The Note: Tone Check

These next three weeks -- and, perhaps, the next three decades or so of legacies -- comes down to a simple question: What does Johnny want?

Yes, he wants to be president. But underneath that question, things get trickier.

Does he want to run against Barack Obama or Barack Hussein Obama? (Is that choice still his?)

Will the campaign tone be set by John McCain himself, or McCain's party, some of McCain's strongest supporters, or McCain's running mate? (Which of those dogs pack the meanest bite?) Does he put forward a new, tax-cutting economic proposal to train his focus on the only dominant issue that's out there? (Answer Monday morning: No -- he'd still rather turn the page.)

Is McCain willing to lose a reputation to win a campaign? (And how many of his allies -- up to and including Sarah Palin -- know they have reputations that extend far beyond 2008?)

The Republican nominee trots out another new closing message Monday -- McCain the fighting underdog. "We've got them just where we want them," he plans to say Monday.

But he needs to break through is own clutter: Mixed messaging from his allies; a missing message on the campaign's big issue; a base that's threatening to bolt; a schedule that leaves him playing defense (in Virginia Monday); a running mate who's still answering (or not) key questions; a staff that's squabbling over the next move; a country that seems to be turning on him.

John McCain is, at this moment, losing: With a 90 percent wrong-track number, and President Bush beating Richard Nixon's low, it's Obama 53, McCain 43 in the new ABC News/Washington Post poll.

"Though every race is different, no presidential candidate has come back from an October deficit this large in pre-election polls dating to 1936," ABC polling director Gary Langer reports. The Palin pop is long gone: "Just 29 percent of his own supporters are 'very enthusiastic' about [McCain's] campaign, the fewest since August and down a sharp 17 points from his post-convention peak."

Three weeks out, "the two presidential nominees appear to be on opposite trajectories, with Sen. Barack Obama gaining momentum and Sen. John McCain stalled or losing ground on a range of issues and personal traits," Anne Kornblut and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post. "Recent strategic shifts may have hurt the Republican nominee." And: "Among the reasons McCain's path to victory seems steeper is that the percentage of 'movable' voters continues to shrink."

Does he still have a chance? "The magnitude of Mr. McCain's task may leave him depending on a misstep by Mr. Obama or a national security crisis rather than on what he can achieve through speeches, advertising or a winning performance in the final debate on Wednesday," John Harwood writes in The New York Times.

Says former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd: "At this point . . . the campaign is totally out of John McCain's hands."

ABC's George Stephanopoulos looks at polls showing the debates as a boost to Obama's prospects, leaving Wednesday's debate at Hofstra University as McCain's last shot for a big win.

"It's really John McCain's last chance, though I wonder how much he can do to help himself at this point," Stephanopoulos reported on "Good Morning America" Monday. "He'll be tempted to go hard on the attack, but that could end up hurting him more than helping him in this environment."

Among the confident Democrats: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.: "I think we are headed toward a very big win, and for the right reason. We're headed for a big win because the economy is in crisis. I think the American . . . voter rightly has more confidence in the Democratic Party to fix the problems that we are facing," Clinton told ABC's Kate Snow on "GMA."

(Asked if Palin has been treated by a different standard than she has, Clinton didn't engage: "Each of us gets plenty of criticism by the press. I think that kind of goes with the territory. But I think Joe Biden did a great job in that debate. . . . )

Cue a new McCain tone (again): McCain aides say his Monday speech is part of his closing push, focusing on "the need for Americans to evaluate and consider the new direction this country must take, and which candidate has the proven record, experience and readiness to deliver against growing challenges."

From the advance excerpts provided to ABC (no mention of Bill Ayers, or any new economic proposals): "We have 22 days to go. We're 6 points down. The national media has written us off. Senator Obama is measuring the drapes, and planning with Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid to raise taxes, increase spending, take away your right to vote by secret ballot in labor elections, and concede defeat in Iraq. But they forgot to let you decide. My friends, we've got them just where we want them."

"What America needs in this hour is a fighter; someone who puts all his cards on the table and trusts the judgment of the American people. I come from a long line of McCains who believed that to love America is to fight for her. I have fought for you most of my life. There are other ways to love this country, but I've never been the kind to do it from the sidelines."

(When does it get too late to hit restart?)

Gov. Sarah Palin, too, is dialing it back. Per ABC's Ron Claiborne and Imtiyaz Delawala, Palin spoke for more than 90 minutes at an outdoor rally Sunday and almost apologized for her tougher lines: "It's not negative and it's not mean-spirited in a campaign for me to ask you to check out our opponent's record, and I would ask you to check out our opponent's record on a couple of the legislative opportunities that Barack Obama has had to reflect his feelings on the same issue that I just talked about," Palin said. "I'm not being negative, not mean-spirited, but please check out his record on partial birth abortion and on the Child Born-Alive Act, and I'll let you judge for yourself."

Meanwhile, new messaging from the Obama campaign Monday: It's Obama's "economic rescue plan for the middle class," with an early afternoon speech in Toledo, Ohio, fleshing out the proposal he put forward in a New York Daily News op-ed Sunday.

Talk of a new economic plan by McCain has fizzled. "Despite signals that Senator John McCain would have new prescriptions for the economic crisis after a weekend of meetings, his campaign said Sunday that Mr. McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, would not have any more proposals this week unless developments call for some," Jackie Calmes reports in The New York Times. "The signs of internal confusion came as the campaign was under pressure from state party leaders to sharpen his message on the economy and at least blunt the advantage that Democrats traditionally have on the issue in hard times."

Politico's Mike Allen: "Presented with 30 options for new economic measures, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has -- at least for now -- chosen none of them."

Who would ever get such an idea? "It will be a very comprehensive approach to jump-start the economy by allowing capital to be formed easier in America by lowering taxes," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R.-S.C., said Sunday on "Face the Nation."

Why it might have been the right idea: "A clear correlation has emerged in the U.S. presidential campaign: When the Standard & Poor's 500 Index drops, Barack Obama's stock rises," Bloomberg's Michael Tackett writes.

Surely McCain has to do something, and one thing may be better than three. "Republican leaders said Saturday that they were worried Mr. McCain was heading for defeat unless he brought stability to his presidential candidacy and settled on a clear message to counter Senator Barack Obama," Adam Nagourney and Elisabeth Bumiller write in the Sunday New York Times.

Said Saul Anuzis, the GOP chairman in Michigan: "You're starting to feel real frustration because we are running out of time. Our message, the campaign's message, isn't connecting." Is former governor Tommy Thompson, R-Wis., satisfied? "No," and he added, "I don't know who is."

"He has to make the case that he's different than Bush and better than Obama on the economy," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., tells the AP's Liz Sidoti. "If he doesn't win that case, it's all over, and it's going to be a very bad year for Republicans."

Sidoti writes: "The unsolicited advice comes as McCain campaign officials are becoming increasingly discouraged. From junior aides to top advisers, the frustration is palpable. Some argue the media isn't giving McCain a fair shake and are weary of the increasingly problematic environment working against the GOP. Tensions have grown over how hard to go after Obama amid concerns about irreparably damaging McCain's straight-shooter reputation."

Bill Kristol wants the something to be dramatic, or sees a campaign that's "doomed": "It's time for John McCain to fire his campaign," Kristol writes in his New York Times column. "What McCain needs to do is junk the whole thing and start over. Shut down the rapid responses, end the frantic e-mails, bench the spinning surrogates, stop putting up new TV and Internet ads every minute. In fact, pull all the ads -- they're doing no good anyway. Use that money for televised town halls and half-hour addresses in prime time."

Kristol continues: "And let McCain go back to what he's been good at in the past -- running as a cheerful, open and accessible candidate. Palin should follow suit. The two of them are attractive and competent politicians. They're happy warriors and good campaigners. Set them free."

Indeed, while the base is clamoring for more red meat, the strategists who backed that plan are now red-faced. "The McCain campaign's more aggressive tone is prompting pushback from the public: Registered voters by a broad margin now believe John McCain is more focused on attacking his opponent than on addressing the issues in the 2008 presidential election," Gary Langer writes.

"Registered voters by a 24-point margin, 59-35 percent, now say McCain is more focused on attacking his opponent rather than addressing the issues. That's grown from a roughly even 48-45 percent split on this question in late August," Langer writes. "There's far less criticism of the tone of Obama's campaign: Registered voters by 68-26 percent say he's mainly addressing the issues, not attacking his opponent, a slightly more positive rating than in August."

Thinking bigger than that: "Barring a dramatic change in the political landscape over the next three weeks, Democrats appear headed toward a decisive victory on Election Day that would give them broad power over the federal government," McClatchy's Steven Thomma writes. "The victory would send Barack Obama to the White House and give him larger Democratic majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate -- and perhaps a filibuster-proof margin there. That could mark a historic realignment of the country's politics on a scale with 1932 or 1980, when the out party was given power it held for a generation, and used it to transform government's role in American society."

How long before Phil Singer's question gets asked in serious Republican circles? "With 23 days to go and McCain looking like an electoral dead man walking, how long before GOP luminaries and pundits like Kathleen Parker, Peggy Noonan or Newt Gingrich start calling on the Republican National Committee to spend its remaining cash on Congressional races?" Singer blogs.

On his New Republic blog, Howard Wolfson has six things McCain could have done differently: "1) Avoid Faustian Bargains. "2) A Second Act for Sarah Palin. "3) A Different VP Choice Entirely. "4) Distance from George W. Bush. "5) Attempt to Define Senator Obama Earlier. "6) A Coherent Response to the Economic Crisis."

And yet: Salon's Walter Shapiro weighs in with "How John McCain could still win" (and he has four different ways in mind). "McCain still has a few gambits that he might try, especially if the alternative were a stinging defeat. Some Republicans wonder if the 72-year-old McCain should make an 'I will serve only one term' pledge, so that as president he would be free of all political pressure (yeah, sure) in his effort to reform Washington and confront the deadly earmark crisis," Shapiro writes. "Even more dramatic (and more politically risky) would be a public repudiation of the presidency of George W. Bush."

As for the man who's setting the tone . . . Newsweek's Holly Bailey unpacks the myths and mystique of Steve Schmidt: "Unlike [Karl] Rove, who appears to relish and even play up his Prince of Darkness rep, Schmidt -- who declined to be interviewed for this story -- seems genuinely pained that this is the way things have turned out. He isn't pure or a dreamy-eyed idealist; he was hired to win, and he has shown he's not averse to punching or getting elastic with facts. In politics, no prize goes to the noble loser. That doesn't mean he has to like being known as a practitioner of the political dark arts. Schmidt came to work for McCain with a very different vision of what big-league politics could be -- and it didn't look anything like the nasty and brutish campaign he now finds himself working like hell not to lose."

Despite Schmidt's best efforts, the mixed McCain messaging continues: New tone or not, McCain is still on the air almost exclusively with attack ads. And the RNC is launching a new push centered on Bill Ayers, with a new Web video titled, "Guilt by Participation."

As McCain has now seen first-hand, this is volatile stuff: "Obama can hardly be held accountable for Ayers's behavior 40 years ago, but at least McCain and Palin can try to take some responsibility for the behavior of their own supporters in 2008," Frank Rich wrote in his Sunday New York Times column. "The McCain campaign has crossed the line between tough negative campaigning and inciting vigilantism, and each day the mob howls louder. The onus is on the man who says he puts his country first to call off the dogs, pit bulls and otherwise."

"The problem for McCain -- and the nation -- is that McCain's campaign message now systematically encourages voters to believe that Obama is secretly something awful," Time's Michael Scherer writes.

"Most voters this year aren't much interested in William Ayers or other distractions. Times are bad and the greedheads are to blame," Newsweek's Jonathan Alter writes. "If McCain wants any chance of getting back into this thing, beyond praying for a foreign-policy crisis or a mother lode of racism just beneath the surface, he needs to break not just from Bush, but from the rotting corpse of his party. Voters don't want to refight the Vietnam War or play stupid guilt-by-association games. They can't be happy that the ads of the Republican nominee are now 100 percent negative. But they might be willing to weigh the vision of a man they once respected, if only he had something left to say."

And if McCain backers are interested in Ayers, remember that Obama backers are watching their actions closely.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., ignited a political firestorm over the weekend by seeming to link McCain and Palin to George Wallace: "As public figures with the power to influence and persuade, Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are playing with fire, and if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all. They are playing a very dangerous game that disregards the value of the political process and cheapens our entire democracy," Lewis said, per ABC's Jake Tapper.

McCain was offended -- "shocking and beyond the pale." But who should be worried here?

Will it come down to race after all? "Completely overblown," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe tells The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut. "It's not the thing I lie awake worrying about," says David Axelrod. (What is the thing?)

Who will vote? "Rural black voters . . . could be an uncertain constituency in terms of turnout -- particularly in the South, where a long-range study shows they vote at drastically lower rates than their urban counterparts," Joseph Williams writes in The Boston Globe. "In south central Virginia, a few miles from the North Carolina border, racism's bitter legacy is part of the equation."

Race is there, always: "Race has erupted as an issue mostly in ways that seem to confirm how deep the divide remains for some voters -- those expressing mistrust over Mr. Obama's ties to his controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., or those describing Mr. Obama as 'uppity' or 'elitist,' " Patrick Healy writes in The New York Times. "While Mr. Obama's advisers say they do not think race will be a factor in the election, the actual extent of the racial divide is likely to become clear only on Nov. 4."

And sometimes it's ugly: Time's Karen Tumulty with Virginia state GOP Chairman Jeffrey M. Frederick: "With so much at stake, and time running short, Frederick did not feel he had the luxury of subtlety. He climbed atop a folding chair to give 30 campaign volunteers who were about to go canvassing door to door their talking points -- for instance, the connection between Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden: 'Both have friends that bombed the Pentagon,' he said. 'That is scary.' "

" 'And he won't salute the flag,' one woman added, repeating another myth about Obama. She was quickly topped by a man who called out, 'We don't even know where Senator Obama was really born.' Actually, we do; it's Hawaii."

How does this fit with tone? "John McCain vowed Sunday to give Barack Obama a 'respectful' butt-kicking at their third and final presidential debate Wednesday on Long Island," Richard Sisk writes in the New York Daily News. "McCain said that he and running mate Sarah Palin would bounce back from their deficit in the polls, and 'after I whip [Obama's] you-know-what in this debate' at Hofstra University, 'We're going to be going out 24/7.' "

The Clintons, on board: "Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton made their first joint appearance for the Obama ticket by joining Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden and his wife yesterday -- but the former first couple's comments focused mostly on her," Daphne Retter and Austin Fenner write in the New York Post. "Bill Clinton, who left the stage almost immediately after speaking, told the Scranton, Pa., audience that his wife has broken new ground with her devotion to the goal of getting Barack Obama elected president."

History according to Bill: "She has done 50 events for Senator Obama," the former president said. "She has not only done more to support him than any runner-up in the Democratic-primary process in my lifetime, she has done more than any other runners-up combined, and that says a lot about why she ran for president and what she believes in."

He can still play: "Clinton has sought to embrace more of a statesman role since Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination, offering praise for both Obama and McCain -- and often more analysis than passion about the campaign," Politico's Jonathan Martin writes. "But with Election Day approaching, Clinton offered the student-heavy crowd a dose of partisanship and amped up his energy."

"Troopergate" fallout: The governor's reaction: "I'm very, very pleased to be cleared of any legal wrongdoing," Palin said, "any hint of any kind of unethical activity there. Very pleased to be cleared of any of that."

"That's just not the case," ABC's Jake Tapper reports. "One can make the argument, as Palin and her allies have tried to do, that this investigation -- launched by a bipartisan Republican-controlled legislative body -- was somehow a partisan Democratic witch hunt, but one cannot honestly make the argument that the report concluded that Palin was 'cleared of any legal wrongdoing' or 'any hint of unethical activity.' . . . She was NOT cleared, certainly not of 'unethical activity.' "

Levi Johnston speaks! "Levi Johnston, who's having a baby with Gov. Sarah Palin's daughter, can't believe all the things he's hearing. No, he wasn't held against his will on the campaign trail. No, he's not being forced into a shotgun wedding with 17-year-old Bristol Palin," the AP's Adam Goldman reports.

"None of that's true," Johnston, 18, said in a brief interview with The Associated Press. "We both love each other. We both want to marry each other. And that's what we are going to do."

What's behind the battleground leads? "Sen. Barack Obama, his running mate and his wife have appeared at twice as many events in swing states as their Republican counterparts, which may help explain the Democrat's lead in many battleground-state polls," The Wall Street Journal's Laura Meckler and Easha Anand report. "In the five weeks since the fall campaign officially began, Sen. Obama, his wife, Michelle, and vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden have appeared at a total of 95 separate events in states that both sides are contesting."

What else is behind them? "Barack Obama's recent surge in the presidential race has been credited to a rise in voters' concerns about their money. It helps that Obama himself has a lot of money," Mark Z. Barabak writes in the Los Angeles Times. "Spurning federal funds -- and the spending restrictions that go with them -- the Democratic nominee has racked up an enormous cash advantage that he is using to dominate the television airwaves."

Time to catch up? "Arizona Sen. John McCain and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin campaign today in Virginia, a state where the Republican presidential ticket is being outmanned, outspent and outvisited by Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama," Olympia Meola report in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

"Here in battleground Virginia alone, the Obama camp has opened 49 offices and claims to have signed up more than 165,000 new voters. That's more than half President George W. Bush's victory margin here four years ago, when Democrats barely contested the state," Tim Tankersley writes in the Chicago Tribune.

Time to make up? "Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., will appear on 'The Late Show with David Letterman' Thursday, three weeks and a day after cancelling an appearance there to suspend his campaign and work on congressional bill to bailout struggling financial institutions," ABC's Bret Hovell reports. That same night, Joe Biden will be on Leno.

Cry a river for the 527s: "Independent political groups, some of which made big splashes in the 2004 race, are playing reduced roles in this year's presidential campaign. With three-plus weeks to go, there's less money pouring into nasty negative television advertising from outside groups than in 2004, and much of the activity is directed toward narrow niches in the electorate," Brian Mooney reports in The Boston Globe.

Who does the Pentagon want? "McCain, a former Navy officer and prisoner of war, would arrive in the White House with more military experience than any president since Dwight D. Eisenhower," Julian E. Barnes writes in the Los Angeles Times. "But he also would bring a long congressional career as an outspoken critic of the Pentagon -- prone to harsh assessments of its spending practices, weapons programs and military leaders. As a result, defenders of some of the Pentagon's biggest weapons systems are worried that if McCain is elected, he will order sweeping changes, killing a number of big-ticket programs. Perhaps unlike other civilian leaders, McCain would be able to draw on his experience and knowledge of the military to reject the advice of generals and admirals."

Even Hollywood's getting mean. Variety's Ted Johnson: "Stars have taken on a negative tone in response to attacks on 'celebrity' and the 'elite' from the John McCain side, with Barbra Streisand calling it the 'politics of hypocrisy, distraction and blame,' and Madonna banning Sarah Palin from her concerts. On his video blog, P. Diddy could barely contain himself in a response to McCain's calling Obama 'that one' in their second presidential debate."

Event of the weekend: one of four parties to celebrate the 50th birthday of longtime Democratic operative Teresa Vilmain, at the Washington Arts Connection (only because Jenny Backus' house wasn't big enough). Guests included Terry McAuliffe, Ann Lewis, Mike McCurry, Shari Yost, Jenny Backus, Kiki McClean, Jano Cabrera, Phil Singer, Joe Sandler, Joe Solmonese, and Sam Arora. (Official birthday T-shirt: "Sorry, raised by nuns.")

The Sked:

John McCain and Sarah Palin hold a joint rally in Virginia Beach, Va., at 11 am ET. McCain then heads to Wilmington, N.C. for a rally at 2:15 pm ET, while Palin stays in Virginia -- heading to Richmond for a rally at 2 pm ET.

Barack Obama spends his Columbus Day in Ohio, with a speech outlining his economic plans in Toledo at 1:30 pm ET.

Joe Biden begins his Monday in New Hampshire, with community gatherings planning in Rochester at 11 am ET and Manchester at 1:30 pm ET. Biden then heads to Dover, Del. to attend the Deleware Jefferson Jackson dinner at 7 pm ET.

Michelle Obama is in Minnesota Monday, with a community event at 1 pm ET in Rochester and a rally at 5 pm ET in St. Paul.

Hillary Clinton heads to Pennsylvania on Obama's behalf -- she holds a conversation with working families at 11 am ET in Philadelphia and a rally at 12:30 pm ET in Horsham.

The Kicker:

"May we plagiarize that? That was a good one." -- Sarah Palin, when an Ohio crowd chanted "Mine, baby, mine" -- a good supplement to "Drill, baby, drill."

"I decided I wanted some pie. Pie. That's what I wanted." -- Barack Obama, en route to uttering the word "pie" 15 times in 104 seconds, per ABC's John Berman, Sunlen Miller, and Ursula Fahy.

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