HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. -- It turns out the vaunted new McCain message machine can't produce the candidate himself a message on the big issue of the moment. And, it turns out, even really nice lipstick smears.
This hasn't been a case of Sen. Barack Obama finding his voice as much as it's been Sen. John McCain losing his. (As for Gov. Sarah Palin -- you don't need to see her e-mails to know that after a while, even a hip new song gets old.)
At this snapshot in the race, there is no other issue -- not pigs, not sexism, not the surge, not anything, really, that bodes particularly well for Team McCain.
It's 48-43 in the latest New York Times/CBS poll -- the Palin bounce bouncing right back to where we were pre-conventions.
Ditto Quinnipiac, which gives Obama a 14-point lead among women and a 49 – 45 lead nationwide.
"Despite an intense effort to distance himself from the way his party has done business in Washington, Senator John McCain is seen by voters as far less likely to bring change to Washington than Senator Barack Obama," Robin Toner and Adam Nagourney reports in the Times write-up. "The latest poll indicates 'the Palin effect' was, at least so far, a limited burst of interest. . . . The Times/CBS News poll suggested that Ms. Palin's selection has, to date, helped Mr. McCain only among Republican base voters; there was no evidence of significantly increased support for him among women in general."
"Economic 9/11," former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta tells USA Today (and which party would more happily embrace this analogy?).
The current President is doing his best Silent Cal and today in Washington they are battening down the hatches. President Bush canceled a trip to Alabama and Treasury officials put off testimony before the Senate Banking Committee for the second time this week.
"Once again, New York is the focus of the nation, and the amount of mass media concentrated there guarantees that this economic crisis will remain where it belongs -- at the center of attention," David Broder writes in his column. "For all the excitement Palin has generated, the national mood is still a major barrier for McCain and the Republicans."
There's palpable concern about the economy -- Wall Street's woes reaching already demoralized places like West Virginia, where ABC's "50 States in 50 Days" tour is in town for "Good Morning America" Thursday, and far, far beyond.
"The nation, divided sharply this decade by politics, is now united in worry," Jim Tankersley and Christi Parsons write in the Chicago Tribune, kicking off a new series, "United States of Anxiety."
And it's a worry manifested in realities on Main Streets like the Strip. Here's how J. Patrick Coolican described Obama's speech yesterday: "Sen. Barack Obama appeared at Cashman Field on Wednesday, but a more appropriate spot might have been four miles down the road on the lonely grounds of Echelon. That partially finished multibillion-dollar Strip resort, paralyzed because the money is gone, has become a symbol of Wall Street's far-reaching impact on Las Vegas."
Coolilcan described Obama's zinger of the day: "Obama spoke from a stage built over home plate and pantomimed some baseball swings before opening up on McCain, with relish. He mocked McCain for saying he'd take on the "old boys' network" in Washington: "The old boys' network? In the McCain campaign, that's called a staff meeting."
And yet - It's not necessarily that it's a time for blame -- it is that it's a time for fresh answers.
"John McCain has a fundamentals problem," Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post. "It is political as well as economic, and it remains the biggest obstacle standing between the Arizona senator and the White House."
"As with his Monday misstep, once again the message is mixed," Balz continues. "Guns blazing, McCain is promising to ride into town to -- oversee the creation of a commission to study the problem. He is speaking out in favor of regulation but against a history of opposing a heavy government hand. He has expressed his outrage, but what is the balance he would strike between the old and new McCain?"
"The dizzying series of bankruptcies, buyouts, and bailouts on Wall Street has prompted McCain to recast his outlook at a crucial moment in the presidential campaign," Michael Kranish and Farah Stockman write in The Boston Globe. "McCain's economic worldview could suddenly be a political liability."
Add a reversal on the AIG bailout to a message McCain clouded and Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Carly Fiorina muddied further. (And was there a better day to get the endorsement of a billionaire? The Donald goes McCain.)
"It's like a Saturday Night Live routine," Obama said Wednesday, per ABC's Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller.
"In a matter of days, McCain shifted from invoking small-government icon Ronald Reagan to quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt, the architect of the modern regulatory state," Noam N. Levey and Maeve Reston write in the Los Angeles Times. "And he and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, dropped their promise, as Palin put it, to 'get government out of the way of private-sector progress,' and are now pledging 'stringent oversight' to deal with "a toxic waste there on Wall Street.'"
These bald vacillations could have consequences on the right and the left, according to Kranish and Stockman in the Globe: "Since he has said he supports government intervention only in catastrophic times, he is open to criticism from liberals who see deregulation as the root of the problem and conservatives who see the taxpayer bailouts as rewarding reckless decisions."
And a new TV ad he has out today highlights the disconnect between regulation McCain – the guy we've met the last several days – and small government McCain. Playing off the shadow cast by the Capitol dome, the announced says Obama and his liberal allies in Congress "want a massive government, billions in spending increases, wasteful pork."
"Republicans can rightly point out that Joe Biden also supported the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Modernization Act of 1999," ABC's Teddy Davis and Rigel Anderson report. "But what separates McCain from both Biden and Obama is that as recently as March of this year, in the wake of the Bear Stearns collapse, it was McCain who was calling for further deregulation of Wall Street."
But history and facts can be difficult things for now-regulatory-minded Democrats Washington-wide. Ask Harry Reid, who argued on the Senate floor yesterday he voted against Gramm-Leach-Bliley (like Biden, he opposed a Senate version of the bill in the summer of '99, but went on to vote for the conference report that eventually became law when a President named Clinton signed it.
With great trials come great opportunities: "The crisis on Wall Street and renewed attention to the nation's economic woes have created new opportunity for Barack Obama to regain control of the campaign debate," Laura Meckler and Nick Timiraos write in The Wall Street Journal.
"The renewed attention to the economy gives both candidates a chance to move away from their parties' pasts," USA Today's Richard Wolf writes. "For McCain, that means an activist approach to changing Wall Street and Washington, not the deregulation for which Republicans are known. For Obama, it means including tax cuts and energy production in his mix of more liberal salves."
Some intra-party restlessness for McCain to cope with: "Conservatives on and off the Hill said this week's massive bailout violated free-market principles and encouraged reckless behavior in the future," Alexander Bolton reports for The Hill. "The AIG decision confuses that signal quite a bit," said House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
Yet this is still no comfort zone for Obama: "Crisis does not bring out the best in Barack Obama. His instinct is to equivocate and temporize," David Frum writes for The Week.
Obama has been here before: "McCain's decision to boil down the current economic crisis to -- with apologies to former Vice President Al Gore -- 'the people versus the powerful' is a sound one given the success of the populist message against Obama during the Democratic primary," Washingtonpost.com's Chris Cillizza writes.
Neither candidates really wants to be here: "Both men are struggling to hit the right notes in the midst of the Wall Street mess, facing the reality that there aren't many levers a presidential candidate, or even a president, can pull for a quick fix," Stephen Dinan writes in the Washington Times. "As a result, the two men seeking to be president have been less specific on immediate solutions while touting their longer-term plans to revive the economy and insulate everyday Americans from the impact."
"Barack Obama and John McCain have called for tougher regulations and more oversight of Wall Street. However, they don't have long records on the subject," USA Today's David Jackson, Kathy Kiely and Matt Kelley report. "Republican McCain, a 22-year Senate veteran, has been known as a stronger advocate for deregulation than the rhetoric he's used recently. Democrat Obama, in his fourth Senate year, has tried to crack down on mortgage lenders but his legislation has not come up for a vote."
The concern is everywhere: "Americans in this campaign season worry more about the economy than any other issue. The world is why," Jim Tankersley and Christi Parsons write in launching their Tribune series from Leadville, Colo. "But on the campaign trail, neither candidate is working hard to sell America on a comprehensive plan to cope with the fast-changing rules of the global economy -- a rethinking of business, education, government and personal choices in a world where prosperity comes with stratification and insecurity, and where the new winners and losers are easy to spot."
There's a turn here that McCain must make -- and that Karl Rove helps him (?) navigate: "This election is not fundamentally about Mr. McCain. It is much more about people's persistent doubts concerning Mr. Obama. The only way to reassure them is to provide a compelling, forward-looking agenda. That sounds obvious, but the Obama campaign seems to be betting on making Mr. McCain an unacceptable choice by striking at his character."
Obama and Joe Biden are hardly rock solid on the issues at hand: "Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Joe Biden Wednesday backed off his unequivocal statement a day earlier against a federal bailout of embattled insurance giant AIG," per ABC's Matthew Jaffe.
Biden, D-Del., goes no further in an interview with ABC's Kate Snow: "It's hard to second guess. I haven't spoken to the Secretary. Look, he's left with a pretty bad Hobson's choice here. I mean, there's no good answer."
The only answer Biden has is a party change: "Look, when 82 percent of the American people think the country's going in the wrong direction, when the same outfit's been in charge for the last eight years, when you're in a position where you have Wall Street crumbling before our eyes and hope to God we can prop it up to keep it from spreading to Main Street like a plague -- the idea that they're going to reelect somebody who doesn't have a fundamental disagreement with George W. Bush on the economy, taxes, health care, etc. . . . I'm not nervous at all."
"Profiles in Porridge," quips ABC's Jake Tapper, rounding up the flip-flops by McCain and Biden, and the studied non-answers by Obama and Palin.
What Republicans want you to digest (and what Obamaland wouldn't mind sinking in, either): "Despite perceptions that Sen. John McCain has spent more time on the attack, Sen. Barack Obama aired more negative advertising last week than did the Arizona Republican, says a study released yesterday," Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post. "Seventy-seven percent of the Illinois Democrat's commercials were negative during the week after the Republican National Convention, compared with 56 percent of the spots run by McCain."
Joe Klein is frothy at Time and says its not that McCain is attacking Obama, but that he has heretofore played fast and loose with the facts (read, lied):
Elsewhere in opinion, USA Today thinks McCain would outunify Obama.
What Republicans want you to digest (and what Obamaland would rather see disappear): "Top Hillary Clinton fundraiser and member of the Democratic National Committee's Platform Committee Lynn Forester de Rothschild endorsed Republican presidential nominee John McCain on Wednesday."
As for Palin, aren't you glad we waited for this? "Gov. Sarah Palin took questions directly from voters for the first time, but rarely directly answered the questions posed to her or ventured from lines she often delivers on the campaign trail," per ABC's Bret Hovell and Imtiyaz Delawala.
Asked about "specific skills" she'd bring to the White House, she answered with many, many words:
"I think because I am a Washington outsider that opponents are going to be looking for a whole lot of things that they can criticize and they can kind of beat the candidate here who chose me as his partner to kinda tear down the ticket," Palin responded. "But as for foreign policy you know I think I am prepared and I know that on January 20th if we are so blessed as to be sworn into office as your president and vice-president, certainly we'll be ready. I'll be ready. I have that confidence. I have that readiness and if you want specifics with specific policy or countries go ahead you can ask, you can play stump the candidate if you want to. But we are ready to serve."
(Wasn't she just asked?)
Now that we're starting to hear her voice -- we may be about to hear a lot more of her real voice.
Her e-mail account, hacked: "The hackers posted what they said were personal photos, the contents of several messages, the subject lines of dozens of e-mails and Palin's e-mail contact list on a site called Wikileaks.org," Michael D. Shear and Karl Vick write in The Washington Post. "The episode focuses attention on Palin's use of her personal e-mail account as lawmakers in Alaska look into whether she fired the state's public safety commissioner, Walter Monegan, because he refused to take action against her brother-in-law, a state trooper at the time."
(Which is better: A candidate who doesn't know how to use e-mail, or a candidate whose actual e-mail for work purposes was firstname.lastname@example.org?)
"The substance of the e-mails appeared relatively inconsequential, but they add to an existing furor as Mrs. Palin and others in her state administration routinely have used private Yahoo e-mail accounts to conduct official state business," Kara Rowland writes in the Washington Times.
Says McCain campaign manager Rick Davis: "This is a shocking invasion of the governor's privacy and a violation of the law."
Republicans are seeking inquiries into her personal email there, but asking that less convenient inquiries involving email be stopped.
ABC's Justin Rood and Emma Schwartz look at just how convoluted Troopergate has become: "GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin shifted her tactics for the second time in three weeks on the "Troopergate" investigation, this time calling to end the very investigation that she herself called for and the one the McCain campaign had said was the only proper venue for a probe. Palin's Attorney General, who initially launched an internal probe into Palin, even before the legislature began theirs, is now asking the legislators to withdraw their subpoenas of Palin aides and Palin's husband."
The fight for Latino votes rages:
Per the Los Angeles Times: "McCain issued a Spanish-language ad in the key states of Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico that sought to blame Obama for the failure of congressional immigration overhaul efforts in 2007. McCain repeated that argument at an appearance before a Puerto Rican group in Florida. McCain's assertions were denounced by Democrats and immigration organizations as misleading."
Swinging back, per ABC's Jake Tapper: Obama "has launched a new Spanish-language TV ad that seeks to paint Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as anti-immigrant, even tying the Republican to his longtime conservative talk-radio nemesis Rush Limbaugh. . . . By linking McCain to Limbaugh's quotes, twisting Limbaugh's quotes, and tying McCain to more extremist anti-immigration voices, the Obama campaign has crossed a line into misleading the viewers of its new TV ad. In Spanish, the word is erróneo."
Restart the abortion battles: "Democrat Barack Obama, who supports abortion rights, is only too happy to remind voters where McCain stands, but he tries to make his case without attracting too much attention," the AP's Liz Sidoti reports. "Both candidates are gingerly trying to strike the right chord on abortion as they reach out to a critical voting group -- independents and moderates, primarily women in swing-voting suburban regions of crucial states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio."
"A string of provocative advertising campaigns have made their debut, paid for by outside groups and focused on both candidates' views on abortion. The targets: undecided women and devout Catholics in key battleground states," per The Wall Street Journal.
The zinger about McCain's staff meeting was the only moment of "sparkle" for Obama yesterday, even though the news cycle was working his way, according to Slate's John Dickerson, who looks again at the ups and downs of campaigning as Mr. Cool.
"If there was a place to get hot and bothered, it was Elko, Nev., where Obama spoke Wednesday afternoon. He stood in the open on a black stage under the midday sun while flies buzzed relentlessly. He didn't appear fazed. He sounded like a man who was ahead by 10 points. He wasn't exactly listless—he implored voters to join his campaign for change and attacked John McCain—but he wasn't urgent or exercised, either. He unveiled no new gambits."
Poor, hard-working reporters, say Mike Allen and Carrie Budoff–Brown at Politico: "Not only do the reporters have little interaction with the candidates, but increasingly they are having little impact on the broad campaign narratives and daily story lines that supply most voters with their impressions of the candidates. That's more often taking place in cable studios or on Web sites far removed from the ceaseless grind of the press bubble — in which reporters schlump on and off the plane, in and out of buses and gymnasiums-turned-filing centers, several times a day, dozens of times a week."
Thursday is another day in the West for Obama, his fourth day in the region. He holds a rally in Espanola, N.M. at 12:30 pm ET.
Joe Biden is busy in Ohio with three rallies on Thursday. He begins the day in Canton with a 10:00 am ET rally, then heads to Akron for a 2 pm ET rally before finishing up in Youngstown with a 6 pm ET rally.
After spending Wednesday in Virginia, Michelle Obama heads south to North Carolina Thursday. She will hold an economic roundtable with women in Charlotte at 9 am ET, then a rally in Greensboro at 1:30 pm ET.
Former President Bill Clinton will deliver remarks at the Clinton Foundation Millennium Network CGI Special Reception at the Hammerstein Ballroom in NYC at 7:45 pm ET.
McCain and Palin team up for a pair of rallies, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, at 11 ET rally, then Green Bay, Wis., at 8 pm ET.
Also in the news:
Harold Ickes -- Obama savior? "Ickes, a Democratic media consultant and former Clinton adviser, has spent four years and $15 million building Catalist, a database that scores 200 million Americans according to their likelihood to vote for party candidates. Illinois Senator Obama, 47, is one of his biggest clients," Bloomberg's Christopher Stern writes.
Chris Cillizza and Jon Meacham premiere their new weekly show, a joint Washington Post/Newsweek production.
Lynn Sweet has an exhausting list of Obama campaign fundraising events, more Streisand than Joe Six Pack.
""No one knows what to do. We are in new territory here. This is a different game." – Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, asked what regulatory steps Congress could take this year to address the Wall Street meltdown.
"It's like we're non-persons." -- Ralph Nader, to Cardozo the Parrot, musing on whether he should dress up like a panda to draw more press coverage to his presidential campaign.
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