The Note: Baby One More Time

When Britney and Paris were thrust into the campaign, it was not a happy day in Obamaland.

Which is not the same as suggesting that it was a banner day for Team McCain.

It was a day where Sen. John McCain's campaign -- maybe for the first time in the general election -- found a coherent argument to effectively push. (Though it might not have been the argument McCain himself wants/needs.)

It was a day that made Steve Schmidt's team whirl with Rove-like efficiency. (And made John Weaver stir with un-Rove-like alacrity.)

It was a day that may have forced Sen. Barack Obama into a rare unforced error. (Yet may have forced McCain into the box he's been avoiding.)

It was a day when a quote -- however mischaracterized -- placed an exclamation point on a narrative. (Maybe two narratives, actually.)

"The new McCain ad depicts Obama as a celebrity akin to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton -- pretty, pampered . . . not up for being president," ABC's Jake Tapper reported on "Good Morning America" Thursday. "Now Obama is casting McCain -- who already has a reputation for having a temper -- as negative and angry."

Humor is humor, but there are other ways to make the same points about inexperience/riskiness/otherness -- frames that haven't been fully constructed yet.

The ad marks a critical point of concession: McCain is saying that the campaign isn't really about him, after all. And if he keeps this up, winning the presidency will continue to be far more about tearing Obama down than building himself up.

"John McCain's campaign gave its clearest signal yet that its main focus right now isn't talking about the presumed Republican nominee,"Bob Drogin and Peter Nicholas write in the Los Angeles Times. "Instead, it is trying to shape the public image of Obama -- in this case, by comparing him to two celebrities who are widely mocked as lacking substance."

(Was it a necessary concession? Sure, the campaign has been waged on Obama's terms to date, but things are tight as ever in new polling in battleground states.)

How long since the McCain campaign could count on this? "In a concerted volley of television interviews, news releases and e-mail, campaign representatives attacked him on a wide range of issues, including tax policies and energy proposals," Jim Rutenberg reports in The New York Times. "The moves are the McCain campaign's most full-throttled effort to define Mr. Obama negatively, on its own terms, by creating a narrative intended to turn the public off to an opponent."

"McCain's strategy is to leverage the enthusiastic crowds and personal charisma that have created excitement around Obama's campaign and use this celebrity to raise questions about Obama's depth," Jill Zuckman writes in the Chicago Tribune. "Framing Obama this way also allows the McCain campaign to highlight what some view as Obama's presumptuousness and inability to relate to ordinary people."

"The McCain campaign, under the direction of its new leader, Steve Schmidt, has settled on a storyline that could last through the election," Time's Michael Scherer writes. "It is, at root, an experience argument, adjusted to undercut the enormous enthusiasm that Obama generates."

This is a contrast ad disguising (thinly) as mockery: "Barack the Bimbo," reads the New York Post headline.

"Do the American people really want to elect the biggest celebrity in the world?" top McCain strategist Steve Schmidt said on a conference call with reporters, per ABC's David Wright.

"Oops! He did it again," said Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor, in response.

"Same old politics, same failed policies," says the announcer in Obama's response ad, with McCain next to another famous person: President Bush.

(What's next? How about a Madonna reference? Huge celebrity -- doesn't deliver at the box office.)

But if you treat someone like the frontrunner long enough, won't people start believing you?

"Senator John McCain has made a strategic decision to go directly negative much earlier than usual in the presidential race," Michael Kranish writes in The Boston Globe. "The McCain campaign hopes that the ads will define Obama before the presumptive Democratic nominee can fully introduce himself to voters -- a classic campaign tactic. But the taunting commercials also risk backlash if they are seen at odds with McCain's repeated pledges to run a civil campaign on the issues."

"Presidential rivals Barack Obama and John McCain both appear to be seizing the roles in which they have been cast: Sen. Obama as front-runner and Sen. McCain as underdog," Laura Meckler and Amy Chozick write in The Wall Street Journal. "Democratic Sen. Obama, who has taken to openly musing about the likelihood that he will be elected, risks coming off as arrogant and presumptuous. His Republican rival, who proclaims himself to be running behind at every stop and relentlessly attacks his opponent, risks coming off as negative and whiny."

Can the Straight Talk Express still run with this kind of overhaul? And who's driving, anyway?

Schmidt looks like he's at the helm, but: "The sharp-edged approach is being orchestrated for an unpredictable candidate who often chafes at delivering the campaign's message of the day," Juliet Eilperin and Robert Barnes write in The Washington Post. "It is that freewheeling style that has made him popular with voters and cemented his reputation for candor and straight talk."

"McCain's track record using negative ads has been and may still be problematic -- if not disastrous," Huffington Post's Tom Edsall writes.

As for those close to the candidate: "The ideological mishmash in McCain's Kitchen Cabinet lends itself to questions about who's crafting the campaign's message and highlights the tricky policy record McCain is struggling to navigate on the campaign trail," Politico's Kenneth T. Vogel reports. "McCain has staked out an eclectic and occasionally politically inconvenient hodgepodge of policy positions that has bucked the Republican line on some issues, backed it on others and -- on still others -- gone from bucking it to backing it."

There's a brand at stake here, and it's one that hovers above the trivial: "For McCain's sake, this tomfoolery needs to stop," John Weaver, a former top McCain strategist (and longtime loyalist), tells The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder. "For McCain to win in such troubled times, he needs to begin telling the American people how he intends to lead us. That McCain exists. He can inspire the country to greatness."

"It's not the John brand at all," Weaver tells ABC's Jake Tapper. "It's like asking Wilt Chamberlain to play point guard."

"John needs to be the deliberate, experienced veteran and not the grumpy old man," GOP strategist Ed Rollins tells the Chicago Tribune's Jill Zuckman.

The environment isn't all that terrible for McCain -- still keeping it close in national and state-level polls. The new Quinnipiac numbers: Obama up 46-44 in Florida, 46-44 in Ohio, and 49-42 in Pennsylvania.

Per the Q-poll release: "With likely voters concerned more about energy than the war in Iraq, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's recent tour apparently didn't help, as Arizona Sen. John McCain gained on the Democratic front- runner in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania."

New CNN national numbers have it Obama 51, McCain 44 -- just about where it was a month ago.

In responding to the ad, did Obama protest too much? Jumping off of the new ad, Obama said: "The only way they figure they're going to win this election is if they make you scared of me. So what they're saying is, 'Well, we know we're not very good but you can't risk electing Obama. You know, he's new, he's . . . doesn't look like the other presidents on the currency, you know, he's got a, he's got a funny name."

ABC's Jake Tapper: "Correct me if I'm wrong, but does it not seem as if Obama just said McCain and his campaign -- presumably the 'they' in this construct -- are saying that Obama shouldn't be elected because he's a risk because he's black and has a foreign-sounding name?"

The McCain response, per ABC's Ron Claiborne: "This is a typically superfluous response from Barack Obama," said McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds. "Like most celebrities, he reacts to fair criticism with a mix of fussiness and hysteria."

"They wanted to get attention, they are getting attention," ABC's George Stephanopoulos reported on "GMA" Thursday. "I think the question is, will the focus on the tactics overwhelm the actual message that the McCain camp is trying to send?"

Speaking of getting attention: "I note with interest today, John McCain's new tactic of associating Barack Obama with oversexed and/or promiscuous young white women," Josh Marshall blogs at Talking Points Memo. "Presumably, a la Harold Ford 2006, this will be one of those strategies that will be a matter of deep dispute during the campaign and later treated as transparent and obvious once the campaign is concluded."

For the record, McCain isn't the first politician to liken Obama to Paris Hilton: "Andy Warhol said we all get our 15 minutes of fame. I've already had an hour and a half. I mean, I'm so overexposed, I'm making Paris Hilton look like a recluse," he said at the Gridiron Club dinner in December 2004 -- before he was even sworn in as a senator.

Karl Rove sees Obama making his own problems: "The solution was obvious. Leave the campaign adviser behind and visit the wounded troops. Mr. Obama's decision to work out in the hotel gym instead adds to his growing reputation for arrogance," he writes in his Wall Street Journal column. "Most importantly, Mr. Obama missed the opportunity to show he can admit a mistake. He could have said that what he saw on his visit to Iraq convinced him that the surge was right and its success now allows U.S. troops to be safely drawn down. Instead, he insisted he was right to say the surge wouldn't work."

The Boston Phoenix's Steven Stark predicts (correctly) that the barrage has barely begun: "There will be a raft of negative ads -- and more, such as attacks from right-wing talk radio -- likely featuring Obama's own words, in his own voice (taken from the audio version of Obama's book Dreams From My Father). We likely haven't heard the last of Reverend Wright, nor the last attack on his wife, Michelle, either."

Another twist: The "celeb" ad is "the first part of a broader strategy that ultimately could have ramifications for McCain's VP selection," ABC's Jan Crawford Greenburg reports.

"They will be sharpening McCain's message that he, not Obama, is the true change agent, a man who's repeatedly taken unpopular stands, made the hard calls and forged bipartisan alliances," she writes. "There is significant support among top McCain advisers that he make a 'transformative' pick who would change the Republican Party -- someone who would appeal to moderate Republicans and Democrats." (Think a "celebrity" like Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.)

Back on the trail: "Obama's forays into conservative-dominated districts were designed to highlight his economic offensive against McCain, but the Missouri thrust was also carefully aimed at easing swing-state voters' qualms about the Illinois senator's background and political resume," Stephen Braun and Nicholas Riccardi write in the Los Angeles Times.

What the RNC wants you to remember about Obama's day: "We could save all the oil that they're talking about getting off drilling, if everybody was just inflating their tires and getting regular tune-ups. You could actually save just as much."

Says RNC spokesman Alex Conant: "Obama's solution to America's energy crisis is inflating tires?! Maybe he's been out of the country too long."

MoveOn.org swings back (again) at McCain, with a new ad on offshore drilling: That's not a solution, Mr. McCain. That's a gimmick. We expected better."

A touch of Zell Miller to round out the day: "The family legend is that Wild Bill Hickok - he's a distant cousin of mine," Obama said in Springfield, Mo. "We're going to research that, because I'm ready to duel John McCain on taxes -- right now, right here! . . . I'm a quick draw."

The Veepstakes:

Can we all wake up now? Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., has accepted a Tuesday night speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention -- which very much isn't Wednesday. It's "a move seen by delegates as another sign she won't be on Barack Obama's ticket," David Saltonstall writes in the New York Daily News. "Giving Clinton a prominent, prime-time speaking role - on a topic freighted with significance for Clinton, the first woman to almost win a presidential nomination -- is a fitting consolation prize that should help to heal remaining tensions within the party, some said." (Some, not all.)

It's enough to convince Vote Both to close up shop, AP's Nedra Pickler reports.

From the e-mail being sent Thursday by founders Sam Arora and Adam Parkhomenko: "Because it seems that Senator Obama has made his decision to offer the slot on the ticket to another candidate, we believe that continuing to ask him to pick Hillary is no longer helpful to our party's chances of winning in November. . . . We worked for Hillary for a combined ten years, so we know how many of you may be feeling.  And to those who are hesitant to support Obama right now, we urge you to keep giving him the chance to earn your vote. We are confident he will."

This would have been fun if she was still in the running: "The payoff from one of Bill Clinton's biggest ventures - his work for Yucaipa Cos., run by pal Ron Burkle -- remains shrouded in secrecy, according to the latest financial report filed yesterday by Hillary Rodham Clinton," reports the New York Post's Geoff Earle. Under a listing for Yucaipa Global Holdings, Sen. Clinton's disclosure form states only: 'Valuation unascertainable due to ongoing negotiations.' "

"Judas" is redeeming himself: "Governor Bill Richardson is doing his part to unite the Democratic party today, announcing he will hold two August fundraisers for Senator Hillary Clinton in his home state of New Mexico," per ABC's Sarah Amos.

Gov. Tim Kaine, D-Va., got a Charlie Rose audition Wednesday night, and he's got his line set on abortion. While he's personally opposed, "Roe vs. Wade is ultimately about saying that there is a realm of personal liberty for people to make this decision," Kaine said, per ABC's Ayana Harry and Teddy Davis. Harry and Davis add: "Kaine agreed with the Bush administration that Saddam Hussein should be ousted but disagreed on method."

It could still be a while: "Barack Obama's vice presidential vetting process has moved into a new stage in which a larger than previously reported group of candidates is being exposed to a "deeper dig" into their backgrounds -- in the words of a source familiar with the process," Chris Cillizza writes at Washingtonpost.com. "While the process is intensifying, the fact that the number of potential candidates still being considered is larger than generally believed, suggests that no decision is imminent, just 26 days before the opening of the Democratic National Convention."

The latest from former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass.: "I think there's some great people he could choose from," Romney told a Denver radio station, per ABC's Matt Stuart, "and I expect he will do that. But I don't plan on being part of the ticket."

Labor groups are organizing against the possibility of McCain choosing FedEx CEO Fred Smith: "As a well-known lifelong union buster, Smith has a disgraceful record of stripping workers of their most basic rights to organize and fight for a living wage," per the statement from Change to Win.

The New York Sun's Russell Berman rounds up the attacks on McCain's running mate, whoever that may be: "If he selects a former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, Carleton Fiorina, Democrats will portray her as an 'elitist, out of touch CEO.' If it is the former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, he'll be a flip-flopper. And if it is the governor of Minnesota, Timothy Pawlenty, he will be the 'Godfather of No.' "

The Sked:

Obama talks economic security with an 12:30 am ET event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, after meeting with Iowans who lost their houses or jobs in the flooding earlier this year.

He'll address the AFSCME Conference in San Francisco via satellite -- where he'll be introduced by Sen. Clinton, in person -- and then flies to Houston for fundraisers.

McCain has a 1 pm ET town-hall meeting in Racine, Wis.

President Bush makes an early-morning statement on Iraq.

A preview? "Iraq and the United States are close to a deal on a sensitive security agreement that Iraqi officials said on Wednesday satisfies the nation's desire to be treated as sovereign and independent," Alissa J. Rubin and Steven Lee Myers write in The New York Times.

Indicted Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, is due to make his first appearance in federal court Thursday.

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

Also in the news:

From the annals of disclosure: "Sen. John McCain is more open than his Democratic rival about revealing information on his top fundraisers, but neither he nor Sen. Barack Obama will say precisely how much money each of those supporters rake in, a coalition of campaign finance watchdog groups said Wednesday," Jim McElhatton reports in the Washington Times.

A liberal shot across Obama's bow, in an open letter posted by The Nation: "We recognize that compromise is necessary in any democracy. We understand that the pressures brought to bear on those seeking the highest office are intense. But retreating from the stands that have been the signature of your campaign will weaken the movement whose vigorous backing you need in order to win and then deliver the change you have promised."

From the other direction: "The Brody File has learned that the Obama campaign met with over 30 House members and senior staff this morning to strategize on Obama's faith outreach strategy this fall," per David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network. "The off-the-record briefing was led by Obama's religious outreach team and when the meeting was over, House members and senior staff in the room agreed to host values forums in their district and talk publicly about Obama's family values in their surrogate work."

Working that other side: "Republican anger over the Iraq war and the economy has left some advisers to Mr. Obama hopeful that they can capture pockets of Republican votes on Election Day in states like Alaska, Indiana, Montana, North Dakota and Virginia," Patrick Healy writes in The New York Times. "Advisers also said they had recently begun emphasizing Mr. Obama's ties to Republicans as a way to make undecided independent voters more comfortable with him."

A list you don't want to be on: Bloomberg's Ed Chen rounds up the surrogates who now aren't (some of whom you knew before, all of whom you know now): "They include former Texas Senator Phil Gramm, Republican John McCain's campaign co-chairman; ex-Texas Representative Tom Loeffler, McCain's national finance co-chairman; lobbyist Doug Goodyear, manager of the Republican National Convention; former Fannie Mae Chairman James Johnson, who was helping Obama's vice presidential selection process; and Harvard professor Samantha Power, a foreign policy adviser for Obama."

Should we care about conventions? Princeton professor Julian Zelizer says yes:"We live in an age of media-centered, professionally crafted, image-filled politics," he writes in a Politico op-ed. "Rather than talk about what we don't have, let's accept what exists and try to use the events as a piece of the report card we'll all take with us into the voting booth in November."

The Ritz-Carlton Denver is ready. From a hotel press release: "At ELWAY'S  Downtown, the hotel's signature restaurant named for former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway, more than 12,000 meals and cocktails will be on the menu. Libations have been created by ELWAY'S bartenders with a distinctly Democratic inspiration. They include: The Barack on The Rocks; Changing Tide; O'Pama Granite Martini; and The Media Madness. On the menu, and available through in-room dining, will be: Obamalettes; Ba'Rock shrimp appetizers; and Yes We Can Pancakes. Desserts include Ballot Box Brownies and Campaign '08 Trail Mix, featuring yogurt covered almonds, dried strawberries, and blue M & M's."

The Kicker:

"The first black president is destined and it's meant to be . . . Paint the White House black and I'm sure that's got 'em terrified / McCain don't belong in ANY chair unless he's paralyzed." -- Ludacris, in a charming little ditty that also takes on Hillary Clinton, President Bush, and Jesse Jackson.

"This song is not only outrageously offensive to Senator Clinton, Reverend Jackson, Senator McCain, and President Bush, it is offensive to all of us who are trying to raise our children with the values we hold dear. While Ludacris is a talented individual he should be ashamed of these lyrics." -- Obama spokesman Bill Burton.

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