Administration Committee chairman Bob Ney dropped out of the race in August, but did not resign his seat until days before the November election, keeping his scandal fresh in the minds of voters. Space topped Bush's 57% take in 2004, defeating Republican Joy Padgett 62%-38%. He reported having some $756,000 cash on hand, after raising close to $300,000 in the 4th quarter. He has three Republican challengers with at least $20,000 cash on hand, but none have yet to total $100,000 in receipts.

-- Kyle Trygstad

Taking The Liberal Legacy

Both the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee have field days every time a candidate from the other side opens their mouths. To the GOP, anything a Democrat says is liberal extremisim. To Democrats, a Republican's utterances are radical conservatism. It's standard hyperbole for a primary season: Both sides have to play to their base to get to a general, and both sides are ready to pounce when that happens.

Many pointed out, through the course of last year, that social conservatives lacked a candidate they could call their own. Until the rise of Mike Huckabee, none of the top candidates had a particularly strong or appealing religious background. One thing no one mentioned: Liberals didn't have a candidate either.

Sure, everyone called Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards liberals, but all of them appealed to different segments of the traditional liberal coalition. As conservatives could not find a candidate around whom to rally, so too did liberals lack a single candidate who carried, if not the perfect platform, at least the aura of the old fashioned liberal mantle.

In what is increasingly looking like a long-term contest, Obama is now making a concerted effort to pick up that legacy. He hasn't come out with radical new positions or been spotted shamelessly pandering to the base, but recent endorsements, and in recent speeches, Obama has actively sought to associate himself with liberal lions of the past.

Ted Kennedy helps. Endorsements from Caroline Kennedy and California First Lady Maria Shriver, both of whom attended a mega-rally on the UCLA campus yesterday, help as well. Yesterday, at another huge rally in Minneapolis, Obama himself tried the association game with one of the left's true heroes. "When I first got to the US Senate, I opened up the drawer of the desk where I was assigned. And it has the names of some of the great senators who have served," Obama told the crowd, per NBC. "They carve their names in their own hand into the desk drawer, and one of those names was somebody who shared with me this belief that change doesn't happen from the top down. A guy named Paul Wellstone."

Wellstone, whose plane went down in northern Minnesota just weeks before Election Day 2002, is an idol to Minnesota Democrats. A professor by training, an unabashed defender of the left's causes, Wellstone's mark can still be seen around the state, where his campaign's bumper sticker -- green background, white letters and an exclamation point -- is not an uncommon sight, even six years later. Obama wants that association, saying Wellstone "helped to create a movement here in Minnesota, because he believed in you the way I believe in you. And this is part of that movement of change all throughout America."

Most exit polls in early contests have showed Obama outperforming among those who call themselves liberal, while Clinton has generally underperformed among the same group. Courting the lefty base is a smart way to get through a primary: Those who call themselves very liberal make up as much as one fifth of the electorate. Doing so in a way that avoids dramatic lurches to the left is a smart way to look toward November.

Obama hasn't quite wrapped up the liberal base yet. Florida liberals actually preferred Clinton by wide margins. Though perhaps the Illinois Senator is on the verge of scoring another big endorsement from a liberal heavyweight: Former Vice President Al Gore, who is said to be worried about jinxing Obama's campaign with his nod, talks with Obama on a regular basis.

Taking a look at Obama's advertisement played during the Super Bowl, though, the images flashed on screen to associate with global warming sure look like they came straight out of a certain Gore-associated movie. Check it out for yourself.

Everything's A Push Poll

In an era when the latest radio ad a candidate broadcasts can get more listens on the web than over the airways, when everyone is connected by blogs and sites like this, chock full of constantly updated news, everything can be spun to look sleazy. But this year is nothing new: Candidates poll, and they don't always poll their own positive ratings. The only difference is that now, we all know when and where they're polling, and from that information we can gather just what kind of poll they're conducting.

Consider this LA Times report, in which retiree Ed Coghlan, who used to direct news for a local television station in California, received a call from a pollster asking questions about the three leading Democrats (before John Edwards dropped out) and John McCain. Every question asked about Clinton was positive, while many questions about the other candidates were generally negative.

The call was clearly a push poll, right? Not at all. The survey lasted 20 minutes, far too long to be effective in reaching a wide number of voters in time for that state's massive primary. That it was a Clinton poll is in little doubt, and it shouldn't be viewed as malicious. Candidates on all sides need to know the most effective arguments for their own candidacies and against their opponents. Politics is, after all, a zero-sum game: If Barack Obama or Clinton get more than 50% of the vote in a poll, their opponent cannot win by building his or her vote total; they have to take votes away from the other candidate.

Obama's camp has not, as far as we've seen, responded to this poll, and they shouldn't. One of their great lines, that Obama is running a different kind of campaign, is a little misleading: Obama is doing well, some might say leading the Democratic race, precisely because he is running a normal campaign better than Clinton is. It is certain that his campaign has conducted similar polls; how else could they explain their effective use of messages against Clinton? Further, by not reacting to every perceived insult, Obama's team stays on their message and on their game.

But, in this day of constant twists and turns, when literally thousands of media outlets, both new and old, are chasing every angle of every story possible, everything starts to look sinister. No matter how perfect someone's preferred candidate looks, if they're still in the race they're doing something right, and polling an opponent's flaws is an important part of a winning campaign.

Every report of a push poll, in short, needs to be taken with two grains of salt: First, remember that these campaigns, and the outside groups trying to influence them, are run by political professionals whose first job is to win. Second, their methods aren't always underhanded, and not every call that asks about someone else's negatives should be met with a righteous outcry.

Morning Thoughts: California Dreaming

Good Monday morning. We suppose today is Super Monday, or Super Tuesday Eve, but we defer to the wisdom of others on such designations. John McCain has a rally at Faneuil Hall in Boston today; any chance his camp regrets that move in the face of what are definitely going to be some surly Patriots fans?

-- The Senate is back this afternoon to take up a bill to amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act before voting on cloture for the economic stimulus bill by late this afternoon. Don't start anticipating checks from the government, though: The House and Senate still have issues to work out, and it's unclear that Majority Leader Harry Reid even has the 60 votes necessary to cut off debate.

-- On the presidential campaign trail, candidates on both sides are looking beyond February 5 while desperately scrambling for every last delegate tomorrow. The consensus, though, remains that while the Democratic race is likely to stretch well beyond Super Tuesday, there is a chance the John McCain could wrap up the nomination tomorrow. Many top media types are flocking to Arizona for McCain's victory party; far fewer will head to Boston for Mitt Romney's celebration. While it remains unlikely that McCain will wrap things up tomorrow, the media will be there if he decides to do so.

-- For both parties, simply by virtue of its size, California is becoming the story the media wants to report after Tuesday. McCain and Romney added last-minute stops there in the hours before polls close -- Romney tonight in Long Beach, McCain tomorrow in San Diego -- and both Democrats are advertising heavily and sending top surrogates, including Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama (though Obama, rallying at UCLA yesterday, made more news when First Lady Maria Shriver, a Kennedy and close friend of Oprah, joined her to endorse Michelle's husband). In Iowa, as John Edwards took a narrow second-place finish over Clinton, the New York Senator actually scored one more delegate. Given the way California allocates its delegates, on both sides, it's entirely possible that the vote winner will not be the delegate winner.

-- The latest RCP California Average shows Clinton up by just six-tenths of a point while McCain has a 3.2-point lead. Polls in both parties have narrowed incredibly in the last few weeks. Still, newspaper deadlines are likely to be missed, Mark Halperin and the LA Times report. If both parties' races are so incredibly close, the 20% of ballots that will not be counted until after Tuesday is sure to put a hitch in anyone's hopes of calling the race.

-- While the Patriots and the New York Football Giants were trudging out of the locker room after halftime, Super Bowl watchers in Washington, D.C. caught a glimpse of a Kennedy-esque ad, one of the few this cycle that's been entirely in the candidate's voice. Obama, whose campaign ran the ad in 24 states that will hold primaries or caucuses between February 5 and February 12, ended with a line seemingly straight out of RFK's mouth: "The world as it is is not the world as it should be," he said. The RNC, perhaps increasingly concerned with the potentials of an Obama candidacy, zinged the candidate, saying the ad "will play as well during this year's Super Bowl as his Bears did in last year's," NBC/NJ's Anburajan reports. Ouch, low blow. Still, it was a bargain. Chief strategist David Axelrod told the New York Times the ads cost just $250,000 to run.

-- Obama running Super Sunday ads, outraising Clinton and close, if not leading, in February 5 states: Should he be considered the front-runner? He probably doesn't want the mantle yet, but it may be forced upon him soon: Three well-respected polls have the race close to margins of error nationally -- in fact, CBS News shows a tied race and USA Today/Gallup puts Clinton ahead by just one. Clinton still leads the RCP National Average by 5.6 points, but it's becoming easier to imagine her giving up that lead.

-- An interesting aside: Voters tend to think that Romney and Clinton would handle the economy better than McCain or Obama. While it certainly appears the latter two have all the momentum in the world, the former two could come back, on the backs of what the Washington Post calls a worse national opinion on the economy than any Americans have held in the last 15 years. More than 80% of those polled in the Washington Post/ABC News survey said the state of the economy is "not so good" or "poor," and close to 60% said a recession is already at hand. That's bad news for the party in the White House, but it can signal a reversal of fortunes for two pols vying to get there.

-- On the other hand, don't expect the war in Iraq to completely leave the scene. President Bush will ask Congress for $70 billion for war funding in that country and Afghanistan today, eliciting statements from both Democrats (and probably all the Republicans as well) as war spending tops $1 trillion -- with a big giant "T" -- for the first time, as CongressDaily reports (subs req'd). A future battle for Congress and the White House to face: That over the use of supplemental funding, which were intended to provide for emergencies. Instead, more than 90% of war funding in the last few years has come in the form of supplementals, the CBO reports. Deficit hawks on both sides don't like the extra cash, saying it amounts to a cooking of the books.

-- Endorsement Of The Day: It takes Obama, receiver of endorsements both moving and bizarre, to get the Grateful Dead back together. Today, the band will play a concert on Obama's behalf at a San Francisco theater, a spokesman told Reuters on Friday. That's probably not as powerful an endorsement as Shriver's, and not as powerful as a Gore endorsement would be (apparently he's nervous about jinxing Obama's success, Noam Scheiber writes). But if Obama's looking for a way to rock out, the Dead are the way to go.

-- Today On The Trail: Clinton holds events in New Haven, Connecticut before heading to Worcester, Massachusetts. Late tonight she'll hold a town hall meeting in New York City that will be broadcast on the Hallmark Channel before joining David Letterman. Obama has a rally at the Meadowlands -- a fortuitous location, one would think -- followed by stops in Hartford and Boston. McCain, as we mentioned, rallies at Faneuil Hall, meets the media in Hamilton, New Jersey and has a presser scheduled for New York City. Huckabee heads to rallies in Chattanooga and Blountville, Tennessee and a rally in Texarkana before heading home to Little Rock, and Romney campaigns in Nashville and Atlanta before rallying in Long Beach. Ron Paul has a speech in Minneapolis today and will meet with the press there.

Franken Leads MN Poll

Democrats searching for a strong candidate in Minnesota seemed initially skeptical that a comedian would make a good candidate. But a new poll, conducted for Minnesota Public Radio by the Humphrey Institute, shows former Saturday Night Live staple Al Franken might have a chance in his bid against first-term incumbent Norm Coleman.

The survey, conducted 1/20-27, tested the state's Senate race among 917 adults, for a margin of error of +/- 3.2%. Along with Coleman and Franken, attorney Mike Ciresi, Jim Cohen and Professor Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, all Democrats, were tested. Republicans might claim the sample was skewed by party registration. 52% of respondents said they were Democrats, while 34% said they were Republicans and just 14% identified themselves as independents.

General Election Matchups
Franken 43
Coleman 40

Coleman 43
Ciresi 38

Coleman 47
Nelson-Pallmeyer 29

Coleman 46
Cohen 31

Primary Election Matchup
(478 Dems only, margin +/- 4.5%)
Franken 42
Ciresi 18
Nelson-Pallmeyer 3
Cohen 2

Cross-tabs, only made available in the Franken-Coleman matchup, show Franken trailing by a single point among men while leading by seven among women. Coleman enjoys a 16-point lead among independents, though the Democratic base has yet to coalesce behind Franken, meaning his numbers will only go up. Franken has big leads among those who choose the economy, the war in Iraq or health care as the top issue facing the country.

But Franken still has to make it through either a party convention or a primary, and that process begins when Minnesotans go to caucus on Tuesday. If Franken supporters win races as delegates to the state convention -- regardless of which presidential candidate they support -- he can box out Ciresi. But Ciresi has run for office before, and he's got the backing of a good portion of the Democratic establishment.

Both candidates have promised to concede if they lose at the convention. But those promises have been made, and broken, before. Ciresi would benefit most from a convention win, as it will be difficult for him to overcome Franken's large lead in the name recognition primary. Still, it is likely the primary race will not conclude when the convention ends, and that no matter which candidate wins, the other will press on.

When Democrats get to a general election, they do have the chance to knock out Coleman. Just 50% of those surveyed said they somewhat or strongly approved of Coleman's job performance. Contrast that to the 66% who approve of freshman Senator Amy Klobuchar's job performance and Coleman looks like he might be in trouble.

Still, he will be well-funded. Through the fourth quarter, Coleman had more than $6 million in the bank. Franken has outraised him through several quarters, but Coleman's strong head start puts him well ahead of both the top Democratic candidates. Franken had $3.1 million in the bank through December, while Ciresi, who has given more than half a million dollars to his own campaign, held just under $1 million in reserve.

Audit Trouble At NRCC

A former employee acting as an outside vendor is suspected of fraud by the National Republican Congressional Committee, chairman Tom Cole said in a statement released this afternoon. Without going into details, Cole said the NRCC has notified authorities of its suspicions.

"We learned earlier this week of irregularities in our financial audit process," Cole said in the statement. "We are aggressively and thoroughly investigating the matter and, while we determine the details, have terminated our relationship" with the ex-employee.

A Republican with knowledge of the investigation told Politico, and Politics Nation has confirmed, the FBI has been contacted about the possible fraud.

Update: A Republican source tells Politics Nation that the investigation is focused on Chris Ward, who served last cycle as comptroller at the NRCC. This cycle, the committee had been using Ward as a vendor who handled their reports with the Federal Election Commission, paying him at least $37,500 during 2007.

Ward has also served as treasurer for campaign committees and leadership PACs including those of Reps. Jim Walsh, Jim Saxton, Peter Roskam, Lamar Smith and Denny Rehberg as well as Senator John Ensign's leadership PAC.

The NRCC would not comment on the investigation, though the source, who is outside the committee, characterized the fraud as severe. Details of exactly what is being investigated is unclear. A call to Ward's home, which matched the address listed in the NRCC's FEC reports, went unanswered and the message unreturned.

Dem Freshman Overperform

Forty-two new Democrats entered the House of Representatives after the 2006 elections, about half of whom won districts President Bush carried in 2004. These freshmen, due to the make-up of their districts, became instant targets for Republicans, and were forced to instantly begin raising money for the next election.

With yesterday's year-end filing deadline, the top fundraising performers in 2007 were uncovered. In Florida's 16th District, Rep. Tim Mahoney, who took over the seat once held by Mark Foley, reported having about $1.5 million cash on hand after raising more than $400,000 in the 4th quarter. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, from New York's 20th District, was the only freshman to top Mahoney, reporting just more than $2 million cash on hand after a $440,000 4th quarter.

Other freshman Democrats in Bush-won districts who appear ready financially to handle a tough Republican challenge include:

-- Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona's 8th District: $1.3 million cash on hand, $272,000 raised in the 4th quarter. Giffords faces a strong challenge from Republican State Senate President Tim Bee, who came close to $300,000 raised after the 4th Quarter.

-- Patrick Murphy, Pennsylvania's 8th District: $1.2 million cash on hand, $220,000 raised in the 4th quarter. Republicans are excited about a new recruit who just joined the race, but the Philadelphia suburbs have been difficult for the GOP lately, and Murphy's strong fundraising performance could keep him in office for a long time.

-- John Hall, New York's 19th District: $1 million cash on hand, $326,000 raised in the 4th quarter. Hall got help from across the aisle when a top Republican recruit opted not to run. Next year, the former Orleans front man will likely be, if you'll pardon the pun, Still the One.

-- Jason Altmire, Pennsylvania's 4th District: $911,000 cash on hand, $239,000 raised in the 4th quarter. Altmire faces a well-funded challenge from the woman he beat, former Rep. Melissa Hart, in this suburban Pittsburgh district. Hart has about a third of what Altmire has in the bank, but if Republicans are going to retake a seat, Pennsylvania 4 presents as good a chance as any.

-- Baron Hill, Indiana's 9th District: $862,000 cash on hand, $243,529 raised in the 4th quarter. Hill will once again face former Rep. Mike Sodrel, the fourth time the two have battled over the Southeastern Indiana district. Sodrel, a trucking executive, will be well-funded, but after two wins in three chances, Hill maintains the upper hand.

-- Tim Walz, Minnesota's 1st District: $843,000 cash on hand, $250,000 raised in the 4th quarter. While Republicans were hopeful their recruits -- a state senator and state representative -- would be able to compete in a district long held by Republican Rep. Gil Gutknecht. Still, Walz has outraised both by a Texas mile, and GOP attention seems to have shifted away from the district.

More on these and other top freshman Democratic performers to come...

-- Kyle Trygstad

Romney Keeps On McCain

Speaking to bloggers and reporters before jetting off to Colorado, Mitt Romney continued to hammer rival John McCain today, calling the choice facing Republican voters "a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party." This year's race reminded him of the 1976 contest, he said, when Republican voters picked insider Gerald Ford over outsider Ronald Reagan. "The cost of that was Jimmy Carter and four years of malaise," he said.

"Today we have a race that pits a quintessential Washington insider ... against an ousider," Romney said, arguing that McCain "has favors to repay and has scores to settle." "If we post him up against Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, it'll be seen as the candidate of the past ... versus the candidate of the future, of hope and optimism."

Romney maintained the contest is a virtual tie between the two, saying rival Mike Huckabee is becoming less of a factor. Both McCain and Romney have won three contests, he pointed out, blaming his Florida loss on McCain's late endorsements from Governor Charlie Crist and Senator Mel Martinez, "not to mention John McCain's false accusation" that Romney backed a timetable for withdrawal, he said. That attack "obviously did cost me some votes in Florida."

Exit polls showed voters in Florida most concerned with the economy, an issue Romney dominates, went with McCain, another factor Romney attributes to the Crist endorsement. "I scratched my head on that," he admitted, before launching into another sustained barrage on McCain's economic record. Romney continued to imply that McCain is out of his league on the economy, characterizing a recent McCain answer in a debate as "stream-of-consciousness" and "rambling."

Looking ahead to February 5, Romney said he likes his chances. "We have a number of states we think we can win. We have a number of states we think we have a shot in," he hedged, refusing to enumerate which states fell in which categories. Other states where delegates are apportioned by Congressional District provide opportunities, the former governor said. "We may decide to play in some of those states as well."

Asked about the delay in getting ads on the air in Super Tuesday states, Romney admitted, "We waited a day." After losing the Sunshine State, Romney said the delay was for top advisers to figure out the landscape following Rudy Giuliani's exit from the race. "We wanted to figure out which states have the best shots for us," he said. The new media buy will include both national and state-by-state purchases, according to Romney.

Still, he stuck to what became his mantra long before any other candidate picked it up, suggesting that the presidential contest is going to drag out. "It's very possible that nothing will be decided on Tuesday," he concluded.

Senate Reports Show Tight Races

Federal Election Commission reports were due at midnight last night, though despite the deadline most reports aren't available yet. But a look at numbers available through other media outlets shows, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Democrats are in good position to pick up seats next year.

The states that might have vulnerable incumbents and tight races next year:

Alaska (Fairbanks Daily News Miner)
Ted Stevens -- $207,000 raised, $1 million cash on hand

While Stevens' detailed report is not yet available, the troubled incumbent, who is under investigation for his relationship with an Alaska company, has blown through at least $700,000 so far. Once the report is out, it will reveal how much Stevens is spending on lawyers.

Colorado (From the Boulder Daily Camera)
Mark Udall -- $1.1 million raised, $3.6 million in the bank
Bob Schaffer -- $646,000 raised, $2.1 million on hand

Udall's lead has closed in the last twenty-four hours, though. President Bush traveled to Colorado last night for a fundraiser benefiting Schaffer's campaign. Schaffer started the race at a financial disadvantage, but his fundraising clip has been impressive, and while Udall will likely enjoy a big cash advantage, the Republican will at least be competitive.

Louisiana (Per the Hotline's indispensable Quinn McCord)
Mary Landrieu $1.2 million raised, approximately $4.1 million in the bank
John Kennedy $501,000 raised, approximately $472,000 in the bank

Landrieu hasn't given up yet, and she's got a big lead over the one candidate the NRSC actually thinks can pick up a seat for them. Still, many of Landrieu's voters have left the state in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and she faces a seriously uphill battle to stay in Congress.

Maine (According to PolitickerME)
Susan Collins -- $963,000 pulled in, $3.9 million saved up
Tom Allen -- $813,000 picked up, $2.5 million left over

Collins led polls in the Fall, and she's in much better position than the average Republican incumbent. Still, Allen is no wallflower, and once they start spending, the race will close.

Minnesota (Thanks, Minneapolis Star-Tribune)
Norm Coleman -- $1.7 million raised, $6 million cash on hand
Al Franken -- $1.9 million raised, $3.1 million cash on hand
Mike Ciresi -- $807,000 pulled in, $984,000 in the bank

Ciresi's fundraising was greatly aided by his own checkbook. The second-time Senate candidate, who's won some institutional backing over comedian Franken, gave himself more than $500,000 last quarter. Franken and Coleman, meanwhile, are still raising big bucks, but many have commented on Franken's burn rate, which is pretty high.

Nebraska (According to the AP)
Mike Johanns -- $1.5 million raised, $1 million left

Former Congressional candidate Scott Kleeb has yet to make a decision on a race, though even if he jumps in Johanns remains a heavy favorite.

New Mexico (Courtesy DailyKos and the AP)
Tom Udall -- $1 million raised, $1.7 million on hand
Heather Wilson -- $516,000 pulled in, $1.1 million in the bank
Steve Pearce -- $425,000 made, $820,000 cash on hand

As Udall raises more than the two Republicans combined, the GOP has to be worried about a competitive primary that winds up depleting every penny Wilson and Pearce have, leaving them at an even greater disadvantage in November.

Oregon (Per the Eugene Register-Guard)
Gordon Smith -- $900,000 raised, $4.4 million on hand
Jeff Merkley -- $619,000 raised, $528,000 on hand
Steve Novick -- $219,000 raised, $292,000 left over

Novick has spent money on television ads, but Merkley is still much better-known. Both trail Smith in money and polls, but Oregon is a state the DSCC can play in relatively inexpensively. If Merkley has to spend his way past Novick, though, he will start a general election race in an even bigger hole.

South Dakota (Writes the Sioux Falls Argus Leader)
Tim Johnson -- $726,000 raised, $2.7 million cash on hand
Joel Dykstra -- $56,000 raised, $137,000 in the bank

NRSC chairman John Ensign hinted to RCP that a higher-profile candidate might be headed toward a showdown with Johnson. Until that happens, if it does, Johnson will skate to re-election after winning his last battle, against now-Senator John Thune, by a mere 500 votes.

Virginia (Via the Washington Post and RCP sources)
Mark Warner -- $2.7 million raised, $2.9 million left over
Jim Gilmore -- $343,000 raised, $183,000 cash on hand

Warner's stunning fundraising pace continues, and it's all Gilmore can do to keep up. Without a faster pace, this race will be over before it begins.

Members' Legal Bills Pile

It is not a coincidence that Washington has more lawyers per capita than any other city: They're following the money. One reason ethically challenged members of Congress cling to their offices long after their times have passed is massive legal bills they owe. Those bills can be taken care of using campaign funds.

Despite assurances that he's running for re-election, longtime Alaska Republican Don Young may just be hanging on until he pays off those bills. FEC reports out this morning show Young dropped $590,000 last quarter, much of it on legal fees to two prominent Washington firms. He raised just $43,000, Swing State Project reports, and retains almost $950,000 on hand.

Others under legal scrutiny spent heavily from their campaign treasuries as well. West Virginia Democrat Alan Mollohan, who has been scrutinized for earmarks he's attracted to his district, dished out nearly $25,000 in fees last quarter, while retiring California Republican John Doolittle lists debts of about $120,000 to a northern Virginia law firm and Arizona Republican Rick Renzi owes $106,000 to Patton Boggs.

As long as troubled incumbents can raise money in Washington instead of reaching into their own pockets to satisfy legal debts, they will do so. As FEC reports this month show, it's good to have a campaign account to fall back on.

Morning Thoughts: Kid Gloves

Good Friday morning, and happy Groundhog Eve. As we come to the end of one of the best political weeks in recent memory, we've still got the Super Bowl and Super Tuesday to look forward to. Only after that do we all get some sleep. Here's what Washington's watching this morning:

-- The House and Senate are out of session without having come up with an economic stimulus plan. Democrats fell a few votes short of the 60 votes they needed yesterday, so Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is going to have to wait for wayward Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to come back. House Democrats finish their annual retreat in Williamsburg today, where they will hear from Ben Bernanke today before talking with the press.

-- The closer to a primary, the less likely an actual debate will take place. Last night, Democrats Clinton and Obama didn't debate so much as they had a friendly chat for ninety minutes. A long discussion on the war in Iraq jumped out at most people, as it was precisely not where Clinton wanted to spend her time. But Clinton still looked the role of the front-runner while Obama played the challenger. That's not to say he's trailing by twenty points, but Obama isn't acting like he's ahead. Given the fate of the front-runner in this campaign so far, maybe that's a good thing for him.

-- Still, unlike the Republican debate from Wednesday, the Democrats got along, and even acted kind to each other. Far from a snub, Obama pulled a chair out for Clinton and whispered something in her ear at the end, even going as far to assert that his chief rival would be on anyone's vice presidential short list. As Ben Smith writes, it's incredibly unlikely that Clinton would show up on anyone's shortlist, but it was a nice gesture.

-- In fact, it's unlikely that this next election, on February 5, will settle anything. Both campaigns seem unwilling to engage the other on their territory, meaning the contest is a war of attrition. And with his massive $32 million haul in January, Obama's camp has realized that: They're already putting ads on television aimed at Washington State, Louisiana, Nebraska, the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland, all of which hold caucuses or primaries between February 9 and February 12, Advertising Age reports. If you're not a resident of a state that holds its contest February 5, don't worry: The campaign will come to you.

-- Assuming the race won't be over by the end of February 5 is contingent upon that day splitting for both candidates, and there are some indications that scenario will occur. For it to do so, Obama has to win several caucus states, including Kansas, Minnesota, Alaska and others. In Minnesota, at least, he still has some catching up to do: A Minnesota Public Radio poll finds him trailing by seven points. That's probably nothing a little advertising can't fix. His new ad campaign will run into the eight figures, the Washington Post writes.

-- On the GOP side, John McCain looks more and more like the eventual nominee, but he's facing a base divided more than at any time since Ross Perot came on the scene. He's got some serious making up to do with the conservative base, and whatever he tries probably won't work. Even former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a long-time Romney backer, is trying to tackle McCain, saying the Arizonan is "allied with Democrats," according to The Swamp. But some conservatives, including Grover Norquist and Richard Land, say there's hope in McCain's positions after all, the Times writes. In an effort to get back in the good graces of the GOP, McCain will even address the Conservative Political Action Committee next week, an event he missed last year which his campaign considers a big mistake.

-- One other issue McCain will have to deal with: Questions about his age, especially next to someone as youthful-looking as Obama. When taking out a line of credit for his campaign, the Washington Post fronts today, McCain's bank went so far as to make him get a life insurance policy in case he didn't survive the grueling pace of a campaign. The loan saved his campaign, though the life insurance policy is sure to have tongues wagging. In a general, watch for age to play some sort of role, though subtly, not overtly, in the Democratic opponent's message.

-- Ron Paul finished a campaign swing through Maine today where early Republican caucuses will take place. The campaign -- along with Republican observers in the state -- seriously thinks they can win there, given the lack of attention from other candidates and the independent nature of Mainers. But wasn't that the argument for Ron Paul's soon-to-be success in New Hampshire as well? It didn't work that way, as Paul finished exactly where polls suggested he would. Paul should be doing something better: While he raised a lot of money, he also spent it, burning through $17.7 million in the third quarter. What, exactly, did that buy? Six delegates thus far. If Paul can't do something in Maine, he's really out of practical opportunities. Give Paul and his followers credit, though: He raised more in the last three months of the year than any other Republican, the LA Times writes.

-- Celebrity Gossip Of The Day: Everyone noticed certain guests in the audience last night, including Diane Keaton, Steven Spielberg, Brad Whitford and even Pierce Brosnan. As Chuck Todd notes, they make good cutaway shots, but the don't do much to help Democrats get over the notion that they're tied to Hollywood. The image was one the Republican National Committee couldn't pass up: They happily spotlighted it in a post-debate release.

-- Today On The Trail: Huckabee rallies in Oklahoma City before heading to Tulsa, followed by stops in the northwest corner of his home state and Springfield, Missouri. McCain has rallies planned for Chesterfield and Villa Park, Missouri, while Mitt Romney brings his tour to Thornton, Colorado. Ron Paul meets supporters in Colorado Springs before heading to a rally in Denver. Obama holds a roundtable in Albuquerque and a rally in Santa Fe, while Clinton holds town hall meetings in San Diego and San Francisco before fundraising in the Bay Area.