Today's Papers

The Big Steal

The Washington Postand USA Todaylead with Sen. Barack Obama’s decisive victory over Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Wisconsin primary. With almost all the precincts reporting, Obama managed to get 58 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 41 percent to mark his ninth-straight victory since Super Tuesday. On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain continued racking up victories over Mike Huckabee in Wisconsin and Washington. During his victory speech, McCain acted as if the Democratic nominee had already been decided and pointedly criticized Obama for offering “an eloquent but empty call for change.” As was widely expected, Obama also won the Hawaii caucuses by a landslide, according to early-morning wire reports.

The Los Angeles Timesand the Wall Street Journal’s world-wide newsbox lead with, and everybody fronts, Fidel Castro’s announcement that he will step down as Cuba’s head of state after holding on to power for almost 50 years. “The resignation closes a singular chapter in modern political history,” says the Post. Leaders in Washington emphasized there aren’t likely to be any modifications in U.S. policy toward Cuba, and most believe there won’t be any big changes in the island while Castro is still alive. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the winners of Monday’s election made it clear there are lots of changes in store, says the New York Timesin its lead story. The leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party said his party would seek to hold talks with militants in the country’s tribal areas and move away from a reliance on the military that is widely seen as following orders from the United States. He also said the new parliament would quickly restore independence to the judiciary and get rid of restrictions on the media.

The most revealing aspect of the Wisconsin vote was how Obama continued to take away voters from Clinton’s base, which could spell trouble for her in the Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4. The candidates pretty much split the votes from women, while Obama had a significant advantage among men. Also, Obama defeated her by a wide margin among voters with incomes of less than $50,000 as well as those without college degrees, two groups that had been essential to Clinton’s past victories. Slate’s John Dickerson says that by winning “in every key geographical area and across racial and gender lines”Obama has proved that “he is not just the boutique fascination of young people and wealthy elites.”

The NYT says Clinton will now need to pull off “double-digit victories to pick up enough delegates to close the gap.” If Wisconsin is any guide, “the next two weeks could be the most negative of the Democratic race,” says the Post. After losing yesterday’s primary, Clinton didn’t mince words and launched what the LAT calls “her most lancing election night critique of Obama yet.” But the line of attack was hardly new, as she once again chose to call attention to Obama’s inexperience, which, as the NYT points out, is an argument she has made many times before, but it doesn’t appear to be resonating with voters.

The Post says McCain’s victory “signaled a coalescing of a Republican electorate that has struggled for a year to find a candidate it likes.” It was one of his best nights, but, as the NYT emphasizes, exit polls showed that many still have doubts about  whether McCain is conservative enough. Huckabee continued to carry the vote of those who described themselves as very conservative, even as the majority also said they’d be satisfied with McCain. Slate’s Chadwick Matlin suggests Huckabee may actually be helping Republicans get some free publicity, because if he were to drop out, “McCain’s victories would be completely empty—and completely unnewsworthy.”

It is widely expected that Fidel Castro’s 76-year-old brother, Raul, will be Cuba’s next president. But some are suggesting there might be a surprise when Cuba’s National Assembly meets on Sunday, particularly since Castro didn’t specifically mention his brother in his resignation letter. The LAT also notes that Castro has recently suggested he might want to hand power to someone younger. If someone other than Raul were to be selected, speculation centers around Vice President Carlos Lage, whom the WSJ describes as the country’s “economic czar.” Other possibilities include the foreign minister and the president of the National Assembly (the LAT has brief profiles of the four possible successors). Regardless, the NYT emphasizes that any decision on a successor “remains in the hands of the Castro brothers and their inner circle.” And certainly Castro himself will still play a significant role in the government as a leader in Cuba’s Communist Party, a member of parliament, and overall behind-the-scenes adviser. This is why there appeared to be few signs yesterday that Cubans expected much to change in the near future. “This isn’t news,” a Cuban dissident said. “It was expected and it does nothing to change the human rights situation. … There’s no reason to celebrate.”

At least some sort of change might be inevitable, though. In a profile of Raul Castro, the WP notes that if he becomes president, he “is almost certain to preside over a government based more on a collective style of leadership, and less on personality.” The NYT points out that he has “a reputation as a manager who demands results from his cabinet members.” In recent months Raul has been encouraging more debates about policy and has hinted that changes are on the way, even if no one really expects them to come quickly. In a separate Page One story, the LAT says that the changes “may at best resemble Chinese economic reforms, except on a tiny, Cuban scale.”

The resignation is also likely to intensify debate within the United States about whether the long-running economic embargo should continue. But any big changes would probably have to wait until President Bush leaves the White House, and even then, the three presidential candidates “offered little sign that they will break with the pillars of existing policy,” says the Post inside. “We always knew the embargo would topple the 49-year-old regime of the 81-year-old Fidel Castro someday,” jokes the Post’s Al Kamen. “Patience is finally being rewarded.”

The Pakistan Peoples Party, which was led by Benazir Bhutto, seems to have won the most seats from Monday’s elections. But the “emerging political landscape was far from clear” yesterday, notes the Post. Neither of the two main opposition parties received a majority, and there doesn’t appear to be an obvious candidate for prime minister from either one. The WSJ interviewed President Pervez Musharraf, who insisted he has no plans to step down from power even as some, including former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, called for his impeachment. Whether Musharraf survives will largely depend on what the ruling coalition will look like, but it’s clear that his power has been greatly diminished.

Back to the U.S. presidential campaign for a moment: Barack Obama writes an op-ed piece for USAT where he answers criticism that he has gone back on his pledge to use public funding in the general election if his Republican opponent also agreed to shun private money. Obama insists he will “aggressively pursue such an agreement” if he’s the nominee but emphasizes that it cannot “be reached overnight.” Obama writes that an agreement would have to commit the candidates to “discouraging cheating by their supporters” as well as refusing help from outside groups so that it “results in real spending limits.” He also suggests that it might have to include what McCain will spend while the Democratic primaries continue. In a related story, the NYT notes the Obama campaign will report today that it collected $36 million in January, which is $4 million more than previous estimates.

After missing out on some of the most exciting weeks of the political primary season, Saturday Night Live is back this weekend. One of the biggest concerns of SNL’s producers right now is that the show “is bereft of a Barack Obama mimic,” notes USAT. Auditions are ongoing, and someone will probably be picked this week. “Finding a way to get people to laugh at him is complicated right now,” the executive producer said. “People aren’t seeing the cracks yet, but it will happen.”