Starting Gate: Seven More Weeks?

(AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
What has been by nearly any accounting an energizing primary process for Democrats may be reaching its limits. The candidacies of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, combined with the unpopularity of the Bush administration have raised Democratic hopes and prospects of taking back the White House in November. The mostly-positive campaign has also avoided the kinds of pitfalls and criticisms that can dog the eventual nominee into the general election – until now.

Clinton's decision to air an ad last week questioning Obama's readiness to handle those "3am" emergency phone calls as president should have Democrats concerned. Losses in Ohio and Texas for Clinton would almost certainly end her campaign but what if she does just well enough to argue she has enough of a chance to win to continue on?

It isn't at all a stretch to see that ad as more a general election spot than an effective argument in the Democratic primary. It is almost certainly the same kind of argument presumptive GOP nominee John McCain will make should he face Obama in the fall. That's no secret, of course, but the longer this contest goes on, the more potential there is for real damage to be done to whoever winds up with the nomination.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, whose own campaign was never able to break through the Clinton-Obama domination of the race, has yet to endorse but was clear yesterday on his desire to get this fight over with when he appeared on CBS' Face the Nation. "I just think that D-Day is Tuesday," Richardson said. "We have to have a positive campaign after Tuesday. Whoever has the most delegates after Tuesday, a clear lead, should be, in my judgment, the nominee."

That leader will be Obama regardless of what happens in Ohio, Texas, Vermont and Rhode Island tomorrow night. Clinton cannot take the delegate lead and it's highly unlikely she will even make up much ground. CBS News' current delegate estimate has Obama with a 1,379 to 1,267 lead over Clinton, including super delegates. Because of the proportional allocation system in the Democratic primaries, Obama is almost certain to retain what Richardson called a "clear lead."

But the rhetoric is heating up on the trail. "You know, for some people, this election is about how you feel. It's about speeches," Clinton said yesterday in Ohio. "Well, that's not what it's about for me. It's about solutions." Obama shot back at Clinton's experience argument, noting that Clinton has said she did not read the entire national intelligence estimate on Iraq before voting to support the war. "I don't know what all that experience got her, because I have the experience to know that . . . if the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee says, 'You should read this, this is why I voted against the war,' then you should probably read it."

Even if Clinton does well enough to argue for hanging on through Pennsylvania on April 22nd, she may face more pressure to reconsider doing so. Seven more weeks of increased back-and-forth could sap the momentum of even this energized Democratic race.

Clinton: "No Basis" To Think Obama Is Muslim: Clinton's answer on "60 Minutes" to a question about rumors that have circulated contenting that Obama is a Muslim is getting lots of attention this morning. Asked whether she believes the rumor, Clinton said, "Of course not. … There is no basis for that. I take him on the basis of what he says. And, you know, there isn't any reason to doubt that." Clinton continued, saying, "I have been the target of so many ridiculous rumors, that I have a great deal of sympathy for anybody who gets, you know, smeared with the kind of rumors that go on all the time."

On Ohio yesterday, Obama defended once again addressed the rumors that he is a Muslim, which have spread through e-mails and the Internet throughout the campaing. "Here are the simple facts," Obama told voters at a rally in Nelsonville. "I am a Christian. I am a devout Christian. I have been a member of the same church for 20 years. I pray to Jesus every night."

Pre-Mortems: The blame game within the Clinton campaign is already well underway it appears. Last week we noted comments by longtime Democratic strategist Harold Ickes contending that chief Clinton strategist Mark Penn was responsible for the decisions of the campaign.

Over the weekend, Penn told the Los Angeles Times that he's had "no direct authority in the campaign." In an e-mail to the paper, Penn wrote, "I have had no say or involvement in four key areas -- the financial budget and resource allocation, political or organizational sides. Those were the responsibility of Patti Solis Doyle, Harold Ickes and Mike Henry, and they met separately on all matters relating to those areas." Penn described his role as that of "an outside message advisor with no campaign staff reporting to me."

Around The Track

  • Conservative columnist Bob Novak writes about indicted Illinois businessman Tony Rezko, whose past ties to Obama have been the subject of scrutiny throughout the campaign. Novak notes that U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, the same prosecutor who ran the Scooter Libby investigation, is preparing the case. Rezko's corruption trial begins today.
  • Florida's Republican Gov. Charlie Crist said yesterday that he would be supportive of a re-run of the Democratic primary in the state. "Every vote must count," Crist said on CNN. "Every vote should count, and for the Republicans as well. They're not counting half of ours." National Democrats stripped the state of all its delegates, and Republicans stripped the state party of half, in response to the state's primary move which violated rules in both parties.
  • High turnout and paper ballots spark concern about Ohio's count on Tuesday night.
  • CBS News' Andante Higgins gives his account of McCain's Sunday BBQ with reporters.
  • An Obama-Bloomberg ticket? The New York City Mayor spoke with Obama last week, according to a Bloomberg aide.