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Strategy Memo: Grace Under Fire

Good Thursday morning. As candidates make plans to hit West Virginia in the lead up to their primary, how many places will they visit with undecided super delegate Robert Byrd's name on them? It should be more than a few; the whole state has something to do with the country's longest-serving current senator. Back here in Washington, here's what's on people's minds today:

-- Not much going on today, sort of a lethargic day to match the gunmetal-grey sky in Washington. The Senate continues its work on a bill to reform flood insurance programs, and the House will finish its week today as well. President Bush is at his ranch in Crawford, while Vice President Cheney is meeting employees at a financial institution in Philadelphia before making a speech marking the 60th anniversary of the state of Israel.

-- On the presidential campaign trail, it appears to be all over but the crying. The serious pressure on Hillary Clinton officially kicked off yesterday with a one-time backer, former Senator George McGovern, abandoning Clinton, offering his backing to rival Barack Obama. McGovern is not a super delegate, but some other prominent party leaders who back Obama are super delegates, and McGovern's support for Obama was worth some news. All told, Obama picked up four backers with convention votes yesterday, while Clinton gained two and lost one (to Obama).

-- Clinton has heard calls for her exit before. Had she not won New Hampshire, those calls would have been cacophonous. They began again in the run-up to Super Tuesday, and to primaries in Texas, Ohio and elsewhere. But she's always had the argument that she's still got a chance with the super delegates. But the latest RCP Delegate Count shows Clinton leading among that group by just eleven, and the moment Obama overtakes her can't be more than a few days away. When that happens, the negotiations about how to exit the race will only increase.

-- It's one thing to begin to call for Clinton's ouster. It's quite another to get the candidate to go along with it. Clinton was back on the trail yesterday, having hastily scheduled a campaign stop in West Virginia, and today she takes a long trip from Washington to Charleston to Sioux Falls and tiny Central Point, Oregon, just north of the California border. Clinton held a big fundraiser here in Washington last night with about 1,500 people, and yesterday she met with four super delegates who have yet to decide on a candidate, including Reps. Tim Mahoney, Ciro Rodriguez, Jerry McNerney and Chris Carney, according to Ben Smith. Those aren't the signs of a candidate ready to drop out. Then again, John Edwards didn't act like he would be dropping out in the days before he did.

-- Obama, on the other hand, isn't quite the nominee in waiting, but he's going to start acting like it, the LA Times' Peter Nicholas writes today. Obama will stop by in remaining primary states like West Virginia and Oregon, but he's also going to start hitting events in swing states that will be important in the general election, and that have already held their primaries. The Clinton campaign calls it hubris, but Obama will take more direct aim at John McCain in coming days and weeks, while ignoring the rival he doesn't believe has a shot to win anymore.

-- One key factor Democrats would have to face that McCain might have been able to avoid is starting to look worse for the Arizonan. In 2000, McCain's local paper, the Arizona Republic, went pretty easy on him. This year, Obama faces a tough Chicago media, led by the Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet, while Clinton has to deal with the screaming headlines of the Post and the Daily News and face down the New York Times, one of the few organizations left that sends multiple reporters on the trail. But McCain gets rough treatment this morning from the Republic, which writes that, just maybe, his maverick image isn't all it's cracked up to be. If McCain actually gets a tenacious press on his heels, even if from the hometown paper alone, it might put a new spin on his national image.

-- Obama and McCain are going to do this one a little differently, though. Strategists for both sides have long said that the 2000 and 2004 map will be inoperative; whereas President Bush, John Kerry and Al Gore fought over perhaps a dozen states, McCain and Obama are going to be looking at perhaps twice that many (as McCain chief Rick Davis told us last month). Obama, during his victory speech in North Carolina on Tuesday, promised he would carry the state in November; the state has voted Republican since 1980, the Wall Street Journal writes today.

-- Are new states really in play? Of course every four years campaigns say theirs is the one that can operate a real 50-state strategy (and of course no one ever does), but Republicans are confident that they can make a play for states like Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Michigan and the West Coast -- though they're aware that California is monetary black hole, they have yet to decide if it's in play. Democrats, on the other hand, still have high hopes for the Mountain West, states like Colorado and New Mexico, which President Bush won last time around, and some southern states like Virginia, Arkansas and elsewhere. McCain, with his unique appeal to independent and moderate voters, and Obama, with his ability to turn out new voters, are ideally suited to build a map that will thoroughly flummox political scientists for years to come.

-- Deal Of The Day: Clinton has now loaned her campaign a total of $11.4 million, and she's probably added another $10 million or so in unpaid expenses, as Huffington Post's Tom Edsall writes today. Could she be waiting for an Obama offer to help pay down that debt? A graceful withdrawal would vastly improve Clinton's standing in the party, and there may be a future waiting for her in Senate leadership. How Harry Reid and Dick Durbin feel about that, though, is another question.

-- Today On The Trail: Clinton makes stops in Charleston, West Virginia, Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Central Point, Oregon, where she ends her evening after holding a fundraiser in Ashland, just south. Obama is in Washington for the day, a second day off the trail. And John McCain wakes up in New York, fresh off his appearance on the Daily Show, for a major fundraiser.