The Note: Welcoming Gifts

Someone remember to write down the address, so Sen. Barack Obama can send that thank-you note.

Whatever his motivations, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did Obama a huge favor with the magazine interview where he seemed to back Obama's plans for Iraq -- offering him a better welcome than if he had been greeted with flowers as a liberator.

One little interview changed the storyline for this portion of the trip -- and boosted Obama's credibility on the subject at hand. Now, it's McCain on the defensive -- needing to explain why he differs from Obama, Maliki -- and maybe even the Bush administration, backers of a "time horizon" (no frames, there) for troop withdrawal.

"In Iraq, controversy continued to reverberate between the United States and Iraqi governments over a weekend news report that Mr. Maliki had expressed support for Mr. Obama's proposal to withdraw American combat troops within 16 months of January," Sabrina Tavernise and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times. "The reported comments came after Mr. Bush agreed on Friday to a 'general time horizon' for pulling out troops from Iraq without a specific timeline."

This is hard to walk back: "The following is a direct translation from the Arabic of Mr. Maliki's comments by The Times: 'Obama's remarks that -- if he takes office -- in 16 months he would withdraw the forces, we think that this period could increase or decrease a little, but that it could be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq.' He continued: 'Who wants to exit in a quicker way has a better assessment of the situation in Iraq.' "

This gets the trip off on the right foot: "Senator Obama meets with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad. The two apparently have a lot in common," ABC's Terry Moran reported Monday on "Good Morning America." "Over the weekend, Maliki shocked the Bush White House."

While in Iraq, Obama will be interviewed by Terry Moran for a special edition of "Nightline" Monday -- with portions to be broadcast on "World News" and "Good Morning America" as well.

Maliki's comments may not have been an accident: "Confusion over the Iraqi prime minister's seeming endorsement of Barack Obama's troop withdrawal plan is part of Baghdad's strategy to play U.S. politics for the best deal possible over America's military mission," the AP's Robert H. Reid writes. One goal: To "exploit Obama's position on the war to force the Bush administration into accepting concessions considered unthinkable a few months ago," Reid reports.

Suddenly, Obama's Iraq trip has a much bigger upside: "Washington-Baghdad move to a 'general time horizon' and Maliki's comments have plainly focused the Iraq debate on terms preferred by Obama, just as he is poised to touch down on Iraqi soil," Politico's Jonathan Martin reports.

"Maliki has not specified a time frame, but one of his closest Dawa Party allies has said Obama's plan coincides closely with government thinking," Liz Sly writes in the Chicago Tribune. "The Iraqi government's position is far from unanimous, however, and as with so many things in Iraq, opinion is split along sectarian and political lines."

Unless Maliki reverses himself, McCain is left jousting "with two prominent politicians over when and how to pull troops out of Iraq: Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki," USA Today's David Jackson reports.

(And the venue for McCain's counter-messaging Monday places him squarely in the midst of the Bush legacy. At least he got his baseball right Sunday.)

McCain, on ABC's "Good Morning America" Monday, kept the focus on the surge: "I know that he'll have the opportunity to see the success of the surge," McCain told Diane Sawyer. "He was wrong about the surge. It is succeeding, and we are winning. . . . You don't have to choose to lose in Iraq in order to succeed in Afghanistan."

He added: "If we abandon Iraq and have specific dates for withdrawal -- we would have been out last March, this previous March, if we had done what Sen. Obama wanted to do. He was wrong then, he is wrong now."

On the huge press coverage his rival is receiving, McCain said: "It is what it is."

Obama's luck may not last the week. In Iraq on Monday -- his visits to Baghdad and Basra come 925 days after his last visit to the country -- is doing no harm the same as doing himself some good? (Does that change when the national press corps joins him, later in the day in Jordan?)

On Monday, "Obama was scheduled to meet senior U.S. and Iraqi leaders here, including Gen. David H. Petraeus and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki," per Sudarsan Raghavan of The Washington Post.

"Iraqi leaders are expected to press Obama for more clarity on his long-term vision," the AP's Brian Murphy writes. "Such discussions have added importance since Iraq and U.S. negotiators appear stalled in efforts to reach a long-range pact to define future U.S. military presence and obligations."

Maliki's comments ease the way for the meeting, since they "appear to undercut a key argument from Senator McCain and other Republicans," per the New York Sun's Eli Lake.

"But Mr. Maliki's latest position could present a problem for the Obama campaign, as well," Lake continues. "The senator's plan to withdraw all American combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office has never before been tied to negotiations with the Iraqi government. Should Mr. Maliki revise or refine his remarks to Der Spiegel, the Obama campaign would be faced with an uncomfortable choice: give up its preferred withdrawal plan or tell Iraq's government that as president Mr. Obama would disregard its positions when formulating his Iraq policy."

McCain gets a boost of his own American military leaders. Peter Nicholas and M. Karim Faiez of the Los Angeles Times: "Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an appearance on 'Fox News Sunday' that setting a two-year deadline to pull all troops out of Iraq would not be advisable. 'I think the consequences could be very dangerous in that regard,' Mullen said. 'I'm convinced at this point in time that making reductions based on conditions on the ground are very important.' "

Obama heads from Iraq to Amman, Jordan, on Monday, where he'll be met by members of the national press corps. The media made an overnight journey on the new campaign plane -- "CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN" painted on both sides -- and touched down in Ireland for refueling early Monday, en route to Jordan.

With reporters joining his bubble, this is the real test: "This week Obama will have his words picked apart like never before, and it will be an international audience of not just opponents but actual enemies," ABC's Jake Tapper writes. "They will be watching and waiting to see if he kills any butterflies."

"Any gaffes will be magnified by the monstrous media contingent he's got in tow," Michael Saul writes in the New York Daily News.

"One goal of the trip is to quell doubts about whether the 46-year-old, first-term senator has the background and skills to handle national security concerns in a post-9/11 world of shifting alliances and terrorist threats," USA Today's Kathy Kiely writes. "The risk is that a misstep could enhance those doubts or an overstep create a backlash."

Then comes Europe, where different kinds of risks loom: "In a presidential campaign where the Democrat faces an especially intense variation of a familiar Republican assault -- that he is, in some sense, not 'one of us,' the trip abroad represents an opportunity for Obama to assert that he is, rather, not one of them," Politico's Ben Smith writes. "His popularity in Europe, unmatched among American politicians, could hurt him politically, however, if rapturous foreign crowds are seen as emblematic of his purported foreignness."

"If Britain and Europe could vote, he would win the White House in a landslide," Sarah Baxter writes in the Times of London. "In America, however, Obama is struggling to convince voters that he is The Chosen One. While he is supported abroad by almost everybody from French communists to German greens and plenty of British conservatives, his victory at home is far from assured."

The big event: It could be a crowd of a million-plus in Berlin Thursday, for what the campaign is calling a "major speech on the historic U.S.-German partnership, and the need to strengthen transatlantic relations to meet 21st century challenges."

Will he do anything that isn't scripted in advance? And if he doesn't, how long before that becomes the story?

"There won't be many opportunities for gaffes," Noam Scheiber writes for The New Republic. "Gaffes generally require a modicum of spontaneity. And the Obama expedition, far more so than the typical campaign appearance, is being stage managed to the extreme."

"We'll see if the pattern changes, but if he keeps this up all week he'll have done exactly what he does at home: cling to that teleprompter and operate only within his 'comfort zone,'" Jennifer Rubin blogs for Commentary. "Does he lack the confidence and ability to operate without a net?"

As for McCain's day -- he raises money alongside former President George H.W. Bush in Kennebunkport, Maine, on Monday. (Is this really the day he needs a boost from a Bush?)

He also attends an outdoor event at the Maine Military Museum in South Portland, "searching for votes and money in a state that went Democratic in the last four national elections, yet has a soft spot for mavericks and GOP moderates," per Dieter Bradbury of Blethen Maine Newspapers.

Meanwhile, Obama and McCain are set to share their first stage of the general election campaign: "The Rev. Rick Warren has persuaded the candidates to attend a forum at his Saddleback Church, in Lake Forest, Calif., on Aug. 16," The New York Times' Jim Rutenberg reports.

"In an interview, Mr. Warren said over the weekend that the presidential candidates would appear together for a moment but that he would interview them in succession at his megachurch," Rutenberg writes. "He said that both had readily agreed, perhaps reflecting how each candidate is courting the evangelical audience to whom Mr. Warren ministers."

McCain could have a big ally in his corner by then, per the AP's Eric Gorski. "I never thought I would hear myself saying this," James Dobson plans to say on his radio broadcast Monday. "While I am not endorsing Senator John McCain, the possibility is there that I might."

Dobson tells the AP in a statement: "There's nothing dishonorable in a person rethinking his or her positions, especially in a constantly changing political context. . . . Barack Obama contradicts and threatens everything I believe about the institution of the family and what is best for the nation. His radical positions on life, marriage and national security force me to reevaluate the candidacy of our only other choice, John McCain."

Also on McCain's schedule (but maybe not on Obama's): "Republican presidential hopeful John McCain will speak about the need for public service at a national forum on that topic being held in New York on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks," per the AP write-up. "ServiceNation, a coalition of more than 100 service groups, including AARP and United Way of America, said Sunday that McCain has agreed to attend the two-day forum on 'A Nation of Service.' Democrat Barack Obama has also been invited to participate." The forum will be moderated by Time Magazine managing editor Rick Stengel.

Can this last? (No.) McCain is outspending Obama: "Barack Obama cut back on his spending in June after securing the Democratic presidential nomination, building up his cash on hand as Republican rival John McCain outspent him with a heavy dose of television advertising," per the AP. "Unlike McCain, who spent more than he raised in June, Obama accumulated cash during the month, holding back on a ramped-up television campaign until July. Obama is now matching McCain's and the Republican Party's spending on advertising.

"Under federal rules, McCain must spend money he raises this summer before the Republican convention in September, and that's what he's doing. He spent $27 million, including $16.2 million on TV ads and nearly $3 million on mailings," Dan Morain writes in the Los Angeles Times.

The Democratic financial edge stretches all the way down the ticket: "The Democratic fund-raising advantage, along with polls showing a preference for Democratic control of Congress, have bolstered Democrats' hopes of widening their majorities in both chambers," Mary Jacoby and T.W. Farnam write.

This is how they press their edge: "The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee plans to announce Monday a program called 'Mobilize to Change' to target undecided voters with phone calls, mailings and visits from volunteers," USA Today's Matt Kelley writes. "The Democratic committee, which maintains a more than 6-to-1 financial advantage over its Republican counterpart, will hold a 'national day of action' July 26 -- 100 days before the election -- to encourage campaign staffers to reach more voters. . . . The DCCC had $54.7 million on hand at the end of June after raising $8.6 million last month."

It's a contest, too. Per the DCCC: "The campaign that has the most voter contact will win a fundraising email sent on their behalf to our 3 million person strong list."

On the Senate side: "The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has moved early to exploit its steep cash advantage over the National Republican Senatorial Committee, investing more than $5 million so far this cycle to improve on the comprehensive field operation the DSCC credits for its success in 2006," Roll Call's David M. Drucker writes.

The flip-side of the big bucks: "For the Pritzker family of Chicago, the 2001 collapse of subprime-mortgage lender Superior Bank was an embarrassing failure in a corner of their giant business empire," John R. Emshwiller writes in The Wall Street Journal. "Billionaire Penny Pritzker helped run Hinsdale, Ill.-based Superior, overseeing her family's 50% ownership stake. She now serves as Barack Obama's national campaign-finance chairwoman, which means her banking past could prove to be an embarrassment to her -- and perhaps to the campaign."

Emshwiller continues: "Superior was seized in 2001 and later closed by federal regulators. Government investigators and consumer advocates have contended that Superior engaged in unsound financial activities and predatory lending practices. Ms. Pritzker, a longtime friend and supporter of Sen. Obama, served for a time as Superior's chairman, and later sat on the board of its holding company."

Phil Gramm got his ritual ouster.

But is that enough? "McCain didn't announce he was distancing himself from an economic program designed by a man who devoted his entire career to: cutting corporate taxes, reducing the social safety net and deregulating financial markets," Joe Cutbirth writes at Huffington Post. "The only thing different is that someone else will have the silly title 'national co-chairman.' "

There's Obama's face on screen of a McCain-produced video, framed for a split second by the letters "al qD." What does that say to you? (We know what it says to Google.) What does it say about the McCain campaign? An oversight? Meaningless? Or "RATS" part two?

The Veepstakes:

Al Gore provides a new twist on Sherman: "General Sherman famously said, 'If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve. I already ran . . . I didn't run for the nomination, and I've already been elected and didn't serve," Gore said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "I made a decision, in this past election cycle for the nomination, and the one before that, not to be a candidate again. And I'm comfortable with the fact that what I'm doing now is of use."

Yankee fans have spoken: They want former mayor Rudy Giuliani, R-N.Y., on McCain's ticket: "One-time GOP rivals John McCain and Rudy Giuliani bonded over hot dogs and Twizzlers in front row seats by the New York Yankees dugout Sunday, providing a snapshot of a possible Republican ticket," ABC's Ed O'Keefe and Jennifer Duck report.

"Reporters then swarmed around Giuliani, asking if he would accept the role as vice president," they report. "I'm not thinking about any of those things," Giuliani responded. "I know you are! You have a right to think about it. And I have a right not to think about it."

The New York Times' Adam Nagourney and Patrick Healy tour the veepstakes landscape -- and include this reported nugget: "Democrats said they thought it was less likely now than it was a month ago that Mr. Obama would choose Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York as his running mate, though they said she remained in consideration and that she was being vetted."

Clinton's personal tab grew by another $1 million in June. "Clinton reports raising $2.7 million from donors in June and ending the month with $25.2 million in debts after suspending her quest for the presidency," per the AP write-up. "The former first lady owes $12 million to vendors and lent herself $1 million in June for a total loan to her campaign of about $13.2 million."

Is any McCain surrogate as aggressive as Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.? (Does not being a Republican allow him to say things that the campaign might otherwise feel the need to dial back?)

"The fact is that if Barack Obama's policy on Iraq had been implemented, Barack Obama couldn't go to Iraq today, it wouldn't be safe," Lieberman said on "Fox News Sunday." "He was prepared to accept retreat and defeat, and that would mean, today, al Qaeda would be in charge of parts of Iraq, Iranian-backed extremists would be in charge of other parts of Iraq. There'd be civil war and, maybe, even genocide."

Think abortion isn't the issue it once was? Look no further than the veepstakes. "Tom Ridge and Chuck Hagel aren't likely to be selected as vice presidential candidates, and it has little to do with lack of merit," Bloomberg's Al Hunt reports. "Either one might make an interesting running-mate choice, except they can't pass one of the few political litmus tests: abortion."

You know you're in veepstakes nuttiness when you make news even when you explicitly say you're not: "I'm trying not to make news on that this morning so I hope you'll forgive me, but truly they've established a process, it's their process, and I think it's up to them to . . ." Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said in trying not to say whether he's being vetted.

Elsewhere in the category of idle appointment speculation: "Speculation that Governor Deval Patrick could wind up in a Barack Obama presidential administration has been rife, and lately political and legal observers are pointing to the Supreme Court as a potential destination for the Harvard Law grad and former Justice Department official," John C. Drake writes in The Boston Globe.

Also in the news:

The Xcel Center gets its Republican National Convention makeover: "The keys to the Xcel Energy Center will be turned over to the national Republican Party this morning in an informal ceremony, as construction crews begin a multimillion-dollar, six-week makeover, transforming the complex into the home of the party's national convention, Sept. 1 to 4," Randy Furst writes in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "When it's over the evening of Sept. 4, not long after John McCain waves one last victory sign and the final balloon drops, crews will begin a two-week tear-down. The next event will be a state superintendents conference at the St. Paul RiverCentre on Sept. 18."

For your calendar: "Bush is scheduled to speak to the convention on Monday, hours after a major anti-war protest march that could draw as many as 50,000 people to St. Paul's streets. Former Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards is expected to address another protest that day sponsored by the Service Employees International Union."

How did John McCain become effective in the institution where he was long loathed? "Previously a marginal player better known for heckling the Senate than for influencing it, Mr. McCain returned from the 2000 campaign with a new national reputation and a new political sophistication," David Kirkpatrick writes in The New York Times. "Over the next eight years, he mastered the art of political triangulation -- variously teaming up with Mr. Lott against the president or the new Republican leaders, with Democrats against Republicans, and with the president against the Democrats -- to become perhaps the chamber's most influential member."

Worth tracking in Florida: "There is a fierce behind-the-scenes battle for influence over presumptive Democratic candidate Barack Obama's Hispanic and Latin American agenda, and some Democratic strategists say that its outcome could determine the result of the November elections," Andres Oppenheimer reports in the Miami Herald. "Some Obama backers in South Florida, in particular, are especially miffed at what they see as excessive power by labor-union-tied, left-leaning Mexican-American leaders at Obama's Chicago headquarters over the campaign's nationwide Hispanic and Latin American policy strategies."

Paul Krugman sees the future, at "Netroots": Krugman "predicted, with seeming confidence, an Obama victory in November -- but added that 'within three months of taking office, no, less than three months' the media would be out to get him, as much as they had at the high point of anti-Bill Clinton bashing," Greg Mitchell writes for Editor & Publisher.

Top six issues of concern at "Netroots Nation," per the straw poll being released later Monday: 1. Energy and global warming. 2. The growing gap between the rich and the poor. 3. Loss of constitutional rights. 4. The war in Iraq. 5. Corruption and special interests running Washington. 6. Lack of affordable health care. (Terrorism is 10th.)

GITMO on Monday: "Osama bin laden's driver was captured in Afghanistan months after Sept. 11...allegedly with missiles hidden in his trunk," ABC's Jan Crawford Greenburg reported on "Good Morning America" Monday. "Today, Salim Hamdan will make history: the first person since World War II tried by a US military tribunal for war crimes. In a special courtroom in Guantanamo Bay, Hamdan's trial will be test case for the system the United States created to try al-Qaeda suspects."

The Kicker:

"Wake up . . . You just gave a lot of people a scare." -- Conan O'Brien, to John McCain, pretending to nod off when asked about his age.

"It's like being in AA [baseball] and all of a sudden you're playing in Yankee Stadium." -- McCain, on his jump to the big leagues of a presidential campaign.

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