The Note: Lipstick on a Campaign

Cue the serial condemnations: It's unfair, dirty, nasty, despicable politics. We all hate it, and it has no place in a presidential campaign.

It also just might work.

Team McCain is in over-the-top outrage mode -- shocked, offended, and aghast at the sexism, ageism, fill-in-the-blank-ism being directed at John McCain and Sarah Palin, real and (more than slightly) imagined.

Good luck keeping track of all the indignities (and the McCain campaign would prefer that you didn't try to keep score).

"Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign launched a broadside against Sen. Barack Obama yesterday, accusing him of a sexist smear, comparing his campaign to a pack of wolves on the prowl against the GOP vice presidential pick, charging that the Democratic nominee favored sex education for kindergartners, and resurrecting the comments of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.," Jonathan Weisman and Peter Slevin write in The Washington Post.

McCain seems content to have the race focus on personality and process -- not, heavens forbid, actual real issues. "Another day. Another roll in the mud," writes the New York Daily News' Michael Saul.

By making discredited and untrue claims about Obama -- and pretending that outrageous, offensive things are being widely circulated about Palin by the Obama campaign -- Team McCain is pushing the limits of its claim to an open, honest, positive campaign.

"I just can't wait for the moment when John McCain -- contrite and suddenly honorable again in victory or defeat -- talks about how things got a little out of control in the passion of the moment," Time's Joe Klein writes. "Talk about putting lipstick on a pig."

"Tactically, it is clear, and it has been frequently noted, that McCain learned well the lessons from his last run in 2000," ABC's Andy Fies writes. "McCain may want to keep Bush at a distance . . . but not his tactics."

"McCain's campaign called Obama's 'disturbing,' 'desperate,' 'offensive,' and 'disgraceful.' Obama's campaign fired back with 'pathetic, 'perverse,' 'dishonorable,' and 'shameful,' " The Boston Globe's Scott Helman reports. "Though McCain has more often been the aggressor, the back-and-forth -- to borrow a recent McCain campaign description of Obama running mate Joe Biden -- has reached 'a new low.' "

Yet here's the point: Obama taking Palin's bait is Obama shrinking in the public eye.

"It's a matchup he'll lose. If Mr. Obama wants to win, he needs to remember he's running against John McCain for president, not Mrs. Palin for vice president," Karl Rove writes in his Wall Street Journal column. "If Mr. Obama keeps attacking Mrs. Palin, he could suffer the fate of his Democratic predecessors. These assaults highlight his own tissue-thin résumé, waste precious time better spent reassuring voters he is up for the job, and diminish him -- not her."

No groove in sight: "McCain allies think they have succeeded in knocking Obama on his heels since he accepted his party's nomination in Denver two weeks ago," Weisman and Slevin report in the Post.

Said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.: "They really are in a meltdown."

Maybe not quite, but they are scrambling -- and did Obama make anything better by trying to explain the "lipstick on a pig" remark on Letterman?

"Keep in mind that, technically had I meant it this way -- she would be the lipstick," Obama told a slightly confused Letterman, per ABC's Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller. "The failed policies of John McCain would be the pig. . . . I mean, just following the logic of this illogical situation."

This is a political game (which is not to say it won't work): "To accommodate Sarah Palin, John McCain's Straight Talk Express has now installed a fainting couch. It's not for the vice-presidential candidate -- she's plenty tough -- but for McCain aides who are rapidly perfecting the act of expiring on the cushions on her behalf at every sign of perceived sexism," Slate's John Dickerson writes.

"John McCain's campaign people are said to be suffering hurt feelings over Barack Obama's comment that McCain's policies are like lipstick on a pig. (And they are asking you to give money to make it better.)," the AP's Calvin Woodward writes. "Don't cry for them. And don't believe Obama was upset on behalf of the middle class when McCain joked that a rich person is one who makes $5 million. These are hardened pols. Their sensibilities are not so meltingly tender."

"As anyone knows, lipstick can smear," Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune.

"Enough," Obama said in Virginia Wednesday. "I don't care what they say about me. But I love this country too much to let them take over another election with lies and phony outrage and Swift Boat politics. Enough is enough."

The fact is that Obama never said what the McCain camp is saying he did: He did not call Sarah Palin a pig.

"The Obama campaign also pointed out that McCain used the same words -- 'lipstick on a pig' -- last October to describe Sen. Hillary Clinton's health care plan," ABC's Kate Snow and Jake Tapper report. "Obama is finding, however, that the presidential race is no longer a two-man -- or a two-person -- race, and Palin's entrance has changed the dynamic."

Maybe it's woken him up: "Obama has uncorked some thunderous lines in recent campaign stops, showing a measure of emotion the normally unflappable candidate has seldom displayed. His speeches are now laced with indignation as he argues that anyone who sees John McCain and Sarah Palin as vehicles for change is being duped," Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times. "Feistiness is what many Democratic elected officials have longed to see."

Maybe it's just in time: "It's more than an increased anxiety," Doug Schoen, a former top Bill Clinton pollster, tells Politico's David Paul Kuhn and Bill Nichols. "It's a palpable frustration. Deep-seated unease in the sense that the message has gotten away from them."

Newsweek's Howard Fineman adds up the Obama errors (non-kosher lipstick applications not included): "Declining to take federal financing for the general election. . . . Declining McCain's offer to hold ten town hall debates. . . . Failing to go all the way with the Clintons. . . . The 22-state strategy. . . . Failing to state a sweeping, but concrete, policy idea. . . . Remaining trapped in professor-observer speak. . . . Failing to attack McCain early."

David Broder urges calm on all sides: "An exaggerated optimism has swept through Republican ranks and an equally exaggerated gloom has infected the Democrats," he writes. Don't believe the polling swings: "I call those shifts 'suspiciously large,' not because I doubt the accuracy or the methodology on the surveys but because the years have taught me that such swerves in voter opinion are likely to be temporary."

Gail Collins isn't overreacting, either: "If the Obama brain trust seems relatively serene compared with its seething base, it's because they live in the Electoral College world, where the presidential race only takes place in a third of the country," she writes in her New York Times column. "One of the great things about this campaign is that both sides are convinced they're going to lose."

The politicking takes a day off (for the most part) for 9/11, with the candidates set to attend commemoration events and an evening forum in New York. "With no speeches and little fanfare, the two candidates will walk together down a ramp into the pit where the World Trade Center towers once loomed over lower Manhattan and lay a wreath at Ground Zero for the Sept. 11 attacks," Bloomberg's Julianna Goldman writes.

"Officials at the Democratic and Republican National Committees also said they would be going dark, refraining from advertising, though it is still possible that behind-the-scenes political battles could be waged; there have been no promises made that either side will call a truce in the seemingly endless press release war," per The Hill's Sam Youngman.

And the next two days, at least, figure to belong to Gov. Sarah Palin, R-Alaska: She's home now, ready to see her son off to Iraq -- and sitting down for interviews with ABC's Charles Gibson, spread over two days. (The first piece of it will air on "World News" Thursday, with more to come on "Nightline," "Good Morning America," and a special "20/20" Friday night.)

"The sessions could be the first test of Ms. Palin's ability to parry substantive questions on foreign and domestic policy, and as she flew back to Alaska on Wednesday, she brought with her a squad of Mr. McCain's top policy advisers to help her prepare," Jim Rutenberg and Monica Davey write in The New York Times. "In a broader sense, the interviews will also provide fresh material for what is now an intense war between the campaigns to define Ms. Palin in the public mind, a battle that both campaigns consider potentially critical to the election outcome."

They add: "Aides traveling with Ms. Palin have reported back to associates that she is a fast study -- asking few questions of her policy briefers but quickly repeating back their main points -- who already has considerable ease and experience before cameras."

The New York Times editorial page sees significance in the timing of her rollout: "Just in time for that appearance [on ABC], Ms. Palin, who was proclaiming her family's privacy a week ago, will make a political event out of her son's deployment to Iraq. But as for talking to reporters in general, the McCain campaign sniffishly says they must first show 'some level of respect and deference.' "

A fresh round of battleground state polls help set the scene -- and it's close where it counts.

Three new polls from Quinnipiac University out Thursday morning:

Florida: McCain 50-43

Ohio: Obama 49-44

Pennsylvania: Obama 48-45

That means Obama is ahead in two of the Big Three. But in Pennsylvania, said ABC's George Stephanopoulos on "Good Morning America," "That's a little closer than Barack Obama might like."

Four new state-level polls from CNN/Opinion Research Corp. out late Wednesday:

Michigan: Obama 49-45

Missouri: McCain 50-45

New Hampshire: Obama 51-45

Virginia: McCain 50-46

"The polls found that Obama has problems attracting white voters. In Missouri, Virginia and Michigan he loses that segment, by 14 percentage points in Michigan and 20 points in Missouri," per Time magazine.

Welcome home, governor: "Gov. Sarah Palin, named almost two weeks ago as Republican presidential candidate John McCain's running mate, flew into Fairbanks on Wednesday night in her campaign jet and told a crowd of about 3,000 that she's spreading an Alaska message of oil drilling and reform on the trail," Sean Cockerham writes in the Anchorage Daily News.

She's a rock star there, too: "People began waiting in line to get into the event six hours before Palin was to speak. Some brought collapsible chairs for the wait, then jog-ran into the hangar in pursuit of a good spot in front of the stage when the Secret Service finally let them in three hours before showtime," Cockerham writes.

"Little girls wore rubber lips -- and this sign: 'Read My Lipstick,' " ABC's Kate Snow reported on "Good Morning America" Thursday. "All because of one comment."

Down in the lower 48, not all surrogate work is helpful: South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Carol Fowler tells Politico's Jonathan Martin that Palin's "primary qualification seems to be that she hasn't had an abortion."

Fowler apologized, but the McCain campaign sees rank sexism. "You can go back to the remark that Sen. Obama made to a reporter back during the primary, claiming she was referred to as 'sweetie,' " said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., per ABC's Teddy Davis, Bret Hovell, and Arnab Datta. "And then, moving forward, he passed over Sen. Clinton, and many feel like he also passed over Gov. Sebelius, both as running mates, and then the lipstick comment that he made yesterday."

Also not helpful: "Jesus was a community organizer, Pontius Pilate a governor," said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., per ABC's Jake Tapper.

Harsher pushback from Obamaland: "I wonder where [Jane Swift's] outrage was when John McCain said he was going to beat Hillary Clinton like a drum," Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said on MSNBC. "Or participated in an event where one of his participants called Hillary Clinton a bitch. Those are direct comments targeted at somebody's gender."

But here's guessing Sen. Joe Biden didn't make Obama's task any easier:

Biden didn't make it better: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton "is qualified to be president of the United States of America, she's easily qualified to be vice president of the United States of America, and quite frankly, it might have been a better pick than me," Biden said Wednesday, per ABC's Matthew Jaffe.

The New York Daily News: "Hey, Barack, now even your running mate thinks Hillary Clinton may have been a better choice for veep."

The Palin scrub continues. On earmarks: "According to a 'summary of requests for federal appropriations' posted to her budget office's website earlier this year, Palin requested millions of federal dollars for everything from improving recreational halibut fishing to studying the mating habits of crabs and the DNA of harbor seals," Politico's Ben Smith reports. "It's a position at odds with her recasting as an anti-earmarking champion, and with the tone of the biting scorn she's employed toward the budgetary practice this week."

(Earmarks on the other side: "Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama tried to direct more than $3 million in taxpayer funds to a Chicago museum whose chairman is one of the Illinois senator's largest campaign fundraisers," the Washington Times' Jim McElhatton reports.)

On "troopergate": "An informal adviser who has counseled Gov. Sarah Palin on ethics issues urged her in July to apologize for her handling of the dismissal of the state's public safety commissioner and warned that the matter could snowball into a bigger scandal," Jim Carlton writes in The Wall Street Journal.

"He also said, in a letter reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, that she should fire any aides who had raised concerns with the chief over a state trooper who was involved in a bitter divorce with the governor's sister," Carlton continues. "In the letter, written before Sen. John McCain picked the Alaska governor as his running mate, former U.S. Attorney Wevley Shea warned Gov. Palin that "the situation is now grave" and recommended that she and her husband, Todd Palin, apologize for "overreaching or perceived overreaching" for using her position to try to get Trooper Mike Wooten fired from the force."

On cronyism: "Palin's office approved a state job for a friend and campaign aide with whom she shared a land investment, financial records and interviews over the past two weeks show. She hired a former lobbyist for a pipeline company to help oversee a multibillion-dollar deal with that same company," Timothy J. Burger and Tony Hopfinger report for Bloomberg News. "She named a police chief accused of harassment to head the state police. And she sent campaign e-mails on her city hall account while serving as mayor of Wasilla -- conduct for which she later turned in an oil commissioner on ethics charges."

On the natural gas pipeline she's touting: "The reality, however, is far more ambiguous than the impression Ms. Palin has left at the convention and on the campaign trail," The New York Times' Serge F. Kovaleski and Mike McIntire write. "Certainly she proved effective in attracting developers to a project that has eluded Alaska governors for three decades. But an examination of the pipeline project also found that Ms. Palin has overstated both the progress that has been made and the certainty of success. The pipeline exists only on paper."

From some who know her well: Former Gov. Tony "Knowles broke new ground while answering a reporter's question on whether Wasilla forced rape victims to pay for their own forensic tests when Palin was mayor. True, Knowles said," George Bryson writes in the Anchorage Daily News. "Eight years ago, complaints about charging rape victims for medical exams in Wasilla prompted the Alaska Legislature to pass a bill -- signed into law by Knowles -- that banned the practice statewide.."

Yet Palin floats above: "For the moment, for all the facts matter, Palin could have laid the caissons for the Bridge to Nowhere and burned books in the town square. To the huge audience in Virginia, she hung the moon and the stars," Bloomberg's Margaret Carlson writes. "Crowds and celebrity were on the list of Obama's flaws until Palin started attracting the first and became the latter. Now McCain doesn't leave home without her."

"Positive first impressions and high expectations often become undone by additional information," Clarence Page writes in his Chicago Tribune column. "For example, convention delegates and TV viewers loved the punch lines in Palin's acceptance speech to become the GOP's nominee for vice president, like her self-description as a 'hockey mom,' which she equated to a pit bull with lipstick. But nothing ruins a good punch line like additional information."

Roger Ebert casts her as the "American Idol" candidate -- and not in a good way: "I trust the American people will see through Palin, and save the Republic in November. The most damning indictment against her is that she considered herself a good choice to be a heartbeat away. That shows bad judgment," he writes in the Chicago Sun-Times.

The ultimate in celebrification of politics: The candidate who attacked another candidate for being a "celebrity" has launched into orbit himself. "Last month, [McCain] created his own celebrity," the AP's Ron Fournier writes. "What Michael Jordan is to sports, Rick Warren is to religion, Steve Jobs is to business and Madonna is to music -- that's what McCain, Palin, Obama and Democratic running mate Joe Biden are to politics."

Boston Globe columnist Dan Payne declares Palin flatly unqualified: "To the extent he thought about it at all, McCain (an ex-POW) picked her to fix his problems with GOP evangelicals and juice the ticket. That's a lousy reason to let someone so completely unfit stand so close to the presidency."

Bill and Barack break bread Thursday -- and then get set to team up. Former President Bill Clinton is set to hit the trail solo for Obama, starting with a Sept. 29 even in Florida, the AP's Nedra Pickler reports. "There's nobody smarter in politics," Obama told Letterman. "And he is going to be campaigning for us over the next eight weeks, which I'm thrilled by."

On 9/11, an issue that isn't: "The joint appearance at Ground Zero today by Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama will not only commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks but also will mark a rare moment in the campaign when both candidates focus on terrorism, an issue that has lost prominence for American voters as the deadly attacks recede in the public memory," Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post.

"Beneath the harsh rhetoric, the two candidates -- who meet today in New York City to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks -- seem to be moving toward consensus on their broad-brush strategies, an unexpected development in what was the most contentious issue in the presidential race four years ago," Josh Meyer writes in the Los Angeles Times.

Bob Barr snubbed the Ron Paul press conference Wednesday -- but he had a good reason, sort of. "At a news conference of his own, Barr said he agreed on the 'principles' of non-interventionism, privacy rights, reducing the national debt and controlling the Federal Reserve, but that they were 'amorphous,' " McClatchy's Maria Recio reports. "What Barr really wanted was Paul's endorsement, and he is even offering the Texan the vice-presidential spot on the Libertarian ticket."

"Thus did the short-lived third-party unity movement of 2008 go in the trough," writes The Washington Post's Dana Milbank. "It was an opportunity squandered, for the two major parties were busy yesterday demonstrating why an alternative to Democrats and Republicans is so desperately needed."

The Sked:

It's the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the political ad runs go dark.

President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush hold a moment of silence at 8:46 am ET Thursday, on the White House South Lawn. The president then speaks at the dedication of the 9/11 Pentagon Memorial at 9:30 am ET.

Palin delivers remarks at the deployment ceremony for her son's infantry division at Fort Wainwright, Alaska.

Then she sits down with ABC's Charles Gibson for her first interview as vice-presidential candidate -- watch "World News" Thursday evening for the first glimpse.

McCain attends a 9/11 service at the Flight 93 crash site in Shanksville, Pa.

Obama lunches with former President Bill Clinton in Harlem.

McCain and Obama plan a joint visit to Ground Zero, and will attend the Service Nation presidential forum in New York at 8 pm ET, moderated by Time managing editor Rick Stengel and PBS's Judy Woodruff.

Biden holds a discussion with first responders in Parma, Ohio, and also attends Service Nation.

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

The Kicker:

"I had a recent offer with Popular Mechanics." -- Barack Obama, on Letterman, recalling the days that he was gracing magazine covers with regularity.

"I didn't like the idea of 2 or 3 million people getting angry with me." -- Rep. Ron Paul, explaining why he declined Phil Gramm's suggestion that he endorse John McCain.

Viewing Guide:

The first excerpts of the interview with Sarah Palin will air on Thursday's "World News with Charles Gibson" and "Nightline," followed by "Good Morning America" and "World News" on Friday.

A special "20/20" -- "The Interview: Sarah Palin with Charles Gibson" -- will air on Friday, September 12 at 10 p.m., ET. The hour will feature more of Gibson's interviews with the Vice Presidential candidate from Fairbanks and Wasilla. Kate Snow will report on the personal and professional background of Governor Palin leading up to her nomination, and George Stephanopoulos will moderate a live roundtable discussion on the state of the presidential race.

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