So Barack Obama's on his pink-tailed unicorn, and John McCain has ripped out his IV and is on board his tank (thank you, JibJabbers, for another memorable entry).
But remind us again -- how is this still a race?
Two new polls suggest two different answers, but come up with similar spreads in a race that looks mired in the mid-to-high single digits. (Hint: Both answers have to do with Obama, and one he wears on his skin, the other on his sleeve -- at least when he's not on board that unicorn. And if you think a narrow lead is a comfortable lead, ask the National League all-stars.)
The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll has Obama up eight among registered voters -- but only three among likely voters.
With Bush setting a new record-low -- a 28 percent approval rating -- why is the race to succeed him even close? "Holes in Barack Obama's foreign affairs resume are spurring doubt about his readiness for a crisis -- raising the stakes on his upcoming trip overseas and posing potential opportunity for his otherwise weaker Republican opponent," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes.
"Americans by a wide margin, 63-26 percent, pick McCain as more knowledgeable on world affairs, rate him much more highly in terms of readiness for the world stage and military leadership alike, and put him ahead of Obama by 50-41 percent in trust to handle 'an unexpected major crisis.' "
Obama has a 19-point edge on the No. 1 issue -- the economy -- and yet: "Sen. Barack Obama holds his biggest advantage of the presidential campaign as the candidate best prepared to fix the nation's ailing economy, but lingering concerns about his readiness to handle international crises are keeping the race competitive," Dan Balz and Jonathan Cohen write in The Washington Post.
"Questions about Obama's experience remain, particularly his ability to deal with national security and international issues," they write. "Forty-nine percent of those surveyed said that his level of experience would hamper his ability to serve effectively as president, while 40 percent said it would help. And asked whether he would make a good commander in chief, 48 percent said yes."
"This [foreign] trip is a big deal for Barack Obama, because there are some questions among voters about his ability to handle foreign affairs, especially when he stacks up against John McCain," ABC's George Stephanopoulos reported Wednesday on "Good Morning America." "He's going to have to show himself -- get people comfortable with the idea of him as commander-in-chief, handling the job of president."
One possible reason that it's so close among likely voters: A big drop in voting commitments among younger voters. "I think the long fight with Hillary Clinton, No. 1," Stephanopoulos said Tuesday on "World News with Charles Gibson." "And No. 2, all of the questions in recent weeks over whether or not Barack Obama is shifting positions, becoming quote-unquote 'a typical politician' -- that's turning some of them off."
Obama's response: The other guy flip-flops more (?). "If you compare sort of my shift in emphasis on issues that I've been proposing for years," Obama told PBS' Gwen Ifill, "if you compare that to John McCain's complete reversal on oil drilling, complete reversal on George Bush's tax cuts, complete reversal on immigration where he said he wouldn't even vote for his own bill, that I think is a pretty hard case to make that somehow I've been shifting substantially relative to John McCain."
(He cops to a "shift in emphasis"? Is that a flip-flop we're calling a "beach sandal" so it sounds refined?)
The New York Times/CBS News poll has it Obama 45, McCain 39. The angle: "The survey suggests that even as the nation crosses a racial threshold when it comes to politics -- Mr. Obama, a Democrat, is the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas -- many of the racial patterns in society remain unchanged in recent years," Adam Nagourney and Megan Thee write in The New York Times.
"Among black voters, who are overwhelmingly Democrats, Mr. Obama draws support from 89 percent, compared with 2 percent for Mr. McCain. Among whites, Mr. Obama has 37 percent of the vote, compared with 46 percent for Mr. McCain."
The race belongs to Obama -- for better and worse. "The return of Iraq and Afghanistan to the forefront of the presidential campaign illustrates how both sides increasingly seem to view the race as largely a referendum on Obama, a first-term Illinois senator trying to become the first black president," the AP's Liz Sidoti writes in a paradigm-shifter. "Clearly, the race is on to define the still relatively unknown Obama, and whichever candidate does a better job making his case could well win the White House."
Obama gets an outside boost Wednesday: MoveOn.org is launching a $100,000 national cable buy to blast McCain over the Iraq war, officials tell The Note.
From the script: "In Chicago, in Saint Louis, and Seattle -- the American people are demanding a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. In Baghdad and Basra and Tikrit, the Iraqi people . . . and now the Iraqi Prime minister are also demanding a timetable. But John McCain doesn't want a timetable. He'll spend hundreds of billions of dollars more to keep our keep our troops in Iraq for years and years."
Vets for Freedom pushes back with the second ad in a "multi-million dollar ad buy," to run in Ohio, Michigan, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico. "The surge works," veterans say in the ad, while quotes from Obama and other war critics float by.
McCain, R-Ariz., loves the turn to foreign affairs -- right? Well -- maybe he would have been better off spending the day in Czechoslovakia.
It was Obama who was forced to turn his attention to Iraq sooner than he wanted on Tuesday, but it was McCain on the defensive -- naming phantom countries, waffling on Afghanistan, even equivocating on gay adoption before the day was through.
(And he's not the one with the foreign policy problem?)
There's now a hint of agreement between the candidates over the need for more troops in Afghanistan -- yet maybe just a small disagreement in McCain's own head over where they should come from. "Just last week, McCain was calling for the U.S.'s NATO allies to increase their troop presence in Afghanistan and was resisting calls for more U.S. troops there," ABC's Jake Tapper reports.
"Yesterday was the first time McCain suggested moving troops from Iraq to what has been called the forgotten war, and his shift brought him in line with the direction long advocated by Obama, who has called for paying more military and diplomatic attention to Afghanistan for years," Jonathan Weisman and Juliet Eilperin write in The Washington Post.
(The shift on Afghanistan is the focus of the first Obama conference call of the day -- a 9:30 am ET number, featuring Susan Rice and Robert Gibbs.)
And could a Bush administration shift provide an Obama opening? "William Burns, America's third highest-ranking diplomat, will attend talks with the Iranian envoy, Saeed Jalili, in Switzerland on Saturday," the AP's Matthew Lee reports. "The talks are aimed at persuading Iran to halt activities that could lead to the development of atomic weapons, a senior U.S. official told the Associated Press on Tuesday. It will be the first time such a high-ranking U.S. official has attended such talks."
Watch the terrain move: "While Obama and McCain staked out their positions on Iraq months ago, the back-to-back speeches yesterday provided the clearest signal yet that Afghanistan -- where the military situation is worsening and where US and NATO deaths exceeded those in Iraq in both May and June -- has also become a key battleground in the 2008 campaign," Michael Kranish writes in The Boston Globe.
As for Obama's migrations . . . "Senator Barack Obama said on Tuesday that the addition of tens of thousands of combat troops to Iraq last year had significantly reduced violence in the country," John M. Broder and Larry Rohter report in The New York Times. "But he said that positive developments there had not changed his mind about the need to pull troops from Iraq so America could focus more on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan."
"Sen. John McCain on Tuesday ridiculed Sen. Barack Obama for scrubbing his campaign Web site of past criticisms about the U.S. troop 'surge' into Iraq, and lashed his Democratic presidential opponent for laying out strategies on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan before consulting with military leaders on the ground," Joseph Curl writes in the Washington Times.
But Obama is on the defensive more than he'd like to be: "The surge of US troops in Iraq having created a safer and more secure Iraq, McCain can now (perhaps for the first time) point to an aspect of the war where he is able to argue that his judgment was superior to Obama's," ABC's Jake Tapper writes.
"Obama delivered his speech at a moment when there is some confusion about his position on the war," Peter Nicholas and Robin Abcarian write in the Los Angeles Times. "Obama insists his views are unchanged. But his subtle shift in tone has sparked concerns among supporters that he is revising his position as part of a broader post-primary move to the political center." The Washington Post editorial board isn't convinced. Obama "confirmed his own foolish consistency," per the editorial. "How will that 'true success' be achieved? By the same pullout that Mr. Obama proposed when chaos in Iraq appeared to him inevitable."
"While he offered a compelling view of how America should have engaged the world after 9/11 instead of invading Iraq and getting bogged down, the speech suffered from fundamental flaws in logic and fact that Obama refuses to confront," Michael Goodwin writes in his New York Daily News column. "He can't bring himself to acknowledge how the successful surge of our troops has altered the dynamics in Iraq and that he was wrong to oppose it."
It all comes in advance of Obama's foreign travel -- which still may not be all he wants it to be.
"Some foreign-policy analysts say Sen. Obama's trip is fraught with risks that could undermine his campaign's momentum," per Amy Chozick and Jay Solomon of The Wall Street Journal. "In the Middle East, he is expected to come under intense scrutiny for his campaign pledge to directly engage Iran's theocratic leaders in a bid toend Tehran's nuclear program. Israeli officials have been pushing for a much tougher approach. Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, have criticized Sen. Obama's statement in a speech last month that he supported Israeli control of an 'undivided' Jerusalem."
Obama on Wednesday hosts a "Summit on Confronting 21st Century Threats" in West Lafayette, Ind., alongside (veepstakes alert!) Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and former senator Sam Nunn, D-Ga.
Per the Obama campaign: "In order to be fully prepared, we must begin to implement effective strategies now that reduce the risk of three particularly catastrophic events -- a nuclear attack, a biological attack, or a cyber attack. For the last eight years, this Administration has failed to fully prepare the nation to respond to these new and emerging threats. Senator Obama understands that we cannot afford to ignore the potential for attack any longer."
McCain follows Obama on Wednesday to the NAACP convention in Cincinnati (hardly the crowd to launch the latest attacks in front of).
Per his campaign, McCain will talk about education and sing the praises of the NAACP (yet the words "Barack Obama" do not appear in advance excerpts provided by his campaign).
"If I am elected president, school choice for all who want it, an expansion of Opportunity Scholarships, and alternative certification for teachers will all be part of a serious agenda of education reform," McCain plans to say. "Whether or not I win your support, I need your goodwill and counsel. And should I succeed, I'll need it all the more."
Some McCain backtracking, on gay adoptions: "As several gay rights groups criticized Senator John McCain for saying he opposed gay adoption, the McCain campaign issued a clarification on Tuesday saying that he believed the issue should be decided by the states, and that such adoptions should not be subject to a federal ban," Michael Cooper writes in The New York Times. The pressure was real, per the AP: "Yesterday, as criticism of McCain's comments spread, his campaign said that the Arizona senator 'could have been clearer in the interview in stating that his position on gay adoption is that it is a state issue. . . . He was not endorsing any federal legislation.' "
"That sound you just heard was a can of worms opening up," the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody writes.
McCain's new fundraising mechanism seems to work: "Sen. John McCain raised $62.3 million for his presidential bid in the second quarter in conjunction with the Republican National Committee, according to campaign-finance reports filed Tuesday night," T.W. Farnam reports in The Wall Street Journal. "The campaign gathered most of the money using an unprecedented system that allows it to collect checks as large as $70,000 from an individual by parsing the money between the campaign, the national party and state committees in four states. That fund raised $41.2 million in the three-month period."
The big names matter: "Republican John McCain's elite fundraisers have helped collect more than half of his presidential campaign money, while Democratic rival Barack Obama has relied on his own top fundraisers for nearly one-fifth of his coffers," USA Today's Fredreka Schouten reports. "The money from these fundraisers illustrates how McCain, who co-authored a 2002 law curbing the influence of special interests in campaign finance, is relying on a group of well-connected Republicans to fuel his bid."
Many of the big names are lobbyists: "nearly a fifth of those who have brought in the largest amounts for him, more than $500,000 each, are lobbyists or work for firms that engage in lobbying," per The New York Times' Michael Luo and Kitty Bennett.
They continue: "In his disclosure on Tuesday, Mr. McCain went further than Mr. Obama, specifying which people have raised more than $500,000 for him. (Mr. Obama's highest category remains $200,000 and above.) Mr. McCain also lists the occupations and employers for each of his top fund-raisers -- those who raised $50,000 or more -- information that Mr. Obama does not provide and that watchdog groups say is critical for identifying bundlers and understanding their potential interests."
Democrats and labor groups announce their new anti-McCain Social Security campaign on Wednesday, and the DNC sets the tone with a Web video.
Is President Bush picking up his politicking? (Who wants that more -- McCain, or Obama?) Per The Hill's Sam Youngman: "Bush's Rose Garden announcement on Monday that he would lift an executive ban on offshore oil drilling and a Tuesday news conference where he hit Democrats on the economy were clear efforts to score points in the public relations war against a Democratic-led Congress, several Democrats said."
(For a snapshot of the president's influence -- that Medicare veto override sure was fast, wasn't it?)
The AP's Terence Hunt: "This is hardly the way he wanted to go out. President Bush found few encouraging things to say Tuesday as he assessed a grinding list of problems for his final six months in the White House, from soaring gas prices, falling home values and anxieties about bank safety to un-won wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, genocide in Sudan and friction with Moscow and Beijing."
The New Yorker cover wasn't that big a deal, was it? "It's a cartoon . . . and that's why we've got the First Amendment," Obama told CNN's Larry King. "And I think the American people are probably spending a little more time worrying about what's happening with the banking system and the housing market and what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, than a cartoon. So I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about it." (That makes one. . . .)
But maybe he did give it just a little bit of thought. He continued: "I do think that, you know, in attempting to satirize something, they probably fueled some misconceptions about me instead. But, you know, that was their editorial judgment."
Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page sees an upside: "Those who think the Blitt cartoon is damaging should think again. The falsehoods are out there and widely embraced, either by people who don't know any better or folks who are looking for some excuse to cast doubt on Obama when they can't find anything else. The Web is like any other village square. Sometimes you've got to clear away the trash."
The new JibJab video is catchy -- and, given the increased competition, a solid entry (great voice work, too). "But perhaps this year's presumptive party nominees just aren't funny enough to sustain a full two-minutes of satire," ABC's Sarah Just reports. "The video spends almost as much time having fun with a few of JibJab's favorite targets: President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and both Hillary and Bill Clinton." The founding brothers talk to Newsweek.
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., squared off with back-to-back speeches Tuesday in Washington -- and Biden made the comment that may have the longest life, at least if Republicans have any say in the matter on Wednesday.
Per ABC's James Gerber, Biden criticized McCain's focus on Iraq thusly: "If John wants to know where the bad guys live, come back with me to Afghanistan," Biden said. "We know where they reside. And it's not in Iraq."
For his part, Lieberman "sharply criticized the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, arguing the nation faces an enemy who 'can not be placated by sweet reason or appeals to the better angels of our nature,' " Gerber reports.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty, R-Minn., lands a spot in a different elite club than the short list -- one that might be just as important. "Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has collected more than $500,000 in contributions for Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president," Kevin Diaz reports in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Among governors mentioned as potential running mates, he is the only one in the ranks of top McCain 'bundlers' -- that is, those listed as having raised more than half a million dollars."
Timely, with McCain in front of the NAACP: "Republican vice presidential prospect Gov. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., told reporters [Tuesday] that removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of South Carolina's Statehouse would not be a priority during his final years in office," ABC's Jan Simmonds reports. "Sanford's remarks today came in response to the announcement of Dennis Courtland Hayes, the interim president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, that his organization is planning a new campaign to have the flag removed completely from the Statehouse grounds."
And Sanford knows his CNN appearance Sunday was maybe just this side of disastrous: "Sometimes your brain works well; sometimes it doesn't. But that's being human," he said, per The State's Leroy Chapman Jr.
Some people have already made their choices: "The nation's small-business owners, in the dumps over the economy, want Republican Mitt Romney and Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as vice presidential candidates on their respective party's presidential ticket this fall, a new poll shows," Ralph Z. Hallow writes in the Washington Times.
On the Clinton watch . . . this from a Clinton Foundation press release: "President Bill Clinton will deliver a major Clinton Foundation announcement on Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 12:45 PM at the Clinton Foundation Harlem Office. Currently, the Clinton Foundation works in over 44 countries on six continents to address some of the most pressing global challenges, including HIV/AIDS, climate change, childhood obesity in the United States and economic development around the world."
With his TV ad touting his work with Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., Obama joins the Hoosier State's other senator in West Lafayette, Ind., at noon ET to talk national security threats. He also works in a round of local TV and radio interviews.
That's followed by a high-dollar fundraiser in Nebraska -- and a low-dollar Democratic hot-dog cookout will be held nearby.
Get the full political schedule in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
Also in the news:
Georgia's incumbent congressmen -- including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. -- cruised to victory on Tuesday, despite some Obama-inspired challenges.
In another Georgia race with Obama overtones, "Vernon Jones and Jim Martin have survived Round 1 of the race for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination," Aaron Gould Sheinin writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "With 99 percent of the votes counted, Jones, the DeKalb County CEO, had 40 percent to former lawmaker Martin's 34 percent."
It's bus time for Howard Dean. "The Democratic Party's chief will lead a nationwide voter registration effort, starting in the traditionally solid Republican South, seeking to build on the burst of enthusiasm during the primaries and to follow through on Barack Obama's promise of a 50-state campaign this fall," Foon Rhee writes in The Boston Globe. "Starting tomorrow, a biodiesel bus, decorated to be a huge Obama campaign logo, will tool around the country."
Is Obama ignoring a key Michigan constituency? "Muslim- and Arab-Americans represent 4 percent of the vote in Michigan, a battleground in this year's election," Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla reports. "Yet Obama, who has held 13 events in the state during the presidential campaign, hasn't visited a mosque or met with Muslim leaders. . . . Most experts don't expect Republican presidential nominee John McCain to carry the Muslim vote, though they said Obama's failure to build bridges could depress turnout or boost support for potential third-party candidate Ralph Nader, who is of Lebanese descent."
Rangel's wrangles: "Rep. Charles Rangel acknowledged yesterday he may have violated House ethics rules when he used congressional stationery to solicit donations for a Harlem 'center for public service' that will be named after him," Daphne Retter writes in the New York Post, following up on The Washington Post story from Tuesday. "Rangel has used his office letterhead to try to raise funds for the controversial center in Harlem from Donald Trump, Hank Greenberg, the former head of the AIG insurance giant, and others, it was revealed yesterday -- even though congressional rules bar the stationery from being used for solicitations."
Next from the Hill? "Congressional Democrats are considering a second round of rebates to taxpayers, saying the benefits of the first checks sent to more than 100 million households this year are being eroded by rising energy prices," Bloomberg's Laura Litvan reports.
There could be more fun in store for Minnesotans: "With former Gov. Jesse Ventura saying he is not entering Minnesota's U.S. Senate race, his political mentor is running in his stead," Bob von Sternberg writes in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Dean Barkley, who briefly served in the Senate himself, filed for the office this afternoon as an Independence Party candidate."
Isn't summer supposed to be slow? "In what's usually a slow political month, television viewers have been bombarded this July with reminders of John McCain's patriotism and sensitivity to Latino voters as well as Barack Obama's energy policies and heartfelt commitment to the needy," McClatchy's David Lightman reports. "This summer slew of political ads is a dramatic change from past presidential campaigns."
"Politics is just choking good sense." -- President Bush, at his Tuesday press conference.
"You might want to mention that we didn't want to step on the President's program." -- Barack Obama, on a hot mic, explaining to Lee Hamilton why his event was starting late.
"Should I mention that?" -- Hamilton, who did tell the crowd why they had to wait an hour for Obama to begin.
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