Momentum Spinning

It's Monday and that means another round of dueling conference calls by operatives in the Democratic presidential race. "NAFTA-Gate," that's the headline in a press release sent out by Hillary Clinton's campaign hammering away at the latest controversy to pop up around the Democratic campaign and a prime topic of a call hosted by Clinton's chief strategist Mark Penn and communications director Howard Wolfson.

The story about what Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee said to a Canadian consulate and in what capacity he was serving in at the time has become a mini-flap over recent days after a Canadian news report claimed that the adviser told the consulate that Obama's threats to renegotiate NAFTA were said in the heat of the campaign. The Obama campaign first denied that any such conversation took place and now says the remarks have been mischaracterized and the adviser was not speaking on behalf of the campaign. The issue is big, of course, in Ohio which votes tomorrow.

In the press release and on the conference call, Wolfson read a lengthy list of quoted from Obama aides denying the story in full, calling it "NAFTA-Gate." The campaign also began discussing the trial of indicted Chicago businessman and one-time Obama supporter Tony Rezko, whose corruption trial begins today. The candidate herself weighed in on the topic in a statement released this morning. "I don't think people should come to Ohio and you both give speeches that are very critical of NAFTA and you send out misleading and false information about my positions regarding NAFTA and then we find out that your chief economic advisor has gone to a foreign government and basically done the old wink-wink, don't pay any attention this is just political rhetoric."

In a conference call of his own with reporters, Obama manager David Plouffe called such charges part of a "kitchen sink" strategy being launched by the Clinton camp as it tries to hang in the race. "This conversation has been discredited by the Canadian government, it's been discredited by our campaign, it's simply a conversation that did not happen," Plouffe said of the flap.

Plouffe was then quick to point to a story in today's New York Sun which quotes retired general Jack Keane, as being skeptical that Clinton would authorize a large, immediate withdrawal from Iraq should she become president. Keane has briefed Clinton on the surge strategy and other matters in the past. Plouffe told reporters the story "deserves an enormous amount of scrutiny."

Of course all the back-and-forth was put on hold when it came to the strategists' assessments of how the race may look after four states vote tomorrow night. The Obama campaign characterized it as a race about delegates, which Obama will almost certainly maintain a healthy lead in after tomorrow. "We have built a very meaningful and significant pledged delegate lead," Plouffe said. "If the Clinton campaign is not able to produce a big delegate yield tomorrow night, you begin to have a smaller number of contests and a smaller number of delegates available to make up that gap."

The Clinton camp signaled that their candidate is likely to remain in the race should she win primaries in both Texas and Ohio and argued that Obama's momentum, built over the course of 11 straight wins, is slowing. "I think that momentum is tipping to Senator Clinton," Penn said. "I think it's tipping on the big and most important issues that we have raised in the campaign and I think that momentum will allow us to be successful in both of these states."

Penn said the NAFTA incident and the Rezko trial signaled a new period of vetting for Obama. "We expect that Wednesday morning, that the momentum of Senator Obama will be significantly blunted and new questions raised about whether or not he is the right nominee for out party," he said.

Update: CBS News' chief political consultant Marc Ambinder reports that the Canadian Embassy has weighed in on the NAFTA flap with the following statement:

"The Canadian Embassy and our Consulates General regularly contact those involved in all of the Presidential campaigns and, periodically, report on these contacts to interested officials. In the recent report produced by the Consulate General in Chicago, there was no intention to convey, in any way, that Senator Obama and his campaign team were taking a different position in public from views expressed in private, including about NAFTA. We deeply regret any inference that may have been drawn to that effect."

"The people of the United States are in the process of choosing a new President and are fortunate to have strong and impressive candidates from both political parties. Canada will not interfere in this electoral process. We look forward, however, to working with the choice of the American people in further building an unparalleled relationship with a close friend and partner."