The Note: McCain 3.0

Here comes the McCain comeback -- again.

A bulldog is in place, outside help is on the way, and the candidate is even coming back to the country on his new plane (action-hero style -- along with some hostages).

Suddenly, Sen. John McCain is catching some breaks.

And so the new narrative is primed and in place (and it's the same as an old narrative): McCain could actually do this thing. (Actually, while the polls remain tight, right now he'd settle for not being counted out -- but he'll take what he can get.)

Maybe the start of his Colombia trip (and that's with two "Os") -- when McCain left U.S. soil, with its sputtering economy and spiraling gas prices, and declared war on drugs like it was 1984 -- will be remembered like the house-cleaning of almost exactly a year ago: When the campaign hit bottom.

McCain is writing the latest script with Steve Schmidt, who brings discipline, decisiveness, and determination to his new role -- and most importantly, the perception of all three qualities for the journalists and GOP insiders who were almost ready to give up on McCain.

No more silly backdrops, whiffed opportunities, and bad travel decisions; instead, a taste of the Bush/Arnold swagger for the final four-month stretch. (And Schmidt will move soon to kill off the regional campaign structure that Rick Davis put in place for the campaign -- a recipe for the type of muddled messaging Schmidt exists on this earth to eliminate.)

"This guy has the manner of a drill sergeant," ABC's George Stephanopoulos said on "Good Morning America" Thursday. "He is a tough task-master. If anybody can bring coherence to the McCain campaign, it's Steve Schmidt."

"The Sergeant has been promoted," Jonathan Martin and Mike Allen write for Politico. "Schmidt, who had just recently returned full-time to the headquarters after spending most of his time with McCain on the road or with his family in California, responded [to the promotion] by exhorting campaign aides with a speech that one staffer likened to a locker room pep talk out of the football movie, 'Rudy.' "

"People are flocking back to the campaign to work for him," said former McCain spokesman (and one of the scores of Schmidt protégés) Brian Jones.

McCain listened: "The shift was approved by Mr. McCain after several of his aides, including Mr. Schmidt, went to him about 10 days ago and warned him that he was in danger of losing the presidential election unless he revamped his campaign operation," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times.

"In an early insight into the impact of Mr. Schmidt's new role, the campaign is planning what will amount to a restarting of Mr. McCain's candidacy after Independence Day, in which he will tour the country talking about a jobs program and visiting battleground states intended to illustrate the economic woes he will be talking about: Colorado, Wisconsin and Michigan," Nagourney reports.

(And can Schmidt change things like this? "Somebody asked, 'What's the strategy behind this?' " Charlie Black said of McCain's current foreign travel. "It's simple. McCain says he wants to go to these places, and we say, of course.")

He'll be judged fast: "Change will be evident as soon as next week, when the retooled, focused messaging machine replaces an approach that has seemed more sporadic," writes The Wall Street Journal's Elizabeth Holmes. "Sen. McCain will focus on the economy every day, pushing a carefully crafted and consistent message."

"The abrupt shift in leadership, announced to McCain's staff yesterday morning, came after weeks of complaints from Republicans outside the campaign and growing concerns within it about the lack of a clear message, the cumbersome decision-making process, the sloppy staging of events, and a schedule driven largely by fundraising priorities rather than political necessity," Dan Balz and Michael Shear write in The Washington Post.

An early warning sign: "One strategist wondered whether McCain was continuing to vest authority in multiple leaders, a recipe for continued frustration. Even after the move, he remains surrounded by the same small clutch of political advisers: Davis, Schmidt, former lobbyist Charles R. Black Jr. and longtime chief of staff Mark Salter," Balz and Shear write. (And that's not even counting Mike Murphy.)

McCain has been here before (for better and/or worse): "Several senior party strategist suggested that the roots of this shakeup are exactly the same as those which led McCain to part ways with longtime adviser John Weaver and campaign manager Terry Nelson last summer,"'s Chris Cillizza writes. "Those roots? That McCain refuses to put a single person in charge, preferring a group of people -- at times rivals -- to offer a variety of opinions from which he can pick and choose."

"The question Wednesday was whether the move -- elevating senior strategist Steve Schmidt to head day-to-day operations and shifting campaign manager Rick Davis to a lesser role -- came soon enough," Maeve Reston and Mark Z. Barabak write in the Los Angeles Times.

More change to come: "Mike Dennehy, a longtime McCain adviser who served as the campaign's first national political director, may return to the position later this month," The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder reports.

And that Colombia trip that looked emblematic of the campaign's lack of discipline 24 hours ago looks inspired in the wake of developments McCain had nothing to do with.

"Even if the timing was little more than an advantageous coincidence for McCain, who traveled to Colombia largely to identify with Uribe's efforts fighting narcoterrorism and to advocate for rewarding his administration with a new free-trade agreement, his new friendship with the right-leaning populist paid off," Sasha Issenberg writes in The Boston Globe.

"Although the timing of the rescue was a coincidence and Mr. McCain's trip to Colombia had nothing to do with it, the event nonetheless put him in the middle of classified talks about covert operations with the head of another government," Elisabeth Bumiller writes in The New York Times.

"McCain spends 24 hours on Colombia soil, hostages are rescued. (It sounds almost like a Chuck Norris Interweb fact . . .)" per ABC's Karen Travers and Gregory Wallace.

One theory: "If Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe were going to help one of the presidential candidates, it would likely be McCain more than Sen, Barack Obama since the all-but-official Republican presidential nominee supports the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement while Sen. Barack Obama doesn't," Frank James writes for the Chicago Tribune.

(And the RNC may want you to remember that it was Obama's name -- not McCain's -- that popped up on a seized FARC laptop.)

Here comes the outside help: The RNC's new independent expenditure arm is spending $3 million this weekend in four swing states -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania -- with an ad targeting Obama's position on energy policy, per ABC News.

This isn't great for the brand -- but green is green. "Allies of Sen. John McCain have found new loopholes in the campaign-finance law he helped write -- and they're using them to reel in huge contributions to help him compete with Sen. Barack Obama," Brody Mullins and T.W. Farnam write in The Wall Street Journal. "In one method, a Republican Party fund aimed at electing governors has started marketing itself as a home for contributions of unlimited size to help Sen. McCain."

"To try to keep up with Sen. Obama, the Republican party hopes to raise an additional $120 million on his behalf in a variety of ways. Those include a technique that allows donors to contribute more than $70,000 in a single check," Mullins and Farnam write.

A different kind of help that's coming: "At a meeting Tuesday in Denver, about 100 conservative Christian leaders from around the country agreed to unite behind the candidacy of John McCain, a politician they have long distrusted, marking the latest in a string of movements that bode well for McCain's general election prospects among the Republican base," Time's Michael Scherer reports.

And this could be an even different kind of help: "President Bush will soon decide whether to close Guantanamo Bay as a prison for al-Qaeda suspects, sources tell ABC News," ABC's Jan Crawford Greenburg reports. "Sources have confirmed that President Bush is expected to be briefed on these pressing GTMO issues -- and may reach a decision on the future of the naval base as a prison for al Qaeda suspects -- before he leaves for the G8 on Saturday. An announcement, however, is not expected before he leaves the country."

McCain will need any edge he can get: "Mr. Obama's stepped-up schedule of big-money fund-raisers -- the campaign has more than a dozen events planned over the next two weeks -- showcases a formidable high-dollar donor network that is gaining more heft with an influx of former supporters of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton," Michael Luo and Christopher Drew write in The New York Times. "Now that he is the presumed Democratic nominee, Mr. Obama is able to collect the much larger checks to the cash-strapped party, on top of the $4,600 he can get from each contributor for the primary and the general election."

Here comes the biggest issue-based outside group to date -- and it's much, much closer to Obama's side than McCain's: With a $40 million budget and Elizabeth Edwards on board, "a national advertisement by the newly formed group Health Care for America Now, to be released on Tuesday, will take on insurance companies and argue for comprehensive, affordable health care in the United States," Julie Bosman writes in The New York Times.

But Karl Rove provides a fiscal reality check/pep talk: "His fund raising peaked in February. June's fund-raising numbers, due in mid-July, will show whether his current pace of spending can be sustained," Rove writes in his Wall Street Journal column.

"Mr. Obama may be overreaching by running ads in North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Indiana, Nebraska, Montana, Alaska and North Dakota -- states Republicans won by comfortable margins in recent years," Rove writes. "Money may be the mother's milk of politics, in Jesse Unruh's famous phrase, but when running for president, money alone can't buy a candidate love."

Is Obama making himself vulnerable? "The mark of a good politician is that he can realign his post-nomination stance in a way that goes largely unnoticed," Steven Stark writes for the Boston Phoenix. "In contrast, Obama so far seems to be publicizing his flexibility, which is the kind of mistake inexperienced candidates often make."

Then there's Iraq -- where the GOP pressure is on, and the surrogates aren't precisely on message. "Barack Obama has never said this is written in stone," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., per the Kansas City Star's Dave Helling.

Counterpoint: Democratic strategist Dan Payne rounds up the McCain shifts, in his Boston Globe column: "While the 2008 John McCain literally embraced W and courted the Religious Right, many in the news media believe he's secretly the 2000 McCain, who campaigned against W and the Religious Right."

Obama campaigns Thursday in Fargo, N.D. -- surely a city that wasn't expecting a Democratic candidate in the general election. Per the campaign: "He will discuss his commitment to giving our veterans and military families the care, support, and benefits that they have earned. He will discuss his record on the Senate Veteran's Affairs Committee, and what he'll do for veterans as President."

As values week continued Wednesday . . . "The senator from Illinois laid out his plans for an expanded national service program, though little in it was new," Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times. "As much as anything, his visit to this battleground state was to show that his values are largely mainstream -- a message he hopes will sink in among voters who may find him an unfamiliar figure out of touch with everyday concerns."

The Washington Post's Jonathan Weisman: "Throughout the week, Obama has been striving to win over voters in Republican areas, defending his patriotism in Independence, Mo., on Monday; pledging to expand federal assistance to religious social service groups in rural Ohio on Tuesday; and preaching service in central Colorado on Wednesday. He will speak about veterans in Fargo, N.D., on Thursday, then will highlight the theme of family on Friday as he celebrates Independence Day in Butte, Mont., with his wife and two daughters."

Is this part of the price? "Barack Obama is facing a rebellion from the liberal blogosphere that helped him lock up the Democratic presidential nomination," Kathy Kiely and Martha T. Moore write for USA Today. His moves to "centrist positions may help woo swing voters, but they infuriated some of Obama's core supporters. Nearly 12,000 of them have formed an online group on Obama's presidential campaign website, urging him to vote against the domestic wiretapping bill."

The Sked:

McCain wraps up his foreign visit in Mexico on Thursday, meeting with President Felipe Calderon before heading back to Arizona for the holiday.

AP's Beth Fouhy: "McCain has said he planned to seek Calderon's help in addressing illegal immigration, a key issue for Hispanic and many conservative voters. The Arizona senator has called for increased security along the U.S.-Mexico border."

Obama is in North Dakota, and plans to spend Independence Day with his family in Montana.

Unemployment figures are out at 8:30 am ET.

The president sets to leave for the G8 this weekend.

Get the full political schedule in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

Also in the news:

Is Gates staying for sure? "The Obama and McCain campaigns are working to compile lists of potential nominees for dozens of national-security and counterterrorism positions so would-be policy makers can be vetted and confirmed as quickly as possible," Yochi J. Dreazen and Siobhan Gorman write in The Wall Street Journal.

"Given the inevitable gaps, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked senior Pentagon officials to be prepared to stay in their jobs for the first few months of 2009. The Obama campaign has endorsed the idea. Obama aides say the Illinois senator is considering asking Mr. Gates to stay as defense chief if he is elected," they write.

Get your partying in early: "Barack Obama's campaign and the Democratic National Committee are toying with a convention scheduling change that has been broached before in theory but never seriously considered: cutting the party's conclave in Denver short by one day to give Obama an extra day of post-nomination bounce in the crowded August calendar," Doyle McManus and Don Frederick write for the Los Angeles Times. "Obama aides have floated the idea of ending the Denver convention on Wednesday, Aug. 27, instead of Thursday, Aug. 28."

Could the campaign actually help the candidates govern? "In their contest for the White House, Barack Obama and John McCain are expanding the campaign battlefield," Ron Brownstein writes in the new National Journal. "Paradoxically, that may be the first step toward taming the partisan warfare in Washington that has blocked progress on the country's most pressing problems."

"This electoral stability has promoted rigidity in Washington," he writes. "Obama and McCain, in one of this year's most hopeful signs, are refusing to passively accept that fate."

Obama's community organizing skills are coming in useful on the trail, per Bloomberg's Indira A.R. Lakshmanan. "The same tactics Obama honed in mobilizing people to agitate for neighborhood improvements he's now using to draw millions of volunteers and voters to his campaign. His experiences with a church-based group also helped shape his views on individual responsibility and the role of government, according to dozens of people who knew him 20 years ago."

Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, is stepping up her visibility for the Obama campaign, per the Chicago Sun-Times.

If this isn't a sign of interest, what is? "He cut his hair," Salon's Mike Madden writes of Gov. Tim Pawlenty, R-Minn. "Gone was the mullet he'd worn for years, even though Minnesota media outlets and political blogs mocked him for it. As Pawlenty hit the Sunday talk shows in May and June, he sported a trim new look. You might even call it vice-presidential."

Want to choose the Obama family's next dog? The American Kennel Club hopes so. "The AKC is asking Americans to cast a vote for the best qualified 'first pet' for the Obama family, limiting the list of selections to hypoallergenic breeds because of Obama's daughters' allergies," ABC's Lindsey Ellerson writes. "The public has been given five solid canine choices including the Bichon Frise, the Chinese Crested, the Poodle, the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier and the Miniature Schnauzer."

(Is a designer breed right for the guy at the country club with the pretty date? Would Obama discriminate against mutts?)

Actor Dennis Haysbert says his portrayal of President David Palmer may have helped pave the way for Obama's candidacy. (Which surely means Obama has a promising career hawking insurance if this White House thing doesn't work out.)


The Kicker:

"If I start that . . . plus Mom might not be happy when she comes home. She'll be like, 'what is the dirt on your hand?' " -- Barack Obama, in the full exchange that was wrongly portrayed as a fist-bump snub, but was actually the candidate declining to autograph a young boy's hand.

"I don't know what he was telling him but I thought, good grief, everybody around here has got guns and we were there on a diplomatic mission." -- Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., recounting a long-ago confrontation between John McCain and a Sandinista. Responded McCain: "That's simply not true."

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