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Lautenberg Bid Official

New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg will anounce his plans to run for a fifth term in the Senate at a rally in Trenton this afternoon, the Newark Star-Ledger reports this afternoon. Lautenberg, who initially retired from the Senate after 2000, was drafted back into service to replace Democrat Bob Torricelli on the ballot in 2002.

At 84 years old, Lautenberg will face questions about his age as he faces a challenge from at least one Democrat, and possibly more, before meeting a Republican in November. So far, at least one Democrat, Morristown Mayor Donald Cresitello, is challenging the incumbent, while former state party chairman Tom Byrne is also said to be considering a bid.

Republicans are having problems of their own coming up with a candidate. State Senator Joe Pennacchio and college professor Murray Sabrin are already in the race, but the state GOP has scrambled to come up with another, more formidable candidate. Having settled on northern New Jersey businessman Andrew Unanue, the party thought they might have a winner. That came before Unanue was forced to announce his bid from Vail, Colorado and committed several more gaffes.

Though Lautenberg has never won a statewide race by a wide margin, he will be aided running in a presidential year, when New Jersey is expected to be safely in the Democratic column, and his $2 million bank account is not something any Republican can scoff at when considering a bid that would require advertising in a state covered by two of the most expensive media markets in the country.

At his announcement today, Lautenberg will be joined by Governor Jon Corzine, Senator Bob Menendez, state party chairman Joe Cryan and Reps. Bill Pascrell, Frank Pallone and Steve Rothman, PolitickerNJ reports. Noticeably absent from that list: Rep. Rob Andrews. All four members of Congress are said to be interested in an eventual Senate bid of their own, and most have stocked up huge bank accounts in preparation for an eventual run. Through December 31, Andrews held cash reserves of nearly $2.4 million, Pallone had $3.2 million, Pascrell had $1.1 million and Rothman topped out at just over $2 million.

Should Lautenberg have pulled out of the contest, it would have sparked one of the most expensive and contentious Democratic primaries in recent memory. But, given New Jersey's recent electoral history, just because Lautenberg files for re-election does not necessarily mean his will be the name on the ballot come November. For now, though, surrounded by the biggest Democratic names in the state and without a top-tier GOP challenger, Lautenberg is another Democrat heavily favored to keep his seat for another six years.

GOP Gets Active In TX

After Republicans in a suburban Chicago district chose what some national GOP strategists thought was a fatally flawed nominee in the race to replace ex-House Speaker Denny Hastert, the national party is quietly getting involved in at least one primary to prevent the same thing from happening. House Minority Leader John Boehner has donated $10,000 from his PAC to Pete Olson, a former chief of staff to Senator John Cornyn, in Olson's bid to unseat Democratic Rep. Nick Lampson, The Hill's Aaron Blake reports.

The move is not unusual on its face: By the time this election is through, Boehner will have donated similar amounts to dozens of Republican candidates. What makes his backing of Olson remarkable is that it comes even as another Republican, former Houston City Councilwoman Shelly Sekula Gibbs, remains in the race, headed for an April 8 runoff with Olson.

Sekula Gibbs, who was elected to replace resigned House Majority Leader Tom DeLay for the remaining two months of the 109th Congress on the same day Lampson won the seat for the 110th, spent her brief tenure as a member of Congress royally irritating people. Her arrival in Congress was marred when DeLay's remaining personal staff walked out, and many Republicans think she would begin as an underdog heading into November. Her bid this year has also been marked by some staff dissension: Former Sekula Gibbs deputy campaign manager Matt Dabrowski, a Connecticut-based consultant, gave $250 to Olson, the Houston Chronicle reported last week.

Olson, should he survive the runoff, could give Lampson a run for his money in what is ordinarily a Republican seat. The 22nd District, based in the southern exurbs of Houston and parts of Harris County, voted heavily for President Bush twice -- by 34 points before the DeLay-inspired mid-decade redistricting and 28 points afterward -- and Lampson himself only beat Sekula Gibbs, running as a write-in candidate, by ten points after outspending her three and a half to one.

Perhaps more importantly, Republicans at the national level are actually getting involved in primaries to ensure that they have the best candidates running in November. While the National Republican Congressional Committee does not formally get involved in competitive primaries, they do everything but and encouraging certain candidates to get in or stay out, as does the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Boehner isn't the only House Republican leader to lend a hand to Olson's campaign. Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor and Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, who may harbor hopes of running for NRCC chair next cycle, each handed over $10,000 from their PACs, and money came in from campaign committees representing Texas Reps. Jeb Hensarling and Kenny Marchant. Several top aides to other members of the Texas delegation pitched in as well.

Should Olson win the runoff -- he received 24% in the March 4 primary, to Sekula Gibbs' 28% -- he will likely be in better position to take on Lampson in November than Sekula Gibbs would be. But neither Republican will face an easy path: Pre-primary filing on February 13 showed Lampson had raised over $1 million so far this year, with $739,000 in the bank. Sekula Gibbs and Olson, in pre-runoff filings on March 19, reported just $85,000 and $114,000 on hand respectively.

GOP Struggles In DE

The race to replace outgoing Delaware Governor Ruth Ann Minner looks increasingly like a two-way contest between Lieutenant Governor John Carney and state Treasurer Jack Markell. That's a massive problem for Republicans: Both Carney and Markell are Democrats, and the GOP can't seem to recruit a candidate of their own in a state that has a history of electing Republicans.

Carney and Markell, both well-known, will battle it out in the state's September primary, and the race promises to be expensive. Carney has raised $1 million so far, while Markell has $2.5 million in the bank. Four years after Minner won re-election with just 51% of the vote, though, the latest GOP recruitment target has backed out, saying the two Democrats' war chests are just too much to overcome.

"There isn't anyone who looks at this race who doesn't look at what the two Democrats have raised. Someone could do a credible campaign with $2 million. But I think you need that and that's very difficult, very, very difficult," State Rep. Donna Stone told The News Journal of Wilmington, confirming that she will not make a bid. Other party favorites, including businessman Alan Levin, 2004 candidate Bill Lee and House Speaker Terry Spence, have all declined to make a bid.

Two Republicans who lost to Lee in the 2004 primary are running, but state Republican Party Vice Chairman Vance Phillips said neither is likely to get the party's official endorsement.

The GOP is not a party of pariahs in the First State. Michael Castle, Delaware's lone representative in the House, is a Republican who has never faced a difficult race and is unlikely to again this year. He was first elected to Congress after stints as governor. Republicans hold a 22-19 majority in the state House, while Democrats have a 13-8 majority in the state Senate.

Even with a top gubernatorial contender, the state is expected to go easily to the Democratic presidential nominee this year. But without a candidate, it's hard to win a general election for governor. Assuming no self-funders jump into the contest and give a bloodied Democratic nominee a serious challenge, the state's top job is likely to remain safely in Democratic hands.

Graham On Sanford: Nah...

Few members of Congress are as close to John McCain as South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. Through hard times and good times, from the snows of Iowa to McCain's recent trip to the Middle East, Graham has been by McCain's side, offering comic relief and a valuable surrogate for the nominee-in-waiting. Back home in South Carolina, few politicians are closer than Graham and Governor Mark Sanford; the two ascended through the House and into more senior positions together, both endorsed McCain in 2000, and Graham is even the godfather of one of Sanford's children.

Given the two degrees of separation, it is no wonder that Sanford should be considered a prime candidate for the vice presidential nomination. He's a conservative's conservative, he has governing experience as well as party experience, and -- perhaps even more appealing to McCain -- Sanford is seen as something of a maverick who doesn't always fall into perfect party orthodoxy. Graham's closeness with McCain could help get Sanford's foot even farther in the door.

But in a meeting with The State (video here), Columbia's biggest newspaper, last week, Graham strayed a little off the path if he's going to help his buddy secure the number two slot. "To be honest with you, from South -- I don't see any of us in South Carolina bringing a whole lot of value to the ticket. I mean, we're talking about winning a national race that's going to be very competitive," Graham said.

"I'm just telling you that when it comes time to pick a vice president, that the smart money I think would be trying to add to the national security -- you know, reinforce that aspect of the ticket," he continued. "If we lose South Carolina, it's going to be a very bad year for Republicans."

The comments raised eyebrows in South Carolina political circles, and at least some Sanford advisers were reportedly upset with Graham. It's hardly the first time the senator has irritated his own party. Graham, who is running for re-election this year, is not the favorite Republican in the state, thanks to his involvement in the Gang of 14 and for his more moderate stance on immigration. Despite efforts of some in the Palmetto State to find a challenger to the first-term Republican, only Republican National Committeeman Buddy Witherspoon stepped into the race.

Then again, Sanford may have wounded his own chances by staying neutral this year as governor, eight years after, as a Congressman, endorsing McCain and, with Graham, co-chairing his campaign in the state. This year, he rebuffed McCain's requests for support at least three times, the Wall Street Journal reported this weekend. Now, the relationship between McCain and Sanford is "cordial," one McCain strategist told the paper, and Sanford may have blown his chance.

Pittsburgh's Strange Bedfellows

In an opinion piece out this morning in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, a columnist writes of his impressionas after meeting with Hillary Clinton in the Western Pennsylvania newsroom. Clinton had "courage and confidence," as well as "impressive command" of top issues. "I have a very different impression of Hillary Clinton today than before last Tuesday's meeting -- and it's a very favorable one indeed," the author wrote.

Without knowing the writer's name, the piece would be another in a series of good interviews Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain have given to editorial boards from Iowa to New Hampshire, back to Nevada and across the country. But knowing that the author, Richard Mellon Scaife, was one of the biggest Clinton-hating attack dogs of the 1990's shows another example of strange political bedfellows.

Scaife, the owner of the paper and billionaire heir to Andrew Mellon's banking fortune, gave more than a million dollars to the conservative American Prospect magazine for what they called the "Arkansas project" during Bill Clinton's presidency. The money went to investigate the then-president's personal life in Arkansas, an effort that may have led Hillary Clinton to refer to the newspaper magnate when she called out the "vast right-wing conspiracy."

Because of Scaife's role in promoting the Clinton-era scandals, the op-ed shocked some Clinton fans. "I never thought I would utter these words, but I would like to shake his hands for keeping his mind open despite the predisposed prejudice toward her," former Clinton lawyer Lanny Davis told the New York Times.

Scaife is one of several conservatives whose large bank accounts could have made them big anti-Clinton factors. But while several leading candidates had independent expenditures made on their behalf, Clinton was the only candidate with major outside money being spent against her as well. As with Rupert Murdoch, the conservative owner of News Corp., Scaife was not among those spending money against Clinton.

While Scaife said he will wait to hear from Barack Obama to make an endorsement, he has yet to go as far as the owner of Fox News. Murdoch held a fundraiser for Clinton last year.

Morning Thoughts: Booms And Busts

Good Monday morning. President Bush threw out a pretty good first pitch yesterday (albeit a little high) as Ryan Zimmerman, with his bottom of the 9th home run to win the Nationals' opening game in their new park, took over the title of Washington's most respected person. Here's the rest of what Washington is watching today:

-- Like the swallows to Capistrano, Congress finally returns to session this morning after a two-week recess. The Senate will conduct morning business most of the day, while the House considers a number of land transfers, park expansions and species-conservation efforts and the creation of the National Integrated Coastal and Ocean Observation System. President Bush is headed to the Ukraine this morning for a meeting of NATO allies. Later today, Vice President Cheney holds a fundraiser for State Senator Brett Guthrie, who is running to replace retiring Rep. Ron Lewis in Kentucky's Second District.

-- Treasury Secretary Henry Paulsen will announce what experts call the most sweeping overhaul of regulation on the American banking and trading industry since Franklin Roosevelt came to power after the Great Depression. New federal regulators with power over every facet of Wall Street will begin to check some investment entities that operate largely above regulation now, and the Federal Reserve will have new powers to help institutions limit risk, a notion that has some conservatives up in arms. In fact, the New York Times writes, the new plan comes a year after Paulsen began looking for new ways to unburden Wall Street of regulations. The financial crisis isn't going away, putting more pressure on the presidential candidates to come up with a solution.

-- On the White House trail, following Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey's somewhat surprising announcement that he would back Barack Obama after remaining neutral for so long, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, like Casey a freshman elected in 2006, will back Obama today, the Wall Street Journal's Jackie Calmes writes, while all seven of the North Carolina Democratic delegation are likely to throw their support behind Obama before the May 6 primary. Rep. David Price, speaking on Politics Nation radio this weekend, hinted that he was at least leaning in that direction -- his largely urban district also includes the state's "research triangle," which is home to several Obama-loving colleges. Obama's inching up on Hillary Clinton in terms of super delegates, trailing by only a few dozen. Those super delegates are her only chance of winning the nomination. Could Clinton's exit be closer than we think?

-- Not if the candidate's statements are to be believed. "I have no intention of stopping until we finish what we started and until we see what happens in the next 10 contests and until we resolve Florida and Michigan. And if we don't resolve it, we'll resolve it at the convention -- that's what credentials committees are for," Clinton told the Washington Post in a story that led Sunday's paper. As polls show the race widening in favor of Obama, and as super delegates keep heading in the Illinois Senator's direction, Clinton said she did not envision a scenario in which she does not take the contest to the convention. Obama's response: "My attitude is that Senator Clinton can run as long as she wants," he said Saturday during a stop in Pennsylvania.

-- The central argument between Clinton and Obama: Whether Clinton's victories in Ohio, California, Nevada and other states, along with her big lead in Pennsylvania, translate into her ability to actually carry those swing states in November, or whether Obama's victories in more marginal swing states mean he can expand the map, as the Washington Times' Christina Bellantoni writes. Clinton's campaign is warning super delegates that Obama will not be able to win the states necessary to capture enough electoral votes, while Obama's campaign is promising an expanded Democratic map that includes states Clinton has already written off, like North Carolina, Virginia and Missouri.

-- While Democrats continue to squabble, John McCain will begin a nationwide biography tour this morning, spending a week on the trail in places like Mississippi, Annapolis and Alexandria, Virginia, where he went to high school. But as the war in Iraq gets more violent, how far can McCain's focus on his record as a war hero actually go? He's so closely associated with the military, some say, that his own biography could make voters question his willingness to use force. "The question is whether he can convince people that he will not only keep us safe but also be cautious in using military power," former presidential adviser David Gergen told Bloomberg's Edwin Chen.

-- But, contrary to conventional wisdom, with an unpopular war and economic woes sustained under a fellow Republican, McCain is still polling even with Clinton and Obama, the Associated Press notices. McCain polls better against Clinton than against Obama in the latest RCP National Averages, but Clinton, perhaps validating her argument, does better against the Republican in RCP Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida averages.

-- But how is McCain staying on top? It's one or a combination of three reasons: The most obvious is squabbling withing the Democratic Party; when given a choice between the Democrat they do not support in the primary and McCain, some voters are saying it's their way or the highway. That's bad for McCain: Eventually, those Democratic wounds will heal. Reason 2: The idea of McCain as straight-talker who, despite his party affiliation, is still anathema to President Bush, is still sewed into the minds of voters. That's great for McCain: It will take a lot more money to dislodge an 8-year-old opinion this year than a new one. Reason 3: In a time of war and uncertainty, the veteran with more experience is the candidate voters want. That's a mixed bag: It means McCain depends on the war in Iraq staying bad enough to be in the headlines ahead of the economy (which he won't do) and basing his whole campaign on experience (an issue on which he has a clear advantage but which Clinton couldn't convert to a win in the primary).

-- Administration Woe Of The Day: As President Bush heads to the Ukraine, he's going to need to begin contemplating a new nominee for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Embroiled in a controversy over whether he steered contracts to friends, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson will resign today, the Wall Street Journal reports. The move came just a week after two prominent Democratic Senators with leverage over the beleaguered department called on Jackson to resign, given the allegations of wrongdoing and his poor relationship with the new majority party.

-- Today On The Trail: McCain launches his biography tour in Meridian, Mississippi with a speech at Mississippi State University. Obama's Pennsylvania bus tour is continuing, and lands today in Lancaster for a town hall meeting and Allentown for a rally. Clinton has a roundtable set up in Harrisburg before rallying in Fairless Hills, while husband Bill Clinton holds events across Oregon today.

This Week On PN Radio

This Saturday morning, from 10 a.m. to 12 noon Eastern, join Politics Nation on XM Radio's POTUS '08, when we'll tackle the week in politics. Listen free here (link about half-way down the page):

-- We take a comprehensive look at where the votes are going to come from in all three coming Democratic primary states, with an expert who knows each: From Pennsylvania, Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire; from Indiana, polling expert Fred Yang, of the Democratic firm Garin-Hart-Yang; and from North Carolina, Democratic Rep. and DNC member extraordinare David Price.

-- The NRCC faces problems, as everyone knows, but do GOP troubles this year signal a larger shift in the American political landscape? Rolling Stone associate editor Ben Wallace-Wells joins Politics Nation to chat about his mammoth must-read in this week's New York Times Magazine.

-- There's an open Senate seat and three open House seats. It hasn't given a presidential candidate more than a one-point win in twelve years. And John McCain chose the state to debut his first ad of the presidential cycle. David Drucker, of Roll Call, joins Politics Nation to take us through New Mexico, the Land of Political Enchantment.

All that and more, tomorrow morning on Politics Nation, only on XM Radio's POTUS '08. Listen live, Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon Eastern and again at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Big Shots Line Up In OH

Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a Republican, got thumped in his bid for governor in 2006. Well-financed, well-known and widely respected among Ohio and national evangelical leaders, Blackwell nonetheless garnered a paltry 37% in his bid to replace outgoing Republican Governor Bob Taft. Democrat Ted Strickland, until then a member of Congress whose district stretched along the state's eastern border, won with a massive 61%, virtually unheard of in an open seat contest.

Strickland, who recently helped deliver his state's primary contest to Hillary Clinton, is widely popular and has been widely touted as a vice presidential contender, if not someone with a future of his own at the head of a ticket. But his stature hasn't stopped any of three major Republicans from openly and actively considering a run against him more than two and a half years before he will again face voters.

Few states reacted as strongly against Republicans in 2006 than Ohio, and one of the casualties was then-Senator Mike DeWine. The state's former Lieutenant Governor before his election to Congress' upper chamber, DeWine did little to be fired by Ohio voters other than to have the Republican label after his name. He lost by a wide 12-point margin to now-Senator Sherrod Brown in a race that cost the two a combined $25 million.

DeWine is now considering a comeback against Strickland, though he will have to get through a competitive primary if he decides to make a run. Former House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich, now a Fox News pundit who briefly considered a presidential bid in 2000 before endorsing George W. Bush, told the Columbus Dispatch he is actively laying the groundwork for his own bid. Both potential candidates will make their decision after this year's election.

The two may be joined by a third strong contender, former Rep. Rob Portman, who left the House to serve as United States Trade Representative and then as the chief of the Office of Management and Budget. Portman, who currently seems to be one of conservative columnist Bob Novak's favorite candidates for Vice President, is reportedly also considering a bid (Updated on Saturday: Novak's done it again).

Should the three top Republicans find themselves competing through 2009 and 2010, the contest will largely break down along geographic lines. Portman represented the Second District in Congress, which runs south along the Kentucky border and near the heavily Republican Cincinnati suburbs. Kasich represented the Twelfth District, which sits just north of Columbus, the state's largest city. DeWine's Congressional district, before being elected statewide, was halfway between the two cities. With three strong bases, all three candidates would have to work hard to win over votes from northern Ohio.

It is rare that three such prominent Republicans would line up against each other, but next cycle that very well may happen. Still, the winner of what would surely be a bloody and bruising primary will have no cakewalk come November 2010. Strickland, assuming he's not vice president, will be well-funded and has made few mistakes during his time in office.

GOP Sounds Supermaj Alarm

The concept of a Democratic super majority, in which the party achieves 60 seats in the Senate after the 2008 election, has increasingly cropped up in recent weeks, thanks to a New York Times story that first raised the prospect. Today, American Spectator associate editor James Antle tackles the same subject, wondering whether the party can actually run the table and reach a majority large enough to effectively shut Republicans out of the process.

But is such a large gap actually achievable? Probably not, as veteran analyst Stu Rothenberg wrote soon after the Times story appeared.

For Democrats to reach such a milestone, they would essentially have to run the table. The party is likely to pick up seats in Virginia, New Hampshire and New Mexico, and Republican-held seats in Minnesota, Alaska and Colorado remain strong opportunities for them. Assuming they pick up all five -- not a safe bet in the latter three, to be sure, especially if Alaska's Ted Stevens decides against another bid or loses his primary -- they will still fall three seats short of the magic number.

The party has made little secret of the fact that Senators Susan Collins, of Maine, and Gordon Smith, of Oregon, are top targets. That leaves Democrats one short of a super majority, and as they cast about for new targets, the terrain becomes decidedly more difficult.

To reach 60, Democrats will need to pick up one of the following states: North Carolina, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Kentucky.

In North Carolina, first-term Senator Elizabeth Dole has faced a tough six years. But the state is likely to go Republican in the presidential contest, and Dole's likely challenger, State Senator Kay Hagan, is little-known around the Tar Heel State. Dole had $2.6 million in the bank at the end of the year, and though Hagan raised an impressive $515,000, running as a Democrat against such a well-known incumbent in a Republican state will be exceedingly difficult.

Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe has never topped 57% in a state that votes even more heavily Republican than North Carolina, but he's faced some tough opponents: In 1994, he beat an incumbent Congressman for a partial term after Democrat David Boren stepped down. In 1996, he won a full term against Boren's cousin James, who, though underfunded, carried a well-known name. In 2002, he beat former Governor David Walters. This year, Inhofe will likely face State Senator Andrew Rice, a candidate without the footprint of any of Inhofe's three previous challengers.

Roger Wicker, appointed senator after the departure of Trent Lott, will likely face his toughest election this year, against former Governor Ronnie Musgrove. But Musgrove lost his 2003 bid for re-election to now-Governor Haley Barbour, and recent legal proceedings that might involve a previous run for office don't look good for the Democrat. Wicker will also benefit from two sets of coattails: Those of John McCain, who will be strong in the state, and of senior Senator Thad Cochran, who is running for re-election this year. Musgrove's bid remains a long shot.

Finally, a good way to beat an incumbent is to catch them off guard, as happened to several incumbents in 2006. But if any candidate is not going to be caught off guard, it will be Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Though and other interest groups will target McConnell as national Republicans targeted then-Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota, McConnell has a $9 million bank account and is aware of the threat he faces. His likely Democratic opponent, two-time gubernatorial candidate Bruce Lunsford, will be well-funded too, but McConnell's name is likely too big to overcome.

In short, Democrats will be lucky to get to 57 or 58 seats in the Senate. Every year, close Senate races tend to break all in the same direction, as Antle points out -- Republicans won all the close races in 2002, except South Dakota, and Democrats did the same in 2006, with the exception of Tennessee. This year, though, it is hard to see how any of the four third-tier races will be close to begin with.

For Democrats, the idea of a super majority after 2008 is like buying a lottery ticket: The investment pays off in pleasant dreams, if not in reality.

Dems Gang Up On Iraq

More than forty Democratic candidates released a joint plan yesterday promising to work for legislation calling for an immediate draw down of troops in Iraq, the Washington Post's Paul Kane reports. While the group stopped short of setting an exact date for withdrawal, their plan calls for the U.S. to leave only a security detail to protect the U.S. embassy.

The focus on Iraq runs counter to most Democrats' assertions that the economy will be the number-one issue voters are thinking of. The challengers' plan goes farther than most other top Democrats, Kane writes, who prefer to leave troops in the country to train new Iraqi forces.

Led by Washington State Democrat Darcy Burner, who lost a close battle with Republican Rep. Dave Reichert in 2006, the coalition of challengers is made up of hot prospects and longshots alike. Maryland Democrat Donna Edwards, who beat incumbent Democrat Al Wynn in February, is almost guaranteed to serve in Congress. Chellie Pingree, running to replace Rep. Tom Allen in Maine, leads her primary field by a wide margin in a safely Democratic seat as well.

Other candidates are, like Burner, top recruits in Republican-held districts. Eric Massa, the New York Democrat, came up just short against Republican Rep. Randy Kuhl, and Jill Derby, chair of the Nevada Democratic Party, ran a stronger than expected campaign against freshman Republican Dean Heller in the state's northern Second District.

But the group has more than its share of candidates national Democrats are rather less excited about. Former Iowa state legislator Ed Fallon, who finished third in the state's gubernatorial primary last year but ran a stronger than expected campaign from the left, is running in a primary against long-time Democratic incumbent Leonard Boswell. The Des Moines-based district is more moderate than Boswell's big winning percentages indicate, giving Republicans a shot if the seat suddenly features no incumbent. And former Rep. Leslie Byrne, running to replace retiring Republican Tom Davis in Northern Virginia, is many national strategists' second choice, behind Fairfax County Council chair Gerry Connolly.

Four Senate candidates joined the 38 House challengers endorsing the plan. In Oregon, where the Democratic primary to take on Republican incumbent Gordon Smith has moved decidedly left, both State House Speaker Jeff Merkley and attorney Steve Novick have signed on, as have longer-shot candidates in Kentucky and Tennessee.

Burner, who has long made Iraq the centerpiece of her campaign platform, also secured backing for the plan from Major General Paul Eaton, a retired officer who served in prominent positions in Iraq, and Lawrence Korb, who served as Assistant Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan.

The group launched the proposal, which they hope capitalizes on continuing voter discontent with the five-year old war, as violence again erupted throughout Iraq. Security forces have issued a three-day curfew in Baghdad to gain control of the situation, while fighting in the southern city of Basra, once the domain of British forces before they withdrew, rages between Shiite militias and government forces, CNN reported today. Increased fighting in the country's capitol city, especially in Sadr City, is bringing U.S. troops into harm's way more often, the Washington Post also reports.

A recent analysis from the Pew Research Center shows public opinion is decidedly mixed over Iraq. While a strong majority says the decision to go into the country was the wrong idea, though the same percentage say the war is going either well or poorly, at 48% each. 49% say the U.S. should bring troops home as soon as possible, while 47% say troops should stay in the country until Iraq is stabilized.

Still, Americans largely trust Democrats more than Republicans to handle Iraq. The Pew survey showed 47% choosing the Democratic Party, while 37% said Republicans would better handle the situation. Of twelve issues surveyed, Republicans led only on handling of terrorist threats. If Democrats, and particularly the 42 challengers backing the plan for getting out of the country, can stick to a message about Iraq while avoiding GOP talk of terrorism, they could be successful in November.

But maybe national party leaders, who have focused more on the economy of late, have a point: The party's 10-point advantage on Iraq is not nearly as strong as its 53%-34% edge on issues surrounding the economy.

Wynn Quitting In June

Having lost their primaries for re-nomination last month, Maryland Reps. Al Wynn, a Democrat, and Wayne Gilchrest, a Republican, are handling their defeats in very different ways. Gilchrest has virtually refused to endorse the man who defeated him, State Senator Andy Harris, and is openly flirting with backing the Democratic challenger. Wynn, meanwhile, is resigning from Congress to help out community activist Donna Edwards, who beat him in mid-February.

Wynn will leave Congress in June to join Dickstein Shapiro LLP, a top Washington law firm and lobbying shop, he announced yesterday, per the Baltimore Sun. A law school classmate of the firm's chairman, Wynn will join five other former members of Congress already on staff.

Wynn also said by leaving early and hoping for Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley to set a special election, he will help Edwards gain seniority over other incoming freshmen, a valuable resource that Wynn, who understands the importance of longevity in Congress, knows all about.

O'Malley has ten days to decide whether to call the special election or leave the seat vacant until November. A special election would cost Montgomery and Prince George's Counties somewhere around $2 million, according to the Sun. One option the state could opt for is to hold the election concurrently with November's general election, giving Edwards a two-month head start on her freshman Democratic peers.

The most junior Democrat in the House is Bill Foster, who won a special election in Illinois to replace retired Speaker Dennis Hastert. Other special elections set for later this year will yield still more junior members from Louisiana, Mississippi and California, but getting Edwards elected in November will allow her to leap ahead of freshmen who will win election in 32 open seats around the country and any candidates who knock off incumbents.

Morning Thoughts: The General Begins

Good Friday morning. Tampa was a good city for underdogs in the tournament's first round. Tonight, 12-seed Villanova and 10-seed Davidson face a one-seed and a three-seed respectively, in a new arena. Will Detroit be as good to the 'dogs as Tampa? Meanwhile, here's what Washington is watching before tipoff tonight:

-- House and Senate staffers get their last day of Spring break today as the bosses get set to head back to D.C. next week. Over at the White House, look for some awkward pictures when new Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd visits. Rudd, who beat the more conservative John Howard last year, succeeded in knocking off one of President Bush's best allies with an electoral romp that made the 2006 U.S. elections look like a closely-fought contest. Rudd is also meeting with Defense Secretary Gates, Treasury Secretary Paulson and Secretary of State Rice. Later, Bush visits a business in Freehold, New Jersey.

-- As Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama battle each other for the Democratic nomination, the general election has officially begun: John McCain is up with his first television ad, which calls him "the American president Americans have been waiting for." Naturally heavy on the patriotism, the ad will run in New Mexico, according to a release from the campaign. That's a state that voted for President Bush by 6,000 votes in 2004 and for Al Gore by just 365 votes in 2000. Despite a strong chance Democrats will have a very good year there, McCain, as a neighboring state's senator, will put the state back on the battleground list.

-- McCain will give reporters and voters a taste of what the general election looks like when he launches a massive biography tour beginning next week, as USA Today reports. McCain will make stops at his Alexandria, Virginia high school, followed by his alma mater, the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and military bases in Florida and Mississippi before returning home to Arizona. Democrats, who are turning their fire on each other, are preparing to allow McCain at least a month to define himself, underfunded though he may be. That's an opportunity that Bush denied to his foes, and had the Democratic nominee done the same to McCain, he wouldn't have a fighting chance. Now, with prominent Democrats warning of an "implosion" and a "disaster," McCain's chances are creeping back up to pretty good.

-- "Reagan Democrats" changed a generation. "McCain Democrats" have the potential to do the same, and thanks to several new polls out this week, the phrase has begun to burrow its way into the public consciousness. While polls have showed more Clinton supporters willing to vote for McCain than Obama supporters, if their candidate doesn't get the nomination, Clinton warned Democrats against that course of action at a speech in Fayetteville, North Carolina yesterday, CNN's Peter Hamby writes. Obama struck the same chord in an interview that aired yesterday on ABC's "World News," as AP's Beth Fouhy writes.

-- Either Clinton or Obama is going to have to deal with a fractured party and bring it back together. That fracturing is not unusual: Just over a month ago, the buzz centered on how well John McCain could rally conservatives behind his candidacy when he had so outraged them for so long. Now McCain appears to have brought together a party that at one point was torn asunder by as many as five candidates who had legitimate chances of winning the nomination (and campaigning with Mitt Romney in Utah, no less). Healing can take place, and by the end of the campaign it is likely both parties will present largely united fronts. But for now, squabbling Democrats have clearly opened the door for McCain to peel off a few of their constituents.

-- There are reasons for high rates of defection to McCain if the opposing Democrat wins the nomination, the Post's Jon Cohen writes. Clinton's unfavorable ratings are rising among African Americans and women voters, while Obama's is rising among Clinton supporters. But of important note, while Clinton and Obama supporters threaten to vote for McCain if they don't get their way, head-to-head matchups still show Democrats of all stripes choosing the Democratic candidate over McCain. Cross-party defection used to be far more common, Cohen writes: When Richard Nixon won in 1972, he won 38% of self-identified Democratic voters. Ronald Reagan won 28% and 25% in 1980 and 1984. The numbers continued to decline, and George W. Bush won just 12% and 11% of Democratic voters in 2000 and 2004.

-- Back to the Democratic race for a moment. Despite wins in Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island on March 4, rumors of incredible discord within the Clinton campaign led manager Maggie Williams to make plans to ask the entire campaign staff to turn in their resignations and reapply for their jobs, Hotline's Nora McAlvanah writes. That could have meant the end to a long-running feud between chief strategist Mark Penn and just about everyone else on staff. Shaking up a campaign team when the candidate is close to three-quarters of the way to the nomination is a bold move, though it was Clinton herself who eventually nixed the idea.

-- And what's Barack Obama gotten himself into? He appears on "The View" today, a guest spot he filmed yesterday in New York, and he's still talking about controversial comments made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Agreeing the remarks were offensive, Obama defended Wright as a "brilliant man who was still stuck in a time warp," ABC News reports. Obama says Wright, with whom he's spoken in recent days, is "saddened" by the controversy. "View" host Elisabeth Hasslebeck said the matter might give voters pause about the candidate's judgment, previewing attacks that are almost certain to come from the right.

-- Grand Opening Of The Day: When the Atlanta Braves head to Washington on Sunday to officially inaugurate the new Nationals Park near the Navy Yard, a famous face will throw out the first pitch. President Bush, who managed a halfway decent opening toss in St. Louis in 2004, will launch the ceremonial chuck Sunday night to kick off another season of mediocrity for the Nationals. Is it in any way ironic that opening day will be the third game played in the new park? The George Washington University ball club faced a conference rival there last week, and the Nats play the Orioles in an exhibition game on Saturday.

-- Today On The Trail: Clinton heads to Indiana for town hall meetings in Mishawaka and Hammong. Later, show hosts an event in Fort Wayne before rallying with supporters in Muncie. Obama has an event slated for Pittsburgh before heading to Greensburg for a town hall meeting, the first leg of a long trip through Pennsylvania. McCain, meanwhile, holds a media availability in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Obama Upgrades Plane

Barack Obama is done with his Boeing 737 aircraft and will upgrade to a larger 757 model, The Swamp's John McCormick writes today. On the bigger plane, Obama will ferry his ever-increasing press corps between campaign events, though Obama said the upgrade was also made necessary because the smaller plane was being used for the NCAA tournament.

Politics Nation rode Air Huckabee out of Iowa this year aboard
a Boeing 737. Huckabee, campaign manager Chip Saltsman
and wife Janet Huckabee meet the press.
Obama will use an aircraft from North America Airlines, a company that once ran flights from Baltimore and New York to Accra, Ghana and Lagos, Nigeria. Due to rising fuel prices, the company will discontinue commercial flights in May, according to a statement on their website in order to focus on the charter market.

The question of presidential candidates' choice of campaign plans is one that will move approximately zero votes, and really matters only to an irritable press corps that wants to get from one place to another while avoiding death, if at all possible. That may not always be an option, though, as reporters with Mike Huckabee's campaign found out when their plane required an emergency landing at a New Jersey airport, with CNN's Shawna Shepard and NBC/NJ's Matt Berger aboard.

When Mitt Romney and John McCain used JetBlue charters earlier this year, one couldn't help but notice the choice in aircraft: JetBlue flies A320s, a model manufactured by the European aerospace giant Airbus. Both candidates had excuses, though. McCain and Boeing have a long and testy relationship thanks to hearings the senator held on suspicious Defense Department contracts the company was involved with. And Romney, based in Boston, took advantage of one of JetBlue's main hubs in his own backyard.

McCain Trumps NFL

Last year, as both parties scrambled to schedule their conventions at the best possible time, Republicans chose a week that will end Thursday, September 4. One problem overlooked in scheduling meetings: The first Thursday in September has also marked the kickoff of football season. Given the 8:30 p.m. start time of the game, John McCain's acceptance speech in St. Paul would have had to compete with an expected matchup between the Super Bowl champion New York Giants and the Washington Redskins.

To avoid a conflict, NBC and the NFL have agreed in principle to kick off the season at 7:00 p.m. in order to make sure the game is over by the time McCain speaks, the Hollywood Reporter writes today. The schedule has not been set yet, with an official announcement slated for the league's owners' meetings, which begin Monday. Networks, too, have not decided how much of the conventions they will cover, but an hour of prime time coverage has been the norm in recent cycles.

Moving a game for a convention is not unprecedented, the Reporter writes. In 2000, ABC asked the NFL to move the start time of an exhibition game in order to accommodate the Democratic National Convention. This year, it was not the Republican National Committee that brought up the potential conflict, but the NFL itself, according to a spokesman. Good to know the league keeps its civic duty in mind when considering their schedule.

Guinta Passes On NH Race

Dealing Granite State Republicans a serious blow, Manchester mayor Frank Guinta will not make a bid against New Hampshire Governor John Lynch, the Union Leader's John DiStaso reports. Guinta, who was encouraged to take on Lynch by Washington and New Hampshire Republicans, said instead he will focus on his second term as mayor.

Guinta's refusal to make the race leaves only State Senator Joe Kenney facing Lynch. The move also puts other Republicans in jeopardy, as Lynch, who remains hugely popular, is likely to again run up a big total against an underfunded, little-known opponent. In 2006, when Lynch defeated State Representative Jim Coburn by a nearly three-to-one margin, Republicans also lost both the state's congressional seats and control of both chambers of the state legislature.

This year, New Hampshire promises to again be a swing state in November, and with Lynch heading the ticket, Democrats will be in good position to keep the state in their column. Senator John Sununu would have liked a more competitive governor's race as well, as he faces the fight of his political life against Democratic former Governor Jeanne Shaheen, a race polls have shown her leading consistently.

Guinta, who is only 37 years old, will continue to run his Granite State Leadership PAC to help Republicans around the state and in anticipation of a likely future bid for the top job. "When the time is right you will probably see my name on the ballot for something else," Guinta told DiStaso. Guinta will have to watch his political present closely. When he won his first race as mayor, in 2005, he surprised Democratic incumbent Bob Baines who was said to have his own future in statewide politics.

Obama's Speech And The Base Election

A week after a ground-breaking speech that many viewed favorably, while others said he did not go far enough, new polls paint a decidedly mixed picture on Barack Obama's approach to race in America and, more specifically, his relationship with controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright. For his purposes, the polls show Obama's speech was effective in the short run, though like John McCain, he faces an ongoing conversation before voters choose to cast ballots for or against him in November that could, ironically, turn what was supposed to be an election fought over moderates into a typical contest for the base.

A month ago, Barack Obama was the golden candidate, untouched and untouchable by scandal, attack or implication from rival campaigns that he was too inexperienced to become president. In the past month, though, issues surrounding his relationship with developer Tony Rezko, his waffling on NAFTA and his ability to answer a crisis phone call at 3 a.m. began to rub the veneer off his once-perfect image. But lurking beneath that veneer was a darker question, an issue Obama would have to deal with before facing voters in November. It's a question that has never been tested at the ballot box: Is America ready for an African American president?

This country remains polarized by race. Obama's speech, and reaction afterward, acknowledged both African American and white angst about race relations here, and, given recent exit polling in states where the racial divide has become increasingly pronounced, the campaign has had to deal with the notion that a latent racism remains in at least some voters' minds. Obama's twenty-year relationship with Wright, now retired, was the outlet through which those dormant feelings were released.

As with Mitt Romney and religion, or John McCain and his relationship with conservatives, it became clear that Obama would have to, in some way, address his relationship with Wright not only in the context of the Reverend's comments, but under the larger umbrella of race relations as a whole.

With the release of several of Wright's sermons, Obama's numbers began to take a serious tumble. Daily Gallup tracking poll numbers showed Obama leading by as many as six points, a 50%-44% margin, on March 13. His lead was cut to three the next two days, and by March 16, rival Hillary Clinton had stolen a two-point lead. As the Wright controversy mounted, Clinton built herself a seven-point head start by March 18, leading 49%-42%, and seemingly giving credence to the notion that Obama, unvetted and untested on the national stage, was a risk Democrats could hardly take.

But since March 18, the day of Obama's speech in Philadelphia, his numbers in the daily tracking polls have only improved. Now, for the survey conducted from March 22 to 25, beginning the night after the address, Obama has retaken the lead, up 47%-46%. In the minds of Democratic voters, it seems, Obama has answered enough questions and reestablished himself enough to retake his position atop the Democratic race - not only in terms of pledged delegates, electoral victories and popular votes, but in terms of the confidence of the overall electorate. As Clinton argues that super delegates should make up their minds based on the best decision for the party as a whole, the answer to that question, thanks to the speech, once again looks like it becomes Obama.

A CBS News poll focused solely on Obama's address concurs, to a large extent. Voters said he addressed race relations in a positive manner by a three-to-one margin, while almost the same ratio said they agreed with his views on the subject. Importantly, independent voters agreed by a 65%-25% margin.

The poll, which surveyed voters interviewed last week about the Wright controversy, showed that, thanks to the controversy, the same number would be more likely to vote for him as would be less likely, at 14% each. Only 24% of independent voters - 11% more likely, 13% less likely - said the controversy would have an impact on their decision.

But the poll showed Rev. Wright's comments and Obama's subsequent speech opens a rabbit hole in which Obama could find danger. While two-thirds of those polled in the initial survey said they believed Obama would unite the country, that number dropped 15 points to 52% in the subsequent questioning. Obama's favorable rating also took a big hit, as 43% say they view him favorably while 30% view him unfavorably. Those unfavorable numbers are up seven points since the last CBS News poll, conducted in the final week in February.

Every poll taken about the speech shows it has gotten significant attention around the country. A survey from Georgia-based InsiderAdvantage shows 82% of respondents were aware of Wright's comments and 83% were aware of Obama's speech.

Unlike the CBS poll, though, the InsiderAdvantage survey showed more voters less likely to cast ballots for Obama after becoming aware of the controversy. Among those who had heard something about the speech and Wright's comments, 52% said they were less likely to vote for Obama, while just 19% said they were more likely to do so. "The general effect on voters was to make them, for that moment, less likely to vote for [Obama]," InsiderAdvantage's Matt Towery said.

But Towery cautioned that the numbers don't mean Obama is dead in the water, thanks largely to the amount of media surrounding the entire contest. "What used to take a month to get out of a news cycle now takes a matter of days," he said. "The fact that on a Wednesday or Thursday the public has a feeling they're less likely to vote for someone doesn't mean they'll think that over the weekend." The message Towery took from his poll, he said, is that the Wright controversy "is blowing over."

Issues of race, should Obama become the Democratic nominee, are not going to go away as the campaign progresses. To win the presidency, Obama has to reach out not only to the independents he seems to attract, but he must bring with him the traditional Democratic base as well. To attract some made nervous by Wright's comments, Obama will have to own the conversation about race.

As McCain prepares to face Obama in November, Americans will be faced with two candidates who appeal strongly to moderates and independents. Both, though, will head into the showdown with repair work to be done in their own parties, making the conversation they have with conservative voters, for McCain, and white, blue-collar voters, for Obama, as important as any conversation geared toward each other and the middle. Obama's speech, like McCain's at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, was the start of that conversation. Neither one will end soon.

Morning Thoughts: Fouling Out?

Good Thursday morning. With the NCAA tournament back in action tonight, keep an eye on West Virginia, the long shot with the best chance of making it to the Final Four. Of course, Xavier's going to have something to say about that prospect. Here's what Washington is watching this morning:

-- The Senate meets in pro forma session to prevent President Bush from making recess appointments, while the House remains out on Spring break. Meanwhile, Capitol Police take time this evening to hold a ceremony honoring officers who are getting promoted and who merit awards. President Bush makes remarks on the war on terror at the Air Force museum in Dayton before attending Republican fundraisers in nearby Bellbrook and in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh suburb.

-- In a highly unusual move, twenty major Democratic Party donors sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday urging her to get away from earlier remarks that super delegates shouldn't overturn the result of pledged delegates, which she made on ABC's "This Week," TPM's Greg Sargent and the Post's Dan Balz report. The donors, all supporters of Hillary Clinton, said they were all major donors to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a not-so-veiled threat to Pelosi's campaign committee. Signatories included BET founder Bob Johnson, Bernie Schwartz, Steve Rattner and others.

-- Obama spokesman Bill Burton shot back, calling the letter "inappropriate" and urging Clinton's team to "reject the insinuation contained in it." Meanwhile, as Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen's idea for a super delegate primary gets play on cable news networks that do nothing but talk politics, Burton's candidate says he's intrigued. "I think giving whoever the nominee is two or three months to pivot into the general election would be extremely helpful, instead of having this drag up to the convention," Obama said aboard his campaign plane, the Times' Patrick Healy writes. Clinton, who had voiced interest in such a plan, may think twice about supporting it if Obama's so gung-ho about it. A super delegate primary is not something Obama will wade into with his eyes closed.

-- Obama and Bredesen want the game over. But the goal the letter writers sought and the goals of the Clinton campaign are one and the same: As conventional wisdom coalesces around the fact that Clinton faces, at best, a long-shot hard slog to the nomination, her team is doing all it can just to keep the game running. At times, that means fouling the opponent, or just arguing with the referee. Pelosi and fellow referees Harry Reid and Howard Dean can be the ones who decide when to call the game, and that time could be rapidly approaching. "Things are being done," Reid cryptically told Las Vegas Review-Journal's Molly Ball after speaking with Dean earlier this week.

-- Fouling her opponent is also costing Clinton, a new WSJ/NBC poll shows. Her approval rating has sunk to a new low, down to just 37% of voters who see her in a positive light, while 51% view her negatively, NBC's Chuck Todd and WSJ's Jackie Calmes write. The week after controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright erupted, Obama maintains a significant 49% to 32% positive rating, down just a hair from two weeks ago, and John McCain is viewed positively by a 45%-25% margin. Bottom line: The fall out from Obama's speech on race and Wright barely touched him, while Clinton's best efforts to win are seriously hurting her. How many more hand checks before Clinton fouls out?

-- More bad news for the Clinton team: A federal judge threw out Michigan's presidential primary law yesterday, two months after the January 15 contest was conducted. As a result, Michigan Democratic Party chairman Mark Brewer said, any hopes of holding a new contest are finally, firmly dead, the Detroit News' Gordon Trowbridge writes. The ruling prevented the state from handing over voter lists to the party, which would prevent the party from making sure voters had not already cast ballots in the Republican primary, a violation of DNC rules.

-- On to the general election, and another surprising fact from the WSJ/NBC poll: More people have opinions about Obama than they do about McCain. After being the media's favorite Republican for the past eight years, McCain maintains a strong approval rating, but given that he's raising such a small amount of money compared with the two Democrats (who, combined, outraised him about eight to one in February), the eventual winner will have the ability to out-define him, as President Bush did to John Kerry four years ago. McCain's continuing biography tour helps that, as does the fact that Democrats are currently missing their opportunities to go after him, but if his opponents get their act in gear, McCain is going to need some help to define himself to the remaining 30% of voters who don't have an opinion.

-- Consider the probability, though, of a McCain-Obama matchup, and the race starts out a lot more even than one might think. Obama's argument that he can bring the country together has proven a powerful one in the primary, and 60% of voters say he can do just that. But 58% say McCain can, as well. Previous polls have showed more voters trust McCain to do a good job on Iraq, but, while some respondents probably aren't telling the truth, more voters say the country is ready to elect an African American president than a president over 70 years old. 72% say the country is ready for a black president, while only 61% say they're ready for an older president.

-- Fine Line Of The Day: Clinton isn't only in trouble with regular voters, she's also close to irritating super delegates, which might make Bredesen's concept even more dangerous for Team Clinton. NBC/NJ's Matt Berger says a final straw came for many when Clinton said Wright would not have been her pastor. Meanwhile, in Washington State, where Obama won both the party caucus and primary, Clinton-backing super delegates Senator Maria Cantwell and King County Executive Ron Sims, someone who has experience as a pastor in a predominantly African American church, are wavering, The Stranger reports. Is the dam about to break?

-- Today On The Trail: Obama delivers an address on the economy at Cooper Union in New York. Clinton has a speech on the economy as well, set for Raleigh, North Carolina. Later, she holds town hall meetings in Fayetteville and Winston-Salem, while Bill Clinton stumps in Pennsylvania. McCain's only public event of the day is a media availability in Denver.

NM's Wide Open Field

Perhaps no state this year will offer a more wide-open field for both parties than New Mexico, a state that has long been a battleground in presidential politics. But thanks to a key retirement this year, four of the state's five seats in Congress are up for grabs, and Democrats and Republicans are focusing on the state early to gain the upper hand.

When Senator Pete Domenici, who has served in the upper chamber since 1972, announced he would forgo a bid for a seventh term this year, the ensuing scramble has thrown all three of the state's members of Congress into a mad dash for a rare opportunity to move to the upper chamber.

While Democrats feel all but certain they will retake the seat, the state truly favors neither party. Domenici and his junior colleague, five-term Democrat Jeff Bingaman ("junior" being an extremely relative term), have not faced serious competition in a generation, but presidential contests have been decided by razor-thin margins. Al Gore won the state by 365 votes in 2000, out of more than 550,000 cast, and President Bush took the state by 6,000 votes in 2004.

Republicans face the difficult task of wading through what is likely to be an expensive and bloody primary, as Roll Call's David Drucker writes. As Republican Reps. Heather Wilson, of the Albuquerque-based First District, and Steve Pearce, whose Third District covers the southern portion of the state, fight it out, Democratic Rep. Tom Udall will not face a competitive primary and will likely meet a wounded Republican in the fall.

Udall is already in good position. A November poll conducted for his campaign shows him leading both Wilson and Pearce by wide margins. And while the two Republicans will be forced to spend heavily from their bank accounts to win the June 3 primary, Udall can stockpile cash and build on the lead he already has. Through December, Udall held $1.7 million in the bank, compared with just under $1.1 million for Wilson and $819,000 for Pearce.

The Senate race is hardly the GOP's only worry, though. None of the state's three open seats are out of reach for Democrats, and with the aid of big national dollars, the party could conceivably take all three Congressional seats along with Domenici's slot in the Senate. Udall's seat and Pearce's seat favor their respective parties by about equal margins, though Democrats have found more success recruiting in Pearce's district than Republicans have in Udall's.

It is New Mexico's First District where the biggest battle will be fought. Based in the state's largest city, Wilson never had an easy bid for re-election after winning her initial contest, a special election, with just 45% of the vote. Democratic presidential nominees have won the seat narrowly in both 2000 and 2004, making recruiting the right candidate key to taking over.

Three strong Democrats are fighting for the nomination, including Albuquerque City Councilman Martin Heinrich, former Cabinet officer Michelle Lujan Grisham and former Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron. Republicans, meanwhile, think Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White, the likely GOP nominee, is one of their strongest recruits in the country. Sheriffs willing to run good campaigns have a tendency to win even in districts that don't necessarily favor their parties, as Washington State Republican Dave Reichert and Indiana Democrat Brad Ellsworth have shown.

In Pearce's Second District, a number of Republicans are seeking the nomination, including Earl Greer, the chair of the Sierra County Republican Party, Monty Newman, the Mayor of Hobbs, Aubrey Dunn, a retired banker and rancher, and wealthy restauranteur Ed Tinsley. The winner will likely face either Dona Ana County Commissioner Bill McCamley or former Lea County Commissioner Harry Teague. Democrats hold out hope that another wave election could improve their chances in what is ordinarily a GOP district.

The northern Third District looks like the only contest in which the incumbent party is highly likely to keep control. State Public Regulation Commission chairman Ben Lujan, Santa Fe County Commissioner Harry Montoya, real estate developer Don Wiviott and former Indian Affairs Secretary Bennie Shendo are the district's leading Democratic hopefuls. The district is majority-minority, in which 19% of the electorate is Native American and 36% has Hispanic heritage. Republicans will likely nominate attorney Marco Gonzales.

From Domenici's seat to Congressional races around the state, New Mexico will offer some of the best opportunities for Democrats this year. The state is also one of the few examples where Republicans have recruited well, thanks in large part to White, running to replace Wilson. If Republicans come out of 2008 maintaining control of at least one Congressional seat and Domenici's Senate seat, the party will likely have a better year than many expect. But if Democrats sweep, or take three of the four contests, November will be a bad month for Republicans around the country.

Coleman Announcing Bid

First-term Republican Senator Norm Coleman will make his bid for re-election official today with rallies at campaign offices in St. Paul, the city he once served as Mayor, the Associated Press reports this morning. Coleman, first elected Mayor as a Democrat before switching to the GOP and winning re-election, will face a stiff challenge from likely Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party nominee Al Franken, a comedian best known for his political satire on Saturday Night Live.

There are few Republicans Democrats would rather deprive of re-election than Coleman, who won his seat in 2002 after the death of Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone, just weeks before election day, in a plane crash. Wellstone's name was replaced on the ballot by former Vice President Walter Mondale, and Coleman prevailed by a 50%-47% margin. Now, the DSCC is training all its guns on the incumbent. "For six years, Norm Coleman has sided with special interests every time he should have been standing up for Minnesota, and voters aren't going to be fooled by his attempts at an election year makeover," DSCC spokesman Matt Miller told Politics Nation.

That wasn't the first time Coleman had faced a well-known opponent. In 1998, Coleman's rise to the top was halted by independent candidate Jesse Ventura, who beat the Republican and a lesser-known Democrat to win the governor's mansion. This time again, Coleman will face an opponent with high name identification, and he's prepared his attacks already, another Associated Press story reports.

In fact, with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee shining the spotlight his way, Coleman's goal this year will be to turn attention back to Franken's career of edgy, sometimes racy remarks. "If the partisan disease is what's tearing Washington apart, for years he was part of that," Coleman told the AP. "The talk radio culture, the Rush Limbaughs, the Ann Coulters, the Al Frankens. If that's the disease, I've tried to be the cure to that disease for a long time."

The NRSC is sounding the same theme. "Sen. Coleman provides Minnesota voters with a choice between a results-oriented statesman and an angry liberal comedian," communications director Rebecca Fisher said. "We are confident that there is no question in most voters' minds that Sen. Coleman will return to Washington in November."

National Democrats see Coleman as one of the most vulnerable incumbents of the cycle, and polls bear that analysis out. A January survey from the Humphrey Institute, conducted for Minnesota Public Radio, showed Franken leading Coleman by a narrow margin, while Coleman easily led other potential Democratic candidates. Franken, too, has outraised Coleman several quarters in a row, though the Democrat is spending money at a faster clip and remains significantly behind the incumbent in cash on hand.

Franken will benefit from the state's Democratic tilt, especially in a presidential election year and as the national Republican brand is suffering. No state has voted for more Democrats in a row than Minnesota, which last cast its electoral votes for a Republican in 1972. And last year, Democrats captured the state's First District, where Rep. Tim Walz surprised observers by knocking off Republican Gil Gutknecht. This year, national Democrats are excited about their chances in the state's Third District, where Republican Jim Ramstad is retiring.

The NRSC will likely spend heavily to protect Coleman, who with New Hampshire Senator John Sununu is seen as one of the party's most vulnerable incumbents. And Coleman will be aided by the Republican National Convention, which will be held in his city, and GOP hopes that it might actually pick up the state's electoral votes after President Bush lost the state by only two and three points in his two bids.

Franken still faces nominal opposition at the state party's convention in June, but the DFLer has already turned his fire on Coleman. With the incumbent and the challenger already attacking each other, and with both candidates having raised an astonishing $13.8 million combined through December, Minnesota's Senate contest will likely turn out to be one of the nastiest and most bitter of the entire cycle. Coleman, kicking off his re-election bid today, will waste no time wading hip-deep into the mud.

GOP Committee Slots Open

With the retirement of New York Republican Tom Reynolds, another slot will open on the powerful House Ways & Means Committee, a panel that will see an unusually high number of vacancies leading up to the 111th Congress, The Hill's Jackie Kucinich writes today. In all, six of the seventeen members currently sitting on the GOP side of the panel will not return next year.

Reynolds joins Reps. Jim McCrery, Jim Ramstad, Jerry Weller and Ron Lewis in retiring after this Congress. Missouri Rep. Kenny Hulshof is also leaving to run for governor. When McCrery, the ranking member on the committee, announced his resignation late last year, California Rep. Wally Herger and Michigan's Dave Camp launched individual campaigns for the panel's top GOP spot, and with so many other open seats, members are already jockeying for position.

The panel, which covers tax issues, trade, health care and public debt, has holes to fill on the GOP side. Reps. Tom Price, a physician from Georgia, Mike Conaway, a Texas Certified Public Accountant, and Kenny Marchant, a businessman also from Texas, are early campaigners, according to The Hill.

On the Democratic side, only Rep. Michael McNulty, of New York, is stepping aside, a situation similar to that on another powerful committee. In this space, we've noted the large number of vacancies on the House Appropriations Committee, where six Republicans and just one Democrat will retire after 2008.

VA's Coming Gov Battle

Three well-known, well-funded candidates are heading toward a battle of titanic proportions when Virginia's governor's mansion comes open in 2009, and the race could signal whether the Commonwealth has truly fallen into Democratic hands or if it remains in the toss-up category.

On the Democratic side, Delegate Brian Moran, brother of Rep. Jim Moran, will likely face off with State Senator Creigh Deeds in a contest that pits the heavily-Democratic Northern Virginia region against the rest of the state. Moran, who represents Alexandria, will have to run up a big margin in his backyard to overcome Deeds, who represents a district near the eastern side of the state and has run statewide before.

Both Moran and Deeds had some big accomplishments in the just-concluded legislative session, the Richmond Times-Dispatch writes. But the battle could be fierce: While Moran has raised an impressive amount of money, both for himself and for the Democratic caucus in Richmond, Deeds is probably better-known in the state. In 2005, Deeds lost a race for Attorney General by just 360 votes out of nearly 2 million cast. Deeds has officially declared his candidacy, while Moran is moving toward doing so.

The winner of the Democratic primary will face Bob McDonnell, the Republican who beat Deeds for Attorney General three years ago. McDonnell avoided what could have been a bloody primary of his own when Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling told the Associated Press on Monday that he will not run.

Virginia, once a commonwealth taken for granted by Republicans, has trended decidedly away from the GOP in recent years. In 1996, Mark Warner nearly defeated Republican incumbent John Warner for Senate. The wealthy Democratic businessman came back to win the governor's mansion in 2001, and Republicans have not elected a senator or governor since John Warner's 2002 re-election campaign. Thanks to the state's one-term limit on governors, incumbent Democrat Tim Kaine, who served as Mark Warner's Lieutenant Governor, cannot run again until 2013.

After victories by Kaine, in 2005, and Senator Jim Webb, in 2006, national Democrats think the state may even be in play during this year's presidential contests. President Bush won the state by nine points in 2004, though this year nearly twice as many Democrats turned out in the state's February 12 presidential primary as did Republicans. McDonnell will face a well-funded Democrat in next November's governor's race, which will probably be the most closely-watched contest in the country in 2009, as The Fix writes in an excellent backgrounder.

The two governor's mansions up in 2009, New Jersey and Virginia, have voted together in the last three cycles, and that's not good news for Republicans. New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, though not the most popular governor in the nation, will be heavily favored for re-election if he decides to seek a second term next year. But Virginia's choice will offer the biggest storyline of the year in 2009: A Moran or Deeds victory could signal that the GOP has yet to reach rock bottom, while a McDonnell win would offer Republicans hope that their darkest days are behind them.

GOP Loses 2 NY Recruits

Though retiring Republican incumbents hold two western New York seats near Syracuse and the Canadian border, the party is having a difficult time coming up with top-notch candidates to hold the seats. In the past day alone, two top recruits have told the Washington GOP establishment that they will not be seeking their party's nomination to replace Reps. Tom Reynolds and Jim Walsh, while Democrats have largely settled on their candidates.

Walsh's Twenty-Fifth District, based around Syracuse, looks like one of the best pickup opportunities Democrats have in the Northeast. Former Congressional aide Dan Maffei, a Democrat who came just 3,000 votes from beating Walsh in 2006, is running again and has raised an impressive amount of money. Yesterday, Maffei's chances got a little better as top Republican challenger Peter Cappuccilli said he would not make a bid due to health concerns.

Cappuccilli, the former director of the New York State Fair, was warned by doctors that his health could seriously deteriorate and that he might have had something like a mini-stroke, the Syracuse Post-Standard reported late last night. Cappuccilli is currently visiting family and undergoing tests at a hospital in Florida, and his campaign says it plans to return all donations. The decision came just two weeks after another Republican, Randy Wolken, dropped out to unite the party around Cappuccilli, as we wrote yesterday.

In Reynolds' Twenty-Sixth District, GOP State Senator George Maziarz told the Niagara Falls Reporter that he will not run for the seat. Widely described as a Reynolds acolyte, Maziarz was on stage with the incumbent when he announced his retirement, and Maziarz's strong fundraising ability and political base base -- most of his Senate district is within Reynolds' Congressional district -- made him the early front-runner. In fact, strategists told the Falls Reporter that Maziarz would have had a better chance winning the district than Reynolds would have had in keeping it.

The surprise decision shifts focus to Assemblyman Jim Hayes and Nick Sinatra, the White House assistant political director, as well as an army veteran who won a Silver Star in Iraq and a lawyer from Buffalo. It also opens the door for Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul, who would enter the race as the only Democrat to have won an election. Current candidates Jonathan Powers, an Iraq war veteran, and Jack Davis, the party's nominee in 2004 and 2006, have no electoral victories to their names. Hochul's entry into the race would give Democrats a seriously improved chance at winning the seat.

The withdrawals from two prominent Republicans are big blows to a party already rocked by an unforgiving landscape. With just six seats out of New York's 29-member delegation, for Republicans to be in serious danger of losing two more is nothing short of a disaster. National Democrats are high on recruits challenging Reps. Randy Kuhl, also from upstate, Long Island's Peter King and Staten Island's Vito Fossella, but the GOP incumbents remain strong.

Of the five seats, only Kuhl's and Walsh's voted twice for President Bush, while Fossella's and King's favored Al Gore in 2000 and Bush in 2004. If and when the downstate incumbents retire, Democrats will have a strong chance at picking up two more seats. Upstate Rep. John McHugh is the only Republican in the state who has yet to face a serious challenge.

Morning Thoughts: Whack A Knee

Good Wednesday morning, unless you're a fan of the Syracuse Orangemen. Jim Boeheim's team, which has been so good to Politics Nation over the years in NCAA tournaments, got bounced from the NIT last night by UMass, as the number-two seed upset the number-one to move on. There's always next year. Here's what Washington is watching this morning:

-- The House and Senate remain on Spring recess, though the House Foreign Affairs Committee today will meet in Boston to discuss prisoner treatment at Guantanamo Bay. President Bush attends military briefings at the Pentagon while Condoleezza Rice meets with South Korean Foreign Affairs Minister Yu Myung-hwan and Vice President Cheney continues his travel to the Middle East. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez drew the short straw and is spending his second day in Fairbanks, Alaska (High today: 17 degrees) where he will meet with university students.

-- Yesterday played out much like Monday did: Barack Obama hung out with his family and the two remaining candidates each got slammed by the media. The Democratic race feels like it's coming to an end faster than the Clinton camp wants it to, but they're not about to sit back and take it. Instead, Clinton spent yesterday telling the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright would not have been her pastor, nicely changing the headline on a day when she also had to backpedal from comments about a mid-90's visit to Bosnia, a misstatement she blamed on sleep deprivation, despite the fact that it was in her prepared remarks (when does the research department chief get canned?). Obama's spokesman hit back hard, and many have questioned Clinton's wisdom in taking up the issue herself, instead of handing it to surrogates.

-- In the interview, Clinton also called for revotes in Florida and Michigan ("I don't understand what (Obama) is afraid of, or why he has taken this hard-line stand against Michigan re-voting and Florida re-voting.") and said she might be open to the possibility of a super delegate primary ("The governor from Tennessee (Phil Bredesen) suggested that there be a convention of superdelegates, and I think that it is an intriguing idea. I have not considered it long enough to have an opinion on it."), though it's unclear how much that would actually benefit her. Any chance Clinton gets, she's going directly after Obama, and not in a nice way.

-- It's all part of a strategy one top Democratic official called the "Tonya Harding option," per ABC News' Jake Tapper, by which Clinton's only chance of winning the nomination is by making Barack Obama completely unacceptable in the eyes of party elders and super delegates who remain unpledged. Short of busting Obama's kneecaps, Clinton is a decided underdog to head up the party in November. As Tapper smartly points out, the end result was not handing the gold to Harding, but to eastern rival Oksana Baiul, presumably played here by John McCain (though we doubt his triple lutz abilities).

-- Where will the kneecapping take place? While we initially felt bad for Pennsylvania, which got about three minutes in the spotlight before the Obama campaign signaled it would be working harder on North Carolina and Indiana, the Keystone State seems to be making a comeback, as Ben Smith notes two big groups getting involved: SEIU, the powerful, politically knowledgeable union that backs Obama, will focus on member contacts instead of television ads, but their 75,000 members could make up nearly 5% of turnout come April 22, making them a key voting bloc. EMILY's List, stumping for Clinton, will contact 150,000 women, its officials told a Philadelphia newspaper.

-- Meanwhile, the state's importance and influence will increase more as Obama, tanned, rested and ready, hits the stump for a six-day bus tour, reminiscent of candidates traveling along Iowa highways in the Fall, from the west side of the state to the east side. Clinton, looking ahead to contests involving Hoosiers and Tar Heels, still has four weeks to go before she can claim a real win in Pennsylvania, plenty of time for Obama to catch up.

-- For Democrats worried about a wounded figure skater as their nominee (though we hear Obama prefers basketball) two arguments out today on why the elongated primary is actually a good thing: First, from the Washington Post's Dan Balz, points to hugely increased registration statistics, giving Democrats better voter lists heading into November in some of the swing states and districts that could provide the party with a bigger Congressional majority in 2009 (similar to a case we made yesterday relating to the Philadelphia suburbs).

-- The second reason Democrats shouldn't be depressed: If Obama is going to be a skilled nominee, he needs a few bad weeks, and he needs to learn how to get over them if he's going to be anywhere near as tough as he needs to be to beat John McCain. Without experience overcoming a bad round of stories, what's to stop Obama from being swift boated from here to eternity? A top adviser to Clinton told Marc Ambinder that the two rivals trading barbs is actually a good thing for Obama, and the adviser's side has no plans to let up: "So now Obama expects to win the nomination without toughening up and lasting all fifteen rounds?" the adviser asked. Ambinder is skeptical, but in a way, it does make sense.

-- Still in sunny California, meanwhile, McCain made his deepest remarks yet on the economy, NBC's Aiger-Treworgy writes, scolding proposals to bail out those McCain characterized as acting irresponsibly. Asked whether he would consider Clinton's plan to offer assistance to homeowners, McCain said he thought the idea was too expensive and wondered how it would be paid for. But all is not well for the Republican senator: His record on tobacco will soon come under fire, the Boston Globe writes, and McCain will have to vote on a bill he cosponsored with Ted Kennedy that would allow the FDA to regulate tobacco, a bill he has yet to say whether he will support or oppose. I cosponsored it before I voted against it?

-- Sign Of The Apocalypse Of The Day: (With apologies to Sports Illustrated) What do USA Today, the Boston Globe, the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution have in common? They're not sending reporters along to cover the campaign trail. In fact, only the networks, the wires, the Washington Post and New York Times (and usually the Wall Street Journal) are on board campaign planes and buses with the candidates. That's just what happens when newspapers are cutting down on costs and a day with a candidate can run a news organization upwards of $2,000 a day, as the New York Times writes today, along with a killer photo of Time's Halperin freezing his rear end off.

-- Today On The Trail: Clinton attends a rally at Constitution Hall here in Washington, a stone's throw from the White House, before beginning a big swing through North Carolina. Obama, back on the trail after vacation, will hold a town hall meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina. McCain offers a major foreign policy address to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council.

PA Primary Bad For GOP

As the deadline to register for the Pennsylvania primary passed yesterday, thousands of voters changed their status to the Democratic Party, inching the number of registered party members in the state north of four million for the first time in state history. Aside from presidential politics, the registration boom is part of a continuing shift in certain areas for reasons that will outlast both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

In 2006, Democrats contested three Republican-held seats in the Philadelphia suburbs, beating GOP Reps. Mike Fitzpatrick and Curt Weldon and narrowly missing out on the chance to knock off Rep. Jim Gerlach. Freshmen Democrats Patrick Murphy and Joe Sestak are favored to win re-election in their suburban districts, which for generations has voted Republican, though the GOP still holds out hope.

But the areas are changing, and Gerlach, the sole survivor of the 2006 massacre, could find himself in more trouble as more suburban voters get used to casting ballots for Democrats. Several counties that have experienced the highest increase in Democratic registration are in those Philadelphia suburbs, the Associated Press reports, and though Republicans still maintain registration edges in those counties, the advantage is shrinking.

Murphy, who represents Bucks County and a few neighborhoods in the northern part of Philadelphia, beat Fitzpatrick in the state's Eighth District by a mere 1,500 votes two years ago. Sestak, a retired naval rear admiral, has Delaware County and beat Weldon in the Seventh District by twelve points after the Republican's home was raided by the FBI just days before the election. The lone Republican, Gerlach, won a 3,000 vote victory against a Democratic challenger who outspent him in the more exurban Sixth District, which extends west to Chester County.

Murphy and Sestak are likely to be safe, especially during a presidential election year: John Kerry and Al Gore won both districts in 2000 and 2004, though by narrow margins, and turnout is expected to be high again this year. Gerlach, who should be a top Democratic target, faces a retired businessman in Bob Roggio after his 2004 and 2006 opponent, businesswoman Lois Murphy, declined to run again.

Roggio is unlikely to raise the impressive sums Murphy did in both her contests, but he's an experienced field operative, having run Kerry's Philadelphia campaign in 2004 and Senator Bob Casey's efforts in suburban Philadelphia in 2006. While Gerlach may be able to win a more comfortable re-election this year, his long-term prospects don't look as good, thanks to booming Democratic registration.

Unanue To Run In NJ

Businessman Andrew Unanue, who hinted at a possible Senate candidacy last week, will run against incumbent Democrat Frank Lautenberg, he announced in an open letter to state GOP chairman Tom Wilson. Top Republicans in the state are ecstatic that Unanue, a more moderate candidate than State Senator Joseph Pennacchio, will make a bid, though with their excitement comes worry that the party will once again fall short in a state that hasn't elected a Republican Senator since it sent Clifford Chase to Washington in 1972.

Unanue, a former executive at Goya Foods, is seen as the favored candidate of Bergen County GOP chairman Rob Ortiz, a rising star in the state party whose party activists nonetheless backed Pennacchio by a wide margin at their recent convention. Unanue is wealthy enough to help fund his own race in a state the National Republican Senatorial Committee is unlikely to play in, thanks to their own money woes.

Unanue, though a late entry, is also a favorite of NRSC chair John Ensign and Florida Senator Mel Martinez, who each encouraged him to make a bid. The same state and national party leaders had recruited wealthy developer Anne Evans Estabrook to run and, they hoped, spend her own money, but a health concern forced her out of the race.

Early missteps and tight deadlines have some concerned about Unanue's nascent campaign. Without a campaign team, Unanue has to gather the thousands of signatures needed to make it onto the June primary ballot by April 7, less than two weeks away. Fortunately for the new candidate, he's largely inherited Estabrook's organization (callers to campaign headquarters are still told they've reached Estabrook's shop). Still, says one top GOP strategist, there's a challenge ahead. "He's got two weeks to gather his signatures. It's not an insurmountable task, but it's a difficult task," the strategist said, asking for anonymity because of close ties to New Jersey Republicans.

Unanue will be aided by the state's county chairs, who are desperate to avoid Pennacchio at the top of the ticket. The state senator has made controversial comments in the past, and having him head the state's ticket could be harmful to Republican efforts to keep the open Congressional seats of retiring Reps. Jim Saxton and Mike Ferguson.

That relationship with county chairmen could be troubling, though, as they are known for handing business to consultants with losing records of late. "The county chairs funnel business to the same five consulting firms, and the same five consulting firms make sure the county chairs keep getting elected" so the cycle repeats, the strategist said.

Unanue's decision to announce his campaign on Easter Sunday raised concerns as well, and as Pennacchio continues to roll up victories in county conventions around the state, Unanue has yet to make his first campaign appearance. In fact, he made his candidacy public while on vacation with his family in Vail, Colorado, PolitickerNJ reports. That fumble isn't the best way to start an already uphill run for office.

Insiders say it is unlikely the NRSC will fund any advertisements on Unanue's behalf, given the expensive nature of the state and the committee's limited resources. But Unanue remains the best hope Republicans have in the Garden State, even if his is a long-shot bid to begin with.

Schmidt Poll Shows Her Up

Embattled Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt could be in better shape this year than she has been in previous contests as she seeks a second full term representing southern Ohio, a new poll shows. In the last three years, Schmidt has narrowly won three separate elections to serve a term and a half in Congress, where she's been a reliable conservative and a lightening rod for controversy.

The new poll, conducted for Schmidt's campaign by The Tarrance Group, was conducted 3/11-12 among 400 likely voters for a margin of error of +/- 5%. Schmidt and Democrat Victoria Wulsin, a physician who ran in 2006, were tested.

General Election Matchup
Schmidt 51
Wulsin 33

If Schmidt's lead holds, it would be her widest margin of victory to date. She won an August 2005 special election over Democrat Paul Hackett by just four points -- a race seen as an early harbinger of Democrats' successes in 2006 -- and won renomination by five points the following year, though with less than 50% of the vote. Schmidt beat Wulsin by a single point despite outspending the Democrat two-to-one.

The culturally conservative district, which runs from the eastern Cincinnati suburbs through parts of seven counties along Ohio's southern border, should not yield such close contests. President Bush won the district by nearly thirty points in two successive elections, and the previous incumbent, former U.S. Trade Representative and Office of Management and Budget head Rob Portman, never had a difficult re-election race.

But Schmidt seems to attract controversy: On the House floor, she implied Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, a decorated Marine, was a coward, a line that Wulsin used in a campaign advertisement. Later, questions about the number of marathons Schmidt claimed to have run emerged as well.

Schmidt and Wulsin, who each faced two other candidates in their respective primaries, won their March 4 contests with 57% each.

Dems Lead NY Open Seat

Dan Maffei, the former Congressional aide who came within a whisker of beating Republican Rep. Jim Walsh in 2006, is the early and significant front-runner in his second bid for office, a new poll conducted for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee shows. The news has been nothing but good for Maffei lately: Walsh announced his retirement in late January, and local and national Democrats cleared the field for their candidate.

In November, Maffei is likely to face Republican Peter Cappuccilli, a businessman who once ran the New York State Fair. The survey, conducted 2/16-20 by the Global Strategies Group, polled 200 likely voters for a margin of error of +/- 7%. Maffei, Cappuccilli and Randy Wolken, who ended his bid two weeks ago, were tested.

General Election Matchup
Maffei 41
Cappuccilli 29

Maffei 41
Wolken 25

The poll, with such a small sample size, should be taken with a grain of salt, as Cappuccilli is technically within the margin of error. And Maffei's underwhelming 41% should be higher, given that he won 49% in 2006 in a district both John Kerry and Al Gore won. But the survey shows a Democrat with a big lead in an open seat race, which is national Republicans' nightmare scenario. If the party has to defend many more of its two dozen-plus open seats, 2008 will be a very bad year for the GOP.

Morning Thoughts: Media Overboard!

Good Tuesday morning. Anxious for a vote to take place? A mere four weeks from today, Pennsylvanians will head to the polls to cast ballots. In the meantime, here's what Washington is watching:

-- Congress remains on spring break, while President Bush today will meet the champions of the 2008 Bassmaster Classic before stopping by to say hello to the King of Bahrain. Later, Bush addresses a reception benefiting the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez may be advertising one of the NRSC's chief challenges today when he joins Alaska Senator Ted Stevens for a media availability after speaking to the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce.

-- On the presidential campaign trail, as Barack Obama lies on the beach in St. Thomas, Hillary Clinton's campaign team must be contemplating pulling out their hair. Even when their candidate gets a free shot at the media, she can't turn it into a positive day. While Clinton was giving a major speech on housing and the economy yesterday, her campaign team was considering how to deal with fallout from a story she says she mis-remembered. Instead of landing in Bosnia in a hail of gunfire in 1996, Clinton landed at a safe location where several entertainers gave a USO concert soon after, media reports and video footage show.

-- Clinton's other recent pet peeve: Chatter from the surrogate peanut gallery, which is getting loud enough to distract. If it's not James Carville asserting that Bill Richardson is akin to Judas, it's retired General Merrill "Tony" McPeak, an Obama backer, analogizing Bill Clinton to Joe McCarthy for implying that his wife somehow loves her country more than Obama does. Of course, that's not an entirely bad thing for the Clinton campaign, as national campaign co-chair Terry McAuliffe sent out an email yesterday hoping to raise money off the comments. The fundraising, however successful, can't bring back a day, as the media was consumed by McPeak's comments even though Clinton offered her own policy speech.

-- But the media was only interested in McPeak until something more inflammatory came along, and they didn't have to wait long. Wrote top Obama Iowa adviser Gordon Fischer, a former state Democratic Party chairman: "Bill Clinton cannot possibly seriously believe Obama is not a patriot, and cannot possibly be said to be helping -- instead he is hurting -- his own party. B. Clinton should never be forgiven. Period. This is a stain on his legacy, much worse, much deeper, than the one on Monica's blue dress." Fischer, a Des Moines lawyer, made the comments on his personal blog, where he later apologized twice. Obama flack Tommy Vietor told ABC's Jake Tapper that the candidate repudiated such statements, but nonetheless, a top Obama campaigner brought up the blue dress.

-- Meanwhile, Obama lies on a beach in St. Thomas, getting a tan and presumably enjoying drinks with little umbrellas in them. And he's still being treated like someone heaven-sent. When his campaign wouldn't reveal his vacation choice, tourists did the media's work for them, snapping photos and sending them to Fox News. Later, CNN cameras showed up like paparazzi to record the momentous occasion of Obama talking on his cell phone, wearing swim trunks and no shoes, billing it as "exclusive video."

-- All of that has to make Clinton wonder: What does she have to do to get a little positive media attention? While the conventional wisdom still suggests Obama is well ahead, enough so that he's got the Democratic nomination practically locked up unless he does something truly stupid, he has yet to mathematically clinch anything. Clinton is still in the race, and if she loses she will still bring the largest non-winning delegate bloc to the convention in Denver in party history. But nothing seems to be working right now -- not the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, not debates on Michigan and Florida, nothing -- and it's got to be justifiably frustrating.

-- As bad for Clinton, the expectations bar keeps going up. Of the three major states remaining -- Pennsylvania, Indiana and North Carolina -- Clinton is a favorite only in the Keystone State, leading by a wide 16.6 points, according to the latest RCP Pennsylvania Average. Conventional wisdom holds that the two campaigns are tied in Indiana and that Obama leads in North Carolina. But it's not enough for Clinton to battle Obama to a delegate draw in Indiana the same day he's increasing his delegate lead by winning North Carolina: Now, Clinton practically has to win all three states to continue past May 6.

-- John McCain's focus in the race has never been in doubt. At a town hall meeting in Chula Vista yesterday, McCain told veterans the U.S. effort in Iraq was succeeding, even as the number of American troops who have died in Iraq rose to 4,000. McCain also characterized the country's importance by reminding veterans at the event that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror, something on which he said General David Petraeus and Osama bin Laden agree, CBS News reported. Running a race on experience necessary to protect the country suggests McCain already knows who his opponent will be.

-- Playing Favorites Of The Day: Sure, it's his hometown paper, but the Chicago Tribune may be over the top on this one. The paper's website, as part of an ongoing series, features a "Barack Obama IQ" quiz, on which readers can rank themselves from "Yes, we can" to "No, we shouldn't." Suggested levels of success for a John McCain quiz: "My friends..." (to a New Hampshire town hall audience) and "My friends..." (growled at Mitt Romney).

-- Today On The Trail: Obama lies on a beautiful beach and hangs out with his kids, where the temperature was 76 degrees at 8 a.m. ET. Hillary Clinton holds a town hall meeting in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where the current temperature hovers at 17 degrees, climbing to a high of just 49 degrees today. John McCain has a small business round table planned for Santa Ana, California today, where he will address the housing crisis.

MT Incumbents Safe

In a state that is likely to vote for John McCain over either Democratic candidate this Fall, two incumbent Democrats look increasingly likely to cruise to re-election. While Senator Max Baucus and Governor Brian Schweitzer never expected fierce challenges, their easy paths come in a state that, like Virginia and New Hampshire, have dealt increasingly severe blows to Republicans in recent years.

Baucus, who has served five terms in the Senate, has usually faced easy contests. The lone exception came in 1996, when he beat Republican Denny Rehberg by five points, or a little over 19,000 votes, despite outspending him by a three-to-one margin. Rehberg, now the state's sole member of the House, rebuffed GOP entreaties to run against Baucus this year.

In order to dissuade a challenge, Baucus built a massive war chest, banking nearly $6.3 million through the end of 2007, more than he spent in all of 2002, when he took 63% against a Republican who spent about $1.8 million on his own bid. When filing closed March 20, Baucus faced only a small handful of candidates, including State Rep. Mike Lange, the former House Majority Leader, the only serious candidate to jump in the race.

Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer has never won a race easily. He lost his first bid for public office, against then-Senator Conrad Burns in 2000, by a narrow four-point margin, before defeating Republican Secretary of State Bob Brown in the 2004 race for governor by a similar four-point margin, winning by 20,000 votes as President Bush carried the state by twenty points.

This year, Schweitzer and running mate John Bohlinger, a former Republican State Senator, are running for re-election against two potential Democratic tickets and two pairs of GOP hopefuls. After the June 3 primary, Schweitzer and Bohlinger are likely to face off with State Senator Roy Brown and businessman Steve Daines, the front-runners for the Republican nominations. The Schweitzer-led ticket has raised more than $1.2 million for the race so far, while Brown's team is far behind with just over $200,000 in the bank.

The two tickets will also face off against Libertarian Stan Jones, a business consultant who has run several times before, including taking more than 10,000 votes as Democrat Jon Tester beat Republican Senator Burns in 2006 by just 2,500 votes. Jones is known around his Bozeman home for his unusual blue skin, a result of a condition called argyria, which he got after charging silver wires in a glass of Bozeman tap water, as the Washington Post wrote in a Jones profile after 2006.

Montana was the one down-note for Democrats in 2006, as the party lost control of the State House while maintaining just a two-seat advantage in the State Senate. Democrats will be well-funded, though, thanks to an extended presidential nomination fight: Both Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are scheduled to be in Butte on April 5 for the state party's annual Mansfield-Metcalf dinner, ahead of the state's presidential primary, which also takes place June 3.

For AK Dems, An Easy Ride

A new survey shows, once again, that Republican Rep. Don Young trails his Democratic challenger and remains in terrible position in his battle for an 18th term in Congress. What makes the survey surprising is that the poll was conducted for a little-known Democrat unlikely to make it through the primary to face Young in November, suggesting Young's electoral position is all that much worse.

The survey, by Alaska-based Hays Research, was conducted 3/10-12 among 401 registered voters for a margin of error of +/- 4.9%. The poll was taken on behalf of former state Democratic Party chairman Jake Metcalfe, who, along with Young, was tested.

General Election Matchup
Metcalfe 45
Young 37

Generic Dem 41
Young 34

What the survey doesn't note is that Metcalfe's name identification is likely significantly below that of former State Representative Ethan Berkowitz, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Berkowitz, the 2006 Democratic nominee for Lieutenant Governor, has a statewide profile and has led Young in earlier surveys, while Metcalfe's biggest claim to fame is as state party chair and as former head of the Anchorage School Board.

Ahead of the August 26 primary, Republicans Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell and State Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux will try to convince Alaskans to nominate them over the long-time incumbent, who is embroiled in a scandal involving an oil services company that has already seen several state legislators go to jail. Electability could prove a valuable argument to either candidate, and Alaska Republicans are not completely unwilling to kick out their incumbents: In 2006, now-Governor Sarah Palin ousted GOP incumbent Frank Murkowski by a wide margin. Palin is now backing Parnell in the primary.

But if Parnell can't overcome the Alaska institution that is Don Young, either because he splits the reform vote with LeDoux or the GOP electorate just isn't ready to oust Young, Democrats maintain a strong chance to pick up a House seat in one of the most Republican areas of the country. As the poll suggests, it may not matter that Berkowitz, the party's preferred candidate, make it through to November; with Young as unpopular as he is, any Democrat with a pulse stands a fighting chance.

Morning Thoughts: Resetting CW

Good Monday morning. Brackets busted? Have no fear, politics is still here. That's what this cellar-dweller is relying on. Here's what Washington is keeping an eye on this morning:

-- The House and Senate enter a second week of Spring recess. The Senate has a thirty-second pro forma session planned for today in order to continue to prevent recess appointments to key posts. President Bush is back in Washington after spending Easter at Camp David, and today he meets Pranab Mukherjee, the Indian Minister of External Affairs, and presides over the White House Easter Egg Roll. Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa meets Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the Pentagon, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shuttles between events with both dignitaries all day. Vice President Cheney is still traveling through the Middle East.

-- Over the weekend, not much happened: Barack Obama and his family slipped out of Chicago for a quickie vacation, while Hillary Clinton dined with her family at a fancy restaurant on Easter Sunday. But a consensus emerged and established itself in a big way: The contest for the Democratic nomination is not close, neck-and-neck or anything of the sort. Obama has a commanding lead, and it's going to be nearly impossible for Clinton to catch up. Her advisers admit to Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, in a CW-setting piece, that they have but a 10% chance of winning. If states had seen fit to schedule their contests between March 4 and April 22, the race might be over sooner. As it is, Obama will have to wait for one of several contests, probably in early May, to wrap it up.

-- Circle May 6 on your calendar as the date likely to end the Democratic contest. Indiana and North Carolina hold their contests that day, and both states are emerging as must-wins for Clinton. In the Hoosier State, she's got backing from Senator Evan Bayh, and she will benefit from the blue collar white voters in the state's eastern and southern regions. But Obama's got the west side and Indianapolis, where a large number of the state's Democratic votes will come from, some of which, happily for him, tune into Chicago television stations. Few polls have been conducted in the state, but a familiar name will likely come out with a new survey before state voters cast their ballots: The only person to get turnout right in Iowa, Ann Selzer, who conducts a survey for the Indianapolis Star and a local television station. We've got an email in to Selzer to find out when she's going in the field.

-- North Carolina is unfriendly territory for Clinton. 21% of the state's voters are African American, meaning those voters will play a huge role in the Democratic primary. Looking forward to a general election, the state will also serve as something of a test for Obama's appeal to white voters: In neighboring South Carolina, Clinton outperformed Obama among white voters just three to two (John Edwards actually beat them both). In Virginia, to the north, Obama beat Clinton among whites by five points. By Mississippi, though, the electorate was seriously divided, with Clinton beating Obama by a margin among whites that was almost as big as his winning margin among African Americans. If white voters break more evenly in North Carolina, Obama will assuage fears from some Democrats that he might not make it through November.

-- If that even split of white voters occurs, he will win the Tar Heel State. Emerging conventional wisdom suggests that Clinton needs wins -- and big wins -- in every remaining contest to make an even somewhat lucid case to super delegates, and North Carolina is where she will face the biggest challenge. If she doesn't win there, even if she carries Indiana, the campaign might realize that it's time to close up shop. To get a win in North Carolina, and even to begin to make the case to super delegates that the candidate who trails in pledged delegates should win the convention, Clinton will have to go far more negative than she already has, likely seriously wounding the Democratic Party in the process. She may be unwilling to do that, and even if she does, it may backfire.

-- Remember John McCain? As much as the Republican nominee-in-waiting loves the Democratic infighting, at some point he's going to have to reinsert himself into the debate, and in a manner of his choosing. As McCain returns from an overseas visit to Iraq, the Middle East and Europe and heads to California for the beginning of a biographical tour, he is greeted by a New York Times story rehashing his discussions with Democrats about leaving his own party. For most presidential candidates in a general election, having the reputation as a moderate who can work with the other side is a big political gain. For McCain, the notion that he almost bolted the GOP -- twice -- puts an 800-pound gorilla in the room where that conversation he's having with conservatives is taking place. Reaching out to independents is crucial, but one needs a base from which to do so.

-- Given that factor, does McCain's relationship with Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman help or hurt? Lieberman was by McCain's side throughout the overseas expedition, even tossing him a little help when McCain flubbed the al Qaeda-Iran connection line in Jordan, and Politico's Jonathan Martin explores their deeper relationship. No one should be surprised if (when?) Lieberman makes a prime time speech on McCain's behalf at the Republican National Convention (Another JMart smart look: What Would Scoop Do?), but Lieberman has a pretty liberal voting record on certain issues, and aside from the war on Iraq he's still more Democrat than Republican. McCain can benefit from Lieberman's ringing endorsement, but he should be under no illusions that allowing Lieberman's name to show up on a vice presidential short list would probably do more harm than good.

-- McCain's entire bid for the White House in 2008, through the primaries and the early stages of the general election, has been based on his judgment about Iraq. Americans trust him to do a better job on the war than the Democratic candidates not, it seems, because he agrees with President Bush, but because he brings an authenticity to the experience of the soldiers, thanks to his experiences in Vietnam. Getting elected in November will require McCain to focus on Iraq, the safety of the troops and how to win, not just how to get out. But he faces a steep task, and it gets no easier when U.S. forces reach a sad benchmark, as an IED blast in Baghdad yesterday ratcheted up the number of American dead past 4,000 amid a weekend of violence in Iraq.

-- Headline Of The Day: "Forecasters Warn of Flooding in Ark." That would be Arkansas, not Noah's boat, but ABC's headline writers, topping an Associated Press story, found a humorous spin (probably unintentionally) to the increasing storms across the Midwest. Flood warnings are in place today for parts of Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.

-- Today On The Trail: Obama's on vacation, with no public events scheduled until Wednesday. Clinton offers a major policy address at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, then attends an event with female supporters in Blue Bell before rallying in Uniontown. McCain starts a new tour across the country with a town hall meeting in Chula Vista, California.

This Week On PN Radio

This Saturday morning, from 10 a.m. to 12 noon Eastern, join Politics Nation on XM Radio's POTUS '08, when we'll tackle the week in politics. Listen free here (link about half-way down the page):

-- How did Barack Obama's speech on race in America play? And how effective will conservative efforts to question his love of country actually prove? National Review's David Freddoso joins Politics Nation to discuss.

-- Democrats continue to haggle over revotes in Michigan and Florida, while the Supreme Court weighs in on who exactly owns the primary process. Both campaigns talk about the "will of the voters" in primaries, but do those claims actually ring true?

-- A prominent New York Republican announces his retirement, a move that sheds more light on a disappointing landscape for the national GOP. But could a primary challenger in Alaska actually improve the party's fortunes? CongressDaily's Erin McPike talks congressional politics.

-- And what should be made on the first few days of the NCAA tournament? Who's looking especially impressive? A special guest joins Reid Wilson and Josh Kraushaar to dissect what we've seen so far.

All that and more, tomorrow morning on Politics Nation, only on XM Radio's POTUS '08. Listen live, tomorrow at 10 a.m. to noon.

GOP Close On NJ Recruit

Senate Republicans, in the middle of a disappointing recruiting cycle that has seen a number of potentially strong candidates decline to make challenges to incumbent Democrats, may be close to landing a top target to take on New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, the Bergen Record reports today. If the GOP gets its wish, Lautenberg could face businessman Andrew Unanue, who is taking the weekend to talk the potential race over with family and is likely to make a decision Monday, a prominent GOP chairman told the paper.

Unanue, who runs a financial consulting business and a nightclub in New York City, could invest much of his own money in the race and provide a contrast Republicans would love to see in the Garden State: At 40 years old, and a Hispanic, Unanue would be starkly different than the 84-year old Lautenberg, who is white. The state's junior Senator, Democrat Bob Menendez, won a close race in 2006 largely on the strength of Latino votes.

Unanue would likely run as a moderate, as Bergen County Republican Party chairman Rob Ortiz told the Record, calling the potential candidate a fiscal conservative and a social moderate. He would face off with conservative State Senator Joe Pennacchio and Professor Murray Sabrin, who is running in the mold of libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul, in the state's June primary.

GOP leaders in New Jersey have been scrambling to find an alternative to Pennacchio, who once proposed putting homeless people in closed military bases, a notion Sabrin likened to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Developer Anne Evans Estabrook had been the party favorite until a health problem ended her campaign.

Other names being floated include State Senators Diane Allen and Kip Bateman, as well as Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, though Levinson has expressed serious reluctance to get into the race and Allen's health may also be an issue.

Still, actually fielding a strong candidate in New Jersey might prove more of a problem for Republicans than a benefit. With a national party trailing its Democratic counterpart by a wide margin, any hope of significant investment in the state from national sources seems unlikely. Increased turnout in a presidential election year will put the GOP at an even wider disadvantage, and the state is one of the most expensive in which to advertise in the whole country: To capture the entire audience, a candidate has to advertise in both New York and Philadelphia media markets.

That requirement likely gives Unanue a leg up in party leaders' minds. New Jersey can be a black hole for Republican dollars, but it always seems too tantalizing a target to avoid. Lautenberg does not benefit from amazingly strong poll numbers, and he's never won an overwhelming victory in the state.

Lynch In Strong Position

New Hampshire Governor John Lynch, a Democrat who won re-election in 2006 by a record margin over an admittedly weak Republican challenger, is in strong position in his bid for a third term, a new survey shows. Two years after his party swept to power in the state legislature for the first time in nearly a century, Lynch faces the prospect of a tougher foe in Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta, but the survey shows independent voters breaking heavily for the incumbent and giving Lynch a serious advantage.

The American Research Group poll, which also showed former Democratic Governor Jeanne Shaheen far outpacing Republican Senator John Sununu in a rematch of their 2002 battle, was conducted 3/14-17 among 541 registered New Hampshire voters for a margin of error of +/- 4.2%. Lynch and Guinta were surveyed.

General Election Matchup
(All / Dem / GOP / Ind)
Lynch 62 / 87 / 26 / 70 (+14 from last, 12/07)
Guinta 20 / 12 / 44 / 9 (-12)

While the December poll testing the two held Lynch under 50% of the vote, several factors in this month's poll will likely be questioned as well. With undeclared voters breaking as heavily for Lynch as Democrats are, some may suggest that the sample gathered more Democratic leaners than those who bent toward Republicans. But independents handed the GOP severe losses in 2006, and a large margin of those voters favoring Lynch is not unlikely.

If he runs, a decision he has not officially made, Guinta will be able to close the gap by improving his performance among Republicans, who still outnumber Democrats in the state. But any victory will have to include a win among independent voters, a population far larger than both parties, and there, Guinta has work to do.

Both Lynch and Guinta face re-election every two years, but Guinta's take place in off years, meaning he would not have to surrender his mayoralty to make a bid for the state's top job. And Guinta is taking serious steps toward a run. Top political adviser Mike Biundo was in Washington this week interviewing fundraising firms that might be employed for the race, the Union Leader's John DiStaso reported.

Bad Month For NRCC

Even before Republicans lost a special election to replace retired House Speaker Dennis Hastert, the National Republican Congressional Committee was reeling from a weaker fundraising performance in the wake of an accounting scandal that rocked the committee and will cause a dramatic reevaluation of previously-filed fundraising support.

The NRCC raised $4.5 million in February while spending $5.1 million, at least part of it on Hastert's seat, and after reexamining bank accounts reported $5.1 million in the bank with a debt of $1.9 million. The report, the second filed over the signature of new Treasurer Keith Davis, shows a much weaker financial position than the NRCC was purportedly in on February 1, when the party reported $6.4 million in the bank. That report came before the full extent of former Treasurer Christopher Ward's duplicity was known.

Last month, by contrast, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reported raising $6.2 million and spending just $3.7 million. After being outraised by a fraction by the NRCC in January, the committee once again widened its fundraising advantage going into November, carrying a bank balance of $38 million and just $762,000 in debt. Republicans likely closed that gap earlier this month, raising $8.6 million at a single dinner fundraiser, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged her caucus to give more from their own campaign funds to compensate.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, while in better shape than its House counterpart, still trails Democratic coffers by a wide margin, their FEC reports show. The DSCC raised nearly $4.8 million in February and doled out close to $2.5 million, to retain $32.8 million in the bank. The NRSC raised over $3.9 million and spent a frugal $1.9 million to retain about $15.3 million in the bank. The disparity is much smaller than that between the DCCC and the NRCC, but Democrats still retain a two-to-one advantage in what has historically been a Republican strong suit.

A bright spot for Republicans continues to be the Republican National Committee, which pulled in $10.6 million in February and spent $7.4 million, retaining $25 million, while the Democratic National Committee raised $6.3 million and spent $4.5 million. When Florida Senator Bill Nelson asked for financial assistance to help his state hold a new primary, DNC chair Howard Dean had a bank account of just $4.7 million, along with $250,000 in debt, to work with.

Dean's 50-state strategy provided some big wins in unexpected places last year, but the program is costing the party significant amounts of money. Nearly half of the expenditures listed in the committee's FEC reports are for staff salaries in every state in the country, alongside an already-large Washington staff. While it costs money to maintain those staffers, Democratic chairs from around the country maintain they are happy with the program.

NH Senate Poll Seesaws

Former New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen is back atop a Republican-leaning poll in her rematch against GOP Senator John Sununu, three months after the same survey showed Sununu leading by a healthy margin. The survey once again reasserts Shaheen as a top Democratic takeover opportunity.

The poll, taken by American Research Group, a Republican-leaning firm that has done work for former GOP congressmen in the state, was conducted 3/14-17 among 541 registered voters. 30% of the sample was made up of Republicans, 29% of Democrats and the remaining 41% of undeclared voters. Shaheen and Sununu were tested.

General Election Matchup
(All / Dem / GOP / Ind)
Shaheen 47 / 76 / 1 / 61 (+6 from last, 12/07)
Sununu 33 / 12 / 81 / 13 (-19)

The poll is a dramatic departure from December, when Sununu led by eleven points, a survey that was at odds with every other poll out at the time. Most have suspected that Shaheen leads by a wide margin, as another well-respected polling institution showed in February. Nothing in particular has happened in the last three months that would have robbed Sununu of so much support, making the December poll seem like an outlier.

Shaheen raised money at a very fast clip in the fourth quarter, finishing the year with $1.1 million, though she still trailed Sununu's $3.4 million in the bank. National Democrats are sure to play heavily in New Hampshire, which will also be a crucial presidential battleground state. And Shaheen faces a simply better landscape: After veering to the right in 2002, no state has experienced an anti-Republican backlash quite like New Hampshire. Just ask the Republican governor, two Republican members of Congress and eighty-something state legislators who are no longer in office thanks to the 2006 Democratic wave.

Added to Virginia and New Mexico, where Democrats are strongly favored to take over GOP-held seats, Shaheen's chances in New Hampshire start to paint a picture of a large Democratic majority after November. Still, the party seems likely to come up short of the magic number 60, unless they can find a way to win every competitive state and miraculously pull out upsets in places like Oklahoma and Mississippi. The Democratic Party looks in good shape this year, especially in New Hampshire, but wins in those two states seem a stretch, to say the least.

Morning Thoughts: Obama's Test

Good Friday morning. After a slow news week, it looks like something is actually happening. Well, several somethings. No matter, so long as no news breaks after the first games tip off around noon today. Here's what Washington is watching this morning:

-- The Senate holds a pro forma session today to prevent President Bush from using his power to appoint officials during recess, a move Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has used for several months. The House remains out of session. Bush heads to Camp David for the weekend.

-- Last night, we thought snooping in Barack Obama's passport file would be the big story this morning. Then, at 3:08 a.m., New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson hit send on an email announcing, to his campaign list, that he is backing Obama's presidential bid. The news comes in spite of Bill Clinton's hard-fought effort to win Richardson's support for his wife, including a date during the Super Bowl. Richardson will hit an Obama campaign rally today in Portland, the AP reports this morning, and his nod is a big one: It comes as Obama faces trouble with Hispanic voters, who have largely favored Clinton.

-- The endorsement is a psychological blow as well. After a week in which Obama was forced to talk about race and the roles of his grandmother and spiritual adviser in his life, he needed some good news in a bad way. Richardson provides Obama with another super delegate vote, advertising that he isn't put off by the noise surrounding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and becomes the second former Clinton cabinet official, along with former HUD Secretary Frederico Pena, to endorse Obama (are we missing anyone?). The Clinton strategy of winning over super delegates hasn't started to work yet, and Richardson's choice could go far in changing what has seemed like pro-Clinton momentum all week long.

-- But just when things have the opportunity to turn around for Obama, he put his foot in his mouth over the race issue yesterday during an interview with WIP Radio in Philadelphia. "The point I was making was not that my grandmother harbors any racial animosity. She doesn't. But she is a typical white person," Obama said (read the longer quote for more context). How will the media respond? Pro-Clinton bloggers are furious, wondering what sort of reaction an opposite comment from Clinton or John McCain would mean, the Wall Street Journal writes. The Obama campaign tried to walk back the quote, focusing on the generational difference rather than the racial difference, but the damage might already be done.

-- The comments on WIP add insult to the Jeremiah Wright injury, a story that has not gone away and that the Clinton campaign is exploiting as much as possible. The New York Times first reported that Clinton's camp is pushing the Wright story on super delegates to bolster her argument on electability. Asked yesterday at a press availability in Indiana if that were true, Clinton wouldn't back down, ABC's Eloise Harper reported. The story dominated this week in politics and shows no sign of slowing down (McCain won't use it, but we bet his allies will, even below the radar).

-- A measure of how worried the Obama campaign is about the Wright controversy: They're pushing a photo around -- first from an anonymous blog set up to defend Wright's church, then from the campaign itself -- showing the Rev. Wright shaking hands with Bill Clinton at a 1998 White House prayer breakfast. Hillary Clinton and Al Gore were also present. The New York Times, which writes the photo was provided by the Obama campaign, notes the Clinton camp's chortled response to the photo's emergence: "Urgent indeed -- a picture -- oooooooo!" wrote top communications aide Howard Wolfson. "Less than 48 hours after calling for a high-minded conversation on race, the Obama campaign is peddling photos of an occasion when President Clinton shook hands with Rev. Wright. To be clear, President Clinton took tens of thousands of photos during his 8 years as president," spokesman Jay Carson added. Obama hasn't proved the most effective at hitting back, but does this do more harm than good, keeping the story alive another day?

-- The fissure in the blogosphere continues to grow, as mounting tensions led to a boycott (blogcott?) of DailyKos by pro-Clinton liberal writers, who felt the site was becoming an Obama haven. But what happens when Joe Wilson, the former ambassador whose CIA agent wife was outed by the administration, abandons ship with such momentum? Wilson, a blogosphere hero, is unapologetically behind Clinton, makes one of the stronger cases about experience in the White House in an essay at the lefty Huffington Post. The left has always been ahead of the right on the blogosphere, and they can have an impact on primary elections. But does that advantage for Democratic blogger evolution only mean the eventual implosion will come before Republicans'?

-- We wrote yesterday that Pennsylvania is so passe, because it's not seeing the kind of active campaigning from both candidates that everyone expected. But both candidates may be getting a second wind in the state, and for good reason: Hillary Clinton is pulling away. With a 16.6-point lead in the latest RCP Pennsylvania Average, the big Clinton win that she needs to close the delegate gap looks plausible. Democratic registration in the state is up 3% since November alone, the Inquirer writes, nearing 4 million people total. Obama needs to reduce that gap, and, a source tells Mark Halperin, he'll start with television ads in the state's five biggest markets. Even as we dismiss it, Pennsylvania seems back en vogue.

-- Test Of The Day: Based on the headlines this morning, and really what we've seen in the last week, the spotlight is firmly and completely on Obama. What did Clinton say in Terre Haute yesterday? No one remembers. What about McCain in London? Fancy fundraiser, meet with Gordon Brown, walk back a gaffe a little more, and that's the list. Obama is undergoing the harshest scrutiny he's faced in the campaign so far, and it may get worse before it gets better. If he survives this week, if he can turn the conversation around, it seems like Obama can survive almost anything. But he's far from out of the woods just yet.

-- Today On The Trail: Obama and Richardson meet in Portland for a rally, followed by a town hall meeting in Salem, Oregon and a rally tonight with voters in Eugene. Clinton is down in Chappaqua, New York today, while McCain will meet President Nikolai Sarkozy in Paris as he winds up his tour of Europe and the Middle East.

March Madness Hits Team Obama

In what has become one of the most hallowed March traditions of office places everywhere, Obama's campaign staff momentarily paused their productivity, filled out their brackets, and threw in $10 towards their office NCAA pool.

Their picks? Spokespersons Bill Burton and Dan Pfeiffer both have Georgetown in the championship, but UCLA winning. A Georgetown alum, Pfeiffer was tempted to pick his alma mater, but lost the campaign pool last year after going with the Hoyas. Pfeiffer says he learned his lesson, noting: "The audacity of my hopefulness only extends so far."

As for the other staffers, speechwriter Jon Favreau and Ben Finkenbinder have Kansas winning the tournament, while strategist David Axelrod and policy director Heather Higginbottom picked UNC. Obama's body man Reggie Love, who played on Duke University's 2001 national championship team, has Duke, Louisville, Kansas, and Marquette in his final four.

But the campaign may be betting on Obama, who won the Senators NCAA Pool last year, to be cutting down the nets. During his short flight from Fayetteville to Charlotte yesterday, Obama filled out his bracket, settling on UNC.

The Clinton campaign confirmed they have organized an office pool for the tourney, although the staff declined to disclose their picks

-- Nora McAlvanah

PA: So Yesterday

Hillary Clinton is in Indiana for a number of events today, while Barack Obama is in West Virginia. With just over a month to go before Pennsylvania voters head to the polls, the Keystone State is already so passe. Recent polls show Clinton leading by a wide margin -- up 16.6 points in the latest RCP Pennsylvania Average -- and Obama has largely moved on to focus on other states.

That's nothing unusual this year. Each time one candidate takes a lead in one state, the other will play down that state's importance and move to the next stop on the calendar. Democrats privately gripe that the extended contest will hurt them in November, and in truth, that's both candidates' fault. Neither has decided to play strongly on the other candidate's turf.

At some point, a battle royale will have to take place. Clinton has already hinted that she may take a pass on North Carolina, which holds its nominating contest on May 6 (and where Obama leads the latest RCP North Carolina Average by 5.4 points), and Oregon, which votes May 20, should be good Obama territory as well. If Clinton plays in either and wins, those victories would go a long way toward her securing the nomination.

Obama, on the other hand, has the opportunity to score on Clinton turf in West Virginia, which votes May 13, or Kentucky, the following Tuesday, May 20. Wins in either of those states could potentially knock Clinton out of the contest.

Indiana remains a toss-up, and each candidate has advantages. Clinton will likely do well in the state's eastern and southern regions, where blue collar whites make up a heavy portion of the electorate. Obama will perform well in Indianapolis, where African Americans are dominant in Democratic circles, as well as the western region of the state, which is in his home media market. So far, Obama has not lost a state that touches Illinois.

It would seem obvious that Indiana is the one remaining battle ground. If Clinton wins, she will wholly own the momentum, and super delegates may begin to break more quickly for her. If Obama takes the prize, he could build a delegate lead large enough to renew calls for Clinton to leave the race.

But we heard the same thing about Pennsylvania. In fact, a Clinton adviser tells CBS's Fernando Suarez, no one has a plan to end the race. "The campaign will go on until all the states and Puerto Rico have voted," the adviser said. Puerto Rico's primary, on June 1, happens two days before the final two scheduled contests, in Montana and South Dakota.

Who Wants A Revote?

As the window for a potential revote in Michigan becomes ever smaller, a team of rich Democratic donors are promising to front the money for a new primary in a last-ditch effort to save the contest, USA Today reports. And to no one's surprise, those donors largely back one candidate over the other, demonstrating again just how crucial a revote is to Hillary Clinton's chances of winning the nomination.

New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, both major Clinton supporters, spearheaded the initiative to put together donors willing to fork over the $12 million for a new contest, and Corzine is one of the ten people listed as willing to guarantee the money will be there. The former Goldman Sachs chief spent $60 million of his own money to get elected to the governorship and is worth somewhere north of $250 million.

Corzine is joined by several other prominent Clinton backers, including Haim Saban, Bernard Schwartz, Roger Altman and John Catsimatidis. While all ten of the donors have given to Clinton's campaigns for Senate or the White House, two are less involved in the campaign, as lawyers John Eddie Williams and Peter Angelos have stayed out. Angelos' name might sound familiar; the prominent trial attorney now owns the Baltimore Orioles baseball team.

The Obama campaign has been naturally suspicious of any revote, and now that Clinton donors are offering the cash to run it, they've become even louder in their protests. Spokesman Bill Burton told USA Today the promise, contained in an open letter to Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, is "even more evidence that Clinton is willing to do absolutely anything to get elected."

Though they were trying to help, the ten donors may have unintentionally doomed Michigan's hopes of holding a revote at all, allowing the Obama camp to slam the window shut once and for all.

Ex-NRCC Chair Reynolds Out

Embattled Republican Rep. Tom Reynolds, the upstate New Yorker who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee during the disastrous 2006 election cycle, will announce today that he will not seek re-election, the New York Daily News reported late last night. The retirement brings to twenty-nine the number of Republicans who will not run for re-election this year.

Hand-picked to replace former Rep. Bill Paxon in 1998, Reynolds had been a campaign aide as well as a policy wonk, one of the few members of Congress who actually paid attention to national politics. But as chair of the NRCC during a wave election, he saw thirty GOP seats flip to Democrats and, late in the cycle, even had to spend some time protecting his own seat, which he won by just 9,000 votes, or about 4%.

That campaign, against Democrat Jack Davis, a self-funding businessman, was made all the more difficult by the scandal surrounding former Florida Rep. Mark Foley. Reynolds and then-Speaker Dennis Hastert disagreed on when or if Reynolds informed the top Republican of allegations about Foley's behavior, and the NRCC chair took some of the blame for failing to keep House pages safe. It could have been worse: South of Reynold's district, Republican Sue Kelly lost her re-election bid thanks largely to the scandal.

The battle to replace Reynolds will be fiercely fought throughout the western New York district. The seat represents voters in the Buffalo suburbs to the Rochester suburbs, with rural areas in between. President Bush took a 12-point win there in 2004 after winning by seven in 2000. Democrats have already put up Iraq War veteran Jon Powers, and Davis is said to be thinking of another bid.

Republicans are in good position to hold the seat; the party has a significant registration edge, as 41% of voters there are registered with the GOP as compared with 31.5% who are registered Democrats. The remaining 27.5% are registered as independents or with another party. State Senator George Maziarz, Assemblyman Jim Hayes and former Assemblyman Charles Nesbitt are all said to be considering bids for the Republican nomination.

If the district becomes contentious, it will be another headache for New York Republicans, who find themselves running behind in retiring GOP Rep. Jim Walsh's district and having to defend Rep. Randy Kuhl.

Republicans on Capitol Hill won't say it, but they are probably not that upset Reynolds is leaving. His narrow win in 2006 was thanks to his own blunders, and another Republican may be more likely to hold the seat easily. Washington Republicans also privately blame Reynolds for the loss of several seats in 2006 and for leaving the NRCC with a huge amount of debt. Few tears, if any, will be shed in House GOP circles.

Morning Thoughts: Tip Off Time

Good Thursday morning. It's the most wonderful time of year for basketball fans, and the time when all the teams Politics Nation picks to win decide to choke. Politics Nation contributor Kyle Trygstad points out that former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley still holds the record for most points in a Final Four game, with 58 in 1965. Aside from basketball, here's what Washington will be watching:

-- Both chambers are out of session for the week, as well as next week. Neither will return for another week. How many members scored prime tickets to basketball games today? In Washington, President Bush meets with prime ministers from the Bahamas, Barbados and Belize.

-- On the campaign trail, as John McCain continues to jet around the world, stopping in London today, the Democrats are still stuck on pastors, papers and political repeats. The uproar surrounding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright has "shaken" Barack Obama, he told CNN's Anderson Cooper, and it clearly has: Obama's poll numbers in the daily Gallup tracking poll have fallen sharply in the last week (though we won't see post-"the speech" polls until the weekend) and even a major speech on Iraq couldn't turn the page -- though it gave McCain an opportunity to get back in the fray. More on that later.

-- Yesterday's release of eleven thousand pages of schedules from her time in the White House threw Hillary Clinton's message under the bus as well, dredging up every old scandal from the 1990s. Reporters scurried to find out where she was when Vince Foster died and when Monica Lewinsky was at the White House. Questions about Clinton's private meetings, so designated by redactions from the National Archives, are still coming up, and if she's the Democratic nominee, they're not going away. Only Mark Silva asks the really important question: Any calls at 3 a.m.?

-- Obama is being hurt by his temporary distraction more than Clinton is, which goes to prove one point the Clinton camp has been trying to make: People don't know a lot about Barack Obama, and every revelation, no matter how minor, is going to make some kind of dent. On the other hand, people know everything about Hillary Clinton, and no new information would cause major damage because it's easily dismissed as a "vast right-wing conspiracy" or as old news. As Obama's polling against Clinton has suffered, so has his electability argument: Both Clinton and Obama trail McCain in the latest RCP General Election Averages by a narrow seven-tenths of a point.

-- Still, while it feels like Clinton has the momentum and Obama continues to backslide, Obama is ahead in the delegate count and the popular vote count by a significant margin, making Clinton's long-shot bid even longer, as the Times' Adam Nagourney writes. Clinton needs to reverse the popular vote gap, close the delegate gap and shake Obama's growing foundation with super delegates, making them question his effectiveness as party standard-bearer. To do so, she'll essentially need to win every remaining contest, and not by small margins, and maybe she can't even win without revotes in Florida and Michigan. Regardless of the Pennsylvania outcome, or the outcome of several other states, the Clinton campaign can afford no more slip-ups, and even then they'll be relying on Obama to make a fatal mistake. That's never a good position to be in.

-- The sense we're getting: It's only a matter of time before Obama, beaten and bloodied by his own mistakes and a primary battle, will come out ahead in the nomination fight, and that when he does, John McCain will be right there waiting. McCain and Clinton genuinely like each other (one source with knowledge of the incident told Politics Nation, without equivocation, that their rumored drinking contest on a trip to Estonia took place, and that the two are close, while Bill Clinton yesterday called McCain a "very fine man," per NBC/NJ's Mike Memoli). Thanks to spats over ethics and other issues, and a pronounced generational divide, McCain and Obama genuinely do not like each other, and when McCain doesn't like someone, he lets them know.

-- That temper was on display yesterday, as top McCain aide Mark Salter unleashed an acerbic attack on Obama's plans for Iraq. Salter, McCain's co-author on a number of books and frequently described as the candidate's alter-ego, pulled no punches: "John McCain wants American forces to come home when our clear and serious interests at stake in Iraq, which nearly 4,000 Americans have given their lives to secure, are truly safe, when al Qaeda is defeated; Iran's influence is contained, and the potential for a truly cataclysmic civil war in Iraq is remote," Salter said. "That, I think, is what is called 'making us safer.' Senator Obama's plan, if it can be charitably described as one, would do the reverse." Read Salter's full statement in response to a section of Obama's speech yesterday in North Carolina here.

-- Conviction Of The Day: Obama cited O.J. Simpson's trial as a way Americans have used race as a mere spectacle. But he actually brought it up himself the day before, telling ABC's "Nightline" that he believes the Juice is guilty. "I'm somebody who was pretty clear that O.J. was guilty," Obama said, per Don Frederick. The ruling infuriated many whites and elated many blacks, and Obama said he understood what his community was going through: "That reaction had more to do with a sense that somehow the criminal justice system historically had been biased so profoundly that a defeat of that justice system was somehow a victory," Obama said.

-- Today On The Trail: Moving on to the next electoral hot spots, Clinton is in Indiana, holding town halls in Terre Haute, Anderson and Evansville, while Obama's headed to West Virginia, with stops planned for Charleston and Beckley. John McCain is in London where he will hold a fundraiser this evening and will meet with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

GOPer Puts McCain In Bind

If illegal immigration is going to play a defining role in any one House race this year, it will be in Pennsylvania's Eleventh District, where incumbent Democrat Paul Kanjorski is facing a challenge from Republican Lou Barletta, the mayor of Hazelton who has made a name for himself as an anti-illegal immigration activist. Both candidates are focusing heavily on the issue, but Barletta, beloved by national anti-immigration foes, has gone a step farther and is calling out his own party's presidential nominee.

Barletta garnered attention several years ago with a bid to impose penalties on landlords who offer their properties to illegal immigrants and businesses who employ them. He has become a staple on conservative talk shows around the country, featured on shows hosted by Lou Dobbs and Sean Hannity, among scores of others. After losing his 2002 bid against Kanjorski, Barletta is trying again to represent the district, several hours north of Philadelphia that stretches from the New Jersey border toward the middle of the state.

His focus on immigration and his national profile have gotten Barletta plenty of media coverage. His announcement drew dozens of cameras and reporters as he promised to take his fight on the issue to Washington. Barletta has even invited John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to his home town to discuss ways to stop illegal immigration, The Hill's Aaron Blake reported today.

While Obama and Clinton have yet to respond, McCain's campaign wrote back and said thanks, but no thanks. That prompted an angry response from Barletta. "While I commend Sen. McCain for being the first to respond to my invitation, I am very troubled by his decision to decline my offer," the GOP candidate said in a statement. A letter to Barletta from the McCain campaign said they did not see an opportunity to get to Hazelton.

McCain, no friend of the anti-illegal immigration hardliners who populate much of the GOP's base (as well as his home state's Republican Party), has recently made news by suggesting that it was those views that contributed to his party's loss of a Congressional seat earlier this month. McCain told National Public Radio that "anti-immigrant" views, as he characterized them, were the reason Republican candidate Jim Oberweis lost his race to replace Dennis Hastert in Illinois.

Barletta is unlikely to let the issue drop. He said the invitation to all three top candidates "will remain open, because illegal immigration is a problem that is not going away before Election Day, or anytime soon." For McCain, the ire of a prominent immigration hardliner, and a member of his own party, is something he doesn't need.

If Barletta can't overcome Kanjorski and McCain comes close or wins his own battle, maybe the GOP will rethink their approach to illegal immigration. If the opposite happens, or if McCain loses a significant portion of the Republican base, watch for immigration hardliners to try and reassert themselves as a dominant force in the party moving forward.

While few races can really be said to have been determined based on illegal immigration, the Kanjorski-Barletta matchup will truly determine if immigration moves a large number of votes, or if it's even a partisan issue at all.

EMILY's List Hits Primaries

EMILY's List, an outspoken and powerful group that backs women candidates running as pro-choice Democrats, has waded in to two more primaries in recent days, bolstering a front-runner and an underdog in North Carolina and Virginia. Whether the organization will do harm or good in at least one of those contests, though, is still up in the air.

The group, whose endorsement comes with access to a wealthy and vast fundraising list, is backing former Rep. Leslie Byrne, a Democrat running to replace retiring Virginia Republican Tom Davis, and North Carolina State Senator Kay Hagan, who is running for the right to face Senator Elizabeth Dole in November.

In the Tar Heel State, the endorsement was bestowed upon the leading Democratic candidate. Hagan faces investment banker Jim Neal in the May 6 primary, and with an electoral base and impressive early fundraising, looks to be the likely nominee. Through the end of the year, Hagan had $515,000 in the bank, about three times what Neal had stored up. Both candidates trail Dole by a wide margin; she had almost $2.7 million on hand through December.

It's not the first race EMILY's List is involved with in North Carolina. Earlier, the group announced its backing of Lieutenant Governor Beverly Perdue, in what has become a contentious Democratic primary for governor with State Treasurer Richard Moore.

While Hagan may be a safe choice for the group, the decision to back Byrne in Virginia will be more contentious. The Eleventh District, which Davis has represented since 1994, is one of the most narrowly split districts in the country, giving President Bush just a 2,000 vote win in 2004. Based in rapidly-expanding Northern Virginia, the area is ripe for a Democratic takeover, especially considering the recent strong performance of state Democrats.

But many believe Byrne isn't the candidate for the job. Nominated for Lieutenant Governor in 2005, she lost to Republican Bill Bolling even as Democrat Tim Kaine took the top job, largely on the strength of impressive vote totals in the Washington suburbs and exurbs. Local Democrats have better feelings toward Fairfax County Council chairman Gerry Connolly, though Byrne's name recognition and base -- she was the incumbent Democrat Davis beat in 1994 -- make her a tough competitor in the primary.

EMILY's List's role in the race became more evident this week when the group paid for part of a mailing slamming Connolly for "bullying" tactics on the supervisors' board, the Washington Post reported today, and for hiding relationships with organizations that eventually got contracts with the county. Byrne's campaign paid for the rest of the mailing.

Connolly, who released a poll recently showing him with a two-to-one lead over Byrne, hit back hard, accusing his rival of "swift boating" fellow Democrat Mark Warner during the 1996 Senate race and implied the future governor and now-Senate candidate was a racist.

The scrum is one of the first major blow-ups in a race that isn't expected to get any nicer. The winner of the June primary will face off with businessman Keith Fimian, for whom Davis cleared the GOP field. While the Democratic primary may be ugly, the party is favored to pick up the seat, as Politico's Josh Kraushaar wrote in his extensive look at the district this week.

The Beer-Wine Divide

Still nursing a post-St. Patrick's Day hangover? Depending on your choice of tipple, you may be more predisposed toward voting a certain way, a new poll finds. It seems self-explanatory: Chug a beer and you probably favor John McCain. Sip a fine merlot and you're probably going to cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. But it's always fun when someone actually surveys the country.

The poll, taken 3/14-16, surveyed 1,019 adults about their choice of beverage and their choice of candidate. Opinion Research Corporation conducted the poll on behalf of CNN, with McCain, Obama and Clinton tested. 28% of respondents said they prefer beer to wine, while 31% prefer smashed grapes to malted hops. An astonishing (and hardly believable) 41% said they never drink. Among the subsamples of wine and beer drinkers, the margins of error are +/- 6.5%. Among the total sample, the margin of error is +/- 3%.

General Election Matchups
(All / Beer / Wine)
Obama 47 / 48 / 53 (-5 from last, 2/1-3)
McCain 46 / 50 / 42 (+2)

Clinton 49 / 46 / 54 (-1)
McCain 47 / 53 / 42 (nc)

What can we learn from wine and beer drinkers? The most obvious conclusion is that those who don't drink are more likely to oppose a Democrat, as is most evident in Obama's numbers: He polls better than the sample as a whole among guzzlers of both beverages, meaning his numbers among non-drinkers must be considerably smaller.

One might assume that wine drinkers are more likely to be women while beer consumers are probably men, hence Clinton's larger "tipple gap" and McCain's strong performance among hops lovers. But we can only speculate, as those cross-tabs aren't readily available.

We initially wondered why those who prefer shots of Jagermeister weren't surveyed, but then we recalled that those people are most likely to be campaign staffers and journalists, and those types tend to be the first ones kicked out of a polling sample.

ME Field Set

Filing closed Monday in Maine, where an open House seat is attracting big attention from a number of prominent Democrats. The state's First District, based around the state capitol in Augusta and the largest city, Portland, came open after Democratic Rep. Tom Allen made his bid for Senate official, and the resulting race to file for office was nothing short of a free-for-all.

Of the six candidates to file, former Common Cause President Chellie Pingree is the early front-runner, with polls from her campaign showing her well ahead of the other competitors. One recent survey, from prominent pollster Celinda Lake, shows Pingree leading the field with 38%, while no other candidate cracks double digits.

But Pingree won't have an easy ride in the state's June 10 primary. The former State Senate President and 2002 Senate nominee will face two other ex-Senate leaders, Mike Brennan, who served as majority leader, and Mark Lawrence, who served as President and ran for Senate against Republican Olympia Snowe in 2000. Current State Senator Ethan Strimling is also in the contest, as are physician Steve Meister and attorney Adam Cote, both of whom served in Iraq.

The primary will not be cheap, by any means. Pingree had already raised nearly $800,000 through the end of 2007 and spent $340,000. Lawrence, Strimling and Cote had all raised more than $300,000 as well. To win, Democrats will need to convince the district's large population of liberals to back their cause. In that pursuit, Pingree trekked to Washington on Monday to join about a dozen other challengers from around the country who back a withdrawal from Iraq and allowing lawsuits against telecom companies who cooperated with the government in aiding eavesdropping.

The state's other hot race will be the Senate contest, where Allen faces incumbent Republican Susan Collins. In a state that votes heavily Democratic in presidential contests, Allen is the Democrats' best possible candidate, though two polls in the Fall showed Collins with wide leads.

Only one Republican filed against Second District Rep. Michael Michaud, further confirming that what was once a battleground district -- he won his first race, in 2002, by a 52%-48% margin -- is now safely in the Democrat's hands.

TN Dem Faces Tough Fight

Freshman Democrat Steve Cohen faces a difficult rematch this year that could rob him of his seat in a district where racial tensions bubble just under the surface. Cohen, whose district includes Memphis in Tennessee's southwestern corner, is one of a very few white members of Congress who represents a majority-minority district, which Harold Ford vacated to make his ill-fated Senate bid.

In 2006, Cohen, a long-time State Senator, barely beat Nikki Tinker, a former aide to Ford, with just 31% in a 15-way primary. Tinker was one of several serious African American candidates, while Cohen was the only serious white candidate. Cohen went on to win the general with 60% of the vote, though the second-place finisher, Jake Ford, Harold's brother, took 22% as an independent. This Congress is the first in more than 30 years that a Ford has not represented the seat.

Nearly 60% of the district's voters are African American, and, as a measure of how crucial their support is in a primary, Cohen initially sought to join the Congressional Black Caucus. CBC leaders had none of it, and Cohen dropped his bid.

This year, Tinker is running again, and she's hitched her wagon straight to Barack Obama's, arguing that she represents the most change possible. While that might spell bad news for Cohen, he actually benefits from Jake Ford's re-entry into the race, this time as a Democrat. Tinker is the more polished candidate, and she raised $250,000 -- an impressive amount for an intra-party challenger -- through the end of 2007, though Ford will help split the African American vote.

Cohen's $521,000 in the bank is a not-insubstantial sum, and both candidates will spend the vast majority of their money in the August primary. President Bush managed just 30% of the vote in 2004, and given what is expected to be heavy turnout in a presidential contest, the Democratic nominee is expected to waltz to victory in November.

But that primary is expected to be bloody, and racially-tinged. Whether Cohen can stave off Tinker and Ford will be determined by how many African American voters he can move to his column, and the percentage of white voters who are on his side.

For Tinker, the key to victory is uniting the black community around her candidacy, marginalizing Ford and casting the contest as a two-way battle between herself and the incumbent. If she is able to do that, she will likely knock off incumbent Cohen. The task won't be easy, though: Ford's name identification is through the roof, thanks to his brother and his father, who held the seat for years before Harold Jr. came along.

Update: The Memphis Flyer reports today that Jake Ford returned to the elections office yesterday to re-file for the race as an independent instead of a Democrat. His second bid for office could be just as difficult as his first, but by running as an independent he's given Tinker a serious leg up in the primary.

Morning Thoughts: Split Decision

Good Wednesday morning. Half a decade ago today, the United States started a war in Iraq that defined the Bush presidency and, for better or worse, the U.S. as a whole in the eyes of the world. On a gray morning, here's what Washington is watching:

-- The House and Senate are still on recess, and will be until the end of next week. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will be hard at work, though, assessing the impact of climate change on the Hawaiian Islands during a hearing in Honolulu. Tough work, but someone has to do it. President Bush will discuss the five-year anniversary of the war in Iraq at the Pentagon this morning, then meets the President of Georgia at the White House.

-- Barack Obama's speech on race relations in America, delivered yesterday morning in Philadelphia, won praise for its candor and insight while drawing criticism from some on the right. First, the positive: Obama took a risk akin to Mitt Romney's speech on Mormonism, and while Romney came out of the speech looking alright, Obama reestablished himself as a post-racial candidate, which is exactly what he needed to do. The speech "was temperate and built on logic, not fiery or built on passion," Politico's Roger Simon wrote. The key, to Slate's John Dickerson, was that the speech was "deeply personal." Ben Smith thinks the address, and Obama's style, echo Walt Whitman.

-- What if the speech helps Obama in the primary, among Democrats and left-leaning independents, but wounds him in a general election matchup against John McCain? Many whites, some Democrats fear, could be just looking for an excuse to avoid voting for Obama, and while his statement that he can no more throw Rev. Jeremiah Wright under the bus than he can his own white grandmother was a nice turn of phrase, it might not have gotten through that way. TNR's Michael Crowley thinks the speech needed to convince those working-class white voters, and Obama may have missed the mark. Conservative reaction to the speech bent in the same direction, for a different reason: They wanted a loud condemnation of Wright, and they didn't get it.

-- The last link above, to National Review's Jim Geraghty, gets to a common theme Obama is going to have to find a way to circumvent in the general election. One of Geraghty's readers is offended by Obama's statement that the first experience in a black church can be "jarring to the untrained ear," and that invoking a curse on the country is probably jarring to any ear. Whether it's a failure to completely disassociate himself with Wright, or the absence of a flag on his lapel at all times (which he asserts is no measure of his patriotism), or rumors flying about his refusal to put his hand over his heart during the pledge of allegiance (not true), people who do not follow the campaign closely -- that is, a large number of voters who are going to be making up their minds in mid- to late-October -- actually question Obama's love of country. Matched up with McCain, that drumbeat is only going to get louder.

-- Hillary Clinton did something yesterday she hasn't done since early February: She won not one, but two super delegates, when a West Virginia party official and Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha each threw their support behind the former First Lady. Murtha had said as early as last month that he wouldn't back a candidate, the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat writes, but his district, in the mining company of southwestern Pennsylvania, is expected to go heavily for Clinton when the primary rolls around. Too, the endorsements are a page-turner, making it okay, once again, for super delegates to back Clinton over Obama.

-- But neither Clinton nor Obama wants to win based on super delegates. They will happily do so, but they'd rather get over the top thanks to pledged delegates. Clinton's hopes of doing that are fading, along with re-vote hopes in Michigan (where plans are on life support) and Florida (where plans are already six feet under). To highlight the Michigan factor, Clinton will actually make a stop in the state this morning, where in Detroit she will call for a re-vote. Clinton's team, including delegate guru Harold Ickes and spokesman Phil Singer, have charged the Obama campaign with dragging its feet, the New York Times writes, while Obama advisers maintain they're still considering the plan and blamed Michigan legislators.

-- More trouble for Clinton: After a long delay, 11,000 pages of Clinton records from her years as First Lady will be released by the National Archives this morning, the New York Times writes, prompting a new round of stories about the scandals of the 1990s. Inevitably, there will be one or two meetings on the list that Clinton never disclosed, generating a new round of conspiracy-theory hatred and outrage, all of which, at this point, the Clinton camp really wants to avoid. The goal was to release the documents after the primary had finished, but that didn't happen. And with Clinton's tax documents set to be released on April 15, there's going to be another round of bad stories a week before the Pennsylvania primary.

-- But, a hint that something's turning a corner in HillaryLand: The campaign has hired Geoff Garin, of the polling firm Garin-Hart-Yang, to join chief strategist Mark Penn in crafting a message for Team Clinton, NBC's Chuck Todd scoops. That move, in which Garin is said to be working alongside Penn instead of replacing him, could go over very well for everyone involved. Donors who don't like Penn will be mollified, and Garin has experience in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, and partner Fred Yang is the most prominent Indiana pollster in the business.

-- Amendment Of The Day: Hundreds lined up for hours outside the Supreme Court building yesterday, just blocks away from Politics Nation Plaza, to get their seat for the first Supreme Court case to tackle the issue of gun rights since 1939. The discussion, of District of Columbia v. Heller, ran twenty minutes over the alloted time, the NYT reports, and justices seemed generally to agree that there is a personal right to own handguns. Whatever the court's decision, it will likely change the way the courts see guns in the future.

-- Today On The Trail: Clinton hits Detroit this morning, followed by stops in Charleston and Huntington, West Virginia. Obama starts with a major speech on Iraq in Fayetteville, followed by a town hall meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina. John McCain, who yesterday visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, continues his tour through the Middle East and Europe.

SCOTUS Surprises WA Parties

In a decision that took the Washington State Democratic and Republican Parties by surprise, the Supreme Court reversed an Appeals Court decision to uphold a controversial new method for choosing general election candidates. The move rejected party lawyers' arguments that they retain First Amendment rights of association when nominating a candidate. The 7-2 decision upheld a voter-approved top-two primary system wherein the two candidates with the most votes in a primary would advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

The method for choosing candidates, passed by voter initiative after the Supreme Court struck down the previous system, known as the blanket primary, has been tied up in courts since it was passed in 2004. The Court ended the blanket primary, under which a voter could vote for a Republican for governor and a Democrat for Congress in the same primary, as parties argued the process robbed them of control over their own nominating contests.

Under the system, party attorneys argued, David Duke had been allowed to run as a Republican in Louisiana even as the GOP rejected his white supremacist beliefs, and Lyndon LaRouche was allowed to run as a Democrat for president, though party leaders rejected his beliefs as well. It is the domain of the parties, the Court agreed during the blanket primary debate, to control who their nominee is by controlling who votes in their primaries.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for five of the seven-member majority, said the voter-approved method was sound, and that it is the domain of the states to control elections. Therefore, the initiative passed muster as the will of the voters. A top-two system, Thomas wrote, would be constitutional because the primary does not actually nominate candidates from a particular party, it simply advances those who have won. Initiative 872 was widely popular, by Washington State standards, garnering almost 60% of the vote in 2004.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy dissented, saying the rights of the parties were being infringed. "The electorate's perception of a political party's beliefs is colored by its perception of those who support the party," Scalia wrote for the pair. "[A] party's defining act is the selection of a candidate and advocacy of that candidate's election by conferring upon him the party's endorsement."

That view meshed perfectly with the argument Washington State Republican Party attorney John White told Politics Nation after he spoke before the court. "The ability of a political party to select its message and messengers is really what a political party is all about," White said in October. White had voiced optimism given the reactions from justices, as had a top lawyer for the State Democratic Party.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sam Alito joined the majority with a concurring opinion, though they helped narrow the scope of the decision. Washington State Democratic Party attorney David McDonald said the ruling maintains that the party keeps the right to bestow its blessings on certain candidates. The ballot voters will actually see will simply list the parties each candidate prefers, instead of adopting a party identifier. "Clearly, they're saying we have a right to nominate our candidates," McDonald said after reading today's opinions. "The existing ballot form [in which candidates are listed along with their party of choice] doesn't work."

McDonald painted that as at least a partial victory for the parties, and said the ruling shows the Court is still skeptical of the state's ability to come up with a ballot design that passes constitutional muster. "Roberts and Alito were skeptical that they could come up with a ballot design," he said. The decision "is actually pretty narrow."

The decision could alter several states' election methods. The Washington State blanket primary was ruled unconstitutional as part of a suit that challenged California's identical system, in California Democratic Party v. Jones, which was argued in 2000. Alaska also lost their primary in the case.

The impact, for California, was minimal: Voters had only been allowed to cast ballots for any primary candidate since 1996. But the Washington State system had been in place since 1935, and the method under which parties have held primaries since the Jones case has stirred voter dissatisfaction with both parties, as they are now required to register by party on the day of the primary.

Now, Washingtonians will again be able to vote for any candidate they choose in the first step of balloting. It will be a rare occurrence in which two members of the same party make it to the general election together, but it's not out of the question: In 1980, now-U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott ousted Democratic Governor Dixie Lee Ray in the primary, then went on to lose the general election to Republican John Spellman. Ray, the second-place finisher in the primary, received 70,000 more votes than Spellman did in the GOP primary.

The "Cajun primary," so-called because it is derived from a system Louisiana still uses, will begin with this year's primary contests, which will happen in August, Secretary of State Sam Reed told the Associated Press. Reed has been an outspoken advocate of the new system, to the chagrin of both his own Republican Party and the opposing Democrats.

Dems Miss Funding Mark

The host committee for the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver has missed a key fundraising goal, the Rocky Mountain News reports today. The committee, which was supposed to come up with $28 million by yesterday, stands about $5 million short, according to a spokesman.

It is the second time Denver has missed a deadline, making some nervous the party might not reach the $40.6 million goal by mid-June. Even that figure, the spokesman said, is probably short of the $45 to $50 million convention organizers will need to operate the four-day event without going into debt. Those watching convention fundraising suggest the shortfall is caused by the lack of a Democratic nominee.

Still, the missed deadline is not likely to have a dramatic impact, as convention committees routinely miss deadlines. The $23 million raised is almost twice what organizers had pulled in by the end of March, 2004, when the committee setting up the Boston convention had raised only $12.7 million.

Republicans also find themselves in better position than four years ago, with $15.3 million raised through December 31, ahead of the $13.5 million they reported at the end of 2003. Both committees will file new FEC reports on April 15, just after the first quarter ends.

Politicos Place Their Bets

Democratic Reps. Alan Mollohan, of West Virginia, and Raul Grijalva, of Arizona, sit on the same side of the aisle, but come this weekend, they won't be speaking much. In fact, one of the two is likely to cast a disparaging eye toward fellow Democrat David Price, of North Carolina, later this weekend. That's because Mollohan's West Virginia University and Grijalva's University of Arizona face off in the first round of the NCAA tournament for the right to face Price's Duke (barring an upset by 15th-seeded Belmont, in Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper's district).

The tournament is a great excuse not to work for a few days, and it gives members of Congress yet another reason to make bets, shipping local delicacies to their foes if they lose. Roll Call [pdf] has the bracket, broken down by Congressional district, giving everyone a healthy excuse to call their rivals (especially if they're the higher seed). We don't know what it says that 43 of the 65 teams in the field are represented by Democrats, but it gives the majority party plenty of chances to bet against their fellows.

Price, who represents a college-heavy district in a basketball-heavy state, has the best chance of coming out on top. His two entries into the tournament, North Carolina and Duke, are a one- and two-seed, respectively, and will at least survive the first weekend. However, either Rep. Elijah Cummings or Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, both of Maryland, will lose their team tonight when Coppin State, in Cummings' district, faces Bartlett's Mount St. Mary's in the play-in game. Their prize: Facing UNC.

Our sleeper member of Congress: Washington State Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers, whose seventh-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs face North Carolina Rep. Mel Watt's 10th-seeded Davidson, while her fourth-seeded Washington State Cougars take on South Carolina Rep. John Spratt's Winthrop.

Roll Call isn't the only one having fun with the tourney. John McCain is also putting up a bracket challenge, where for the price of your email address you, too, can compete for McCain for President paraphernalia like fleeces, hats and pins. As an added bonus, McCain's bracket will be publicly available after tipoff Thursday, and contestants get to match their point totals against the Arizona Senator. McCain got some heat for the bracket pool last year, as some suggested the contest wasn't exactly in keeping with his historic opposition to betting on college sports.

The NCAA tournament is a good reminder that games, like politics, aren't played on paper. At some point, there will be an upset, and polls and seeds give only part of the picture.

Expanding The Map

As Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton head toward Pennsylvania, the Keystone State has already failed to become what so many others have tried to be: Ground zero. Conventional wisdom held that, had Clinton won Iowa, the Democratic race would have come to a screeching halt. If Obama had won New Hampshire, it was all over. Barring that, Super Tuesday was supposed to decide the nominee.

None of those scenarios came to pass. In fact, even Obama wins on March 4, in Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island (he managed a win in Vermont) would have increased calls for Clinton to leave the race. When she won all three of those states, the focus turned to Pennsylvania, where the final battle was supposed to take place.

Now, though, the Obama campaign is playing down Pennsylvania, and the Clinton campaign is going along. Over the next several days, Obama will make swings through North Carolina and West Virginia. Clinton will travel to West Virginia before making a swing through Indiana. Indiana and North Carolina voters cast ballots on May 6, while West Virginia holds their primary a week later, on May 13.

So, for anyone who thought the race would be over by any of the aforementioned contests, you're in good company: Virtually everyone thought the same thing. We have five weeks to get the same impression about Pennsylvania, but given the way things have shaken out so far, both campaigns have no illusions that the contest will continue well into May, at least.

When's the first time a candidate schedules a trip to Puerto Rico? Politics Nation hopes to bring you that visit live from the scene.

More Misstatements Re: FL, MI

Democrats in Florida and Michigan are in two very different situations. Sunshine Staters have given up the prospects of being allowed to vote a second time, while Michiganders have sent their own June 3 re-vote proposal to both candidates for their inspection. After the developments yesterday, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton sent out statements that once again have both of them misconstruing the process to make themselves look good.

"Today's announcement brings us no closer to counting the votes of the nearly 1.7 million people who voted in January. We hope the Obama campaign shares our belief that Florida's voters must be counted and cannot be disenfranchised," read Clinton spokesman Phil Singer's indignant statement after Florida.

"We hope that all parties can agree on a fair seating of the Florida delegates so that Florida can participate in the Democratic Convention, and we look forward to working with the Florida Democratic Party and competing vigorously in the state so that Barack Obama can put Florida back into the Democratic column in November," the Obama campaign chimed in.

Clinton's camp seems to think the process is controlled by voters, and it's not. There is no provision in the Constitution for a primary, meaning, as the Supreme Court upholds, it's not up to the people to be able to vote, it's up to the parties to be allowed to choose a nominee. However they do that is up to, solely, the Democratic and Republican National Committees. Therefore, no one in Florida, or anywhere, has been disenfranchised this year: They can't be enfranchised to begin with.

In Obama's case, it makes no sense that delegates should be seated in any way other than allocated in the January 29 primary. In baseball, if a batter refuses to get into the batter's box, the umpire can let a pitcher hurl away at an empty plate, and the umpire can call anything a strike. Obama's argument that he didn't campaign in the state is akin to a petulant batter: Just because he didn't show up doesn't mean the contest isn't going to happen. (Bonus points, though, for using the word "Florida" four times in one sentence.

Obama's camp also released a longer statement on what they called a complex re-vote proposal in Michigan. "Considering the fact that Senator Clinton is currently trying to prevent and delay votes in Texas from being counted because she didn't like the outcome, it's pretty apparent that the Clinton campaign's views on voting are dependent on their own political interest. Hillary Clinton herself said in January that the Michigan primary 'didn't count for anything.' Now, she is cynically trying to change the rules at the eleventh hour for her own benefit. We received a very complex proposal for Michigan re-vote legislation today and are reviewing it to make sure that any solution for Michigan is fair and practical. We continue to believe a fair seating of the delegation deserves strong consideration," the statement said.

The statement is a less than subtle call for an even split of delegates, never mind that Clinton won 56% of the vote and "undecided" and "uncommitted," two place-holders for Obama, took 40%. So while Obama's campaign stalls for time, prodding the legislature's plan for holes that would unfairly benefit their rival, their definition of "fair" seems to be malleable. And

And if the Obama camp prefers the argument that they weren't even on the ballot in Michigan, they might be reminded that it was their decision to withdraw Obama's name from the ballot. No one -- not even the chairs of the four early states that forced candidates to sign a no-campaign pledge -- forced them to do so. In fact, other campaigns, lacking the financial resources to compete in Michigan, happily followed suit.

Whatever the outcome -- a re-vote in Michigan and a Florida split seems most likely at the moment -- both Democrats are understandably trying to spin the results in their favor. Both positions the candidates have staked out, though, just ring hollow.

Morning Thoughts: The Speech, Part II

Good Tuesday morning. Five weeks from today, voters in Pennsylvania head to the polls to cast ballots. Five weeks and one day from today, the race will still be going strong. Here's what Washington is watching today:

-- As the economy struggles through difficult times, the dollar sinks to new lows and oil prices spike to new highs, the Senate meets in pro forma session to prevent President Bush from making recess appointments and the House is on recess. President Bush is in Jacksonville, Florida, where he will have lunch benefiting the Republican National Committee, followed by a speech on trade policy and RNC fundraiser number two in Palm Beach.

-- Barack Obama gives a major speech on race in America from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia this morning, nearly a week after comments from his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, surfaced in several news outlets. Like Mitt Romney's speech on religion in December, Obama's has opportunities and pitfalls to avoid. If he becomes the candidate of race, he will likely lose, and to the detriment of the Democratic Party for what could be decades to come, by splitting off a crucial portion of the Democratic electorate.

-- But Obama's main appeal has been more post-modern than any other candidate: He's been called "post-partisan," or "post-racial," and therein lies the key to a successful speech today. Obama, like Romney, has the unique opportunity to own a day of coverage (Although Obama has only two other candidates to compete with, whereas Romney had about two dozen) and to use the speech to define himself, and a generation of supporters, as something beyond race. If Obama does that successfully, there may be no stopping his march to the White House. But while the speech improved Romney's poll numbers in the days afterward, it should be noted that he still came up short.

-- And Obama is different, not only because of his race but because of his generation. The first post-boomer candidate to really have a shot at the presidency is important not only to note a coming changing of the guard (It may not happen now, but it's coming soon, Boomers), but also explains Obama's strength. Obama did not grow up marching for civil rights; he was too young. Instead, his formidable years were in the late 1970's and early 1980's. That, suggests the Post's Nikita Stewart, is why younger African Americans (who Stewart calls the "Hennessy and hope" crowd) embraced him so early, while older African American leaders stayed with Clinton or were late to the Obama party.

-- Still, recent polls show Obama's numbers have actually gone down lately, both against John McCain and against Hillary Clinton (check out those spikes), not an uncommon occurrence of late: Every time the glare has been turned onto one of Obama's potential weaknesses, his support experiences a minor hiccup. That's exactly what the Clinton campaign has been pointing to as evidence that she would be the strongest nominee. If he wins the nomination, Democrats will have to hope his campaign gets better at crisis management and that one of the forthcoming hiccups won't turn into a choke.

-- Then again, as Obama and Clinton fight over the Democratic nomination, they're going to have to eventually settle the question of just how a candidate gets nominated. That process took another step backwards yesterday when Florida Democrats abandoned plans to hold some sort of revote, the AP's Brendan Farrington and CNN's Rebecca Sinderbrand write. "This doesn't mean that Democrats are giving up on Florida voters. It means that a solution will have to come from the DNC Rules & Bylaws Committee," Florida Democratic Party chair Karen Thurman said in an email. But before the Rules and Bylaws folks do anything, they're going to have to strike an agreement between the Clinton and Obama campaigns, and that's going to be tough work.

-- Abandoning their effort to hold a revote, Florida Democrats dealt a serious blow to the Clinton campaign with the announcement. Widely popular in the state, and with a good foundation from which to run, Clinton will now have to make due with, at best, a few extra convention bodies instead of a larger share of what would have been the state's 210 delegates and super delegates. With time running out, Clinton's going to need to put together a string of wins akin to Obama's eleven-game streak between February 9 and March 4, in states like Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia and, critically, Michigan, where the legislature is debating the proposed June 3 primary bill today.

-- Every day of Democratic squabbling is a good day for John McCain. As both Obama and Clinton rushed out statements on the economy yesterday, McCain, who self-admittedly knows little about the economy, did not -- he was in Iraq and Jordan. Top economic adviser Doug Holtz-Eakin said McCain has confidence in Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke, and praised the Fed's "creative, and, in some ways extraordinary" measures to promote financial stability, he told the Wall Street Journal. But McCain's going to have to deal with at least one part of his economic policy, and probably soon: He's always been against bailouts, even for those in foreclosure. Clinton and Obama, if they ever get out of their primary, would love to take on that grooved pitch.

-- Eye-Popping Number Of The Day: To get a sense of how much money this presidential contest is going to cost, look not only at the hundreds of millions raised and spent already, and the millions more pouring into Clinton's and Obama's coffers (The $85 million in February could easily be eclipsed this month), but look at pledges from outside Democratic groups. We know the AFL-CIO is planning a more than $50 million outreach and GOTV program, but we didn't know that other unions, affiliates and sympathetic organizations are planning a total of more than $400 million in outside spending, as Ben Smith reports will be revealed today. Throw in just one of the larger Republican organizations expected to weigh in with similar amounts of cash and the independent spending alone could reach a point at which organizers could have bought Bear Stearns twice.

-- Today On The Trail: Obama's only public event is his speech in Philadelphia. Clinton will meet voters in Philadelphia and in Millersville, just outside of Lancaster about halfway between Philadelphia and Harrisburg. John McCain, meanwhile, has left Iraq and is visiting Jerusalem, which itself may become an issue before the campaign is out.

Obama's Opportunity On Race

In early December, amid stagnant poll numbers, Mitt Romney began facing the serious prospect that an underground whisper campaign, spreading rumors about his Mormon faith, would sink his bid for the White House. To counter misperceptions and change the discussion, Romney offered a speech, at the George H.W. Bush presidential library, on the place of religion in the public square.

Many thought the idea of a major address, coming just a month before the Iowa caucuses, was a fatal mistake. But in the aftermath, Romney's poll numbers went up, and his campaign ended up doing well enough to earn more delegates than any candidate but John McCain. By successfully navigating the dangerous waters of a speech on religion, Romney not only kept his candidacy afloat, but finished in better position in several states than pre-speech polling suggested.

Today, Barack Obama faces the same challenge on a similarly taboo yet crucial factor in this year's presidential contest, when he will discuss race in what his campaign is billing as a major address at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center. Like Romney, Obama's speech is a dangerous one to give; but like Romney, Obama can use the address to bolster his campaign.

Race and religion are two topics that neither candidate wants as part of an election debate. For Obama, bringing up race can hurt the image he's spent his political lifetime crafting. Race brings up hundreds of years of negative history and the notion that the conflict is still about one group fighting another. Obama's appeal is the opposite, as a post-racial, post-partisan politician, and about moving past those divisions. Any time people are reminded of the past, they're not looking toward Obama's future.

On the other hand, Hillary Clinton, John McCain and the Republican National Committee won't touch the issue of race either, for fear of instant branding as racists. There are plenty of obvious differences between Obama and McCain, should they face off in November, most notably age, experience and their thoughts on the war in Iraq. Clinton faces her own danger, risking the destruction of the modern Democratic coalition by alienating a hugely important part of the base. Opponents who talk about race against Obama will only speed their own destruction.

The electorate won't say it, but both topics weigh on at least some voters' minds. That division was most obvious in Mississippi, where white voters showed more obvious reluctance to vote for the African American candidate than they had in other states. Too, Obama's poll numbers in several primary states have dramatically over-stated his actual support, suggesting at least some role for the Bradley effect.

Like Romney, who attended the funeral of Mormon President Gordon B. Hinckley in the days leading up to February 5, Obama has a religion problem too. Rumors that Obama is Muslim were somewhat disproven last week with the release of several videos of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But Wright's inflammatory statements just substituted one crushing Obama burden for another.

Today's speech will reportedly address Wright's comments as well as the role of race in the campaign. Despite the obstacles, Obama can turn that into a positive, primarily by focusing on a larger picture of the future. In Barack Obama's America, every race can be lifted up, and every race can benefit, he should say.

The difference between Obama and other, older African American leaders is generational. Obama, along with other, new African American leaders like Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, did not live through the tumultuous 1960s, when civil rights leaders marched through the streets and clashed with racist authorities in the Deep South.

Instead, they grew up as the first generation of African Americans became millionaires, after segregation and during a period when, compared with the rest of American history, race relations had never been better.

That doesn't mean there isn't anger in the African American community. But casting the discussion about race as about moving the country forward, instead of as a conflict between two inherently adversarial sides, is the key for Obama's speech.

Obama's "hope" slogan, dotting yard signs across the country, is speaking to people. Anything other than the same on race relations and Obama could wind up stumbling over what could become a make-or-break moment in his bid to change history.

Harkin Avoids Big Challenge

A week after Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor was left without a Republican challenger, the GOP failed to field a major candidate to face Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, dealing the embattled Senate Republican caucus another blow. Harkin, running for a fifth term in the Senate, will face either a former state representative or one of two businessmen running in the GOP primary.

None of the three potential challengers are seen as a threat to Harkin, who has a long history of beating back well-funded and well-known GOP opponents. In his elections to the Senate, he defeated an incumbent Republican in 1984, then held off Republican members of Congress in 1990, 1996 and 2002.

The NRSC had hoped another member of Congress might make the race. NRSC chairman John Ensign hinted that a major recruit was poised to run in an interview earlier this year with Politics Nation, but both Reps. Tom Latham and Steve King declined a bid.

Their hesitancy may have been well-founded. Harkin, who raised and spent almost $7 million in 2002, had already pulled in nearly $4 million through December, FEC reports show. Steve Rathje, one of the businessmen running against him, had raised only $70,000 through the end of 2007 and had just $58 -- not a typo -- on hand. (Full disclosure: Part of that money went to pens bearing Rathje's name, one of which sits on Politics Nation's desk)

SCOTUS Takes Up Gun Ban

In what could be one of the defining decisions in a generation, the Supreme Court this week will take up a 32-year old Washington, D.C. law that bans owning a handgun, the strictest such law in the country. And, as the Washington Post noted yesterday, the resulting decision could finally offer a definition for the Second Amendment, something the court has failed to do in the past.

The case, District of Columbia v. Heller, seeks to answer not only whether Washington can have a gun ban, but in fact how far the Second Amendment goes. The gun ban itself is subject to debate: Crime has gone down since the ban was enacted, but nearly 200 murders still happen inside D.C.'s borders every year, and police confiscated nearly 3,000 guns last year despite the ban. Proponents, including virtually every elected leader in the city, say the ban's removal would cause a sharp spike in crime, both in Washington and in neighboring Maryland and Virginia.

The suit could have ramifications far beyond Washington. "This may be one of the only cases in our lifetime when the Supreme Court is going to be interpreting the meaning of an important provision of the Constitution unencumbered by precedent," Georgetown University law expert Randy Barnett told the Post. None of the nine justices currently on the court has ever ruled on a Second Amendment case, meaning none has said much on the record on the subject.

In fact, the last time the Court ruled on a Second Amendment case was in the 1930s, an instance in which Chief Justice John Roberts said the Court "sidestepped" actually ruling on the underlying amendment. In striking down the D.C. gun ban last year, U.S. District Court Judge Laurence Silberman wrote the amendment grants an individual rights, as other amendments do. Opponents of that ruling say the amendment grants access to arms only to military organizations.

Those arguing for Washington benefited from a government brief, written by Solicitor General Paul Clement, backing the gun ban. The Bush Administration said overturning that ban would imperil other federal gun laws, including those banning ownership of machine guns. That position was opposed by gun rights advocates, including Vice President Cheney, who took the unusual step of signing an amicus brief opposing the administration in which he serves.

Among the presidential candidates, John McCain holds the same position as Cheney and gun-rights advocates, but he has not focused on gun rights as much as other candidates did. While Mitt Romney was professing to shoot varmints and Mike Huckabee was seen hunting with his dog, McCain said he doesn't own a gun now. McCain calls gun ownership a "fundamental, individual Constitutional right," though he supported background checks at gun shows in the late 1990's.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have spoken less on guns and gun control, though they have generally voted for restrictions on automatic weapons and against immunity for gun manufacturers. Clinton has gone farther, co-sponsoring a bill in 2000 that would have required licenses and registration for handguns.

Should the issue become a major one in the presidential contest, Democrats will likely tread lightly while Republicans will focus on the individual rights concept. Recent wedge issues, like immigration, have failed to provide the GOP with any serious electoral victories, and some even argue that issues like same-sex marriage bans, which were on ballots across the country in 2004, didn't help Republicans all that much. In 1994, though, backlash against President Bill Clinton's moves to tighten gun control was blamed for many Democratic losses in that year's elections.

AK LG Targets Young

Alaska Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell will run against long-time Republican Rep. Don Young, the Associated Press reported over the weekend. Parnell, who won election to the LG's office after serving as a state senator and state representative, is the second prominent politician to join the race against Young, whose troubles with an investigation surrounding an oil services company could get worse before they get better.

What separates Parnell and former State Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, another top candidate challenging Young, is that Parnell is part of a new wave of Republicans in the state intent on ridding the Alaska GOP of what they see as a corrupt old boy's club. Parnell was elected on a ticket with Governor Sarah Palin, who in turn cleaned the clock of then-Governor Frank Murkowski, also a Republican, in the 2006 primary.

Young, who has been in office since winning a special election in 1973, has experience chairing the House Resources Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and like long-time Republican Senator Ted Stevens, he's steered millions to his home state thanks to his influence on Capitol Hill. Visitors to his posh Rayburn Building office are greeted by a massive bear pelt tacked to the wall.

The idea of facing Parnell is not one that Young likes. After Parnell's announcement, in Anchorage, Young, who had held a press conference earlier, offered a snappy comeback. "I beat your dad and I'm going to beat you," Young said, referring to his Democratic opponent from 1980, who Young bested by a wide margin.

Given recent polling data, though, Young has an uphill battle to fight. A recent poll from the Hays Research Group showed 55% of Alaskans viewed him unfavorably, Politico's Josh Kraushaar reports. The 40% who view him favorably may, though, be enough to get him through the Republican primary on August 26, in which he will face Parnell and State Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux.

The winner of that primary will face the winner of a Democratic primary featuring Berkowitz, former state Democratic Party chair Jake Metcalfe and frequent candidate Diane Benson, who faced Young in the general in 2006. Berkowitz, the former Democratic leader in the State House, is favored to win the primary and, should he face Young, could steal the seat for Democrats; an early December poll showed him leading the incumbent by seven points in a head-to-head matchup.

If Parnell pulls out a GOP primary win, though, Berkowitz may have a tough time in an overwhelmingly Republican state. The last time the two met, in the Lieutenant Governor's race in 2006, the Palin-Parnell ticket beat out their Democratic rivals by about seven points.

Bonoff Leads In Own Poll

Minnesota State Senator Terri Bonoff leads her closest rival by four points, a survey for her campaign shows, suggesting that Democrats have a strong chance to pick off a seat held by retiring Republican Jim Ramstad. The survey suggests the state's Third District, which surrounds Minneapolis on three sides, could be one of the closest contests of the year.

Conducted by Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the poll was taken 3/11-12 and surveyed 401 likely voters. The margin of error is +/- 4.9%. Bonoff, Democratic attorney Ashwin Madia and Republican opponent Erik Paulsen, a state representative, were surveyed.

General Election Matchup
Bonoff 44
Paulsen 40

Paulsen 43
Madia 40

Bonoff, the candidate of choice for Washington Democrats, purportedly leads Madia in a primary ballot test, though those numbers were not released. Bonoff had raised just over $300,000 at the end of December, with $230,000 left in the bank, compared with $166,000 raised and $124,000 in the bank for Madia. Paulsen, who has a clear shot at the GOP nod, has raised nearly $390,000 with $363,000 left in reserve.

Democrats competing in the Third District has to be a serious blow to GOP psyches in Minnesota, but it's a story that is being repeated around the country. The suburban district, which includes the Mall of America and Lake Minnetonka (after which Tonka toys are named), has been trending more Democratic of late after a century of being prime Republican territory. President Bush never took a victory larger than five points -- he beat John Kerry in the seat by just three.

Still, Bonoff's lead is not overwhelming, and her race won't be easy. Eager to increase gains made in the North Star State in 2006, when the party held a Senate seat and picked up a congressional seat, D.C. Democrats are likely to make Bonoff's victory a top priority and could spend heavily to do so. Paulsen, by all accounts a good candidate, will not be an easy foe to beat, especially in an area where many still reflexively reach for the GOP lever.

Morning Thoughts: The Real World

Good Monday morning. The field of 65 teams is set, and we're betting the team from Maryland makes it through Tuesday's play-in game. And by the way, try not to have a three-Guinness lunch on St. Patrick's Day. We'll have some good stories this afternoon. This morning, here's what Washington is watching:

-- What Congress calls the Spring District Work Period, college students everywhere call spring break. Congress won't return for two weeks. President Bush meets Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams for a St. Patty's Day reception at the White House before heading to a luncheon at the Capitol. Later, he meets with advisers on the markets, which are likely in for a rough day.

-- On the campaign trail, when advisers aren't saying something dumb and degrading about the rival, or when some secret of a candidate's past isn't making news, real events intrude, and they do so in a way that can have a greater impact on the landscape than any of those other distractions. As Congress leaves town for two weeks, and in the lull before the race for Pennsylvania and the remaining Democratic nominating contests, the real world is allowed to intrude, and it has. The economy, foreign affairs and Iraq are all going to play big roles this year, and today news is coming out of all three.

-- Hong Kong's Hang Seng index was down 5.2% today, while European markets are down between 2-4% as trading continues. As we post, nervous Wall Streeters are gathering for what looks like their own bad day. That comes just hours after the Federal Reserve helped bail out Bear Stearns, one of the largest investment banking firms in the country. (JP Morgan Chase will buy the beleaguered bank for $2 a share. That's quite a deal: The stock opened Friday at $57 a share.) The housing crisis shows no signs of slowing, while the word "recession" is uttered by officials at increasingly senior levels in government. A tanking economy, California Rep. Kevin McCarthy told Politics Nation, is bad for all incumbents. "When the economy gets tighter, people get more frustrated. When you're frustrated, you want to fire somebody," he said.

-- Foreign affairs have long played an important role in the election. It virtually handed John McCain the GOP nomination, and lately Hillary Clinton has used the notion of the importance of experience in foreign policy -- over the weekend, she held an event to broadcast her work on behalf of peace in Northern Ireland -- to some effect. Foreign affairs will intrude more prominently on the race, especially in terms of China, where clashes over the weekend killed at least 13 people, the Associated Press reports, though that number may be much higher. The riots, in Lhasa, Tibet, began as protests by monks before escalating and making the Chinese government send tanks to the territory they have occupied since 1950. The spotlight will be on China and it's relationship with the rest of the world in August, when Olympians head to Beijing to compete, and the candidates will have plenty to say on the subject as well.

-- But Iraq will remain at the front of voters' minds, if not always in the most important position. With John McCain making a surprise, but hardly unexpected, visit over the weekend, and with renewed press attention revolving around the five-year anniversary of the war, Iraq is going to stalk the campaign as Republicans try their best to focus on what they will call McCain's successful surge strategy and Democrats point to the overall failures of the Bush Administration and, by extension, a would-be McCain Administration. Answer this question and solve the presidential contest: Which is more important to voters, the fact that the country is in a war to begin with or where the U.S. goes from here? If Democrats are successful in arguing the first point, they will win in November. If McCain makes the second case better, he'll be sworn into the White House. (By the way, how irritated is McCain's team that Vice President Cheney also chose this moment to visit Iraq?)

-- Back to politics for a moment. As candidates near $250 million in spending on ads and pause in their ad broadcasts for the first time in six months, at least, according to Evan Tracey, there seems to be a collective gathering of breath. But as has happened repeatedly on the Democratic side, a pause and time gives Obama the opening he needs to close gaps with Clinton. It happened before Iowa, it happened before Nevada and the February 12 states. The only places Obama didn't make up ground when he had time were Ohio, where he got thumped, and Texas, where he actually won more delegates despite losing the primary. As further evidence that he does well when nothing's going on, he won an additional ten delegates this weekend, thanks to Iowa's county conventions, more, as NBC's Chuck Todd points out, than Clinton netted from the Buckeye State.

-- Clinton is determined not to let nothing happen. As she paraded the streets of Scranton and Pittsburgh over the weekend, celebrating St. Patrick's Day, her camp unleashed a full-frontal assault on Obama's relationship with Tony Rezko and hitting back on Obama's suggestion that she release her tax records, calling in turn on him to release records from every year he's been in public office, Athena Jones writes. Obama shot back, sitting down with reporters at two hometown papers to answer questions about Rezko, which impressed the Chicago Tribune, and his release last week of earmark requests may open another avenue of attack on Clinton's forthrightness.

-- Unlike previous Obama crises, the candidate is answering questions not because he's defending himself, but because he's about to parry. Obama's professorial nature has hurt the candidate at times; when attacked, he feels the need to respond to every charge, which, of course, just guarantees those charges another airing. This time, he's getting questions about his past out of the way in advance of a full-out attack on Clinton, the Trib's John McCormick writes. If we think we've seen the worst of the Democratic infighting, there may be a whole new level just ahead.

-- Pseudo-Endorsement Of The Day: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested in an interview aired yesterday that super delegates ought to back the candidate with the most pledged delegates at the end of the primaries, The Swamp's Silva writes. With Obama leading by 170 pledged delegates in the latest RCP Democratic Delegate Count, that's as good as an endorsement, right? Asked about the comments on a conference call yesterday, Obama strategist David Axelrod said he wouldn't presume to know Pelosi's motives, but he couldn't agree with her point fast enough.

-- Today On The Trail: John McCain is in Iraq, part of a week-long trip overseas that will include stops in the Middle East and Europe. Clinton delivers what her campaign is billing as a major foreign policy speech this morning at The George Washington University in D.C., and Obama holds a town hall meeting in Monaca, Pennsylvania. Later, he will have dinner with the Society of Irish Women, an organization celebrating the holiday in Scranton.

Dems' Red-To-Blue, Round 2

House Democrats this week announced the second round of challengers the party will back as part of its Red-To-Blue program, an operation that provides material and advisory support to candidates the DCCC thinks has a strong shot at winning GOP-held seats. The program can raise big bucks for a candidate; in 2006, they averaged more than $400,000 per campaign for the 56 targeted seats.

This time, thirteen top recruits will join the eight candidates touted in round one, which the DCCC launched in late January. Several are familiar names for House watchers, though others are first-time candidates running in districts the party did not think were in play until last year.

Several candidates are making a second bid at a seat they narrowly missed in 2006, including Darcy Burner, who lost to incumbent Dave Reichert in Washington; Christine Jennings, who missed beating now-freshman Republican Vern Buchanan by just a few hundred votes in Florida; Larry Kissell, who came up barely short of North Carolina Rep. Robin Hayes; Eric Massa, a slight loser to Randy Kuhl in upstate New York; and Dan Seals, who gave a surprisingly close race to suburban Chicago Rep. Mark Kirk.

First-time candidates are targeting some incumbent Republicans who represent marginal districts and who will never get an easy race. Robert Daskas, a Clark County prosecuting attorney, is giving Republican Rep. Jon Porter a tough challenge in a suburban Las Vegas seat that Al Gore won in 2000. State Representative Steve Driehaus is facing off with Ohio Republican Steve Chabot in his Cincinnati-based district. And Republican Chris Shays faces another tough race, this time from non-profit group director Jim Himes, in Connecticut.

The party is still trying to expand the playing field, targeting several other races where Democrats have not been a factor in recent years, seats that could be more difficult to pick up this time. Of the five candidates on that portion of the list, three are women with experience in government already. Former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes is challenging Republican Sam Graves in a district that surrounds the city. Anne Barth, as we wrote yesterday, is taking on Shelley Moore Capito in central West Virginia. And former State Rep. Suzanne Kosmas is challenging Republican Tom Feeney in wealthy Orlando suburbs east to Cape Canaveral.

The two remaining Red-To-Blue targets come from Michigan, which Democrats have big hopes of winning after recent gains in the state legislature and after re-electing Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm despite an ongoing economic crisis in the state. State Senate Democratic Leader Mark Schauer is taking on first-term Rep. Tim Walberg, who beat out a more moderate Republican incumbent last year in what is rapidly becoming a swing district. And former State Lottery Commissioner Gary Peters is challenging Joe Knollenberg in his northern Oakland County seat. Knollenberg outspend his Democratic opponent nearly eight to one in 2006 and won by just six points.

The Red-To-Blue program certainly doesn't guarantee success -- many challengers from last cycle are not members of Congress today. But if the party can keep funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into these and more races to come, House Republicans may have even more difficult situations on their hands. Democrats, though, have their own troubles: What Speaker Nancy Pelosi called an "embarrassment of riches."

Pelosi wrote a letter to colleagues this week, Politico's Patrick O'Connor reported, urging them to pour more money into the DCCC's coffers and to expand the wide fundraising lead the committee already enjoys over the NRCC. "At this point," Pelosi wrote, "we simply cannot afford to fund all the races we will have." She cited Bill Foster's victory in the Illinois suburbs as proof of the positive landscape the party faces.

AZ 05 Field Smaller

Arizona Corporation Commissioner Jeff Hatch-Miller has dropped his bid for the GOP nomination to take on freshman Democrat Harry Mitchell, the Arizona Republic reported earlier this week. The exit leaves four candidates in the race and one still considering a bid to win the Tempe- and Scottsdale-based Fifth District.

Though he entered the race early, Hatch-Miller was seen as one of the weaker candidates in an unusually strong GOP field. Former Maricopa County Treasurer David Schweikert, former State Rep. Laura Knaperek, State Rep. Mark Anderson and former lobbyist Jim Ogsbury are still in the race, while former Scottsdale City Councilmember Susan Bitter Smith is still contemplating her chances.

Any of the five potential Republicans would give Mitchell, who beat incumbent Republican J.D. Hayworth in 2006, a good race, but the state and national GOP may have to work to reduce the number of competitors in order to avoid a bloodbath.

Schweikert, who has raised the most money, received the endorsement of the conservative Club for Growth, known for its hard-hitting tactics in Republican primaries. Still, he told Politics Nation in an interview last week, he is willing to publicly call on the Club to hold negative attacks against his opponents. Knaperek, originally seen as a strong competitor, has lagged in fundraising, while Anderson is seen as potentially too conservative.

Ogsbury brings a significant personal fortune to the race, though his history as a lobbyist in Washington may cause problems. Bitter Smith has some in the state GOP excited, but she has yet to make a formal decision, though she was in Washington last week to meet with potential funders.

Mitchell, the former Mayor of Tempe who has a 30-something foot tall modern art statue in his honor outside the city's municipal building, will present no easy target to House Republicans. He's cast a moderate swath around the House, voting most recently against the Democratic budget and keeping his pro-Pelosi voting score low. National Journal rated him recently as the most conservative member of the state's Democratic House delegation.

The district, though, is likely to vote heavily for John McCain in the fall. President Bush won by nine points and eleven points in 2004 and 2000, and while the district is changing, the home state Senator being at the top of the ticket could drive significant GOP turnout.

Mitchell raised over $1 million in 2007 after spending nearly $2 million on the race as a challenger in 2006. He retained $868,000 in the bank. Schweikert had over $410,000 after a $250,000 loan, and Ogsbury had $350,000 after giving himself a loan identical to Schweikert's. The race could prove one of the most expensive in the country, and is likely to be heavily contested.

If Mitchell survives this year, he could own the seat as long as he likes -- at 68 years old, he was the oldest member of the freshman class. But with a solid GOP field and candidates raising good money, surviving this year may be a difficult prospect.

Pelosi, Again, On WH Race

Is it that she doesn't like one of the candidates? Is it that she's just trying to keep her name in the news? Whatever the reason, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi again said the chances of a presidential ticket featuring both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama just ain't gonna happen, NBC's Mike Viqueira reported yesterday.

Whether the combination is Obama-Clinton or Clinton Obama, Pelosi said her "lifetime of political gut" told her some other arrangement will come to pass. "Take it from me, that won't be the ticket," she said. Earlier this week, Pelosi said essentially the same thing at a school in Boston, and at her press conference yesterday she was asked to clarify those remarks.

"I think it is impossible," Pelosi said, per a transcript of yesterday's presser released by her office. "However, let me just say I do think we will have a dream team. It just won't be those two names."

Pelosi said she is excited by the level of enthusiasm both candidates bring to the table, but that she hopes the nasty exchanges of recent days end soon. "I don't like to see disagreement among candidates, but when you set your cap to run for President, you make a decision to go," she said. "And sometimes in the enthusiasm of all the people you attract to the process, some of the exchange is not at the highest level. I think, by and large, it has been and will return to that level."

Asked specifically about Clinton backer Geraldine Ferraro's comments that Obama has an advantage for being black, Pelosi declined to take a shot at the former vice presidential candidate, instead offering subtle criticism. "I think that it's important that perceptions be understood by campaigns and whether -- whatever was the intention or whatever the good thoughts that people may have had about their statements, we have to remember how they are perceived by others," Pelosi said. "And I think that the Clinton campaign moving to, shall we say, put some distance was very important."

Neither Pelosi nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have endorsed a candidate on their own, though those close to both top Democrats have made their own endorsements. Several key Pelosi allies in the House, most notably California Democrat George Miller, have backed Obama, while Reid's son Rory, the chairman of the Clark County Commission, was instrumental in delivering his state for Clinton.

As chair of the Democratic National Convention, Pelosi has said she will remain neutral in order to resolve any disputes that arise. But mentioning the unlikeliness of an Obama-Clinton ticket seems strange, and to go back to it twice only makes more ears perk up.

Casualty List Grows

With the resignation Wednesday of former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro from Hillary Clinton's campaign, the list of those no longer affiliated with campaigns thanks to embarrassing personal scandals or ill-advised statements has grown again, and given the amount of attention cable news networks pay to each surrogate's every utterance, the pace shows no signs of slowing.

The LA Times' Scott Martelle has a pretty good list of all those who are no longer with campaigns or had to drop out unexpectedly. Some, like Ferraro and ex-Obama adviser Samantha Powers, needed no assistance from lawyers to step aside. Others, though, are in need of some legal assistance for the faux pas that got them canned.

Our nominees for ex-advisers/aides/supporters of the year have to include: Bob Allen, the Florida state senator who was busted in a public park for soliciting a police officer, an ex-McCain state co-chair. Jay Garrity, Mitt Romney's body man who was accused of impersonating a police officer on a few occasions. And Thomas Ravanel, the wealthy South Carolina State Treasurer and Rudy Giuliani state chair who, for some reason, decided to traffic in cocaine on the side.

Martelle also points out Kristian Forland, a Bill Richardson field director in eastern Nevada, who resigned after his history of bad check-writing came out. Later, it was revealed he was accused of taking money from employees at a local brothel, where he helped out (ex-Clinton backer Eliot Spitzer, Martelle notes in the line of the day, "had the opposite problem").

Should every one of the former aides/advisers/supporters have resigned? Probably not, though most helped their campaign by doing just that. Given the incredible number of reporters, bloggers and cameramen covering the race this year, everyone's going to be caught saying something stupid. Ferraro tried to fight back, though it turns out that didn't work. When will someone successfully defend their comments?

AL Dem Retires

Nine-term Democrat Bud Cramer will not seek re-election this fall, the Birmingham News reports, giving Republicans a chance to pick up a seat in heavily-red territory. The founder of the National Children's Advocacy Center, Cramer was first elected to Congress in 1990 after ten years as a county district attorney.

Cramer's Fifth District, which runs along the state's northern border with Tennessee, is anchored in Huntsville and is home to many dams as part of the Tennessee Valley Authority as well as to an important NASA laboratory. Though it has never elected a Republican to Congress, the district gave President Bush a ten-point margin in 2000 and a whopping 21-point win in 2004.

Cramer ran unopposed in 2006 and hasn't had a difficult race since 1994, when he won by a single percentage point. A centrist, Cramer voted near the middle of the House in every category. If Democrats are to hold the seat, they will need a candidate who can fit that mold.

Potential candidates include State Senator Parker Griffith, Public Service Commissioner Susan Parker and State Rep. John Robinson, all Democrats. Attorney Ray McKee, a former rocket scientist, is the only Republican in the race at the moment, though rumors are swirling around State Senator Arthur Orr, real estate investor Stan McDonald, whose brother in law, Robert Aderholt, represents the neighboring Fourth District, and Wayne Parker, a Republican activist in the region.

Cramer's is the second retirement from Alabama this year, after Republican Rep. Terry Everett announced he would step down earlier. Cramer also becomes the sixth Democrat to say thanks, but no thanks, to another run, though only the third not seeking a higher office instead. His departure will leave a seat on the Appropriations Committee open, the first Democratic seat to open up this year after six Republican seats have already opened thanks to retirements.

Given the seat's overall tilt toward the GOP, Republicans will likely target the seat. "We clearly view this seat as a potential pickup opportunity. The recruitment process has already begun and we look forward to competing for the seat in the fall," NRCC press secretary Ken Spain said in a statement out this morning.

In 2006, as Democrats picked up thirty seats in the House, Republicans not only failed to knock off a single Democrat, they didn't pick up any of the other party's open seats, either. While several freshmen and longer-term incumbents are vulnerable again this year, Cramer's seat presents perhaps the GOP's best shot at a pickup.

Both parties will have to scramble: Cramer announced his retirement yesterday, just over three weeks to go before the April 4 filing deadline.

Morning Thoughts: Welcome To Washington

Good Friday morning. Whenever politics starts to get a little tiring, it's good to think that Opening Day is just 11 days away, and that tipoff of the NCAA tournament is less than a week away. Here's what Washington is watching today:

-- The House is actually in session on a Friday, when it will continue considering amendments to the electronic eavesdropping bill that forced the chamber into secret session yesterday, the first in the House since 1983. The Senate, after sticking around late last night to pass their budget resolution -- the first time in six months that all 100 senators cast a vote, thanks to West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, who's back from the hospital -- is taking today off. President Bush will address the Economic Club of New York and attend an RNC fundraiser there.

-- As Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama held a friendly three-minute chat on the Senate floor yesterday, Clinton's team was busy arguing that Obama "can't win the general election," as chief strategist Mark Penn said on a conference call yesterday, USA Today reports. Penn argued Obama's inability to win Pennsylvania raises serious doubts about the candidate's electability in November. The Obama campaign had a quick response: "It can't inspire too much confidence in the Clinton campaign when their pollster ignores both polls and math by making comments as divorced from reality as this one," spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

-- Both campaigns say the types of states they are winning means they are somehow more electable in November. Both campaigns have a point: Obama is attracting huge attention, much of it from independents, a not-insignificant portion of the general election base, and in states Democrats have to win to expand the playing field. Clinton is putting together the traditional Democratic coalition that Obama is not, a coalition that has won a lot of elections before. Still, it's important to remember that both Clinton and Obama are facing Democratic electorates, where Republicans and right-leaning independents are not involved and where voters are still largely voting for the candidate as opposed to against them. So electability, evidenced by vote totals now, is a tough argument to make.

-- Both Democrats, back in Washington to cast votes on the budget, are playing on John McCain's turf these days, and it's not the first time. After Clinton and Obama demonstrated what McCain called "new-found enthusiasm for suspending" earmarking, Obama followed through with a promise to release all his earmark requests, Lynn Sweet reported. That's something Clinton has yet to do, though of course doing so comes with a risk: Obama requested an earmark for $1 million for the hospital where wife Michelle worked, as NRO's Geraghty reports, drudging up past complaints of a mysterious salary bump for Michelle Obama.

-- But there is no question who is winning this debate: On Iraq and national security and now on federal spending, McCain is driving the debate, even though he may be relegated to Page 2 in the local paper. Adviser Charlie Black told MSNBC this morning that the campaign is smart enough to stay out of the Clinton-Obama firing circle, and the team has to be pleased with the notion that they can step back, start the general election campaign free of competition and scoop up a little money along the way. Meanwhile, the Democrats are trying to out-McCain each other, making the Republican's job that much easier (though still pretty difficult) in November.

-- The plan to redo Florida's primary faded as fast as it was proposed, with state party chair Karen Thurman admitting that any mail-in redo is looking more and more unlikely. But Michigan is moving toward a revote that NBC's Chuck Todd says is a real possibility, given that all the state's Democratic actors are involved and on board. That contest would be financed by private money donated to the state, which would then conduct the election on June 3.

-- Alternatively, writes Mark Halperin, a delegate plan under consideration would split Michigan's delegates down the middle (remember, Obama took himself off the ballot there) and seat Florida's delegation, giving each delegate a half a vote each (essentially what the RNC did to New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Michigan). That would net Clinton about 19 pledged delegates, along with a few more from the ranks of both state's super delegates. Will Obama allow even a single delegate to go to Clinton when he doesn't have to? Or, at this point, envisioning a possible general election in which Michigan and Florida would start off being mad at the Democratic nominee, does he have to acquiesce to some sort of deal?

-- Guess who's back from the grave? Fresh off suggesting he would be honored to consider the vice presidency, Mitt Romney is forming a PAC that will allow him to assist down-ballot Republicans, Marc Ambinder reports. Close Romney advisers say he hopes to set up a policy shop that can help other Republicans come up with ideas. One theory: If Romney is left off a McCain-led ticket that loses after he virtually asked for the chance, he's perfectly set up to be the told-you-so candidate in 2012. Then again, something to worry over, Romney could find himself facing another policy-based blast from the GOP past that year: Watch out for Newt Gingrich.

-- Calendar Marker Of The Day: While Clinton and Obama were on Capitol Hill chatting together, sweet-talking super delegates or just walking presidentially down the stairs (click the link, you'll see), their campaigns agreed to do the one thing we need most: Another debate, this one on ABC News on a date to be determined (likely April 16) in advance of the Pennsylvania primary. Obama's on board for another one too, on April 19, to be held on CBS.

-- Today On The Trail: McCain has a morning town hall meeting in Springfield, Pennsylvania, followed by a fundraiser on Obama's turf in Chicago. Clinton will reportedly be endorsed by two prominent Pittsburghians (Pittsburghers?) -- including 20-something Mayor Luke Ravenstahl -- at one of her two scheduled events near the three rivers. Obama has no public events planned for the day and will be in Chicago.

GOPers Play Blame Game

From today's Wall Street Journal Political Diary:

The news just keeps getting worse for Republicans in Congress: After losing a Congressional seat that once belonged to former Speaker Dennis Hastert in Illinois, the party lost what may have been a winnable seat in Indiana. Adding insult to injury, the National Republican Congressional Committee spent more than $1.2 million losing the Illinois race and yet didn't spend a penny in Indiana despite its candidate getting slammed by the NRCC's heavy-spending Democratic counterpart.

But members of the House Republican Caucus aren't ready to pack it in and go home just yet. The party raised $8.6 million at an annual dinner in Washington last night, headlined by President Bush, exceeding even the $7.5 million goal set for the shindig. And members of Congress let it be known they consider the loss of the former Hastert seat an aberration that can be blamed on the candidate.

While the loss was a blow, GOP leaders blamed dairy owner and wealthy businessman Jim Oberweis for being a flawed candidate. "Jim Oberweis went from being perceived [as] the tenacious guy to just being a wealthy individual looking for a gig," one Republican Member of Congress said. "There's nothing the NRCC is going to do about that. To lay [the loss] on the doorstep of the NRCC, it would be inaccurate."

In turn, a strategist familiar with the Illinois campaign suggested Mr. Oberweis lost because Democrats effectively tied him to President Bush, even casting the special election as an opportunity to vote against the current administration. That has to be troubling to national Republican leaders, who have long maintained that Mr. Bush will not be on the ballot, and thus not a factor, in 2008.

Shrugging off the Bush albatross would be difficult enough if the party were on an equal financial footing with Democrats. But that's hardly the case. Even after last night's dinner (and assuming they spent nothing on the dinner), the NRCC still trails House Democrats by more than $20 million in cash on hand. The job of defending a stunning number of vulnerable open seats will be even more difficult if the GOP has an empty checking account.

Ex-Rep To Make KS Sen Bid

Former Congressman Jim Slattery, who represented Kansas in the House for six years, will make a run for Senate, he told top Kansas Democratic officials yesterday. Slattery, who has been out of politics since running unsuccessfully for governor in 1994, and who is now lobbyist at the Washington-based firm Wiley Rein, will return to Kansas to take on Senator Pat Roberts.

Slattery would not confirm his plans to the Kansas City Star's Steve Kraske, though he did say he will return to his Topeka home immediately. Kansas Democratic Party chairman Mike Gaughan spilled the beans earlier yesterday to the Associated Press, which reported the news.

Though Democrats are excited to get what they consider to be a top-tier candidate, Slattery faces an extremely uphill climb against Roberts. In ten elections for Congress or the Senate, Roberts has never received less than 62% of the vote, and in 2002 did not even face a Democrat in his re-election bid. Kansas as a whole voted for President Bush by 21 points in 2000 and 25 points in 2004, though it has elected Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebelius twice and two of the four members of the House from the state are Democrats.

Roberts, one of two senators from the state elected in 1996 when he replaced Republican Nancy Kassebaum after her retirement (Sam Brownback also won election that year to fill the unexpired term of Senator Bob Dole, who resigned to run for President). Through December, Roberts had banked just over $2.7 million, making Slattery's job in a heavily Republican state that much more difficult.

Poll Has Dems In Good Spot

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows Democrats are in generally good position to expand their Congressional majority, but that the emerging Republican talking point that this year will be an anti-incumbent year is more than just a pretty excuse.

The Democratic Party is in better position that Republicans, validating talk of a GOP branding problem. 45% of voters see the Democratic Party in a positive light, while 35% see them negatively. Just 34% see the Republican Party in a positive way, while 49% say they view the GOP negatively.

Americans also want a Democratic Congress by wide margins, favoring that outcome by a 14-point margin, 49%-35%. That margin is down a point from the last time pollsters asked the question, just days before the 2006 election. Essentially unchanged, that means Democrats are preferred now, after more than a year in charge, as much as they were when voters were paying the most attention and Democrats took thirty GOP-held seats.

And as Barack Obama pitches change, that message may work on a congressional level as well. Only 20% of Americans say the country is headed in the right direction, while 66% say it's off on the wrong track. President Bush has only a 32% approval rating, while 63% disapprove, and John McCain is seen as likely to follow Bush's policies by 77% of the electorate. Just 19% say McCain would go his own way.

Those numbers spell out a series of disasters the GOP will have to work through. Forget McCain's strong showing in head to head polls against Obama and Hillary Clinton, if he is seen as close to President Bush he may even win the election while losing seats in the House and Senate. A weak GOP brand gives the party little footing from which to launch serious challengers to Democratic incumbents, and Republicans will also have a hard time convincing voters they are the ones who offer a new direction for the country.

But not all is bad news. Just 19% of survey respondents said they approve of the job Congress is doing, while 69% said they disapproved. That's close to the way Congress was viewed in the middle of October in 2006, just a few weeks before Democrats won back control; then, only 16% of voters approved and 75% disapproved of the body's job performance.

"The image of Republicans in Congress is low," NRCC chair Tom Cole admitted to Politics Nation in an interview last month. "The Democrats have managed, in a year, to get down to where we're at. They had a real opportunity to be something different. Now, it's not an anti-Republican mood, it's an anti-Washington mood, and that affects both parties a lot, and hurts all incumbents across the board."

Cole's is a message Republicans across the country are parroting. If they are right, perhaps Republicans can win back at least a few of the seats they lost in 2006. If voters still associate Congress with Washington as a whole and the Republican White House, though, the GOP could be in for another rough ride in November.

The survey, conducted by Hart/McInturff, headed by two well-respected bipartisan pollsters, was conducted 3/7-10 among 1012 registered voters for a margin of error of +/- 3.1%.

Dems Target Capito In WV

Though the state has voted Republican in the last two presidential elections, West Virginia remains a heavily Democratic bastion. The state legislature is dominated by Democrats, and the party controls the governor's mansion, both Senate seats and two of three House districts. As the party faces what could be one of its better landscapes in recent memory, Anne Barth, a former aide to senior Senator Robert Byrd, has Democratic hopes up in the battle for the lone Republican seat.

The state's Second District, which cuts through the middle of West Virginia from the Ohio River to the eastern panhandle, has long been a congressional battleground. Encompassing voters from the extreme exurbs of Washington, D.C. all the way to the blue-collar rust belt, with Charleston in between, the area covers a wide swath of land and of political and cultural ideology.

In 2000, incumbent Democrat Bob Wise left his seat to run a successful bid for governor, vacating a seat he held since the early 1980's. In his place, voters picked Republican Shelley Moore Capito, a relative moderate who, because of her tenuous hold on the district, has been allowed to vote against the GOP conference more than most. Capito barely won her initial election, by just two points over a self-funded opponent, but she's faced easier re-election bids since.

This year, Democrats think Barth may be the candidate to unseat the state's lone Republican. In Washington Monday, Barth raised over $100,000 for her campaign with the help of fellow West Virginia Democrats Alan Mollohan and Nick Rahall, along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Roll Call's John McArdle reported. The DCCC also named Barth to the "Red to Blue" program that targets vulnerable GOP-held districts and assures candidates financial help and the support of mentors already in Congress.

Capito, who had raised $731,000 through December and retained $643,000 in the bank, will benefit from the year's presidential contest. The district will likely cast their ballots for John McCain in November -- President Bush won the seat by 15 points in 2004 and 10 points in 2000 -- and the increased turnout could help the incumbent keep her hold on the district.

Capito also has good relations with the United Mine Workers, an important part of the Democratic base in the district, which has offered her their endorsement before, after she fought the Labor Department over regulations that would have weakened current standards on coal dust. She also helped out the union by authoring legislation on health care for retired miners.

Barth faces an uphill climb in her bid to unseat Capito, but with national Democrats' help, she will ensure the race is not an easy one for the incumbent. From Washington to Ohio, voters in many states will watch the battle play out in expensive television ads, and given the amounts both candidates are raising, it could prove a fierce battle. If Democrats truly sweep in November, Barth could find herself commuting to Washington. If Capito continues her moderate streak, though, she may just hang on.

Morning Thoughts: The Perfect Storm

Good Thursday morning. Former Ohio Senator Howard Metzenbaum has died at the age of 90 at his home in Florida, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported. Metzenbaum, a Democrat, was appointed to a Senate seat in 1974 before losing and returning two years later, in 1976. He served until 1994. Here's what a saddened Washington is watching today:

-- The House will likely vote today on new eavesdropping legislation, an issue on which Republicans have repeatedly slammed their Democratic rivals for failure to act. The lower chamber also hopes to get through the budget resolution today. The Senate, meanwhile, will take up amendments to their own budget resolution and will hold a number of roll call votes. Meanwhile, a House Appropriations subcommittee holds a hearing with Census Bureau chief Steve Murdock, who, with two years to go until redistricting, is probably starting to feel the pressure.

-- The Democratic presidential contest, in the absence of any actual votes being cast, seems to teeter dangerously close to the brink of all-out war between two rival factions of the Democratic Party base. Former party veep nominee Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to join a national major party ticket, resigned her post as a top Hillary Clinton fundraiser after a few days of building anger over statements she made about Barack Obama, CNN reports. Now, new video has surfaced of Obama's Chicago pastor using his own racially-charged language in terms of the nominating contest. Both candidates are being driven terribly off-message, and down a path neither want to take.

-- Is Ferraro a racist? Is Jeremiah Wright a racist? No. But the passion each feels for her and his favored candidate pits older white women against African Americans. If the contest goes to the August convention and produced a bloodied nominee, that nominee could have to face John McCain with only 90% of the party's traditional base. Clinton and Obama themselves don't want the conversation to approach race with a ten-foot pole, and both are trying to control their surrogates. It is the media, home of blogs, 24-hour news channels and an insatiable reporting corps, that is driving the Democratic bus toward the cliff, and if Obama and Clinton don't figure something out, they'll be the ones going head-first toward the bottom.

-- Floridians and Michiganders aren't helping. Sunshine State Democrats have laid out a plan for a June 3 revote, Politico's Amie Parnes reports, and while Michigan is struggling, that party is putting together its own plan. With about a dozen contests, including those two, left to be conducted, there is an increasingly small window through which both candidates can squeeze. The primaries still have obstacles to overcome: Florida members of Congress came out against a re-vote, and others suggest the situation will not be solved as easily, or as cheaply, as the two state parties would like. One group solidly in favor of the plan: Mailing house Pitney Bowes, as the Wall Street Journal reports.

-- Meanwhile, Michigan is planning a state-run, party-funded primary, the Detroit Free Press writes today. Such a contest would cost $10 million, though Pennsylvania Governor Rendell and New Jersey Governor Corzine are looking forward to raising that money. If the money shows up, the Michigan legislature would have to vote to allow the state to accept private money for a new primary. Obama campaign representatives have flat out rejected the mail-in concept in Michigan, but manager David Plouffe would not make such bold statements.

-- The scenarios under which each candidate can actually win: Clinton needs to virtually run the table, and by not small margins, in order to convince super delegates that she has the momentum to win. Once she starts attracting a big new flock of super delegates, the case for Obama leaving the race will start to build. Obama needs to win Pennsylvania, or run up a bigger delegate lead in remaining states, to deprive Clinton not only of a majority but of any sense of a close race or a comeback. Mixed results will only cause more pain for both candidates.

-- Consider the perfect storm that's brewing, though: The Democratic nominee could head into November without their full base, having been nominated by every state except Michigan and Florida and without having raised the money to compete in a general election. The Republican Party's national chances are low right now, thanks to President Bush's bad image. But given the chaos across the aisle, should John McCain actually be considered the favorite if any of those scenarios come to pass?

-- On the other hand, at least some members of the Democratic coalition are targeting John McCain to try and prevent a train wreck. The AFL-CIO kicked off what it said would be a $53.4 million campaign against the Arizona Senator, NYT's Michael Luo reported, that will include comprehensive voter mobilization programs and union members shadowing McCain at every stop. Labor has been less than effective in recent presidential primaries (as the split AFL-CIO and Change to Win factions battle each other, and as dueling endorsements attest), but they're still a force come November.

-- Rising Political Fortunes Of The Day: Tony Zinni, Wes Clark and half a dozen other retired generals and admirals have become common names on the Democratic side of the campaign trail this year. As each campaign argues over which candidate is better prepared to answer a phone call at 3 a.m. or to handle a national crisis, we wonder which candidate is more likely to hold a conference call with the newly retired Admiral William Fallon. President Bush, upset with Fallon's public disagreement with his strategy, wanted Fallon out, NBC's John Yang reports. Remember that, Fallon's name will be around for a while.

-- Today On The Trail: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell exert the power today, reminding all three presidential wanna-bes that they still have votes to cast. Clinton, Obama and McCain will each vote on the Senate budget amendments today, meaning cameramen will be angling for any shot with the three of them in it together. Later, Obama appears on Gwen Ifill's NewsHour.

FL Re-Do Better For GOP

No, not the Florida re-do that's got the Obama and Clinton campaigns' attention. A new poll conducted for the National Republican Congressional Committee shows freshman Republican Vern Buchanan enjoying a significant lead over banker Christine Jennings, the Democrat he beat in 2006.

The race will get more attention than the average rematch this year. Allegations of faulty voting machines that would have propelled Jennings into the House have been lobbed so repeatedly that a special House committee was set up to investigate, though in the end Buchanan's victory was upheld. Jennings, who still feels she was cheated out of a seat in Congress, is trying again.

The survey, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies for the NRCC, polled 400 likely voters between 3/5-6 for a margin of error of +/- 4.9%. Buchanan and Jennings were tested.

General Election Matchup
Buchanan 53
Jennings 37

Buchanan has used the trappings of incumbency to his advantage. With a 51% approval rating and only 20% who disapprove of his job in Congress, the Republican looks like he's in much better position than he was last year. While some Democrats had hoped that outrage over the 2006 election would help Jennings this year, POS pollster Glen Bolger wrote that is unlikely: "[H]er shenanigans and complaining have hurt Jennings. Verbatims show her image is tarnished and voters hold her accountable for being a sore loser," Bolger wrote in the memo to the NRCC.

Democrats have other targets in Florida, including Rep. Ric Keller and three Cuban American Republicans who hold south Florida seats, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and brothers Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart. Too, the DCCC must invest in protecting freshman Democrats Tim Mahoney and Ron Klein. Their decision to make: Should Democrats blanket the entire state with advertisements, or should they prioritize elsewhere?

With so many seats to be contested, Florida is a state that is perhaps most likely to be influenced by the presidential race. With John McCain and one of the two remaining Democrats battling it out in November, added turnout from both parties will be crucial in determining who controls Buchanan's and most of the six or more competitive seats in the Sunshine State.

Two Sens Up With Ads

It may be early, but two incumbent senators seeking re-election are already up with television ads aiming to bolster their already-strong chances at another six years in office. Senator Max Baucus, the conservative Montana Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, and Senator Lindsey Graham, the moderate South Carolina Republican, have debuted two very different spots, and for very different reasons.

For Baucus, the math is simple: Avoid a strong challenger. The five-term senator has faced only one very strong challenge, from now-Rep. Denny Rehberg in 1996, when he took 50% to the Republican's 45%. In other years, Baucus has not slipped below 65%. National Republicans went to Rehberg urging him to run again this year, but he refused.

Baucus is now up with an ad featuring two Republicans, one the former head of the Montana Hospital Association, and a registered nurse, all of whom testify to Baucus' power in Washington and his connection to his home state. The ad, produced by Democratic powerhouse GMMB, is intended to remind Montanans that unlike Conrad Burns, Baucus' colleague until 2006, the Democrat has not lost touch with his roots.

Graham is facing the threat of a primary challenge from Republicans angry with his more moderate positions on immigration and for his role in the so-called "Gang of 14," the group of Senators who helped break an impasse over judicial confirmations. RNC committeeman Buddy Witherspoon has already launched a challenge, and though Graham has a financial and political advantage, he's not taking any chances.

In order to shore up his conservative credentials, Graham is turning to the one person least likely to be seen in GOP television spots as November approaches. "I'm proud to stand with Senator Lindsey Graham. He bases his votes on conservative principles," President Bush says, praising Graham's work on confirming Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito.

The ad, produced by Scott Howell & Co., is at once a reminder of Bush's remaining relevance and what could be his swan song in political spots. Ahead of the June GOP primary, Graham wants help from a face party regulars recognize and still love. And though he is known as one of John McCain's strongest allies, Graham turned instead to the president to get the job done. Come November, it will be McCain's face that replaces Bush's in many GOP Senate ads.

Alexander Leads Own Poll

First-term Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander is in strong position for re-election, a new poll conducted for his campaign shows. Even in a state with more registered Democrats than Republicans, Alexander, the former cabinet secretary and one-time presidential candidate, far outpaces the only two serious Democrats actively considering a bid.

The poll, conducted by Ayers, McHenry & Associates, a Republican polling firm, was conducted 3/5-9 among 600 registered voters for a margin of error of +/- 4%. Alexander, former Tennessee Democratic Party chair Bob Tuke and former Knox County Clerk Mike Padgett were tested. 39% of the sample was made up of Democrats, 32% of Republicans and 29% independent voters.

General Election Matchup
(All / Dem / GOP / Ind)
Alexander 59 / 26 / 93 / 66
Tuke 28 / 58 / 2 / 17

Alexander 58 / 23 / 94 / 64
Padgett 31 / 64 / 2 / 20

Alexander maintains strong approval ratings of 68% to just 17% who disapprove, and he's seen favorably by 67% of the state, while 18% view him in an unfavorable light. Neither Padgett nor Tuke is known by more than a handful of the state's population, making their already uphill battle against the popular and generally moderate incumbent all the more difficult.

The incumbent isn't extremely well-funded, but he had enough in the bank, and enjoyed enough favorable recognition, to scare off any serious Democratic threat. Through December 31, Alexander had a little over $2 million in the bank.

Among Democrats in the state, former Rep. Harold Ford, who lost a 2006 Senate bid against now-Senator Bob Corker, and Rep. Lincoln Davis are thought to have the brightest future. Two-term Governor Phil Bredesen, also a Democrat, may also consider an eventual political future once his tenure expires in 2010. Davis has already said he will run for governor that year.

Morning Thoughts: McCain's Hydra

Good Wednesday morning. After yesterday's voting in Mississippi, the long dry spell has officially begun. Mark the days on the wall, there are going to be a lot of them. Here's what Washington is watching this morning:

-- Both the Senate and the House consider their chamber's version of budget resolutions. A Senate Armed Services subcommittee investigates readiness of the armed forces in a closed meeting, while the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs panel takes up a bill on recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In the House, the Judiciary Committee takes up several immigration bills that could be hot topics.

-- Barack Obama won Mississippi's primaries last night, bagging seventeen of the state's 33 delegates, according to the latest RCP Democratic Delegate Count. With 99% reporting, Obama scored a big 61%-37% win, though one with overtones that neither candidate is going to welcome: Clinton won the white vote by a 70%-26% margin, while Obama took African American voters by a 92%-8% score. November is a long ways away, and at some point someone is going to have to start thinking about some kind of reconciliation. Otherwise, the demographic that leaves the convention with their candidate on the sidelines -- African Americans or older white women, both keys to the Democratic coalition -- may just stay home and kill the party's best chances at a win since 1932.

-- In hopes of bringing some order to the chaos, Florida Democrats are prepared to submit plans to the DNC by Thursday at the earliest, McClatchy's Lesley Clark writes. After undergoing a thirty-day public comment period, ballots would be mailed out in mid-April and due back sometime in late May or early June, with ballots counted by an independent accounting firm. The plan still needs to undergo scrutiny from the presidential campaigns and the state party executive committee, and the party still needs to come up with the estimated $10 million it will cost. The long process is nowhere near over, but it's closer than it was yesterday.

-- How's this for subtle: "I think any Republican leader in this country would be honored to be asked to serve as the vice presidential nominee, myself included," Mitt Romney told Fox's Sean Hannity yesterday. In his first post-campaign interview, Romney denied there were hard feelings between himself and John McCain, instead praising the Arizonan as the right man for the job. Given that the Bush family seems more content with Romney on the ticket in the number two spot, does he think openly campaigning for a pick is the way to go? On the other hand, maybe the Bush family blessing is exactly what Romney doesn't need.

-- In more McCain news, the campaign plans to decentralize its operations, sources tell Marc Ambinder. The details call for ten regional campaign managers that will essentially operate separate campaigns, empowered with broad authority to hire and fire. As McCain builds a national organization -- his numbers are still below 100 people, Ambinder writes -- the aides hired by several state parties will eventually be overseen by the regional managers, who will have seats in senior staff meetings. The plan, the campaign hopes, will allow more flexibility in handling field and press operations, though the message will still come from the camp's Arlington headquarters.

-- As expected, Indianapolis city-county councilor Andre Carson won a special election last night to replace his late grandmother, Julia, in the U.S. House. Also as expected, the race ended in a narrow 54%-43% finish, and Carson's Republican opponent, State Rep. Jon Elrod, has refused to resign, the Indianapolis Star reports. The district, which should be heavily and safely Democratic, has been trending more Republican in recent years, and Carson now faces two major problems. The non-knockout blow means Elrod can, and probably will, be back, and Carson himself may face trouble, even as an incumbent, in the state's May 6 primary, when turnout, thanks to the presidential primary held the same day, will be much higher.

-- President Bush will address a fundraising dinner held for the National Republican Congressional Committee in Washington tonight, and while he pulled in more than $10 million in commitments and checks for Republican governors last month, the goal tonight is just $7.5 million. But after a disappointing special election on Saturday, when the party lost former Speaker Dennis Hastert's seat in Illinois, and after not really competing in Indiana, the NRCC is reportedly having trouble meeting even that diminished goal. Financial woes are bad eight months away from an election, but NRCC chair Tom Cole has always said the money will be there. How bad can things get for Republicans if the money isn't there?

-- Smart Move Of The Day: McCain campaign chief Rick Davis responded to three moments of off-message distraction in the last few weeks with a broadly distributed memo urging surrogates and supporters to keep to campaign talking points, Jonathan Martin reports. "Overheated rhetoric and personal attacks on our opponents distract from the big differences between John McCain's vision for the future of our nation and the Democrats," Davis wrote, and though he did not single out those who have used Barack Obama's middle name as an attack, the thrust is clear. Instead, Davis asks that supporters stick to McCain-centric talking points, hitting on the GOP nominee's biography and history. Given how quickly race and gender explode in the media, Davis is probably onto a wise point.

-- Today On The Trail: Obama is back in Chicago where his campaign will hold a press conference with retired Admirals and Generals. Clinton left Pennsylvania for Washington last night, where today she will address the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the National Newspaper Publishers Association Presidential Forum. Meanwhile, John McCain must feel at home as he holds a town hall meeting in Exeter, New Hampshire before meeting with the press.

Philly Presents Challenge for Clinton

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania - Hillary Clinton took a center-court stage at Temple University's former basketball arena last night accompanied by political leaders who have years of experience delivering the city's votes to Democratic causes. But despite a decade-and-a-half long relationship with the City of Brotherly Love and many of those leaders' best efforts, this election may not be so kind to the senator from neighboring New York.

Philadelphia Mayor Nutter is trying to
help Clinton hold Obama's advantage down
Both Clintons have a lot to brag about when it comes to Philadelphia. Greeting a number of labor leaders, local Democratic Party chairs and other long-time politicos, former Philadelphia Mayor and current Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell warmed up the crowd, rattling off a list of accomplishments from Bill Clinton's tenure in the White House. The administration helped restore the shipyard, broke ground on the Constitution Center and put a thousand new police on the streets, Rendell said.

"Anybody who doesn't think the '90s was a good time for Philadelphia? The '90s was a great time for Philadelphia thanks to Bill and Hillary Clinton," Rendell said. The incumbent mayor, Michael Nutter, summed up his city's present responsibility: "Who would have thought that Philadelphia and our suburbs and Pennsylvania will play a critical role in deciding who will be our next president of the United States?"

But in a heavily African-American city surrounded by well-educated liberal enclaves, political watchers say, Clinton's best option may be to cut into rival Barack Obama's support and run up bigger margins around the state. "Obama's going to win the city," said Franklin and Marshall College political scientist Terry Madonna, a Pennsylvania political expert.

On the other hand, Nutter told Politics Nation he expects Clinton to outperform. "She'll do extremely well in Philadelphia. She's well-known, she's well-liked and she's well-respected," he said, though he downplayed the city's importance to Clinton's overall chances here. "There are significant areas of support all over Pennsylvania for Senator Clinton, but Philadelphia, you know, certainly has significant population and a population that is very interested in her message."

Nutter also refused to speculate on what percentage Clinton needs from Philadelphia in order to win the state as a whole. "Six weeks out, I'm not going to get into the numbers game," he said.

"The Clintons have deep roots here, and that will offset some of" the Philadelphia margin, Madonna said, estimating that 55%-60% of the city's vote turnout will be African American, a demographic that has broken overwhelmingly for Obama. Add to that wealthy white voters in areas like Chestnut Hill and Germantown, northwest of downtown, who are expected to vote with Obama and Clinton has an even steeper road to climb.

If she does not meet those high expectations, Clinton can make up any deficit in the western portion of the state, especially in Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located. That area, Madonna said, has been growing in influence in recent years, while Philadelphia has seen a relative drop in electoral influence. Still, the city is likely to be a big part of the Keystone State's electoral math, contributing up to one quarter of the votes cast in the Democratic primary, though Madonna thinks that number is optimistic.

"The battleground will be the Philly suburbs, the LeHigh Valley and South-Central Pennsylvania," Madonna said. Those areas voted very differently in the most recent hotly-contested Pennsylvania Democratic primary, when Rendell faced now-Senator Bob Casey in the race for governor in 2002.

Then, Rendell ran up huge margins of nearly five-to-one support in his city and its suburbs, while winning the valley and the South-Central region by much narrower fractions. Now, "if Obama wants to win, he's got to do something" in those areas. "Casey plays Clinton, with blue-collar, working-class Catholics. Obama plays Rendell, [building on support from] the city and the 'burbs," Madonna said.

Clinton, signing autographs in Harrisburg, will
likely have more success in central Pennsylvania
With six weeks to go before April 22, the Clinton campaign has started on the same experience theme she used, to some success, in recent primaries in Ohio and Texas. "The time for games is over. We've moved into the playoffs on our way to the Super Bowl," Nutter told the crowd at Temple University.

But while Clinton hit Obama earlier in the day, during a rally in Harrisburg, she let Nutter take care of it in his home city. "It's easy when you're not on the field to talk about what you would do, what you could do, what you should have done. This candidate's been on the field," he said, pointing to Clinton. "You want to run for mayor, you want to run for governor, you want to run for president, you gotta have some experience up in here."

Later, Nutter said he won election to the mayor's office the same way Clinton will. "They knew that I had the experience to serve the city well," he said. "Senator Clinton brings the same thing. She has the experience. She's been working for thirty-plus years on behalf of children, their families and other people who need help and support."

Clinton's strategy of playing up experience continues in Pennsylvania even as voters in another state told exit pollsters the issue was less important for them. Mississippians overwhelmingly said the ability to bring change was more important to their choice of a candidate than the right experience, by a 53%-19% margin. Clinton still won the experience argument, by a large margin, but if that is to be her coalition, she will have to refocus the debate.

Exit polls from Mississippi also echoed another recent trend that has to have Nutter and the Clinton campaign feeling optimistic: Among those who had decided on a candidate in the last week, Clinton won a narrow 51%-48% majority. But nearly four in five voters had decided more than a week ago, and they chose Obama by a wider 61%-39% margin.

Nutter said Philadelphia voters, at the beginning of the six-week sprint, have poking and prodding to do before they make a decision. "Philadelphia has a rich history and tradition of taking politics very seriously and asking very tough questions of people who run for office," he said. "We're just starting this effort."

Clinton herself suggested voters will experience something akin to Iowa caucus-goers in the next six weeks, and they, like Iowans and New Hampshire voters, will have a real chance to evaluate the candidates. "I want you to think about this campaign as a long job interview," she told the crowd at Temple. "Because each of us is going to be coming and talking about what we have done and what we want to do, and you're going to have to decide, who would you hire for the toughest job in the world?"

Whether Philadelphians and voters in the rest of the state make their decisions based on experience, as in Ohio, or a need for change, as in Mississippi, the outcome in the Keystone State could be decisive, and voters here know it: "From Pennsylvania to Pennsylvania Avenue," read one sign in Clinton's crowd.

Republicans Battle Today For 2 Open Seats In MS

Two open seats making up half of the House delegation in Mississippi are up for grabs today, as the Republican primary winners in the 1st and 3rd Congressional Districts are likely to win the seat in November.

Republican Roger Wicker was appointed to the Senate at the end of 2007 to fill the seat left vacant by the retiring Senator Trent Lott. Wicker's Senate leap has opened up a competitive primary for his 1st District House seat, which Republicans are heavily favored to maintain. Rep. Chip Pickering announced in August he would be stepping down from his 3rd District post at the end of his term, bringing on a large group of candidates vying for a rarely open House seat. President Bush won more than 60 percent of the vote in both districts in 2004, and neither Wicker nor Pickering ever won less than that amount during their tenures.

In the 1st, Southaven Mayor Greg Davis and former Tupelo Mayor Glenn McCullough have both spent large sums of money, much of it on television ads attacking one another. A recent Davis ad accuses McCullough of being fiscally irresponsible while serving as chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the largest public power company in the country. McCullough was appointed to TVA in 1999 by President Clinton, and served as chairman from 2001-2005. One of McCullough's ads attempts to make the case that he is the only conservative candidate, noting that Davis, a former state House member in the 1990s, ran as an independent.

The 1st District stretches across the entire northern border of the state, and reaches from the Memphis metropolitan area in the northwest to the city of Columbus on the eastern edge of the state. Davis hails from DeSoto County in the Memphis metro area, where Southaven lies just across the Tennessee border from the city. DeSoto is the third largest county in the state and makes up about a fifth of the district's population. McCullough is from Lee County, known as the birthplace of Elvis Presley. Lee has about half the population of DeSoto.

There is a third Republican, ophthalmologist Randy Russell, in the race, making the need for a runoff election more likely. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held April 1 between the two candidates who received the most primary votes. Also, a special election to fill the remainder of Wicker's term will be held April 22. All three Republicans have filed for that election as well. The winner of the Republican primary will take on one of five Democrats vying for the nomination, though only one, Travis Childers, has reported raising any money.

In the 3rd District, where Pickering held office since 1996, the Republican primary is almost assured of going to a runoff, with four of the seven candidates on the ballot having spent at least $100,000. David Landrum, a wealthy businessman, has spent the most money by far. Through the final FEC reporting date, which was more than two weeks ago, Landrum had already spent $850,000 -- more than twice that of any other candidate. About half of the more than $1 million he has raised has come out of his own pocket, including $75,000 in the last few days.

Landrum has been attacked recently by his opponents for allegedly not voting in the last seven years -- though he argues otherwise -- and for a campaign donation he made to former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in his 2003 re-election bid against now-Gov. Haley Barbour.

The other leading Republicans include former State Senator Charlie Ross, who lost a bid for Lieutenant Governor in the 2007 Republican primary; John Rounsaville, a former aide to both Pickering and Barbour; and attorney Gregg Harper. All of the candidates have stated the similar goal of carrying on the conservative principles and voting record of Pickering. The winner of the primary or April 1 runoff will take on one of two Democrats, neither of which has filed campaign finance reports with the FEC.

The 3rd District looks like a forward slash, starting in the southwestern corner of the state and spreading northeast to the Alabama border. It includes at least parts of 25 counties, including the suburbs of Jackson.

--Kyle Trygstad

Clinton Lays Out PA Plan

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania -- Despite sound troubles that plagued a microphone aiding Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, Hillary Clinton laid out her plan to capture the state's votes and bring jobs back to a beleaguered economy. Rendell, introducing Clinton to a packed house at The Forum just across from the state capitol building, predicted his candidate would sweep central Pennsylvania.

Clinton, joined by Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell,
met a boisterous crowd in Central Pennsylvania today
Offering more harsh criticism of rival Barack Obama's experience, Clinton echoed shots she took at the younger senator in Rhode Island. "We can't just gaze heavenwards and hope [for a new future], we have to work for it," Clinton said. "What we have to decide is who is ready to go into the oval office to make those decision," she continued. "I don't want you voting on a leap of faith, I want you to look at the record."

After finding success with a message that focused on the economy in Ohio, where voters who said it was their most important issue favored Clinton by a 55%-43% margin, Clinton signaled she would continue on that track. "We have a lot of work to do and we're going to start that work by turning the economy around," she said, calling for green-collar jobs and for an end to tax breaks for companies that export jobs.

Clinton also won big applause for calling for an end to tax breaks for oil companies, excoriating the current administration's relationship with Middle Eastern companies. "As your president, you will not see me holding hands with the Saudis," Clinton began. The crowd erupted enough to cut off the end of her sentence.

The largely younger audience, somewhat unusual for a candidate who has consistently performed better among older voters, greeted Clinton's call for an overhauled education lending system. Clinton urged new direct loans from government to students, and offered forgiveness for debt if graduates pursue public service jobs.

Clinton also said schools can help: "Colleges and universities have to start taking a hard look at how much their costs go up each year," she said. Interrupted by the crowd many times, Clinton paused only to acknowledge students from Wellesley who shouted her alma mater's cheer.

Even as Mississippi voters cast ballots today, Clinton's focus is already on the Keystone State. "Now the eyes of America and the world are on Pennsylvania. It is Pennsylvania's turn and I'm excited to be here," she said, casting herself as an almost-native. Her biggest evidence: Clinton's father and brother played football at Penn State, her brother under legendary coach Joe Paterno.

Still, Clinton's campaign, ahead by a dozen points in the latest RCP Pennsylvania Average, signaled it will not let Obama come back without a challenge. Hitting Obama, also in the state today, for casting a vote in favor of the 2005 energy bill championed by Vice President Dick Cheney -- a bill she voted against -- Clinton pulled no punches. "When it counted, I said no, he said yes," Clinton said.

Further hammering Obama for questions over his stated position on NAFTA and an adviser's reported comments to the contrary to a Canadian official, Clinton signaled she isn't about to let the matter go. "There's a big difference between talk and action, but if you're going to talk you ought to mean what you say so people can count on you," she asserted.

Clinton has one more public event planned for today, at Temple University in Philadelphia. But here, in Pennsylvania's central region, is where any big Clinton margins would happen.

Spitzer Fallout Grows

The prostitution scandal that engulfed former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer continues to reverberate this morning, even as Spitzer continues to reportedly mull a resignation.

Wasting no time in taking advantage, the National Republican Congressional Committee slammed several freshmen Democratic members of Congress from New York who have accepted Spitzer campaign money. The releases, targeting Reps. Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Arcuri and John Hall, called on each to return money Spitzer gave them, accompanied by photographs of each with the former governor.

"Kirsten Gillibrand should put personal party loyalty aside and do the right thing by giving back campaign contributions she took from Eliot Spitzer," NRCC Spokesman Ken Spain said in one release that echoed the others. "Candidates like Gillibrand can't run under the theme of 'change' on the one hand while defending the politics of corruption on the other."

The committee also targeted Eric Massa, who is making a second run for Congress after losing narrowly to Republican Rep. Randy Kuhl, and Dan Maffei, who is running again after barely losing to retiring Republican Rep. Jim Walsh.

Spitzer's would-be exit would also impact the presidential campaign. Spitzer, a super delegate in his capacity as governor, had endorsed fellow New Yorker Hillary Clinton. Though David Paterson, Spitzer's replacement, has also endorsed Clinton, the presidential candidate would still lose a vote in Denver: Paterson is already a super delegate, serving as an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee.

Paterson will likely resign as an at-large member, now that he has the governor's vote. And while the DNC may appoint a Clinton supporter to replace Paterson, that decision is, at the moment, very much up in the air.

The man once seen as a potential presidential candidate is now reportedly contemplating how to leave the governor's mansion after just one year. Spitzer may be charged for his role in the prostitution ring or prosecutors may decide not to press charges, but a once-promising political career crashed and burned last night, in a way in which it likely cannot be salvaged.

GOP Can't Find AR Candidate

Despite promises that a candidate was on the way, Republicans in Arkansas failed to field a challenger against first-term Democrat Mark Pryor. Yesterday was the deadline for filing for office, and the Arkansas Republican Party chairman announced no candidate from his party would file. That leaves Pryor facing Green Party candidate Rebekah Kennedy, virtually assuring him of re-election.

In a strong Republican year in 2002, Pryor was one of Democrats' few bright spots, knocking off incumbent Senator Tim Hutchinson by a 54%-46% margin. This year, Pryor, the son of former Senator David Pryor, whose seat Hutchinson had taken upon the elder's retirement, had stockpiled $3.6 million for his re-election bid, scaring away a number of potentially strong challengers.

National Republicans held out hope of recruiting one-time presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, the state's former governor, though he repeatedly demurred. The fact that Republicans could not field a challenger, though, is another blow to a party already wounded by what looks to be a terribly unfavorable landscape. Failing to find challengers for a sitting Senator, including one in a state that voted twice for President Bush and elected Huckabee statewide several times, is not the way to attract new donors.

The GOP has been particularly hard-hit in the state, losing every statewide contest in 2006, including the governor's mansion by a whopping 14 points. Democrats hold big margins in both houses of the state legislature, as well as three of the four Arkansas Congressional districts.

The omission helps national Democrats, as well: Pryor, instead of spending time worried about his own re-election chances, can now spend the rest of 2008 working for and raising money for other Democrats around the country.

Franken Has Clear Path

Comedian Al Franken took a step closer to becoming the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party's 2008 Senate nominee when wealthy attorney and 2000 Senate candidate Mike Ciresi dropped his candidacy Monday, The Hill's Aaron Blake reports. Ciresi, who had invested about $2.5 million into the race, was facing a third-place finish at the June 6-8 nominating convention.

Ciresi finished second in the 2000 race to one-term Senator Mark Dayton, though he had hit Franken for being unelectable. Franken now faces professor and liberal activist Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, whose organization had outpaced Ciresi's in recent weeks.

Despite charges that he may not be electable, Franken has been the only candidate to both outraise and out-poll incumbent Republican Norm Coleman. A late-January poll by the Humphrey Institute showed Franken leading Coleman by a narrow three-point margin. Franken has pulled in more money than Coleman over several quarters, though Coleman maintains a cash-on-hand lead.

Morning Thoughts: Momentary Distraction

Good Tuesday morning. George Mason University won their tournament championship last night, taking care of William & Mary in style. Watch out, Final Four, this time the men in green mean business. Just a few miles north of the Mason campus, here's what Washington is watching today:

-- The Senate meets this morning for resumed consideration of the budget resolution, while the Senate Appropriations Committee hears from Comptroller General David Walker on waste, fraud and abuse of U.S. funds in Iraq. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds a hearing, as well, on possible expansions to NATO. The House comes back today to attempt an override of President Bush's veto of the Intelligence Authorization Act to which he took his pen this weekend. President Bush, meanwhile, heads to the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville to address a convention of national religious broadcasters.

-- New York Governor Eliot Spitzer rocked the political world yesterday with the revelation that he is involved, as a client, in a high-end prostitution ring, bringing a crashing halt to what was once a promising career. Spitzer has been under investigation for months, ABC News reports, first as officials believed he was hiding bribes and then in connection with the Emperor's Club, four of whose operators were arrested last week. The New York Times first broke the story yesterday, and while rumors swirled that Spitzer is considering resigning, he has not done so yet.

-- Spitzer, Politico's Ben Smith writes, has few allies right now. Hillary Clinton's team blames his planned issuance of driver's licenses to illegal immigrants for her initial dip in the polls, after she couldn't handle a question on the matter at a late October debate. The state's African American leaders are not all that close to Spitzer, and have yet to defend him, and while state legislative Republicans have savaged him and called on him to resign, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the legislature's top Democrat, refused to comment. Many on Wall Street and around New York, who felt Spitzer badgered them during his time as Attorney General, could not point out his hypocrisy fast enough.

-- Back to the matter at hand, Mississippi holds its primary contest today, and it's expected to be a big win for Barack Obama. But what if "big" only leads to one netted delegate? Obama leads most polls by double digits, the Justice Department's Section 5 control over the state's Congressional districts will have an adverse effect on Obama: Clinton can win three congressional districts, The Field writes, while Obama can still win a big majority in the state's mostly-African American Second District and walk away with a net gain of one delegate.

-- Obama's still drawing huge crowds, including 1,700 yesterday in Columbus and 9,000 to Jackson, Mississippi, according to the AP's Babington. Today he moves on to Pennsylvania, but the win, his second in a row following weekend caucus victories in Wyoming, could subtly shift the momentum back in his direction. In fact, one key to watch: How big are Obama's crowds in central and western Pennsylvania? If they become sufficiently big, and he catches Clinton in the polls, will more super delegates begin to flood to his side, negating the benefit Clinton reaped from Ohio and Texas wins?

-- The Clinton team spent another day dropping hints that Obama is good Vice Presidential material, but what if the talk backfires? The New York Senator has been hinting that she would gladly put Obama on her ticket, a notion Team Obama is doing well to scoff at, given that he's ahead at the moment. But Obama-as-Veep is a minefield: Howard Wolfson, Clinton's communications director, suggested that Obama may somehow pass a Commander-in-Chief test by the convention (how convenient), and some Clinton surrogates, including Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, are now saying she herself would accept a veep nod if offered (not something donors want to hear). The debate could turn irritating to many Democratic super delegates in very short order. Will Clinton keep toeing the line?

-- John McCain, the forgotten candidate amid the continued Democratic fight, is plotting his grand entrance to the general election stage. While Clinton and Obama bicker over who is most presidential and most able to answer a 3 a.m. phone call, McCain will head to Europe and the Middle East with a congressional delegation, with a stop planned for Israel on March 18, Reuters reports. That's a visual that will certainly break through Democratic squabbling, at least for a little while, and the trip will go just that much farther to refocusing the debate from change to experience, and from domestic policy to foreign policy.

-- Along with a foreign policy tour, at the end of which McCain will offer a major address, the GOP nominee will launch a biographical tour and is continuing a fundraising blitz designed to bring him even with his Democratic foes. McCain's bio tour will include stops at his high school and college alma maters (the latter being the Naval Academy) as well as at McCain Field, a military base in Mississippi named for his grandfather, USA Today reports. But, suspicious as ever, McCain has to return to Start to begin the last leg of the race: He will hold a town hall meeting in New Hampshire, the state that launched him to the nomination, tomorrow.

-- Obama's biggest liability is a lack of experience. Clinton's is as a divisive character in politics. McCain's is his age and health. His years in the Hanoi Hilton and his bout, eight years ago, with skin cancer have prompted a few news organizations to ask after him lately, and his campaign wants to shut down those questions right quick. McCain underwent a medical checkup yesterday in Phoenix, and, he told reporters, including the Arizona Republic's Dan Nowicki, "everything's fine." What of his recurring melanoma? McCain said he had the cancer check a few weeks ago and came back clean, the AP wrote. Not exactly the way to kick off being the presumptive nominee, but McCain has a history of getting the annoying questions out of the way first.

-- Bad GOP Omen Of The Day: Dick Cheney headed to Atlanta for the Georgia Republican Party's huge annual fundraising gala, and as Senator Saxby Chambliss seeks re-election, the state's senior senator was absent even as his party's number-two official sang his praises on stage. "I know Saxby is going to win another term this November," Cheney told the crowd, per the LA Times. "Saxby, of course, is a very courageous man. I know that because he's one of my hunting buddies," the vice president joked. How many Republicans, even in ruby-red states like Georgia, will be courageous enough to stand with Cheney?

-- Today On The Trail: John McCain is in St. Louis, Missouri today, after leaving the sunny (and probably warmer) climes of Sedona, Arizona. He holds two town halls there today. Barack Obama hits a town hall in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania, just northeast of Philadelphia, while Hillary Clinton has rallies planned for Harrisburg and Philadelphia. Politics Nation will bring you live reports from both the Clinton events.

GOP Loses SD Recruit

Former South Dakota Lieutenant Governor Steve Kirby will not run for the Republican nomination against Democratic Senator Tim Johnson, he told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader today. Kirby's exit, after weeks of considering the race, leaves State Rep. Joel Dykstra and former Ambassador Bert Tollefson as the only Republicans who have announced they will challenge Johnson.

Kirby had been heavily recruited by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, whose chair, Nevada Senator John Ensign, hinted at his candidacy in an interview with Politics Nation in January. Kirby would have been stronger than either of the remaining candidates, a fact that led national Democrats to launch shots at him even as he explored a race.

The loss of the last-ditch GOP hopeful leaves Johnson in strong position to win a third term after winning his last election by just over 500 votes, over now-colleague John Thune. Though South Dakota votes overwhelmingly Republican in presidential contests, Johnson and Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin are hugely popular with voters, as is Thune.

Barring the ability to seriously compete in South Dakota, national Republicans are left with Louisiana as their lone strong takeover target. Though the party remains cautiously optimistic about New Jersey, the loss last week of their top recruit in that state due to medical issues virtually assured Senator Frank Lautenberg of a weaker, more conservative opponent in a generally safe Democratic state.

Spitzer Linked To Prostitution Ring

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer told top aides this morning he will be linked to a prostitution ring, a source told the New York Times today. Spitzer canceled his events for the day and has remained with aides in his apartment in Manhattan. After the Times asked about the scandal, Spitzer scheduled an announcement for 2:15 p.m., about 15 minutes ago.

A federal prosecutor arrested four people in connection with a high-priced prostitution ring, one in which Spitzer is expected to be named, another source told the Times.

Spitzer has had a rough first year in office, buffeted by scandals involving his battles with Senate Republican leader Joseph Bruno and by a number of failed legislative initiatives. If he were to resign, Lieutenant Governor David Paterson, also a Democrat, would take over the governor's mansion.

Update: Spitzer issued his statement just now, nearly an hour later than planned. He did not resign, saying he needs time to rebuild his family. The Republican Governor's Association has called on Spitzer to resign.

FL Back Atop The News

As talk of the predicament Florida and Michigan face in coming up with a new election took center stage this weekend, Hillary Clinton's campaign appears to have assumed that Florida, at least, will hold another election. In fact, it is the Clinton camp's advisers who are pushing the idea most publicly.

Governors Jon Corzine, of New Jersey, and Ed Rendell, of Pennsylvania, said they would agree to raise half the $30 million it might cost for both states to hold a new vote, the New York Times reports this morning.

That offer sends a strong message, and it puts the Obama campaign in a somewhat awkward position: By accepting -- even pushing for -- a new contest, the Clinton team has to believe it can win in both states all over again, even with Obama campaigning full time there. Obama has to either accept a new vote or be cast as a candidate willing to disenfranchise Floridians and Michiganders.

If Obama accepts the re-vote, he might lose the contests and, with them, the race. On the other hand, he may win and knock Clinton out. Regardless, Florida and Michigan will become ground zero for the presidential contest, and, should the re-votes be scheduled late enough, may rob the loser of an excuse to stick around.

Perhaps looking ahead to that eventuality, Bill Clinton has already been dispatched southward; he will raise money in Broward County, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, the St. Pete Times writes. As buzz for a mail-in redo mounts, watch the former president's travel schedule. He may end up down south much more in the future.

McCain And The AZ Press

John McCain has enjoyed great relations with the national press in recent years, thanks largely to his accessibility. But the candidate who spends hours a day riding along with journalists, always on the record, and even invites them to his ranch house in Sedona, Arizona, does not have great relations with the home-town media, Politico's Michael Calderone writes.

While national reporters get unfettered access, reporters with the Arizona Republic have not always had cozy relations with their senior senator. After a scandal involving savings and loan figure Charles Keating, which ensnared McCain, and after the paper wrote on Cindy McCain's battle with a prescription drug addiction, McCain's relations with the paper reached an all-time low.

It's not only the Republic, though. This writer, who has the privilege of covering Arizona members of Congress for the Arizona Capitol Times on occasion, has heard complaints from writers and editors about a lack of access as well. At a recent press conference in Phoenix, the day after barbecuing for journalists in Sedona, few local reporters were in attendance, and many, we heard later, hadn't even gotten word of the event.

Still, McCain has been treated largely with kid gloves during this year's primaries, JMart observes. Barack Obama has had to deal with Lynn Sweet and tough Tribune scribes, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani have had to endure countless New York Post and Daily News headers and the New York Times' investigating teams, and Mitt Romney had to endure a Boston press corps that never goes lightly on its home-town candidates.

Even Mike Huckabee has had journalists from his home state on his back. Arkansas journalists, hardened by years following Bill Clinton (an adventure which gave rise to such experienced scribes as AP's Ron Fournier), know how to cover their candidates as well. The Republic, and other Arizona papers, haven't given McCain the same scrutiny that other states have given their candidates.

By most accounts, the relationship between Arizona papers and McCain has now grown cordial, but distant. That could work to McCain's favor in November, when Clinton or Obama have to face the hard-hitting hacks who know them best.

RGA Polling In NH

The Republican Governor's Association, seeking to expand the field of competitive seats in November, is conducting a poll in New Hampshire, where Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta is seen as a potential dark horse to unseat popular incumbent John Lynch. The only problem: Even conducting a poll may be illegal in the Granite State without the proper paperwork.

The New Hampshire Attorney General's office has ordered the RGA to stop polling until it registers in the state as a political action committee, the Union Leader's John DiStaso reported Friday. Still, the poll, which included a test of Lynch's negatives, is not a push poll, as state Democrats had charged, which is illegal in New Hampshire.

But because it included those negatives, it is a political tool used to influence the race instead of a data-gathering tool, the AG's office declared. Therefore, the RGA has to pay $50 to register as a political committee in the state. The committee was dinged by the same office in 2004 for running anti-Lynch ads without registering. That year, Lynch beat incumbent Republican Craig Benson.

While Democrats and Republicans generally agree that governor's races in Indiana, Missouri and Washington State will be competitive this year, few expect any others to present big challenges to incumbents. Lynch as a vulnerable incumbent is a stretch as well; after winning by just 14,000 votes out of more than 650,000 cast in 2004, Lynch walloped his Republican opponent in 2006, winning almost three to one.

Still, national and state Republicans are excited about the possibilities of Guinta making a run. The young mayor of the state's largest city, whose terms are up in odd-numbered years, would not have to give up his seat, and even if he lost Guinta could set himself up for a future statewide bid. State and local offices in New Hampshire is up every two years, one of just a few states to hold elections so frequently.

Parties Get Top LA Picks

Little noticed as Democrat Bill Foster was busy picking up Dennis Hastert's seat in Illinois, Louisiana voters headed to the polls Saturday for primaries to replace retired Rep. Richard Baker and now-Governor Bobby Jindal. In both districts, the parties' preferred candidates made it safely through to a runoff, which will be held April 5.

Jindal's old First District, based in the wealthier parts of New Orleans down to Lake Pontchartrain and north to along the Mississippi border, is one of the most Republican-heavy in the state. Jindal won his initial election, to replace now-Senator David Vitter, with 78% of the vote as President Bush carried the district with 71%. On Saturday, State Senator Steve Scalise took 48% of the vote, and will face State Rep. Tim Burns in the April Republican runoff. Burns got 28%, but by holding Scalise under 50%, Burns has a chance in a few weeks.

The winner of the runoff will be a heavy favorite to take the seat over University of New Orleans professor Gilda Reed, the winner of the Democratic primary with 70% of the vote. Far fewer Democrats voted in the primary than Republicans, showcasing the district's strong GOP tilt; both Democratic candidates combined beat Scalise's vote total by just five votes.

Baker's old Sixth District, though, will not be as easy for Republicans to hold. Just west of Jindal's seat, the Sixth encompasses Baton Rouge and a few rural parishes north to the Mississippi line. The district also favors Republicans, voting for Bush with 59% in 2004 and offering Baker just one scare, in 1992. Thanks to Baton Rouge, though, the district is one of the most heavily African American in the country to be represented by a member of the GOP; about a third of district residents are black.

Democrats think they have a shot to pick up the seat, and State Rep. Don Cazayoux, the DCCC's favored candidate, led the pack on Saturday with 35%. Fellow state Rep. Michael Jackson earned 27% to win a spot in the runoff. Republican state Rep. Woody Jenkins came within 0.15% of avoiding a runoff and will face lobbyist Laurinda Calongne in April.

More Democrats cast ballots in the special election than Republicans, by a wide 45,000 to 30,000 margin, giving the party hope of a possible opening. Louisianans, used to being able to vote for candidates of both parties in primary and general elections (thanks to a unique primary system), are notoriously free of party ties, making a Democratic win in an otherwise Republican seat a distinct possibility.

The winners of all three runoffs will meet in a May 3 general election.

Morning Thougths: Of Mitt And Montana

Good Monday morning. It's March 10, which means you have to wait just 43 days to find out what's going to happen in Pennsylvania. You'll be forgiven if you get too excited to sleep tonight. Here's what Washington is watching, with baited breath:

-- The Senate is in session debating the budget resolution but will hold no votes today, while the House operates under suspension to deal with several minor bills. President Bush meets Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk at the White House to discuss allowing U.S. missile defense equipment to be located on Polish soil.

-- Back to Pennsylvania for a moment. Hillary Clinton stops in the state today, and with seven weeks plus one day before Keystoners vote, we're going to know as much about the state as we did about Iowa. Seven weeks and a day before Iowa, on November 14, Mike Huckabee had just started to break toward the front of the pack on the Republican side, and Democrats were waking up to the realization that this Barack Obama guy was for real, just three days after his speech at the Iowa Democrats' Jefferson Jackson Dinner. So, pay attention to geography. It's going to become important.

-- The Florida-Michigan fiasco is rapidly approaching something resembling a conclusion, something that happened fast over the weekend. Several top officials behind the two states' bids to get their delegates seated, Senators Carl Levin and Bill Nelson included, are backing the idea of a mail-in re-vote, one that would be held within the allowed primary window. Such an election would be significantly less expensive than a primary or a caucus, and top surrogates on both Clinton's and Obama's teams did not shoot down the idea yesterday. The only way any agreement could be derailed, DNC chief Howard Dean says, is if one side believes it's being treated unfairly.

-- Democrats who served on the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee spent months with the threat that certain states would jump the gun and hold their primaries before February 5. Next cycle, they promised, they would deal with complaints that Iowa and New Hampshire always get to go first. Next cycle, is any state really going to risk being left out in the cold, without delegates, after this election? Now rule-makers in the DNC will probably have to do something about super delegates, though what is entirely up in the air.

-- The two sides still seem to be battling not only for their party's nomination, but for control of a landscape that looks better for Democrats than any since Lyndon Johnson won the presidency in 1964. On Saturday, that landscape only got better when neophyte politician Bill Foster, a physicist, businessman and long-shot Democratic nominee, won former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's seat in suburban Chicago, as we wrote yesterday. The blow to Republicans is serious, and the election will probably cost them millions in donations and an immeasurable amount of lost morale. How Republican is the seat? President Bush won it by 11 and 12 points in his two bids, and Hastert never received any margin lower than 64%, Politico writes.

-- Meanwhile, in an effort to gain a leg up, Clinton's comments about a unity ticket are getting more frequent. "You've gotta make a choice. A lot of people wish they didn't have to. I've got people saying, 'I wish I could vote for both of you,'" Clinton told a crowd in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, per CBS's Fernando Suarez. "Well, that might be possible someday, but first I need your vote on Tuesday," she concluded. Husband Bill Clinton called a joint ticked "almost unstoppable," as CNN's Rebecca Sinderbrand wrote on Saturday. Obama's less enthusiastic about the idea: "You won't see me as a vice presidential candidate, you know," he told a Billings, Montana television station.

-- The goal of the new Clinton suggestion: To give super delegates and regular voters an excuse to vote for Clinton. Want change but think experience is at least a little bit important? Put up with Clinton for eight years as Obama gets ready to assume the top job, then elect him. Rumors abound that Clinton would accept the number two slot, though her doing so would probably hurt Obama more than it would help heal the rift in the Democratic Party.

-- On the GOP side, as John McCain rebuilds his depleted coffers, he's also considering his vice presidential selection. That is, as he told a press conference in Phoenix a week ago, he is considering how to pick his vice presidential nominee. The pesky task of actually choosing someone waits farther down the road, but Jonathan Martin notes a new name, floated by two seriously plugged-in conservatives as a favorite: Mitt Romney. Romney popped up in articles from Bob Novak and Fred Barnes in the last week, and it's been suggested that the Bush clan favors that particular choice.

-- Overlooked Contest Of The Day: "Mississippi relishes chance to play part in nomination," reads the USA Today header. But the state has been overlooked by both Democratic candidates. Obama's there today, and Clinton was there last week, but both candidates took the entire weekend off, Clinton in Washington and Obama in Illinois. While, as noted about, Obama has already started paying attention to Montana media ahead of the state's June 3 primary, Mississippi, which has 33 delegates up for grabs tomorrow, is getting far less attention than it probably merits.

-- Today On The Trail: Obama has town hall meetings planned for Columbus and Jackson, Mississippi, while Clinton stumps in Scranton, Pennsylvania. After a weekend at his Sedona ranch with big donors, John McCain stops in Phoenix for a press availability followed by an event in St. Louis this afternoon.

Dems Win Hastert Seat

In a development sure to further rattle the already shaken House Republican caucus, voters in Illinois' exurban Fourteenth District voted yesterday to replace Dennis Hastert, the longest-serving Republican Speaker in the country's history, with a Democrat. With all but four precincts reporting, physicist and businessman Bill Foster leads businessman Jim Oberweis, the Republican, 52%-48%, the AP reported.

The race had turned nasty and personal in recent weeks, with charges and counter-charges from both campaigns and with more than $2.2 million in spending from both national Democratic and Republican campaign committees. Both candidates also spent millions of their own money on the race, with Oberweis dropping more than $2 million and Foster topping $1 million.

Two of the three remaining presidential candidates got involved as well, with John McCain stopping by for an Oberweis fundraiser and Barack Obama cutting an advertisement with Foster, which the Democrat ran through the special election's closing days.

Foster and Oberweis each won two elections on February 5, when they took their respective party's nominations: The two won the right to carry their party's banners in yesterday's special election as well as in the November contest which will determine who represents the district in the 111th Congress.

In November, while Oberweis will have the added advantage of higher turnout in a normally Republican district in a presidential year, Foster could also benefit from those turning out to vote for home-stater Obama. Foster will also head into the rematch with the advantage of incumbency.

Foster's victory is a huge morale boost to national Democrats, many of whom hailed the win as a harbinger. "Foster's victory in the seat that was held by Speaker Hastert sends a political shock wave across America this election year," DCCC chair Chris Van Hollen said in a statement. "Bill Foster's election is the shot of change heard around the world," caucus chair Rahm Emanuel said.

National Republicans downplayed the defeat. The NRCC's new communications director, Karen Hanretty, shrugged off the notion that the seat is indicative of a larger trend. "The Democratic candidates [for president] are trading election victories from week to week and the nomination could hinge on a few news cycles," Hanretty said in her own statement. "The one message coming out of 2008 so far is that what happens today is not a bellwether of what happens this fall."

Still, one of Republicans' biggest wins in 1994 took place in Eastern Washington State, where then-House Speaker Tom Foley was ousted by Republican George Nethercutt. Foley was one of dozens of House Democrats to lose that year as Republicans swept back to power. Even after Democrats took charge, the fact that they were able to steal the former Speaker's heavily-Republican district will suggest that voters are not finished taking out their anger on the GOP.

Politics Nation Radio Launches

(Ed. note -- We're very excited about this. Please join us tomorrow morning from 10 a.m. to noon eastern on XM Radio's POTUS '08)


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Real Clear Politics associate editor Reid Wilson will be the co-host of a new show on XM Satellite Radio's presidential election channel POTUS '08 starting Saturday, March 8.

"Politics Nation" will air nationwide on XM on Saturdays from 10 am to 12 noon ET from the XM studios in northeast Washington.

Wilson will co-host "Politics Nation" with The Politico's Josh Kraushaar. The show will focus on this year's presidential and congressional races. The program will also carry the weekly presidential radio address and Democratic response.

POTUS '08 is a 24-hour, commercial-free radio channel devoted to the 2008 election. It airs across the U.S. on XM channel 130. Those who do not have an XM radio can hear a free, 14-day trial of the POTUS '08 channel online at XM is the nation's leading satellite radio company with more than 9 million subscribers.


Walberg Has Tough Fight

Michigan Republicans may have felt good in 2006 when they voted to oust a moderate freshman and replace him with more conservative Rep. Tim Walberg, but today that decision looks a little risky. Walberg, who represents the south-central Seventh District in Michigan, may face a difficult challenge from a top state Democrat.

The survey, conducted by Michigan-based EPIC-MRA, tested 400 voters who have participated in previous elections within the Seventh District for a margin of error of +/- 4.9%. The poll tested both Walberg and State Senate Democratic Leader Mark Schauer.

General Election Matchup
Walberg 51
Schauer 40

Despite a nasty primary two years ago, made worse thanks to the involvement of the Club for Growth, which ran several hard-hitting ads against Walberg's opponent, Walberg is seen in a generally positive light, as 42% view him favorably and just 30% see him unfavorably. And fortunately for the incumbent Republican, John McCain runs ahead of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the district, by 16 points and 25 points, respectively.

But the good news ends there for the incumbent Republican: President Bush is seen in an extraordinarily unfavorable light for a district he carried twice. Only 37% rate Bush's job performance positively, while 62% say he is performing negatively. Just 17% of district voters say the U.S. is headed in the right direction, while 68% say the country is on the wrong track. With numbers that negative, voters in a firing mood could look at Walberg. Also, Walberg isn't seen as doing an excellent job to begin with: 39% rate his job performance positively while 38% rate it negatively.

The Republican could also be in trouble thanks to lackluster fundraising. Through the end of the year, Walberg had hauled in $562,000 and retained $438,000 in the bank. Schauer, though, had both outraised his opponent, pulling in $577,000, and outbanked Walberg, retaining $500,000. President Bush carried the district twice, though by nine points, in 2004, and five points, in 2000. Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak represents a similar district, though in the state's Upper Peninsula, meaning Democrats can win slightly Republican seats in the state.

National Democrats are also targeting Michigan Republican Joe Knollenberg, though given the amount of money Knollenberg has raised, Walberg looks like Democrats' best chance for a takeover. If Schauer is to win, he will have to overcome the presidential votes of what looks like a district that favors John McCain.

Power Out At Obama HQ

No, it's not an electrical problem, but a much more potent political crisis that's knocked Power out at Barack Obama's headquarters. Responding to harsh criticism from Hillary Clinton's campaign for comments that Obama's rival is a "monster," top foreign policy adviser Samantha Power has resigned, effective immediately.

"With deep regret, I am resigning from my role as an advisor the Obama campaign effective today," Power said in a statement released by the campaign. "Last Monday, I made inexcusable remarks that are at marked variance from my oft-stated admiration for Senator Clinton and from the spirit, tenor, and purpose of the Obama campaign. And I extend my deepest apologies to Senator Clinton, Senator Obama, and the remarkable team I have worked with over these long 14 months."

Clinton's camp had put pressure on Obama to fire Power, with Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz calling the comments "distasteful" and "inappropriate." Power is not the first casualty of unfortunate comments during the presidential campaign. Most recently, Clinton's top New Hampshire adviser, Billy Shaheen, stepped aside after suggesting Republicans would use Obama's past drug use against him in a general election.

First Look: Pennsylvania

Though battles remain in Wyoming and Mississippi, and while Florida and Michigan seem set to work out some kind of deal to hold their contests again, Pennsylvania remains front and center on the target list for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The state, it seems, holds benefits and drawbacks for both candidates, further imperiling the notion that anything at all will be settled when Keystoners vote on April 22.

Politico's Charlie Mahtesian, a Pennsylvania native himself, calls the state a "should-win" for Clinton, pointing out favorable demographics: The state is whiter, generally older and less well-off than the national average, and its population looks a lot like Ohio's.

15.6% of the state is over 65, compared with the national average of 12.4%, while the median income is just over $40,100, slightly lower than Ohio's $41,000 and lower, as the LA Times notes, than the nation as a whole. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports the state is 29% Catholic, a demographic among whom Clinton did very well, and higher than the 24% national average. Ohio is only 21% Catholic.

Clinton has done well among voters along the east side of the Appalachian plateaus, as Patrick Ottenhoff and Jonathan Martin note, in states from Ohio to Virginia and farther south. That advantage gives her a leg up on the east side of Pennsylvania, too.

Too, Clinton enjoys backing from many prominent local politicians, including Governor Ed Rendell, who served as DNC chairman when Bill Clinton was in office. The former Philadelphia mayor can help Clinton in his native city, where he remains popular not only as governor but as occasional commentator for the Philadelphia Eagles. In fact, Clinton has support from the city's current mayor, Michael Nutter, who is serving his first term.

Still, Philadelphia, the state's largest city by far, is likely to be Obama country. The many colleges in the area, the high African American population and the generally wealthier population are all demographics that favor the Illinois senator, and maximizing his margin there will help him cut into Clinton gains in the eastern portion of the state.

And if Obama's performances have shown anything, it is that he does well when he has time. After months of trailing in Iowa and slowly building an organization, Obama won impressively in a state with more white voters -- and caucus attendees -- than Ohio or Pennsylvania, about the same percentage of college graduates and a lower median income than both states, as well as more Catholic voters than the national average.

Clinton's team will argue that Iowa's caucuses helped Obama pull out the win there, but her rival has also won primaries in the blue collar state of Wisconsin and heavily Catholic Connecticut. If Obama has the time, he can change the way certain demographics vote. And the seven weeks between now and when Pennsylvania voters cast ballots could be plenty of time.

Many of Pennsylvania's 9.4 million eligible voters will head to the polls on April 22. From the outset, it looks like Clinton has a head start: Her lead in the latest RCP Pennsylvania Average is a strong 11.7 points, and the state's demographics look like they favor the senator from neighboring New York. Still, with time and money on his side, don't be surprised if Obama's disadvantage shrinks.

House Giving Favors Dems

A new report from the Federal Election Commission shows House Democrats were more generous with their own campaign cash than House Republicans in the first thirteen months of the cycle. The transfers, from candidates' campaign committees to the DCCC and the NRCC, are just a part of the large cash disadvantage Republicans face.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which had nearly $35.1 million in the bank through January 31, accumulated the money with the assistance of about $18.4 million from their caucus members. Top donors included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who kicked in $785,000; Whip Jim Clyburn, with $770,000; Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who donated $685,000; committee chairs Charlie Rangel and Barney Frank, with $685,000 and $550,000, respectively; caucus chairman Rahm Emanuel, who gave $475,000; and current DCCC chairman Chris Van Hollen, who donated $435,000 to his own cause.

Those numbers do not include Democratic members' pledges to raise additional funds for the DCCC. Depending on their position in the House, members have to raise additional funds for the committee, ranging from less than $100,000 to tens of millions of dollars. How much each member has to raise, though, is a closely-guarded secret.

Republicans lagged far behind Democratic contributions, with just $10.6 million in donations to the beleaguered NRCC. Minority Leader John Boehner dropped $845,000 from his own campaign account, while Reps. Dave Camp ($480,000), Wally Herger ($300,000), Kay Granger ($265,000) and Cliff Sterns ($262,500) wrote big checks. All four are said to be seeking prime committee slots. Retiring Reps. Jim McCrery and Jim Saxton helped out, donating $490,000 and $275,000 from their soon-to-be-shuttered campaign accounts.

While Republicans have a smaller caucus than Democrats, their average member is still giving far less than the average Democrat. Democrats are ponying up just shy of $80,000 per member, while Republicans are giving about $53,500 each. What is more impressive is that most Democratic freshmen, especially those facing tough re-election battles, are forgiven dues for at least their first term.

Boehner, who has worked hard to keep his caucus together, has grown increasingly frustrated with some members. At a GOP caucus meeting last week, Boehner told members to get off their "dead asses," as Politico's Patrick O'Connor reported, to help the NRCC raise money. NRCC chair Tom Cole and minority whip Roy Blunt also urged members to help the committee raise money for the party's March 12 fundraising dinner, O'Connor wrote.

Even if the NRCC makes its $7.5 million goal, and even if members begin handing over more sizable checks to the national party, Republicans have a long way to go to catch up. The NRCC reported just $6.4 million in the bank after January 31, nearly $29 million behind Democrats.

Democrats are raising more money than Republicans virtually across the board, and compared with 2005, the last pre-election year, and 2003, the last pre-presidential year, Democrats are performing better than they were and showing increases that outpace the GOP. In 2007, the DCCC's cash receipts grew 57%, while the committee's receipts grew 136% over 2003. Republicans, meanwhile, saw their fundraising shrink by 22% from 2005 and 31% over 2003.

Morning Thoughts: Panic, Just Under The Surface

Good Friday morning. The Red Sox blew a 5-1 lead yesterday to fall to the Dodgers in Spring Training action in Florida. The important lesson: Red Sox Nation can be depressing. Politics Nation never is. Stay tuned for an exciting announcement later today, but before that, here's what Washington is watching today:

-- The Senate meets this morning to dispense with morning business, though no roll call votes will be taken. The House is out of session. President Bush heads to the Pentagon today to receive Defense Department briefings after meeting with Cuban refugees at the White House. And a day after a man shot up an Israeli school, killing eight, two pro-Palestinian groups will protest Israel's actions in Gaza at the Israeli Embassy.

-- On the trail, no one is getting more attention than Howard Dean, Jennifer Granholm and Charlie Crist. New developments out of both Florida and Michigan broke rapidly yesterday, as both states seem to be on the path toward holding new electoral contests. No matter that both governors are calling on the DNC chair to seat their delegates, Dean has said the DNC rules will hold firm. In fact, even if he wanted to, Dean couldn't bend the rules to allow Florida's or Michigan's delegations to find seats in Denver. Both states can still take their chances with the DNC's credentials committee, but today, revotes of some kind seem much more likely.

-- A DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee member told TNR that Michigan will hold a new set of caucuses, plans for which will be announced in the next few days. Michiganders will have at least something of an easier time getting the plan by the RBC: State party chair Mark Brewer is a member of the panel and cast one of the votes that stripped Florida of its delegation.

-- The Sunshine State's senior Democrat, meanwhile, got a little straightening out from the DNC chief yesterday. A source says Dean and Florida Senator Bill Nelson spoke last night, and Dean, who had offered to pay for a primary inside the DNC-approved window, informed Nelson that that particular offer is no longer on the table. Dean told Nelson his state's party can raise soft money, under McCain-Feingold, to hold its own primary, though before an additional contest is held, Florida has to resubmit its plans to the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee, members of which we're sure thought they were finished with all this calendar madness months ago.

-- But there are still contests to come, still voters to woo and battles to be fought. Barack Obama got an unwelcome surprise yesterday when top foreign policy adviser Samantha Power told The Scotsman that rival Hillary Clinton is "a monster." That's not the kind of statement that keeps a campaign on-message for long, and sure enough, Power had to offer a retraction, ABC's Jake Tapper reports, and Obama spokesman Bill Burton had to disavow them as well. Still, the comments led some cable news coverage this morning.

-- Voters head to caucuses tomorrow in Wyoming, where Democrats will select twelve convention delegates. Obama has to be considered the early favorite, as he has consistently done well in caucus states, but Clinton's team has put in more than just a little bit of effort there. Their victory in Ohio came from an organization, and should they somehow pull off establishing an organization by tomorrow, it would boost morale even further heading into Pennsylvania's primary a mere seven weeks away.

-- John McCain is happily lost in all this nonsense. As the GOP nominee zips around to scoop up money and start hitting general election media markets, he's also taking care of housekeeping business over at the Republican National Committee, Jonathan Martin reports. Joining chairman Mike Duncan will be three McCain loyalists and the party's former political director, now a McCain ally. Constant cable television surrogate Frank Donatelli will serve as deputy chairman, while ex-HP CEO Carly Fiorina will run voter contact and New Jersey financier and GOP bigwig Lew Eisenberg, one of McCain's national finance chairs, will raise money for the program. Former Giuliani campaign manager Mike DuHaime -- the ex-political director -- will return to the committee in a political role.

-- Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are getting ambitious, and while the presidential contest rages on, some at least are still considering a magic number 60 doable. The renewed optimism comes, the New York Times' David Herszenhorn writes, as Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich looks set to challenge Ted Stevens in Alaska, with no signs that Stevens, under investigation, has any plans to back away from the race. But to get to 60, Democrats have to take out some entrenched incumbents, suggesting even Oklahoma's Jim Inhofe is vulnerable, and win in deep-red territory, likely by targeting Mississippi's Roger Wicker. Possible? Certainly. But it would take a wave bigger than that in 2006, when the party couldn't pick up Tennessee, to win over even more Republican states.

-- Calendar Craziness Of The Day: Puerto Rico, seemingly unable to take the pressure of being the last primary election contest, will hold primaries instead of caucuses, DemConWatch reports, and will hold those primaries on June 1. The territory was originally scheduled to hold their caucuses on June 7, but moved them forward in order to accommodate what DNC member Kenneth McClintock said he expected to be "hundreds of thousands" of Democratic voters turning out. That means primaries in which Montana and South Dakota voters cast ballots on June 3 will be the final contests. So far. Florida and Michigan still have until June 10 to make it inside the DNC's approved window.

-- Today On The Trail: Obama has town hall meetings in Casper and Laramie, Wyoming (which we incorrectly said he was holding yesterday, our error), while Clinton hits Hattiesburg, Mississippi, before heading to Cheyenne and Casper in advance of Saturday's caucuses. McCain is spending his day in Atlanta, Georgia.

On Polling

Part of our promise here at Politics Nation is that you, our readers, will be able to find the latest polling data on any House, Senate or Gubernatorial race you happen to find interesting. There will be no shortage of them -- either races you're interested in or surveys from those hot spots -- in the coming months, but it is important to remember that not all polls are created equal.

It will be our goal to bring you the latest numbers from pollsters whose methodology is commonly accepted as scientifically sound. That means we will include numbers from respected partisan polling firms, of which there are many throughout the country.

Partisan polls, though, ought to be taken with a grain of salt. When polls from partisan sources become publicly available, they are released to make a point. Still, if they are published on Politics Nation, we are confident that they are reported accurately. That means a horse-race matchup between two or more candidates will be asked near the beginning of the survey, before positive or negative messages about one or more of the candidates are read.

Some pollsters offer "informed ballots," meaning respondents are read brief biographies of candidates and then asked for whom they will vote. It will be our policy not to publish informed ballot tests unless the full biographies for both candidates are made available. In those cases, we will run the biographies next to the informed ballot tests.

When it comes to non-partisan pollsters, there are three primary means of surveying respondents: Live interviews, interactive voice response (IVR, for short) and web-based surveys. Live interviews are widely considered the most accurate in terms of horse race numbers in the months and weeks leading up to an election. For one thing, monitoring survey quality is easiest with live interviews, and a live person talking to a respondent can verify that the person on the other end at least claims to be the voter pollsters are trying to reach.

In an examination this reporter made, for The Hotline, of pollsters who conducted surveys in key contests in 2006, live-calling pollsters came closest to the margin of victory in fourteen of fifteen races, with one tie between live and IVR pollsters.

IVR, on the other hand, offers less stable numbers. The process -- a message asking voters to press a number corresponding with a certain view or candidate -- is cheaper and more efficient, in terms of the amount of time it takes to complete a survey, than live interviews, but they don't always offer the same consistency: In several 2006 races, IVR pollsters showed dramatic swings in just a matter of days. Barring a disastrous performance, the utterance of some unfortunate slur or other collapse, voters don't turn on a candidate that quickly.

That being said, some IVR pollsters have shown remarkable accuracy this year, and it has been our experience that the last poll some firms do before Election Day can turn out to be the most accurate. In California this year, while some pollsters showed Barack Obama winning by wide margins, SurveyUSA, one IVR practitioner, predicted a ten-point win for Hillary Clinton. Clinton won by 9.6%. SurveyUSA also came closest to predicting outcomes in last year's Connecticut Senate race, while Rasmussen, another IVR pollster, predicted the Democratic win in Missouri's Senate contest within one point, tying live-calling firm Mason-Dixon.

The third methodology, like IVR, looks like an exciting new way to conduct polls. Interactive and internet polling shows promise for the future. But like IVR, interactive and internet polls are too uncontrolled; in essence, it is impossible to know who is a part of the sample. Too, they are subject to manipulation, as evidenced by Ron Paul's incredible showing in a number of post-debate polls on the Drudge Report and other sites. Politics Nation will not run any interactive polls this year.

A final note: Some pollsters will use methodology that may seem a little out of the ordinary. A recent poll from the University of Washington, for example, attracted several comments about the survey's accuracy, and rightfully so: The poll was conducted over an eleven-day time period, far longer than the three or four days it takes to complete most surveys, and respondents were a part of a panel -- that is, they are a part of the same pool of respondents who answered pollsters' questions in the UW's earlier poll. In cases wherein a question ought to be raised about a poll's methodology -- or at least something ought to be brought to readers' attention -- Politics Nation will make our best effort to do so, as we did with that particular survey.

This year will likely be the most polled political season in the history of modern polling. Each competitive race will get enough attention to be surveyed many times. But not all polls are created equal, and not all polls will get the same treatment from Politics Nation. We hope this is an effective guide explaining our own methodology.

McCain's Ups And Downs

As a new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama leading John McCain, the Republican nominee-in-waiting can find pluses and minuses that will steer his campaign in the coming months. In 2004, much of the presidential campaign hinged on national security. Given recent trend lines, if McCain is able to pull off the same feat, his outlook in six months may be significantly better than it is today.

McCain and wife Cindy meet reporters
at Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport on Monday
A month after Democrats took over Congress, in December 2006, the war in Iraq found a new valley. Dissatisfaction with the war drove the party's huge congressional gains, and just 31% of those surveyed thought the U.S. was making progress toward restoring civil order in Iraq. Since then, after the so-called "surge" McCain backed, that number has risen steadily, reaching 43% in this month's survey, compared with 51% who say U.S. forces are not making progress.

Paired against Obama, McCain needs the war in Iraq and national security to play a central role. McCain beats Obama when respondents were asked who they trust to handle the war (48%-43%) and the campaign against terrorism (58%-33%). Obama, though, roles easily on domestic issues, beating McCain on the economy (49%-37%), health care (56%-30%) and even ethics and immigration issues (48%-35% each).

A potential McCain-Obama matchup could follow generally the same arguments Clinton and Obama have been arguing over for months: Are voters looking for a candidate with strength and experience, or for new directions and new ideas? While Clinton's experience argument has not had the desired effect in a primary, more general election voters seem open to the angle than Democratic primary voters have. 45% say strength and experience is more important to them, while 46% prefer a new direction and new ideas.

McCain has been aided by the Democratic candidates' recent squabbling over national security, an issue that seemed to help Clinton over Obama in Tuesday's primaries. But where national security debates help McCain, his association with the GOP still hurts him. Appearing with President Bush yesterday at the White House, McCain launched another round of attacks from Democrats, who have come up with a new label -- "McSame" -- and asserted his election would be essentially a third term for the current incumbent.

While Bush promised his party's new nominee that he would do everything possible to help, including campaigning alongside him, McCain may want to think twice. Just 32%, in the Post-ABC survey, said they approve of the way President Bush is handling his job, matching his all-time low, also reached in January. The latest RCP Average shows Bush with an average approval rating of just 32.2%, while 62% disapprove. The only good part of being seen with the President right now: Voters have plenty of time to forget the image of the two standing next to each other, though Democrats will do everything they can to remind them.

There will be hundreds of polls pitting McCain against the eventual Democratic nominee, and in early months, most will likely show the Republican with ground to make up. But there are advantages within the numbers. If McCain can successfully exploit them, by shaping the debate around foreign policy, the war in Iraq and national security, he has a reasonable shot at winning the White House in November. If he avoids the pitfalls by staying away from his own party's President, he will increase his chances even further.

Dems' Vegas Vacation

Republican Jon Porter of Nevada's fast-growing Third District will most likely face another tough race for his suburban Las Vegas seat. Kerry barely lost the 3rd by 50%-49%. Porter won the seat in 2002 when the district was newly created following the 2000 census. Porter faced a tough re-election in 2006 when he weathered tough criticism from opponent Tessa Haffen, a former aide to Senator Harry Reid. Porter barely outlasted Haffen, winning a nail biter 48%-47%.

This time around, Porter will face one of a host of potential challengers running in the Democratic primary. The establishment picks seems to be Clark County Chief Deputy District Attorney Robert Daskas, though Daskas has to get through a primary against CPA and fraud examiner Andrew Martin. Rory Reid, chair of the Clark County Commission, son of Senator Reid, is also said to be a potential candidate.

The younger Reid's organization was instrumental in Hillary Clinton's victory in Nevada's caucuses in January, and would likely make a strong candidate against Porter. Still, national Democrats remain bullish on Daskas, should Reid forgo his own bid.

Although he originally supported Rudy Giuliani in the Republican Presidential Primary, Porter will be one of many Republican Congressmen happy to have John McCain heading the ticket this year. While Porter has successfully attracted independents in the past with his more moderate views on social issues, he needs all the help he can get in a district where registered Democrats now outnumber registered Republicans.

Democrats will paint Porter as a Bush Republican for his steadfast support for the war in Iraq. Porter is one of the prime targets of and other Democratic-leaning groups seeking to link the war with the struggling economy. In a district that came close to casting their votes for Kerry four years ago, those attempts could prove fruitful.

Preparing his defense, Porter has become more outspoken in his attempt to distance himself from the party and cast himself in an independent light. He was one of the first Republicans last year to call for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' resignation and he voted to override Bush's veto of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Porter did not join GOP colleagues in walking out during a vote on contempt citations for Josh Bolten and Harriet Miers.

Paying attention to local issues, Porter recently proposed a companion to John Kerry's mortgage refinance bill in the Senate, which would help state and local housing agencies refinance mortgages and thus create better rates for homeowners. Clark County, along with the rest of Nevada, has been particularly hard-hit by the housing crisis.

Still, Porter is one of many Republicans in swing districts this year hoping 2006 was the Democrats' best chance at knocking off vulnerable GOP incumbents. But as Nevada changes, so too has Porter's district -- the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the district grew more than 33% in the five years between 2000 and 2005. With so many new voters, Porter will not likely face an easy re-election bid in the near future.

-- Greg Bobrinskoy

Expanding The Field

As Democrats look forward to another positive landscape in 2008, the party has cast a wide net. A new Democratic poll out of Georgia suggests the party could even give an otherwise safe incumbent at least something of a scare. While the party may not have a real shot at Senator Saxby Chambliss' seat, if they can scare the Republican into staying home and focusing on his own race, it will help elsewhere.

The poll, conducted by the Washington-based Mellman Group, was conducted between 2/21-24 for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. 600 voters were included in the sample, for a margin of error of +/- 4%. Chambliss was only tested against generic Democrats.

General Election Matchup
Chambliss 42
Generic Dem 37

Chambliss, forced from office when redistricting would have placed him in the same district as fellow Republican Jack Kingston, ran instead for Senate, beating incumbent Democrat Max Cleland. The campaign was one of the most brutal in the country, including an ad that featured Cleland's face next to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Many outraged senators, including John Kerry and John McCain, spoke out against the ads slamming Cleland, a triple-amputee Vietnam veteran.

Since then, polls have continuously showed Chambliss as less popular than fellow Republican Senator Johnny Isakson, who was first elected two years after his senior colleague. The Mellman poll shows Chambliss' job approval at an upside down 38% positive and 40% negative, while just 37% said they would vote to re-elect the incumbent.

Despite his disappointing numbers at home, Chambliss remains the heavy favorite. Even as the national Republican Party has suffered, Georgia has trended more towards the GOP than virtually any other state under President Bush. Democrats have also failed to recruit a truly strong candidate. DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones appears to be the front-runner in the Democratic primary, though he faces former television reporter Dale Cardwell and businessmen Josh Lanier and Rand Knight.

While Democrats hope to expand the field, in the absence of a strong candidate it appears they may fall short. Former State Representative Jim Martin, who ran for Lieutenant Governor in 2006, may be considering a bid of his own, but even his statewide name I.D. would likely fall short against the incumbent.

Med Issue Forces Estabrook Out

The early establishment favorite to take on New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg has pulled out of the contest after suffering a minor stroke, leaving a conservative State Senator as front-runner for the Republican nomination. Businesswoman and developer Anne Evans Estabrook announced she would not make the bid in a statement yesterday.

Estabrook said she is "all too familiar with the seriousness of this particular condition." Estabrook's husband died of a stroke, though hers, doctors say, will leave her without any long-term consequences. Lautenberg and Republican rivals Joe Pennacchio, the state senator, and Ramapo College Professor Murray Sabrin all issued statements wishing Estabrook the best of health.

Her exit from the race comes as something of a blow to national Republicans. Senator John Ensign, chair of the NRSC, had given Estabrook's campaign a contribution, drawing fire from Pennacchio and Sabrin for supporting what they called the more moderate candidate. Still, without Estabrook as the Republican nominee, perhaps the NRSC will avoid temptation to spend money in what has, of late, become a black hole for millions of dollars thrown after lost causes.

Lautenberg, at 84 years old, is seeking his fifth Senate term amid what has been a career of lackluster poll numbers. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Lautenberg receiving just 37% of the vote against a generic Republican, who would pull in 30%. His low numbers can be attributed, in some part, to Garden Staters' general disdain for pollsters -- undecided voters are routinely high until just days before the general election -- though Republicans have often decided spending against Lautenberg is a good investment.

With Estabrook out of the race, the GOP may decide their money is better spent in other contests.

Morning Thoughts: Oh, The Insanity!

Good Thursday morning. Politics Nation is back in Washington just as things seem to be blowing up. At this point, there is nothing that can happen in the 2008 primary season that will surprise us. Here's what Washington is watching this morning:

-- The Senate picks up its work on reforms to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, but the most important work continues in the Budget Committee, where battles over the Fiscal Year 2009 budget are just beginning. In the House, a bill to reauthorize AmeriCorps will get a vote today, while the House Appropriations Committee will hear from Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte on a new supplemental budget request for Iraq and Afghanistan. President Bush today has the honor of meeting a World War I veteran before speaking at Constitution Hall on the fifth anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security.

-- A day after Hillary Clinton won a reprieve with victories in Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island, the focus shifted to Pennsylvania and that state's April 22 primaries. But forget Pennsylvania: Both campaigns and the national media are focusing, once again, on Michigan and Florida, where top politicos are beginning to discuss the possibility of a revote. Should those two contests be scheduled and executed before the June 10 deadline, they would add another 128 and 185 elected delegates respectively, along with 29 super-delegates from Michigan and 25 from Florida, becoming bigger combined prizes than the 158 pledged delegates Pennsylvania offers.

-- But it's not as simple as setting a date, and the wrong people are being blamed for the confusion. While DNC chief Howard Dean has taken heat for purportedly failing to force the two campaigns into a compromise, the race is really not Dean's to inject himself into. In fact, Dean is unable, per party rules, to make certain rules flexible. "What we can't do is change the rules in the middle of the campaign. Both candidates knew what the rules were," Dean said on MSNBC this morning, part of a media blitz in response to the criticism.

-- The onus falls on local actors in Michigan and Florida, which would have to find the money -- probably close to a combined $20 million -- to run the primaries, and would also have to establish plans that allow voters in their states to actually cast ballots, including military service members. Getting ballots to Iraq, Afghanistan and other U.S. outposts around the world takes a long time, effectively meaning that, even if Floridians and Michiganders were to vote on June 10, their ballots would have to start going out as early as late April. A month and a half is not a long time to plan an election in which 5 million-plus people would vote.

-- Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, and Florida's Charlie Crist, a Republican, issued a joint statement yesterday calling for their delegates to be seated and offering their support for some sort of re-vote, Marc Ambinder writes. Dean's own statement thanked both governors for their willingness to help, but it's up to the states to decide, not the national party. The two states' congressional delegations sat down last night to discuss potential scenarios, MSNBC reported.

-- Not to say Pennsylvania won't be important. At the moment, the Keystone State is getting the lion's share of the attention from both camps, earlier contests in Wyoming and Mississippi notwithstanding. Pennsylvania will be "Iowa on steroids," state Democratic Party chairman T.J. Rooney likes to say. Both candidates, after Mississippi's April 11 primary, will have a full six weeks to focus on one battleground. Both will have no choice but to contest the state, and a resounding defeat for one or the other could be the breach in the dam that helps super delegates finally make up their minds, en masse.

-- As for actual candidates, Hillary Clinton may be riding a wave in recent days, but here's an ominous sign: The netroots may be turning against her. Back in July, we penned a look at how Clinton, never a hugely popular figure among lefty bloggers, had done her best not to win friends, but to neutralize potential enemies. Andrew Sullivan writes the new animosity, led by DailyKos, is coming as backlash from some of Clinton's new negative ads -- which Kos suggests makes rival Barack Obama look more black. This column has always been skeptical of the power the netroots claim over the Democratic Party, but they're certainly not enemies anyone can afford. Just ask Joe Lieberman.

-- Meanwhile, all is not well in HillaryLand. After more than two months of voting, the campaign has not wrapped up the nomination, something that was supposed to happen by Iowa, or New Hampshire at the latest. Chief strategist Mark Penn is getting the most blame, all from inside the campaign, where employees began denying Penn credit in Tuesday's wins before they even happened, the Post's Peter Baker and Anne Kornblut write. Still, at least some of the blame falls on the candidate herself. One of her favorite books, Baker and Kornblut write, is "Team of Rivals," about the squabbling within Abraham Lincoln's cabinet. Hoping for the same sense of competition, Clinton built her team with knowledge of their own disagreements. Clinton, one source tells the pair, won "despite us, not because of us."

-- Over in ObamaCountry, Tuesday's primaries may have slammed the breaks on a number of super delegates who were set to publicly announce their support for the senator. Had Obama split the day, or had he won more primaries than Clinton, a swarm of new super delegates could have increased pressure on Clinton to get out of the race. Some reports indicated up to 50 new super delegates would have headed Obama's way -- a claim backed up by Obama backer and Missouri Rep. Lacy Clay, per Political Wire. Yesterday, though, Obama pulled in just two new backers. But if the tide is really reversed, when will the Clinton camp start rolling out their own delegates?

-- Reversal Of The Day: It's all about super delegates, and the number supporting one candidate will make clear the Democratic Party's winner. On the other hand, the other candidate's recipe for success relies on stopping supers from backing the rival. A month ago, it was Clinton looking to collect the big-name delegates and Obama looking to stop her inherent advantage. Today, it's Obama on the collecting side and Clinton defending. One of Clinton's keys to victory, The Fix writes, is her ability to halt Obama's progress among elected officials and party leaders. In politics, a week really is a lifetime.

-- Today On The Trail: John McCain (remember him?) meets voters in West Palm Beach before chatting up the media. Later today, he holds a fundraiser in Atlanta. Clinton has a press conference set for 3:30 p.m. in Washington before heading down to Mississippi to address the state's Jefferson-Jackson-Hamer Day dinner. Husband Bill Clinton is hosting three events in Wyoming. Obama holds town hall meetings in Casper and Laramie, Wyoming, hoping to capitalize on the next opportunity to win a state. Wyoming will award twelve delegates through Saturday caucuses.

Rematch In OH-2

Faced with a competitive primary for the second year in a row, Rep. Jean Schmidt came out victorious again. After being held to just 48% in the 2006 primary, Schmidt defeated State Rep. Tom Brinkman 57%-40% for the GOP nomination in Ohio's 2nd District.

Though Schmidt improved her winning percentage from 2006, it was another sub-par primary performance for an incumbent. She now must confront a familiar face in the general election. Victoria Wulsin, a physician, defeated attorney Steve Black 58%-30% in the spirited Democratic primary. Wulsin and Schmidt previously met in the 2006 general election, when Schmidt won by only 2,500 votes.

The 2nd District runs along the southern edge of the state, hugging the Kentucky border, and includes the eastern edge of Cincinnati, as well as suburban and rural counties to the east. President Bush won 64% here in 2004, but Schmidt has been unable to match that kind of popularity in the voting booth.

Wulsin heads to the general election race with $170,000 on hand, about $70,000 more than Schmidt. Both candidates spent big in the primary, and will need to raise much more money to compete similarly in the general.

--Kyle Trygstad

Two Former Prez Candidates Get Wins

Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Ron Paul (R-TX) scored big wins last night, holding off primary challenges in their respective districts. After spending months in the presidential race, both congressmen dropped their long-shot bids and subsequently found themselves in trouble at home.

In Ohio's 10th District, Kucinich faced the toughest primary challenge of his career from Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman, a 10-year veteran of Cleveland city politics. Cimperman, however, could not overcome Kucinich's 40-year history in Cleveland, where he has built a loyal network of union support. Kucinich won 50%-35%, with three other candidates taking 14% of the vote. If every one of the other three candidates' voters had instead chosen Cimperman, Kucinich still would have won, though his margin of victory would have only been about 700 votes.

In Texas's 14th District, Paul faced just one Republican challenger, Friendswood city councilman Chris Peden, and defeated him by the wide margin of 70%-30%. Peden told Greg Bobrinskoy two weeks ago that internal polling showed him leading the incumbent. Conversely, the Paul campaign also claimed to have internal polling showing Paul leading by a large margin, which turned out to be accurate.

Both Kucinich and Paul have now faced their toughest challenges of the 2008 cycle, as both represent districts that make them safe in the general election. Ohio's 10th District gave John Kerry 58% of the vote in 2004, and Kucinich has won with at least 60% since 1998. Paul has won with at least 60% of the vote since 2000, and Bush carried his district with 67% in 2004.

--Kyle Trygstad

Morning Thoughts: And On We Go

Good Wednesday morning. Despite our best efforts at a vacation, certain recent events demand attention. Here's what a tired Washington is waking up to today:

-- The Senate is back in action on a bill regarding the Consumer Product Safety Commission, while the House votes on a bill on Iraq reconstruction and celebrates the debut, 58 years ago, of Earl Lloyd, the first black player in the NBA. President Bush meets with King Abdullah of Jordan and a certain Senator from Arizona, for an endorsement.

-- The bottom line today: Hillary Clinton, again, had her back against the wall. And Hillary Clinton, again, pulled out a huge night. She won crucial primaries in Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island, bettering most analysts' expectations, and may have even closed the delegate gap with Barack Obama. The Democratic presidential nomination, which many hoped would be over tonight, will continue through Pennsylvania's April 22 contests and probably further.

-- On the Republican side, John McCain will indeed appear next to President Bush tomorrow at the White House, where he will accept Bush's endorsement after clinching more than the 1,191 delegates needed to win the Republican presidential nomination. Mike Huckabee, waging a campaign that some believe harmed his chances at a political future, dropped out last night, calling his one-time rival an honorable man.

-- But Clinton is the story this morning. And it's very likely, despite hand-wringing by some politicos and media watchers, that her ad focusing on her national security credentials as opposed to Obama was over the top, the ad was what did the trick. Along with usual big margins among women, less educated whites and lower-income voters, Clinton, for the first time since New Hampshire, won voters who had decided in the last three days. In Ohio, she won 58% of those voters, higher than the 53% she won among those who decided before that. She won 61% of those voters in Texas, too, ringing up an 23-point margin over Obama as the two split voters who had decided beforehand and providing the decisive margin.

-- The biggest thing that happened in the last three days: Clinton's airing the advertisement suggesting she is better qualified to answer a phone call at 3 a.m. suggesting a crisis. Obama's team landed good counter-punches, challenging Clinton to detail her own experience and suggesting that in her one chance to do just that, a vote in favor of the war in Iraq, she had failed. But coupled with a dispute over Obama's statements on NAFTA, Clinton's game-changing gambit looks like the straw that broke the camel's back.

-- While most analysts predicted that, even with narrow wins, Clinton would not be able to close the delegate lead -- his big win in Vermont, her smaller wins in other states were contributing factors to those calculations -- she may have done so, albeit by a tiny margin.
"In our latest projections ... any pledged delegate shift will be absolutely minimal," Obama spokesman Bill Burton said in a statement late last night. We probably won't know the final delegate counts for a few days yet. Still, the Clinton camp will be crowing for days over the victory, which by virtually every measure was bigger than expected. How many super delegates, set to endorse Obama tomorrow, are now avoiding phone calls from the Illinoisian's campaign?

-- Clinton's performance just means the 300 or so super delegates who have yet to decide on a candidate will find themselves under even more pressure. In fact, though Clinton has seen a number of desertions in recent weeks, her super delegate cat-herder, Harold Ickes, will be able to approach The Uncommitted with a renewed sense of purpose: The Clintons are not done, he will be able to say. Underestimate them at your own peril.

-- Surrogates Of The Day: Clinton's most important win came in Ohio, where she pulled it out by a bigger margin -- double digits -- than anyone expected. The biggest winners: Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who has had the unenviable task of being Clinton's lead mouthpiece on cable news nets in recent weeks. And Governor Ted Strickland, who announced his backing of Clinton long enough ago to have had a serious impact on the campaign. If Clinton wins the nomination and has to look for a running mate who can actually deliver a state, Strickland's name just crept a few places higher on that short list.

-- Today On The Trail: Clinton wakes up early to appear on all three networks' morning shows, along with "Fox and Friends" and "Morning Joe." The real importance of Clinton's wins in all three states: The campaign said nothing of today's schedule until 12:38 a.m., meaning last night's outcome really did matter. A lot. McCain has two stops planned, the first at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where he and wife Cindy meet Bush to accept his endorsement. Later, he will attend a fundraiser with Governor Charlie Crist in Gulf Stream, Florida, an event -- his first fundraiser as the presumptive nominee -- that is sure to set tongues wagging over the potential veep pick.

McClintock In, Oller Out In CA-4

Former State Senator Rico Oller announced today he is leaving the race for the Republican nomination in California's 4th District, and simultaneously endorsed State Senator Tom McClintock, who was set to officially enter the race at a morning press conference.

Rep. John Doolittle announced in January that he was stepping down at the end of the year. Doolittle is currently under investigation in a congressional lobbying scandal.

What appeared to be a three-person race for the GOP nomination has quickly dwindled to two. Besides Oller, the other GOP candidates included former U.S. Rep. Doug Ose and Air Force Reservist Eric Egland. The Sacramento Bee reported today that Egland would also be supporting McClintock, leaving Ose as the only other candidate in the race.

In a press release today, Oller explained his exit, stating that if he and McClintock both remain in the race, "we run the very great risk of delivering the seat to an unarguably liberal Republican, Doug Ose."

The winner of the GOP primary will take on Democrat Charlie Brown, who lost to Doolittle in 2006 by just 3 points and held the incumbent under 50 percent for the first time in nine elections. But the Republican nominee starts with a great advantage, as this northern California district gave President Bush 61 percent of the vote in 2004.

--Kyle Trygstad

GOP Favored For Baker's Seat

Special election nominees will be chosen Saturday in Louisiana, where two Republican House members stepped down this year.

In the 1st District, Bobby Jindal left office after winning the governorship, leaving vacant the most Republican district in the state. In the 6th District, Richard Baker left his Baton Rouge-based seat to head up a national hedge fund association. Baker, who retired in the middle of his 11th term, had no major party opposition in 2006 and was considered safe for re-election this year.

The Republican nominee in the 6th District is likely to win the special election, though the results should be closer than in the 1st District. Although Democrats currently outnumber Republicans by almost 2-to-1 in the district, voters have traditionally preferred Republicans in the general election. President Bush won 59 percent here in 2004 and Baker has regularly won by wide margins.

The four Republicans up for the nomination include consultant Laurinda Calonge, contracts administrator Michael Cloonan, former state Rep. Woody Jenkins, and former Baker chief of staff Paul Sawyer. In the last FEC reports candidates filed, Calonge reported having raised close to $200,000, with just more than $100,000 cash on hand through February 17. Not far behind is Sawyer, who raised $112,000 with $88,000 on hand. Jenkins raised $80,000 with $22,000 in the bank, while Cloonan did not file a report with the FEC.

Among the five Democrats running, State Rep. Don Cazayoux has a 2-to-1 lead in fundraising over his closest rival. Cazayoux raised $260,000 with $150,000 on hand as of February 17. Andy Kopplin, former director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, raised $126,000 with $85,000 on hand. Jason DeCuir and Michael Jackson both raised less than $20,000, and Joe Delatte did not file a report.

If the winner of both the Democratic and Republican primaries win more than 50 percent of the vote, the special general election will be held April 5. If at least one party goes to a runoff, it will be held April 5, with the general moved to May 3.

--Kyle Trygstad

McCain, Close To Win, Benefits From Dem Squabbles

PHOENIX, Arizona -- A day before his campaign hopes to finally lock up the Republican nomination, John McCain voiced his own optimism but refused to declare premature victory while meeting with reporters in his home town. "You know of my superstitions," McCain joked.

McCain's confidence was obvious, though, as he spent a casual weekend with top strategists and members of the national media at his ranch in Sedona instead of stumping in Ohio and Texas. And while other candidates might take a ceremonial turn at the barbecue, McCain showed off his talent over the grill, feeding reporters dozens of racks of ribs using his own special recipe. "He knows what he's doing," one reporter and barbeque fan told Politics Nation.

Flanked by wife Cindy and former Texas Senator Phil Gramm, McCain expressed concern about recent foreign events, including Russian elections, rocket attacks on Israel and rising tensions between Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. Asked by one reporter about Hillary Clinton's recent television ad hypothesizing a telephone call to the White House at 3 a.m., McCain said he is most qualified to handle a crisis.

"I'm not running against their qualificantions," McCain said of Clinton and Barack Obama. "I'm running for mine." McCain again joked that he is not the youngest candidate in the race, but made sure to note that he is no longer the oldest, either. "I'm glad to see Mr. [Ralph] Nader is in. He's older than I am."

McCain's concentration on national security and foreign policy is an integral part of his general election strategy. If the race is determined based on voters' perceptions on the war in Iraq and instability throughout the world, McCain has more than a fighting chance. Voter attitudes are slowly beginning to change on Iraq, and no politician has been more associated with the so-called surge strategy than McCain. Too, tumult around the globe can make voters nervous and eager for an experienced candidate. Those voters, especially against a young senator like Obama, can be convinced to cast ballots for McCain.

The recent feud between Clinton and Obama on national security, most epitomized by Clinton's telephone ad, only serves to swing voter attention back to international situations. While each candidate is focused, at least at the moment, on winning the Democratic nomination, both are aiding McCain's effort to drive the conversation back to his turf.

McCain still has to lock up his own nomination, and though his notorious superstitions make him too nervous to call for rival Mike Huckabee to leave the race, campaign advisers think the race will end tomorrow. "If we win the four [states in play tomorrow], we will" reach the magic number, adviser Steve Duprey told Politics Nation.

Morning Thoughts: Another Super Tuesday

Exciting, exciting day today -- Nationals tickets go on sale. Oh, and there are some pretty important primaries in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont, too. Please bear with me as I attempt to fill in for the unfill-in-able Reid Wilson.

--In warm and beautiful Washington, D.C. -- where all the action isn't right now -- the House is again holding just a pro forma session, while the Senate continues looking at the Consumer Product Safety Commission bill.

--Here is a rundown of where the Dems stand in the RCP averages in the four primary states: Clinton +1.7 in Texas, Clinton +7.1 in Ohio, Clinton +9.7 in Rhode Island. And in Vermont, where there were not enough polls to calculate an average, Obama led by 24 points in the latest Rasmussen poll.

--Yesterday the Clinton campaign dropped an ad called "True," attacking Obama for not holding oversight hearings on Afghanistan. It includes a clip of Obama admitting to not holding a hearing because he gained the chairmanship at the beginning of the campaign. It seems a bit late in the game for this ad to have much of an effect on today's primaries. Senator John Kerry defended Obama against the ads yesterday, telling reporters in a conference call that Obama jumped into the race with already "more experience in foreign policy than George Bush had, than Ronald Reagan had, and even Bill Clinton."

--Is it just us, or has there been horrible weather on primary days this year? Remember the awful storms blowing through Tennessee and surrounding states on Super Tuesday Feb. 5? The South Carolina GOP primary on Jan. 19 was hit with sleet and snow. The D.C. area had a random ice storm on Potomac Primary day Feb. 12, causing some people 6 hour commutes home from work. And now Ohio.

--The major newspapers are leading with stories detailing the importance of tonight's results for the future of the Democratic primary race. If the polls are correct, we should see incredibly close calls in Texas and Ohio, allowing not much of a net change in pledged delegates. Could this be the end? More on this in the next item.

--The Washington Post included some interesting graphics in today's paper. There are two great visuals in Texas and Ohio showing each candidates areas of strengths. It also included a Post-ABC poll showing two-thirds of Democrats believe if Clinton wins either Texas or Ohio -- not necessarily both -- she should stay in the race.

--Today on the Trail: Obama and Clinton will be in the states they appear to have the best chances of winning. Clinton in Columbus, Ohio, and Obama in San Antonio, Texas. Huckabee will be in Irving, Texas, and McCain will hit the three big Texas cities of San Antonio, Houston and Dallas.

--Kyle Trygstad

A Super Saturday For Scalise?

The special primaries in Louisiana's 1st District take place Saturday, when both parties will select their nominees for the special election to serve the remainder of the 110th Congress. The seat became vacant when Republican Bobby Jindal was elected governor and sworn into office in January.

Four Republicans are vying for the nomination, including State Senator Steve Scalise, who may have a geographical, as well as financial, advantage over the other three candidates. While most of the district's area is composed of the three counties north of Lake Pontchartrain, a large portion of the voters have resided just to the south, in Uptown New Orleans, Metairie in Jefferson Parish, and a section of St. Charles Parish.

As New Orleans City Business reports, Scalise is the only candidate hailing from the South Shore; State Rep. Tim Burns, Slidell Mayor Ben Morris and attorney David Simpson reside on the North Shore. Though no North Shore candidate has ever been elected to Congress in this district, City Business writes, for the first time a "strong majority" of the district's voters now live on the North Shore, a demographic change caused by Hurricane Katrina.

This would have hurt Scalise in a two-person primary race, but with three candidates splitting the North Shore vote, Scalise should win the primary with ease. Still, he will need to win 50 percent to avoid a runoff. If the primary does go to a runoff, Scalise will have a huge cash advantage. As of February 17, the final financial reporting date before the primary, Scalise had some $360,000 in the bank, more than 10 times the cash-flow of his closest competitor.

Democrat Gilda Reed is expected to easily win the Democratic primary. If Scalise and Reed both win 50 percent in their respective primaries, the special general election will be held April 5. If either party goes to a runoff, the runoff will be held April 5, with the general then moved to May 3. With the 1st the most Republican district in the state -- Bush won 71% here in 2004 -- the winner of Saturday's GOP primary is heavily favored to win the seat.

--Kyle Trygstad

Early Advantage For Maffei

New York's 25th district was a top target for Democrats even before Rep. Jim Walsh announced his retirement in January. Since winning the seat in 1988, Walsh faced his first serious challenge in 2006 against Democrat Dan Maffei, and barely survived with a 50.8%-49.2% victory. He was one of only eight Republican Congressmen to win a district carried by Kerry.

Maffei is running again this year, and is unopposed in the Democratic primary. Rumors of a possible primary challenge by Syracuse Mayor Matthew Driscoll were ended recently when Driscoll announced he planned to serve out the remainder of his mayoral term, through 2009. On top of the fact that this year Maffei will not face a sitting incumbent spending twice as much as him, he should also benefit from a more-publicized struggling economy.

While a handful of Republicans have announced or are seriously considering a run for the nomination, former New York State Fair Director Peter Cappuccilli and Randy Wolken, president of the Manufacturers Association of Central New York, are the early frontrunners. Cappuccilli, who announced his candidacy last month, is somewhat well-known in Syracuse's Onondaga County, where the annual State Fair takes place.

While Cappuccilli will likely base his campaign on his experience with local issues, Wolken will likely highlight his military and business background. Wolken, whose support will also be based in Onondaga County, said in his announcement speech, "I believe I have the breadth of experience that other people will have a tough time matching."

Maffei's campaign manager Dan Krupnick told Politics Nation that their campaign does not regard either Republican candidate as the frontrunner. Krupnick said Maffei will try to build on his support in the 2006 election in which he won Onondaga and Monroe counties, and the city of Syracuse 60%-40%, but lost Wayne and Northern Cayuga by enough points to evaporate his lead elsewhere.

The district runs from Syracuse to the northern suburbs of Rochester and is primarily composed of 4 major counties: Onondaga (Syracuse), Wayne (Rochester), Cayuga and Monroe. The 25th leans slightly Democratic giving Al Gore 51% and John Kerry 50% of the vote.

The Republicans' late entries to the race put them at a steep financial disadvantage to Maffei who after announcing his candidacy in April has raised a little over $520,000 with $440,000 on hand.

--Greg Bobrinskoy

Return Of The Goat

Democrat Larry Kissell, a high school teacher and former textile worker, fell 329 votes shy of defeating GOP Rep. Robin Hayes in 2006. Kissell is running again this year, and the DCCC is likely to support him more than it did in the previous election.

Through the end of 2007, Hayes outraised Kissell by almost $1 million. When the DCCC steps in, Kissell's financial numbers should rise substantially, though Hayes has the ability to self-finance his campaign if necessary. No other candidates filed for the seat by Friday's filing deadline, so Hayes and Kissell will be able to focus their money and attention on each other.

Outspent 3-1 by Hayes in 2006, Kissell had to get creative to gain attention against the wealthy four-term incumbent. At campaign events during the summer, Kissell appeared with a goat named CAFTA, a reference to the Central American Free Trade Agreement that Hayes supported in 2005. CAFTA was expected to have a negative impact on the textile industry, crucial to the district's economy. Despite stating publicly that he would not support the bill, Hayes cast the deciding vote after party leaders pressed him to switch.

Kissell also made a highly-publicized appearance at a local gas station, where he charged drivers $1.22 per gallon--the price when Hayes first took office in 1999. Kissell pumped gas and paid the difference in cost, as hundreds of cars lined up for the opportunity to buy cheap gas. The move made the national news.

--Kyle Trygstad

Kerry Challenger Makes DC Rounds

After a disastrous year in 2006, Republicans recruiting candidates for this year's House and Senate elections are using a new pitch: That year's election showed voters disliked Republicans; this year, voters dislike Washington and incumbents as a whole. As evidence, the GOP will point to a special election last year in which a Republican came within just a few points of dislodging Democratic control of a seat in northern Massachusetts.

That Republican, farmer and businessman Jim Ogonowski, ran as an outsider, and he fits the part. He's apparently bought the hype, as well. This year, he's set his sights higher, and instead of seeking a rematch against new incumbent Niki Tsongas, to whom he lost in October, he is preparing to mount a long-shot bid against Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.

In Washington last week to meet with national Republican officials and introduce himself to journalists, Ogonowski said he would do everything he could to make Kerry's re-election bid more difficult than in 2002, when he took 80% of the vote without a Republican opponent. "People are fed up with Washington," Ogonowski told Politics Nation. "Clearly, they want change, but Washington is broken and nobody represents that status quo more than John Kerry."

While Ogonowski's performance last year looked impressive, the district cast ballots for Tsongas at about the same rate Democratic Governor Deval Patrick did in 2006. Undaunted by the long odds -- Tsongas' is the least Democratic of the state's eleven seats -- Ogonowski said his numbers were rising then, and they can rise again. "With a little more time, we would have won that race," he said. "Clearly, we can win in Massachusetts."

Ogonowski's hopes rely on the fact that he's running against the state's less-popular Senator. "I'm not running against Ted Kennedy. Let me tell you, huge difference," he said. "You can't compare those two. John Kerry doesn't work for us. Not at all. I don't agree with Ted Kennedy on his views, but the guy's a workhorse."

Though no Republican has been elected to the Senate in Massachusetts in two generations, the party has elected GOP Governors Mitt Romney, Paul Cellucci and William Weld. Weld gave Kerry a race in 1996, coming within seven points of upsetting the incumbent.

Still, Massachusetts Republicans can benefit from what many Bay Staters see as a monolithic Democratic Party in the state capitol. Democrats who have won overwhelmingly at a statewide level, including Patrick, Kennedy and Kerry were never a part of the state legislature. Republican governors all beat Democrats seen as part of the Beacon Hill establishment.

In Ogonowski's long-shot bid, he may find as much success tying Kerry to the capitol in Boston as he would tying Kerry to the capitol in Washington. Even if those messages work, convincing Bay State voters that Kerry is the incumbent who needs to be replaced could prove an impossible sell.

Clinton's Last Card

Hillary Clinton, seemingly days away from being forced out of the presidential field, spent the final weekend before Ohio and Texas voters head to the polls hammering key differences between herself and her chief rival on what, until now, has been Republican turf. Perhaps, the Clinton camp must realize, distinctions on national security are the only way she can beat Barack Obama.

But Clinton's focus on national security, while possibly effective, toe a fine line. The Obama campaign has characterized her language as promoting the "politics of fear," comparing her lines to those Karl Rove might have advised Republicans to use during elections since September 11. Still, with time running out, Clinton has little choice but to try to drive the distinction home.

"My opponent and I are in an important debate about national security and which one of us is best prepared to take charge as Commander in chief," she said Saturday in Fort Worth, according to excerpts provided by her campaign. "He calls that fear-mongering. Well, I don't think Texans scare that easy."

Playing up her national security credentials, Clinton spent much of the weekend surrounded by retired military brass. She touted an endorsement from former Joint Chiefs chairman Hugh Shelton, and her campaign held a conference call with eighteen retired generals and admirals, along with Lee Feinstein, the campaign's national security director. Later, the campaign issued statements on recent rocket attacks on Israel and a tanker deal that Boeing, the American aircraft company, lost to a European rival.

Hoping to convince voters, as she has asserted for months, that she is the candidate of experience, Clinton's campaign even went as far as to draw a subtle link between new Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev and Obama. "Mr. Medvedev has said some hopeful sounding things in the course of his campaign, and the job of a new American President will be to test these words, to see whether they could mark a new approach in Russian politics and foreign policy," she said in a statement.

Obama, though, has not taken the assault lying down. "I have to say, when it came to making the most important foreign policy decision of our generation -- the decision to invade Iraq -- Sen. Clinton got it wrong. She didn't read the nation intelligence estimates," Obama told a crowd in Westerville, Ohio, as The Swamp's John McCormick reported. "I have enough experience to know that if you have a national intelligence estimate ... then you should probably read it."

Susan Rice, Obama's top foreign policy adviser, and several other national security experts backing the Illinoisian's campaign hit back on their own conference call, on which Rice questioned whether Clinton has any more experience on the issues than Obama does.

No matter who wins the primary, both candidates will need to address national security policy against John McCain come the general election. Clinton and Obama, each of whom will likely be put on the defensive by the Arizona senator, are first finding their way against each other. If Obama wins on Tuesday in spite -- or perhaps because of -- Clinton's focus on national security, his chances in November would be greatly improved. And as Clinton's chances seem to be fading, taking the risky step of hitting Obama on national security may be her last hope.

Morning Thoughts:Turning Around

PHOENIX -- Good Monday morning. Politics Nation is, like the Beastie Boys, always on vacation. A few things Washington is watching before we head back to Spring Training:

-- The Senate takes up a bill on the Consumer Product Safety Commission, while the House holds only a pro forma session. President Bush meets with a top official overseeing the Iraq war.

-- Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama spent this weekend beating each other up over national security (more on that later this morning), while John McCain sat back and took advantage of the opportunity to shift the debate to Iraq. The economy is currently tops on voters' minds, but it's an issue on which McCain has admitted vulnerability. He is desperate to shift the debate to Iraq and national security. Thanks to both his potential Democratic rivals, McCain could be closer to shifting the debate than he thinks.

-- McCain spent the weekend at his home in Sedona, Arizona, the ultimate version of the Straight Talk Express. Yesterday, he barbequed for the national press corps, and this morning he meets the press before getting on a plane bound for Texas. McCain has great relations with the national press, but something to watch: How will Arizona papers cover him now that he's the nominee in waiting? They have long complained of a lack of access -- something national reporters are not accustomed to. Could that come back to haunt him in November?

-- On the other hand, in the past few weeks, McCain hasn't had great press. From the infamous New York Times piece to an endorsement from an evangelical leader who has bad relations with the Catholic Church, it's been a long time since McCain had a good day on the country's front pages. McCain's advisers have to be very happy that the Democratic contest is still going on: The best time to go through bad news, if any candidate has to, is when no one is watching.

-- Why has Hillary Clinton's campaign collapsed? She's relying on the one group of voters not casting ballots the way they're supposed to, the Washington Post reports. African Americans have been voting for the African American candidate. Men have been voting for the male candidate. But women have not been voting for Clinton. Women were the key to Clinton's early success, though when they began to consider other candidates, Clinton began to lose her support.

-- Incident Involving A Gun Of The Day: As Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen met with President Bush at his Crawford ranch on Sunday, an unidentified female neighbor of the commander in chief picked up a gun an nearly shot Terkel Svensson, a Danish journalist dictating his story over a cell phone and not really paying attention to which neighbor's lawn he happened to be trespassing upon. CNN's Ed Henry reports on the near-international incident, which would have been exactly what President Bush needed.

-- Today On The Trail: Obama interviews with Good Morning America before heading to San Antonio and Carrollton, Texas, for town hall meetings. Later, he holds a rally in Houston and gives an interview to "Nightline." Clinton holds rallies in Toledo, Ohio, before rallying in Beaumont and holding a televised town hall on Fox Sports Southwest in Austin. Huckabee has rallies in Dallas, Abilene, Midland, San Antonio and Houston, Texas. McCain holds a media availability in Phoenix, heads to Lubbock for a media availability, then holds a town hall meeting in Waco, Texas.