The Note: Palin Significance

Now that (we presume) the economy will be saved and the republic will endure and our money is as safe as the politicians who crafted this bailout package (read: not very), a few questions to take us into a week that will surely be more predictable than the last one:

How many presidents do you need to save a bailout bill?

How many winners were there in Friday's debate?

How many more ready-made opportunities do the candidates have to shift the terms of the race? (How many times has the Obama campaign done anything as bold as the McCain campaign does about every other week?)

A picture of George Stephanopoulos on GMA.Play
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How much impact will "Saturday Night Live" have if politics subsumes the jokes?

How many times will Bill Clinton say, "Barack Obama is the best man for the job"?

How many more times can Gov. Sarah Palin unleash words instead of answers without seeing her image cemented by the national media? (How much does Steve Schmidt care about that question?)

(Is the answer to all the above questions, "zero"?)

This is why you pick a vice president (plus the Tina Fey impersonations, we suppose). Palin will be critical to Sen. John McCain's success this week -- the flubs and fumbles under close scrutiny, the episodes where she seems to contradict McCain while talking circles around herself under an unforgiving glare.

The pressure would rest on the McCain ticket's shoulders anyway, given the shuttle (and shifting) diplomacy of last week that didn't quite work out. Add to that a first debate that cements the status quo, a running mate who seems to be getting worse the more (still limited) time she's out there, and a very big week gets bigger for Sarah Palin.

Think Team McCain is worried about Thursday's debate? After a joint McCain-Palin interview with Katie Couric, there's one final joint event in Ohio, and then the GOP vice-presidential nominee heads to Sedona, Ariz., for debate prep -- and stays until debate time.

"The McCain campaign moved its top officials inside Gov. Sarah Palin's operation Sunday to prepare for what is certain to be the most important event of her vice-presidential campaign: her debate on Thursday with Democrat Joe Biden," Monica Langley writes in The Wall Street Journal.

"More broadly, the McCain campaign aims to halt what it sees as a perceived decline in the crispness and precision of Gov. Palin's latest remarks as well as a fall in recent polls, according to several advisers and party officials," Langley writes. "In recent days, Gov. Palin flubbed quasi-mock debates in New York City and Philadelphia, some operatives said. Finger-pointing began, and then intensified after her faltering interview with CBS anchorwoman Katie Couric." l

Palin may already be past the tipping point with political insiders -- though she still has chances with the public.

"Palin has been given a set of talking points by campaign advisers, simple ideological mantras that she repeats and repeats as long as she can," Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria writes. "But if forced off those rehearsed lines, what she has to say is often, quite frankly, gibberish. . . . The more Palin talks, the more we see that it may not be sexism but common sense that's causing the McCain campaign to treat her like a time bomb. Can we now admit the obvious? Sarah Palin is utterly unqualified to be vice president."

A bold campaign is the only kind that can work for McCain, Bill Kristol writes in his New York Times column. "McCain needs to liberate his running mate from the former Bush aides brought in to handle her -- aides who seem to have succeeded in importing to the Palin campaign the trademark defensive crouch of the Bush White House," Kristol writes. "I'm told McCain recently expressed unhappiness with his staff's handling of Palin. On Sunday he dispatched his top aides Steve Schmidt and Rick Davis to join Palin in Philadelphia. They're supposed to liberate Palin to go on the offensive as a combative conservative in the vice-presidential debate on Thursday."

Why the Couric interview probably only made things worse: "The interview is drawing extraordinary attention because of the McCain campaign's calculated decision to shield Palin from reporters. No vice-presidential nominee in modern history has been this inaccessible to the media, reinforcing the perception that she can't hit major-league pitching," The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz writes.

One big reason Thursday matters: "So now all those who didn't see the Couric interview will be able to decide if the selection of Palin was 'genius,' as some called it at the time, or the action of a man who will clearly do or say anything now to save his last chance at the presidency," Mike Lupica writes in the New York Daily News.

"The buzz on Sarah Palin has gone all bad," ABC's George Stephanopoulos said on "Good Morning America" Monday. "When you become a punch line in politics, it is one of the worst things that can happen, and that is what is happening to Sarah Palin now."

"It's going to be very, very hard to erase the impression that she's given in her network TV interviews -- that she is in way, way over her head and she is not ready for prime time," Rod Dreher of The Dallas Morning News told ABC's David Wright on "GMA."

"Sarah Palin: Growing target," Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune. "In the few weeks since Republicans nominated the first-term governor of Alaska and ex-mayor of tiny Wasilla for vice president, Palin has provided growing fodder for late-night comics and even serious conservative commentators, one calling for her withdrawal."

More for the Palin files: "Though Sarah Palin depicts herself as a pit bull fighting good-old-boy politics, in her years as mayor she and her friends received special benefits more typical of small-town politics as usual," per the AP's Brett J. Blackledge. "When Palin needed to sell her house during her last year as Wasilla mayor, she got the city to sign off on a special zoning exception -- and did so without keeping a promise to remove a potential fire hazard. She gladly accepted gifts from merchants: A free 'awesome facial' she raved about in a thank-you note to a spa. The 'absolutely gorgeous flowers' she received from a welding supply store. Even fresh salmon to take home."

Editorial in the Anchorage Daily News: "BOTTOM LINE: Palin's record as a chief executive ranges from smart and effective to embarrassingly flawed."

New flub? Asked by a voter in Philadelphia Saturday if she'd send US troops into Pakistan to take out terrorists, Palin sounded positively Obama-like: "If that's what we have to do stop the terrorists from coming any further in, absolutely, we should," she said, per ABC's Imtiyaz Delawala.

Responds McCain: "I don't think most Americans think that that's a definitive policy statement made by Governor Palin. And I would hope you wouldn't, either," he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos, on Sunday's "This Week."

"Waitasec," writes ABC's Jake Tapper. "Isn't that EXACTLY what the McCain campaign did with an errant off-message comment Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., made about clean coal? Complete with a TV ad about it, even?"

As for McCain -- he's . . . excited about Palin. "I'll rely on the American people. They have responded in a way that is positive. She's brought a kind of excitement that makes you think that campaigns can be an exciting trip," McCain told Stephanopoulos. "I'm so excited by the reaction that she has gotten across the country."

Bill Clinton's advice to Sen. Joe Biden: "I don't think he has to whack her, or should." The New York Sun's Russell Berman: "Democratic strategists have a few words of advice for the lawmaker of Delaware: Ignore the Alaskan."

"There are a number of Democrats who, off the record, say they're worried that despite his far greater breadth of knowledge, Biden could whiff it," per ABC's Jake Tapper. "In recent weeks, in fact, Biden has taken advice from Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, presumably offering tips on how to debate women without seeming sexist or bullying."

Biden's pitfalls: "Joe should not go after her at all, but only after McCain. And while he is doing it, Joe cannot adopt a posture of being aggressive toward her or, worse, condescending," Bob Shrum tells Newsweek's Howard Fineman.

Yet the pressure rests squarely with McCain-Palin, solidity the ticket's biggest enemy: "The burden now falls on Sen. John McCain to reverse the effects of the focus on the economy, and to keep the contest close enough so that a dominant debate performance, a gaffe by Obama or some outside event can shift the momentum back to him," Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray write in the Sunday Washington Post. "For McCain, the danger is that previously undecided voters will become comfortable that Obama is ready to be president. The longer Obama can hold even a small lead, the more difficult it will be for McCain to reverse it, absent something unexpected happening."

What's to come, per Balz and Murray: "Schmidt said the campaign will press two arguments as forcefully as possible in the coming days. One is that Obama is not ready to be commander in chief and that, in a time of two wars, 'his policies will make the world more dangerous and America less secure.' Second, he said, McCain will argue that, in a time of economic crisis, Obama will raise taxes and spending and 'will make our economy worse.' "

His campaign is back on, with a McCain-Palin rally in Columbus, Ohio Monday: "Republican presidential nominee John McCain returns to the trail today after a dramatic but rocky four-day detour that upended his campaign, upset supporters and gave new ammunition to critics who question his judgment," Bob Drogin writes in the Los Angeles Times.

"The Arizona senator's unilateral cease-fire carried a clear cost, aides now concede, acknowledging that polls show Democratic nominee Barack Obama with a widening lead," per Drogin. "Worse, McCain's campaign assumed an air of barely controlled chaos for four days as frustrated staffers tore up schedules, scrapped speeches and rallies, and scrambled to make contingency plans that seemed to change hour by hour."

Why Ohio? Can McCain win without Ohio? "It would be very, very hard," McCain tells the Columbus Dispatch's Joe Hallett. "You and I both know that you've got to go all the way back to Jack Kennedy [in 1960 to find a nominee who lost Ohio and still won the presidency]. I think it would be very difficult, and I don't intend to find that out. I will campaign as hard as I can in the state of Ohio. I've got a real head wind, and I know that I'm the underdog."

Al Hunt agrees: "Ohio is ground zero in the unpredictable 2008 U.S. presidential election. The Buckeye State is the closest thing to a must-win for both John McCain and Barack Obama." "If this were just about the economy, Barack Obama would win by a huge margin," said Gov. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, "acknowledging the cultural challenges Obama faces in connecting with working-class Democrats and rural voters," Hunt writes.

We may not have had a clear winner out of the first debate -- but enough shifting perceptions to give Obama at least the slight edge. "A majority of debate watchers in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Saturday picked Obama over Republican John McCain when asked which candidate offered the best proposals to solve the country's problems, 52%-35%. They said Obama did better overall in the debate than McCain, 46%-34%," per USA Today's Jill Lawrence.

"The presidential debate changed the preferences of few voters, reinforcing previous perceptions about the candidates' strengths and continuing to give Democrat Barack Obama an advantage over Republican John McCain," Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla reports. "One potentially important finding among these debate watchers is that while McCain retained his advantage on experience, voters said Obama seemed more presidential by a 46 percent to 33 percent margin. Among those uncertain about their vote -- those who are either undecided or declaring they may change preference -- Obama was more than 2-to-1 ahead of McCain on this question."

"The Illinois senator extended his advantage to 49% to 44%, compared with last week, when the same respondents gave him a 48% to 45% edge," Noam M. Levey writes in the Los Angeles Times. "Obama's incremental advance, which followed a week in which McCain controversially inserted himself into the congressional debate over a $700-billion market bailout, tracked with larger gains Obama made among debate-watchers in showing himself ready for the Oval Office."

And yet -- look who's still not closing: "Given the past week, the debate should have been a cinch for Obama. But, just as in the primaries, he willfully refuses to accept what debates are about," Maureen Dowd wrote in her Sunday New York Times column. "It's not a lecture hall; it's a joust. It's not how cerebral you are. It's how visceral you are. You need memorable, sharp, forceful and witty lines."

What did we learn from the economic crisis?

"Mr. McCain was by turns action-oriented and impulsive as he dive-bombed targets, while Mr. Obama was measured and cerebral and inclined to work the phones behind the scenes," Patrick Healy writes in The New York Times.

"For Republicans, Mr. McCain's performance proved mixed, however," Healy continues. "His quick call to fire the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, then his decision to suspend his campaign and return to Washington even though he lacked an alternative to the bailout, risked making him look impetuous in a moment of crisis. He comes out of this without an easily definable role or set of obvious results, though his top advisers said he had bought time for House Republicans to raise their own concerns."

"John McCain quickly emerged as Mr. Hot, a candidate who makes no apologies for his often merry mischief-making," Jon Meacham and Evan Thomas write for Newsweek. "With his measured responses to the news of the season and his steady insistence on projecting a cerebral image, Barack Obama came off as Mr. Cool, at once impressively intellectual and yet aloof."

Time's Michael Grunwald sees "an amazing week of political theater, starring the frenetic, operatic, borderline erratic McCain, the former fighter pilot who seems to have found his calling as a kamikaze politician. He might not win the election -- another thing you missed this week was Barack Obama pulling ahead in the polls -- but when it's over he's a shoo-in for a show on TNT. RuPaul doesn't know drama like McCain knows drama."

Who's the steady hand? "McCain's answer to the charge that he's impulsive is that critics said the same thing about TR, and look how he turned out. But Teddy was just the tonic America thirsted for at the time. Unfortunately for McCain, a financial crisis requires something that goes down more smoothly," Newsweek's Jonathan Alter writes.

As for the policy: "All weekend it was rough going, but finally, just hours ago, a breakthrough," ABC's Jake Tapper reported on "Good Morning America" Monday. "And those last holdouts -- House Republicans -- are finally on board."

"The House braced for a difficult vote set for Monday on a $700 billion rescue of the financial industry after a weekend of tense negotiations produced a plan that Congressional leaders portrayed as greatly strengthened by new taxpayer safeguards," Carl Hulse and David M. Herszenhorn write for The New York Times. "The measure still faced stiff resistance from Republican and Democratic lawmakers who portrayed it as a rush to economic judgment and an undeserved aid package for high-flying financiers who chased big profits through reckless investments."

"Congressional negotiators in both parties, as well as the White House, want a bipartisan vote to send a soothing message to the markets and to ensure that neither party is disproportionately punished by frustrated voters," Susan Milligan writes in The Boston Globe.

Why the vote might still be tough: "All the late-night talks, last-minute demands and dramatic pronouncements aside, the fundamental structure of a $700 billion Wall Street rescue plan that Congress spent the weekend wrangling over has not changed significantly from the outline proposed by a bipartisan group of Senators and House Members last Thursday," per Roll Call's Emily Pierce, Tory Newmyer and Steven T. Dennis.

Politico's David Rogers: "Coming just weeks before the November elections, the 110-page bill is a major test of whether the political center can hold behind what's become an unprecedented government intervention to try to break the credit crunch threatening the larger U.S. economy."

They're not the only lawmakers who aren't thrilled to have to cast a vote: "Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama expressed cautious support for a $700 billion bailout of the nation's biggest financial institutions, though both reserved the right to change their minds after they have reviewed details of the hastily arranged deal," Michael D. Shear and Perry Bacon Jr. write in The Washington Post.

"This is something that all of us will swallow hard and go forward with," McCain told ABC's George Stephanopoulos.

Harder to swallow: Obama Sunday accused McCain of a "Katrina-like response" to the financial crisis, per ABC's Ron Claiborne, John Berman, and Kristin Red-Horse.

Checking in with everybody's favorite pundit: "I'll be shocked if he doesn't win," former President Bill Clinton said of Obama's chances Sunday.

And would Clinton, asks Tom Brokaw, call Obama "great," as he does "McCain"? "Well, I don't . . . ," Clinton started before saying, "Look, I had my first conversation with [Obama] -- in my entire life -- in Harlem."

ABC's Jake Tapper calls the exchange "Hillary 2012 Watch."

Best event you weren't at from over the weekend: Saturday night in Hartford, Conn., the topic was the presidency at the Connecticut Forum. Your panelists: Elizabeth Edwards, Matthew Dowd, and Joseph Ellis.

The Sked:

McCain hits the trail again with a noon ET rally in Columbus, Ohio -- with Sarah Palin at his side one last time before Thursday's vice-presidential debate.

Obama holds a rally in Denver Monday morning -- doors open at 11:30 am ET.

Joe Biden is in debate prep and has no public events Monday.

Also in the news:

The Sunday New York Times probed McCain's ties to gambling interests -- and those are a lot of $100 chips bouncing around the craps table, and a good dose of special-interest ties to explain away.

The DNC is already biting. David Brody, of the Christian Broadcasting Network: "The Democratic National Committee is now going after John McCain and what they believe are his questionable ties to gambling lobbyists. The web ad begins Monday but later this week they will start putting the ad up on political, conservative and yes get this . . . religious websites."

More Fannie and Freddie drama: "The payments to [Rick] Davis's firm, Davis Manafort, are especially problematic because he requested the consulting retainer in 2006 -- and then did barely any work for the fees, according to two sources familiar with the arrangement who asked not to be identified discussing Freddie Mac business," Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and Holly Bailey report. "Aside from attending a few breakfasts and a political-action-committee meeting with Democratic strategist Paul Begala (another Freddie consultant), Davis did 'zero' for the housing firm, one of the sources said."

The New York Times' Steven Greenhouse checks in with labor's work on Obama's behalf: "The labor effort appears to be making headway. Social issues have moved to the background while the economy is foremost in the minds of many voters, and Mr. Obama appears to be benefiting politically. . . . Yet union canvassers are also confronting an unprecedented factor in this election -- Mr. Obama's race -- making the effects of their door-to-door appeals less predictable."

The AP's Ron Fournier and Errin Haines go deep on race: "In search of explanations, two Associated Press reporters -- one black, one white -- listened to people of both races along Detroit's divides: Alter Road, which separates the city from the tony Grosse Pointes near Lake St. Clair, and 8 Mile Road, the vast northern border between a mostly black Detroit and its mostly white suburbs. They found people of both races living just blocks apart who nonetheless spoke of each other like strangers. There was suspicion, contempt -- and yet, for many, a desperate hope that Obama's candidacy might be the final step in America's long path to racial equality. For whites, their support of Democratic economic policies forces them to confront their racial prejudices."

From the annals of Ayers: "Recently released board-meeting minutes for the Chicago Annenberg Challenge show the two were present together at least six times in 1995 as the foundation's members discussed how to organize and operate the project, which was [Bill] Ayers' brainchild," Austin Fenner writes in the New York Post. "Obama has always acknowledged he and Ayers both worked at the foundation, but has insisted they never had more than a passing acquaintance."

Picking a fight: "Defying a federal law that prohibits U.S. clergy from endorsing political candidates from the pulpit, an evangelical Christian minister told his congregation Sunday that voting for Sen. Barack Obama would be evidence of 'severe moral schizophrenia,' " Peter Slevin writes in The Washington Post. "The Rev. Ron Johnson Jr. told worshipers that the Democratic presidential nominee's positions on abortion and gay partnerships exist 'in direct opposition to God's truth as He has revealed it in the Scriptures.' . . . Johnson and 32 other pastors across the country set out Sunday to break the rules, hoping to generate a legal battle that will prompt federal courts to throw out a 54-year-old ban on political endorsements by tax-exempt houses of worship."

What an ally: "If John McCain is elected president, he will have a lot of people to thank. Improbably, first on the list will be the man who didn't want him in the White House, Rush Limbaugh," Zev Chafets writes for the Los Angeles Times. "In an e-mail last week, Limbaugh informed me that, post-Palin, his support for the McCain ticket was 'balls to the wall.' "

The Kicker:

"I came back because I wasn't going to phone it in." -- John McCain, to ABC's George Stephanopoulos, on why he "suspended" his campaign and returned to Washington last week.

"He can effectively do what he needs to do by phone.'' -- McCain adviser Mark Salter, on his boss' activities Saturday.

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