The Note: Palin Nation

LENOX, Mass. -- Start the countdown: We're 50 days out now from Election Day 2008. ABC News kicks off its "50 States in 50 Days" tour Monday morning on the "Good Morning America" "Whistle-Stop Express" in the state where -- in a sense -- the last election ended: Massachusetts, where Sen. John Kerry conceded defeat.

But this is the flip side of blue-state America. Here on the opposite side of the Bay State from Boston -- literally Norman Rockwell country, where the landscape is more Anchorage than Cambridge, far from Wall Street turmoil yet feeling its pains -- the sense is more Palin Nation than Obama Land.

Keep tabs as we tour the whole country.

Democrats can (and will) ignore the woman in the corner who's making so much fuss. But from the Steaming Tender restaurant in Palmer, to historic Union Station in Worcester, to the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Palin power is in the air -- her freshness just maybe helping Sen. John McCain grab the change mantle that's so key to the race.

"I didn't think anybody would have the chutzpah to pick someone like her," said Daniel Schur, of Westborough, Mass., who came out to greet the train's send-off in Worcester holding a McCain-Palin sign. "That's one thing people from the East Coast and the West Coast forget -- how many people live in the middle of the country."

Maybe it speaks to organization, maybe it's the result of planning, maybe it means nothing at all -- but in the signage, in the buzz, in the chatter, the enthusiasm on the GOP side continues unabated a full two weeks into Gov. Sarah Palin's not-entirely-smooth introduction to the national scene.

(To say nothing of Tina Fey, just maybe a better Sarah Palin than Sarah Palin, and surely a better Sarah Palin than Sarah Palin was a Tina Fey).

(Meanwhile, Palin's opposite number -- remember Joe? -- takes on the task of engaging his friend John on Monday. And Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton hops aboard the "GMA" train Monday afternoon in Albany, N.Y., for her first sit-down interview since conceding the Democratic contest -- and since Palin's emergence -- with ABC's Diane Sawyer.)

It all must be hard for a phenom to watch. But Sen. Barack Obama has first-hand knowledge of the subject.

"One of the things about running over 19 months is that you realize this thing just goes in cycles. Yeah, there are times where you're a genius; there are times where you're an idiot," Obama, D-Ill., tells ABC's Chris Cuomo.

A play on economic unease, in a chaotic time in the financial markets (and notice that Sarah Palin's name is not uttered here):

"You would be hard-pressed to explain to me what John McCain's economic vision is about how he's gonna get this economy back on track," Obama continues. "That, I believe, is somebody who is out of touch with what is -- should be the central question of this election."

Speaking of central questions: "America's banking instability could upend the final 50 days of the presidential campaign, with both candidates forced to confront a calamity that has gotten only glancing attention during the first 20 months of the race for the White House," Politico's Mike Allen writes. "It's no longer an insider's game. The crisis is now at a tipping point where Wall Street will visibly affect Main Street."

"It's 3 am on Wall Street. Will either candidate offer an explanation of the problem and a plan to fix it that will reassure voters and break through the din?" Howard Wolfson blogs at The New Republic.

First thing Obama does, not too far from 3am this morning, is get philosophical (with a finger pointed at McCain by association).

"I certainly don't fault Senator McCain for these problems, but I do fault the economic philosophy he subscribes to. It's a philosophy we've had for the last eight years – one that says we should give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. It's a philosophy that says even common-sense regulations are unnecessary and unwise, and one that says we should just stick our heads in the sand and ignore economic problems until they spiral into crises," Obama said in a paper statement this morning, per ABC's Jake Tapper.

In his paper statement McCain thanks the current powers for not using taxpayer money to bail out Lehman and then pivots to reform, per ABC's Bret Hovell

The McCain Palin administration, he says, "will replace the outdated and ineffective patchwork quilt of regulatory oversight in Washington and bring transparency and accountability to Wall Street. We will rebuild confidence in our markets and restore our leadership in the financial world."

Obama backs up his broader campaign message Monday with a new (sharper) ad (again, no Palin): "What happened to John McCain?" the ad asks. "He's running 'the sleaziest ads ever.' 'Truly vile.' . . . 'Dishonest smears.' . . . It seems 'deception' is all he has left."

And it will be time on the stump for change that's "needed" rather than "believed in."

"The poetic defenses of hope, the playful jokes about being a distant relative of Vice President Cheney and the glancing attention to policy have been replaced by an emphasis on economic fears — an issue-by-issue argument of why the American dream is slipping away and the Republican ticket has no plan to rescue it. He furrows his brow, wags his finger and broadcasts exasperation at the idea that a 26-year veteran of Washington is co-opting his mantra of change," writes Carrie Budoff Brown in Politico.

Obama leaves it to his No. 2 to deliver the day's big blows, taking it right to the McCain brand (still no Palin): "The sequel is always worse than the original," Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., plans to say Monday at a campaign event in Michigan, per the Obama campaign.

"Bush 44," Biden labels McCain. "There is simply no daylight -- at least none I can see -- between John McCain and George Bush. On every major challenge we face, from the economy, to health care, to education and Iraq, you can barely tell them apart."

Will those blows land if they're made by a guy travelling around the country in a plane with a near-empty press section?

Look who else isn't mentioning Palin: "Clinton mentioned Palin just twice in speeches here [in Elyria, Ohio] and in Akron, in one instance repeating an earlier line: 'No way, no how, no McCain and no Palin,' " Lois Romano and Anne Kornblut write in The Washington Post. "Since the Republican convention, Clinton has pointedly avoided directly criticizing Palin as she campaigns for Obama (D-Ill.), a strategy endorsed by the Obama campaign."

"An Obama campaign insider said the candidate and his surrogates are trying to ignore Mrs. Palin and redirect the focus of voters to what they describe as failed Republican policies," S.A. Miller reports in The Washington Times.

"Even as he mounts unceasing attacks on his Republican rival, Barack Obama is ignoring the person on the ticket who is the center of attention: Sarah Palin," Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times. "Normally, the Democratic vice presidential nominee might be expected to eviscerate Palin. But Obama's No. 2, Joe Biden, is sticking to the script. When he gets a question about the Alaska governor, he too shifts back to McCain."

Particularly on the economy, there are real vulnerabilities for a candidate who seeks to follow a two-term president: "What the Republican ticket has not done . . . is break with Mr. Bush on the centerpiece issue of the economy," John Harwood writes for The New York Times. "Thus Mr. Obama vows to hammer away at the idea that a McCain presidency would represent a third Bush term. At the same time, Mr. McCain still has 50 days to tack toward the middle, and a running mate whose popularity on the right can provide political cover."

And it is the economy, everywhere: "The economy has created the sort of political crosscurrents here [in Fitchburg, Mass.] that are apparent in more competitive battlegrounds," Susan Page writes in kicking off the "50-in-50" series in USA Today. "From Pennsylvania to New Hampshire and across the Rust Belt, communities like Fitchburg have searched for financial footing after the loss of manufacturing jobs to Southern states and foreign competitors. The economic slowdown has made those efforts harder."

Think women aren't in play? "After the news programs, 'Oprah' is the chief recipient of campaign advertisements this year, with Senator John McCain buying more commercial spots on the program in the last month than Senator Barack Obama -- even though Ms. Winfrey herself is backing Mr. Obama," Kate Zernike writes in The New York Times. "Now Obama campaign officials are stepping up their efforts, and both campaigns are recalibrating pitches to women to navigate cultural forces and policy positions that can give them an advantage."

But what if a campaign just doesn't care what anyone says about it?

"We recognize it's not going to be 2000 again," McCain spokesman Brian Rogers tells Politico's Jonathan Martin. "But he lost then. We're running a campaign to win. And we're not too concerned about what the media filter tries to say about it."

It may be the politics of Karl Rove, in Biden's formulation, but that doesn't mean Mr. Rove approves. "McCain has gone, in some of his ads, similarly gone one step too far in sort of attributing to Obama things that are, you know, beyond the 100 percent truth test," Rove said on Fox News Sunday.

Adds the new civility cop: "Both campaigns are making a mistake, and that is they are taking whatever their attacks are and going one step too far."

Who loses if it's a roll in the mud (with apologies to pigs everywhere)? "The decision to stick with a mostly-nasty approach should finally end the myth that the Obama campaign is a flawless machine," Michael Goodwin writes in his New York Daily News column. "It had an extraordinarily appealing candidate, a message of change to an unhappy nation and made brilliant tactical decisions that defeated the Clintons. But that was last season."

Does the Obama campaign want to go here? Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said on ABC's "This Week" Sunday that McCain's age and history of melanoma are fair game. "I think what we're talking about is a reality," McCaskill told George Stephanopoulos. "Other people talk about his melanoma. We're talking about a reality here that we have to face."

The Obama campaign steps toward that line in one of its new ads: "Democrat Barack Obama's campaign came under fire from conservative bloggers yesterday for a new political ad criticizing his 72-year-old opponent, John McCain, for not using computers," Bryan Bender reports in The Boston Globe. "The National Review Online and other Republican-leaning websites said the charge was unfair, citing several articles, including stories several years ago in the Boston Globe and, that indicated injuries McCain sustained when he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam prevent him from using a keyboard."

The RNC ripped off Facebook formatting -- and the DNC goes Wikipedia with its new "Count the Lies" site taking on McCain.

On the positive front for Obama, another record month -- $66 million raised in August. "The campaign also added 500,000 new donors during the month," per ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "Previously, the campaign's best fundraising month was February of this year, in the midst of the heated primary with Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., when they tallied $55 million in donations."

Yet: "Even with the impressive August fund-raising, the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee appear to have started September with slightly less at their disposal than Mr. McCain and the Republican National Committee for the general election sprint," Jeff Zeleny and Michael Luo write in The New York Times.

The new money picture make look much like the old one: "Nevertheless, Obama might not have an overwhelming financial advantage against McCain because of a strong effort by the Republican National Committee, which has outraised its Democratic counterpart for months," Matthew Mosk writes in The Washington Post. "The RNC raised about $23 million in August, and through its various state and federal accounts, the Republican Party started September with more than $110 million at its disposal for the presidential contest, GOP sources said."

And the new map looks much like the old one: "As in the past two campaigns, four big states -- Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Florida -- are expected to dominate the attention of the candidates," Dan Balz and Peter Slevin write in The Washington Post. "Additionally, there will be battles in a group of smaller states now seen by the campaigns as most vulnerable to shifting sides. Five states that went for President Bush in 2004 are now high on the list of potential Obama states: Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Virginia. Two states that went for Sen. John F. Kerry are top targets of McCain's campaign: Wisconsin and New Hampshire."

But today, Obama and Palin are both in Colorado.

Obama strategist David Axelrod, on the Palin effect (fingers crossed): "I think one of the things driving the national polls is that the red states are redder."

But the power surge is real: "The exploding interest in Sen. John McCain's campaign, fueled in part by the addition of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to the ticket, has his staff scrambling to expand events," Elizabeth Holmes and Elizabeth Williamson report in The Wall Street Journal. "The campaign is expanding the number of Pennsylvania offices to 30 from 14, and its Ohio offices to more than 35 from 18. The formerly lean McCain campaign and Republican National Committee payrolls have doubled in size in recent weeks, an expansion that can be attributed in large part to Gov. Palin joining the team."

Steve Gruber, in a Washington Times op-ed: "I have spoken to three women I know fairly well. Without exception, all three repeated a similar story and here it is: I have not been focusing that much on the election, but I had been thinking I would vote for Mr. Obama because I am tired of George W. Bush. But after seeing Mrs. Palin speak and then the way she has been treated, I am voting for her. Voting for her, they said!"

And what of the underlying dynamics of Sarah Palin?

Tough new looks at Palin abound. But does any of it matter to voters who have enshrined her as celebrity they just plain like?

"I've gotten the scary feeling, for the first time in my life, that dimwittedness is not just on the march in the U.S., but that it might actually prevail," Bob Herbert wrote in his Saturday New York Times column.

As for the scrutiny: "An examination of her swift rise and record as mayor of Wasilla and then governor finds that her visceral style and penchant for attacking critics -- she sometimes calls local opponents 'haters' -- contrasts with her carefully crafted public image," Jo Becker, Peter S. Goodman, and Michael Powell write in The New York Times.

"Throughout her political career, she has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her and sometimes blurred the line between government and personal grievance, according to a review of public records and interviews with 60 Republican and Democratic legislators and local officials."

Lots of details about trying to avoid public scrutiny and ousting political enemies. And this precious sentence: "The Wasilla High School yearbook archive now doubles as a veritable directory of state government," they write.

Quotable quote: "I'm still proud of Sarah," said Laura Chase, the campaign manager during Ms. Palin's first run for mayor, in 1996, "but she scares the bejeebers out of me."

The Washington Post's Alec MacGillis goes to the mayoral days: "A visit to this former mining supply post 40 miles north of Anchorage shows the extent to which Palin's mayoralty was also defined by what it did not include. The universe of the mayor of Wasilla is sharply circumscribed even by the standards of small towns, which limited Palin's exposure to issues such as health care, social services, the environment and education."

Was it too much work? "Palin limited her duties further by hiring a deputy administrator to handle much of the town's day-to-day management. Her top achievement as mayor was the construction of an ice rink, a project that landed in the courts and cost the city more than expected."

On foreign travel: "Sarah Palin's visit to Iraq in 2007 consisted of a brief stop at a border crossing between Iraq and Kuwait, the vice presidential candidate's campaign said yesterday, in the second official revision of her only trip outside North America," Bryan Bender reported in The Boston Globe. "Following her selection last month as John McCain's running mate, aides said Palin had traveled to Ireland, Germany, Kuwait, and Iraq to meet with members of the Alaska National Guard. During that trip she was said to have visited a 'military outpost' inside Iraq. The campaign has since repeated that Palin's foreign travel included an excursion into the Iraq battle zone."

On earmarks: "State records show Gov. Palin has asked U.S. taxpayers to fund $453 million in specific Alaska projects over the past two years," Laura Meckler and John R. Wilke write in The Wall Street Journal. "These projects include more than $130 million in federal funds that would benefit Alaska's fishing industry and an additional $9 million to help Alaska oil companies. She also has sought $4.5 million to upgrade an airport on a Bering Sea island that has a year-round population of less than 100."

Palin in her own words: "There isn't a need to aspire to live without any earmarks," Palin told The New Yorker's Philip Gourevitch -- before she joined McCain's ticket, naturally. "The writing on the wall, though, is that times are changing. Presidential candidates have promised earmark reform, so we gotta deal with it, we gotta live with it, understanding that our senior senator, especially -- he's eighty-four years old, he is not gonna be able to serve in the Senate forever. We will not have that seniority back there anymore."

Recasting Palin in another direction – How is she like Reagan? Let Fred Barnes count the ways:

"Like Reagan, Palin has a dazzling star quality and an appeal to voters outside the conservative orbit. But there's another likeness to Reagan that conservatives may find a bit off-putting. She governs as a pragmatic conservative--with heavy emphasis on the pragmatic."

The Sked:

Barack Obama will be out west in Colorado Monday. He will host a Change We Need Event in Grand Junction, Colorado at 1pm ET, followed by a Change We Need rally in Pueblo, Colo. tonight at 6:30pm ET.

Sarah Palin is also in Colorado Monday. She will hold a Road to Victory rally in Golden at 11:00am ET.

Joe Biden spends the day in Michigan. He will hold two Change We Need rallies Monday, one in St. Claire Shores at 10:30am ET and one in Flat Rock at 5:30pm ET.

John McCain spends the day in Florida. He holds a Road to Victory Rally in Jacksonville at 9:00am ET and a Town Hall meeting in Orlando at 12:30pm ET.

Also in the news:

Dial up 527: "A new group financed by a Texas billionaire and organized by some of the same political operatives and donors behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Sen. John F. Kerry in 2004 plans to begin running television ads attacking Barack Obama, a signal that outside groups may play a larger role than anticipated in the closing days of the presidential race," Matthew Mosk and Chris Cillizza report in the Sunday Washington Post.

Is Florida fading from the map? "Barack Obama could be on the verge of falling out of contention in Florida," Adam C. Smith reports in the St. Petersburg Times. "Despite spending an estimated $8-million on campaign ads in America's biggest battleground state and putting in place the largest Democratic campaign organization ever in Florida, Obama has lost ground over the summer. Florida has moved from a toss-up state to one that clearly leans toward John McCain."

Mark Penn joins beat the press: "I think here the media is on very dangerous ground," he tells CBS' Brian Goldsmith. "I think that when you see them going through every single expense report that Governor Palin ever filed, if they don't do that for all four of the candidates, they're on very dangerous ground. I think the media so far has been the biggest loser in this race. And they continue to have growing credibility problems."

Surprise: Hollywood doesn't heart Palin, Variety's Ted Johnson reports. "Terrifying possibility," says Matt Damon. "Bizarre," says Annette Bening, on the possibility of Clinton supporters switching their allegiances.

Rangel wrangles with The New York Times editorial page. Nothing subtle here: "Mounting embarrassment for taxpayers and Congress makes it imperative that Representative Charles Rangel step aside as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee while his ethical problems are investigated."

The Kicker:

"She thought it was quite funny . . . especially because the governor has dressed up as Tina Fey for Halloween." -- McCain-Palin adviser, on Sarah Palin's reaction to the "Saturday Night Live."

"A sleepover with people they like." -- Joe Biden, describing the 2008 election, and why he thinks the nation will vote Democratic.

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