As we await the start of the most-watched road trip by a Chicagoan this side of the Griswolds, five things we might learn from Sen. Barack Obama's foreign trip:
1. How good is this vaunted foreign-policy team really?
2. How's the new McCain message machine handling its first big test? (Having one message from the campaign per hour would be a start.)
3. How does an anti-incumbent candidate deliver a foreign-policy address that doesn't criticize the president while on foreign soil? (And how big a crowd of adoring Europeans is too big a crowd of adoring Europeans?)
4. Can the Clintons stay out of the news the whole time that the presumptive Democratic nominee is out of the country?
5. Can the presumptive Democratic nominee survive with as few as one workout a day?
For Obama, the trip's stakes are huge, and will make themselves known daily with every handshake, photo-op, and whispered aside. It's "a campaign-season audition of sorts for a presidential hopeful pledging a new era in diplomacy and an end to the U.S. combat role in Iraq," per AP's David Espo.
Every detail counts: "The trip is planned to put Obama into settings often occupied by presidents, including formal meetings with foreign leaders, public speeches and visits to historical sites," he writes.
For the highest-profile speech of his trip, he's not getting Brandenburg Gate itself next Thursday, but German media reports that he'll get it as a backdrop, with the speech itself at the famous Victory Column.
"If it comes off as the campaign hopes, with a steady flow of images of Obama looking thoughtful, diplomatic, and commanding on the world stage, the trip helps Obama address his key weakness, perhaps permanently," Slate's John Dickerson writes. "At the same time, the trip poses big risks."
"Obama knows that many Americans still have a tough time picturing him as commander in chief, and this trip could be make or break," ABC's Jake Tapper reported on "Good Morning America" Friday. "The trip has real risks."
"He's got to show he can do the job, and above all . . . not make any mistakes on this trip -- a gaffe could be a killer for Barack Obama," ABC's George Stephanopoulos added.
Obama's 300-strong foreign-policy team "is on the spot this week as Mr. Obama is planning to make his first overseas foray as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, with voters at home and leaders abroad watching closely to see how he handles himself on the global stage," Elisabeth Bumiller writes in The New York Times.
New faces all around: "Most of the core members of his team served in government during President Bill Clinton's administration and by and large were junior to the advisers who worked on Mrs. Clinton's campaign for the Democratic nomination," Bumiller writes. "But they remain in charge within the campaign even as it takes on more senior figures from the Clinton era, like two former secretaries of state, Madeleine K. Albright and Warren Christopher, and are positioned to put their own stamp on the party's foreign policy."
Among Obama's enemies: hubris. "Who is Obama representing? And what exactly has he done in his lifetime to merit appropriating the Brandenburg Gate as a campaign prop?" columnist Charles Krauthammer writes. "Americans are beginning to notice Obama's elevated opinion of himself. . . . For the first few months of the campaign, the question about Obama was: Who is he? The question now is: Who does he think he is?"
The frame he must escape, as proffered by The Wall Street Journal editorial page: "He'll no doubt learn a lot, in addition to getting a good photo op. What we'll be waiting to hear is whether the would-be Commander in Chief absorbs enough to admit he was wrong about the troop surge in Iraq."
"Every voter understands the simple principle that you don't make up your mind about something until you have checked the facts -- but this week Obama declared he will stick to his predetermined troop-withdrawal schedule no matter what he might learn on his forthcoming trip to Iraq," Roll Call's Mort Kondracke writes.
This is a tight box: "It may be Barack Obama's consistency on Iraq policy, not the charge of flip-flopping, that puts him in the greatest political peril," CQ's Jonathan Allen writes.
This is playing carefully: "Obama has apparently given no interviews to foreign reporters. Furthermore, he isn't taking anyone from the European press along his journey, which begins tomorrow," Jacob Heilbrunn reports at Huffington Post. "Many foreign news outlets haven't even gotten a response to their request to accompany Obama. Instead, it appears Obama's plane will be filled solely with American reporters."
One positive sign: Questions about Obama's patriotism seem to be fading away, Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh writes. "Barack Obama has used the lazy days of summer to considerable advantage with a series of speeches aimed at rooting himself in mainstream American values," Lehigh writes. Says Michael Dukakis: "We all learned from 1988."
Some imperfect messaging: Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., came to Obama's defense on Thursday, but it was Biden himself who called Obama a "Johnny-come-lately" on Afghanistan, during the Democratic primary, per ABC's Jake Tapper.
Sen. John McCain's campaign led things off Thursday with a strong bit of bracketing, in an online video that needs only one star to point out contradictions in Obama's record.
Yet if this trip is also a test of Team McCain's message discipline -- no passing marks yet. His campaign couldn't decide whether the very fact of Obama's trip was worthy of praise or scorn; spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker labeled it a "first-of-its-kind campaign rally overseas," while McCain himself said he's "pleased that he is going."
Then McCain came back on message: "If he has political rallies in other places, then obviously it's a political trip," he said later in the day.
(Above all -- Team McCain will not be giving Obama anything of a pass. Aides have primed the pump for daily or even hourly responses/attacks.)
There has been and will be much commentary about whether media favoritism is coloring coverage decisions-- but Newsweek's Holly Bailey points out that the McCain folks have themselves to blame in part for any imbalance
"In what could be interpreted now as a possible strategic misstep, the McCain campaign chose not to take reporters along for the ride [on McCain's March trip to Iraq], forcing media outlets who wanted to cover the newly elected GOP nominee to travel on their own without any guarantee of getting anywhere near the senator," Bailey writes. "Mixed with that criticism [of Obama] must be a degree of disappointment at what McCain's March trip could have been."
This fits with no message the GOP has been pushing: "It turns out that presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain has attended even fewer Afghanistan-related Senate hearings over the past two years than Obama's one," ABC's Z. Byron Wolf reports. "Which is a nice way of saying, McCain, R-Ariz., the top Republican on the Senate Armed Service Committee, has attended zero of his committee's six hearings on Afghanistan over the last two years."
This is a problem, at home or abroad: "At times it appears Sen. John McCain's Straight Talk Express should stop and ask for directions," Stephen Dinan writes in the Washington Times. "From signature issues such as immigration and climate change to tax cuts, the presumed Republican presidential nominee sometimes just seems lost as to his own record and his stance on hot-button social issues."
The DNC isn't impressed by Steve Schmidt: "Two weeks into the latest 'relaunch' of his campaign and it's more of the same for John McCain: more of the same bad news, bad reviews and campaign chaos," party operatives write in an "interested parties" memo. "With less than 110 days left until the election, is it time to start wondering how many more weeks like this McCain can afford?"
And McCain has another rogue state party on his hands: The Washington state GOP has a new Web video that "makes hay out of her 'for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country' comment, featuring various state GOP officials saying they're 'proud to be an American,' and then pledging allegiance to the flag," ABC's Jake Tapper reports.
"The move by the state party is an early mark that GOP groups are starting to feel freer to attack the Obamas on the cultural issues that McCain has signaled he won't personally touch," Politico's Ben Smith writes. "A spokesman for the state party said they didn't run the video by the McCain campaign." This came before the latest hit, but Obama still wants you to know that hits on his wife are not fair game: "I don't have a thick skin when it comes to criticism of my wife. And you know, the problem is that rarely do these folks have the guts to say it to your face," he told Glamour magazine.
While Obama travels through the Middle East and Europe, McCain stays at home in swing states, starting with Michigan on Friday. "The presumed Republican presidential nominee is lining up trips next week to Colorado, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania to emphasize jobs, energy and health care," USA Today's David Jackson reports.
Said Charlie Black: "If they want us to respond to what he's doing over there, I'm sure we could make the time."
Of Friday's Michigan stops, writes Justin Hyde of the Detroit Free Press: "As Republican presidential hopeful McCain visits the engineering headquarters of General Motors Corp. in Warren today, auto industry allies on Capitol Hill are pushing funding for tens of billions of dollars worth of low-cost loans for automakers to be included in a potential second economic stimulus bill."
No GM bailout -- yet: "I hope GM does not require it, but if it looks like it is approaching that, everyone has to consider every option," McCain told Dow Jones Newswire. "I'm not ready to assume that's the case right now."
McCain gets the night's last laugh: He's Conan O'Brien's guest Friday evening, ahead of a series of New York-area weekend finance events.
Obama heads abroad with some loose ends tied up. Not least among them: Former President Bill Clinton talked about Obama's campaign in public and not only didn't say anything controversial or confrontational -- he committed himself to campaigning for Obama "whenever he asks."
"I just told him that whenever he wanted to do it, I was ready," Clinton said Thursday in announcing a new Clinton Foundation initiative, per ABC's Kate McCarthy. (But has he really given "no thought" about whether he's interested in delivering a convention speech?)
June's big fundraising number helps make for a bon voyage, too: "The Illinois senator reported raising $52 million last month, his second-best haul of the presidential campaign and a sharp uptick from his May total of nearly $22 million," USA Today's Fredreka Schouten reports. "His blistering fundraising pace since becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee June 3 also has boosted his party's coffers, helping to close a gap with its GOP counterpart."
Watch the rising tide: "Barack Obama not only revived his own powerhouse money machine after clinching his party's presidential nomination last month, he jump-started the sputtering fund-raising apparatus of the Democratic National Committee," Brian C. Mooney writes in The Boston Globe. "That could be bad news for Republican rival John McCain, who is banking on a hefty advantage in national GOP money to help offset Obama's superiority in the money fight. . . . The Democratic National Committee, which had raised an average of $5.4 million per month during the first five months of 2008, reported taking in $22.4 million in June, after Obama became the presumptive nominee on June 3 and began joint fund-raising efforts with the party."
"With Obama's raising more cash than McCain and the Republicans combined -- McCain reported last week that he'd raised $22 million in June and the Republicans, $26 million -- it seemed likely that the cash gap could soon begin to widen in the Democrats' favor," McClatchy's Greg Gordon writes.
But months like he just had are at the low end of what he needs to bring in constantly to make the decision to reject public financing cost-effective.
"The magnitude of the fund-raising challenge -- reaching a goal of $300 million -- was underscored by [David] Plouffe's pitch for each of the donors to give $25 more," Jeff Zeleny writes in The New York Times. "The figure is on pace with, or slightly below, projections that campaign aides have set for party fund-raisers."
And the DNC's independent expenditure arm is up and running, with former Edwards adviser Jonathan Prince at the helm. "The decision by the DNC puts to rest doubts about whether the party had any intention of helping Obama through independent expenditures," AP's Jim Kuhnhenn reports. "One Democratic operative familiar with the DNC's decision said the party planned to match or exceed the $118 million spent in an independent expenditure effort in the 2004 presidential contest."
(What does the campaign do the first time there's an ad Obama doesn't agree with?)
Al Gore is focused on things that are bigger than the vice presidency: "You're looking at a different list than I am," he tells ABC's Claire Shipman. "I've decided to impose a personal term limit of two terms as vice president."
"I went into public service 32 years ago, and I really did enjoy it," Gore added. "But I've also enjoyed being in the private sector and I don't have any plans to change that."
More on politics: "I've endorsed Barack Obama. I'm a Democrat. But I think that John McCain deserves credit for having provided some leadership in the Republican Party years ago at a time when it was needed."
And on drilling, he tells Shipman: "Since the first oil crisis back in the early '70s, we've been told that if we simply go for more oil, gasoline prices will come down. . . . We need to break free of this old pattern that's holding us back and develop the renewable sources that can bring about the equivalent of $1-a-gallon gasoline."
As for his new challenge: "The goal is the most ambitious energy plan by a major U.S. political figure -- and one many energy experts say is unrealistic," Zachary Coile writes in the San Francisco Chronicle. "Gore insists the only real obstacle is the reluctance of America's leaders to seek bold solutions to high energy prices and global warming. He likened his challenge to President John F. Kennedy's 1961 call to put a man on the moon."
USA Today's Ken Dilanian tracks Obama on the environment: "Obama, who touts his independence from special interests, made a point of embracing the coal industry as part of his quest for statewide office," he writes.
As for Obama -- one day, three workouts? "While Obama spent 91 minutes at a campaign event [Wednesday], the Illinois Senator spent a total of 188 minutes in the gym," ABC's Sunlen Miller reports. "His multiple visits raised a few eyebrows -- with even a campaign aide cracking a smile as the third gym stop of the day was announced."
Per the AP: "A distinct lack of visible sweat on the Illinois senator triggered questions about whether he was actually exercising or using the gym visits as cover for conducting vice presidential vetting or interviews."
As for McCain's schedule, the Los Angeles Times' Andrew Malcolm sees a source of some GOP angst: "Just 3 1/2 months out from the presidential election, McCain's national campaign schedule is being driven by the quest for money, not by the hunt for votes," he writes. "It helps explain that widespread sense of unease among many Republicans nationally who fear he wasted his three-month general election headstart not defining himself and the all-important central message of why he wants to be president."
Also in the news:
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice STILL doesn't want a spot on McCain's ticket: "I just don't think I could do it. You know, and I think John McCain is a fantastic person," Rice tells Sean Hannity. "He's going to be a great president and I believe he can be elected. I just -- he'll find somebody wonderful to work with, and he has all the right qualities. But I've got the quality to go home now."
Thank you, Mr. Mayor: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., is set to host a "welcome back" reception for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.
"The aide said it would not be a fund-raiser to help Mrs. Clinton with retiring her approximately $23 million debt from her presidential campaign; she owes about $12 million to consultants and vendors, and owes herself $11 million for the personal loans that she made during the Democratic primaries this year," Patrick Healy reports for The New York Times. "But the event -- intended to welcome her back to her full-time gig after the 16-month campaign -- could serve as one more way to remind New Yorkers about the debt carried by their junior senator, and prompt some of them to write checks."
Before you pencil in Chuck Hagel and Joe Lieberman -- ABC's Jan Crawford Greenburg and Howard Rosenberg check in on those pesky things called rules: "Despite the bipartisan ambitions of the candidates and dreams of many pundits, party rules of both the Democratic and Republican National Committees seem to ensure that neither Hagel nor Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman will be nominees for Vice President this year."
How to kill your veepstakes chances in one easy step: "Gov. Mark Sanford for vice president? Forget it. It'll never happen," Lee Bandy writes for South Carolina Insider. "Sanford might have killed any chance he had of being picked as John McCain's running mate when he messed up in a CNN interview at the first of the week, say political observers."
Could Iowa be falling off the map? Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen sees it tipping toward Obama: "Given all this, look for both sides to dial back their campaign efforts in Iowa. Oh, they won't say that, but they will find better places to spend their time, TV money and staff efforts."
Rangel is ready for battle: "Embattled Rep. Charles Rangel said yesterday that he will seek an ethics ruling on whether it is proper for him to continue using congressional stationery to solicit funds for a controversial Harlem center named for him," Daphne Retter writes in the New York Post. "However, Rangel said the House Ethics Committee had no business probing his leases on four rent-stabilized apartments in Harlem, which critics have blasted as improper." The Kicker:
"If all of us lived on live mics, 100 percent of us would be embarrassed." -- Bill Clinton, surely speaking as first among equals.
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