REASON FOR OPTIMISM…. Plenty of things can still go wrong, but the health care debate seems to be moving in an encouraging direction.

The push to include a public health care option as part of a system-wide overhaul benefited from two major boosts Wednesday. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the chairman of the Finance Committee and lead health care negotiator, is “fighting tooth and nail to include that in any final deal,” his chief of staff John Selib said at a town hall meeting in Montana, according to the Billings Gazette.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) backed off his opposition to a public option in a meeting with health care advocates on Wednesday in Nebraska.

Nelson, according to two people in the room, told the group that he was open to a public option, the primary Democratic goal of reform and anathema to conservatives. […]

Jane Kleeb, a top Democratic powerbroker in Nebraska, said Nelson’s openness to a public option was the biggest takeaway from the meeting.

“He made it clear that he is open to the public option. That’s not a line in the sand where he says it must be off the table for him to move forward on health care reform,” she said.

Both of these are encouraging developments. Baucus, of course, is taking a leading role in shaping the Senate version of the bill, and if he’s prepared to fight “tooth and nail” for a public option, it’s a lot more likely to happen.

As for Nelson, just a few weeks ago, the Nebraskan said a public option in the reform package would be a “deal breaker,” because it would simply be too attractive to and popular with American consumers. What’s more, he vowed to put together a “coalition of like-minded centrists opposed to the creation of a public plan,” to help ensure that the final bill relies exclusively on private insurers.

Today, however, meeting with representatives of SEIU, AARP, the American Cancer Society, the reform coalition Healthcare for America NOW, and the Center for Rural Affairs, Nelson reportedly sang a very different tune.

Maybe the heat Nelson was taking as a result of his position led him to reconsider his obstinacy.

It’s hardly a lock, of course. Nelson apparently told these groups that he’s “open” to the idea, which is better than the line he took a few weeks ago. But the larger truth is that the reform is effort is clearly on track — and with a reconciliation process in place, the final bill needs just 50 votes.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.