The Note: Base Instincts

Everyone wants their convention to be a party that showcases one big happy family -- but which side looks ready to nab most-likely-to-be-dysfunctional honors?

(Wait before you answer that, at least until the running mates are chosen.)

As we still wait for that text message (still no leaks -- remarkable), the best-laid plans of both campaigns threaten to overshadow their big weeks. Two candidates who define themselves by reaching into the middle are seeing trouble spots emerge inside their bases.

Sen. John McCain has loaded his convention lineup with a fantasy team of "pro-choice" all-stars: Rudy and Arnold and Joe Lieberman -- not your father's GOP (unless your father is George H.W. Bush, we suppose). (What's a delegate to think when a platform is a handy scorecard chronicling featured speakers' disagreements with dogma?)

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Sen. Barack Obama has seen his convention stuffed with enough Clinton drama to provide a tasty Denver buffet. (And those persistent "dream" ticket rumors -- if there's no there there, how does it bode for catharsis?)

Then there's the concerns of a suddenly very worried Democratic Party. As for why: It's an identical Obama 45, McCain 42 spread in the new Wall Street Journal/NBC and New York Times/CBS polls.

"Sen. John McCain has all but closed the gap with Sen. Barack Obama, underscoring how international crises -- and some well-placed negative ads -- have boosted the prospects of the Republican presidential candidate," Laura Meckler writes in The Wall Street Journal.

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Clinton alert: "Only half of those who voted for Sen. Clinton in the primaries say they are now supporting Sen. Obama. One in five is supporting Sen. McCain."

Can a convention do all this? "Slim majorities said neither candidate had made clear what he would do as president, suggesting that both need to use their conventions to provide voters with a better sense of their plans for addressing the deteriorating economy, high energy prices, access to health care and national security," Michael Cooper and Dalia Sussman write in The New York Times.

This is a feat: "Nearly half of those surveyed said that they expected [McCain] to continue the Bush administration's policies if he were elected president. But voters, by a wide margin, view Mr. McCain as better prepared to be president than Mr. Obama, and as more likely to be an effective commander in chief."

Feel the angst growing? "It's not panic time -- yet -- but some Democrats watching Barack Obama say his campaign should have gotten a wake-up call this week, not only from his appearance alongside John McCain at the Saddleback Church but from a major poll suggesting he no longer leads his GOP opponent," Carla Marinucci writes in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Obama wants Democrats to calm down a bit: "I don't think that's just about me. I think they are congenitally nervous because we lost a bunch of presidential elections where people felt that we should have won," Obama, D-Ill., tells Time's Karen Tumulty and David Von Drehle.

Tea-leaf alert: Obama on what his running mate selection will say about him: "That I think through big decisions. I get a lot of input from a lot of people, and that ultimately, I try to surround myself with people who are about getting the job done, and who are not about ego, self-aggrandizement, getting their names in the press, but our focus on what's best for the American people. I think people will see that I'm not afraid to have folks around me who complement my strengths and who are independent."

(Sounds more like Bayh than Biden or Kaine . . . Tumulty guesses Bayh "or a surprise whose name has not been circulating on the pundits' short lists.")

As for McCain, his flirtations with a running mate who supports abortion rights may be a clever ploy -- a play to the middle, a bridge to former Clinton supporters, an elixir for the pick he's really planning.

But he's already dangerously close to losing control of the message. Talk radio is dialed in, and McCain got two questions on the subject at a town-hall meeting Wednesday in New Mexico -- and he's still leaving the running-mate door (publicly) open to a candidate who supports abortion rights.

It's just as well McCain isn't bothering with the platform, when so many top speakers disagree with its core tenets.

"The speaker lineup was aimed at attracting moderates and independents into McCain's camp, but it seemed destined to add fuel to the fight already smoldering over abortion rights," Maeve Reston and Bob Drogin write in the Los Angeles Times. "McCain has since been trying to shore up his conservative credentials -- insisting at a Saturday forum at Saddleback Church in Orange County that he would be a 'pro-life president' and that a McCain presidency 'will have pro-life policies.' "

There are few politicians with the star power of former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., and having him as keynoter reinforces key themes for McCain. But it may also speak too loudly to other themes.

McCain's first criterion would be selecting a person "who could immediately be president of the United States," Giuliani told reporters Wednesday, per The Washington Post's Robert Barnes. He added: "If that person happens to be, among other things, pro-choice, the party will support that."

Maybe not so much. Said Laura Ingraham: "From the conservative perspective we are literally imploring you to not turn your back on your great pro-life record over decades."

Then there's Lieberman, I-Conn. -- still the likeliest (if it's even the least bit likely) pro-choicer to join McCain on the ticket. (And kudos on the stagecraft that has him speaking the same night as President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.)

"The speaking role is the result of the four-term Connecticut senator's loyalty to Republican presidential candidate John McCain," McClatchy's David Lightman writes. "The senators bonded in the 1990s as they tried to build bipartisan coalitions on foreign policy, campaign finance changes and environmental issues. Their alliance has strengthened in recent years over their support of the Iraq war."

"News of Lieberman's turn in the GOP spotlight was only the latest step on a path that has taken him from his debut 38 years ago as a liberal Democrat in New Haven to the biggest stage in Republican politics," Mark Pazniokas writes for the Hartford Courant.

(And does this mark the beginning of the end of Lieberman's association with the Democratic caucus? Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he'll address the Lieberman situation after the election -- when, almost certainly, Democrats won't need his vote like they do right now. Here's guessing stalwart Democrats won't like the idea of welcoming back a man who spoke at the Republican National Convention -- not that he'll need the job anymore if McCain wins.)

It's probably not possible for the Netroots to hate him any more than they already do: "Yesterday, Democratic anger escalated after the GOP announced that Lieberman will deliver a major address to its convention," Michael Kranish writes for The Boston Globe. "At the 'Lieberman Must Go' website, 52,000 people have signed a petition seeking his ouster from the Democratic caucus, and many leave comments that call him a turncoat -- or worse."

Gail Collins nails the weirdness, in her New York Times column: "Talk about bipartisanship! . . . . When you have a 71-year-old presidential candidate, it's particularly important that voters be confident that he's backed up by an experienced and qualified vice president prepared to step in and do the exact opposite about everything except Iraq."

She continues: "Lieberman is certainly capable of dumping everything he has ever believed in and assuring the anti-choice, anti-union, anti-government folk that he is on their team. But then the magic fades and all you've got is a conservative Republican who likes the environment teamed with a guy who will do anything to move up. If that's all you're looking for, you might as well take Mitt Romney."

Do you really want to provoke the right like this? If conservatives bolt because Lieberman is on the ticket, "They would be the ones morally responsible for electing a pro-choice president," Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a "pro-life" Lieberman fan, tells the New York Sun's Russell Berman.

What does McCain want? National Review's Byron York: "Talked to more people today who are knowledgeable, in one way or another, about the McCain camp. I run past them what I heard yesterday, that is, if McCain knew ahead of time that he was going to win, then he would definitely pick Lieberman or Ridge as vice president. People pretty much agree."

McCain is letting the party activists have their way with the platform -- his previous statements on the subject notwithstanding. "John McCain's campaign signaled on Wednesday that the Arizona senator is backing away from his previously stated goal of changing the GOP's platform on abortion," ABC's Teddy Davis and Rigel Anderson report. "McCain's plan to take a hands-off approach with the abortion platform stands in stark contrast with the position he took during his first presidential run."

New folks to cheer for: "With John McCain set to accept his party's presidential nomination, the Republican National Convention lineup that will precede him features a panoply of new faces in the Grand Old Party," Jason Hoppin writes in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "Bobby Jindal, the first-term Louisiana governor who is the son of Indian immigrants, will have a prominent speaking role. So will Michael Steele, current head of GOPAC and the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, who is black. As will Gov. Sarah Palin, the popular first-ever woman to lead the state of Alaska."

Also helping with the base: The Washington Times has a loooong take on McCain and Iraq -- including details of a previously undisclosed letter he wrote to President Bush calling for a "surge" in December 2006.

"Sen. John McCain, who watched from a prison camp as America failed to deploy the overwhelming force necessary to win the Vietnam War, seized the moment after Republicans lost Congress in 2006 to push President Bush not to make the same mistake," per the Times report. Mr. McCain sent a private letter to Mr. Bush on Dec. 12, 2006, that challenged the president to show the "will" to win the Iraq war by deploying 20,000 troops into Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle to beat back a growing insurgency."

Could McCain write a better narrative? "The next three years [starting in late 2003] would set David against Goliath, the 5-foot-7-inch, 165-pound senator from Arizona against the heavyweights in the White House and the Pentagon, the very men and women who had shaped the strategy that was failing. He got little help from his Senate colleagues."

Wouldn't you want this guy at the helm, too? "Steve Schmidt has made a career out of not being a creature of Washington. If the 2008 campaign were an action film, he would play the tough-talking Steven Seagal character, an idiosyncratic hero who is duty-bound to rescue the desperate from burning buildings (which Schmidt literally did last Christmas), but who longs to retreat into his easygoing world of family and suburbia," Lois Roman writes in The Washington Post.

Says Karl Rove: "Since the changes, things are happening. . . . A guy who'd been in and out of the campaign for months told me he quickly saw a new crispness and order to the operation. He knew it when he walked in one day and there was a large calendar with daily message points plotted for several weeks -- a sign of strategic thinking that hadn't been so evident before."

"In his speech, Obama really has one task: he has to make himself part of the great American story, so as to convince the average voter that he's 'one of us,' " Steven Stark writes in the Boston Phoenix. "So far, Obama has failed to construct much of a narrative to tie himself to the working-class voters who will decide the election."

Obama would also much rather save the silly drama for another day: He probably has more to accomplish at his convention -- and what better place to start than with the Clintons? (Unless -- as is increasingly the rumor among those who don't know but might hear -- it's going to be her on the ticket after all . . . )

The latest Denver strategy: "The plan now calls for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to release her delegates next Wednesday afternoon at 1 p.m.," Lynn Sweet writes for the Chicago Sun-Times. "That's the day after her keynote address before the Democratic National Convention. That means delegates can do what they want during the Thursday roll call. Clinton herself will cast her superdelegate vote for Obama."

The Clinton folks are playing it right by Obama (but how weird is it for vote-counters for a rival candidate to be roaming the convention floor?): "In an unusual move, Hillary Clinton's staff is creating a 40-member 'whip team' at the Denver Democratic convention to ensure that her supporters don't engage in embarrassing anti-Obama demonstrations during the floor vote on her nomination," Politico's Glenn Thrush reports.

Says one planner: "If people get down there on the floor and want to start blowing kazoos and making a scene we want to make sure we've got people who stand in front of them with Obama signs."

The art of negotiation: "Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign will call next week for the creation of a commission to revise the rules for selecting a presidential nominee in 2012, with a goal of reducing the power of superdelegates, whose role became a major point of contention during the long battle for the Democratic nomination between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton," Dan Balz writes for The Washington Post. "The commission also will be urged to redraw the nominating calendar for 2012 to avoid starting the primaries and caucuses so early, and also to look specifically at ensuring more uniform rules and standards for those caucuses."

Clinton heads to Florida for Obama on Thursday.

Obama's convention challenge is more than just avoiding being overshadowed: "Is there really a 'there' there?" Karl Rove writes in his Wall Street Journal column, outlining the stakes for Obama. "Besides withdrawing from Iraq, it's not clear what issues are really important to him. Does he do his homework or is he intellectually lazy? Is there an issue on which he would do the unpopular thing or break with party orthodoxy? Is his candidacy about important answers or simply about us being the 'change we've been waiting for'? Substance will help diminish concerns about his heft and fitness for the job."

It's day two of Obama's Virginia tour -- and can you stomach one more day of veepstakes madness? (The One's No. 2 still hasn't been asked/told, per ABC's Jake Tapper.)

It's not clear voters can: "Disappointing some who hoped he would announce his vice-presidential running mate, the Illinois Democrat pushed his economic agenda as good medicine for anemic communities stricken by plant closings," Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos write in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

It's not clear that Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., can: "I had a successful dump," Biden told the assembled press outside his home on Wednesday, per ABC's Z. Byron Wolf (summing up in five easy words why the press corps is secretly rooting for an Obama-Biden ticket). "I dropped everything at the dump. It all worked out and by the way I got a second load, guys, coming and if anyone wants to help me unload let me know . . ." (No takers.)

The AP's Nedra Pickler sees Biden as the latest frontrunner: "Sen. Joe Biden's emergence at the center of speculation about who will be Barack Obama's running mate may say more about Obama's challenges in the presidential race than it does about the final selection," she writes. "Obama is keeping his decision quiet, but his staff in Chicago and party activists are buzzing about Biden, in large part because he can address two of Obama's biggest weaknesses -- his lack of experience, especially on world affairs, and his reluctance to attack his opponent."

It's not clear Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., can take much more, either: "This afternoon, Bayh's week of fatherhood fun hit a roadblock . . . or rather, created one," ABC's Matt Jaffe reports. "A large black gym bag got stuck on the door of a car driven by a friend of Bayh's as it pulled out of his garage. The driver then drove about a hundred yards up the street, with the bag dragging along behind the car." (Bag saved by intrepid reporter, for the record.)

But absolutely, positively, definitely no trip to Indiana on Saturday, for whatever that means (nothing): "The Obama campaign offered a rare, concrete piece of information about the vice presidential process on Wednesday, declaring that Sen. Barack Obama is not -- repeat not -- going to Indiana on Saturday," The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut writes. "A web site in Tennessee,, had reported that he would make such a trip, citing sources in Denver."

The veepstakes is everywhere: "Obama and his top aides stayed mum on the vice-presidential pick even as the candidate made plans to spend today campaigning with Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, an early supporter who has climbed to the top of Obama's short list," Geoff Earle writes in the New York Post.

With McCain's break starting, Obama has the field to himself for a little while. "As Democrats await the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee's choice of a running mate, Obama tried to keep the focus on his Republican rival as he campaigned through the rural South," Kathy Kiely writes in USA Today.

Obama is the only one not obsessed with who he's picking: "While the world's collective consciousness is focused on Obama's vice presidential pick, the Illinois senator seems more focused on his White House rival -- taking a sharper tone since returning from a Hawaiian vacation last week," ABC's Jake Tapper reports.

The money rundown, per the AP's Jim Kuhnhenn: "After tightening his expenditures in June, Barack Obama spent far more freely in July, cutting into his cash reserves. . . The Illinois Democrat raised more than $50 million in July, a slight dip from the previous month, according to his monthly financial report, filed around midnight Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission. He spent about $55 million, with three-fifths of that devoted to media costs. McCain had his best fundraising month yet, collecting more than $26 million. He, too, spent heavily -- a total of $32 million, of which two-thirds was on advertising."

As for Hillary: "Hillary Clinton whittled down her presidential campaign debt by $1.3 million in July, and presumptive nominee Barack Obama chipped in to help," Dan Morain writes in the Los Angeles Times.

Obama deals in Ralph Reed: "A newly aggressive Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is set to release a new TV ad in Georgia tomorrow, drawing a connection between Republican John McCain's decision not to call Ralph Reed before a Senate panel — and Reed's involvement in an Atlanta fund-raiser for McCain this week," per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "The ad will run only in Atlanta, beginning Thursday."

It's "part of the Obama campaign's swing-state-targeted negative TV ad campaign," Tapper writes.

Reed talks about his support for McCain with's Dan Gilgoff: "There are a lot of people who have talked to pro-life talk. John and Cindy have walked it."

And this on organizing efforts among religious voters (which he says will never match Bush-Cheney '04): "The McCain does need to do more to organize social conservatives in the battleground states, but I understand those [efforts] are underway, and I think they will get more muscular in the weeks to come. . . . Obama is running the most aggressive outreach to evangelical voters for a Democratic presidential nominee since Jimmy Carter in 1976. But it is not yielding much fruit at all."

McCain talks lobbyists with Politico's Mike Allen and Jonathan Martin -- calling them "birds of pray" who exploit a "corrupt system" and saying his White House staffers won't be permitted to return to lobbying (how does one enforce that?).

"I would not allow anyone who worked for my administration to go back to lobbying," McCain said. "They would have to make that pledge."

The DNC had a brief response video (with cool ca-ching sound effects) posted within three hours.

And does McCain really not know how many houses he owns? Umm -- yes. "I define rich in other ways besides income," McCain said.

The Sked:

Obama will hold a town hall meeting on the economy at John Tyler Community College in Chester, Virginia at 10:30 am ET. From Obama spokesman Bill Burton: "Governor Tim Kaine will join him, and they will both be introduced by Kathy Crews- Canovski, a single mother of two and social worker for the American Heart Association."

Then it's a town-hall meeting on the economy in Chesapeake, Va.

Adversary-turned-surrogate Hillary Clinton will hit the campaign trail for Obama in Florida. She will spend the morning in Orange County, meeting with officials from the Sheet Metal Workers International Association. Then it's Florida Atlantic University for a 1:30 pm ET Obama rally, and later an event with seniors in Broward County.

McCain spends some down time in Arizona.

President Bush is back on the ranch in Crawford, Texas.   Get the full political schedule in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

Also in the news:

Remember health care? The Chicago Tribune's Jill Zuckman does. "In the daily rat-a-tat-tat between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, the silence is deafening. It was once the "it" topic of public policy that helped propel the Clintons into office, sparked open warfare among special interests, and then toppled a Democratic Congress."

The New Republic's Noam Scheiber looks at the McCain partnership that could be the most important in his rise: his joining of the Hensley clan. "At the climax of the wedding ceremony, with everyone looking on, the pastor prepared to present the new couple: 'I now pronounce you Mr. and Mrs. . . .' -- at which point there was an awkward pause. 'He stopped, he obviously didn't remember,' recalls David Frazer, who was then Jim Hensley's corporate lawyer. Finally, mercifully, someone from the wedding party interjected: 'John McCain.' "

"As Cindy McCain faithfully shadows her husband in his quest for the presidency, it's hard to imagine that she was once the senior member of their partnership," Scheiber writes. "But the reality behind this political creation myth is far more complex. McCain was a relative nobody when he married Cindy Hensley -- a middle-aged divorcé working a mid-level job in a far-off bureaucracy."

A much different kind of relationship, here: "Le Van Lua, the first North Vietnamese that Lieutenant Commander John McCain encountered in 1967, says he greeted the American aviator with the biggest kitchen knife he could find. He'd like to welcome McCain back as president of the United States," Bloomberg's Hans Nicholas writes. "He isn't alone. Former prisoner of war McCain has some unlikely supporters in Vietnam, a country he bombed 23 times. Like Le, many Vietnamese are cheering for the self-confessed 'air pirate,' absolving McCain-the-bomber and embracing the senator who pushed to normalize diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995."

This doesn't play well: "Are Barack Obama's supporters planning a fundraiser on Sept. 11?" reports Salon's Alex Koppelman. "An e-mail making the rounds among Democratic finance types and obtained by Salon makes it seem that way. 'Come get your photo w Warren Buffett,' the subject line reads. The invitation itself goes on to say: 'What does it say about Obama that the best-respected businessman in the world keeps doing fundraisers for him? Especially when, up until this cycle, he has steered clear of the political nitty-gritty. Can you join Warren for a business roundtable discussion in Washington on Thursday, September 11?' "

A kinder, gentler way to spend your time under arrest: "Work crews are covering the makeshift holding pens that could house protesters who run afoul of the law at next week's Democratic National Convention with chain-link fence today," Tom McGhee writes in The Denver Post. "City officials had topped the holding areas with razor wire to keep those arrested from climbing out but reconsidered because of community concerns, said Denver County Undersheriff Bill Lovinger."

A greener shade of red, white, and blue: "From an eco-friendly convention stage complete with biodegradable balloons and signage, plans for 900-plus Democratic volunteers stationed at every Pepsi Center trash can to sort recyclable refuse, and a fleet of delegate cars powered by clean fuel converted from Coors beer -- the Democrat's green will be trying to get your attention in Technicolor," ABC's Nitya Venkataraman reports.

He didn't pay his bills to the "DC madam" this way, did he? "Sen. David Vitter, R-La., should be denied permission to use campaign money to pay more than $160,000 in legal fees related to his involvement with a Washington escort service, according to an advisory opinion released Wednesday by lawyers for the Federal Election Commission," Bruce Alpert writes in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Stephanie Tubbs Jones, 1949-2008

The political world lost a towering and passionate figure: "Stephanie Tubbs Jones came to Congress nearly 10 years ago as a little-known Democrat from Cleveland who had to fill the big shoes of a near-legend, Louis Stokes," Stephen Koff and Sabrina Eaton write for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "But when news of her fatal brain aneurysm spread from Ohio to the nation's capital Wednesday, Tubbs Jones' reputation was well-established: tough, exuberant, passionate, partisan, a woman from modest means who rose to national prominence."

The Kicker:

"John, how long did it take you to think of that question?" -- Barack Obama, to the Chicago Tribune's John McCormick, who asked Obama during a shopping trip if he was still "shopping" for a vice president.

"I think -- I'll have my staff get to you." -- John McCain, asked by Politico how many houses he owns.

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