Sen. Barack Obama wants this election to be about George Bush, the economy, and the Iraq war (maybe in that order).
And everybody wants it to be about Washington insiders -- just not theirs. (May the cleanest man win?)
Pardon us for not being shocked and appalled that people are running for president the way people run for president -- surrounded by the influential men and women who make Washington tick.
But this tussle over lobbyist ties and insider connections does matter to Obama and McCain -- maybe even equally -- in this critical period where their political identities are being shaped. (And this is what they get for the higher standards they've set for their opponents.)
For both candidates, cleanliness is next to electability -- and if one or the other can own this reformer's mantle as different-kind-of-politician, he will (much like whoever "owns" the economy and national security) be a long way toward reaching the middle-of-the-road voters they both covet.
So we have a few distractions along the road to ridiculous sums of campaign cash: "Advisers to the White House hopefuls are also working feverishly to square their carefully crafted images as campaign finance reformers with the need to gather tens of millions of dollars," Matthew Mosk and Michael Shear write in The Washington Post.
This is a chance for McCain, R-Ariz., to grab the upper hand -- building on his reformer's profile with a (probably) to-be-shattered Obama pledge, and a fresh Obama (potential) liability to exploit.
It's always a good idea to vet the vetter: "John McCain criticized his Democratic rival Monday for seeking campaign advice from a Washington power-broker who, Republican officials say, may have improperly received preferential treatment from a controversial mortgage lender," Maeve Reston and E. Scott Reckard write in the Los Angeles Times.
It just helps keep the story in the news that the power-broker in question, James Johnson, is leading Obama vice-presidential explorations.
"It suggests a bit of a contradiction talking about how his campaign is not going to be involved with people like that. Clearly, he is very much associated with that," McCain told Fox News.
The Washington Post's Shailagh Murray: "Here's the trouble with running a squeaky clean campaign: there's very little margin for ethical error."
"Despite Johnson's legendary fastidiousness, his high-profile campaign role has suddenly exposed him to questions about his financial dealings," Politico's Lisa Lerer reports. "The questions range from his relationship with the embattled CEO of mortgage lender Countrywide Financial to his more recent oversight roles on various corporate compensation committees that approved hefty executive pay packages."
(Notice how deftly and methodically Republicans have driven this storyline, muddying Obama's clean window of opportunity. Next up -- watch for the GOP to sully Johnson's fellow VP vetter, Eric Holder, for his role in the Marc Rich pardon.)