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."

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