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Can Barack Obama be stopped?

NBC Political Director Chuck Todd on why the Clinton camp is at a crossroads, and how Barack Obama is poised to take the Democratic nomination.
Obama 2008
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. gestures during a rally, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008, in Dallas. Rick Bowmer / AP
/ Source: NBC News

There's no dispute anymore. Sen. Barack Obama is the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination and he's one win away from putting this race to bed.

A victory in either Ohio or Texas will probably drive Sen. Hillary Clinton out of the race. Victories for Obama in both states will definitely end it.

Obama's trajectory is really stunning right now.

He's 10-0 since Super Tuesday, and remarkably, his smallest margin of victory came Tuesday night in Wisconsin.

That's right, Obama's 17 point blowout of Clinton in the Badger State was his poorest showing since Super Tuesday.

He's gone from a narrow pledged delegate lead (and overall delegate deficit) on Feb. 6 to a nearly insurmountable 150+ pledged delegate lead.

When you factor in superdelegates, he's still ahead by 80.

In fact, expect Obama's superdelegate deficit to Clinton to close very quickly over the next 13 days.

Right now, he's trailing her by approximately 75 superdelegates.

My guess is he'll pick up a net of 20 superdelegates before March 4. That's based on more than a hunch but I'll leave it at that.

Meanwhile, how many public superdelegate endorsements will Clinton receive before the big day in Ohio and Texas? She’s only received two since Super Tuesday.

The Clinton campaign finds itself at a real crossroads.

What's the end game? Fast-forward to Denver and picture Clinton accepting the Democratic nomination. Now, ask yourself, how did she get there?

The only plausible explanation is that Obama makes a series of mistakes that suddenly makes him unelectable. Is it possible? Yes. Is it probable? No.

Now, is it possible for Clinton to force a series of Obama missteps without it backfiring? The answer to this question is probably one of the great debates inside her campaign.

We're already hearing whispers that there are multiple camps inside Team Clinton that are split on how to go after Obama.

There are some who believe a sustained negative campaign -- something Obama has NEVER dealt with -- is a winning strategy.

But is it? Can Clinton damage Obama for the long term? Yes.

But can she damage him and keep herself politically viable in 2008? I'm not so sure.

And some Clinton loyalists aren’t so sure either. Apparently, there are some inside the campaign who realize that Hillary Clinton has a political future beyond 2008 and –- might -- just might -- have another presidential campaign in her future.

But she can't go "scorched Earth" now and hope to preserve her viability as a political powerhouse either in the Senate or as the potential Democratic savior in 2012.

Obama could lose in November. In fact, even now, I'd argue that he's got no better than a 55 percent chance at winning the White House.

And John McCain isn't going to be an easy foe for either Obama or Clinton. Add in the fact that a potential Obama-McCain matchup would be the fairest media fight in a generation. The media seems to be equally loving (and forgiving) both candidates right now. It’s a fascinating component to this potential match-up.

What's remarkable about watching the rise of Obama is its similarities to the ascent of another seemingly bulletproof Democratic politician: Bill Clinton.

Like Clinton in '92, Obama gets every benefit of the doubt from the media and from the voters.

He's been allowed to make mistakes and apologize for them; just like Clinton '92.

(Latest two examples: Michelle Obama’s borderline offensive response that she’s only been proud to be an American once in her adult lifetime, and the Deval Patrick “word sharing” ordeal.)

It's particularly frustrating for the Clinton campaign because, literally, what's gone around has come around. Now, Mrs. Clinton isn't allowed to make a mistake without being called on the carpet. 

It’s a far cry from the treatment Bill Clinton received in ’92. Think about all of the potholes he stepped in during that campaign year, and yet he managed to come out stronger with voters, and sometimes, with the media.

We've seen this before, and it usually happens for the winning presidential candidates.

Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Clinton, even Jimmy Carter were all given the benefit of the doubt compared to their foes. 

Whether it was Gerald Ford in '76, Al Gore in '00 or George H.W. Bush in '92, none of these candidates were allowed to apologize for mistakes like their opponents. It makes for an incredibly frustrated press operation -- and I'm currently observing that in the Clinton camp.

Still, there's one piece of media bias that's working in Clinton's favor---it's not dictating the terms of her surrender.

She's being allowed to decide her finish line. With even a one-vote victory in both Ohio and Texas, and she'll get to move the goal posts to April 22nd.

If she wins in Pennsylvania (even if she trails in the delegate count), the goal posts get moved to May 3. You get my point.

The Clinton campaign has also successfully moved the burden of expectations to Obama, particularly for this entire month.

The problem for the Clinton campaign is that Obama has exceeded even the most wildly optimistic expectations set for him for February.

Can he do it again on March 4? Arguably, Obama has to; if he can’t put her away on March 4, when can he? That’s about the only way one could look at Obama’s nearly full glass and argue that there’s some emptiness there.

No matter what Clinton’s eventual fate is, there are number of questions many of us are going to be searching for, and it'll take months, if not years. 

How did the most prepared candidate for the presidency (and probably for the general election) end up so woefully unprepared for the primary campaign?

Why did they think this campaign should be run as a re-elect (circa ’96), rather than as a challenger race?

Besides Mandy Grunwald, is there a single veteran from the Clinton '92 campaign that remembered what running uphill was like?

Besides Howard Wolfson (who ran the DCCC) was there a single member of Clinton's inner circle who had ever successfully run a major national campaign before?

Sure, Mark Penn takes credit for Clinton '96, but what did he do for that campaign that was so remarkable? And what's he done since? Re-elects are one thing, but challenger races are another, and Penn's never won a big-time race from behind.

And now that Clinton's behind, who can she turn to?

There’s been a lot of re-arranging of the deck chairs on the Clinton campaign but there’s been no movement on message and strategy.

Hillary Clinton has chosen to stick with Penn and stick with the experience theme. It’s a tremendous show of loyalty, but it may eventually undermine her greatest argument against Obama: that she’s got the right kind of judgment and experience to run the country.

But, if she didn’t have the right judgment to figure out the right kind of campaign to run in 2008, then… 

I go back to an argument I made a few months ago in this space: the Clinton campaign is re-running a better version of John Kerry’s 2004 campaign and maybe, just maybe, she ran in the wrong year.

Successful presidential candidates always have the timing right and Obama and McCain both seem to fit the times better than Clinton, who may have been the perfect fit in 2004.

Of course, the burden is completely with Obama now -- and could very well be his nomination to lose.