Dayton Game: McCain Retakes Spotlight After Obama's Big Night

Now that we know Sen. Barack Obama is going to fight for this thing, we're about to see why he'll need to.

No rest for the weary leaving Denver for St. Paul: It was Obama's night on Thursday, but as the confetti wafts down the mountain, Friday is Sen. John McCain's day -- since he'll have someone to share it with, at last.

The birthday boy puts his veep out at a joint rally in Dayton, Ohio -- and, wow, is it a surprise: Gov. Sarah Palin, the lifelong NRA gun backer, abortion rights opposing, first term leader of the Last Frontier, is McCain's pick.

The process-of-elimination/obfuscation games were in full force: Gov. Tim Pawlenty, R-Minn., called it a "fair assumption" that he wasn't it, since he isn't going to Dayton on Friday: "It was an honor to be considered," he told a local radio station.

He got the formal call from McCain Friday morning -- told he was not going to be the selection, per ABC's Jan Crawford Greenburg.

Fox News' Carl Cameron reports that former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., is in Boston Friday and won't be in Dayton -- and isn't the pick. ABC's George Stephanopoulos confirms that Romney is not in Ohio on Friday -- and a source tells Jan Crawford Greenburg that Romney hasn't been chosen.

No Huckster, either: "There are reports that I'm on my way to Dayton tonight. Not true," former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., wrote late Thursday in a message to supporters. "Wasn't invited to be there and any reports that I'm going to be there are a big surprise to me. I have never been contacted by the McCain campaign at any point about the VP slot."

Conservatives can breathe a sigh of relief -- McCain didn't counter a regular Joe with a regular Joe: "Says a GOP operative who informally advises the campaign: 'All I can tell you is this: if Lieberman is picked, the dome of the convention hall will blow off. There will be a mushroom cloud,' " Time's Jay Carney reports.

"Picking Mr. Lieberman, 66, would roil the Republican base and risk a revolt by conservatives at next week's convention, but it would mark a distinct shift to the political center," Russell Berman writes in the New York Sun. "Republicans last night also left the door open for a surprise pick, including a Texas senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison, or a former chief executive of eBay, Meg Whitman."

Word didn't leak overnight, and that gave Obama a few extra hours in the limelight -- and that's all he's going to get. (Was all the speculation that the name might emerge enough to distract from Obama's message just enough?)

Thursday -- and the week leading up to it -- belonged to Obama: His convention had a storyline, and Democrats told it through the end. His feud with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton a seemingly distant memory, he took the fight to McCain -- and offered himself up as a vehicle for change that means something.

He won't get another chance like this to define himself, and this was just what Denver ordered: "Barack Obama's speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday night was what many nervous Democrats were hoping for: a forceful challenge to John McCain and the Republicans, and a restatement of the message to change Washington and the nation that propelled him to the nomination," Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post.

"Criticism of McCain was the thread woven throughout the speech," Balz continues. "For the past month, Obama has been under attack from his rival and the Republicans. On Thursday night, in perhaps the most important speech of his political career, he answered back."

It was not the speech he gave in 2004, but neither is Obama the same politician he was then.

(And those waves of chants -- "U-S-A, U-S-A"-- and then some Brooks & Dunn to close out the evening -- anyone else have flashbacks of Bush-Cheney '04?)

"Good, great or something else, Senator Barack Obama's acceptance speech Thursday night unquestionably confronted two of his greatest challenges," Patrick Healy writes in The New York Times. "Mr. Obama showed real fire, and directed memorable fire at his opponent, even on Mr. McCain's signature issue, national security. . . . Mr. Obama's purpose, obviously, was to open a direct channel between his candidacy and the personal lives of Americans, rather than open up about himself."

If he makes this pairing, how does he lose? If he doesn't, how does he win? "The first half, one suspects, was the speech that Obama felt he had to give: a traditional partisan appeal that, for all his sonorous cadences, read like it could have been stitched together randomly from speeches delivered on any given day from rank-and-file Democrats on the floor of the House of Representatives," Politico's John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei write.

"The second half sounded like the speech Obama wanted to give: a plea for a new brand of politics, one in which politicians don't attack each other's motives or character, and Washington calls a ceasefire in such drearily familiar fights as abortion and gun control."

The "temple" looked more silly than haughty, and Obama remained mostly earthbound.

"The new Obama, unveiled before about 84,000 cheering supporters in a football stadium, is more combative than the old Obama -- and more sharply focused on the economic problems of the nation's working class," Doyle McManus writes in the Los Angeles Times. "The centerpiece of his acceptance speech was a sharp-edged, almost populist, economic message, aimed directly at the middle-income voters who have been reluctant to sign up for his crusade."

"In a setting that was both portentous and a little pretentious, Senator Barack Obama offered an acceptance speech last night that was grounded and targeted," Peter Canellos writes in The Boston Globe. "Obama left little unsaid last night, and set the tone for a rugged general-election campaign to come."

"He offered searing and far-reaching attacks on his presumptive Republican opponent, repeatedly portraying him as the face of the old way of politics and failed Republican policies," Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times. "He emphasized what he described as concrete steps he would take to address the anxieties of working-class Americans, promising tax cuts for the middle class and pledging to wean the country from dependence on Middle East oil within 10 years to address high fuel prices."

The "work" in workmanlike: "In substantive terms, Sen. Obama presented some long-standing and fairly conventional Democratic economic proposals, packaged as both more middle-class friendly and forward-looking than those offered by Republicans. He reiterated his call for a middle-class tax cut and an end to capital-gains taxes for small businesses and promised anew to spend $150 billion over the next decade to help develop alternative fuels," Gerald F. Seib and Christopher Cooper write in The Wall Street Journal.

"Tonight he didn't just ride the wave of change, he defined the change that the Democrats would bring, that he would bring as president," ABC's George Stephanopoulos said on "Nightline" Thursday. "He came out hard, he came out tough against John McCain on the economy and on foreign policy."

An A+ from Mark Halperin of Time and ABC News: "He is not a perfect candidate, but once again proved that he can, in the face of daunting expectations, deliver a simply breathtaking speech at an absolutely pivotal moment."

He said what he had to say: "To Sen. John McCain, the message was stark: He will meet his challenges on McCain's own terms," per ABC News. "To the country, his challenge was trickier: Accept this non-traditional candidate and channel your hopes into him. He offered a long list of policy proposals designed to appeal to the broad middle, and offered his own biography to answer the caricature being peddled by the McCain campaign."

"The speech rode a line between policy and personal revelation, between high-flown oratory and elbow-grease appeals to the working class voters who have stubbornly eluded him throughout the campaign," the Chicago Tribune's Jim Tankersley reports. "He slapped at rival John McCain even as he called for an end to Washington's partisan politics, including appeals for common ground on contentious issues: abortion, gay rights, gun control and immigration. And he addressed nearly every major criticism of himself and his campaign head-on."

He knew what he had to say: "Obama's tone was populist. The words he repeated most often included 'America and American' (40 times), 'you' and 'your' (58 times), 'our' (58 times) and 'promise' (31 times). And 'McCain,' repeated 21 times," USA Today's Susan Page writes.

"Voters do not cast ballots just to break historical barriers, and some might be reluctant to do so," writes columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. "Ultimately, Obama will stand or fall on his ability to rekindle the sense of possibility and aspiration that Hubert Humphrey spoke for 60 years ago and that has, all along, been Obama's central promise."

And what a setting: "The night sky brought an air of majesty to replace the summery festival feel of the late afternoon. While Mr. Obama spoke, people stopped texting and twittering to hear his words," Mark Leibovich writes in The New York Times.

Sayeth Oprah: "I've never experienced anything like that. . . . I think it's the most powerful thing I've ever experienced."

Spinning the expectations: "I wasn't looking for a huge bounce," Obama chief strategist David Axelrod tells Bloomberg TV. "I don't think there's a lot of play in this electorate." Key line: "Axelrod said the former president would be campaigning for Obama, though he wouldn't say whether they would campaign together."

(Was this the bump? Per the New York Post write-up: "Gallup released a survey yesterday showing Obama on top of McCain by 48 percent to 42 percent, based on interviews with voters during the first three days of the convention.")

Defining the meaning for the GOP: "The speech itself lacked lift but had heft. It wasn't precisely long on hope, but I think it showed audacity. In fact, by the end of the speech I thought it was quite a gamble," Peggy Noonan writes in her Wall Street Journal column.

"I have a feeling this speech will be like the Europe trip. It will take time for people to let it sink in, and decide what they think," she writes. "And I'll tell you, Mr. Obama left a lot of space for Mr. McCain to play the happy warrior next week. He left the Republicans a big opportunity to wield against him, in contrast, humor, and wit, and even something approximating joy."

Fodder from a former president (not this one, this time): "Former president Jimmy Carter called Republican presidential candidate John McCain a 'distinguished naval officer,' but he said the Arizona senator has been 'milking every possible drop of advantage' from his time served as a prisoner of war in Vietnam," per USA Today's Alan Gomez.

What does he get for a successful convention? A savvy bit of timing means -- probably not that much.

"The Republicans are hoping to change the tenor of the debate after a week focused on Democratic unity," Laura Meckler and Elizabeth Holmes write in The Wall Street Journal. "In the meantime, Democrats are aiming to draw attention to Sen. McCain's age by 'celebrating' his 72nd birthday. There will be parties on Friday and Saturday in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Local officials plan to deliver birthday cakes to the events, complete with 72 candles and lettering that reads 'Another Year of More of the Same.' "

(Will Sen. Harry Reid help him blow out the candles?).

"When John McCain rolls into Dayton, Ohio, Friday to rally with his newly minted running mate, local Democratic activists will be on hand to wish him a happy birthday -- a happy 72d birthday," Todd Gillman writes for The Dallas Morning News.

Surely it's one of the big three left standing? And what if the guessing game was the game all along?

"The mere suggestion that the name of the nominee might leak before or during Mr. Obama's acceptance speech last night had top strategists playing defense during the day, firing off charges at any number of the possible selections," Stephen Dinan writes in the Washington Times. "The guessing game also kept the cable television networks busy, taking away from time that otherwise would have been devoted to covering Mr. Obama's speech before 75,000 spectators in Denver."

Might it be a storm -- rather than a revolt -- that knocks the GOP off-course? (And McCain thought it was hard to get out on an oil rig . . . )

"Republican officials said yesterday that they are considering delaying the start of the GOP convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul because of Tropical Storm Gustav, which is on track to hit the Gulf Coast, and possibly New Orleans, as a full-force hurricane early next week," Dan Eggen and Michael Shear report. "The threat is serious enough that White House officials are also debating whether President Bush should cancel his scheduled convention appearance on Monday."

"Party officials are discussing the possibility of postponing convention proceedings if the threat to New Orleans and other Gulf Coast areas grows," the Los Angeles Times' Maeve Reston reports. "If there is serious damage in the Gulf Coast, images of Republicans partying in Minneapolis-St. Paul could be an embarrassing reminder of the Bush administration's delayed response to Hurricane Katrina three years ago."

"The prospect of a major natural disaster hitting while Republicans are celebrating presents the party with a public-relations challenge," Bloomberg's Jonathan Salant writes, understating it. "Senator McCain has always been sensitive to national crises," said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers.

"There's absolutely no plan to postpone," RNC spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin tells the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

The Sked:

McCain, his running mate, and maybe some also-rans plan to be in Dayton, Ohio, for a noontime rally Friday (check for empty seats).

The Obama-Biden ticket starts its post-convention tour Friday evening in the western Pennsylvania town of Beaver.

"It's time to go back to the Midwest," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe told USA Today. Writes Kathy Kiely: "The mode of transportation is also appropriate for a swing through working-class territory that will highlight Biden's ability to attract voters who didn't support Obama in the primary. . . . [Pennsylvania is] a state where Hillary Rodham Clinton beat Obama 55% to 45% in the state primary, largely because of the vote in working-class areas like the one the Democratic team will be visiting. Beaver County gave 70% of the vote to Clinton; 30% to Obama."

The Kicker:

"I defined it in five books. Read my books." -- John McCain, refusing to define "honor in politics" -- and refusing to acknowledge that his campaign's handling of the press has changed.

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