The Note: Mom vs. Messiah

Perhaps Gov. Sarah Palin is still a normal human politician -- as opposed to a superhero/phenomenon/celebrity (irony alert!) who is immune to the whims of such trivial matters as national media coverage.

But as she returns to her native Alaska on Wednesday -- with swarming Democrats and out-of-town reporters making the landscape a tad less familiar -- she is a full-blown sensation whose appeal seems to grow as the country gets to know her -- good, bad, and everything in between.

If it's The Mom vs. The Messiah -- what does recent American electoral history tell you about who might have the edge among the Wal-Mart crowd? One of Us, or One of Them?

(Will a campaign that beat one female candidate because it understood how the Democratic base thinks wind up losing to another female candidate because it doesn't understand how the electorate as a whole thinks?)

(And will Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Joe Biden fall into tabloid traps at the very time they need to lock down female voters?)

The campaign has grown sharper -- and there's no putting lipstick on this fact: "The emergence of Sarah Palin as a political force in the presidential race has left many top Democrats fretting that, just two weeks after their convention ended on an emotional high, Barack Obama's campaign has suddenly lost its stride," Peter Wallsten and Janet Hook write in the Los Angeles Times.

"Some Democrats are now worried about the perils of Obama's strategy, saying that his campaign, instead of engaging the Alaska governor, should avoid any move that draws more attention to her and could enhance her appeal among the white, blue-collar voters who remain cool to Obama's candidacy," they write.

"Democrats are beginning to worry about losing the presidential election," Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla writes. "Their best week in four years," says Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., of the Republicans' latest stretch.

Adds Przybyla: "Democrats said Obama can respond by capitalizing on his significant lead on issues, particularly the economy and health care, including among many independents who have become the chief target of both campaigns now that the candidates have locked in their parties' nominations."

This is the time Obama hoped to be defining himself -- his campaign book, "Change We Can Believe In," has just started shipping out, and is rocketing up the Amazon charts.

The upside of insularity: There's no panic in Obamaland. The downside of insularity: There's no panic in Obamaland.

Even with all the Palin scrutiny -- don't forget how many investigative reporters in Alaska right now want to file something juicy (and new details emerge Thursday about library books and that fired state trooper -- more on those below) -- Obama is in an uncomfortable spot.

"Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has found himself in a position he hasn't been in during many long months of campaigning -- on defense against Republican rival John McCain," the AP's Nedra Pickler writes.

It's Obama-Biden 46, McCain-Palin 45, in the new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll -- and a 52-41 McCain edge among white women, in a jump that roughly mirrors the ABC News/Washington Post poll released a day earlier.

"Sen. John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate has shaken up the presidential race, lifting enthusiasm among his once-subdued supporters and boosting the ticket's appeal with women, rural voters and Southerners," Laura Meckler writes in The Wall Street Journal. "The survey also had good news for Sen. Obama, showing that he improved his standing with the electorate in areas where he had been seen as weak."

Cautions pollster Peter Hart: "The faster they rise, the steeper the descent."

But that rise says something about Obama's pull (or lack thereof) among female voters: "Frankly, it's because they are conflicted on Obama," Geoff Garin, Hillary Clinton's former chief strategist, tells Time's Karen Tumulty. "They'd like to vote for a Democrat, but they're not sure Obama is the one." (As The One met The Other One?)

Writes Tumulty: "Whether this is merely a blip or a real trend has yet to be determine."

Howard Wolfson says don't panic: "My hope, and expectation, is that Team Obama will remain as disciplined and focused as they have been throughout the campaign's entirety and avoid getting thrown off their game," he writes at his New Republic blog. "It's funny, the same DC wiseguys who confidently predicted a McCain Convention bump ten days ago are now running about waving their arms in the air nervously now that the bump has arrived."

Yet watch the map shrink: "Tightening voter polls, a more competitive money race than originally envisioned and a McCain campaign invigorated by his unconventional vice-presidential pick are prompting a return to the old political map -- and a grudging concession by some Obama campaign operatives that certain states once deemed winnable may be more of a long shot than once thought," Christopher Cooper and Elizabeth Holmes write in The Wall Street Journal.

The truth is there isn't much time for pushback: "More than 30 states allow some form of early voting, forcing the campaigns to deal with a rolling series of Election Days," per The New York Times' Adam Nagourney. "Given the truncated general election season, campaign aides said they were going to have make triage decisions sooner about what states the nominees are actually going to compete in. The ambitious battleground presented by Mr. Obama's aides, of at least 18 states, may soon get whittled down in deference to a calendar that does not leave that many days for campaigning."

Time to fight? "Here's what I've been feeling for a while: Whoever slipped that Valium into Barack Obama's coffee needs to be found and arrested by the Democrats because Obama has gone from cool to cold," Tom Friedman writes in his New York Times column.

"Somebody needs to tell Obama that if he wants the chance to calmly answer the phone at 3 a.m. in the White House, he is going to need to start slamming down some phones at 3 p.m. along the campaign trail," Friedman writes. "I like much of what he has to say, especially about energy, but I don't think people are feeling it in their guts, and I am a big believer that voters don't listen through their ears. They listen through their stomachs."

"There's anxiety developing because of a perceived lack of aggressiveness," Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., an early Obama supporter, tells The Hill's Alexander Bolton.

Is he getting the message? "A new character is making a debut at Senator Barack Obama's campaign rallies: His name is John McCain," Jeff Zeleny writes in The New York Times. "With just 57 days remaining in this long presidential race, Mr. Obama is going after Mr. McCain more aggressively than at any other point in the campaign, with a professorial tone giving way to one of prosecution. These days, he sounds more like those sharp-tongued commercials seen on television."

"It isn't just Democratic officials who are fixated on Palin. Media outlets on the left -- from Talking Points Memo to Huffington Post -- are loaded with hard-hitting stories about Palin. McCain often seems like he's playing second fiddle," Politico's Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen write.

On the woman thing: "The choice of Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate jolted to life conservatives, especially women, who were lukewarm to the Arizona senator at the top of the GOP ticket," David Jackson writes for USA Today. "In interviews with about two dozen women attending a rally here and by phone, female voters said they were excited by Palin because of her opposition to abortion rights and for her ability to juggle a career with five children."

Will this really sort itself out? "Obama advisers said that once women across the board begin considering Palin's stands on social issues such as human embryonic stem cell research and legalized abortion -- she opposes both -- their interest will fade," Anne Kornblut reports in The Washington Post.

Says Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del.: "What does she believe? I assume she thinks and agrees with the same policies that George Bush and John McCain think. . . . And that's obviously a backward step for women."

But a cliché -- plus some calculated overreaction -- reminds Obama of what he's up against: "You know, you can put lipstick on a pig -- but it's still a pig," Obama said on the stump Tuesday, pausing only briefly after delivering a line politicians (including McCain) have used approximately forever.

Neither McCain nor Obama wear lipstick -- but does anyone really honestly think Obama was referring to Palin here?

"The road to the White House turned into a mud pit Tuesday," the New York Daily News' Michael Saul writes. "The Obama camp maintained it was no personal insult at Palin -- just the use of a common expression to suggest the McCain-Palin ticket was trying to dress up bad policy. They circulated quotes in which McCain used the 'lipstick on a pig' line to attack a Hillary Clinton health care plan."

"BOAR WAR!" declares the New York Post. "HOLY SOW! BAM'S LIPSTICK BUNGLE."

"Interestingly, the [McCain] Truth Squad call was full of half-truths and statements that weren't true at all," ABC's Jake Tapper writes. "Speaking on behalf of the McCain campaign, former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift tonight flatly stated that Obama had called Palin a pig."

"The whole argument is an indication of the changing dynamic in this race," ABC's Kate Snow reported on "Good Morning America" Wednesday. "It's now Obama vs. Palin. The governor is drawing crowds McCain could only dream about a few months ago."

(Snow notes that Palin often rails against "the good old boys" -- and hasn't had much new to say on anything in some time.)

The lipstick line has already been turned into a McCain Web video.

Says ABC political contributor Matthew Dowd, on "Good Morning America": "My guess is, whether they apologize or not, Barack Obama will never use that expression again in the next 60 days."

And Team McCain pushes the culture clash in a new ad: "Obama's one accomplishment? Legislation to teach 'comprehensive sex education' to kindergartners," the ad says. "Learning about sex before learning to read? Barack Obama. Wrong on education. Wrong for your family."

The Obama campaign swings back by playing the honor card. Said spokesman Bill Burton: "It is shameful and downright perverse for the McCain campaign to use a bill that was written to protect young children from sexual predators as a recycled and discredited political attack against a father of two young girls. . . . Last week, John McCain told Time magazine he couldn't define what honor was. Now we know why."

Some backup: "This is a deliberately misleading accusation," writes McClatchy's Margaret Talev.

As for Palin's record: "As the mayor of the town of Wasilla, Sarah Palin raised questions about removing books in the public library and tried to fire the town librarian. She says the two were not connected," ABC's Brian Ross reported Wednesday on "Good Morning America."

"Around the time Palin became mayor, the [Wasilla Assembly of God] church and other conservative Christians began to focus on certain books available in local stores and in the town library, including one called 'Go Ask Alice' and another written by a local pastor, Howard Bess, called 'Pastor, I Am Gay,' " Ross reports.

Says local resident Anne Kilkenny: "Mayor Palin asked the librarian, 'What is your response if I ask you to remove some books from the collection at the Wasilla public library?' "

Continues Ross: "In a conversation with me yesterday, the librarian said she could not recall Palin ever asking for specific book titles to be removed from the shelves, but acknowledged her treatment by Palin had been very rough."

Writes USA Today's John Fritze: "The city says there is no record of any books being yanked from the shelves. . . . Palin has cast her questions about the library's policy, including at a 1996 City Council meeting, as theoretical. Her critics, including a city resident who attended the meeting, say the questioning was more direct."

More on "Troopergate": "An Anchorage judge three years ago warned Sarah Palin and members of her family to stop 'disparaging' the reputation of Alaska State Trooper Michael Wooten, who at the time was undergoing a bitter separation and divorce from Palin's sister Molly," Newsweek's Mark Hosenball reports.

"Court records obtained by NEWSWEEK show that during the course of divorce hearings three years ago, Judge John Suddock heard testimony from an official of the Alaska State Troopers' union about how Sarah Palin -- then a private citizen -- and members of her family, including her father and daughter, lodged up to a dozen complaints against Wooten with the state police."

And yes, she "took on" oil companies -- but not in the way the McCain campaign wants you to think: "Striving to appeal to moderate voters, McCain has frequently highlighted his bipartisan proposal to clamp down on greenhouse gas emissions. But by naming Sarah Palin as his running mate, McCain has aligned himself with a Republican whose record as governor of Alaska has drawn scorn from environmentalists, most notably for her denial that humans are causing climate change," Michael Finnegan reports in the Los Angeles Times.

As that simmers -- what does it say about Palin's appeal/self-confidence/indifference to the national media that she's still touting her work killing the Bridge to Nowhere?

"From the moment Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin declared that she had opposed the infamous 'Bridge to Nowhere,' critics, the news media and nonpartisan fact checkers have called it a fabrication or, at best, a half-truth. But yesterday in Lebanon, Ohio, and again in Lancaster, Pa., she crossed that bridge again," Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post.

"Palin has continued to say she opposed a project she once campaigned for -- then killed later, only after support for it had collapsed in Congress," Weisman writes. Says GOP strategist John Feehery: "The more the New York Times and The Washington Post go after Sarah Palin, the better off she is."

As for the bridge: "McCain aides clearly think they can just keep pushing this lie [about the Bridge to Nowhere] until the news orgs tire of pointing out that it's false -- or, as McCain campaign Rick Davis might put it, until the news orgs start treating her with 'deference,' " Greg Sargent writes at Talking Points Memo. "Perhaps some will worry that continuing to point out the lies runs the risk of coming across as indecorous. But let's keep doing it anyway."

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., swings back in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: "Mrs. Palin cut Alaska's federal earmark requests in half last year, one of the strongest moves against earmarks by any governor. It took real leadership to buck Alaska's decades-long earmark addiction," he writes. "Mrs. Palin also killed the infamous Bridge to Nowhere in her own state. Yes, she once supported the project: But after witnessing the problems created by earmarks for her state and for the nation's budget, she did what others like me have done: She changed her position and saved taxpayers millions."

This is a lot of information to throw at voters -- and so much is contradictory that much is surely being tuned out.

"Complicating the mainstream media's vetting of her record is the cyberspace torrent -- viral e-mails and Internet blog postings," Brian C. Mooney writes in The Boston Globe. "Some are true, others false or partly true, and each side tries to knock them down or pump them up, depending on whether a particular point advances or detracts from the partisan story line."

William Kristol finds some early heroes: "A special thank you to our friends in the liberal media establishment. Who knew they would come through so spectacularly?" he writes in The Weekly Standard. "The ludicrous media feeding frenzy about the Palin family hyped interest in her speech, enabling her to win a huge audience for her smashing success Wednesday night at the convention. Indeed, it even renewed interest in McCain, who seems to have gotten still more viewers for his less smashing -- but well-received -- presentation the following evening."

And might Palin be too big for her critics? "After devilishly mocking Obama -- and successfully getting into his head -- with ads about how he was just a frothy celebrity, like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, it turns out all the McCain camp wanted was an Obama of its own," Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times column. "Now that they have the electric Palin, they've stopped arguing that celebrity is bad."

More on the Palin effect: "Call them skirttails -- volunteer numbers have skyrocketed, fundraising has picked up and even the polling shows closer races in some down-ticket congressional contests as Republicans say the effects of 'Palin Power' are being felt across the country," the Washington Times' Stephen Dinan reports.

Dinan continues: "Rep. Tom Cole, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told his House colleagues in a closed-door meeting Tuesday that their online fundraising neared $250,000 during convention week, and the Republican Senate committee reported a jump from telemarketing -- from about $20,000 on a typical weekend to $54,000 the weekend that Mrs. Palin was selected."

Who's worried? Democrats have airdropped a mini-army of 30 lawyers, investigators and opposition researchers into Anchorage, the state capital Juneau and Mrs. Palin's hometown of Wasilla to dig into her record and background," John Fund writes in his Wall Street Journal column. "My sources report the first wave arrived in Anchorage less than 24 hours after John McCain selected her on August 29."

New pushback, from the Obama campaign Wednesday: "The Obama Campaign will launch Alaska Mythbusters, a group of Alaskans who have followed Governor Palin's career and will set the record straight about whether Palin has what it takes to bring the change that's needed in Washington, DC. Former AK Governor Tony Knowles and Mayor Bob Weinstein of Ketchikan, the city of the Bridge to Nowhere, will headline a press conference call on Palin's Alaska Record."

Might the worry over money be real? 527 money is maybe not so discouraged: "An Obama adviser privy to the campaign's internal thinking on the matter says that,with less than two months before the election and with the realization that Republicans have achieved financial parity with Democrats, they hope that Democratic allies -- what another campaign aide termed 'the cavalry' -- will come to Obama's aid," The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder reports.

They are worried on the Hill: "On Monday, House Democrats hatched a massive anti-GOP messaging war to paint Republicans as ineffective and unaccomplished leaders with a record of failure. Senate Democrats are kick-starting a strategy to link to McCain's candidacy to the GOP's obstruction of legislation and what they say are President Bush's policy blunders," Roll Call's Erin P. Billings and Steven T. Dennis report.

And hello, Joe: "Joe Biden yesterday took a swipe at Sarah Palin -- who has a child with Down syndrome -- for opposing stem-cell research, an attack that provoked howls of protest from Republicans," Geoff Earle and Carl Campanile write (and maybe over-write) for the New York Post. Said Biden: "Well, guess what, folks? If you care about it, why don't you support stem-cell research?" Responded the McCain campaign: Biden had "sunk to a new low."

The Sked:

Obama hold a morning campaign event in Norfolk, Va., then heads to New York to tape a Letterman appearance that will air Wednesday night. He ends his day in Washington, DC, at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Annual Awards.

McCain and Palin are in Fairfax, Va., Wednesday for an 11 am ET rally, and then Palin breaks off on her own.

She heads home to Alaska on Wednesday, arriving in Fairbanks about 11 pm ET -- to be in town in time to see her son ship off to Iraq on Thursday (which -- have you heard? -- is happening on 9/11).

Palin's interviews with ABC's Charles Gibson take place Thursday and Friday in Alaska, with the first portion to air during "World News" Thursday -- and much more on "Nightline," "GMA," and elsewhere.

Also in the news:

Vote no, says Dr. No: "At a press conference in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, [Rep. Ron] Paul plans to urge voters to support one of the third-party candidates for president," Michael Falcone reports in The New York Times.

Paul will be joined by Ralph Nader, Bob Barr, and Cynthia McKinney at the National Press Club -- and the foursome will sign a pledge to end the Iraq war and repeal the Patriot Act, per ABC's Z. Byron Wolf.

Al Franken is good enough and smart enough, at least to win the Democratic primary in Minnesota: "After trouncing their primary opponents, Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, DFLer Al Franken and Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley are squaring off for a three-way free-for-all that promises to be one of the costliest, most vigorously fought high-stakes races in the country," Patricia Lopez and Kevin Duchschere write in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Congress is back -- with low expectations. "The session ahead is likely to create nothing more than further finger-pointing and accusations of who is to blame for a do-nothing Congress," Reid Wilson writes for Real Clear Politics. "From energy legislation to a second economic stimulus package, both parties could score big political victories over the coming weeks. Instead, each party will use the other's inaction and reluctance to negotiate as excuses to hammer the other over the head."

The Kicker:

"I don't think violent resistance is necessarily the answer, but I do think opposition and refusal is imperative." -- William Ayers, in a comic strip (of sorts) explaining his actions, and not necessarily helping Barack Obama.

"Lightsabers. " -- John McCain, to Marie Claire, on his weapon of choice if Barack Obama challenged him to a duel.

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