The End of the Beginning?

Or, for Clinton, the beginning of the end?

On the primary-special episode of Fox News’s Hannity and Colmes last night, Sean Hannity quizzed radio commentator—and Barack Obama supporter—Nancy Skinner about the Illinois senator:

Hannity: I’m getting a little tired of the mantra: change, change, change, change, change. We’ve got it. He says it everywhere. What does the change mean? Here’s my interpretation when I listen to Barack Obama: we’ve got 875 billion he’s proposed in new spending. He’s gonna let the Bush tax cuts expire, which means that a family of four making $50,000 will see a $2,000 increase in taxes….Is that change, or is that really McGovern-like socialism revisited?

Skinner: “And the general election campaign has begun, Sean.”

Hannity: “Yes, it has.”

Indeed. Primary calendar be damned: if you believe the punditocracy, then last night—the night when, according to the AP, “Barack Obama cruised past a fading Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Wisconsin primary…gaining the upper hand in a Democratic presidential race for the ages”—was also the unofficial Start of the General Election. It was—again, if you believe the punditocracy—at once a preview and a dress rehearsal of the great pageant-meets-horserace that will be the McCain-Obama Contest. And it was Epic. (“Now this is not the end,” Churchill said. “It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”)

It was so Epic, in fact, as to be baffling. Joe Scarborough, a stranger to neither snap judgments nor Clinton-bashing, seemed genuinely perplexed on MSNBC this morning. “Guys, what happened to Hillary Clinton’s campaign?” Scarborough asked his Morning Joe cohorts. “Why did we wake up this morning, and most people are saying, ‘It’s probably over’? What happened?”

He needn’t have asked. Last night, on the same network, Keith Olbermann had already answered Scarborough’s question. “It almost seemed like the puck drop, the jump at the start of the game, the first pitch of the entire campaign,” Olbermann declared. “As if Hillary Clinton has been verbally removed from the equation.”

It’s an apt metaphor, if not for the overall reality of Clinton’s prospects, then for the new narrative that is already mourning their demise. “The door is closing on Hillary Clinton’s campaign,” Patrick Appel, writing for Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, declared. “This is looking like another blow out,” TPM’s Josh Marshall agreed. “With every win,” The New Republic’s Michael Crowley noted, “Obama makes more sense. He is no longer a leap of faith but a real winner.” Or, as Dana Milbank put it—in perhaps the best Obama-bite in recent memory—“The Obama Souffle continues to rise.”

Fox News’ cut may have been deepest of all. “In my view, if you’ve got your fork, bring it out, ‘cuz you’re about to stick it in the campaign here,” said GOPAC chairman Michael Steele, unable to keep that particular brand of Clinton-specific schadenfreude from seeping into his voice. “It’s almost done for her.”

That’s debatable. (Recall the refrain that’s so often repeated, Greek chorus-like, in response to claims of Obama’s Inevitability: “Don’t count out the Clintons, don’t count out the Clintons…”) Still, it’s worth asking, as Scarborough did: what happened? While Obama’s Wis-waii victory was expected—the only real question was the margin by which he’d win—what accounts for the sudden change in Clinton’s narrative? How did we go, in a single evening, from “Hillary’s trailing” to “Hillary’s ailing”?

A big part of it was John McCain, whose victory speech last night did Clinton the ultimate political slight—it ignored her—while it paid Obama the backhanded dignity of the direct attack. “Obama’s frontrunner status was solidified in the moments after polls closed, The Politico’s Ben Smith noted, “when John McCain, declared the Republican victor, attacked him as “inexperienced” and his words as “empty”—without even mentioning Clinton.”

Obama took that momentum and ran with it, in a brilliant piece of strategy: knowing the cable networks would have many—many—hours to fill after announcing the quick-to-call Wisconsin primary returns, the Obama campaign put their man in a stadium in Houston, surrounded by a crowd of some 20,000 supporters, and then—in a controversial move—preempted Hillary Clinton’s non-concession concession speech in Youngstown, Ohio (at—guess where?—Cheney High School), mere minutes after began. Save for (or perhaps because of) the lack of courtesy, it was all very presidential. “They decided it’s time to bigfoot the Clinton campaign, and the message of the Clinton campaign, and take over the airwaves,” Tim Russert noted of Team Obama. “And they roadblocked ‘em.”

And the pundits—themselves eager, perhaps, for a change in narrative, or simply for the thing to be settled, already—bolstered those roadblocks even more. Take Larry King, who, in his election coverage on CNN last night, asked guest Ed Schultz, “How’s this campaign gonna be? You said it’s gonna be close, what’s gonna be the issue?”

“The issue?” Schultz replied. “Are you talking about Obama and Clinton down the stretch here? You know, I don’t know—”

“No, no,” King responded, impatience seeping into his voice, “Obama and McCain.”

However forced that team of rivals may be, last night was certainly a turning point for Obama’s campaign. “We have liftoff,” Obama told the assembled crowd during his speech last night—and that turn of phrase wasn’t merely a nod to his Houston locale. With that liftoff, however—and the changing narrative that is at once fueling it and fuming around it—Obama just might be seeing some long-awaited scrutiny on the part of the political press. Particularly the conservative political press. See the furor over Michelle Obama’s “for the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country” comment. And the play the press gave to Plagiarism-gate. Here’s, again, Michael Steele:

You know, every other candidate in this race has been ripped a new one from the very beginning. And Barack is the only one who’s kind of been at the mile high level where nobody’s talking about him except to say he gives a great speech. Now he’s getting a little bit closer to the earth, he’s winning these races, people are looking at him more seriously, and they’re evaluating a two-term state senator as president of the United States.

In the meantime, a bit of consolation for team Clinton: they have at least now squarely won the Struggle for Underdog Status. “I think at this point,” said David Gergen on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, “this has become Senator Obama’s to lose.”

True. But, just a reminder, we still have Texas and Ohio—and a slew of other states—remaining before anyone wins or loses. And also: don’t count out the Clintons. Don’t count out the Clintons.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.