NASHVILLE -- Now that the race is suddenly less about what you know than it is about who you once knew, the real question is not -- as Sen. John McCain would have it -- who the real Barack Obama is.
The real question is: Who is the real John McCain? (And is he listening to Sarah Palin?)
McCain and Obama enter Tuesday night's second presidential debate at Belmont University with a real sense of a race that's slipping away from McCain -- and a growing realization in GOP circles that the Republican ticket has a dwindling number of chances to reclaim the narrative.
(If the national polls don't convince you -- take Ohio, please.)
McCain gets the format he wants, but not the backdrop. If the debate follows the logical progression of the week, we will continue down the path of least subsistence into out-and-out, guilt-by-association name-calling -- led there, in all likelihood, by McCain, whose campaign is trying to thrust "character" into a campaign that may not welcome it.
Does McCain want to go there? Will/should even nasty attacks register when compared to the psychological blows arriving in mailboxes these days, depicting shattered 401(k)s? And with Tuesday night's town-hall format, does a candidate want to throw bombs when there are civilians in range?
It may be too late for those choices: It's on, and it's ugly. In the run-up to the debate No. 2, McCain and (particularly) Palin have gone personal -- and Team Obama responded by bringing up the Keating 5.
"Who is the real Barack Obama?" McCain said Monday (with now-casual references to Obama's "lies"), per ABC's Jake Tapper and Bret Hovell. "Even at this late hour in the campaign there are things we don't know about Senator Obama or the record that he brings to this campaign."
And -- going further, but still not as far as she wants to go -- Palin "invoked fear for the first time when discussing Sen. Barack Obama's connection to former 60's radical William Ayers," per ABC's Imtiyaz Delawala.
"I am just so fearful that this is not a man who sees America the way that you and I see America -- as the greatest source for good in this world," said Palin, R-Alaska.
Obama, she said, "launched his political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist."
No turning back from here: "Mr. McCain made clear on Monday that he wanted to make the final month of the race a referendum on Mr. Obama's character, background and leadership -- a polite way of saying he intends to attack him on all fronts and create or reinforce doubts about him among as many voters as possible," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times. "And Mr. Obama's campaign signaled that it would respond in kind, setting up an end game dominated by an invocation of events and characters from the lives of both candidates."
"Look, I'm not sitting here with my feet up," said senior Obama adviser David Axelrod.
"The back-and-forth, coming on the eve of a presidential debate tonight, represented some of the strongest language yet in a race that has grown increasingly negative and signaled that the final four weeks of the campaign could grow even nastier," Anne E. Kornblut and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post.
We're going there: "Both campaigns have signaled a willingness to engage on character in tonight's debate, a town hall-style event at Belmont University in Nashville in which the candidates will answer questions submitted by the audience and from voters online," Scott Helman and Sasha Issenberg write in The Boston Globe. "GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin told voters in Florida yesterday that McCain 'might as well take the gloves off.' And a senior Obama strategist suggested the Illinois senator was prepared to cite the Keating case if warranted."
A frustrated base wants it all out there (sound familiar?): "Fearing Mr. McCain is fast running out of time to structurally change the election's strategic political focus, Republican strategists say that his only hope now is to make his rival's judgment, inexperience, liberalism and tax increases the central issues in the campaign's remaining weeks," Donald Lambro reports in the Washington Times.
Some advice from his running mate: "I'm sending the message back to John McCain also: Tomorrow night in his debate, might as well take the gloves off," Palin told donors in Florida Monday, Dana Milbank reports in The Washington Post.
(More from Milbank: "Palin's routine attacks on the media have begun to spill into ugliness. In Clearwater, arriving reporters were greeted with shouts and taunts by the crowd of about 3,000. Palin then went on to blame Katie Couric's questions for her 'less-than-successful interview with kinda mainstream media.' At that, Palin supporters turned on reporters in the press area, waving thunder sticks and shouting abuse. Others hurled obscenities at a camera crew. One Palin supporter shouted a racial epithet at an African American sound man for a network and told him, 'Sit down, boy.' ")
(Another crowd member, upon mention of Obama's ties to Bill Ayers: "Kill him!")
"It could be ugly if Monday's tussling is any indication," the AP's Liz Sidoti writes. "McCain, a four-term Arizona senator, is trailing in polls and facing dwindling options to thwart Democrat Obama in an enormously troublesome political landscape for Republicans. Obama, the first-term Illinois senator, wants to solidify his lead and avoid any major debate misstep that could set him back in his quest to become the country's first black president."
Too late for this message? "Both campaigns have long planned for this newly negative moment, but with the world embroiled in an economic meltdown, the script is taking unexpected turns -- and the old lines of attack could fall flat," Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times. "Rather than command public attention, as the Wright controversy did, the debate over Obama's past is being overshadowed by the loss of thousands of jobs every day and a steep decline in the stock market. With voters overwhelmed by major news events, character attacks can easily be lost in the din."
The National Review's Rich Lowry calls it "madness" for McCain to try to change the subject thusly: "It doesn't matter how many times Sarah Palin rips Obama for consorting with Ayers, or if the McCain campaign runs exclusively Ayers and Wright TV ads for the next four weeks -- the subject of the campaign will remain resolutely unchanged. . . . Not having a compelling economic message before the financial crisis hit was malpractice; now it's madness."
"Some of McCain's fellow Republicans say the aggressive tack may not offset the damage to his candidacy from the sinking economy," USA Today's David Jackson writes. Republican pollster Steve Lombardo: "The economic situation has virtually ended John McCain's presidential aspirations, and no amount of tactical maneuvering in the final 29 days is likely to change that equation."
Does this make a harmony? "Republican nominee McCain needs to change the words and the music. Democrat Obama would just as soon sing in the same key from now until Election Day," Chuck Raasch writes in the Nashville Tennessean.
Inspired yet? "As Barack Obama and John McCain arrive here for their second presidential debate Tuesday evening, they bring with them baggage from the 1960s and 1980s at a point in the campaign where nastiness has reached a new high," John McCormick and Jill Zuckman report in the Chicago Tribune. "Tuesday night's town hall setting, however, may not be conducive to the hard-hitting volleys dished out by their spokesmen and surrogates multiple times a day."
A new Obama TV ad out Tuesday spells out d-e-s-p-e-r-a-t-e: "But with no plan to lift our economy up, John McCain wants to tear Barack Obama down," the ad says. "Why? McCain's own campaign admits that if the election is about the economy, he's going to lose. But as Americans lose their jobs, homes and savings, it's time for a president who'll change the economy. Not change the subject."
McCain's latest ad goes back to the L-word: "How hypocritical. Obama's Social Security attack was called 'a falsehood.' His health care attack . . . 'misleading.' Obama's stem cell attack . . . 'not true.' Barack Obama. He promised better. He lied."
What McCain can't afford: "His handlers have announced, in effect, that he will run the rest of the race as Mr. Nasty, trying to claw his way back by ripping at Obama," Democratic consultant Bob Shrum writes in his The Week column. "In what could be the filthiest final weeks of a modern Presidential contest, McCain will not be content with repeating the falsehood that Obama is a 'liberal' who will raise 'your taxes.' No, the final tact from a purely tactical campaign will be personal and ugly."
How far will he go? Surely not as far as his audiences are going: "The reality is that a member of McCain's audience went there today. You can hear it clearly on this video clip taken from MSNBC-- after McCain asks 'Who is the real Barack Obama?' the first, loudest voice can be heard answering 'Terrorist!' " per The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder.
If you look carefully, the race might be all about, well, race: "By far the most likely thing that could derail Obama's victory is a racial backlash that is not visible in today's polls but is waiting to surge on Election Day -- coaxed to the surface (to the extent coaxing is needed) with the help of coded appeals from McCain and his conservative allies," John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei write for Politico, in a special report on race in the campaign. "By this logic, if Obama does not head into Nov. 4 with a lead of at least several points in the polls, there is a good chance he'll be swamped by prejudice that will flourish in the privacy of the voting booth."
How did we get here? Why not ask the ultimate battleground state for guidance:
It's Obama 51, McCain 45 in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll of likely voters in Ohio: "Sen. Barack Obama is riding economic discontent to an advantage in Ohio, bolstered in part by financially stressed voters in the state's hard-hit industrial belt -- and following it up with a more extensive ground campaign in this key contest," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes.
"The contours of the race are telling. Obama leads by a wide margin in Cuyahoga County, the heavily Democratic Cleveland metropolis. But perhaps more critical is his 17-point advantage in the state's northeast, including the ailing industrial cities of Akron, Canton and Youngstown -- a keystone for Democrats in statewide races," Langer writes.
Remember that vaunted GOP turnout operation in 2004. Well: "Thirty-seven percent of Ohio's registered voters say they've been personally contacted by the Obama campaign. That beats the 27 percent who've heard from McCain, and also surpasses the level of contacts by both campaigns in 2004, when Ohio was decisive," Langer continues.
"Still, about two in 10 voters are 'movable,' nearly double the proportion who were in that position two weeks before the 2004 election, suggesting the possibility of some significant shifts in the weeks ahead," the Post's Jon Cohen and Dan Balz write. But: "The support for Obama comes at an opportune time for the Democrat, as Ohioans began early voting a week ago at polling places statewide. The Ohio secretary of state's office estimates that a quarter of all voters will cast their ballots as absentees or at an early voting location before Election Day, more than twice as many as did so four years ago."
You can see 270 from here: Obama has a "clear lead" in all the states John Kerry carried, and "Republicans and Democrats would both say Obama is likely to win Iowa and New Mexico," bringing him to 264, per ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "That leaves eight states as competitive toss-up states, including Ohio, Florida, Missouri, Indiana, North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia. In every one of those states, polls show Obama is either ahead or within the margin of error. Obama just needs to take one of those states on Election Day to win."
"John McCain is facing an increasingly steep path to the presidency, as the economic crisis and Barack Obama's financial edge tilt the political landscape to the Democrat's advantage," Mark Z. Barabak writes in the Los Angeles Times.
Check out the latest predictions and analysis from ABC's political unit at the 50-in-50 state-by-state map.
In new national numbers . . .
WSJ/NBC: Obama 49, McCain 43
CNN: Obama 53, McCain 45
CBS (a tighter race): Obama 47, McCain 43
More from the battlegrounds: "On the eve of the penultimate presidential debate, a new TIME/CNN poll shows John McCain still struggling in states won by George W. Bush in 2004, a sign that last week's vice presidential debate had little effect on voter opinion," Time's Michael Scherer writes.
This poll has it Obama 50, McCain 47 in Ohio
The rest of the numbers from Time/CNN:
Indiana: McCain 51, Obama 46 New Hampshire: Obama 53, McCain 45 North Carolina: Obama 49, McCain 49 WI: Obama 51, McCain 46
Dick Morris and Eileen McGann remember that Obama hasn't been a great closer: "October may see the end of Obama's surge: He's peaking too soon," they write in their New York Post column. "Once the Democrat is seen as the clear leader and likely winner, the spotlight will inevitably shift to him. And he may not benefit from the increased attention."
Back to the debate -- will the setting work for the messaging? "A presidential campaign increasingly dominated by character attacks collides with a debate format meant to produce serious discussion of kitchen-table issues," Larry Eichel writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"As the two candidates roam around on a stage in close quarters, interacting with the kind of voters who tend to dislike negative campaigning, how does McCain go on the attack?" Newsday's Tom Brune writes.
"The presidential candidates will be seated six feet apart, on a horseshoe-shaped stage in Nashville, Tennessee, as the campaign grows increasingly tense and personal. Both nominees pledge to stay on offense during their second face-to-face debate, which could make for uncomfortable political theater," per Bloomberg's Hans Nichols and Julianna Goldman.
"Candidates tone it down in the town halls, fearful of being seen as too confrontational or too aggressive when they're within spitting distance of actual voters. So today's town hall debate in Nashville, Tenn., poses a problem for Republican Sen. John McCain," Joe Garofoli writes in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Can/should McCain's attacks get traction? "The McCain campaign has made clear that it wants to change the subject. We can, and should, change it back," Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post op-ed.
"If Niccolò Machiavelli were to envision an economic crisis that would cripple the Republicans prior to Election Day, he couldn't do much better than one precipitated by the banking industry," Jay Cost writes for Real Clear Politics.
There's always the chance for wild cards: "It might be a snooze-fest, full of earnest questions and foggy bromides. But with the spike in negativity coming just ahead of the meeting, there is a chance that one of the two candidates will have to face a question about the harsh tone," Slate's John Dickerson writes.
On the format: "The questioners can become enforcers -- if a candidate gets called out by a questioner they lose the exchange altogether," ABC's George Stephanopoulos reported on "Good Morning America" Tuesday.
Hoping for a question Tuesday night: A full-page ad appears in Tuesday's Nashville Tennessean from the "Equity and Inclusion Campaign," asking the candidates to commit to Gulf Coast rebuilding efforts in the first 100 days of their administrations.
The marquee event is McCain vs. Obama at the second presidential debate, town-hall style, splitting domestic and foreign-policy issues, at 9 pm ET at Belmont University in Nashville. Your moderator (not asking follow-ups): Tom Brokaw.
Joe Biden attends the 10 am ET funeral service for his mother-in-law, Bonny Jean Jacobs, in Abingdon, Pa.
Michelle Obama holds a community event in Jacksonville, N.C. at 1:30 pm ET.
Sarah Palin sits down for an interview with Fox's Greta Van Susteren Tuesday. She stays in Florida for a Jacksonville fundraiser and a 3:30 pm ET rally in Pensacola, before heading to Greenville, N.C., for a second rally at 7 pm ET.
I'll be live-blogging from Nashville, starting Tuesday afternoon and all through the debate.
And check out ABC NewsNOW's coverage, starting with a preview program at 8 pm ET, at abcnews.com/politics, hosted by Sam Donaldson and I.
Also in the news:
An Obama score Tuesday: "The wife of Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel plans to endorse Democrat Barack Obama. Lilibet Hagel has scheduled a 10 a.m. news conference in Alexandria, Va., on Tuesday with Susan Eisenhower, the daughter of Republican President Eisenhower," per the AP's Bob Lewis.
Praise from the Duke: "This is a much better campaign than I ran in 1988, and I'm impressed," Michael Dukakis tells Steve Kornacki of the New York Observer. On McCain: "They're desperate, they're slipping, and all of that stuff. So here we go." On Palin: "This is a pathetic selection."
So long as McCain wants to go back in time . . . "GOP presidential nominee John McCain has past connections to a private group that supplied aid to guerrillas seeking to overthrow the leftist government of Nicaragua in the Iran-Contra affair," the AP's Pete Yost reports. "McCain's ties are facing renewed scrutiny after his campaign criticized Barack Obama for his link to a former radical who engaged in violent acts 40 years ago."
Politico's Kenneth P. Vogel and Cecile Dehesdin: "Since the mid-1980s, there's been almost no attention paid to John McCain's long-ago association with a controversial group implicated in a secretive plot to supply arms to Nicaraguan militia groups during the Iran-Contra affair. But now, with the Republican presidential candidate stepping up his negative blitz against Democratic opponent Barack Obama, some Democrats are hoping that the group -- the U.S. Council for World Freedom, and its founder, John Singlaub -- will become for McCain what Bill Ayers has become for Obama: a fleeting past association used as ammunition for political broadsides."
A Biden fact-check: "During last week's debate with his counterpart on the Republican ticket, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Biden twice gave himself credit for shifting U.S. policy on Bosnia," The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler writes. "But, despite the bravado, Biden was not a key player in the legislation that ultimately forced Bill Clinton to lift an arms embargo imposed by the United Nations on Bosnian Muslims fighting the Serbs, according to congressional officials involved in the issue and a review of Biden's speeches and voting record."
"Troopergate" update: "Todd Palin will answer a series of questions from a legislative investigator by mid-week -- but only in writing, and with the answers funneled through his lawyer, the McCain-Palin campaign said Monday," Kyle Hopkins writes in the Anchorage Daily News.
More from the Palin files: "Several tax experts said they believe Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin is required to pay federal taxes on $25,000 in reimbursements from the state of Alaska for her children's travel expenses," Mary Jacoby and Jesse Drucker write in The Wall Street Journal.
Oh yeah -- the economy. "Collapsing confidence and buckling financial markets sparked talk Monday that Congress may need to resume work soon on emergency measures to shore up the economy," The Hill's Alexander Bolton writes. "On the first weekday of recess, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunging more than 700 points in intra-day trading, economists and market experts questioned the benefit of the $700 billion rescue package enacted just last Friday."
Already screening: Oliver Stone's "W": "What may surprise some people is that, given all the buildup, 'W' is not an all together unflattering portrait of the 43rd president," per Variety's Ted Johnson. "It's blistering in the decision to go to war in Iraq, yet sympathetic in that Bush himself did not have nefarious intentions. Moreover, we do see Bush visiting injured soldiers, and showing at least some concern for civilian casualties in the Iraq invasion."
Scalping for a fundraiser? "Barack Obama's blockbuster fund-raising concert with Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen in Manhattan next week is a huge hit -- among online hawkers and brokers," Michael Saul writes in the New York Daily News. "Tickets for the Oct. 16 concert, 'Change Rocks' at the Hammerstein Ballroom, are being sold on Web sites at prices ranging from $500 to a whopping $25,000."
And starring . . . Sarah Palin as Tina Fey as Sarah Palin? "As the comedian's impressions of the GOP vice presidential candidate draw laughs from Republicans and Democrats alike, a top honcho from the John McCain campaign tells me there's a debate going on about how to respond," Bill Zwecker reports in the Chicago Sun-Times. "I'm hearing some sort of Palin tweak of Fey's American Express commercials is in the works. While next weekend's 'Saturday Night Live' will be a rerun, it is possible Palin could appear Thursday on the first of NBC's 'Weekend Update' specials in prime time."
"I was just trying to keep Tina Fey in business, just giving her more information." -- Sarah Palin, explaining some of her media interviews.
"Some of your signs just make me wanna cry." -- Sarah Palin, without further explanation, in Clearwater, Fla.
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