The Note: Fall Guys

One exit -- even the biggest of the big ones, with all appropriate grace and sincerity -- changes so much yet so little. So, herewith eight foolproof assertions for this first full week of the general election:

1. Sen. Barack Obama's success will be directly proportionate to his ability to fuse the words "McCain" and "Bush" in the public consciousness.

2. Sen. John McCain's success will be directly proportionate to his ability to disqualify Obama for the presidency.

3. Whoever nails down his base first -- Obama or McCain -- will win round one (but since neither is likely to get all the way there, it may be a draw that drives them to the center).

4. If one party or one candidate owns gas prices, that party will lose (more) seats in Congress, and that candidate will lose the election. (And might it be time to retire "Pelosi Premium" and try out a new bumper sticker?)

5. Obama's gaffes won't matter at all until they do (at which point they will all matter all at once).

6. McCain's inability to lift his supporters to a higher plane won't matter until it does (at which point it will be too late for him to do anything about it).

7. These town-hall forums will be a whole lot of fun (and would having Mayor Michael Bloomberg moderate one firmly put him on two veepstakes shortlists -- or take him off of both?).

8. The Democratic Party will appear united and peaceful right up until there's the slightest whiff of an Obama snub of either Clinton, or vice versa. (Don't think that, in the wake of a great-for-business primary, it will take much for the national media to turn Obama-Clinton into Lakers-Celtics.)

Obama now has a small window to begin to define himself, for the first time without the disadvantage/advantage of having fellow Democrats helping/hurting his cause. This is his first clear shot at his own general-election messaging -- and he's doing it aggressively: O'Bomber, not Obambi.

It's a new battle plan for new battlegrounds: Coming out of Virginia last week, Obama plans to hit North Carolina, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida among other stops in his two-week "Change that Works for You" tour.

Per the Obama campaign: "At every stop, he'll discuss the clear choice between his candidacy and John McCain's when it comes to the economy. Because while the Bush-Cheney ticket won't be up for reelection, the Bush-Cheney policies will, as John McCain offers four more years of the same approach that has failed the American people."

At the lead-off event, at 11 am ET Monday in Raleigh, N.C., the presumptive Democratic nominee (let those words echo a bit) will lay out the election as "a choice between John McCain's plan to continue four more years of costly Bush economic policies that have widened inequality and left our children with a mountain of debt and Barack Obama's plan to provide relief to struggling homeowners, affordable health care and college for all, and a tax code that rewards work instead of wealth."

The pushback: The RNC is calling the tour "Change We Can't Afford," with a new Website, regular conference calls, and ready-for-quotation research documents. From the one out Friday morning: "As Obama Travels To North Carolina, How Will He Explain To Voters That He Supports Raising Taxes On Middle-Income Taxpayers And Small Businesses, And Hasn't Voted With Manufacturing Interests?"

So it is that these two candidates who were never supposed to be nominated by their parties in the first place inherit the battle of the ages.

"Those two self-contained conversations have given way to a broad clash of familiar product lines: Republican conservatism and Democratic liberalism," John Harwood writes in The New York Times. "That clash has been obscured by the extended Obama-Clinton contest. But the huge stakes it carries for a discontented electorate ensure it will dominate the general election campaign."

Mark Silva, in the Chicago Tribune: "In their age, experience, race, faith in the power of government and views of a complex world, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain offer American voters one of the sharpest contrasts in candidates for the presidency in modern times, at least on a par with the Johnson-Goldwater and Reagan-Mondale elections."

They look like contrasts -- and it's not just skin and hair color: "McCain and Obama will delineate differences not just on substance, but also on style," Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown and Jonathan Martin write. "They are well-cast foes, cutting distinctions on presentation, personality and personal image. One is the master of the arena rally, the other the town hall. One can shrug it off, the other not as much. One can be stylish and professorial, the other corny and occasionally prickly."

Obama's tour is designed to define himself in opposition to McCain -- yet his work (like McCain's) isn't done on his own side of the aisle. Watch, then, the reach for the middle.

"McCain and Obama offer a rare combination of nominees able to poach on the other party's turf," The Washington Post's Dan Balz wrote Sunday. "Both have proven appeal to independents. McCain will target disgruntled Clinton supporters; Obama will target disaffected Republicans. Women, Latinos and, especially, white working-class voters will find themselves courted intensely by the two campaigns."

Your new map: "An early analysis suggests there will be new battlegrounds added to the map this year, with Virginia, Colorado and Nevada among them. The Midwest remains the most concentrated competitive region of the country, but advisers to McCain and Obama agree that the election could turn on the outcome of contests in the Rocky Mountain States and the South,"Dan Balz writes in the Post. "McCain sees potential to make his greatest inroads in the industrial heartland. Obama stumbled in Ohio and Pennsylvania and never competed in Michigan."

More cartographical curios: "Senator Barack Obama's general election plan calls for broadening the electoral map by challenging Senator John McCain in typically Republican states -- from North Carolina to Missouri to Montana -- as Mr. Obama seeks to take advantage of voter turnout operations built in nearly 50 states in the long Democratic nomination battle," Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zeleny wrote in the Sunday New York Times.

As for the team -- the seldom-profiled David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, gets the Chicago Tribune treatment.

"Lean and about 5 feet 10 inches tall, Plouffe can seem almost shy compared to more gregarious campaign personalities. But he can swear like a sailor, and his near-broadcast-quality voice exudes confidence on the many conference calls he holds with reporters and donors," John McCormick writes. "Plouffe, who declined to be interviewed for this article, believes the airing of campaign disputes in public should be avoided at all costs and that the candidate should always be the focus. Even with a rapidly growing staff of about 800, unintentional leaks are rare."

But the Clintons matter yet -- one speech does not heal these wounds. "With Hillary Clinton out of the presidential race, questions linger over how soon and how sincerely her campaign and her supporters will rally behind likely Democratic nominee Barack Obama," Susan Davis writes for The Wall Street Journal.

"Obama could face a challenge to win over some women who, in Clinton's loss, feel they've been disrespected by the Democratic Party and are stinging over what they believe was sexism in cable news coverage of her campaign," USA Today's Martha T. Moore writes.

"Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's delayed yet ultimately generous exit from the presidential race Saturday starts the healing process for a divided Democratic Party, clearing the way for Sen. Barack Obama to begin reaching voters whom he has failed to attract -- and securing a future for Clinton in the party she still hopes to lead some day," per ABC News. "But the somber faces that turned out to see Clinton end her campaign -- and the scattered boos that greeted her mentions of Obama's name -- suggested the lengths to which both Clinton and Obama must go to move beyond the battles of the longest primary season in history."

"Remember in November to vote present," read one sign at the Clinton exit rally in Washington, per Time's Jay Newton-Small.

It's hard to turn tears into excitement for the candidate you were, until last week, working against. "Their wake-like ceremony for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign involved all the usual stages of grief, from denial to depression and from anger to acceptance," Eli Saslow writes in The Washington Post. "Like thousands of other Clinton supporters across the country last week, they mourned the political passing of a woman who so inspired them that she felt less like a distant politician than a dear friend."

And yet -- just moving beyond the campaign that would never end gives Obama something to feel good about. "Watch for a 'unity bounce' in the Democratic nominee's campaign that some pollsters think could rival the post-convention bounce that campaigns traditionally experienced," Mike Dorning writes for the Chicago Tribune. "So the strength and durability of a bounce for the Obama campaign in the coming weeks is likely to be an early indicator of the party's chances of success in the general election."

Whether Clinton's exit is remembered as gracious or gratuitously late may well depend on Obama's success: "While the point might eventually prove moot, her decision to remain in the race well past the point in which Obama appeared to have an insurmountable delegate lead has nevertheless generated discussion about what responsibility, if any, she might bear in the event of an Obama loss,"Politico's Ben Adler writes.

We do have a bookend -- or at least a bookmark -- on the Clinton legacy. "The Clintons' complicated legacy is all the more complicated now," John M. Broder and Robin Toner write in The New York Times. "The Clintons often seemed out of touch with the political times -- cautious when they should have been bold, negative when they should have been inspirational. Exquisitely attuned to the political winds in 1992, they watched Mr. Obama almost effortlessly master the changed environment of 2008."

Clinton's message man weighs in on what went wrong -- and he says it was about the money. "While everyone loves to talk about the message, campaigns are equally about money and organization,"Mark Penn writes for The New York Times op-ed page. "Having raised more than $100 million in 2007, the Clinton campaign found itself without adequate money at the beginning of 2008, and without organizations in a lot of states as a result. Given her successes in high-turnout primary elections and defeats in low-turnout caucuses, that simple fact may just have had a lot more to do with who won than anyone imagines."

Per ABC's Jake Tapper, "when the books about this campaign are written, they should make clear that while Clinton's campaign spent money often unwisely, it never had any problem raising cash. History will record that the Clinton campaign raised more than $225 million for her campaign -- and more than $200 million of that was for the primary. Clinton fundraisers took in more than $100 million in the first five months of 2008 -- essentially matching what they raised in all of 2007."

Bloomberg News' Al Hunt: "Knowing this will anger some woman readers, here goes: Hillary Clinton didn't lose the Democratic presidential nomination because she is a woman, and gender no longer is a big deal in American elections," he writes. "There are two basic reasons the most formidable front-runner in contemporary presidential politics failed: Barack Obama is a sensational candidate who assembled a campaign team, which out-thought and out-strategized Clinton at every turn; and Hillary Clinton, in the most important venture of her life, picked the wrong people and adopted the wrong strategy."

As for those town-hall meetings, here's a step (but only a step) toward making theory reality: "New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and ABC News have invited Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain to participate in a 90-minute, primetime town hall meeting to be broadcast live from Federal Hall in New York City, but the two campaigns said today they do not want the event to be broadcast by only one network," per ABC's Ed O'Keefe.


Head start over, the GOP nominee chugs on -- and answers one set of questions by agreeing that his fundraisers will be open, like Obama's, to print poolers (no cameras), per ABC's Bret Hovell. (First chance for the new policy comes Monday in Richmond.)

Campaign manager Rick Davis has posted his "strategy briefing" online, leading with the political environment -- "probably one of the worst in our party's history," and "among the worst in modern history for Republicans," Davis says.

Taking stock of Team McCain: "With the battle against Hillary Clinton behind him, everything seems to be going swimmingly for Obama. Meanwhile, the McCain campaign dog-paddles along," Bill Kristol writes in his New York Times column. "And almost every Republican I've talked to is alarmed that the McCain campaign doesn't seem up to the task of electing John McCain."

"Given the opportunity, the Arizona Senator failed to define the debate in favorable terms, spending much of the valuable primary months defending himself on charges that his campaign staff was top heavy with lobbyists," Tom Edsall writes for Huffington Post. "In not-for-attribution interviews, a number of Republicans were neither optimistic about his chances nor positive in their assessment of his campaign so far."

There's "a continued wariness toward him among evangelicals and other Christian conservatives, a critical voting bloc for Republicans that could stay home in the fall or at least be decidedly unenthusiastic in their efforts to get out the vote," Michael Luo writes in The New York Times. "To address this, Mr. McCain's campaign has been ramping up its outreach to evangelicals over the last month, preparing a budget and a strategic plan for turning them out in 18 battleground states this fall."

The Los Angeles Times' Peter Wallsten writes up McCain's Ohio problem -- but it's also maybe a Virginia problem and a Colorado problem and a North Carolina problem. Recent meetings "have revealed the depth of the challenge facing McCain: mollifying Republican constituencies that have distrusted many of his policy positions, in order to build the machinery needed to push voters to the polls in November," Wallsten writes.

McCain on how to beat a "rock star," in an interview with Newsweek's Holly Bailey and John Meachem: "The strategy is the themes of reform, prosperity and peace, and I have the experience, background and a record and the kind of judgment to lead the country through extremely difficult times. . . . I'm convinced that, using the kind of communications that won me the nomination of my party against significant odds, I will be able to gain the presidency as well. But I think it's got to do with substance, and it's got to do with a concrete plan of action for the future of the country."

You will hear more from this vein: "Openly frustrated by what they see as an ongoing double standard in the press's treatment of his campaign, Sen. John McCain and his aides have been aggressively denouncing unfavorable stories as 'smear jobs' and 'scurrilous attacks,' while the candidate himself has launched a series of stinging attacks on Sen. Barack Obama," Politico's Jonathan Martin writes.

"For McCain and his small coterie of fiercely loyal advisers, it's a fine line to walk. Having clinched the party's nomination in early March, his campaign has spent the last several months finding ways to insert itself into a press narrative that's been dominated by the just-ended Democratic fight. To that end, they picked up and extended the media-guilting campaign begun by Hillary Clinton and 'Saturday Night Live' and sharpened their critique of Obama."

McCain gets more pressure on lobbyist ties: Campaign Money Watch is airing a TV ad on the Boeing-Airbus deal, and filing an FEC complaint asking for an investigation of the McCain campaign's connections to lobbyists. "Tell John McCain to kick those lobbyists off the Straight Talk Express," states the ad, set to run in the Washington, D.C., market this week, per ABC News.

Obama associates are not immune: The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend on special mortgages for "friends of Angelo" at Countryside Financial Corp. -- including one arranged for James Johnson, who is now vetting vice-presidential prospects for Obama.

"Long-standing ties between a member of Senator Obama's new vice presidential search team and a prominent mortgage executive the senator has pilloried could become a political liability that hampers the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee's ability to tap into public ire over the subprime mortgage crisis," Josh Gerstein writes in the New York Sun."Aides to Mr. Obama had no immediate response yesterday afternoon to a request for comment for this article."

And do you think McCain surrogates have a mention of Rezko or two in their talking points? On ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," when Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., listed questionable McCain connections to lobbyists, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., fired back: "John McCain didn't borrow money from a guy going to jail to build his house, so if we're going to start talking about associations, that's fine, we'll do that."

The Veepstakes:

The New York Daily News' Richard Sisk rounds up the Sunday veepstakes talk. Least coy award goes to Gov. Tim Pawlenty, R-Minn: "It would be an honor to be mentioned, honor to be asked," he said on Fox News Sunday. A bit more coyness from the Virginians: hard "to say no," said Gov. Tim Kaine, D-Va.; "I would leave that to Barack Obama," said Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, didn't seem to mind having her name on the shortlist: "I think he has other choices that match very well with him," Hutchison said."

As for Obama-Clinton . . . "I think it is an absolutely unbeatable ticket and I think it would be terrific for the country," House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

"If you really want a winning ticket, this is it," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said on ABC's "This Week". "I've looked at every other possible candidate. No one brings to a ticket what Hillary brings -- eighteen million people committed to where she's going."

"It's not a job that she's seeking," Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said on "Face the Nation."

Newsweek's Jonathan Alter spins through Obama's possible picks, wide awake: "[Clinton's] unseemly efforts to jam her way onto the ticket backfired. Her impressive 18 million voters won't desert Obama en masse, though it's still unclear how many will either vote for McCain or stay home. If the Clintons somehow subjected themselves to vetting and she got picked, Obama would then have to worry about his own supporters being disillusioned, and wonder when Hillary and Bill will act out again."

The Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., star turn continues: "[His] unusual profile -- a 36-year-old Indian-American religious conservative -- has launched a prospective vice presidential candidacy. Jindal is imagined as a possible counterpart to Barack Obama's novelty, the Republicans' own jarringly fresh front man for a party looking to redefine itself." Yet . . . what a quote to get from a friend: "He's kind of a professional bureaucrat, in the best sense of the word," said former governor Buddy Roemer, a McCain adviser.

Now starring Tim Pawlenty as . . . Walter Mondale? "Pawlenty doesn't offer much Washington experience. But then McCain, a longtime veteran of the Senate, isn't looking for an old Washington hand," Kevin Diaz writes in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "Like Mondale, Pawlenty would bring a whiff of the heartland and a fresh face unblemished by scandal. Mondale was 48 when he joined the Carter ticket in the summer of 1976. Pawlenty will turn 48 in November."

How's this for an audition? Saturday morning, at the North Carolina GOP convention breakfast, former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., saved a life -- performing the Heimlich Maneuver on choking Lt. Governor candidate Robert Pittenger. Huckabee e-mails ABC's Jake Tapper to point out that this was save No. 3: "I was trained as an EMT while in college and have had to use it before," he writes. "It's a very simple procedure that everyone ought to learn, especially if they have kids."

Also in the news:

President Bush starts his European tour Monday. "We'll remind our friends and allies overseas that we're all too dependent on hydrocarbons," he said upon departure from the White House's South Lawn. "I'll also remind them, though, that the United States has an opportunity to help increase the supply of oil on the market, therefore, taking pressure off gasoline for hardworking Americans, and that I've proposed to the Congress that they open up ANWR, open up the Continental Shelf, and give this country a chance to help us through this difficult period by finding more supplies of crude oil, which will take the pressure off the price of gasoline."

First Lady Laura Bush remains in Afghanistan Monday: "We have seen a resurgence of Taliban and Al Qaeda killings and kidnappings in Afghanistan," Mrs. Bush told ABC's Jonathan Karl, in an exclusive interview aboard the Air Force jet she flew from Washington. "I don't want people to think it means we need to give up. I think it just means we really need to stand more strongly with Afghanistan."

From Karl's interview Monday morning, some presidential politics: "I watched the campaign and I admired Hillary's grit and strength," the first lady said. "And I know what its like to run those campaigns, to be the candidate and how very difficult it is both emotionally and physically. It's a huge endurance, process of endurance, and so I'll have to say I have a lot of admiration for her endurance and strength. . . . I think she did great."

On Michelle Obama's saying that she was proud of her country "for the first time in my adult life": "I think she probably meant I'm more proud, you know, is what she really meant," Mrs. Bush said. "You have to be very careful in what you say. I mean, I know that and that's one of the things you learn and that's one of the really difficult parts both of running for president and for being the spouse of the president and that is everything you say is looked and in many cases misconstrued."

Gosh darn it, people like him: "Al Franken won a resounding endorsement for the U.S. Senate on Saturday from Minnesota Democrats, quickly dispatching with concerns about jokes that offended some and promising a tough challenge to Republican Sen. Norm Coleman," per the AP.

"After being publicly and privately urged to do so, Franken tackled the issue of his sometimes sexually explicit humor head on, with the outright apology that many had been waiting for," Patricia Lopez and Kevin Duchschere writes in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.Said Franken: "I wrote a lot of jokes. Some of them weren't funny. Some of them weren't appropriate. Some of them were downright offensive. I understand that."

News from the Paulites: The next front is the GOP state convention in Houston this week. Supporters of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, "want to make Texas the latest battleground in their never-say-die movement to change the party platform and send more of their delegates to the national convention," Anna M. Tinsley writes in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Tom DeLay sounds the conservative alarms: "The conservatives refuse to accept that the left is cleaning their clock, and until you hit some bottom, wherever that is, to where it says, 'Well, maybe we ought to do something different,' little or nothing's going to change," DeLay tells the Washington Times' Stephen Dinan.(And his wife is voting for Bob Barr!)

The Kicker:

"There will be a bit of what's happened in the last year, and the way it evolved. . . . I think that's important for Idaho and those outside Idaho who are interested to know." -- Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, telling Boise's KTVB-TV that he's working on a book.

"It's so bad that the Senate hasn't yet figured out that House 'Taco Salad Wednesday' trumps any type of entree they have to offer." -- Ron Bonjean, to The Washington Post's Paul Kane, on Senate dining options.

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