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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, MoveOn.org 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.