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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, MoveOn.org, VoteVets.org 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.