So, what's next?

I've been overseas this past week and perhaps not as in touch with the nuance of the campaign as before, but I offer up some observations from my London hotel room this morning.

The field is narrowing to 4 major candidates (and a 5th - Bill Clinton) - It all seems to be coming down to McCain, Romney, Clinton and Obama,.Edwards, Huckabee and Rudy are still running, but it is hard to see how they can win now. Next week's Florida GOP Primary will be important for Romney - if he wins, we will have much more of a two person race, with McCain's weakness with core GOP voters potentially becoming a very serious problem heading into Feb 5th. If MCain wins, it may be the key moment in his eventual coronation.

On the Democratic side it sure looks like each candidate will win a substantial number of delegates (and states) on Feb 5th, keeping the contest close as they move on to the next round of states. And Bill Clinton will continue to play a vital role, giving the Clinton campaign the ability to be in twice as many media markets as Obama in this phase of the campaign where free media comes to matter much more.

Key things to watch on the Democratic side in the run up to Feb 5th - While each of the Democrats will likely visit, and play in, more than a dozen states in the run up to Feb 5th, I think 3 media markets will be more important than the rest: New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. First, New York because it impacts 3 states with lots of delegates - NY, NJ and CT. And though Hillary is up in these states, we have to remember that delegates are apportioned by percentage of the vote, meaning that if Obama keeps HRC to 55/45, or some other ten point spread in that media market, even though it will be a loss he will walk away with a great deal of delegates and prevent HRC from running up the delegate count. My assumption is that Obama will play hard in this media market and not let her run up the score (initial polling surpisingly has Hillary under 50% in NY state showing that Obama has a great deal of room to grow here).

The other big markets to watch are those in California, particularly in LA and SF. As it is likely that both Obama and Clinton will win many states on Feb 5th, some of them bigger states - with Obama taking IL and GA, and HRC taking NY - it just feels like that winning California will allow one of the two candidates to declare themselves the winner. This would enable them to walk away with the more powerful narrative and free media win that night. The media likes to declare a winner, and it seems that even with CA coming in very late for the East Coast media, it will be the most consequential state of the night.

Hillary goes into California with an advantage, but not a big one. The last poll in the state had it 39-27, leaving a great deal of California voters undecided, which means that this thing is still wide open. Obama has a powerful support base in the state, and, as has been noted, independents can only vote on the Democratic side in this primary, creating an electorate more in Barack's favor. Hillary however has what may be the ultimate trump card - Hispanics - who are now 20 percent of the statewide vote. I don't really know who wins here, but again assume a great deal of candidate time, what's left of the respective media budgets, and Obama making a much bigger play for Hispanics to keep HRC from running up her numbers there as she did in Nevada. If she replicates her 68-24 NV spread with Hispanics in CA it may give her the state and end up being another critical moment in her march towards the nomination.

Just as Obama will need to hold down HRC"s margin in the New York media market, my assumption is that the Clinton divide and conquer strategy will be to send her to the states they hope to win, sending Bill to the states they believe Obama may win to hold down his margin or even flip one or two that could be close. (Should we expect a major rally for Bill Clinton down the street from the Chicago Obama HQ?). We all know Bill Clinton has played a major role in this campaign, unlike any other advisor or spouse in history. It is in this next phase, the nationalization of the race, where his power and ability to get media and sway voters will become ever more important.

And by the way, it is time for the Obama to stop whining about the role Bill is playing and stay focused on the core issues of the race. There is an old maxim in politics that if you are talking process you lose. While I wish the former President would raise his game up and stay positive, the Obama camp has to deal the hand that has been dealt and get on with it. Perhaps they need to create more high level surrogates and fan them out - Bill Daley, Federico Peña, Bill Bradley, John Kerry, Claire McCaskill, etc. and flood the states Barack is not in, or have one dog the President. Whatever it is, they need to take on the Presidential race strategically and stop complaining about what was an obvious and very predictable element in the campaign.