The Note: Card Check

Maybe the Straight Talk Express needed to break down to get ready for this highway.

We can debate who played which card to what end, but Team McCain has placed its hand on the table -- a big gamble that puts his political nest egg on the line.

Yet this debate makes Sen. Barack Obama put some chips on the table too. Sen. John McCain's team is not executing perfectly, but it has managed to dominate the discussion for a sustained period of time -- possibly for the first time in the general election.

(And how much is it helped by a Congress that's leaving town without an energy bill -- and with Obama lacking a pat answer on the subject.)

Yes, the race has devolved into a he-started-it playground fight that diminishes both candidates. Yes, the McCain brand shrinks when he makes the campaign about Obama.

But consider: Isn't it the case that the more conventional this campaign is, the better it is for the conventional(-looking/sounding/acting) candidate? (That split among registered and likely voters answers the question: If this is just any other race -- not to mention a race about race -- might it be noisy enough to make young voters want to cover their ears?)

"The tactic could cut both ways: it might tap into the qualms some white, working-class voters in crucial swing states may have about a black candidate, or it could ricochet back against the McCain campaign, which has been accused even by some fellow Republicans of engaging in overly negative campaigning in recent days," Michael Cooper and Michael Powell report in The New York Times.

And forget the race card: Top McCain aide Steve Schmidt plays the Clinton card. "We have waited for months with a sick feeling knowing this moment would come because we watched it incur with President Clinton. Say whatever you want about President Clinton, his record on this issue is above reproach," Schmidt tells the Times.

Howard Wolfson chooses to play -- and chooses his words carefully: "The McCain campaign has obviously been watching our primary very closely and recognized how damaging it had been to be tagged with the charge of race baiting," says the former Clinton campaign communications director.

At least one prominent Democrat plays the McCain card in response: "What they did to McCain in 2000 is what McCain's trying to do to Barack Obama in 2008," Dick Harpootlian, a former South Carolina Democratic chairman, tells the Los Angeles Times' Mark Z. Barabak and Nicholas Riccardi.

Who wins if there's a replay of the Democratic primary race? "The exchange was reminiscent of several flare-ups over race during the Democratic primaries, when the Obama campaign complained about comments made by Bill Clinton in support of the candidacy of his wife," Jonathan Weisman and Juliet Eilperin write in The Washington Post.

Says McCain (just maybe rightly): "What we are talking about here is substance, and not style."

McCain campaign manager Rick Davis defended the Paris/Britney ad, on ABC's "Good Morning America" Friday: "It's getting a lot of attention, which is exactly what it was designed to do," he said. "Everybody's talking about it, and we're having a great time with it."

Responded Obama strategist David Axelrod: "They ran a ridiculous ad that's insulting not to us, but to the American people, he said. "This is beneath him. It's beneath Sen. McCain.. . . . And now, to inject this race card issue takes it one step beyond that. You have to ask, what happened to John McCain? What happened to the campaign he promised to run?"

That's the sound of narratives colliding.

"Both sides face risks and opportunities," Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith write for Politico. "Obama's pioneering status is inspiring to some voters and discomfiting to others, and the way in which race is discussed may push voters toward or away from him. McCain could benefit from discomfort with race or he could -- like Hillary Rodham Clinton, his predecessor in battling Obama -- be distracted and ultimately diminished by constant charges of racism, accurate or not."

"For a week he's been on defense," Republican consultant Phil Musser said of Obama. "It's the first time in a while -- and he doesn't like it."

The New York Times editorial board doesn't like it, either: "The retort was, we must say, not only contemptible, but shrewd. . . . It also -- and we wish this were coincidence, but we doubt it -- [conjures] up another loaded racial image. The phrase dealing the race card 'from the bottom of the deck' entered the national lexicon during the O.J. Simpson saga."

(Responded Rick Davis, on "GMA," never missing a chance to whack the paper of record: "This is just another low blow by them.")

The Obama campaign wants you to remember who's delivering the message: "It seems like we hit another low note every day from this campaign," campaign manager David Plouffe told reporters Thursday, per the Chicago Tribune's John McCormick.

That's the genesis of the "Low Road Express," per ABC's Jake Tapper.

McCain's campaign has "also suggested that Obama would rather lose a war than an election, is personally responsible for the rise in gas prices, and is a celebrity on the order of tabloid divas Britney Spears and Paris Hilton," David Jackson and Kathy Kiely point out in USA Today.

As for the backlash: "The big question for the McCain campaign . . . is whether this is worth of John McCain, or whether it demeans him with frivolousness," ABC's Jake Tapper reported on "Good Morning America" Friday.

"Three months before Election Day, John McCain's stepped up aggression begs the question: Will voters vote for the scold?" the AP's Jim Kuhnhenn reports. "In striking an aggressive pose, McCain is in danger of letting the caricature of an angry, petulant candidate take seed -- not so much because he is one, but because it stands in stark contrast to Obama's carefully cultivated, well, celebrity, and McCain's own promises to run a respectful campaign."

McClatchy's David Lightman and William Douglas: "If voters find that Obama's image doesn't match the one McCain is peddling, they may reject him, a lesson Jimmy Carter learned in 1980 when he painted Ronald Reagan as dangerous and out of touch."

"In a celebrity-driven culture that has left little space for John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate has decided to go tabloid," Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post.

On the other hand: "Obama hopes to use the racism card to inhibit all criticism of him, with the presumed cooperation of the press. But there's a much larger downside," National Review's Rich Lowry writes. "Obama's race is a political advantage so long as it is sold in a post-racial context. If his background is a symbol of how we can get beyond the poisoned atmosphere of both racism and the hyperactive, opportunistic charges of racism, it's a boon to his change-and-unity candidacy."

Commentary's Jennifer Rubin: "Obama's entire campaign has been premised on unity, on ending racial division and political antagonism. He's the post-racial leader to take us to the promised land of reconciliation and harmony. But he's not. He's inciting racial animosity where none exists. It is reprehensible on a moral level and it's plain dumb politics."

McCain gets a forum to keep talking about it (or not) on Friday: On a day both candidates spend in Florida, he speaks before the National Urban League in Orlando.

(With Gallup daily tracking now putting the race within a single point -- how many cycles are we away from Democratic panic-button pushing?)

"The closeness of the campaign raises a key question: Is Obama a closer?" Sridhar Pappu writes in the Washington Independent. "Obama never really closed during the campaign against Clinton, he simply outlasted her."

This won't help the presumptuousness problem: "When Obama walked onto the stage here in Cedar Rapids, he was greeted with a chorus of 'Happy Birthday, Mr. President,' " per CBS' Allison O'Keefe. "Obama will be 47 on Monday."

McCain's on message, but at what price?

"I've spent three days on the road with McCain this week, and except for a couple of public town-hall meetings, where flashes of his old wit and friskiness shone through, I've barely clapped eyes on him," Todd Purdum writes for Vanity Fair. "The forward compartments of his charter 737 -- his personal seating area in the front, and the 'Straight Talk' suite in the middle -- are blocked off from the press section in the rear by dark brown curtains."

"One of McCain's senior aides told me that the senator is in palpable pain at having to rein in his natural instincts, in no small part because he well knows that it was his warm relations with the media that kept him alive a year ago when so much of the smart money -- and so many of the big mouths -- in his party had left him for dead," Purdum continues.

ABC's Bret Hovell reports that McCain is starting to speak from notes on a music stand -- the better to keep him on topic. "Notable is McCain's decision to talk about his time in captivity, and how he turned down the opportunity for an early release that was offered him by the Vietnamese. He says that he chose then and has been choosing ever since to put his country first, before his own personal interest," Hovell reports.

He may want to work on this line of attack: Every time he's closed the door on raising Social Security taxes, he's opened a window just a crack.

"Sen. John McCain continues to slam rival Barack Obama for wanting to raise taxes on Social Security, even as he periodically explains that he might be willing to do the same," Laura Meckler writes in The Wall Street Journal.

What would really make things tough for Obama about now? How about playing the gender card?

"Sen. John McCain's growing popularity among women is fueling speculation that he will selecta female running mate, ripening talk about conservative favorite Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska, and former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Officer Carly Fiorina, one of his top economic advisers," Joseph Curl and Ralph Z. Hallow report in the Washington Times.

Palin's fans include Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist. Said Gingrich: "I think she would bring a level of excitement and uniqueness that people would have to stop and say, 'Boy, this is kind of intriguing.' "

Think about the box a choice like that would put Obama in (particularly if -- as is not likely -- McCain goes first).

"Rumors that other high profile women politicians -- such as two-term Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and first-term Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill -- are fueling a backlash of sorts from some of [Sen. Hillary Rodham] Clinton's most ardent supporters," ABC's Jennifer Parker reports.

"Hillary Clinton in not a political Lego block, easily replaced by another woman candidate," Allida Black, a former Clinton national fundraising committee member, tells Parker.

Added Clinton confidante Lanny Davis: "The selection of either one of those instead of Sen. Clinton I would find completely incomprehensible."

Think their feelings aren't still raw? "Some of Hillary Rodham Clinton's supporters are pushing for the Democratic Party's new platform to state that the primary elections 'exposed pervasive gender bias in the media' and to call on party leaders to take 'immediate and public steps' to condemn future perceived instances of bias," Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times.

"The push for the plank in the party's statement of principles reflects a lingering unhappiness over Clinton's treatment during the Democratic primary, and over what her supporters say was an inadequate response from party leaders."

As for Hillary herself: "Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) will not be Barack Obama's running mate, but she will be the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention -- at least that is what some of her boosters are saying," per Newsday's Tom Brune. "Clinton purportedly will make the coveted keynote address on Tuesday night, Aug. 26. The vice presidential nominee usually speaks on Monday and Wednesday."

This may quiet things (but only slightly): "Hillary Clinton has decided against being nominated for President at the Democrats' Denver convention, but many of her more die-hard partisans may vote for her anyway," Michael Saul reports in the New York Daily News. "A source close to the New York senator confirmed she won't file a formal request to the convention asking to be nominated along with Barack Obama, who eked out the victory in their fierce primary slugfest."

As for the big dog: "Bill Clinton is back in his element," per ABC's Kate Snow and Dana Hughes, who are traveling with the president in Africa. "Nearly eight weeks after his wife dropped out of the presidential race, he has returned to Africa on what has become an annual pilgrimage to check in on the work of his Clinton Foundation."

"Oh yeah, I love this stuff," he told ABC News with a grin.

Snow and Hughes continue: "Ethiopia is a long way from New York . . . or South Carolina, for that matter. People here might know his wife ran for president, but few know much about the controversies and criticisms that haunted the former president during the primary season back home."

Drilling Down:

Congress leaves town with a rather large item unaddressed (cue a new round of Republican charges).

"As Congress begins a five-week break without passing legislation to address high gasoline prices, Democrats and Republicans are fighting for the political high ground in the energy debate," Sarah Lueck, John D. McKinnon, and Stephen Power write in The Wall Street Journal.

"In a flurry of ads and on the campaign trail, Republicans are pounding Democrats for failing to allow votes on lifting a federal ban on oil and gas drilling in offshore areas to boost domestic production," they writes. "Democrats are accusing Republicans of blocking renewable-energy initiatives and protecting wealthy oil companies at consumers' expense."

Where's Obama's answer? He's hitting the oil-company profits, but what else has he got?

"Barack Obama is once again betting that his eloquence can persuade price-weary consumers -- read that as voters -- to take the long view and not jump at a short-term fix when it comes to soaring energy prices,"the AP's Mike Glover reports. Republicans clearly have targeted energy prices, looking to boost their standing with consumers. "President Bush has pushed Congress to permit the offshore drilling and warned that 'the American people are rightly frustrated' because Democrats won't allow a vote on opening up offshore drilling."

A look-ahead to the fall: "Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) faces growing pressure from within her Caucus -- and especially from some of her freshman Members who are being bombarded on the issue in their districts -- to bring offshore drilling to the floor as part of a comprehensive energy package in September," Roll Call's Steven T. Dennis writes.

"Don't be surprised if Democrats use the August recess to meet behind the scenes with their environmentalist allies to put together a Plan B approach to block further Republican exploitation of the drilling issue," John Fund writes for The Wall Street Journal.

(And watch the GOP machine get to work on those inflated tire comments.)

But who's confident? Making the rounds in Democratic circles: Rep. Tom Cole, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, is calling the Republican National Convention a "waste of time" for his embattled members.

Cole "told GOP congressional hopefuls on Thursday that they should not be afraid to criticize both political parties – including Republican members of the House," per The Hill's Jackie Kucinich. Said Cole: "Don't be afraid to say you are disappointed in fellow Republicans. . . don't hesitate to be anti-Washington, D.C."

On the Senate side: "Buoyed by a political climate even more hospitable than the one in which they gained six seats in 2006, Senate Democrats can barely contain their glee at the prospect of expanding their razor-thin majority by five to seven seats," Jennifer Duffy writes in the new National Journal. "How did this year's Senate playing field become one of the most lopsided in recent memory? A quartet of important factors--political climate, math, money, and retirements--are all working against the GOP this time."

The Sked:

It's Florida in August on the trail.

McCain speaks at the Urban League conference at 11 am ET, raises money, then attends Friday evening's Country First Concert, featuring John Rich, in Panama City, Fla.

He'll get some time with Gov. Charlie Crist, R-Fla., who may or may not still be in the running for running mate.

Obama has a town-hall meeting and local interviews in St. Petersburg, Fla.

From the Obama campaign: "While John McCain continues to take the low road -- saying even that he is "proud" of his Brittney Spears/Paris Hilton attack ad -- Barack Obama is leading on bringing the American people the economic relief they need right now."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is George Stephanopoulos' guest on ABC's "This Week" Sunday, along with (veepstakes alert!) former governor Tom Ridge, R-Pa.

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


The Wall Street Journal's Corey Dade charts the amazing rise (already) of Gov. Tim Kaine, D-Va. "In a few short months, the 50-year-old governor has emerged from relative political obscurity to the short list of possible running mates for Sen. Obama," Dade writes. "Mr. Kaine, whose father was a welder, has demonstrated versatile appeal. His Kansas roots resonate with white middle America, among whom polls show some of the broadest reservations about Sen. Obama. His comfort with Hispanics may help smooth over ruffled feathers among Clinton backers."

What do the markets say? "Tim Kaine's stock is on the rise. Literally," ABC's Howard L. Rosenberg and Jan Crawford Greenburg report. "In brisk trading on the prediction market -- where investors buy and sell contracts that bet on the future fortunes of politicians --Kaine's price has skyrocketed in just the past few days. . . . For Obama, the data indicates traders are betting on Kaine, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden and Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius."

Don't believe the buzz, Lloyd Grove writes in Men's Vogue: "In many ways, the televised pageantry -- and occasional silliness -- barely does justice to the intrigue of the decision. And for all the so-called reporting that surrounds the process of choosing a running mate, decades can pass before the naked truth is revealed."

Also in the news:

Tracking the legal fight in Denver: "Protesters have a constitutional right to be photographed with the Pepsi Center as a backdrop when they gather here later this month for the Democratic National Convention, an attorney for several protest groups argued in federal court Thursday," Sara Burnett writes in the Rocky Mountain News.

This will be fun: "The city of St. Paul on Thursday outlined a process for speakers to air their views during the 2008 Republican National Convention, using a previously announced free-speech stage just across the street from the Xcel Energy Center, the venue for the Sept. 1-4 event," Jason Hoppin writes for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

A new start at Ron Paul's non-convention shadow convention has a star guest: "In video on his website today, Paul announced that former Minneapolis Governor and professional wrestler, erstwhile Mexico surfer dude and anti-establishment independent politics rock star Jesse Ventura, even though he has ruled out a bid to shake up the US Senate race in Minnesota and is in no way a Republican, will take part in the rally," ABC's Z. Byron Wolf reports.

Legal battles: "A federal court ruled today that top White House aides are not immune from congressional subpoenas, a decision that is likely to reignite the investigation into politicization at the Justice Department," ABC's Justin Rood and Emma Schwartz report. "In a 93-page ruling, U.S. District Judge John Bates wrote there was no legal basis for the Bush administration's claim that executive privilege protects former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten from congressional oversight."

McCain had a fun coffee date Thursday: "The Republican presidential candidate stopped at the coffee shop for about 15 minutes before appearing at a town hall meeting at Memorial Hall, 72 Seventh St. McCain had coffee with Tichigan resident Debra Bartoshevich, who recently pledged her support to McCain after being removed as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention," Lindsay Fiori writes in the Journal Times.

Are we too fat to have a skinny president? Amy Chozick takes a nibble in The Wall Street Journal.

Our weekly video Note -- now with 25 percent more pop divas than ever before.

The Kicker:

"Miss Hilton was not asked, nor did she give permission for the use of her likeness in the ad and has no further comment." -- PR representative for Paris Hilton, on the McCain ad featuring her, very briefly.

"I didn't think McCain could look silly. . . . But that ad diminishes him and makes him look silly." -- Norman Lear, among the Hollywood crowd who won't be returning McCain's calls, per the Los Angeles Times.

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