What do you say we settle this thing with a friendly game of beer pong?
History will record that the Democratic primary campaign descended into full pander-a-thon mode somewhere in Pennsylvania, around the time that one millionaire senator took a shot of Crown Royal and another (having polished off a Yuengling and gone gutter surfing at a bowling alley) made fun of her for it.
It's silly season, but behind this fight over who's the real man (or woman) is a battle for an authenticity that has -- for various reasons -- eluded both Democrats to this point in the race.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- trailing in the race -- needed a game-changer, and her campaign (rightly) thinks that every day consumed by the "bitter" remarks is a day where Sen. Barack Obama is on the defensive.
Clinton, D-N.Y., is pushing for another such day now, with a TV ad that quotes "real" Pennsylvanians in specific denunciations of Obama. This is piling on: "I was very insulted by Barack Obama. . . . It just shows how out of touch Barack Obama is. . . . The good people of Pennsylvania deserve a lot better than what Barack Obama said."
(Remember the quaint old days where they dared not speak each other's names in advertisements? Neither do we.)
If Clinton is overplaying her hand, it's probably because it's the first time she's gotten decent cards in a while. It just might be that a line has been crossed, signaling a free-for-all that will make a drinking contest look tame.
"The Democratic campaign was awash in booze -- and boos -- Monday as Barack Obama fought to get past his clumsy remarks about small-town America -- and polling suggested he was," Michael Saul and Michael McAuliff write in the New York Daily News.
Indeed, the first polling glimpse suggests that the storyline hasn't taken hold. The Quinnipiac University poll out Tuesday morning has the race at 50-44 Clinton over Obama -- just where it was a week ago (and with essentially no change in Obama's favorability rating, despite the saturation coverage).
Per the poll, "26 percent of Clinton supporters would switch to Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican, in November if Obama were the Democratic nominee. Nineteen percent of Obama backers would switch to McCain if Clinton were the Democratic nominee."
Still, the race has moved since last week -- just maybe in Clinton's direction (though this whole exercise is still likely to be too little too late).
"The dust-up over Sen. Barack Obama's remarks about rural America is forcing both Democratic candidates to talk about guns, abortion and family values -- issues that don't win them many votes among the social conservatives they are trying hard to court in the Rust Belt, South and West," Nick Timiraos and Amy Chozick write in The Wall Street Journal.
"Sen. Obama has tried to reframe the conversation by defending his claim that Americans are bitter and frustrated, but Sen. Clinton has used his assertion that Americans 'cling to guns or religion' to trumpet her own credentials as a friend of hunters and sportsmen."
ABC's Jake Tapper found Pennsylvania voters who are definitely thinking anew about Obama. Some quotes: "I think it sounded like he was up here and everybody else -- the working class, the lower class people -- were down here." "If faith is so important to him, why is it negative for small-town Americans or small-town Pennsylvanians to cling to their religion?" "Now I'll go with Hillary Clinton."
Four days into the controversy, Obama on Monday for the first time said his comments "may have been a mistake," adding at an Associated Press luncheon: "But I will never walk away from the larger point that I was trying to make and made in the past," he said, ABC's Sunlen Miller reports.
Obama sought to explain himself further in a session with the editorial boards of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News: "My syntax was poor but as a wise older woman who was talking to me the other day said, 'You misspoke but you didn't lie,' and I think that's how I feel about it."
Per the Inquirer's Larry Eichel, Thomas Fitzgerald, and Larry King: "The thoughts that ran together, he said, were that people who feel abandoned find stability in their traditions but also are vulnerable to politicians exploiting wedge issues."
Obama is still explaining himself: "Rather than address this controversy in a single speech, Obama has so far chosen to give evolving explanations of his remarks since Friday, and his campaign insists no such speech is in the offing," Newsday's Nia Malika-Henderson writes.
Here's guessing Obama hasn't ended the controversy yet. Certainly not now that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has joined Clinton and Obama in the fray. "I think those comments are elitist," McCain said at the AP gathering.
AP's Ron Fournier sums up Obama's problem as one of caricature. "Obama is an elitist who patronizes working-class voters. Like the rest, Obama's caricature is a gross exaggeration of an actual flaw," he writes. "It's a caricature problem -- if not a character problem -- and it hardened against Obama when word leaked of remarks he made at a private fundraiser in San Francisco."
Leaving aside the spectacle of what's now three wealthy US senators arguing over who's an elitist, the tonal shift is unlikely to end well for Democrats.
"Some of the campaign's most acerbic exchanges -- sparked by Obama's comment at a San Francisco fund-raiser earlier this month about 'bitter' working-class Pennsylvanians who 'cling to guns or religion' -- have set a strident tone for the final stretch before next Tuesday's high-stakes vote," Scott Helman writes in The Boston Globe.
"The comments on Monday reflected the strategy of Mr. McCain and his advisers -- similar to Mrs. Clinton's tactics -- to portray Mr. Obama as out of touch with ordinary Americans, particularly the white working-class voters whom Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain are wooing for November," Elisabeth Bumiller and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times.
The broader context: "The presidential candidates are in the middle of an escalating battle for Catholic voters -- most immediately between Senators Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, but also between the two parties as they look ahead to the general election," The New York Times' Robin Toner writes.
"This struggle is an important part of the backdrop for Pope Benedict XVI's trip to the United States starting Tuesday, which has drawn gestures of respect from all of the presidential contenders."
The Boston Globe's Peter Canellos sees trouble signs for Democrats among working-class voters: "Since 1980, that relationship has eroded and now it's in tatters. Democrats have lost significant support among the working class. They have made big gains among upper-middle-class voters," he writes. "Nonetheless, many Democratic politicians can't seem to acknowledge that the rupture is based on economics."
Might there not be as much peril for Clinton as there is for Obama in arguing about who's the authentic representative of rural values?
"We are supposed to believe that Sen. Barack Obama hates you if you live in a small town. At the same time we are supposed to believe that Bill and Hillary Clinton -- who have banked more than $100 million since he left office -- are more regular than Bingo Night," Mike Lupica writes in the New York Daily News.
"What started out as one of the most thrilling races in the history of any party, one that was supposed to be about race and gender and new ideas and possibilities, has suddenly become one about class. Or, in this case, no class."
"If you want to enjoy a belly laugh, here are three reliable suggestions: (1) rent an old Woody Allen movie, especially 'Bananas,' (2) rent 'Borat,' or (3) listen to Hillary Clinton, of all people, attack Barack Obama as 'elitist,' " writes the Philadelphia Inquirer's Dick Polman.
Polman's litany: "This is the same woman who, during the past seven years, as evidenced by her tax returns with Bill, has become a millionaire 109 times over; whose husband has long supported the Colombian free-trade deal (which is deemed hurtful to American workers), and long defended his signing of NAFTA (also hurtful); whose husband earned $800,000 in speech fees from Colombian interests; who, during her Senate career, voted in favor of confiscating guns during a national emergency (one of only 16 senators to do so; Obama voted against confiscation); and who, during the Democratic debates, has refused to shed any light on why the Clintons are safeguarding the identities of the global heavy hitters who are bankrolling the Clinton Presidential Library . . . and whether any quid pro quos are involved."
Annie Oakley comparisons aside, don't expect Clinton to talk about gun control when she appears before the Newspaper Association of America gathering on Tuesday; Politico's Mike Allen digs up the press release from her speech to the same group in 2000, headlined: "CLINTON TAKES AIM AT GUNS."
Clinton is pressing the issue of Obama's comments, but there's no guarantee that the one audience that really matters -- superdelegates -- is hearing what she's saying.
"Looking for any possible edge, the Clinton campaign has pressed uncommitted superdelegates to view Obama's remarks as a major debacle that could harm him in November," Shailagh Murray and Perry Bacon Jr. write in The Washington Post. "But as of yesterday evening, there was little evidence that the electability argument is resonating."
Count Gov. Ed Rendell, D-Pa., among those who don't think the world shifted in the past week. "It will cost a couple of points at the margin, but it won't be a sea-changer," Rendell said.
And yet -- it's the kind of stuff that gives Democrats pause. "Democrats have been worrying about defending Mr. Obama's highly liberal voting record in a general election," The Wall Street Journal's John Fund writes. "Now they need to fret that he makes too many mistakes, from ignoring the Rev. Wright time bomb until the videotapes blew up in front of him, to his careless condescension towards salt-of-the-earth Democrats."
It all adds up to a high-stakes debate in Philadelphia Wednesday. "The typical scenario for a front-running candidate like Mr. Obama is to sit back and run out the clock," Seth Gitell writes in the New York Sun. "Yet passivity in the face of criticism about not being able to connect with middle America poses a greater risk for Mr. Obama."
Obama (again flashing that lucky streak) has a few opportunities to change the discussion all over again. Rep. Geoff Davis, R-Ky., (no bomb-thrower) was forced to apologize to Obama Monday after saying over the weekend, "I'm going to tell you something: That boy's finger does not need to be on the button."
And Clinton supporter/BET founder Bob Johnson is back, this time saying that Geraldine Ferraro was right when she said Obama is only where he is because of his race. "Geraldine Ferraro said it right," Johnson told the Charlotte Observer's Jim Morrill.
"The problem is Geraldine Ferraro is white. This campaign has such a hair trigger on anything racial. It is almost impossible for anybody to say anything."
(He got it right in that last sentence.)
McCain celebrates Tax Day with a "major" speech on the economy at 9:45 am ET in Pittsburgh. He plans to dance from earmarks to tax cuts -- and plans to call out by name high-profile CEOs who pocketed huge parting gifts.
"In so many ways, we need to make a clean break from the worst excesses of both political parties," McCain plans to say, per excerpts released by his campaign.
And some red meat for the base: "Under my opponents' various tax plans, Americans of every background would see their taxes rise -- seniors, parents, small business owners, and just about everyone who has even a modest investment in the market. All these tax increases are the fine print under the slogan of 'hope': They're going to raise your taxes by thousands of dollars per year -- and they have the audacity to hope you don't mind."
Fiscal conservatives will hang on his every word for signs of softness -- and they just might find a thing or two they don't like.
"The proposals, combined with those he has already put on the table, show the Arizona senator's mixed approach to economics," Laura Meckler writes in The Wall Street Journal.
"He pushes tax cuts, a traditional Republican favorite; government reforms, such as an end to pork-barrel projects; and new spending for those he sees as deserving, such as students looking for loans and homeowners who need to refinance their troubled mortgages."
He plans to take on Medicare Part D: "Sen. John McCain will propose today that affluent seniors pay more for government-provided drug benefits as a way to control health-care spending," Michael Shear and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post.
He's also calling for a break in gas taxes: "John McCain wants the federal government to free people from paying gasoline taxes this summer and ensure that college students can secure loans this fall, a pair of proposals aimed at stemming pain from the country's troubled economy," per the AP's Liz Sidoti.
McCain is backing up his message with a TV ad, to run in Ohio and Pennsylvania. (Think he's moving to the center?) "As President, John McCain will take the best ideas from both parties to spur innovation, invest in people and create jobs," the ad states.
The Democratic pushback has already begun. From the DNC: "While McCain continues to shift his rhetoric, it's his policies that that are outdated and out of touch with the values and priorities of America's working families. . . . John McCain is promising a third Bush term on the economy." (Sensing a theme in Democratic attacks?)
Per ABC's Teddy Davis and Talal Al-Khatib, "the liberal Center for American Progress (C.A.P.) recently previewed the party's eventual line of attack on taxes. John McCain is offering 'much less for the middle class than Bush,' said Robert Gordon, a senior fellow with C.A.P."
The Chicago Tribune's Jill Zuckman travels with Cindy McCain to Kosovo for a great-read profile of the would-be first lady. "The fuller portrait is far more complex, well beyond the façade of a traditional politician's wife. While her husband is talking daily about the situation in Iraq, she's worrying about her sons in the military, making sure her adopted Bangladeshi daughter is doing her homework in Phoenix and trying to stay healthy four years after a stroke," Zuckman writes. "She is also touring some of the world's most miserable reaches, working as a one-woman philanthropic operation."
One fascinating passage, about what she does while standing next to her husband on stage: "I'm looking at the faces and sometimes I'm spotting troublesome spots," she said. "The larger the crowds get, I'm looking for any possible problems." Her job, she says, is to worry: "And I'm good at it."
Cindy McCain is also profiled in USA Today: "Don't be fooled by the tableau," Jill Lawrence writes. "Cindy McCain, possibly the next first spouse of the United States, is an heiress who travels to poor countries on medical missions, chairs a huge beer distribution company and is a key reason her husband is the presumptive Republican nominee for president. On Wednesday, in a taste of what her future could hold, McCain plans to attend a White House dinner to honor bishops and cardinals in town for Pope Benedict XVI's visit."
The Los Angeles Times on Tuesday publishes the second part of its McCain profile, looking at how he rose from Navy liaison to the Senate to a seat in Congress of his own. "While senators were growing enamored of their war hero, McCain was getting a firsthand glimpse of the power they wielded," Faye Fiore writes.
"The liaison job brought him closer to the internal workings of Washington than he had ever been, giving him a front-row view of what the right hands could accomplish. He watched armed services committee members scribble on scraps of paper amendments that came to dictate how the Navy operated."
Both Democratic candidates give speeches in Washington Tuesday, and work on debate prep in advance of ABC's forum in Philadelphia Wednesday evening.
Michelle Obama does Stephen Colbert's show Tuesday night, and Sen. Clinton is set to follow her on Thursday.
Get all the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
Also in the news:
Nothing like a papal visit to get our mind off of taxes. "Benedict, in making his first trip as pope to the United States, brings an agenda, and it's more the stuff of a theology lecture than a mass-media event," Michelle Boorstein writes in The Washington Post. "He lands at Andrews Air Force base Tuesday afternoon, where he will be greeted by President Bush and first lady Laura Bush."
They can celebrate a new milestone for President Bush: "At 39 months in the doghouse, George W. Bush has surpassed Harry Truman's record as the postwar president to linger longest without majority public approval," ABC Polling Director Gary Langer writes.
Carter watch: "Former President Jimmy Carter, shunned by Israeli leaders over his plans to meet Hamas, said on Tuesday he sought permission to enter the Islamist-ruled Gaza Strip but was turned down," Reuters' Mohammed Assadi reports.
Tammy Haddad's "TamCam" catches up with Obama on foreign affairs. He's not meeting with the Pope ("I am not going to be able to because I am traveling so much") and he recently chatted with the Dalai Lama: "He said he needs us. He needs the Unites States to help on these issues."
And Obama is clear now on the Olympic boycott: "What I said was I think a boycott of the ceremonies would be appropriate unless China takes specific steps to deal with this not only Tibet, the Dalai Lama said it was important talk about human rights more broadly."
Obama sheds a bit more light on his thinking on public financing, in his meeting with the Philadelphia newspapers. "He was worried about being outgunned by various Republican groups if he did" accept public financing, per the Inquirer's write-up. "Noting his ability to raise money from small donors, he said he was 'raising money in a way I think is compatible with the spirit of public financing.' "
Clinton is rejecting a "backroom compromise deal" to resolve disputes over seating Florida's delegation, per Adam C. Smith of the St. Petersburg Times. She's leaving it at Howard Dean's feet: "It would be tragic if we came out of this process ignoring the will of 1.7-million Floridians, setting us up for a very unhappy electorate in the fall, giving Republicans this incredible argument they could make against us," Clinton tells Smith. "The cynical explanation is, no, Sen. Obama does not want people's votes to count. We're Democrats. I thought we believed in counting votes."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seeks to quiet the veepstakes talk. "I do not want to be, don't intend to be, won't be on [McCain's] ticket," Rice tells the AP. "It's time for me to do something else."
Remember Tony Rezko? Or -- more to the point -- does Obama remember Nadhmi Auchi? The Chicago Sun-Times: "Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama was again drawn into Tony Rezko's corruption trial on Monday, when the prosecution's star witness placed Obama at a party for an Iraqi-born billionaire who was later barred entry to the United States."
Remember immigration? Bloomberg's Hans Nichols writes up concerns among hard-liners about the type of campaign McCain is promising. "He vows to campaign in the barrios, gunning for the 70 percent Latino support he won in his last senatorial election," Nichols writes. "That's precisely what worries anti-immigration Republicans, who say the party's base will stay at home if it detects the kind of mariachi politics that President George W. Bush practiced to win more than 40 percent of Latino voters in 2004."
McCain "seemed to give a thumbs down to bipartisan legislation that would greatly expand educational benefits for members of the military returning from Iraq and Afghanistan under the GI Bill," ABC's Z. Byron Wolf reports. "The bill, which would dramatically increase educational compensation for American troops, has run into some unexpected resistance, both at the Pentagon and now from McCain, who has remained silent on the issue, saying he had not studied the bill close enough."
ABC's Jake Tapper has the back story on the campus that hosted Sunday night's "Compassion Forum." "Messiah College describes itself as embracing an 'evangelical spirit rooted in the Anabaptist, Pietist and Wesleyan traditions of the Christian Church,' " Tapper writes. "As such, its 'community covenant' states that members of the Messiah College community 'avoid such sinful practices as drunkenness, stealing, dishonesty, profanity, occult practices, sexual intercourse outside of marriage, homosexual behavior, and sexually exploitative or abusive behavior.' "
Another reporter is thwarted in efforts to cover Chelsea Clinton on the trail campaigning. "I followed them inside, only to be approached by an aide who gently ushered me out to the sidewalk 'to give Chelsea her space,' " Dan Majors writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"The truth is, I just wanted to observe Pittsburghers' reactions to the celebrities' impromptu visit to a coffee shop. But since I was politely asked to step outside, I missed it, and had to go in afterward to ask the three women behind the counter to recount the experience for me."
"I should never have opened my mouth. How did that happen? I'll put duct tape over it." -- Cindy McCain, regretting her pushback at Michelle Obama after Obama said she was proud of her country "for the first time."
"I guess I haven't been doing that bad a job." -- Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., teasing reporters on whether he's coveting a third term.
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