A lucky 13 days out, we're wondering:
Do the votes in real America count differently than those in fake America?
Where do real Americans shop?
Is it better for Team McCain to waste time and money on Pennsylvania, or to waste whatever enthusiasm would vanish if the GOP wasn't playing offense anywhere?
Will bashing the media win John McCain a single, real-life vote he wouldn't have already gotten?
Is it patriotic to question your opponents' patriotism?
Does McCain have one long ball left in him? (One that has nothing whatsoever to do with "Joe the Plumber"?)
Does a long plane trip to Hawaii by Barack Obama freeze the race in place, or allow someone to drive a new message?
Does the fact that Sarah Palin is now the most accessible of the four candidates change anything at all?
It might, actually, but Palin has gone full circle in her brief time on the national landscape -- and the recent attempts at definition have gone about as well as that bridge we used to hear so much about.
She continues to get huge crowds, though the big headlines she's getting are not for the right reasons. She influencing voters -- but not in the way McCain expected when he shook up the race by plucking her from obscurity. (Ask Colin Powell.)
Neither running mate has done his or her ticket many favors in recent days. And Palin -- buttoned up for so long, might have been better off staying that way (albeit with nicer buttons these days).
Not where she needs to be going: "Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin apologized yesterday for implying that some parts of the country are more American than others, even as similar comments by two Republican congressmen were causing a backlash that threatened their chances for reelection," per The Washington Post's Lyndsey Layton.
"If that's the way it's come across, I apologize," Palin said on CNN.
We're waiting for this to show up her stump speech -- what's more patriotic than shopping at high-end retail outlets?
"The Republican National Committee has spent more than $150,000 to clothe and accessorize vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and her family since her surprise pick by John McCain in late August," Politico's Jeanne Cummings reports. "According to financial disclosure records, the accessorizing began in early September and included bills from Saks Fifth Avenue in St. Louis and New York for a combined $49,425.74. The records also document a couple of big-time shopping trips to Neiman Marcus in Minneapolis, including one $75,062.63 spree in early September."
(Cash crunch? What cash crunch? That's some nice lipstick. . . . )
Strategic decisions! "The campaign does not comment on strategic decisions regarding how financial resources available to the campaign are spent," spokeswoman Maria Comella said.
Added another spokeswoman, Tracey Schmitt: "With all of the important issues facing the country right now, it's remarkable that we're spending time talking about pantsuits and blouses. It was always the intent that the clothing go to a charitable purpose after the campaign."
Too easy: "I wonder how 'Joe the Plumber' feels about his donation going to Sarah the Shopper," one Democratic operative tells the New York Daily News' Ken Bazinet. "I guess she can also see Saks from her doorstep."
"The Democrats are going to have a lot more fun with this than is prudent, but the heat for this story will come from Republicans who cannot understand how their party would do something this stupid," The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder writes.
"I buy my suits at Dillard's here in Florida," said Gov. Charlie Crist, R-Fla., on MSNBC Wednesday morning.
The AP's lobs the next volley: "Gov. Sarah Palin charged the state for her children to travel with her, including to events where they were not invited, and later amended expense reports to specify that they were on official business," Brett J. Blackledge, Adam Goldman, and Matt Apuzzo write. "In all, Palin has charged the state $21,012 for her three daughters' 64 one-way and 12 round-trip commercial flights since she took office in December 2006. In some other cases, she has charged the state for hotel rooms for the girls."
One more civics lesson: Asked what the vice president would do, we hope she won't be disappointed when she winds up doing crossword puzzles in the chair. "That's something Piper would ask me," Palin told a TV interviewer in Colorado, per ABC's Imtiyaz Delawala. "They're in charge of the US Senate, so if they want to they can really get in there with the senators and make a lot of good policy changes."
Palin's campaign will have to pause Friday: Deposition time. "Gov. Sarah Palin, already found by one investigation to have abused her power, will take time from her vice presidential campaign Friday to give a deposition in a second inquiry into her firing of the state's top public safety official," per the AP's Rachel D'Oro.
As for how she's been handled by her opponents: "I think that both Barack and Joe [Biden] were very smart, after an initial kind of misstep, in pulling back and not criticizing Governor Palin personally," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton tells ABC's Cynthia McFadden on "Nightline."
More Clinton: "I believe that you can hold two thoughts simultaneously. You can hold the thought that she's an extraordinary woman. She has an incredible set of skills, personal skills that are really apparent in how she connects with people and her life story. But that doesn't mean that she and John McCain should lead our country, for a million reasons that I think people understand."
The process of healing (as dictated by Rudy?): "I was running against him," said Clinton, D-N.Y. "I mean, it would be like saying to somebody who just lost the playoffs ... to get into the World Series, 'Well, you know, are you going to root for the team from your league?' And, you know, 'Yeah, I'll get around to it.' . . . It's a human experience and, obviously, a lot of human emotion."
Palin is incorporating Clinton into her stump speech: "In stronger language than she has used on the campaign trail before, Palin criticized Obama for not selecting Sen. Clinton as his vice presidential nominee, citing Obama's decision as an example of the barriers women face in the workplace," per ABC's Imtiyaz Delawala.
Said Palin: "When it came time for choosing, somehow Barack Obama just couldn't bring himself to pick the woman who got 18 million votes in his primary, and that seems to be too familiar a story isn't it?"
The latest ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll has it 53-44 for Obama over McCain -- and a gaping, enormous enthusiasm gap, as reflected by first-time voters.
"Four years ago first-timers backed Democratic nominee John Kerry by 7 points. Today they favor Obama over John McCain by 47," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes. "First-time voters are among the telling ones; they attest both to the Obama campaign's efforts to sign up new voters, and to the extraordinary level of enthusiasm among his supporters this year. But there's a cautionary note for the Obama campaign: Turnout among first-time voters is challenging to predict, since they're clearly not in the habit."
It's grim where it counts, too: "In the 16 states identified by the ABC News Political Unit as battlegrounds, Obama leads John McCain by 54-43 percent among likely voters in ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll. That's a party switch from the last two elections: George W. Bush won these same 16 states in 2004 and 2000 alike. And in 1992 and 1996 Bill Clinton won these 16, and the White House," Langer reports.
It's 52-42 nationally in the new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. "It's the largest lead in the Journal/NBC poll thus far, and represents a steady climb for Sen. Obama since early September, when the political conventions concluded with the candidates in a statistical tie," the Journal's Laura Meckler writes.
Meckler continues: "The one candidate whose popularity has fallen is Gov. Palin: 38% see her positively, down from 44% two weeks ago; 47% see her negatively, up 10 points from the last poll. That's the highest negative rating of the four candidates. Fifty-five percent of voters say Gov. Palin is not qualified to be president if the need arises, up from 50% two weeks ago."
It's the states we care about, of course. And the entirety of the McCain offensive push can now be described in one word: Pennsylvania. (What if the Obama campaign had the same stakes riding on, say, Ohio?)
"In these frantic last weeks of the 2008 campaign, Mr. McCain has lavished time and money on this now deep-blue state -- he made three stops here on Tuesday -- as if his political life depended on it. And, from his campaign's point of view, it does," Elisabeth Bumiller and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times.
"Mr. Obama, who was in Florida on Tuesday, had no immediate plans to return to Pennsylvania in coming days, perhaps the most telling sign that his strategists were comfortable with his position there," they write. "But Democratic officials in the state said they had been urging the Obama campaign to send the senator back there at least once more before Election Day to shore up support."
More Obama offense Wednesday: He's in Virginia for the day, then hits Indiana briefly Thursday before heading to Hawaii to visit his ailing grandmother.
"John McCain's efforts to snare Pennsylvania appear to be faltering despite a substantial commitment of his time, leaving him with a narrower path to the magic number of 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency," Peter Nicholas and Bob Drogin write in the Los Angeles Times. "An aggregate of public polls shows Barack Obama with a double-digit lead in Pennsylvania. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 1.1 million, about twice the gap in 2004, state figures show. What's more, prominent Republicans worry that McCain's message is flawed or is being drowned out by waves of Obama ads."
"The McCain campaign has a massive operation enlisting Democrats supporting the GOP ticket to recruit other Democrats in Pennsylvania, targeting voters right down to the precinct level, according to Mike DuHaime, the campaign's political director," per The Wall Street Journal's Elizabeth Holmes.
"The McCain campaign is betting that Obama's support may be soft, and that these are the kinds of voters McCain still has a chance of winning over," the Chicago Tribune's Jill Zuckman writes.
Bonus points for honesty: "John McCain shouted out at three rallies across Pennsylvania Tuesday what his strategists had only whispered -- he can't win without the Keystone State's 21 electoral votes," per the New York Daily News' Michael McAuliff and Richard Sisk.
"With only two weeks until the election, it is becoming increasingly obvious that McCain is banking on an upset victory in Pennsylvania, especially as he struggles to win key Republican states," Charles Thompson writes in the Harrisburg Patriot-News. "But some independent analysts say the quixotic nature of that goal underlines the uphill struggle that the Republicans are facing to get an Electoral College majority in the wake of a month of bad economic news."
"Both campaigns were playing offense on Tuesday, hoping to steal away states that went for the other party's presidential candidate in 2004," The Washington Post's Michael Abramowitz and Robert Barnes report. "But the day's events underscored the strategic landscape of the campaign in its final stages, with Obama much closer to moving Florida's 27 electoral votes into the Democratic column than McCain is in dislodging Pennsylvania's 21 votes."
Yet: "I'm still a little nervous, so I have asked Obama to come back," Gov. Ed Rendell, D-Pa., tells CNN -- and he's asking for the Clintons to make final trips, too.
It's McCain who's playing the politics of baseball right. "When he's campaigning in Philadelphia, he roots for the Phillies . . . and when he's campaigning in Tampa Bay, he shows love to the Rays," McCain said Tuesday in Bucks County, Pa., per the Philadelphia Inquirer's Larry Eichel. "It's kind of like the way he campaigns for tax cuts but then votes for tax increases after he's elected."
"Et tu Messiah?" says Jon Stewart. "The local sports franchise pander!? Come on, man -- you gotta do better than that."
(No flip-flop, Obama makes clear: "I've said it before, I'll say it again. I've got to go with the Phillies on this.")
But only one map is shrinking: "Democratic sources say the McCain camp may be giving up on New Hampshire and Wisconsin," ABC's George Stephanopoulos reports. "Instead of placing new television advertising buys in those states, they say the McCain campaign is stretching out previous ad buys over more days rather than devote new ad money."
"Democrats who monitor advertising spending now put at five the number of states where Senator John McCain is reducing his advertising -- New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Colorado, Maine and Minnesota," Jim Rutenberg reports in The New York Times. "In essence, Mr. McCain's campaign has decided to spread the advertising time he bought for the upcoming week in those states over the next two final weeks."
"Sen. John McCain is making inroads on some key poll questions, including his ability to handle the economy and to buck President Bush, but he lags far behind his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, in several Republican-leaning battleground states where the election will be won or lost," S.A. Miller and Stephen Dinan report in the Washington Times.
Might they believe? "The reporters who spend the most time with Obama can see that the candidate's staff has a certain bounce in their step of late," James Rainey writes in the Los Angeles Times. "McCain's top aides have hunkered down, clearly embattled. Lately they've been living out their strategy of media vilification -- traveling less with the candidate and giving fewer interviews to reporters. Obama's plane seems positively sunny in contrast."
They have a location, at least: "Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign will hold what it hopes will be an Election Night celebration in Grant Park in Chicago, aides confirmed Tuesday," the Chicago Tribune's John McCormick reports. "The park between the Loop and lake shore also hosted a papal visit in 1979 and a Chicago Bulls NBA championship celebration in 1991. It more routinely hosts open-air concerts, sporting events and the Taste of Chicago."
The dog that didn't bite: "Republicans attuned to conservative third-party efforts say that with less than two weeks to go until Election Day, the prospects for any 11th-hour, anti-Obama ad campaign are highly unlikely," Politico's Jonathan Martin reports. "Thanks largely to lack of passion for McCain within the conservative base, diminished hopes that he can win and a sharp decline in the stock market that has badly pinched donors' pockets, veteran Republican operatives say it appears almost certain that what could be the most damaging line of attack against the Democratic nominee will be left on the shelf."
Your early read, on early voting: "The early tabulations of party affiliations seem to bolster polling that shows Senator Barack Obama's campaign on the electoral offensive in states that President Bush won in 2004," Michael Luo and Ron Nixon report in The New York Times. "Significantly more Democrats than Republicans have cast ballots at this early stage in Iowa, North Carolina, New Mexico and Ohio, according to data analyzed by The New York Times."
"Information from counties representing more than 90 percent of Nevada's population show Democrats also holding a commanding advantage in early voter turnout," they continue. "In Florida, however, Republicans appear to hold the upper hand, while in Colorado, early voting is about evenly split among Republicans and Democrats."
More, from USA Today's Richard Wolf: "Democrats are voting early in greater numbers than their Republican counterparts in several closely contested states, reversing a pattern that favored the GOP in past elections. The trend is evident in Ohio, North Carolina and Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico, state and county figures show. In Georgia, blacks are voting in greater numbers than they did in 2004."
Take this, Bradley effect: "In Georgia, where early voting began on Sept. 22, African-Americans account for 29% of active voters but have so far made up nearly 36% of about 758,000 early voters. By comparison, African-Americans represented 25% of the overall turnout in 2004," Alex Roth reports in The Wall Street Journal. "In Florida, African-Americans accounted for 21% of ballots cast Monday even though they make up 13% of voters. In North Carolina, African-Americans accounted for 33% of ballots cast as of Monday even though they make up 21% of voters."
Two of the many McCain messages less than two weeks out: taxes and experience.
On taxes, everyone's Joe the Plumber in McCain's new TV ad: "MAN: Obama wants my sweat to pay for his trillion dollars in new spending? WOMAN: I'm Joe the plumber. ANNCR: Barack Obama. Higher Taxes. More Spending. Not Ready."
At this point, this guy isn't going anywhere: "He's decided to completely make up -- just fabricate -- this notion that I've been attacking Joe the plumber," Obama said Tuesaday, per ABC's Sunlen Miller. "Let me tell you something, even yesterday, just yesterday Joe the Plumber himself said that wasn't true. I've got nothing but love for Joe the Plumber. That's why I want to give him a tax cut."
On experience, it's all about Biden's words -- if only McCain could keep his own words straight.
McCain "told a Pennsylvania crowd that he has already been 'personally tested' in the kind of international crisis that Democratic running mate Joe Biden warned Obama would face if Obama is elected. Biden made the prediction over the weekend in Seattle, citing the way a newly elected John Kennedy was tested by the Soviet Union during the Cold War," per USA Today's David Jackson.
The Boston Globe: "Trying to get voters to focus again on his foreign policy and national security experience, McCain is doing his best to capitalize on the remarks Biden made Sunday night in Seattle to campaign donors about Obama."
"Biden's statement played right into their talking points: that their guy has battle scars. And the other guy is dangerous rookie," ABC's David Wright reported Wednesday on "Good Morning America." "This mailer, being sent out Virginia and Missouri, lays that out in the strongest terms: evoking the imagery of airplanes, the caption reads: 'Barack Obama thinks terrorists just need a good talking to.' "
On "GMA," competing views from former secretaries of state:
Madeleine Albright: "The length of this campaign . . . has proven that Sen. Obama can handle any issue."
Lawrence Eagleburger: "As far as I'm concerned, Sen. Obama's lack of any experience in any of these fields, particularly foreign affairs and the use of force -- I think it's very likely he will be tested, and I'm scared to death that he'll flunk the test."
Who's at risk? "You have to be concerned it will create an operational opportunity for terrorists," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said about the transition period, per Bloomberg's Jeff Bliss.
Bliss writes, "He said that would be true whether Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain is elected president on Nov. 4. That comment undercuts McCain's argument that the U.S. would be more in danger of an attack if Obama, 47, wins."
As for McCain's own words -- the Teleprompter wasn't of much use here. "I think you may have noticed that Senator Obama's supporters have been saying some pretty nasty things about western Pennsylvania lately," McCain said, as folks booed," per ABC's Jake Tapper and Bret Hovell.
"You know," he continued, "I couldn't agree with them more."
(Sound of crickets chirping.)
"I couldn't disagree with you, I couldn't agree with you more than the fact that western Pennsylvania is the most patriotic, most God loving, most patriotic part of America," McCain said. "And this is a great part of the country. My friends I couldn't agr-- I could not disagree with those critics more, this is a great part of America."
(Most God-loving? Most patriotic? Now who might feel jilted in Florida?)
"Anyone who describes one part of the country as 'most patriotic' has lost all sense of what patriotism means," Time's Joe Klein writes.
Anyone seen this guy? "Not once this year has President Bush appeared in public at a campaign rally for the Republican Party or any of its candidates," CBS' Mark Knoller reports. "And on Tuesday night, when he attends a million dollar fund-raiser for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, it will be the last political event he does before Election Day."
First big vote for 2012: "City Council Speaker Christine Quinn set a showdown vote for Thursday on Mayor Bloomberg's plan to change the term limits law, raising speculation she's rounded up enough votes to pass it," per the New York Daily News.
The case against Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, is now with the jury. ABC's Jason Ryan: "Sen. Ted Stevens' lead defense attorney blasted the government's case against the Alaska Republican, saying its efforts were a 'twisted interpretation of the evidence' against 'an innocent man.' . . . Countering Sullivan's closing argument, lead prosecutor Brenda Morris exclaimed, 'Wow! Were we at the same trial?' "
Barack Obama meets with his national security working group then holds dual rallies in Virginia Wednesday, his last full day on the trail before heading to Hawaii. It's Richmond at 12:15 pm ET, then Leesburg at 5:30 pm ET.
Plus -- an "Ellen" appearance Wednesday, complete with just a little dancing, per ABC's Jake Tapper. "Michelle may be a better dancer than me, but I'm convinced I'm a better dancer than John McCain," Obama said.
A busy Wednesday for John McCain -- he begins in Goffstown, N.H., with a rally at 9:30 am ET, then heads to Ohio to meet up with running mate Sarah Palin.
Palin is interviewed by James Dobson for his radio program Wednesday, and she finishes her anchor tour with NBC's Brian Williams.
President Bush meets with the President of Liberia in the Oval Office at 10:20 am ET.
Also in the news:
If bin Laden emerges? Newsweek's Jonathan Alter plays it out: "After condemning the new tape, Obama could launch right into renewed criticism of the failure to catch Al Qaeda's mastermind seven years after 9/11. Instead of making him look like another weak Democrat, a new tape would give Obama a chance to seem muscular on national security. McCain would try to argue that the country would be safer with him, but it probably wouldn't have the potency of Bush's similar claim in 2004."
Could Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., really be in trouble? "Two weeks before the election, McConnell's reelection is in question. In a political environment that some say is the worst for Republicans since Watergate, Kentucky has emerged as an improbable Senate battleground -- perhaps the biggest surprise of this year's campaign," Richard Simon reports in the Los Angeles Times.
This is a way to fire up a crowd -- and an opponent's donors. "Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) has conceded that he did tell a North Carolina crowd that 'liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God,' even though he initially denied making such a statement," Politico's Ryan Grim reports.
Can we say, overreach? From an AFL-CIO robocall, per ABC's Jake Tapper: "You should have just received a piece of mail from us, explaining how Republican Sen. John McCain's economic policies have been a disaster for the middle class. John McCain has gotten us into this economic crisis."
Some Obama defense: "Facing criticism from John McCain that his tax plan constitutes 'welfare,' Barack Obama recently added a work requirement to one of his proposals," per ABC's Teddy Davis and company.
He's not the first McCain to upset the White House: "On May 19, 1972, while John McCain was spending his fourth year as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, President Richard Nixon lashed out about McCain's father, Admiral John McCain," Michael Kranish writes in The Boston Globe.
"He's going to start taking his orders from here, or else," Nixon said about Admiral McCain, the commander of Pacific forces during much of the war, according to transcripts of tapes reviewed by the Globe. "Now, I'm not going to have this crap anymore."
Everything you need to know about exit polls, from ABC News Washington Bureau Chief Robin Sproul.
"Compared to Tina Fey and what she's doing with Gov. Palin, I -- you know, my imitator isn't doing as great a job, but I do know that they have been -- my ears have been getting bigger and bigger on that show each episode. . . . I'm sure they will get me right over time." -- Barack Obama, egging on "Saturday Night Live's" Fred Armisen.
"We would welcome Joe." -- Sen. John Ensign, on the possibility of Sen. Joe Lieberman leaving the Senate Democratic caucus.
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