The Note: Gassing Up

When is the flop less dangerous than the flip? (When it costs $75 to fill up your Jeep.)

Who knows better than Bill Clinton what it takes to be a president? (Nobody -- which is why evasion is interesting.)

What beats 200,000 screaming Germans? (Maybe 50,000 roaring Harleys -- but were their tires inflated?)

What did Sen. Barack Obama really want for his birthday? (Hint -- John Kerry knows, though Obama could have done without Kerry's decision to label Sen. John McCain as "dangerous.")

It's energy week on the trail, and a second policy shift by Sen. Barack Obama hardly registers as a surprise. Both candidates are following the voters here -- and they realize that there's more peril in standing firm than in allowing a touch of policy flexibility into your thinking.

In the process, might conventional wisdom be shifting? Should we still be certain that sky-high gas prices will be a drag on Sen. John McCain -- guilty by association with an oil-soaked GOP?

A party looking for a new brand may be finding one with its new standard-bearer, along with an energized congressional contingent that's found a winner, and a prop the GOP and its allies are quickly learning to love.

McCain, R-Ariz., visits a nuclear power plant outside Detroit on Tuesday -- finding another area of distinction with Obama, D-Ill., on energy policy; Obama has two energy town halls in Ohio (and brings a new, sharper message).

"Energy has become a pivotal issue in this increasingly competitive election, as voters fret over high gas prices, which have hovered around $4 a gallon, and their impact on food and transportation costs," Amy Chozick and Elizabeth Holmes write in The Wall Street Journal. "Sen. McCain has successfully seized on the issue to gain ground against Sen. Obama, who continues to lead in most polls."

Obama is adjusting mid-course -- and he's fortunate that this is a story about energy, not about flip-flopping: "Obama's proposal includes two reversals of positions he has taken in the past: He had fought the idea of limited new offshore drilling and was against tapping the nation's emergency oil stockpile to relieve gasoline prices that have stubbornly hovered around $4 a gallon," per USA Today's write-up.

"With the politics of energy shifting as rapidly as gasoline prices, Democrats, led by presidential candidate Barack Obama, are retreating from long-held positions and scrambling to offer distressed voters more immediate relief from spiraling costs," Peter Nicholas and Janet Hook write in the Los Angeles Times.

"Those shifts by Obama are indicative of the pressure that politicians of both parties -- but especially Democrats -- are under to develop specific, short-term energy proposals in the face of rising costs," they continue. "Against that backdrop, politicians risk looking insensitive if they tout only solutions that could take years to hit the pump, such as Obama's plan to develop hybrid cars that can travel 150 miles on a gallon of gasoline."

"His campaign insists the moves demonstrate his pragmatism, but Republicans say the Illinois senator is merely following the polls," Russell Berman writes in the New York Sun. (Are some polls worth following?)

McCain has found a groove -- and with those tire gauges already scattered wide, remember that no one can push a message (or make a quote famous) quite like a united Republican Party.

Said McCain (pithy enough to make this quote memorable): "We have to drill here and drill now," he said, pressing Obama to call on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to bring Congress back into session to address gas prices, per ABC's Ron Claiborne and Bret Hovell.

But who's the insider? "When Senator McCain talks about the failure of politicians in Washington to do anything about our energy crisis, it's important to remember that he's been a part of that failure," Obama said, ABC's Sunlen Miller reports.

From Obama's prepared remarks, for his event in Youngstown, Ohio, Tuesday morning: "While Senator McCain's plan won't save you at the pump anytime soon, it sure has done a lot to raise campaign dollars. Senator McCain raised more than one million dollars from the oil industry just last month, most of which came after he announced his plan for offshore drilling to a room full of cheering oil executives."

He plans to continue: "So to sum up, under Senator McCain's plan, the oil companies get billions more, we don't pay any less at the pump, and we stay in the same cycle of dependence on oil that got us into this crisis. The oil companies have placed their bet on Senator McCain, and if he wins, they will continue to cash in while our families and our economy suffer and our future is put in jeopardy."

From the Obama attack ad, per ABC's Jake Tapper: "John McCain. He's been in Washington for 26 years. And as gas prices soared and dependence on oil exploded, McCain was voting against alternative energy, against higher mileage standards. Barack Obama. He'll make energy independence an urgent national priority, raise mileage standards, fast-track technology for alternative fuels. A thousand dollar tax cut to help families as we break the grip of foreign oil. A real plan, and new energy."

As for the tire gauges: "Want to measure the progress of the presidential campaign? Look no further than the tire-pressure gauges handed out on John McCain's campaign plane Monday morning," the Journal's Elizabeth Holmes writes. "The gag just keeps going. The McCain campaign used it as a fund-raising tool as well, asking supporters to put 'Senator Obama's "tire gauge" energy policy to the test.' Donors who shell out $25 or more will receive a gauge of their own.

For a second straight week, this is Obama on defense -- even with his latest ad: "The proposals Mr. Obama offered Monday represented an effort to return the campaign's focus to bread-and-butter issues after he found himself repeatedly on the defensive last week against a newly aggressive McCain campaign," Larry Rohter writes in The New York Times. "Mr. McCain and his campaign have been increasingly tweaking Mr. Obama and his energy policy."

"[McCain] had to find a way to basically shout above the media coverage of Barack Obama, and his way of doing it has been to make little jokes," ABC's Cokie Roberts said on "Good Morning America" Tuesday. "McCain needs to define what is essentially still a blank slate about Barack Obama, before we get to the conventions."

"It's not hard to see why the GOP has latched onto gas prices as a lifeline in an otherwise hostile political environment," Time's Jay Newton-Small writes. "Polls show it is the one area where they run even, or anywhere close to their Democratic counterparts, on the issue of which of the two parties would better handle the economy."

And isn't the use of oil reserves the kind of gimmick Obama has rejected in the past? "It is not designed to manipulate prices," says Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., per the New York Daily News' Richard Sisk. "Quite the contrary, it is a reserve in case, God forbid, this country is cut off from overseas oil."

Of McCain's (attack) strategy: "It is an accepted piece of campaign conventional wisdom that negative ads work," writes Slate's John Dickerson. "McCain's latest barrage will test whether hypocrisy still matters."

Pelosi's play: "What looks like intraparty tension on the surface is part of an intentional strategy in which Pelosi takes the heat on energy policy, while behind the scenes she's encouraging vulnerable Democrats to express their independence if it helps them politically, according to Democratic aides on and off Capitol Hill," Politico's Martin Kay II and Patrick O'Connor write.

Could this help Obama get an opening? The Los Angeles Times' Dan Morain: "On June 10, John B. Hess, a top executive at the oil company with his family name, summoned friends to the 21 Club, a former speakeasy in Manhattan, and delivered $285,000 to John McCain and the Republican National Committee. A week later, McCain traveled to Texas and announced his support for offshore oil drilling. Hess Corp. is an East Coast gasoline retailer with major refining and exploration operations, some of which happen to be offshore in the Gulf of Mexico."

Feeling this take hold? "John McCain's contributions from energy industry interests happened to spike right around his Houston speech (and a fundraising tour of Texas)," per the Houston Chronicle.

More in that vein, at a new Website from Campaign Money Watch.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., on what Obama wants for his birthday: "Indiana, Colorado, and Virginia."

Kerry, in the words that will be remembered from Obama's birthday party in Boston: "He doesn't get it," Kerry said of McCain, per ABC's Jake Tapper. "He's even dangerous, I think, for the direction of this country. That's why we need to stay focused on electing Barack."

Obama's birthday gift from his staff may have been *lost in the back of a cab* http://blogs.abcnews.com/politicalpunch/2008/08/obama-b-day-pre.html -- but he'll take a swanky dinner in Boston that raised him $700,000 from Clinton supporters alone. "Given the perception out there, I hope that figure would be a surprise to people," Democratic activist (and former Clinton supporter) Shanti Fry tells The Boston Globe's Scott Helman.

Can we perceive from what President Bill Clinton is saying? Keying off the former president's interview with ABC's Kate Snow, the New York Daily News' Michael McAuliff writes: "Bill Clinton regrets some things he said -- and didn't say -- on the campaign trail. But there's one thing he still can't utter: Barack Obama is ready to be President. . . . Bubba's backers concede his unwillingness to say his party's nominee is ready to sit in the Oval Office was a faux pas."

Why was Bill Clinton so quick to declare he wasn't a racist, when no one was calling him one? "The Clintons and their allies may forgive Barack Obama for beating Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, but there's one sore point they're not quite ready to absolve: Leaving the impression that Bill and Hillary Clinton have a race problem," Politico's Ben Smith writes.

Kerry thought McCain was dangerous before? How about next to 50,000 Harley riders out in remote South Dakota? (Conservation is so . . . . Democratic.)

"Suffice it to say that few political rallies can match John McCain's brief appearance on an outdoor stage Monday night before several thousand bikers at the 68th annual Sturgis Rally, America's largest biker convention and arguably its most colorful national gathering," Bob Drogin writes in the Los Angeles Times. "Rather than applause, McCain was greeted again and again by the full-throated roar of scores of gleaming Harley-Davidsons of every shape and color. The stench of burning gasoline and rowdy shouts filled the prairie night air."

Is there something broader at work in McCain's (or Obama's?) ability to keep it close, despite all those external factors?

Democratic strategist Mark Penn looks at the polls for a Politico op-ed: "If they overwhelmingly favor the policies of the Democrats, why is the presidential horse race not reflecting a 10- or 15-percentage-point edge for Barack Obama? Because of the same concerns that the public had about past Democratic presidential nominees Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John F. Kerry. The image of Dukakis in a tank still haunts the Democratic Party."

GOP strategist Alex Castellanos looks at Obama's image, at Huffington Post. "The best campaign against Barack Obama is not being run by his opponent, but by Barack Obama. It is Obama's campaign that presents their candidate as an ever-changing work-in-progress. It is his own campaign that occludes our ability to know this man, depicting him as authentic as a pair of designer jeans."

He's a tough guy to place, agrees David Brooks in The New York Times (not that the GOP is having much trouble defining him). "There is a sense that because of his unique background and temperament, Obama lives apart," Brooks writes in his column. "So, cautiously, the country watches. This should be a Democratic wipeout. But voters seem to be slow to trust a sojourner they cannot place."

Does he really have an economic message? "If you journey to Obama's website, you'll find a slew of terrific policy proposals to fix financial markets and salve the worst blows of the downturn," per The New Republic editorial. "But if you watch his ads and listen to his speeches, you'll struggle to hear him articulate a consistent narrative for our economics woes."

Of other larger forces . . . Does the American public have commitment issues? "For more than three years starting in 2005, there has been a reduction in the number of voters who register with the Republican Party and a rise among voters who affiliate with Democrats and, almost as often, with no party at all," Jennifer Steinhauer writes in The New York Times.

"In several states, including the traditional battlegrounds of Nevada and Iowa, Democrats have surprised their own party officials with significant gains in registration. In both of those states, there are now more registered Democrats than Republicans, a flip from 2004," she writes. "In six states, including Iowa, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, the Democratic piece of the registration pie grew more than three percentage points. . . . Louisiana was the only state to register a gain of more than one percentage point for Republicans as Democratic numbers declined."

He may or may not be there in person, but get ready for your emotional high point in Denver: Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., has filmed a video to be played at the Democratic National Convention. "One source close to the senior senator said the roughly 15-minute film could be a sign that Kennedy, who is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer, won't make the convention," Hillary Chabot reports in the Boston Herald.

On your Tuesday radar: The Democratic Senate runoff in Georgia. It's Vernon Jones vs. Jim Martin for the right to face Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. "Endorsements are nice. Rallies are good for the old ego. But the political math for the Democratic U.S. Senate contest in Georgia is brutally simple -- the candidate who can turn out the voters will win," Jim Tharpe writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Sked:

McCain drops by Setroit Edison's Fermi 2 nuclear power plant, in Frenchtown Township, Mich., then heads to West Virginia.

Obama has a pair of town-hall meetings, on the subject of energy, in Ohio.

President Bush arrives in Seoul, as he makes his way to the Olympics' opening ceremonies in Beijing.

Steven Lee Myers, in The New York Times, on Bush going to China: "The idea of giving a Reaganesque 'tear down this wall' speech on human rights in China -- as members of Congress and others are calling for Mr. Bush to do -- has been abandoned as potentially insulting to the president's hosts. . . . Mr. Bush, who departed Monday for a trip to Asia that will include four days in Beijing, has characterized his visit as an apolitical celebration of the Olympic spirit and American sportsmanship. But behind the scenes, according to officials and others involved in the discussions, the preparations have been far more complicated and remain a source of friction."

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

Veepstakes:

Could Wednesday bring the images of an Obama with his running mate? Mark it down: Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., campaigns with Sen. Obama in Indiana, while Gov. Tim Kaine, D-Va., campaigns in Virginia with Michelle Obama.

Ready, set . . . wait? "With a second campaign plane at the ready, they are a staff in waiting, just like the rest of the nation's political junkies who are eager to see what signals the Illinois Democrat and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) send with their selections," John McCormick writes in the Chicago Tribune. "While the 'veepstakes' political parlor game is in high season, only a very small group of people in each campaign actually know anything for certain about finalists or timing. With the Olympics starting Friday --and Obama expected to go on vacation in Hawaii next week -- conventional thinking is that the announcements will either come this week or much later in August."

New from the DNC: Everything you want to know (if you're a Democrat) about McCain's short-listers, at the subtly titled thenextcheney.com.

Super-lobbyist (and confirmed Romney guy) Ron Kaufman was spotted around town carrying a "MITT FOR VEEP" sign -- why would anyone be suspicious? "I stole it, to be honest," Kaufman tells Washingtonpost.com's Mary Ann Akers. He says he saw it out jogging in Washington -- and just needed to grab it for himself. "I'm innocent, for once."

Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., saw his profile expand with featured billing in a McCain conference call Monday -- and floating his name clearly works for McCain.

"Sen. John McCain's decision to vet Rep. Eric Cantor, a little-known, 45-year-old Virginia congressman, as a potential running mate suggests he may be looking outside the traditional vice-presidential framework to find a new-generation leader to help revive the party," Susan Davis writes in The Wall Street Journal. "As a young Southern conservative from a swing state, Rep. Cantor is increasingly listed alongside up-and-coming Republicans, including Govs. Sarah Palin of Alaska, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota -- three reform-minded governors also rumored to be on Sen. McCain's list of potential running mates -- as the next generation of Republican Party leaders."

He knew how to push a message Tuesday: "If Barack Obama is serious about trying to fix this problem, the first thing he should do is pick up the phone and call Speaker Pelosi and tell her to bring Congress back so that we can begin a process of getting an off-shore drilling bill across the floor of the House," Cantor said, per ABC's Teddy Davis and John Santucci.

The Wall Street Journal's Gerald Seib sees Obama considering Kansans for a reason (and it's not the Jayhawks): "Now Sen. Obama is weighing as his running mate the governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius, as well as Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who grew up in Kansas and whose mother happens to be from the same small town as Sen. Obama's mother," Seib writes.

"As it happens, Kansas has been through an extreme version of national political trends: a rise of social conservatives; a searing internal Republican debate; and a bit of a Democratic resurgence," he continues. "It isn't mere happenstance that it has emerged as a state that is still reliably Republican yet with a highly popular Democratic governor."

Also in the news:

An era ends: "Robert Novak has announced his immediate retirement following the diagnosis of a brain tumor, a prognosis the Sun-Times' political columnist describes as 'dire,' " per the Chicago Sun-Times. "The Evans-Novak column was first distributed by Publishers Newspaper Syndicate on May 15, 1963, with the New York Herald-Tribune, the flagship newspaper. When the Herald-Tribune folded in 1966, the Chicago Sun-Times became their home newspaper."

Here's a fashion statement: "Barack and I -- as partners, as friends and as lovers -- we accessorize each other in many ways," Michelle Obama tells Ebony. "The best thing I love having on me is Barack on my arm and vice versa, whether it's having him standing there smiling at me, or watching him mesmerize a crowd or talk to some seniors in a senior center."

Ron Suskind's new book has a jaw-dropper: "A new book by the author Ron Suskind claims that the White House ordered the CIA to forge a back-dated, handwritten letter from the head of Iraqi intelligence to Saddam Hussein," per Politico's Mike Allen. "Suskind writes in 'The Way of the World,' to be published Tuesday, that the alleged forgery -- adamantly denied by the White House -- was designed to portray a false link between Hussein's regime and al Qaeda as a justification for the Iraq war."

With the convention moving for its final night, the protesters get to move with it: "The protest zone on the final night of the Democratic National Convention will be located in a VIP parking lot north of Invesco Field, and will have a clear view of the stadium, city officials said Monday," per Sara Burnett of the Rocky Mountain News. "The fenced-in area will be about 53,000 square feet in Lot J, and accessible from the designated parade route. Delegates entering Invesco Field will pass within 200 to 400 feet of the protest zone after they are dropped off for the night's speech by Sen. Barack Obama."

How do you get inside? Find out Wednesday: "The plan for distributing tickets for Barack Obama's speech at Invesco Field will be announced Wednesday, sources said, capping weeks of speculation about how people can attend the historic event," David Montero reports in the Rocky Mountain News.

New job for Chris Matthews? Maybe not so fast: Per a new Quinnipiac University poll, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., leads Matthews 41-36 in a hypothetical 2010 general election. "Voters approve 59-29 percent of the job Specter is doing and give him a 55-26 percent favorability. Matthews gets a 28-15 percent favorability, as 55 percent of voters don't know enough about him to form an opinion."

We sort of liked feeling important: "If Shaun Dakin has his way, you might never get a call from Jack Nicholson again," John Wildermuth writes in the San Francisco Chronicle. "Or from Scarlett Johansson, Chris Rock, Jay-Z, Arnold Schwarzenegger and all the other celebrities and politicians who put their glittering names and famous voices on the millions of automated political phone calls that are likely to go out to California voters in the weeks leading up to November's election."

"Dakin is founder of Citizens for Civil Discourse, a nonpartisan group in Washington, D.C., working to promote a new 'National Political Do Not Contact Registry' that includes such 'robocalls,' which are used in political campaigns ranging from school board elections to the race for president."

The Kicker:

"No cake? Maureen Dowd will write a story about you not eating cake! Don't want to be an elitist now!" -- Barack Obama, to a reporter who turned down a piece of birthday cake on his campaign plane Monday night.

"The cab was yellow." -- Obama national trip director Marvin Nicholson, trying to find the staff's gift to the candidate.

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