The Note: Death watch

When the campaign obituary is written -- or (why not be charitable -- it's only July) the miracle script has finished filming -- the mid-summer McCain mayhem of 2007 will be remembered for the series of inexorably linked events that talked straighter than the candidate ever will himself. The immigration issue contributed to money woes, which led to staff turmoil that didn't contain profligate spending, all of which reinforced message meandering that turned a maverick mainstream -- and everything culminated in the debacle that was yesterday.

As Sen. John McCain took the Senate floor to offer observations on Iraq -- the very moment, in short, that his party, his country, and his campaign needed him most -- his campaign office was announcing the bizarre double-resignation of the campaign manager and chief strategist. (This is no simple reshuffling: One of them was working for free, and the other was McCain's political brain since his 2000 run.) The spin: McCain takes control. The subtext: This campaign is in freefall, and no one is in charge -- up to and including the candidate who let it all get this far. "There is no purpose here," the Arizona Republican told reporters off the Senate floor. Precisely.

He has no money, a diminished and demoralized staff, and a party base that's pausing long enough only to pity a solid man who's been running a squishy operation that's now on death watch. McCain himself is "agitated and humiliated" to have seen his campaign fall so far so fast, report The New York Times' Adam Nagourney and David Kirkpatrick, and the departure of Terry Nelson and John Weaver "was the culmination of months of internal feuding." It was "a development that left his team gutted, transfixed both parties and raised new doubts about his ability to continue in the race," they write.

Per ABC's John Berman, Nelson was pushed out, and Weaver quit because he can't work with new campaign manager Rick Davis. Three other top aides joined them on their way out the door, and even Mark Salter (McCain's co-author on five books and longtime chief of staff) left his day-to-day duties with the campaign. As for what's next -- it's hard to see the argument that gets McCain where he needs to be. At the very least, the campaign of a former front-runner now becomes a last-man-standing exercise, and an expected coronation turns into a painful slog. "The physicians have left the room, and now it's the executors of the will taking over," analyst Charlie Cook tells McCain's hometown Arizona Republic.

Perhaps the only good thing McCain has going for him at this moment -- and the strongest argument against him getting out with his dignity intact -- is that his rivals are deeply flawed candidates who have shown no signs of wrapping anything up. "No candidate has managed to break from the pack, and many GOP activists are still looking for what they regard as a reliable conservative and strong standard-bearer for what is shaping up as a challenging general election," write Dan Balz and Anne Kornblut of The Washington Post. "But among the leading candidates, no one faces more difficulties than McCain."

Speaking of difficulties, as former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., copes with the (Larry Flynt-sparked?) damage caused by his association with Sen. David Vitter, R-La., he's fending off fresh allegations from firefighters who are taking aim at the "America's mayor" reputation that forms the entire rationale for his candidacy. Per ABC News, the anti-Giuliani video from the International Association of Fire Fighters will be made available starting today at 5 pm ET to the union's 280,000 members and the general public. "He's running on his 9/11 leadership and it was lacking -- and there was none," Jim Riches, a deputy fire chief and a father of a 9/11 victim, says on the video. In a preemptive response, Giuliani has released a "Research Briefing" rounding up testimony that's more flattering to the former mayor's image.

Also in the news:

With Senate debate unfolding in Washington, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., both hit Des Moines yesterday to talk about Iraq. Clinton was sharper than she's been in calling for end to the war, and Obama aimed his sharp words in Clinton's (general) direction. "I believed then, and I still believe, that being a leader means that you'd better do what's right and leave the politics aside, because there are no do-overs on an issue as important as war," Obama said, per the Chicago Tribune's Rick Pearson. Someone sure wants to be on the attack. . . .

Back in Congress, GOP leaders are scrambling to limit the number of defections on the Iraq front, but could see their efforts backfire with a restless rank-and-file. "The GOP leadership's use of a parliamentary tactic requiring at least 60 votes to pass any war legislation only encouraged the growing number of Republican dissenters to rally and seek new ways to force President Bush's hand," Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post. "They are weighing a series of proposals that would change the troops' mission from combat to counterterrorism, border protection and the training of Iraqi security forces."

McCain cited progress in the troop "surge" in his speech on the Senate floor, his chief rivals for the nomination "have been quietly backing away from any commitment to continue the buildup," report Paul Richter and Peter Nicholas of the Los Angeles Times. "Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson have made it clear that their original support for the escalation does not mean they are signed on to keeping the current 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, even as they have laid out hawkish positions on other aspects of foreign policy." There's an opening here for one of them -- who will be the first to turn on the president's strategy?

Former White House political director Sara Taylor will appear at 10 am ET today before a congressional panel as a "willing and cooperative private citizen." But don't expect much in the way of cooperation as she honors the White House's decision to invoke executive privilege in the US attorneys' scandal.

Politico's Elizabeth Wilner links McCain with the other notable repeat candidate of 2008 -- former senator John Edwards, D-N.C. -- to argue that second times just aren't charmed. "Their claims to top-tier status ring hollow now that a second round of disappointing fundraising reports have forced them to retool their operations and switch out top staff -- including a major purge by McCain on Tuesday," Wilner writes. "Political handicappers are carving out a second tier just for them."

The White House briefing room is back -- and the president and first lady were on hand for the ribbon-cutting this morning. "It's going to make your life better and it's going to make the life of future presidents better also," President Bush said, hopefully. AP's Jennifer Loven is not impressed: "the briefing room backdrop, intended to be a high-tech wonder appropriate for a modern, 24-hour TV world, was widely panned. Its layered frosted-glass panels and two 45-inch flat-screen monitors, flanked by fake white columns and featuring rotating decals depending on the speaker, were derided for lending a gaudy, game-show aura to the most visible face of the White House."

And a story worth tracking that could -- of course -- make everything above look silly: ABC's Brian Ross reports that US intelligence "suggests a small al Qaeda cell is on its way to the United States, or may already be here." The White House has scheduled "an urgent multi-agency meeting for Thursday afternoon to deal with the new threat," Ross reports. The concern about a possible attack is as high as it's been in some time," he said today on "Good Morning America." Michael Chertoff's gut feelings aside, would any other issue really matter if there's another attack?

The kicker:

"I think [Bob] Livingston's stepping down makes a very powerful argument that [Bill] Clinton should resign as well and move beyond this mess." -- David Vitter, in 1998, after taking over Livingston's House seat when he resigned after conceding an extramarital attack.

"He seems to be one of the nicest men and most honorable men I've ever met." -- Jeanette Maier, the "Canal Street Madam," on Vitter, whom she claims was a client in the mid-1990s.