The Note: The Plumback

Let's hope Joe the Plumber doesn't charge by the minute -- the 15th can be the roughest.

Maybe John McCain's last great comeback isn't possible. Maybe it's only possible on the back of a plumber from Ohio (albeit one who could have used some vetting).

Maybe it's only possible with a plumber plus an ACORN plus an apology plus an "SNL" appearance plus a whole bunch of nasty things still to be said about Barack Obama.

But as the race moves to a (bluer) map, the fact is that a McCain comeback is still possible, all the signs to the contrary notwithstanding. Outgunned on the air and the ground, in difficult (shrinking) terrain, there may yet be room for one final storyline that casts McCain like he remembers so fondly.

If he wins, he'll be eking it out: "Top aides to Senator John McCain said Thursday that they were searching for a 'narrow-victory scenario' and would focus in the final weeks on a dwindling number of states, using mailings, telephone calls and television advertisements to try to tear away support from Senator Barack Obama," Adam Nagourney and Jim Rutenberg write in The New York Times.

"Mr. Obama's advisers said they would use the remaining 19 days of the campaign to focus mainly on capturing states that President Bush won in 2004; he is going to Missouri, North Carolina and Virginia, over the next three days and spending two days in Florida next week," they write. "In a sign of the differing fortunes of the candidates, advisers to Mr. Obama said he was escalating his effort in West Virginia, which Mr. Bush won by 13 points in 2004, with a surge in advertising spending and a campaign swing there in the coming days by Mr. Obama or his running mate, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr."

Karl Rove charts the strategy: "Mr. McCain is shaping a story line that draws on well-founded concerns about Mr. Obama's lack of record or experience," Rove writes in his Wall Street Journal column. "Mr. McCain is also bowing to reality and devoting most of his time to the economy. His narrative is he's the conservative reformer who'll lead and work hard to get things done, while Mr. Obama is the tax-and-spend liberal who's unprepared to lead and unwilling to act."

The itinerary: "[McCain's] campaign understands the dire circumstances it faces and is narrowing his travels almost exclusively to Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado and Nevada. If he carries those states, while losing only Iowa and New Mexico from the GOP's 2004 total, Mr. McCain will carry 274 Electoral College votes and the White House. It's threading the needle, but it's come to that."

Defense is what's left of his offense: "The latest polls show Obama ahead in Virginia and Florida. McCain and Obama are effectively tied in Missouri and North Carolina," ABC's Ron Claiborne reports. "This has forced McCain to play defense in these states with less than three weeks to go instead of being in blue states that his campaign has targeted, such as New Hampshire, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota."

"Absent his ability to pick off any state won by the Democrats four years ago, he must prevent Obama from winning any of half a dozen Republican states that now appear vulnerable," Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post. "McCain's campaign and the RNC still point to Pennsylvania and, to a lesser extent, New Hampshire as potential pickups. But McCain has so many red states to defend that he may not have either the time or the money to convert Democratic turf."

But is it too late for state-by-state hopes, given Obama's financial edge? "He's too far in the hole," said Mike Murphy, a former McCain adviser. "He has to move the whole country his way to get back in the game, and at that point the North Carolina-type problems will fade and he will be back in battle in places like Colorado, Ohio, New Hampshire and Nevada."

Newt agrees: "This race is a long way from over," former House speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., tells ABC's Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America" Friday. "Sen. Obama I think gave Sen. McCain the winning issue the other day in his conversation on 'spreading the wealth.' . . . If you get a four or five-point swing nationally, all of a sudden a whole group of states fall his way."

Still time for a late break? "The race in its final days retains a feeling of dynamism," Peggy Noonan writes in her Wall Street Journal column. "I think it is going to burst open or tighten, not just mosey along. I can well imagine hearing, the day after Election Day, a lot of 'You won't believe it but I was literally in line at the polling station when I decided.' "

Can the big break be made? "To stop Obama's momentum, he needs to underscore that he is his own man and not that guy in the White House. But that effort might not make a difference," Carla Marinucci writes in the San Francisco Chronicle.

ABC's latest Electoral College map has all the Kerry states either solidly or leaning Democratic -- plus New Mexico and Iowa, which went for Bush in 2004. That means Obama has to pick up just one of the battlegrounds to capture the presidency -- and it doesn't have to be a big state, either.

If Virginia flips, it's going to be an early night: "By every organizational measure, Obama's campaign appears to have the advantage -- it has nearly three times as many offices, has contacted tens of thousands more potential supporters, and has helped register nearly half a million new voters this year, most of whom state officials believe favor the Democrat," The Washington Post's Michael D. Shear and Amy Gardner report.

"A key to a McCain comeback will be whether Republicans have built a strong enough get-out-the-vote operation in a state where none has ever been needed, something many party leaders question," they write.

Can it happen in Florida? "Barack Obama has sent five of his most senior operatives to Florida -- two of them to focus on the single county that includes Miami -- for the duration of the presidential campaign, in a newly sharpened strategy to win the election by driving Democratic voter turnout in the Republican-dominated state," the Los Angeles Times' Peter Wallsten writes. "The big bet on Florida and Miami-Dade County, Obama aides say, is based on the campaign's belief that it has secured enough supporters to win the state and must now ensure that those supporters get to the polls -- in contrast to states such as Ohio, where the campaign believes victory depends on persuading more voters to support Obama."

Obama's map gets wider still: "Democrat Barack Obama extended his front-running campaign into West Virginia, a bastion of white, middle-class voters who rejected his primary season appeals, and confidently broached the subject of victory in a presidential contest playing out on Republican turf," the AP's Liz Sidoti reports. "GOP rival John McCain found himself looking for a break as he was largely forced to defend his standing in states President Bush won four years ago."

"It is a reflection of how the Obama team is trying to use its war chest to close off paths Sen. John McCain can use to accumulate the 270 electoral votes needed to win," Sara Murray writes in The Wall Street Journal.

Should McCain shrink his own map more? "McCain's campaign soldiers on in those Democratic-leaning states [Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Wisconsin], committing its most precious commodities -- time and money -- even as the Republican nominee struggles to lock up the red states he likely must sweep to win the presidency," Politico's David Paul Kuhn writes. "It's a head-scratching strategy that is leading even some Republicans to wonder why the McCain campaign hasn't written off places such as Iowa and Pennsylvania and strategically retreated to ensure victory in more favorable red state terrain -- such as Virginia and North Carolina -- that it absolutely cannot afford to lose."

The polls suggest a path, though a narrow one: "A spate of widely publicized newspaper and network polls over the past week have shown Barack Obama opening a big lead over John McCain. But other surveys tell a somewhat different story, suggesting the presidential race is still close, and the Republican has even gained ground in recent days," The Wall Street Journal's Nick Timiraos reports.

Obama gets it: "Don't underestimate the capacity of Democrats to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory," Obama said at his Billy Joel/Bruce Springsteen fundraiser, per ABC's Jake Tapper. "Don't underestimate our ability to screw it up."

Remember New Hampshire? Obama does: "We are 19 days away from changing this country -- 19 days," Obama said Thursday, per ABC's Jake Tapper. "But for those who are getting a little cocky, I've got two words for you: New Hampshire."

"Obama is riding high in the polls, and many political analysts saw the debate as McCain's last, best chance to make a serious dent in Obama's momentum. But Obama cautioned supporters against overconfidence, reminding them of what happened in January in the Granite State," Brian MacQuarrie writes in The Boston Globe.

The McCain message: a plumber, yes, plus an evisceration: "I'm calling on behalf of John McCain and the RNC because you need to know that Barack Obama and his Democrat allies in the Illinois Senate opposed a bill requiring doctors to care for babies born alive after surviving attempted abortions," reads one McCain-Palin/RNC robocall, per Talking Points Memo.

Another: "You need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge's home, and killed Americans. And Democrats will enact an extreme leftist agenda if they take control of Washington. Barack Obama and his Democratic allies lack the judgment to lead our country."

ABC's Jake Tapper: "This doesn't seem to me to be such a great recipe for future bipartisanship achievement, should Sen. McCain win in 19 days."

Yet the positive signs for Obama are everywhere: "Barack Obama is running even with or ahead of 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in support by white voters. If those numbers hold, with a changing electorate, pollsters say Obama will win on Nov. 4," Bloomberg's Hans Nichols reports.

A new Obama ad keeps up the fight on healthcare: "John McCain's health care plan … first we learned he's going to tax health care benefits to pay for part of it. Now the Wall Street Journal reports John McCain would pay for the rest of his health care plan "with major reductions to Medicare and Medicaid."

Coming out of the Hofstra debate, a honed message from McCain: "McCain, campaigning in Pennsylvania, echoed an argument he made at Wednesday's debate that Obama would raise taxes. He declared small businesses the winner of the candidates' matchup at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., saying his economic plan would do more for them," USA Today's David Jackson writes.

Then there's Joe the Plumber. McCain declared him the winner of Wednesday's debate -- but this isn't want anyone had in mind.

"Ironically, the plumber currently has an income level that would make him eligible for Obama's proposed tax cut rather than the tax increase," per ABC's Imaeyen Ibanga and Russell Goldman. "Wurzelbacher said he had a couple of plumbing jobs scheduled for today and hoped he would get more calls before the day was out. He will need the money. Wurzelbacher's new notoriety has brought to light the fact that he owes nearly $1,200 in unpaid taxes."

Maybe not the best choice to build a campaign around: "John McCain's bid to shore up his poll numbers by highlighting 'Joe the plumber' carries with it as many political pitfalls as opportunities," Bloomberg's Ryan J. Donmoyer and Kristin Jensen reports. "Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, the Toledo plumber who criticized the tax proposals of Democratic nominee Barack Obama, owes back taxes, isn't licensed or registered in Ohio and would fare little better under McCain's tax agenda than under Obama's even if his income soared."

"Obama campaign aides fought back, saying that if Mr. Wurzelbacher earns the wages of a typical Ohio plumber, $40,600, and holds a $90,000 mortgage, he would see a tax cut under Sen. Obama's plan of more than $1,000, compared with no tax reduction under Sen. McCain's," Jonathan Weisman and Ilan Brat write in The Wall Street Journal. "If he succeeds in buying the plumbing business where he works, he could see even more tax benefits, including Sen. Obama's proposed elimination of capital-gains taxes for small-business investment, a 50% tax credit to purchase health insurance for employees and a $3,000 tax credit for every new hire over the next two years."

There's more: "His motives for confronting Sen. Barack Obama at a campaign stop in his neighborhood earlier this week are the subject of intense Internet speculation. The city of Toledo is preparing a letter to his employer seeking to determine whether he is violating city codes, and the plumbers union is on his tail," Robert Barnes reports in The Washington Post.

"Joe, if you're watching, I'm sorry," McCain said on Letterman Thursday night.

"Can John McCain catch a break?" ask the Los Angeles Times' Robin Abcarian and P.J. Huffstutter.

Said Wurzelbacher: "I'm kind of like Britney Spears having a headache. . . . Everybody wants to know about it."

"McCain likes to say that he isn't George W. Bush – and in this case of bungled public relations, it is clear he is not. The famously-disciplined Bush campaign operation would likely have found the perfect anonymous citizen to illustrate a policy proposal, rather than spontaneously wrap itself around an unknown entity with so many asterisks," Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown and Amie Parnes report.

The LA Times compiles some wit and wisdom of JTP. . . . On Iraq: "I don't know if you guys are Christians or not, but that's like somebody coming to Jesus and becoming saved. These guys have freedom." On domestic programs: "Social Security is a joke." On politics: "The politicians are the nobles. We are the serfs. OK?"

Is Palin sick of the story too? "I begged our speech writers, 'Don't make me say "Joe the Plumber," please, in any speeches.' And I was asked 'Just one time, just at this fundraiser,' " she said Thursday night in North Carolina, per ABC's Imtiyaz Delawala.

Palin's still packing them in. Headline in the Bangor Daily News: "Palin rallies 5,000 in Bangor; Alaskan maverick delivers folksy GOP message."

On McCain's message, the newest new start: "McCain's self-rescue effort began in earnest yesterday, with a new ad that, once and for all, severed his ties with the Bush administration," Sridhar Pappu writes in the Washington Independent. "Titled 'Fight,' the GOP presidential nominee speaks directly to the camera: 'The last eight years haven't worked very well, have they? I'll make the next four better. Your savings, your job and your financial security are under siege. We need a new direction, and I have a plan.' "

Any ideas left that work? "I think McCain lost ground in the debates mainly because of his threadbare ideas and solutions. People didn't hear John McCain the brave iconoclast; they heard John McCain the doctrinaire conservative Republican, circa 1964," Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post column.

ACORN cracking? "The FBI is investigating whether the community activist group ACORN helped foster voter registration fraud around the nation before the presidential election. A senior law enforcement official confirmed the investigation to The Associated Press on Thursday," the AP's Lara Jakes Jordan reports. "A second senior law enforcement official says the FBI was looking at results of recent raids on ACORN offices in several states for any evidence of a coordinated national scam."

Vicki Iseman speaks: The woman at the center of the controversial New York Times story about McCain's relationships with lobbyists sits down with National Journal's Edward T. Pound.

"I did not have a sexual relationship with Senator McCain," she said. "I never had an affair or an inappropriate relationship with Senator McCain, and that means I never acted unethically in my dealings with the senator. . . . I have never even been alone with Senator McCain."

Iseman blames John Weaver for helping land the story, and Weaver responds: "I love John McCain . . . and I wouldn't do anything to harm him."

Sarah Palin is set to appear on "Saturday Night Live" this weekend, per ABC's Imtiyaz Delawala.

It was rented white tie for Obama and McCain Thursday night at the Al Smith dinner.

Some of the best lines:

Obama: "It's possible that I'm a little too awesome." "I feel right at home here because it's often been said that I share the politics of Alfred E. Smith and the ears of Alfred E. Newman." "Barack is actually Swahili for 'that one.' And I got my middle name from somebody who obviously didn't think I'd ever run for president." "I do love the Waldorf-Astoria, though. You know, I hear that from the doorstep you can see all the way to the Russian tearoom."

McCain: "He even has a pet name for me -- George Bush." "We know the press is really an independent-minded, civic-minded, non-partisan group, like ACORN." "I can't shake the feeling that some people here are voting for me. Nice to see you, Hillary." And he said he was firing his campaign staff: "All of their positions will now be held by a man named Joe the Plumber."

From the concert of the year: "The Boss and The Piano Man raised the roof at the Hammerstein Ballroom Thursday night for the Democratic Party's main man," George Rush and Bill Hutchinson write in the New York Daily News. "Singing together for the first time, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel belted out Springsteen's 'Thunder Road' and Joel's 'A Matter of Trust' to the delight of 2,500 people at the Barack Obama fund-raiser."

"After an introduction by Caroline Kennedy, Springsteen told the gathering, 'Billy and I have rehearsed a little, but I hope you consider this more like the vice presidential debate.'

" 'You have to sort of Palin-ize your expectations,' he said to applause and laughter. 'We seem like we know a lot, but we don't, really.' "

The Sked:

John McCain holds rallies in Florida Friday -- first in Miami at 1:15 pm ET, then in Melbourne at 6 pm ET.

Sarah Palin starts her day with a rally in West Chester, Ohio at 11:30 am ET. She then heads to a second rally in Noblesville, Ind. at 1 pm ET.

Barack Obama is in Virginia on Friday -- the beginning of the campaign's "red-state tour." He holds a rally in Roanoke at 12:30 pm ET.

Joe Biden continues his time out west -- he begins his Friday with a rally in Mesilla, N.M., then continues to a second rally in Henderson, Nev., at 6:45 pm ET.

President Bush speaks to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Friday at 8:40 am ET.

Also in the news:

Stevens on the stand: "Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska took the witness stand in his own defense yesterday and immediately denied charges that he lied on financial disclosure forms to conceal gifts and extensive home renovations he received from a business executive," Del Quentin Wilber reports in The Washington Post.

Still MIA: "By this time four years ago, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth had pumped millions of dollars into television advertising, seeking to discredit Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry's military record and making 'Swift Boating' part of the political lexicon," the Washington Times' Jennifer Haberkorn reports. "But this year, no one has taken the Swift Boaters' place, and overall spending by outside political groups -- which arguably helped Republicans more than Democrats in 2004 -- is down dramatically."

Saddle up for 2012: "Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana governor widely seen as a Republican rising star, will keynote a high-profile Christian conservative fundraising dinner next month in Iowa, his office confirms," Politico's Jonathan Martin reports.

With an answer like this, what could possibly go wrong? "If I was racist, I would have looked at it through racist eyes," said Diane Fedele, president of a Republican women's club San Bernardino County, Calif., which sent out a recent newsletter with a photo of Barack Obama's head on a donkey's body, surrounded by fried chicken, watermelon, fruit punch, and ribs, on a fake "United States Food Stamps" $10 bill.

The Kicker:

"My opponent is an impressive fellow in many ways. Political opponents can have a little trouble seeing the best in each other. I have seen this man at his best. I admire his great skill, energy and determination." -- John McCain, at the Al Smith dinner.

"Hello. I'm calling for John McCain and the RNC because you need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge's home and killed Americans." -- McCain/RNC robocall, now dialing into a home near you.

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