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."

Those clever RNC press folks managed to get tire gauges delivered to the Obama traveling press corpse in Elkhart, Ind., Tuesday night.

(But was this McCain agreeing -- or at least taking some zing from his attacks? At his tele-town hall meeting Tuesday, McCain said: "And could I mention that Senator Obama a couple of days ago said that we ought to all inflate our tires, and I don't disagree with that. The American Automobile Association strongly recommends it, but I also don't think that that's a way to become energy independent.")

Still, this team knows how to press: "John McCain is going nuclear on gas prices," Politico's Lisa Lerer reports. "At least that's what his campaign would like voters to believe, as the presumptive Republican nominee crosses the country touting his energy policies in hopes of winning voters anxious about record fuel prices."

The Los Angeles Times' Peter Nicholas: "Often cool on the stump, Obama struck a combative note when he told the 2,700 people who came to see him here that McCain had unfairly characterized his position. Ridiculing him over tire gauges, Obama said, is shallow campaigning -- on the order of McCain's much-publicized TV ad likening Obama to celebrities Britney Spears and Paris Hilton."

If you don't think Obama feels the pressure, check out his interview with the Las Vegas Sun's Jon Ralston: "I thought I was talking to you instead of debating John McCain, but I am happy to let you serve as his proxy. The fact of the matter is that I supported that energy bill saying at the time that those tax breaks were wrong but also recognizing that this was the largest investment in alternative energy in history," Obama said.

For fans of the Truth-O-Meter, meet Politifact's Flip-O-Meter, where Obama earns a "full flop" for shifting on whether to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

By forcing Obama's hand on drilling, McCain may be giving him troubles on the left. "If he does really get behind this new compromise in Congress, I think that would be a huge mistake," Mark Ferrulo, executive director of Progress Florida, tells McClatchy's Lesley Clark and Beth Reinhard. Margie Alt of Environment America said in a statement: "We are disappointed to see that Sen. Obama has expressed openness to compromise on offshore drilling and the health of our beaches."

McCain's even one-upping Obama with his Olympic ad buy: He's spending $6 million, compared with Obama's $5 million, per Advertising Age's Ira Teinowitz (in part because McCain has no need to save money in his kitty for after the convention).

How is everything shaking out? A six-point Obama lead (hello, stability) in the AP-Ipsos poll. "McCain, the senator from Arizona, is leading by 10 points among whites and is even with Obama among men, groups with whom Republicans traditionally do well in national elections," per the AP's Alan Fram. "Obama leads by 13 points among women, by 30 points among voters up to age 34, and by 55 points among blacks, Hispanics and other minorities, the poll shows."

"In the two months since Barack Obama captured the Democratic nomination, he has hit a ceiling in public opinion, proving unable to make significant gains with any segment of the national electorate," Politico's David Paul Kuhn reports.

"His bubble hasn't burst, but it's leaking a little bit," Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, tells the Washington Times' S.A. Miller and Stephen Dinan. "It is not massive. It is incremental, but we've seen it across the board in all of these states, that [Mr. McCain] is doing better among white voters, especially white voters without college educations."

"Whatever one might think of the [celebrity] ad' s execution, as far as the McCain campaign was concerned, it was placed at exactly the right time for exactly the . . . right purpose: To plant seeds of doubt in the summer that will grow into a full-scale assault -- turning a candidate's greatest strength into his weakness -- by the first leaves of fall," Sridhar Pappu writes for the Washington Independent.

It looks like any other campaign (who wins when that happens?): "This year's presidential campaign is shaping up as a case study in how the race for the White House has turned into a form of marketing warfare, featuring advertisements and gimmicks seeking to brand the opposing candidate with a series of indelible negative images," The Boston Globe's Michael Kranish writes.

The latest piece to bring Obama earthbound: "Records show that one-third of his record-breaking haul has come from donations of $1,000 or more: a total of $112 million, more than Senator John McCain, Mr. Obama's Republican rival, or Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, his opponent in the Democratic primaries, raised in contributions of that size,"Michael Luo and Christopher Drew write in The New York Times.

"Behind those larger donations is a phalanx of more than 500 Obama 'bundlers,' fund-raisers who have each collected contributions totaling $50,000 or more. Many of the bundlers come from industries with critical interests in Washington," they write. "Mr. Obama has worked to build a network of big-dollar supporters from the time he began contemplating a run for the United States Senate."

The Boston Globe's Sasha Issenberg looks at a post-college Obama year you almost never hear about: "Those who worked at Business International say Obama's brief account [in his memoir] contains inaccuracies or misrepresentations about the company. (Obama has acknowledged fictionalizing narrative elements in the book.) They say that while offering consulting functions to clients, Business International was far more a publishing house than a consulting firm."

Watch Republicans push this: "The Muslim-outreach coordinator to the presidential campaign of Barack Obama has resigned amid questions about his involvement in an Islamic investment fund and various Islamic groups," Glenn R. Simpson and Amy Chozick write in The Wall Street Journal.

Money troubles on the other side (with memories of Norman Hsu): "The bundle of $2,300 and $4,600 checks that poured into Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign on March 12 came from an unlikely group of California donors: a mechanic from D&D Auto Repair in Whittier, the manager of Rite Aid Pharmacy No. 5727, the 30-something owners of the Twilight Hookah Lounge in Fullerton," Matthew Mosk writes in The Washington Post.

"Harry Sargeant III, a former naval officer and the owner of an oil-trading company that recently inked defense contracts potentially worth more than $1 billion, is the archetype of a modern presidential money man," Mosk continues. "Sargeant has raised more than $100,000 for three presidential candidates from a collection of ordinary people, several of whom professed little interest in the outcome of the election."

More Hess scrutiny: "Alice Rocchio is an office manager at the New York headquarters of the Hess Corp., drives a 1993 Chevy Cavalier and lives in an apartment in Queens, N.Y., with her husband, Pasquale, an Amtrak foreman," McClatchy's Greg Gordon reports. "Despite what appears to be a middle-class lifestyle, the couple has written $61,600 in checks to John McCain's presidential campaign and the Republican National Committee, most of it within days of McCain's decision to endorse offshore oil drilling."

Welcome to Ohio, Sen. McCain: "When Republican presidential candidate John McCain meets Thursday with citizens and officials in Wilmington, Ohio, he won't need a playbook to understand why they're worried about deep job losses at the local freight airport," Stephen Koff writs in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Little known to those citizens, McCain and his campaign manager, Rick Davis, played roles in the fate of DHL Express and its Ohio air park as far back as 2003. Back then, however, their actions that helped DHL and its German owner, Deutsche Post World Net, acquire the Wilmington operations resulted in expansion, not retraction."

They're still stirring on the Hill -- and Newt Gingrich is set to join the fun Wednesday. ABC's Dean Norland reports that House Republicans brought a sign with them Tuesday: "NANCY PELOSI -- WE'RE HERE, WHERE ARE YOU?"

Roll Call's Steven T. Dennis: "Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) showed no signs of bowing to Republican demands that she call the House back for votes on oil and gas drilling Tuesday, despite a new round of attacks from GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and the third straight day of protest speeches on the House floor."

(They're having so much fun, they might just keep it going up through the Democratic National Convention.)

New pushback from the DNC, on (what else?) energy. Gov. Martin O'Malley, D-Md., on Wednesday kicks off a new "presidential" campaign for the party: Exxon-McCain '08. They've got a check for seed money, yard signs,, bumper stickers, and buttons.

Says RNC spokesman Alex Conant: "The $2.8 billion that Obama gave the oil companies in the '05 energy bill would have bought a lot of tire gauges."

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is set to make good on her pledge to campaign for Obama -- starting Friday, when Obama steps off the continent. "While Clinton and Obama remain locked in negotiations over exactly what her future role will be, she'll hop a plane for South Florida and Nevada to stump solo for the first time for her former foe," Michael McAuliff writes in the New York Daily News.

Her backers are not falling into line quite as quickly: "Hillary Clinton supporters will march through Denver during the Democratic National Convention to show appreciation for the New York senator's historic primary run and urge the party to place her name in nomination," Sara Burnett reports in the Rocky Mountain News. "The city issued a permit Tuesday to Colorado Women Count/Women Vote for a parade on Aug. 26 -- the 88th anniversary of women's suffrage and the date Clinton is rumored to be speaking at the DNC."

And Clinton bashes Bush in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: "There appears to be no crisis, tragedy or disaster immune from exploitation under the Bush administration. The examples of the waste, fraud and abuse are legion -- from KBR performing shoddy electrical work in Iraq that has resulted in the electrocution of our military personnel according to Pentagon and Congressional investigators, to the firing of an Army official who dared to refuse a $1 billion payout for questionable charges to the same company."

McCain has a new role in mind for his wife: "I was looking at the Sturgis schedule, and noticed that you had a beauty pageant, so I encouraged Cindy to compete," McCain told the big motorcycle rally in South Dakota late Tuesday, per ABC's Gregory Wallace and Sara Just. "I told her [that] with a little luck, she could be the only woman to serve as both the First Lady and Miss Buffalo Chip."

For the uninitiated: "The beauty contest is held every night, according to reports. An ESPN columnist described it as 'essentially a topless beauty pageant. And occasionally bottomless, too,' " per the New York Post's Maggie Haberman.

Not everyone liked the joke: "Maybe he figures that the frat-boy routine worked for George Bush, so he's trying to same thing, but I'm not sure that this is going to play very well with the audience that he's courting," said National Organization for Women President Kim Gandy.

And don't forget Paris (did you think she could sit this one out?): "Hey America, I'm Paris Hilton and I'm a celebrity too. Only I'm not from the olden days and I'm not promising change like that other guy. I'm just hot," Ms. Hilton says in a new Web video, per ABC's Tahman Bradley. "But then that wrinkly white-haired guy used me in his campaign ad, which I guess means that I'm running for president."

She even has some ideas: "We can do limited off-shore drilling -- with strict environmental oversight -- while creating tax incentives to get Detroit making hybrid and electric cars. That way the offshore drilling carries us until the new technologies kick in, which will then create new jobs and energy independence. Energy crisis solved."

"I'll see you at the debate, bitches," she adds.

Your debate lineup (until or unless Paris commits): "The first debate, from University of Mississippi, focusing on domestic policy will be moderated by Jim Lehrer, Executive Editor and Anchor, The NewsHour, PBS.  Moderating the Vice-Presidential Debate on October 2 will be Lehrer's PBS colleague Gwen Ifill.  The second presidential debate follows on October 7 from Belmont University, Nashville, TN with NBC's Tom Brokaw moderating a town hall forum.  Lastly, Bob Schieffer will moderate the final debate on October 15, focusing on foreign policy from Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY."


On Wednesday: "veepstakes fever is set to run high," per ABC's Teddy Davis and Gregory Wallace. Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., appears with Sen. Obama; Gov. Tim Kaine, D-Va., will be alongside Michelle Obama; and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, R-Minn., delivers a speech in Washington about "Sam's Club Republicans."

"Officially, Barack Obama will deliver an energy-policy speech Wednesday to citizens in Elkhart, Ind.," Christopher Cooper and Douglas Belkin write in The Wall Street Journal. "But the focus of the political chattering class will be on the man sitting shotgun at the event: Evan Bayh. . . . Understated in demeanor and rarely demonstrating a passion for showboat political issues, Sen. Bayh may lack flash. But he sits on the powerful Senate armed-services and intelligence committees, enjoys an easy rapport with Midwestern crossover conservatives and displays a fund-raising knack extending beyond his home constituency."

But Bayh killed the drama: "I'm absolutely confident there will be no announcement tomorrow," he told the Indianapolis Star's Mary Beth Schneider. "I guess the best way to put it is, if there's an announcement tomorrow, I'd be as surprised as anybody else." On whether he'll get the offer: "I have no idea. You'd have to ask him." (Like he'd answer!)

On the event with Kaine: "Michelle Obama will act as her husband's proxy for a sit-down with military spouses in Norfolk on Wednesday, then spend an evening raising money with a potential Obama running mate," per the AP preview. "Michelle Obama's presence as early as August illustrates the Democrats' resolve to contest Virginia, even though it hasn't backed a Democrat for president in 44 years."

"If Kaine ends up as Barack Obama's running mate, the senator from Illinois would find himself with someone who shares several of his attributes," The Hill's Walter Alarkon writes. "But Kaine, a governor for nearly three years, has yet to master the legislature, clashing with Virginia Republicans whom Democrats blame for blocking his agenda."

Pawlenty speaks at 1 pm ET at the National Press Club. On Tuesday, he was still waving a tire gauge: "I don't think he has a compass when it comes to this issue. He's obviously thrashing about to catch up to the idea of the week," he said on an RNC conference call, per ABC's Imtiyaz Delawala.

Carly Fiorina grabs a Los Angeles Times profile: "Fiorina, 53, is doing yeoman's service for the campaign in exchange for the chance to refashion her image as a political contender. She takes part in daily strategy sessions, advises McCain on the economy and acts as his surrogate in battleground states and with women," Michelle Quinn writes.

"Her poise and freshness have been offset at times by her inexperience and her contentious tenure at HP, during which she cut more than 20,000 jobs and the venerable technology company's stock fell by nearly half. Democrats say that Fiorina is a ripe target, viewed as an elitist who threw the company into turmoil before walking away with $21 million in severance and other payments."

Former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., says he's no Dick Cheney: "Just because we're Republican doesn't mean we see all issues the same way and suggesting we're all like Dick Cheney or all like George Bush is a nice effort on their part, but I frankly don't think it will fly," Romney said on CNN.

The Washington Post's Balz speaks the truth on the veepstakes: Nobody knows anything. "This summer parlor game will soon come to an end, after two final media frenzies as the selections near. Meanwhile, the speculation is entertaining for sure and sometimes accurate. But the process is anything but transparent and that too is worth keeping in mind."

The Sked:

Obama appears with Bayh in Elkhart, Ind., for a 9:15 am ET event on energy policy.

(How Republican is Elkhart? "The idea that presidential candidates are in Elkhart is too much to wrap your head around," said Robert Dion, a political science professor at the University of Evansville.)

Obama ends the day with a fundraiser in Minneapolis.

Michelle Obama is in Norfolk, Va., for a midday event with military families, then a fundraiser with Kaine.

McCain will be in Ohio, after visiting with the Marshall University football team.

President Bush is in South Korea, and will deliver sharp words for the regime in Myanmar while in Thailand on Wednesday.

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

Also in the news:

Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla goes through tomorrow's legal fights today: "Similar fights over voter qualifications will be waged this year, particularly in Southern states, as Democrat Barack Obama's drive to register hundreds of thousands of new black voters clashes with Republican suspicions that get-out-the-vote efforts recruit people who aren't eligible to cast ballots. . . . Republicans reject the notion that monitoring voter qualifications amounts to intimidation, saying election fraud is a concern when waves of new registrations pour in."

Stay in line in St. Paul: "How much chemical irritant does it take to put on a Republican National Convention? St. Paul hopes $1.9 million worth will do it," Chris Havens writes in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "Police officials on Tuesday shared details on how they intend to spend a $50 million security grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. Other items such as bicycles, cell phones and officer training are on the wish list."

Georgia Senate primary: "Jim Martin defeated Vernon Jones for the Democratic Party's nomination for the U.S. Senate on Tuesday night," Jim Tharpe and Aaron Gould Sheinin report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "With 99 percent of the precincts reporting Jones was trailing Martin by nearly 20 percentage points in their runoff battle."

In a watched House race in Michigan: "Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, the mother of Detroit's mayor, overcame a City Hall scandal involving her son to narrowly defeat two challengers early Wednesday in a Democratic primary," per the Detroit Free Press.

The Kicker:

"I want America to know I'm like, totally ready to lead." -- Paris Hilton.

"I mean, she's ahead of me in this news show. What's the deal here?" -- Former Vice President Dan Quayle, on CBS' "Early Show," suggesting Paris Hilton as a potential McCain running mate.

"Candidates tend to tell two lies. . . . One: 'I love campaigning.' There's something the matter with you if you like political campaigning for yourself. The other is, 'We ran against each other but we're good friends.' " -- Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., explaining how tension is dissipating, slowly, between Obama and Clinton supporters.

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