The Note: Drilling Down

With a happy 47th birthday to Sen. Barack Obama (one that might have been a little happier had it come a week earlier), five lessons that arrive as gifts of the August heat:

1. Obama is now running against a real Republican message machine (one that's already earned a tighter race -- in addition to a maybe less-than-welcome rebranding for the GOP candidate).

2. Around the time the lights went out in the House of Representatives, a light went on in the GOP idea factory (and a tire gauge may get a party's message back on the road).

3. Race is in the race to stay.

4. The next policy move belongs to Obama, not Sen. John McCain (but that's not a message by itself).

5. The single most important relationship Obama needs to manage between now and Election Day is with the one Democrat who owes him nothing (and has nothing to gain from having a relationship).

So it is that, when asked by ABC's Kate Snow whether he has any regrets about his conduct during the campaign, former President Bill Clinton cracked open a fascinating window:

"Yes, but not the ones you think. And it would be counterproductive for me to talk about," he told Snow, on "Good Morning America" Monday. "There are things that I wish I'd urged her to do. Things I wish I'd said. Things I wish I hadn't said. But I am not a racist. I've never made a racist comment, and I never attacked him personally."

Is he angry? "I'm not, and I never was mad at Senator Obama," the former president said. "And you know he hit her hard a couple of times and they hit us a few times a week before she ever responded in kind. The only thing I ever got mad about was people in your line of work pretending that she had somehow started the negative stuff. It's a contact sport."

"I will be glad to, as soon as this election is over in January, to have this conversation with you and everybody else. I have very strong feelings about it. But I live out here in the fact-based world." (And Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., is off the Christmas card list. A friend? "Used to be," Clinton said.)

On his impact in the campaign: "Go get yourself a map. Look where I went. And look what the vote was."

Stoking more intrigue: "Next year, you and I and everybody else will be freer and have more space to say what we believe to be the truth" about the primaries, Clinton told The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut. (Anyone think he'll wait that long?)

Writes Kornblut (who reports that 42 and the would-be 44 have spoken a grand total of once since the primaries ended): "Clinton volunteered very little praise of Obama, beyond describing him as 'smart' and 'a good politician' when asked about him toward the end of the interview."

(What does it say about the lines of communication that he still doesn't know what role he'll play at the convention that starts three weeks from Monday?)

The week's big messaging will focus on energy, with Obama trying to go on offense in this last week before the Olympics (and his much-anticipated vacation in Hawaii).

It's offense, too, from Republicans: More antics on the House floor, and more mockery of Obama, this time with his comment about proper tire inflation inspiring fun (and useful) props.

Obama adds meat to his energy plan in Lansing, Mich., on Monday. Per his campaign: "Obama's plan will provide an immediate energy rebate to Americans struggling with high gas prices, create five million new green jobs, and eliminate our need for Middle Eastern oil in 10 years."

He backs up his message with a new television ad, per ABC's Jake Tapper.

"Now Big Oil's filling John McCain's campaign with 2 million dollars in contributions," the ad says, citing the Center for Responsive Politics. "Because instead of taxing their windfall profits to help drivers, McCain wants to give them another 4 billion in tax breaks." As the camera pulls back from the photo of McCain to reveal him standing with President Bush, the narrator says, "After one president in the pocket of big oil, we can't afford another."

McCain campaign response: "The truth is Senator Obama showed bad judgment voting for the Bush-Cheney energy bill that was a sweetheart deal for oil companies."

Obama's got a softening (if not a reversal) that serves as asset/liability: "Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama said on Saturday he would support an expansion of offshore drilling as part of a broader bipartisan energy bill," Amy Chozick writes in The Wall Street Journal.

Can a flipper call a flop? "In an attempt to hold on to one of the issues that gives Sen. McCain a political edge, the McCain campaign says that Sen. Obama hasn't shifted his position but is using purposely vague language to appeal to a wider swath of voters," Chozick writes.

About zero chance this frame leads us in the suggested direction: "A day after Senator Barack Obama said he would consider supporting broad energy legislation that would permit some of the offshore oil drilling he had previously opposed, an aide to Senator John McCain said Sunday that he too might support such a compromise package," Brian Knowlton writes in The New York Times.

Look for a tire gauge at a political event (or cable outlet) near you on Monday. Obama's comment last week, about how proper tire inflation could save more gas than drilling could produce, is making for some fun prop work.

Michigan Republicans will be passing out tire gauges at Obama's event in Michigan. And the RNC is distributing tire gauges to reporters on Monday -- engraved "Obama's Energy Plan," a party official tell The Note.

RedState.org's Erick Erickson captures the full messaging glory: "Inflating your tires and getting a regular tune-up sounds more like Obama's plan for ego maintenance than it does for helping American families."

With Obama in Michigan, the challenge from the Detroit News: "It's a good opportunity for the presumptive GOP presidential nominee to sharpen the contrast between his energy views and those of the leadership of the Democratic Party."

McCain's best allies will be active Monday on Capitol Hill, where House Republicans have gotten hold of a really good idea that's too visually minded to ignore.

"A group of House Republicans will again take to the shuttered House floor on Monday to protest the decision of House Democrats to adjourn without acting legislatively to combat the rising cost of energy," Jackie Kucinich writes for The Hill.

ABC's Viviana Hurtado reports that at least 30 Republican House members are ready to jump on Obama's newly stated openness to offshore drilling, and will be back in Washington for a "special debate" on energy policy on the darkened House floor. They are expected to meet in the Old House Chamber, where Lincoln once worked, to organize the 10 am ET display.

From the e-mail sent around by Republican Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo.: "Leader [John] Boehner (R-Ohio) and Whip Blunt, at the urging of many of you, are asking for an energy 'call to arms' this week, to build on Friday's success."

Said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on ABC's "This Week," on the topic of expanded offshore drilling: I'm not giving the gavel away to a tactic . . . that supports the oil [companies], big oil at the cost and the expense of the consumer."

"The scramble over expanded drilling off America's coasts -- ammunition for a weekend of rat-a-tat-tat by the presidential campaigns -- underscores the political power of $4-a-gallon gas," USA Today's Susan Page writes.

Who's rooting for high gas prices now? "It provides [McCain] the chance to redefine the economic debate to emphasize reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil and rescuing the American economy from the straitjacket of rising energy prices," pollster Peter A. Brown writes in a Wall Street Journal column.

"Doing so would take the focus off rising joblessness, the real-estate crisis and health care -- issues that work to the Democrat's advantage -- and shift it to energy, where the Republican might hold the edge in public opinion," he writes. "The big plus for Sen. McCain comes from the fact that $4 gasoline has forced voters to re-evaluate their view that more drilling for oil and natural gas in previously protected areas offshore or in Alaska is not worth potential environmental risks."

Bloomberg's Al Hunt sees Pelosi as key to GOP efforts to make the election competitive: "She's still a target for conservatives and Republicans. Conservative talk shows use the B word to describe her, and a common Republican theme is the scary specter of a 'runaway' left-wing government under Obama and the liberal speaker from San Francisco," Hunt writes. "The problem: Whatever her politics, she's a straight arrow who neither looks nor sounds threatening."

These voters are waiting on a message: "Democratic Sen. Barack Obama holds a 2 to 1 edge over Republican Sen. John McCain among the nation's low-wage workers, but many are unconvinced that either presidential candidate would be better than the other at fixing the ailing economy or improving the health-care system, according to a new national poll," Michael D. Shear and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post.

"The survey suggests it will be difficult, but not impossible, for McCain to increase his appeal. Whereas Obama underperforms congressional Democrats by six points among low-wage whites -- 53 percent would prefer that the party control Congress -- McCain has a seven-point edge over congressional Republicans," they write. "Sixteen percent of the white workers polled chose neither Obama nor McCain, saying either that they have no opinion or that they support someone else or that they do not plan to vote."

And (the foreign trip now well behind us -- and much of the combat still ahead of us) the fallout: "Intensified attacks by Republican John McCain on the character of his Democratic opponent have coincided with Barack Obama losing a nine percentage point advantage in a national poll, which showed the candidates running dead even over the weekend," per the AP's Steven R. Hurst. "In the course of the McCain offensive, Obama's lead in a Gallup Poll tracking survey slid from nine percentage points on July 26, when he returned from overseas, to nothing by Saturday, when the poll showed the candidates tied at 44 percent."

"The short-lived bounce of Barack Obama's European tour is gone, and the presidential contest between Obama and John McCain has settled back down to a dead-heat," Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune.

It's a new McCain -- but at what price? "The popular image of the campaign -- McCain bantering with national journalists in the back of his bus -- has, in reality, all but vanished. The traveling press is now routinely stiffed in favor of five-minute sit-downs with local reporters," The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz writes. "At the same time, the Arizona senator is having trouble making news, or at least news that advances his campaign's goals, and when he does it is often reacting to the media hurricane that surrounds Barack Obama."

And there's this: "Beyond the stagecraft, there is a sameness to McCain's schedule that works against breaking into the news cycle: town hall meeting, local interviews, fundraiser," Kurtz writes.

"It's clear McCain's handlers are determined now to keep him 'on message' and not allow much spontaneity to creep into his performances," Evan Thomas, Holly Bailey, and Jonathan Darman write for Newsweek. "Although McCain requested that a couch be put on his campaign plane so he could sit around with reporters as he did on his Straight Talk Express bus during the primaries, the couch has lately been occupied only by overflow staff. McCain looked cranky most of last week, as if he could sense the potential harm he was doing to his reputation as a high-road politician."

Maybe it's fitting that Bill Clinton would retain a place of prominence in the race -- if you buy the argument that McCain is taking inspiration from a certain Clinton candidacy.

"Mr. Obama has watched Senator John McCain pick up central strands of Mrs. Clinton's approach, and amplify them," The New York Times' John Harwood writes. "In exaggerated form, Mr. McCain, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, has adopted her attitude toward Mr. Obama's emergence (disdain), employed the same core argument against him (unproven and risky) and singled out his lingering electoral vulnerabilities (older voters, Rust Belt whites) in a contest where the Democrat's race forms the backdrop."

Before you laugh -- Steve Schmidt remembers that Hillary Clinton won eight of the last 13 primaries. "No candidate ever wins a referendum on himself," said Clinton adviser pollster Geoff Garin.

Obama has to mind his visuals this week: "Waves, wind, a beautiful island, crystalline skies: For you and me, the elements of a perfect vacation," Lisa Wangsness writes in The Boston Globe. "But as Barack Obama might recall as he heads to Hawaii for a vacation later this month, for the last Democratic presidential nominee, these have been the harbingers of political disaster."

The advice from former Gore and Hillary Clinton spokesman Doug Hattaway: "Stay away from Hawaiian prints that are too funky."

The Sked:

Obama turns 47 on Monday. He's in Lansing, Mich., for a late morning energy event, and closes out his night at a fundraiser in Boston.

McCain holds a small-business roundtable in Lafayette Hill, Pa., and ends his day at a motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D.

The Veepstakes:

Could Wednesday be Obama's day? He's set to campaign in Indiana on Wednesday -- with plenty of time for Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., to be rolled out as his No. 2.

"The location set some tongues wagging that Obama may be preparing to name Bayh -- a former Hillary Clinton supporter whose Armed Services Committee work could boost Obama's thin foreign policy résumé -- to be his veep," David Saltonstall writes in the New York Daily News.

More to fuel the Bayh buzz: Obama and Bayh are leading a list of 10 senators who "wrote Monday to Defense Secretary Robert Gates urging him to expand medical coverage for Iraq war veterans suffering from traumatic brain injuries," ABC's Teddy Davis and Matt Jaffe report.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., thinks Obama will be choosing a running mate soon -- but doesn't think it will be her. "I think that all the speculation is going to come to an end soon because at least we're going to get choices before too long," McCaskill said on CNN's "Late Edition."

McCaskill said she's not being vetted -- an answer echoed by former rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, on CNN as well.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, R-Minn., auditioned for the job over the weekend with a tire gauge and bungee-jumping (analogies only, this time), per Radio Iowa's O. Kay Henderson. "Voting for Barack Obama for president of the United States, leader of the free world and commander-in-chief is the political equivalent of bungee jumping," Pawlenty said, "especially if you're a little up there along there in the way of life -- you think it might be a good idea or interesting at the time and then you get to the edge of the cliff and look over and you think, 'This is not such a wise idea.' "

More from T-Paw, in an interview with the Washington Times' Stephen Dinan: "The party needs to modernize," Pawlenty said. "[Conservative principles] have to be applied to the issue of our time. I came of age during Reagan. I love Ronald Reagan. I think he's one of the great leaders of history, but a lot has happened since Ronald Reagan was president. . . . It's a party that has been looking backward."

Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., gets a boost: "John McCain's campaign has asked Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor for personal documents as the Republican presidential candidate steps up his search for a running mate, The Associated Press has learned," per the AP's Bob Lewis.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., sure sounds like he has his ticket booked for St. Paul. Lieberman, on NBC's "Meet the Press": "I'm not going to go to that convention, the Republican convention, and spend my time attacking Barack Obama. I'm going to go there really talking about why I support John McCain and why I hope a lot of other independents and Democrats will do that and frankly, I'm going to go to a partisan convention and tell them, if I go, why it's so important that we start to act like Americans and not as partisan mud-slingers." http://blogs.abcnews.com/politicalradar/2008/08/lieberman-sound.html

Pelosi boosts her institution, again: Her pick for Obama remains Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas -- now, as always, in a tough reelection fight. "I hope he will be the nominee," she said on ABC's "This Week." "He is an extraordinarily talented person. He is a champion for veterans in the Congress. He has -- under his leadership, we have passed, including just on Friday, the biggest increase in funding for veterans' health benefits and other benefits in the history of our country."

Former gov. Tom Ridge, R-Pa., hopes he's right about this: "I would think John would never make [opposition to abortion] a litmus test, but when it comes down to a nominee selecting a vice presidential running mate, it's their decision exclusively," Ridge told George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week."

On timing: "John McCain apparently intends to announce his pick after the Democratic convention," William Kristol writes in his New York Times column. "There's been thought given to announcing McCain's selection the day after Barack Obama's Thursday night Aug. 28 acceptance speech, to try to minimize Obama's postconvention bounce."

More on timing: "John McCain's extended circle is divided on whether he should announce his running mate in the immediate days ahead -- but the Republican is more likely to wait for Barack Obama to announce his choice first, according to advisers," Politico's Jonathan Martin writes.

Martin adds: "In the first, more conventional, category would be politicians including Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, neither of whom would raise hackles among conservative activists. An out-of-the-box move meant to shake up the race in a tough year for the GOP could be tapping Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman (Conn.) or a business leader such as FedEx CEO Frederick Smith."

Also in the news:

Your new map (as charted in Obamaland): "Alaska is young. Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia have growing populations and many black voters. Montana has seen recent Democratic inroads, and North Dakota has sent only Democrats to Congress since 1986. Indiana borders Barack Obama's home state," per the AP's Liz Sidoti. "The Democratic presidential candidate is putting money and manpower in all seven of these states — at levels unmatched by Republican rival John McCain."

Said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe: "There is not a head fake among them."

Then there's Virginia: "The Obama campaign believes it can win by duplicating the success of [Gov. Tim] Kaine, Sen. James Webb and former governor Mark R. Warner, who have led a Democratic revival in Virginia that would be complete with a win on the presidential level," Alec MacGillis and Tim Craig write in The Washington Post. "The campaign hopes to capitalize on Bush's lack of popularity, the changing demographics in Northern Virginia, high turnout -- particularly among younger voters and African Americans -- and a volunteer base that delivered a big win in the Democratic primary in February."

Who does this anger most (not an easy answer): "John McCain and Barack Obama have been on opposite sides of the debate over U.S. policy in Iraq for much of the past two years. Now, they seem to be drawing closer together," Kathy Kiely and David Jackson write for USA Today. "Both now say the U.S. military can begin winding down combat operations in Iraq. Both believe the U.S. should begin stepping up its combat presence in Afghanistan. And each candidate says those views are a change of heart for his opponent."

Now that race is part of the race: "The race issue is clearly not going away," Juan Williams writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. "And the key reason -- to be blunt -- is because there is no telling how many white voters are lying to pollsters when they say they plan to vote for a black man to be president. Still, it is possible to look elsewhere in the polling numbers to see where white voters acknowledge their racial feelings and get a truer measure of racism."

(And McCain needs a better answer than this.)

More on the Obama narrative: "Can Obama overcome his pride and Hyde Park hauteur and win America over?" Maureen Dowd writes in her Sunday New York Times column. "Can America overcome its prejudice to elect the first black president? And can it move past its biases to figure out if Obama's supposed conceit is really just the protective shield and defense mechanism of someone who grew up half white and half black, a perpetual outsider whose father deserted him and whose mother, while loving, sometimes did so as well?"

"Does Obama have the sort of adviser a candidate most needs -- someone sufficiently unenthralled to tell him when he has worked one pedal on the organ too much?" George Will writes in his Washington Post column. "If so, Obama should be told: Enough, already, with the we-are-who-we-have-been-waiting-for rhetorical cotton candy that elevates narcissism to a political philosophy."

Los Angeles Times media critic James Rainey begs to differ with conventional wisdom: "So apparently the verdict is in: Sen. Barack Obama, too confident to govern," he writes. "It all would be quite funny if many people didn't seem to be inhaling this multimedia stink bomb as if it were fragrant truth."

Who's afraid of the glitterati? "Republicans, long perceived as an endangered species in the industry, aren't going to be silent as the general election heats up," Variety's Ted Johnson reports. "McCain's celebrity supporters are ramping up their visibility while Obama's would probably be well-advised to tone it down as the GOP tries to make a big case out of his celebrity status."

Some Obama housekeeping from over the weekend: Now it's safe to ask for full representation for Florida and Michigan, per ABC's Jake Tapper.

"Obama and Clinton are tying up loose ends in order to assure a fully stage-managed convention," John Nichols writes for The Nation. "The only question that remains, of course, is whether they are doing so in order to improve the chances of an Obama-Clinton ticket in November."

More on that theme: "Supporters of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton came together in this Rust Belt city over the weekend, putting on a united face as they completed a draft of the Democratic platform, the party's broad statement of principles," Tim Hoover writes for the Denver Post. "The 44-page document reinforces Obama's theme of change but acknowledges Clinton's differing view on health-care reform and her supporters' desire to blast sexism in the media."

If you won't do the town halls, why not be the first to agree to the debates? Three presidential and one vice-presidential forum are locked in on Obama's calendar. "It's unlikely we'll see anything other than the commissioned debates," Obama spokeswoman Linda Douglass said, per ABC's David Wright and Sunlen Miller. "[McCain's has] made it pretty clear that he's not interested in a real dialogue and has just gone down the low road, so it's not a good use of our time."

The meticulous presidential tallies kept by CBS radio's Mark Knoller get a ride in the Austin American-Statesman, courtesy of Ken Herman: "Some of his numbers are staggering: Bush has raised more than $800 million at 327 fundraising events for Republican candidates and causes. Some are curious: Bush has been to 75 countries (Mexico, Russia and Italy lead with six visits each) and 49 states (no Vermont yet). Some are eyebrow-raising: Bush has spent more than a year at his Crawford ranch and more than a year at Camp David, and has attended 95 sports-related events."

Prepping for St. Paul. . . . Headline in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: "Convention 'prostitution boom'? Not likely, cops say."

The Kicker:

"I'm for the light sabers as weapons of choice." -- John McCain, to ABC's Diane Sawyer, taking up Barack Obama's challenge of a duel.

"It is a complete waste of the money John McCain's contributors have donated to his campaign. It is a complete waste of the country's time and attention at the very moment when millions of people are losing their homes and their jobs. And it is a completely frivolous way to choose the next President of the United States." -- Kathy Hilton, on the McCain ad featuring her precious daughter, Paris, writing at Huffington Post.

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