Don't look now -- but has the race's outline been written? Blame it on the big things that are larger than the candidates -- the economic crisis, President Bush's historically awful approval ratings, the inability of any senator to soar in a period of national angst -- but where we stand today is essentially where we stood six weeks ago..
Which is one reason why that fourth candidate matters now more than ever. Gov. Sarah Palin puts herself on the line in Thursday's debate -- and will there be another single moment that's as big for the tenor of this race? Will there be another chance to shoot holes through the old outline and field dress a new one?
If this qualifies as daylight in the race, maybe we should get ready for a long night. The new ABC News/Washington Post poll speaks to an odd sort of stability that's set in despite shifts among independent voters -- resulting in a narrow but consistent lead for Sen. Barack Obama.
Obama saw his White Sox beat the Twins 1-0 to squeak into the playoffs Tuesday. But even very late leads can change.
"Barack Obama maintains an advantage on the economy, especially economic empathy, and he's cracked majority acceptance on his key challenge, experience. But the political center remains unrooted, keeping John McCain in the race, albeit against headwinds," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes.
"Movement continues among independents, quintessential swing voters and a highly changeable group this year," Langer writes. "They favored McCain by 10 points immediately after the Republican convention, swung to Obama last week and stand now at a close division between the two -- 48 percent for McCain, 45 percent for Obama in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll."
It's Obama 50, McCain 46 among likely voters -- looking closer than the nine points the poll pegged the race at a week ago, despite a debate where more respondents said Obama won.
And how do you play this? "Voters are deeply divided over the terms of the government's $700 billion economic rescue package but overwhelmingly fear that the House's rejection of the measure on Monday could deepen the country's financial woes," Dan Balz and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post.
Key insight? "Compared with a June poll, slightly more voters now call Obama a safe choice than said so of McCain (55 percent to 51 percent). Obama ticked up from 50 percent to 55 percent over past three months on that question, with the increase almost entirely among Democrats. McCain dropped from 57 percent to 51 percent, with independents contributing to the decline."
Obama does hit 50 again, and there's a psychological burden that comes with such polling: Obama winning means people getting used to the fact that Obama might win
"The equilibrium of this race seems to be Obama with a slight lead and this will soon begin to lock in. And with early voting starting soon in some states, every day Obama holds a lead means votes in the can," Matthew Dowd writes in his ABCNews.com blog.
Which puts the pressure on Palin -- and inspires a new Dowd rule: "When partisans start saying let the candidate be the candidate, it means things are off course. . . . At this point, this race is Obama's to lose, and absent a significant mistake it will be tough for McCain to win."
More from the 50-plus world: New Quinnipiac University numbers out Wednesday morning.
OHIO: Obama 50, McCain 42
PENNSYLVANIA: Obama 54, McCain 39
FLORIDA (!): Obama 51, McCain 43
From the release: "Friday's presidential debate, Gov. Sarah Palin's sagging favorability and more voter confidence in Sen. Barack Obama's ability to handle the economy are propelling the Democrat to wider likely voter leads over Republican John McCain in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to simultaneous Quinnipiac University Swing State polls released today."
(GOP pushback: "These polls are laughable. We hope Obama think they're true," says a Republican with close ties to the campaign.)
Look who gets this story now: "John McCain's fade in recent polls, combined with a barrage of negative news coverage during the financial crisis, has leading Republican activists around the country worrying about his prospects and urging his campaign to become much more aggressive against Barack Obama in the remaining month before Election Day," Politico's Mike Allen and Jonathan Martin report.
"But as September turns to October -- Wednesday marks 34 days to the Nov. 4 election -- it is clear McCain himself is to blame for the most urgent problems," they write. "His snap decision to throw himself into the bailout debate has proven disastrous, since his efforts looked late and half-hearted, and many in the GOP ignored his pleas in Monday's House vote. And his selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, initially a political boon, has become a distraction inside and out of the campaign, with top staff now sidelined trying to avoid a debate disaster on Thursday night."
Does this look like a man who's happy to be here (or happy to see his running mate become the issue in the race? "You and I have a fundamental disagreement, and I'm so happy the American people seem to be siding with me," a testy McCain tells the Des Moines Register editorial board, pressed on whether Palin has the experience to be president. "Now, if there's a Georgetown cocktail-party person who, quote, calls himself a conservative who doesn't like her, good luck. Good luck."
(Speaking of: George Will tells the Senate Press Secretaries Association that Palin is "obviously not qualified to be President," describing her Katie Couric interviews as a "disaster," Huffington Post's Sam Stein reports.)
Ah yes, Thursday night. Palin has a new pitch to debut: "It's time that normal Joe Six-Pack American is finally represented in the position of vice presidency, and I think that that's kind of taken some people off guard, and they're out of sorts, and they're ticked off about it," Palin said Tuesday on Hugh Hewitt's radio program. "But it's motivation for John McCain and I to work that much harder to make sure that our ticket is victorious, and we put government back on the side of the people of Joe Six-Pack like me."
Talking policy with Couric . . . "Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin stood by her opposition to abortion even in cases of rape or incest and her skepticism that global warming is caused by human activity, but she stepped back from her past support for teaching creationism in the schools," per The Washington Post write-up.
One artful answer, on what newspapers and magazines she reads: "I've read most of them." Specifically? "Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me over all these years," Palin said.
One of my best friends? "I have one of my absolute best friends for the last 30 years who happens to be gay and I love her dearly," Palin said.
She's as worried about the economy as the next gal, but maybe she needn't be: "A check of financial records, though, shows the Palins live anything but a common life when compared with their fellow residents of their hometown of Wasilla," Jerry Seper writes in the Washington Times. "Their combined income of nearly a quarter-million dollars last year was five times the median household income for Wasilla's 7,000 residents. They own a single-engine plane, two boats, two personal watercraft and a half-million-dollar, custom-built home on a lake that is worth three times the average of other homes in town."
More debate prep, sort of, in answering e-mail questions posed by her hometown newspaper, The Frontiersman (in her most extensive interview -- if you want to call it that -- since joining the ticket).
Something we might hear Thursday: "Right away, I think I saw that Wasilla's government as a 'good old boys network' -- and knew we had an opportunity to change and progress this city."
Going somewhere, on the Bridge to Nowhere: "After taking office and examining the project closely, realizing the Feds were not going to fund it as Alaskans had assumed was the case, I cancelled the project."
Another artful answer, on whether her police department's policy was to charge sexual assault victims for rape kits: "The entire notion of making a victim of a crime pay for anything is crazy. I do not believe, nor have I ever believed, that rape victims should have to pay for an evidence-gathering test."
As for expectations: Palin "held her own" during the 2006 gubernatorial debates, Katharine Q. Seelye writes in The New York Times. "A review of a handful of her debate performances in the race for governor in 2006 shows a somewhat different persona from the one that has emerged" on the trail, she writes. "She staked out a populist stance against oil companies and projected a fresh, down-to-earth face at a time when voters wanted change. . . . Her debating style was rarely confrontational, and she appeared confident. In contrast to today, when she seems unversed on several important issues, she demonstrated fluency on certain subjects, particularly oil and gas development."
"She's a master, not of facts, figures, or insightful policy recommendations, but at the fine art of the nonanswer, the glittering generality," writes Andrew Halcro, a former independent candidate for governor who faced Palin on stage more than two dozen times. "Against such charms there is little Senator Biden, or anyone, can do."
From same sex benefits . . . to education to energy policy, Palin's answers were polished," ABC's Kate Snow reported Wednesday on "Good Morning America." "And she had some zingers."
From one of the 2006 debates . . . Tony Knowles: "Why should the public trust you to negotiate a gas line?" Palin: "Well, Tony, there you go again, I set you straight yesterday, we'll do it again today."
Watch that bar rise: "She was a sensation as a candidate for governor two years ago, excelling in about a dozen debates during a primary bid against a sitting governor and later in the general election against a former governor attempting a comeback," Joel Millman writes in The Wall Street Journal.
The Los Angeles Times' Stephen Braun and Tom Hamburger call it the "split personality debate persona: "During Palin's brief exposure to the high-stakes environment of political debates, she has unnerved both her handlers and her opponents. At times she has been handicapped by her lax approach to learning the nuances of policy and state issues, but she has also projected a Reaganesque ability to offer up pithy answers and charm on camera."
Sound like anyone we've seen on a debate stage before? "Palin, the former aides said, had a sharply limited attention span for absorbing the facts and policy angles required for all-topics debate preparation. Staffers were rarely able to get her to sit for more than half an hour of background work at a time before her concentration waned, hindered by cellphone calls and family affairs," Braun and Hamburger report.
"Palin proved herself to be a comfortable and confident debater, not exactly deeply versed in the issues but unusually adept at dodging controversy and quick to take advantage of opponents' missteps," Alexander Burns writes for Politico. "Not one to throw an unnecessary punch, Palin took a patient approach, waiting for her rivals to expose their weak points -- and then striking fast."
If the Hewitt interview is a preview . . . "You'll hear about Josephine Six-Pack," Andrew Malcolm blogs for the Los Angeles Times. "And a little Sarah Barracuda. Americans wanna see their presidential competitors fight for it."
And she'll televise well: "Next time you see a clip of the Republican vice presidential nominee, try this exercise. Mute your TV and just watch that face. How often do you see someone in political life so extravagantly expressive?" Libby Copeland writes in The Washington Post. "The eyebrows go up, the shoulder leans in, the thumb jauntily gestures backward, the tongue actually fixes in the cheek. To mock Barack Obama, she licks her finger and holds it to the imaginary wind! And that smile, that nearly ever-present smile, which either indicates -- oh, dear, here we go again -- that she's sarcastic and dismissive or that she's letting you in on a very clever joke."
What has she meant to the ticket? What has she not meant? "Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin achieved the objective of energizing the party's evangelical and social-conservative base. The other goal, winning over women voters, is fizzling," Bloomberg's Indira A.R. Lakshmanan writes. "As women voters learn more about Palin's record -- from the policy while she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, of charging rape victims for collecting specimens for police evidence, to her lack of fluency on topics such as foreign affairs and the financial crisis -- her negative ratings have risen."
Get ready to see more of those wolf-hunting ads. The Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund is expanding its anti-Palin buy in the run-up to Thursday's debate, with spots on the air in Colorado, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Missouri in addition to Florida, Michigan and Ohio. Liberal sites have brought the group in more than $1 million since the ad's release.
And there's another e-mail account? "Gov. Sarah Palin maintained a private e-mail account that she used to communicate with a small circle of staff members outside the state government's secure official e-mail system, according to the Wasilla company that established the site," Karl Vick writes in The Washington Post.
"The account was separate from the Yahoo e-mail address that was abruptly abandoned by the McCain campaign on Sept. 17, the day hackers penetrated the account and posted pages from it on the Internet," Vick writes. "The existence of additional private e-mail accounts may affect two state probes into whether Palin, her husband and her staff attempted to influence the job status of a state trooper who divorced Palin's sister. It also raises more questions about Palin's record of commingling the official and personal."
This happens when you stay in the Lower 48 for a while: Palin's down (!) to 68 percent approval rating back home. "Since John McCain tapped the first-term governor to be his vice-presidential running mate, Palin's sky-high home-state approval ratings have come down to Earth," Chris Adams writes in the Anchorage Daily News. "Above 80 percent approval for parts of her term -- she was at 82 percent in a key local poll twice this year -- Palin's popularity has swooned as new information about the local abuse-of-power investigation known as Troopergate has trickled out, and as national and local media pick over her track record as a governor and small-town mayor."
As for Biden's stakes -- how many seconds does it take to screw up 90 good minutes?
"Speaking from the kishkas can get a politician into trouble, and as Biden prepares to debate Sarah Palin tomorrow, some Democrats are worried," Lisa Wangsness writes in The Boston Globe. "On the trail last week, the downside was on full display, as Biden mangled historical facts and twice contradicted his own campaign. The gaffes piled up at such a rate that Republicans dedicated a website to tracking them."
Think Gwen Ifill is under a microscope? The right-wing blogosphere is just getting started . . .
From WorldNetDaily: "The moderator of Thursday's vice-presidential debate is writing a book to come out about the time the next president takes the oath of office that aims to 'shed new light' on Democratic candidate Barack Obama and other 'emerging young African American politicians' who are 'forging a bold new path to political power.' "
Back on the Hill:
This time, let's have the Senate vote first: "Senate leaders Tuesday night made a surprise announcement that, instead of waiting for the House of Representatives to act again, senators would vote on an amended version of the failed financial rescue bill voted down Monday by the House," ABC's Jake Tapper reports.
"The two provisions being added as of now -- the bill is still being drafted -- would extend tax relief and more government insurance for voters' personal bank savings," he reports. "Senate leaders believe this is the best way to jumpstart the process and get the House -- whether by force or coaxing -- to pass a bill."
Tapper reported on "GMA" Wednesday that e-mailers have overwhelmed the "Write Your Representative" feature on the House of Representatives' Website: "They've had to limit the number of people who can log on," Tapper said.
The three senators running for national office are coming back to Washington for a few hours.
And it means another shot that could roil the markets: "The lawmakers were gambling that the tax package would appeal to lawmakers who helped sink the measure in the House on Monday, without driving off Democrats who have opposed extending the tax incentives without offsetting spending cuts elsewhere," Carl Hulse and Robert Pear write in The New York Times.
"House Democratic leaders reacted cautiously to the new approach," they continue. "But House Republican leaders, who said they had been advised about the Senate plan, said the new elements would appeal to their rank-and-file, which voted strongly against the legislation Monday."
"The salvage operation seemed especially difficult since an unusual alliance of conservative Republican and liberal Democrats helped defeat the bill in the House on Monday," Joseph Williams and Farah Stockman write in The Boston Globe. "But the ensuing plunge on Wall Street injected a new sense of urgency to solve the biggest financial crisis in generations."
Who should worry? How about everybody? "The voters will sort out the blame on all this in November," Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post. "Anger at Washington will feed a hunger for change, and it's likely to fall harder on the GOP as the party that holds the White House. But for the next president and the next Congress, whatever its makeup, Monday's performance should be looked at as an example of what it was, a performance designed to undermine the public's confidence in its elected leadership."
Does this mean everybody really is worried? "A day after the historic Wall Street bailout failed in Congress, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama struggled on the presidential campaign trail to modify their tone, muting partisan blame and trying to make proposals on an issue so complex that few understand it," ABC's Mark Mooney writes.
Softer, now: "The two senators acted as pitchmen for the bailout, arguing that the rescue of financial institutions is vital to the fortunes of the middle class," Seema Mehta and Maeve Reston write for the Los Angeles Times.
"Instead of lambasting lawmakers for derailing a compromise bailout proposal, Obama directed most of his attention to voters, saying they need to get behind the rescue efforts for their own economic wellbeing," Anjeanette Damon writes in the Reno Gazette-Journal.
The one piece of Obama's interview with ABC's John Berman he wishes he could have back: "I don't think me calling House Republican members would have been that helpful -- I tend not to be that persuasive on that side of the aisle."
Semantics are important here: "Let's not call it a 'bailout.' Let's call it a 'rescue' because it is a rescue. It's a rescue of Main Street America," McCain said on CNN Tuesday.
They didn't get that memo over at the RNC's "independent expenditure" arm, per ABC's Jake Tapper.
GOPers are no longer blaming just House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but still: "Pelosi's handling of the issue provided a window onto her leadership style -- revealing the limits of her ability to win the trust of Republicans, to lean on her own rank and file, and to dispel her reputation as a polarizing figure," the Los Angeles Times' Janet Hook writes. "Her closing speech was an assault on the Bush-era economic policies that Pelosi said had fueled the current financial woes. Some Republican leaders said Tuesday that her tone had cost them votes and contributed to the bill's defeat."
Barack Obama spends the morning in Wisconsin, with a rally at 11 am ET in La Crosse, Wis., before heading back to Washington in time for the bailout vote.
Joe Biden is deep in debate prep in Delaware, but will also return to DC for the vote.
Michelle Obama holds a rally in Boulder, Colo. at noon ET.
John McCain will speak in Independence, Mo. at 11 am ET, before he joins his colleagues on the Hill for the vote this afternoon.
Sarah Palin doesn't get to (or have to) vote: She remains down in Sedona, Ariz.
President Bush speaks at the United Service Organizations World Gala.
Also in the news:
Former President Bill Clinton hits the trail for Obama Wednesday -- and you knew this would happen: Yes, that is Bill Clinton in the new McCain ad.
"Mac's Surprise Weapon: Bubba," reads the New York Post headline.
The former president, on bank deregulation: "You know, Phil Gramm and I disagreed on a lot of things, but he can't possibly be wrong about everything. On the Glass-Steagall thing, like I said, if you could demonstrate to me that it was a mistake, I'd be glad to look at the evidence," Clinton said on CNBC, in comments whipped into a Wall Street Journal editorial.
Where's Obama the fighter? Easier to find in the car: "As part of a strategy that has gone mostly unnoticed since it began, Barack Obama is prosecuting an intense, slashing radio campaign against John McCain in some of the nation's most competitive electoral battlegrounds," Politico's Ben Smith writes. "The wave of attack ads against McCain includes some of Obama's most aggressive spots on hot-button issues including abortion and stem cell research and has occurred as the McCain campaign has drawn serious scrutiny and criticism over the questionable content of its own negative ads."
Maybe harder than running for president? "In an act that promises to upend New York City's political world, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg plans to announce Thursday that he will seek a third term as mayor, according to four people who have been told of his intentions," Michael Barbaro and David W. Chen report in The New York Times. "Mr. Bloomberg, whose second term ends in 2009, is barred by law from running for re-election. So he will propose revising the city's 15-year-old term limits law, which restricts him and dozens of other elected leaders to two four-year terms."
It's been tried before -- and Bloomberg himself once called the notion of ending term limits "disgusting." Good luck, Mr. Mayor.
Now this is a concert: "Rocker Bruce Springsteen and 'Piano Man' [Billy] Joel will team up for their first joint concert on Oct. 16 to raise money for the Democratic nominee, whose iPod downloads range from cellist Yo-Yo Ma to rapper Jay-Z and, yes, The Boss," per the New York Daily News' David Saltonstall. "The show -- to be held at Manhattan's Hammerstein Ballroom -- will be a welcome respite for Obama, who will wrap up his last of three debates against Republican John McCain at Long Island's Hofstra University the night before."
Your First Amendment at work: "There's been no shortage of takeoffs on Sarah Palin lately, from television skits to action figures, but Bruce Elliott has gone one step further than most. He's taken off her clothes," per the Chicago Tribune's Emma Graves Fitzsimmons. "Elliott, whose wife, Tobin Mitchen, owns the Old Town Ale House on Chicago's North Side, painted a nude portrait of the Republican vice presidential nominee and hung it above the bar, where it's now a prime attraction among his display of more than 200 celebrity portraits and other racy art."
"It's very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia, as Putin rears his head and comes into the airspace of the United States of America -- where do they go? It's Alaska." -- Sarah Palin, to Katie Couric.
"To be very clear, there has not been any [Russian] incursion in U.S. airspace in recent years." -- Maj. Allen Herritage, spokesman for the Alaska region of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, to the AP.
"She doesn't have any role in that process. . . . The authority to launch and respond to a Russian incursion lies with the Alaska NORAD Region commander." -- Herritage, to the New York Daily News.
"I have never been an astronaut, but I think I know the challenges of space." --John McCain to the Des Moines Register editorial board when asked if he has ever been without taxpayer-financed health care.
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