The Note: McCain's Mojo

So it's Paris Hilton making political statements while Cindy McCain gets nominated for a topless contest-- why would we lose the capacity for surprise in this race?

(And Sen. Barack Obama goes "American Idol" with the men who could be his veepstakes finalists on Wednesday -- he appears with one, his wife with the other -- though the fair-haired guy took the suspense out of the day.)

Perhaps a more shocking development: Even before Sen. John McCain took Ronald Reagan's famous line and turned it on its partisan head, it was clear that McCain's campaign was better off than it was two weeks ago.

It's the payoff from the new McCain strategy: bug, annoy, pester -- and attack with one voice, and as close to only one voice as possible. True, the campaign is more about Obama as a result -- but it's McCain who's found a new storyline for his candidacy.

He adds to it in his latest ad -- swiping a line that Obama would have been happy to use all by himself: " 'We're worse off than we were four years ago' is a line that will remind voters of what Ronald Reagan said of then-president Carter's administration in 1980," Mark Memmott writes in USA Today. "The key difference between then and now is that Reagan, a Republican, was criticizing Democrat Carter. In Broken, Republican McCain is distancing himself from the tenure of a fellow Republican -- President Bush."

"Mr. McCain has criticized the Bush administration over its handling of the Iraq war, its lackluster efforts to combat climate change, and the absence of a comprehensive energy strategy," Russell Berman writes in the New York Sun. "But in the ad Mr. McCain casts a far wider net and, in effect, condemns Mr. Bush's second term as a failure."

Yes, this puts him in an awkward political box: His official position, as ABC's Jake Tapper points out, is that we're better off than we were eight years ago, yet worse off than we were four years ago.

Obama's response ad is the second in a row to feature that celebrity known as President Bush: "The original maverick? Or just more of the same."

But McCain has set the agenda for basically a week now -- and he's making a turn that gets him back to his brand.

"Democrats are increasingly worried Barack Obama is not hitting back hard enough against rival John McCain and missing opportunities to tie the Republican candidate to the Bush administration," Sam Youngman reports in The Hill. "McCain seemed to find his voice with the launch of two campaign ads, which received mixed reviews but helped him break through the media clutter and target the Illinois senator on the issue of offshore drilling."

Said Gov. Ed Rendell, D-Pa. (shouting some of the first whispers, and probably not on the short list with comments like this): "Even I called some Obama people and said, 'Hey, let's get on the air and hammer this guy [McCain] for being the biggest hypocrite there is. . . . We let them nail us on that stuff, and we haven't come back as aggressively as we should."

This is Obama finding a (lofty) voice: "For the sake of our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, we must end the age of oil in our time," Obama said in Youngstown, Ohio, per ABC's Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller.

Of the tire-gauge offensive: "It's like these guys take pride in being ignorant, you know? They think it's funny that they're making fun of something that is actually true."

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