The Note: Hope's Float

As the great battle of Joe the Overexposed Plumber vs. Barack the Overspending Campaigner rages on (with Sarah the Overdressed Hockey Mom as sideshow), there's another game playing out, just over their heads.

Sen. Barack Obama is now in the enviable position of seeking to become president by looking presidential.

Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, knows that he can only become president by making his rival look un-presidential. (Two Joes -- the Plumber and the Senator -- are being enlisted to help.)

It may be a subtle distinction, but it matters for the home stretch. McCain is throwing it all at him now -- taxes and spending and flip-flops and plumbers and terrorism (and terrorists).

A closing argument (at last) comes together: McCain is portraying Obama as too risky to be president.

"He'll say anything to get elected," McCain said of Obama Wednesday night, per ABC's Bret Hovell.

A line that says just as much about where Obama stands: "I feel like we got a righteous wind at our backs here," Obama said Wednesday in Leesburg, Va., ABC's Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller report.

Regardless of the source of that breeze, Obama is in a stage of his campaign where he can ease perceptions of risk just by showing up. (Or not showing up: He's set to drop off the electoral map for 48 hours, to visit his grandmother in Hawaii after a Thursday morning campaign event in Indianapolis.)

It's 54-43 in the latest ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll -- and the portrait of a president begins to emerge.

"Barack Obama has shored up his experience rating to the point where it now surpasses George W. Bush's in 2000 and matches Bill Clinton's in 1992, addressing what has been Obama's greatest vulnerability in the presidential election," ABC Polling Director Gary Langer writes. "Fifty-six percent of likely voters now say Obama has the experience it takes to serve effectively as president, up from 48 percent after the Republican convention. That's now better than George W. Bush's rating just in advance of the 2000 election."

"Former secretary of state Colin Powell's endorsement provides a new boost for Obama, who has made significant progress with voters as a leader in international affairs," per The Washington Post's Jon Cohen. "But Obama also continues to be lifted by more fundamental advantages, including a 2 to 1 advantage on 'helping the middle-class.' "

New battleground state numbers, from Quinnipiac:

FLORIDA: Obama 49, McCain 44;

OHIO: Obama 52, McCain 38;

PENNSYLVANIA: Obama 53. McCain 40

From the release: "With 12 days to go, Sen. McCain is narrowing the gap in Florida, but fading in Ohio and barely denting Sen. Obama's double-digit lead in Pennsylvania."

More from key states: "With less than two weeks to go 'til Election Day, Barack Obama has held or increased his leads in four key states won by President George W. Bush in 2004 -- Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia -- while losing ground in West Virginia, according to the latest series of TIME/CNN battleground state polls conducted by Opinion Research Corp.," Time's Jay Newton-Small writes.

What's working is more subtle than a policy position: "At the crucial moment of the campaign -- the astonishing onset of the financial crisis -- it was Obama's gut steadiness that won the public's trust, and quite possibly the election," Time's Joe Klein writes. Obama tells him: "I think that was an example of where my style at least worked."

(Where do his instincts lead him here? Joe Klein: "I mentioned that [Gen. David] Petraeus had recently given a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation in which he raised the possibility of negotiating with the Taliban. 'You know, I think this is one useful lesson that is applicable from Iraq,' Obama said without hesitation.")

It's the campaign itself that provides solid testimony -- and Democrats are allowing themselves some confidence: "In recent elections, Democrats were cowed by challenges to their patriotism. But the crowd in Richmond, confident of an Obama victory, brushed off the Palin insult with laughter," Dana Milbank writes in his Washington Post "Sketch" column. "The phony American folks at the Obama rally in Richmond -- those who got in before the arena reached capacity -- were in a celebratory mood."

Time's Mark Halperin hands Obama a fifth straight winning week.

Obama can even afford to rebuke his running mate: " 'I think Joe sometimes engages in rhetorical flourishes,' Mr. Obama said, gently chiding the vice-presidential nominee as he sought to sweep aside a dustup Mr. Biden touched off when he predicted that a world crisis would test Mr. Obama during his first six months in office," per The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny.

"The question of judgment and experience -- especially on national defense and foreign policy matters -- has hung over Obama throughout the campaign, starting in the primaries," Mark Z. Barabak and Bob Drogin write in the Los Angeles Times. "Lately, however, there have been signs that voters have grown increasingly comfortable with the idea of the Illinois senator sitting in the Oval Office."

Plus, we're about to feel the ground shift: "The Obama campaign is waging a so-called 'high-tech' and 'high-touch' ground operation in battleground states across the nation. They use the Internet, email, text messaging, and Facebook to identify and communicate with their voters," ABC's George Stephanopoulos reports. "These voters have poured record-breaking cash into the Obama campaign's war chest, and in turn the campaign buys 'boots on the grounds' and hires paid staffers to get out the vote."

The early-voting numbers are favoring Democrats -- though not everywhere.

And yet: This is an outlier, for now, but a few more national polls like this and it's time to reconsider the race. "The presidential race tightened after the final debate, with John McCain gaining among whites and people earning less than $50,000, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll that shows McCain and Barack Obama essentially running even among likely voters in the election homestretch," per the AP's Liz Sidoti. "The poll, which found Obama at 44 percent and McCain at 43 percent, supports what some Republicans and Democrats privately have said in recent days: that the race narrowed after the third debate as GOP-leaning voters drifted home to their party and McCain's 'Joe the plumber' analogy struck a chord."

Karl Rove sees room for one more twist: "The race has tightened slightly in recent days to an average Obama lead of 6.8 points yesterday. And there are a few things bending toward Mr. McCain," Rove writes in his Wall Street Journal column. "The emergence of 'Joe the Plumber' and the likelihood of an agreement with Iraq on a continued U.S. troop presence are two of them. Both are opportunities for Mr. McCain to contrast himself against Mr. Obama."

Rove continues: "Mr. McCain's economic argument is simple: Raising taxes on small businesses in the face of recession will deepen and prolong the downturn. . . . Mr. McCain has only one hope: to drive home doubts about Mr. Obama based on his record, and share as much as he can about his own values and vision to reassure voters."

As long as we're scouring for signs of a race: "Perhaps even more encouraging to Republicans are two new surveys conducted by the highly respected Mason-Dixon polling firm, in the key states of Florida and Virginia, which show McCain well within striking distance in both battlegrounds," Politico's Alexander Burns writes. "In Florida, Mason-Dixon shows Obama's numbers slipping ever so slightly while McCain holds steady -- and now leads the Democrat, 46 percent to 45 percent. Last month Obama held a two-point lead over McCain in Florida, 48 percent to 46 percent."

The Boston Phoenix's Steven Stark travels forward to look back: "Wednesday-morning quarterbacking is ridiculously easy, but in retrospect, what happened should have been crystal clear: Obama's lead was never as great as the media hype that accompanied it -- he only led by two to six points in some major tracking polls. In several of them, Obama tellingly never cleared 50 percent."

Joe the Plumber gets his own tour starting Thursday, in McCain's almost-must-win Florida -- in case it's not explicitly evident where the GOP ticket sees its last best hope residing.

"When you're throwing the kitchen sink, it's good to know a plumber," ABC's David Wright reported on "Good Morning America" Thursday.

McCain on the stump Wednesday: "Before the government can redistribute wealth, it has to confiscate wealth."

Turning it up, on that other line of attack (keying off that other Joe): "We live in a dangerous world, and Senator Obama's running mate has just assured Americans it'll be a heck of a lot more dangerous if you elect him president," McCain said in an interview with the Washington Times' Joseph Curl and Stephen Dinan. "Now he is saying . . . if we elected Senator Obama as president of the United States, we are going to have an international crisis in these very dangerous times with the economy in the tank."

Meet Rudy the Robocaller: "You need to know that Barack Obama opposes mandatory prison sentences for sex offenders, drug dealers and murderers," former mayor Rudolph Giuliani says in a McCain call making the rounds.

Obama pushes back: "The presidential campaign yesterday came down to a contest of 'Joe the Plumber' versus 'Joe the Hedge-Fund Manager,' " Bloomberg's Kim Chipman and Hans Nichols report.

"Obama gave his most extensive defense yet of his tax plan, pushing back against criticism that his economic philosophy amounted to socialism," Politico's Lisa Lerer and Carrie Budoff Brown write. Said Obama: "Was John McCain a socialist back in 2000."

More Obama offense: "Flanked by national security experts from previous Democratic administrations, Obama told Richmond voters that a President John McCain would pose a national security risk," ABC's Jake Tapper reports.

Said Obama: "As president, he would continue the policies that have put our economy into crisis and endangered our national security."

It was a different McCain who came to New Hampshire Wednesday: "Senator John McCain came and went yesterday to 'Johnny B. Goode,' the campaign standard whose jittery chords escorted him to two campaign-saving New Hampshire primary victories, but he left behind the style of joyful reformer or defiant warrior that once carried him through," Sasha Issenberg writes in The Boston Globe. "Instead he arrived at a chilly hockey arena with common New Hampshire stump speech fare -- a pungent caricature of his opponent as a lover of high taxes -- in what could be McCain's last attempt to reclaim turf he once considered a second political home, but now sees being claimed by Democrat Barack Obama."

(Isn't it a bit cold in New Hampshire for this?)

With McCain hitting Florida Thursday, know that Obama can do this wherever and whenever he wants: "Seeking a knockout punch against Republican John McCain, Democrat Barack Obama's campaign has poured people and money into Florida in building the largest field organization ever assembled in the Sunshine State," Brian C. Mooney writes in The Boston Globe. "Obama's campaign says it has deployed 500 paid staff members and boasts 160,000 volunteers in Florida, an unprecedented network that is hunting for votes via telephone, e-mail, and old-fashioned, door-to-door personal contact. Combined with a barrage of advertising, the Florida blitz will cost much more than the $39 million the campaign initially budgeted."

What does it say that David Plouffe sends out volunteer appeals with this level of specificity? (Will everything come unglued if they clock in at 845,251?) "We to need to fill 845,252 volunteer shifts in battleground states," Obama's campaign manager wrote in a memo to get activists on board, per the Chicago Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet.

McCain's messaging might stand a better chance if he and Gov. Sarah Palin weren't offering so much of their own in the way of distractions.

McCain is spending valuable time defending his running-mate selection -- time he isn't calling Obama out on taxes or spending or national security. Said McCain (straining credulity here): "I think she's most qualified of any that has run recently for vice president, tell you the truth."

"McCain's language underscored the frustration inside his campaign over the wave of negative publicity that has surrounded Palin in recent weeks," Michael Abramowitz and Juliet Eilperin write in The Washington Post. "There is little sign that Palin has expanded her appeal beyond the GOP base, and she has been dogged by a steady of stream of politically damaging news, including the continuing investigation into her role in the firing of a state trooper in Alaska, her struggles in a series of network interviews and comments about 'real America' that she later apologized for."

Palin is the new black: "Sarah Palin's wardrobe joined the ranks of symbolic political excess on Wednesday," Patrick Healy and Michael Luo write in The New York Times. "Such an image is unhelpful at this late stage of the general election, Republicans said, especially when many families are experiencing economic pain, and when the image applies to a candidate, like Ms. Palin, who has run for office in part on her appeal as an outdoors enthusiast and former small-town mayor who scorns pretensions."

Said Joy Behar, on ABC's "The View": "Usually she shoots her clothing. . . . I don't think Joe the Plumber wears Manolo Blahniks."

GOP consultant Ed Rollins (just one of many who's already piling on): "It looks like nobody with a political antenna was working on this."

"Gov. Sarah Palin brags that she's not a member of the Washington elite, but she sure is dressing like them," ABC's Russell Goldman writes. Says Democratic strategist Donna Brazile: "She's a Saks-Fifth-Avenue-Neiman-Marcus hockey mom. . . . She will soon become a symbol of 'all dressed up and nowhere to go."

"As a Republican Eagle and a maxed-out contributor to McCain's general campaign, I'd like my money back -- he can still have my vote," one donor tells Politico's Jeanne Cummings.

Will she have to pay taxes on it? ABC's Jake Tapper talks to a tax expert who says yes.

One heck of a personal shopper: "Jeff Larson is a prominent Republican consultant whose firm has been tied to the onslaught of negative robocalls from Senator John McCain's campaign. Mr. Larson was also the chief executive of the local host committee for the Republican National Convention," per The New York Times' Michael Luo and Leslie Wayne. "Now it appears that Mr. Larson may have been the personal shopper for Gov. Sarah Palin's lavish shopping spree -- or at least he initially picked up the tab."

Was staff ready for this? "The medical records -- so be it," Palin told NBC's Brian Williams Wednesday.

(Whose numbers are these? Rove's? "We've got about three or four points to go, and we can win this thing," McCain said in the NBC interview.)

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R-Calif., can't quite go there (who else wants some distance here?): Asked by CNN's Campbell Brown whether Palin is ready to be commander-in-chief, Arnold danced: "SCHWARZENEGGER: I think that she will get to be qualified. BROWN: She will get there? What do you mean? She's not ready yet? SCHWARZENEGGER: By the time that she is sworn in I think she will be ready."

Not the storyline McCain needs now: "Is Palin making plans for 2012?" writes Newsweek's Andrew Romano, on his "Stumper" blog. "I ask because she's contradicted John McCain on a number of subjects in recent weeks--and every contradiction seems calibrated to preserve (or even enhance) her standing with the Republican base should the Arizona senator lose on Nov. 4."

Charting the signs of disorder inside Team McCain:

Robert Draper's New York Times Magazine piece has more than enough juicy tidbits to digest (and watch who's taking the credit/blame for Palin): "Despite their leeriness of being quoted, McCain's senior advisers remained palpably confident of victory -- at least until very recently. By October, the succession of backfiring narratives would compel some to reappraise not only McCain's chances but also the decisions made by Schmidt, who only a short time ago was hailed as the savior who brought discipline and unrepentant toughness to a listing campaign. 'For better or for worse, our campaign has been fought from tactic to tactic,' one senior adviser glumly acknowledged to me in early October, just after Schmidt received authorization from McCain to unleash a new wave of ads attacking Obama's character."

Then there's Mike Murphy: "Mr. Murphy has emerged as among the chief critics of the McCain campaign, offering advice and brickbats, one more obstacle for an already troubled campaign and a public manifestation of turmoil that has long marked the McCain world," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times. "At a moment when other former McCain advisers have been relatively silent, including John Weaver, Mr. Murphy has been extravagant in his criticisms and what Mr. McCain's advisers describe as his second-guessing."

Why visiting grandma is not necessarily a politically terrible thing for Obama to be doing right now: "His grandmother was a rock of stability, giving him the American roots that would ground his teenage years as well as his career in politics," Christi Parsons and John McCormick write in the Chicago Tribune. "Now, just two weeks before the election of his life, that other maternal figure -- Madelyn Dunham, who helped raise him -- is in such fragile health that family members are gathering at her bedside in Honolulu. The country hasn't really met this important figure in Obama's life."

Why he's going? "My grandmother is the last one left. She has done a lot for the family. She is the foundation, whatever strength I have, it comes from her," Obama said on CBS' "The Early Show" Thursday. And, on his mother's death: "The diagnosis was such where we thought we had a lot more time than we did, so I want to make sure that I don't make the same mistake twice."

Democratic overconfidence? Maybe, but no drapes yet: "It doesn't happen until after the election," retired chief White House usher Gary Walters tells The Washington Post Richard Leiby.

The Sked:

Barack Obama has only one public event Thursday -- a rally at 11 am ET in Indianapolis -- before departing for Hawaii to visit his grandmother. (John Mellencamp is in a new Obama radio ad, just for Hoosiers.)

Joe Biden holds three rallies in North Carolina. The first is in Charlotte at 10:30 am ET, then it's off to Winston-Salem at 2:15 pm ET, before finishing up in Raleigh at 7 pm ET.

John McCain kicks off the "Joe the Plumber" bus tour in Florida at 9 am ET in Ormond Beach. Then it's a tour event in Altamonte Springs at 11 am ET, followed by a small business roundtable in Orlando at 12:45 pm ET, another tour event at 2:40 pm ET in Plant City, and a final rally in Sarasota at 6 pm ET.

Sarah Palin begins her Thursday with a rally in Troy, Ohio at 1 pm ET. She then heads to Beaver, Pa., for a 7:15 pm ET rally.

Also in the news:

Bound for Drudge-love: "Al Franken was taking on the vast right-wing conspiracy before other people even admitted it existed," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., told a crowd in Minnesota Wednesday, per The Washington Post's Paul Kane.

Matthews for Senate? "He was thinking about it enough to chat with me a little about it when we bumped into each other socially," former Rep. Joe Hoeffel, D-Pa., said of a recent chat with Chris Matthews, per Roll Call's Shira Toeplitz. Toeplitz: "A handful of other Democratic operatives from across the state said they had heard Matthews was talking with folks about the race, but others said neither they nor anyone they knew had talked with him specifically about a bid."

Taxed by the tax debate? "Taxes are dominating debate in the final weeks of a presidential campaign consumed by the economy, with Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain each making claims that are misleading or false," per Bloomberg's Matthew Benjamin and Ryan J. Donmoyer.

Things are getting worse for the GOP in the House: "The NRCC is playing defense nearly everywhere --often in seats that, by rights, they should not have to spend a dime in. It's a testament to the difficulties facing the party in the final two weeks of the campaign. And, it's going to get worse before it gets better," Washingtonpost.com's Chris Cillizza reports.

The Kicker:

"You think we're just messing around?" -- Barack Obama, to his fantasy football partner, ESPN's Rick Reilly.

"That's funny, I play her bubble-headed too when I imitate her." -- Sarah Palin, on Tina Fey's impersonations of her.

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