He's danced over caucuses and superdelegates, skated past two dozen debates and 19 months on the trail, rolled through Jeremiah Wright and Hillary Clinton -- and a hockey mom from Alaska could be his undoing?
Eight weeks out -- his lead in the polls erased (for now), the money not quite flowing the way he anticipated, women voters impressed by the newest newcomer -- the weight of the race falls on Sen. Barack Obama's shoulders.
(And your real-world alert: President Bush announces Tuesday morning that he's pulling out 8,000 US troops out of Iraq by February.)
Yes, this period of the race has been all about Gov. Sarah Palin -- but how long it lasts is going to be up to Obama. Smart political types are looking for a sharper message -- one that reminds voters of the big stakes in the race, not the little items on a running mate's resume.
(Who usually wins when a presidential candidate takes on a vice-presidential one? How does Obama take on an Obama-like phenomenon? What does it say about Obama's support that it was soft enough to flee this quickly? What, in the end, do women want?)
All that work, gone? The new ABC News/Washington Post poll pegs it at McCain 49, Obama 47 among likely voters -- inside the margin of error, but with a name we're not used to seeing in the lead.
Inside the numbers, some shockers: "White women have moved from 50-42 percent in Obama's favor before the conventions to 53-41 percent for McCain now, a 20-point shift that's one of the single biggest post-convention changes in voter preferences. The other, also to McCain's advantage, is in the battleground Midwest, where he's moved from a 19-point deficit to a 7-point edge," per ABC Polling Directory Gary Langer.
"It really is stunning," ABC's George Stephanopoulos said on "Good Morning America" Tuesday. "We haven't seen a bigger shift among a single group in quite a long time. . . . There's no question that these voters have a very favorable opinion of Sarah Palin. They like what they saw, they like what they heard."
As Obama talks education Tuesday -- arguing anew that he's the change agent, not McCain-Palin -- Obama's 32-point edge on "change" is now down to 12 points.
Another key gap is closing: "For the first time since the end of the primaries, a majority of voters are enthusiastic about McCain's candidacy, and the percentage calling themselves 'very enthusiastic' has nearly doubled from late August. That percentage is drastically higher now among conservative Republicans and white evangelical Protestants," Jon Cohen and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post. "The question both campaigns are weighing is whether McCain, by hitting hard on the themes of reform and change that have been at the heart of Obama's message, has reshaped voters' perceptions of the two tickets."
For the moment, at least, we perceive a tie ballgame: It's 48-48 among registered voters in the new CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll.
"If Senator John McCain threw a political Hail Mary pass by picking Sarah Palin as his running mate, this much is clear: She caught it and ran," per The Boston Globe's Scott Helman. "Ten days after McCain upended the presidential race by tapping the little-known governor of Alaska, the buzz generated by the GOP ticket shows no sign of abating, even as Palin has yet to answer questions from the press or the public."
As for the ground game: "The McCain campaign says Palin's pick has given a 'shot in the arm' to their effort to recruit women volunteers -- doubling their 'Women for McCain' grassroots volunteer lists since her acceptance speech," ABC's Jennifer Parker writes. "Now, the McCain campaign will begin holding 'Mondays for McCain,' when women surrogates and women volunteers in battleground states call women voters, urging them to support McCain."
Obama has decided to take on Palin directly (Democrats want a fighter, but isn't this one thing the running mate could handle?):
"I mean, mother, governor, moose-shooter, I mean, I think that's cool, that's cool, that's cool stuff," he said of Palin, just maybe with a touch of condescension.
"Listening to Barack Obama, it can seem like Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin is the main person standing between him and the White House instead of John McCain," per the AP's Nedra Pickler. "Obama is putting as much heat on Palin as he is on the man at the top of the GOP ticket, objecting to the Republican Party's portrayal of her as a reformer who can bring change to Washington. That is supposed to be Obama's distinction, and he's not taking kindly to Palin trying to claim it."
"John McCain's unexpected selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate has confronted Barack Obama's campaign with a difficult challenge, as the Democrat seeks to undercut a new sense of excitement surrounding McCain without personally attacking a charismatic figure who is energizing a range of voters," Mike Dorning writes in the Chicago Tribune.
(This would get covered: "One adviser said the former first lady and Obama may have a joint appearance on-stage within the next two weeks," Dorning writes)
And Obama is not letting Palin cross a particular bridge:
"When it came to the bridge to nowhere, she was for it until everybody started raising a fuss about it and she started running for governor and then suddenly she was against it!" Obama said Monday in Michigan, per ABC's Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller. "I mean you can't just make stuff up. You can't just recreate yourself. You can't just reinvent yourself. The American people aren't stupid."
"I gotta admit these folks are shameless," Obama said in Farmington Hills, Mich.
(And one of those lines Obama may want back -- says the constitutional law professor, on the need for habeas corpus: "You may think it's Barack the bomb thrower, but it might be Barack the guy running for president.")
The new Obama ad features Palin in the now-famous bridge-to-nowhere T-shirt: "Sarah Palin's no maverick, either. She was for the bridge to nowhere before she was against it," says the ad.
Tapper writes: "Want evidence the Obama campaign is worried about Gov. Sarah Palin? Look no further than this ad, which attacks her, too."
It is a bridge too far, when it comes to Palin's record: "You can't kill a dead bridge," writes Salon's Alex Koppelman.
"The Bridge to Nowhere argument isn't going much of anywhere," Elizabeth Holmes and Laura Meckler write in The Wall Street Journal.
"Far from being an opponent of earmarks, Palin hired lobbyists to try to capture more federal funding," Howard Kurtz writes for The Washington Post.
But is fighting Palin on Palin's ground the answer? Arianna Huffington thinks not: "Every second of this campaign not spent talking about the Republican Party's record, and John McCain's role in that record, is a victory for John McCain," she writes. "Contrary to what we're hearing 24/7 in the media, the next few weeks are not a test of Sarah Palin. The next few weeks are a test of Barack Obama. He needs to dramatically redirect this election back to a discussion over the issues that really matter -- the issues that will impact the future of this country."
"Once the GOP's postconvention bounce and Palinmania subside -- and they will -- how does Obama get the mojo back?" Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News. "By sticking to his blueprint, painting McCain as a third Bush term, relentlessly hammering home bread-and-butter economic issues -- and a debate performance on Sept. 26 as compelling as his Denver acceptance speech."
Bob Shrum doesn't see it lasting: "Sarah Palin is 'Miss September' -- and cultural populism is the Republicans' September song," he writes in The Week Daily column.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, campaigning Monday in Florida for Obama, sees folly in engaging the GOP's No. 2: "Forget Hillary Rodham Clinton vs. Sarah Palin," Adam C. Smith writes in the St. Petersburg Times. "The former first lady made it clear Monday night at a boisterous campaign rally in Tampa that she will be a forceful advocate for Barack Obama against John McCain but that she won't play the role of anti-Palin attack dog."
"After someone in the audience yelled, 'Tell us about Palin,' Mrs. Clinton replied: 'I don't think that's what this election is about. Anybody who believes that the Republicans, whoever they are, can fix the mess they created probably believes that the iceberg could have saved the Titanic,' " reports The New York Times' Patrick Healy.
Writes Healy: "The absence of heavy fire directed at Ms. Palin had been expected, given a reluctance by Mrs. Clinton to turn her campaigning into a battle between two women. Yet advisers to Senator Barack Obama said Mrs. Clinton was nonetheless their best surrogate to counter the Republican ticket's new drive to win over white working women and mothers who supported her in the Democratic primaries."
"Clinton barely uttered Palin's name," per The Boston Globe's Lisa Wangsness. "In a small amendment to an old line, she said: 'No way, no how, no McCain, no Palin.' "
"Clinton said that she could not speak for the 18 million people who voted for her but that she believed Obama ultimately will get the votes he needs," per NPR's Greg Allen. "Clinton also refused to take issue with Palin's recent reference to her own candidacy and the '18 million cracks in the glass ceiling' that Palin said Clinton originally made and that the Republican ticket was now prepared to 'shatter.' "
Don't say Obama can't learn anything from these folks: "Sen. Clinton's small clutch of advisers said the former first lady believes serving as an attack dog against Gov. Palin would limit the effectiveness of a presidential aspirant who garnered 18 million votes during the primary season," The Wall Street Journal's Christopher Cooper and Amy Chozick write. "She will maintain 'a laser-like focus on who's running for president, and not Gov. Palin,' one adviser said."
Dick Morris and Eileen McGann see a chance for McCain-Palin to go on offense: "Republicans must battle to underscore the threats this country faces, economically and internationally, and that we can't let an ingenue take over. They must capitalize on McCain's aggressive determination to bring reform to Washington and to emphasize Obama's inexperience and failure to grasp how to change Washington," they write. "But it was McCain's gutsy selection of Palin that opened the door to victory."
Obama campaign manager David Plouffe sees McCain-Palin at the "high-water mark," with Democratic turnout efforts still superior: "Our sense is that, that independent women who are truly undecided," Plouffe told McCain reporters in Chicago Monday, per ABC's Ron Claiborne. "There is no question that they believe that Gov. Palin has given them a surge of energy here in the short term. We'll see where they stand eight weeks from now."
(Indeed. And might the map be shrinking? "We are very focused on the battleground states that will decide the race," Plouffe said.)
The campaigns, to some extent, continue to play on different fields (though they look more similar all the time): "The two presidential campaigns are plotting strategies that rely on vastly different readings of the electoral map, with Democrat Barack Obama competing hard in a large number of traditionally Republican states and John McCain, the GOP nominee, focusing on a small set of familiar battlegrounds," Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times. "A wild card in their calculations is McCain's surprise vice presidential choice, Sarah Palin." (Remember back when Obama used to be the wild card?)
Obama on Tuesday talks education in Ohio, touting charter schools and efforts to replace inferior teachers: "There's partisanship and there's bickering, but there's no understanding that both sides have good ideas that we'll need to implement if we hope to make the changes our children need," Obama plans to say, according to advance excerpts.
New language taking on McCain -- wresting back his "change": "In the past few weeks, my opponent has taken to talking about the need for change and reform in Washington, where he has been part of the scene for about three decades," Obama plans to say. "And in those three decades, he has not done one thing to truly improve the quality of public education in our country. Not one real proposal or law or initiative. Nothing."
Obama continues: "After three decades of indifference on education, do you really believe that John McCain is going to make a difference now?"
He's backing up the message with a new ad: "Barack Obama understands what it takes make America number one in education again. John McCain doesn't understand. John McCain voted to cut education funding. Against accountability standards. He even proposed abolishing the Department of Education. And John McCain's economic plan gives two hundred billion more to special interests while taking money away from public schools."
Counters RNC spokesman Alex Conant: "What has Barack Obama ever done for education reform other than give speeches about it?"
McCain and Palin double-byline a take on Fannie and Freddie, in The Wall Street Journal: "The bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is another outrageous, but sadly necessary, step for these two institutions. Given the long-term mismanagement and flawed structure of these two companies, this was the only short-term alternative for ensuring that hard-working Americans have access to affordable mortgages during this difficult economic period. We are strong advocates for the permanent reform of Fannie and Freddie," they write.
A Palin flub? From Saturday: "The fact is that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have gotten too big and too expensive to the taxpayers," she said. ABC's Jake Tapper points out: "They're private entities" -- though they are, ultimately, backed by the federal treasury.
An Obama gaffe? The Boston Globe's Scott Helman sees Obama as a Tom Toles fan. Said Obama, in mocking McCain-Palin: "Except for economic policies, and tax policies, and energy policies, and health care policies, and education policies, and Karl Rove-style politics -- except for all that, we're really going to bring change to Washington! We're really going to shake things up!"
Wrote Toles, in his Washington Post cartoon Friday: "Watch out, Mr. Bush! With the exception of economic policy and energy policy and social issues and tax policy and foreign policy and Supreme Court appointments and Rove-style politics, we're coming in there to shake things up!"
A different kind of gap is emerging -- one Obama hasn't known the bite of yet: "A new sense of urgency in Senator Barack Obama's fund-raising team is palpable as the full weight of the campaign's decision to bypass public financing for the general election is suddenly upon it," Michael Luo and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times. "The signs of concern have become evident in recent weeks as early fund-raising totals have suggested that Mr. Obama's decision to bypass public financing may not necessarily afford him the commanding financing advantage over Senator John McCain that many had originally predicted."
"The campaign is struggling to meet ambitious fund-raising goals it set for the campaign and the party," they write. "It collected in June and July far less from Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's donors than originally projected. Moreover, Mr. McCain, unlike Mr. Obama, will have the luxury of concentrating almost entirely on campaigning instead of raising money, as Mr. Obama must do."
McCain is getting federal funds for his campaign -- but still raising money for the RNC. The haul topped $4 million, in Obama's hometown Monday. "Sen. Obama has never once stood up to his party. You know that very well in the state of Illinois," McCain said, per the Chicago Tribune's Rick Pearson.
A new disclosure Tuesday to scuff Palin's image (assuming it's scuffable with the folks who see her as superhero): "Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has billed taxpayers for 312 nights spent in her own home during her first 19 months in office, charging a 'per diem' allowance intended to cover meals and incidental expenses while traveling on state business," James V. Grimaldi and Karl Vick write in The Washington Post.
She wasn't traveling on the state plane, but still: "The governor also has charged the state for travel expenses to take her children on official out-of-town missions. And her husband, Todd, has billed the state for expenses and a daily allowance for trips he makes on official business for his wife," Grimaldi and Vick write. "Palin, who earns $125,000 a year, claimed and received $16,951 as her allowance, which officials say was permitted because her official 'duty station' is Juneau."
Any reason to think this sort of thing would stick to Palin (any more than it sticks to Obama)? "Gov. Palin's ability to generate crowd excitement gives the Republicans for the first time this year a semblance of star power that can be compared with Barack Obama -- though she has yet to draw the tens of thousands he has regularly attracted," Laura Meckler writes in The Wall Street Journal. "The Democratic presidential candidate's language is more fluid than Gov. Palin's, and his phrases more poetic. Gov. Palin's words are sharper and more pointed."
Find the rock star: "In just over a week, Mrs. Palin has eclipsed Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee. One woman at a Midwest rally said after her fiery speech, 'Boy, I wish she were on the top of the ticket,' " Joseph Curl writes in the Washington Times.
"At John McCain's rally in the town of Lee's Summit, Mo., today, there were more people standing outside than were able to fit inside," ABC's Bret Hovell reports. "That kind of crowd just hadn't been seen at McCain's events before last week's Republican convention. And it wasn't just today. Saturday in Colorado Springs, about 10,000 people waved American flags at McCain's rally in an airport hangar there, and Friday in the town of Cedarburg, Wis., there were more people crowding the main street and the surrounding blocks than the population of the tiny town."
"McCain's choice of the Alaska governor as running mate hasn't just fired up core Republican voters, it's also energized the 72-year-old Arizona senator as he starts the final sprint toward the Nov. 4 election," Bloomberg's Edwin Chen writes.
"Exuberant crowds greeted Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and the man who heads the Republican presidential ticket -- remember Sen. John McCain? -- both inside and outside The Pavilion at John Knox Village," per Steve Kraske, of the Kansas City Star.
Team McCain is already giving Palin a makeover: "Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will speak at her son's Army deployment ceremony on 9/11 and spend two days with ABC News crews later this week as part of a McCain campaign plan to increase Americans' comfort with her as a leader," Politico's Mike Allen writes. "It turns out that she is spending much of Thursday and Friday with [Charles] Gibson -- at the ceremony in Fairbanks, Alaska, and at her home in Wasilla, Alaska."
"In the past week, McCain -- with new running mate Sarah Palin always close by his side -- has transformed the Republican campaign narrative into what amounts to a running biography of this new political odd couple," Jonathan Martin and Jim VandeHei write for Politico.
And there's not enough of her to go around: "Republican congressional candidates anxious for a safe and popular national political figure to campaign with appear to have landed just that in Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin," The Hill's Aaron Blake writes. "But with demand extremely high and supply low, it appears the new GOP vice presidential nominee will have to be rationed carefully in the fewer than 60 days before the 2008 election."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seems less than impressed. ABC's Jonathan Karl: "In a less-than-hearty endorsement, Rice declined to say anything more positive about Palin than 'she gave a terrific speech' and 'she's a governor of a state here in the United States' during her interview with Zain Verjee of CNN. Asked point-blank if Palin has enough experience, Rice said, 'These are decisions that Senator McCain has made. I have great confidence in him.' Confidence in Palin? Rice didn't say."
If McCain could only figure out how to handle the niceties . . . At the convention, McCain "gave her a hug, not a handshake. Ms. Palin got another hug at a rally here outside Kansas City on Monday," Elisabeth Bumiller writes in The New York Times. "The same McCain-Palin embrace -- businesslike, to the point -- was on display at a rally over the weekend in Colorado Springs, but this time Mr. McCain's wife, Cindy, was on stage. Moving quickly after his clasp of his running mate, Mr. McCain took a short side-step and planted a peck on his wife's cheek."
Recalls Geraldine Ferraro, of the "hands-off" strategy employed by her running mate, Walter Mondale, in 1984: Anything more, and "people were afraid that it would look like, 'Oh, my God, they're dating.' "
Mark your calendar for Babs: "Barbra Streisand will be among the headliners at a fund-raiser for Barack Obama on Sept. 16, where she will perform for the presidential candidate at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel," Variety's Ted Johnson reports. "The plans for the event were outlined this morning and Streisand confirmed that she would take the stage. The hotel ballroom holds an estimated 700 people."
Surely you, too, have gotten the e-mail from Anne Kilkenny of Wasilla, Alaska -- the one that starts, "Everyone here knows Sarah, so it is nothing special to say we are on a first-name basis." "The 2,400-word e-mail, circulated on blogs, Web sites and through e-mail chains, has become an Internet hit embraced by many Democrats and Palin critics and attacked by Palin supporters," per S.J. Komarnitsky of the Anchorage Daily News.
"The 2,400-word e-mail, circulated on blogs, Web sites and through e-mail chains, has become an Internet hit embraced by many Democrats and Palin critics and attacked by Palin supporters."
McCain and Palin campaign in Lebanon, Ohio, at 10 am ET, and hold a 3:30 pm ET rally in Lancaster, Pa.
Obama starts his morning outside Dayton, Ohio, talking education policy, and ends his afternoon in a different Lebanon -- in Virginia.
Sen. Joe Biden is in Missouri, with a town-hall meeting Tuesday morning in Columbia, and a community meeting later in the morning in St. Louis.
Get the full political schedule in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
President Bush Speaks to the National Defense University's Distinguished Lecture Program at Ft. McNair in Washington Tuesday morning
He's making news: "Over the next several months, we will bring home about 3,400 combat support forces" from Iraq, the president plans to say, per advance excerpts released by The White House. "By November, we will bring home a Marine battalion that is now serving in Anbar province. And in February of 2009, another Army combat brigade will come home. This amounts to about 8,000 additional American troops returning home without replacement. And if the progress in Iraq continues to hold, General Petraeus and our military leaders believe additional reductions will be possible in the first half of 2009." On that other war: "I am announcing additional American troop deployments to Afghanistan. In November, a Marine battalion that was scheduled to deploy to Iraq will instead deploy to Afghanistan. It will be followed in January by an Army combat brigade."
Meanwhile, on the Hill: "A bipartisan group of 16 senators is promoting an energy proposal that includes allowing oil drilling off the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, if their governors and legislatures approve, and spending $20 billion on an effort to move away from gasoline-powered vehicles within 20 years. Four more senators are expected to sign on this week," Gannett's Faith Bremner and Doug Abrahms report.
"Well, uh, it's the bleh-bleh-bleh-bleh." -- Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., asked his opinions of the last eight years of George Bush.
"Looking back now, the whole swimsuit thing . . . you don't have to do that any more, thankfully. You had to turn and do a couple of revolutions in front of male judges and have your butts compared to one another's. . . . I don't recommend that part." -- Sarah Palin, recalling her days in the Miss America Scholarship Pageant.
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