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By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 5/2/2008 3:01:11 PM ET 2008-05-02T19:01:11

One of the more bizarre games I played as a kid was something called "kill the man."

It was a cross between football and rugby, which found the person carrying the ball a target of some hungry tacklers.

I still don't know why we enjoyed the game because it was impossible to win.

Still, we were oddly drawn to it. Maybe, secretly, we all believed we were either tough enough to handle the tacklers or quick enough to evade them.

Of course, no one ever "won" this game, you merely survived — and surviving was rewarded.

Welcome to the 2008 political version of "kill the man."

In a campaign that has been chock-full of trend spotting, there's something we haven't focused enough on: the inability of a frontrunner to survive the media and opposition scrutiny that comes with being in first place — at least long enough to succeed.

Sen. John McCain was knocked down from his frontrunner perch early on, and never really regained that status, managing somehow to win the Republican nomination as an underdog candidate.

Remember, he was constantly asked about immigration, Iraq and his supposed flip-flops from '00, creating the near-fatal spiral that he was in last summer.

Media distraction?
Interestingly, since he won the nomination, the media has been so distracted by the Democratic contest that it's yet to cover McCain like a frontrunner, allowing him time to get his campaign house in order.

Considering the baggage McCain's party has saddled him with, it's remarkable that he's polling as well as he is. Then again, what will happen with the media pack returns full throttle?

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Sen. Hillary Clinton was given the frontrunner treatment for all of '07 through February's Super Tuesday.

Eventually, she was worn down tremendously—just three weeks ago, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll recorded her worst personal rating since we started tracking her.

But as the spotlight has moved away from her, she's seen her standing improve.

She's getting underdog coverage, which always seems to focus on the good and overlook the potentially troublesome.

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One recent example?

In a ABC News interview, the former first lady said if she were president, the United States could "obliterate" Iran.

During her frontrunner scrutiny days, this would/could have been one of those bad stories that would have shadowed her for days and tossed her off message.

But because she made the comments as the unlikely nominee, it got scant attention.

And that takes us to Sen. Barack Obama, who after months of riding under the media scrutiny radar, is now experiencing what McCain and Clinton went through months ago.

Every word and relationship are now being examined with a fine-tooth comb and it’s all happening in a very short window of time.

The problem for Obama, unlike McCain and Clinton, is that he doesn't have a long history to fall back on with the public.

Political forgiveness
It's odd, but the longer someone's been around, the more likely they may find forgiveness from a new scandal. Obama's an unknown, so impressions are still being formed and that's what makes his situation that much more precarious.

Clinton even uses this as an argument in her favor.

She claims her baggage has been around long enough, insisting that there's nothing that new.

(She better hope that's the case, considering the recent questions surrounding her husband's huge post-White House income and some of his business connections).

But, regardless of that specific issue, she’s right — it's going to be hard for her to become any more or less polarizing than she already is no matter how much new information surfaces.

This was a problem for her six months ago, now it's an asset.

Obama's baggage on first glimpse can look heavy, particularly when it all appears all at once. And that's the problem for him right now. But then again, it was his newness to the scene that's got him this far.

So what happens now? If this is Obama's low point, then he'll be the nominee. Even if he loses both Indiana and North Carolina, his chances at the nomination are still greater than 50-50.

After all, just compare Obama’s standing now to Bill Clinton's this time 16 years ago. There’s an argument that Obama is actually in better shape than he was.

More importantly, the remaining uncommitted superdelegates are giving Obama every single benefit of the doubt and he'll get time to recover even if May 6 is a disaster for him (and "disaster" is defined by him losing both states).

Right now, it's all about how he handles himself when he's knocked down (and losing both states would be the equivalent of that).

This will send a signal to the superdelegates about whether or not this guy can win in November.

In our reporting, many of the remaining uncommitteds are looking for every excuse they can to avoid giving the nomination to Clinton. It's the biggest hurdle she faces.

Like many folks in the electorate, these superdelegates made up their mind on her ability to lead the party a while ago—they don't believe she's good for the long term.

Roll the dice
And if the superdelegates are going to roll the dice, their hope that Obama can charisma his way out of his problems will out-weigh their fear that Clinton can win, but at the long-term cost of the party's growth.

In addition, many of the superdelegates are like these white, liberal elites who are voting for Obama in the primaries. It makes them feel good about themselves for sticking with Obama.

They’ll feel guilty for caving into their fears about the country if they go Clinton. Don’t underestimate this issue with a party apparatus that was built on political correctness.

This is Clinton's great challenge. She not only has to make voters feel good about rooting for her, she's got to make the superdelegates feel guilt-free for picking her over a candidate that both Maureen Dowd and Peggy Noonan have referred to as Bambi.

As Noonan noted in a column a while back, nobody wants to be seen as the person (or persons) who shoot Bambi.

Her best hopes still may be to get on the ticket as the vice presidential nominee.

My best guess on what could happen? Some group of 100-150 superdelegates will only pledge their support to Obama if he promises to put Clinton on the ticket.

Electorally, neither helps the other in the fall, but it may be the only solution that makes the superdelegates feel less guilty. Ultimately, no matter how persuasive the argument is for Clinton over Obama, she's got a gut/heart hurdle to clear....and it’s going to be very difficult. 

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