The Note: Through the Woods

Which represents the biggest threat to Sen. John McCain?

His running mate . . .

His staff . . .

Elites . . .

Wallets . . .

The fact that Sen. Barack Obama will get MORE coverage while far from any battleground state . . .

An ad environment that's past the saturation point (or is that a good thing?) . . .

McCain won't have Obama money to put behind it -- but the message in his latest ad is as sharp as they come, and as sharp as he's likely to get (and hits while Obama is visiting grandma, no less).

We hear Sen. Joe Biden's words, and we see tanks, ships, marching terrorists, Chavez, Ahmadinejad -- then a cut to black: "It doesn't have to happen. Vote McCain." (It's 3 am, and we think we're meant to smell daisies.)

There's not far to go beyond this -- and plenty of questions about whether this is too late, if not too little, or too irrelevant (Dow futures down 550 points Friday morning).

We're about to find out if there's a way to still frighten voters about Obama (and between taxes, experiences, and national security -- McCain hopes there are many ways). If nothing else, the new tack scratches an itch in the party base -- but McCain needs it to do more than that at this stage.

Friday brings a new message from Gov. Sarah Palin, too -- her first policy speech of the campaign (!), calling for greater support for special-needs children (and attacking Obama on taxes). (A better story to tell than her "Troopergate" deposition Friday.)

Plus -- pushback on the clothing story: "That is not who we are. . . . That whole thing is just, bad!" Palin tells the Chicago Tribune's Jill Zuckman. "Oh, if people only knew how frugal we are."

Zuckman: " 'It's kind of painful to be criticized for something when all the facts are not out there and are not reported,' said Palin, saying the clothes are not worth $150,000 and were bought for the Republican National Convention. Still, she has been wearing pricey clothes at campaign events this fall. She said they will be given back, auctioned off or sent to charity. Most of them, she said, haven't even left the belly of her campaign plane."

On double standards: "I think Hillary Clinton was held to a different standard in her primary race," Palin said. "I'm not going to complain about it, I'm not going to whine about it, I'm going to plow through that, because we are embarking on something greater than that, than allowing that double standard to adversely affect us."

On her speech Friday: "Palin called the disabilities issues 'a joyful challenge,' " Zuckman writes. "Todd Palin showed off photos of people with Down syndrome who have come to campaign events, and the candidate said one advocacy group sent her a bumper sticker that said 'My kid has more chromosomes than your kid.' 'These children are not a problem, they are a priority,' Palin said."

How it all fits together: "Looking for fresh ways to press the tax issue, John McCain plans to roll out a new attack against Barack Obama on Friday, claiming the Democrat's plan would increase the burden on families with special needs children," The Wall Street Journal's Amy Chozick and Nick Timiraos reports.

"A top adviser to Sen. McCain said the attack was designed to show the 'bizarre, unintended consequences' likely to result from Sen. Obama's proposed tax increases," Chozick and Timiraos write. "Palin . . . will debut the new attack during a rally Friday morning in Pittsburgh, aides said, and the campaign said it could launch television or radio ads featuring special needs families targeting Sen. Obama on the issue."

Mom vote, here we come: Palin hits the trail Sunday with "The View's" Elisabeth Hasselbeck.

Where, exactly, are those promised medical records? ABC's Kate Snow: "After Governor Sarah Palin said it would be 'fine' to release her medical records in an interview Wednesday, the McCain-Palin campaign is feeling no sense of urgency about actually releasing any records. Spokeswoman Maria Comella told ABC News on Thursday: 'When medical information related to Governor Palin's health is ready to be released we will make that information available.' "

And where, exactly, is Joe? "John McCain began his daylong 'Joe the plumber' bus tour of Central Florida's Interstate 4 corridor yesterday without its namesake, the icon of his campaign's invigorated antitax movement who has conspicuously refused entreaties to appear with McCain," Sasha Issenberg writes in The Boston Globe.

(We know where he'll be Friday morning: Joe the Plumber does a live-chat at 11 am Friday, at the Washington Times Website.)

Hard to make it stick? "The renewed effort to depict Obama as a liberal marks a departure from McCain's earlier efforts to paint the Illinois senator as too inexperienced for the Oval Office, but it draws on a familiar Republican tradition of describing opponents as outside the mainstream," Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times.

On the other side: Obama, in Hawaii to visit his grandmother Friday, stands by his "spread the wealth" comments:

"If John McCain's best argument is that he wants to continue the same Bush tax cuts for the very wealthiest Americans that in 2000 he himself opposed and, in the meantime, fails to give tax cuts to 100 million people in America that I would give tax cuts to, John McCain's gonna have some problems 'cause the American people understand that the way we grow this economy is from the bottom up," Obama told ABC's Robin Roberts, on "Good Morning America" Friday.

On the tone: "If you look at the quality of our campaign and theirs, who's been more consistent? Who has been more civil? Who's talked about the issues, as opposed to trying to attack people's character? I think we get a pretty good grade."

(On his grandmother: "I'm still not sure whether she makes it to Election Day. "One of the things I want to make sure of is that I had a chance to sit down with her and talk to her. She's still alert. And she's still got all her faculties. And I want to make sure that I don't miss that opportunity -- right now.")

Don't forget this part of the report card: "For the first time in decades, Democrats appear to have the upper hand in the debate over taxes," Michael Abramowitz and Robert Barnes report in The Washington Post. "Even some Republicans said they worry that Obama has more than neutralized a signature GOP issue with the promise of a tax cut for middle-class Americans, while putting McCain on the defensive by alleging -- unfairly, in the view of independent analysts -- that the Republican would raise taxes on health-care benefits."

How'd that happen, again? Well -- the only thing more impressive than raising $150 million in one month? Spending $105 million in two weeks.

"Barack Obama and John McCain enter the final days of the presidential campaign amid dwindling reserves, with Obama hindered by a sudden drop in fundraising and McCain restrained by spending limits," per the AP's Jim Kuhnhenn. "Obama, the Democratic nominee, spent more than $105 million during the first two weeks of October, according to new campaign finance reports. He reported raising only $36 million for his campaign during that period, about half the fundraising pace he enjoyed in September."

Anatomy of a swamping: "At McCain's spending rate of $1.5 million a day, the Arizona senator likely has only $12 million to spend in the next 11 days before the Nov. 4 election," Kuhnhenn writes.

Obama can still bring it, and bring it, and bring it: "Sen. Barack Obama's record-shattering fundraising haul is giving him unprecedented spending flexibility over the final two weeks of the presidential campaign and the ability to swamp Sen. John McCain's campaign on the air and on the ground wherever Obama and his top aides choose," per ABC News.

"Perhaps most significantly, the financial edge allows the Obama campaign to play out the final stages of the campaign without having to make any of the gut-wrenching decisions that typically mark a campaign's close."

To cite one display of wealth: "The Obama show, airing on the major broadcast networks (NBC, CBS and Fox are confirmed; ABC is still in talks) and three cable news networks, will be the last big set piece of the extraordinary 2008 presidential campaign. One senior source close to the campaign puts the price tag in the $6 million range -- which would make it the most expensive single political ad ever," Newsweek's Richard Wolffe reports.

To cite another: "Democrat Barack Obama has spent $113 million in health care television advertising so far this year, eight times that of Republican rival John McCain -- an investment that polls show are paying big dividends as the election enters its closing weeks," Chris Frates reports for Politico.

Does it all matter?

"Even the most hearty of the McCain supporters acknowledge that it will not be easy, and there are a considerable number of Republicans who say, off the record, that the 2008 cake is baked. At this point in the campaign, Mr. McCain's hopes of victory may rest on events over which he simply does not have control," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times. "Still, there do seem to be enough question marks hovering over this race that it is not quite time for Mr. McCain to ride his bus back to Arizona."

Yet, as comparisons go . . . "The McCain campaign is roughly in the position where Vice President Gore was running against President Bush one week before the election of 2000," McCain senior advisor Steve Schmidt tells Nagourney.

Bad news out of the battlegrounds: "The Republican nominee's path to the presidency is now extremely precarious and may depend on something unexpected taking control of a contest that appears to have swung hard toward Barack Obama since the end of the debates," Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post. "McCain plans in the closing days to focus on taxes and spending, national security, and what one adviser called 'the perils of an Obama presidency with no checks and balances.' "

Perhaps most disconcerting (the mark of a losing campaign, if not a campaign that's already lost): "With despair rising even among many of John McCain's own advisors, influential Republicans inside and outside his campaign are engaged in an intense round of blame-casting and rear-covering --much of it virtually conceding that an Election Day rout is likely," Politico's Jonathan Martin, Mike Allen, and John F. Harris write.

One positive sign -- the quotes are still flowing without names attached. Yet: "Barring a big McCain comeback, and a turnabout in numerous congressional races where the party is in trouble, the GOP is on the brink of a soul-searching debate about what to do to reclaim power," they write.

That phrase again: "The cake is baked," said a former McCain strategist. "We're entering the finger-pointing and positioning-for-history part of the campaign. It's every man for himself now."

Something's cooking in the polls: It's 54-43 in the latest ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll.

"Absentee and early voting are changing the face of voting in America: Three in 10 likely voters in the latest ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll say they'll vote early, nearly double what it was eight years ago," ABC Polling Director Gary Langer writes. "The trend, which may impact campaign strategies in terms of closing arguments and get-out-the-vote efforts, could assist Barack Obama: He leads John McCain by 26 points among likely voters who say they'll get it done early, vs. a closer 7-point margin among those who plan to hold off until Election Day."

Et tu, Bushies? "Senator Barack Obama is showing surprising strength among portions of the political coalition that returned George W. Bush to the White House four years ago, a cross section of support that, if it continues through Election Day, would exceed that of Bill Clinton in 1992, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News polls," Jim Rutenberg and Marjorie Connelly write in the Times.

It's 51-38 in that poll, and here's why: "Mr. Obama led Mr. McCain among groups that voted for President Bush four years ago: those with incomes greater than $50,000 a year; married women; suburbanites and white Catholics. He is also competitive among white men, a group that has not voted for a Democrat over a Republican since 1972, when pollsters began surveying people after they voted," Rutenberg and Connelly write. "Of potential concern for Mr. Obama's strategists, however, a third of voters surveyed say they know someone who does not support Mr. Obama because he is black."

L-word watch: "A series of new polls released Thursday found a bleak outlook for John McCain, even in traditionally Republican states, and a potential landslide victory for Democrat Barack Obama on Nov. 4," McClatchy's Steven Thomma and Marc Caputo write.

Phil Singer pens a defense of the McCain staff: "Let's be clear: When all is said and done, the main fault for John McCain's electoral position lies not with his staff but with one person: George W. Bush," Singer blogs. "So while it's frustrating to lose and tempting to point fingers (I am an expert loser so heed my words), I urge my GOP brothers and sisters to pause before they do so and really think about whether they could have done better."

As the GOP crumbles . . . Former Gov. Arnie Carlson, R-Minn., joins former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan on the Obama bandwagon, per ABC's Jake Tapper. "From the very beginning I have said I am going to support the candidate that has the best chance for changing the way Washington works and getting things done and I will be voting for Barack Obama and clapping. . . . It's a message that is very similar to the one that Gov. Bush ran on in 2000."

Writes Carlson: "The choice of Gov. Sarah Palin as a running mate, and the resultant shallow campaign based on fear and suspicion, looks frighteningly similar to the politics of Karl Rove."

Et tu, Opie? (And Matlock and the Fonz, too?)

Who's more likely to win this game? "John McCain and Barack Obama finally found something they could agree on Thursday: Both assailed George W. Bush, and each attempted to link the other to the economic policies of the unpopular president," Mark Z. Barabak and Bob Drogin report in the Los Angeles Times.

"On the stump and in interviews, McCain took Bush-bashing to a new level by charging that an Obama presidency would be a replay of the last eight years of Republican rule," Richard Sisk reports in the New York Daily News.

Of course, the voting has already begun. The AP's Mike Baker: "Blacks are already surging to the polls in parts of the South, according to initial figures from states that encourage early voting -- a striking though still preliminary sign of how strongly they will turn out nationwide for Barack Obama in his campaign to become the first African-American president."

"Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has an edge in six of eight states that provide early-voting data by party registration, as Democrats, blacks and first-time voters cast ballots in unprecedented numbers," Bloomberg's Indira A.R. Lakshmanan writes.

What else needs to be said about the Sunshine State? "Independent Florida voters are on the verge of killing Sen. John McCain's hopes for the presidency," Adam C. Smith writes in the St. Petersburg Times.

What else needs to be said about the ground war? "Three in 10 likely voters say they've been contacted by phone, e-mail or in person by Barack Obama's campaign, rising to four in 10 in the battleground states – in both cases an advantage for Obama over John McCain in the ground game," ABC's Gary Langer reports.

But a big but: "On Oct. 6, the community organizing group Acorn and an affiliated charity called Project Vote announced with jubilation that they had registered 1.3 million new voters. But it turns out the claim was a wild exaggeration, and the real number of newly registered voters nationwide is closer to 450,000, Project Vote's executive director, Michael Slater, said in an interview," The New York Times' Michael Falcone and Michael Moss report.

More from the Palin files: "More than 100 appointments to state posts -- nearly 1 in 4 -- went to campaign contributors or their relatives, sometimes without apparent regard to qualifications," The Los Angeles Times' Charles Piller reports. "Palin filled 16 state offices with appointees from families that donated $2,000 to $5,600 and were among her top political patrons. "Several of Palin's leading campaign donors received state-subsidized industrial development loans of up to $3.6 million for business ventures of questionable public value."

Where to find the jobs? "Palin didn't cut the size of government as mayor of Wasilla, and she hasn't done so as Alaska's governor, city and state budget records show," USA Today's Ken Dilanian reports. "Spending in fast-growing Wasilla increased by 55% during her tenure from 1996-2002, records show. In nearly two years as governor, she has presided over a 31% spending hike by a state government that sought earmarks from Washington even as it reaped billions from higher oil prices and Palin-backed tax increases on oil companies."

Is Palin a feminist? "I'm not gonna label myself anything, Brian," Palin told Brian Williams. Which might be news to Katie Couric: "I'm a feminist who believes in equal rights and I believe that women certainly today have every opportunity that a man has to succeed, and to try to do it all, anyway," Palin told Couric.

Backing up the advertising message: "Who do you want answering that phone at 3 a.m.? A man who's been cramming on these issues for the past year, who's never had to make an executive decision affecting so much as a city, let alone the world?" Charles Krauthammer writes in his Washington Post column. "Can you be serious about national security and vote on Nov. 4 to invite that test?"

Keeping the faith? "Mr. McCain has endless faith in his ability to come back. He's been doing it for 40 years," Peggy Noonan writes in her Wall Street Journal column. "When he says, 'We got 'em where we want 'em' he must mean: They think they are looking at a corpse. No one in politics has so repeatedly relished coming back from the dead."

Department of worst-kept secrets . . . The New York Times editorial: "As tough as the times are, the selection of a new president is easy. After nearly two years of a grueling and ugly campaign, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois has proved that he is the right choice to be the 44th president of the United States."

2012 watch: Hail Bloomie! "Mayor Bloomberg yesterday won a landmark bid allowing him to run for a third term when the City Council -- in a tight, 29-22 vote -- passed legislation giving all city officials the right to seek a third term," the New York Post's Sally Goldenberg writes. "The council agreed to permanently extend term limits to 12 years from eight, arguing the city could not afford to lose Bloomberg during the financial crisis. Twenty-six votes were needed for approval."

"Mayor Michael Bloomberg might just want to hold the signing ceremony for this bill in a closet," Newsday's Dan Janison writes. "After the City Council voted 29-22 to extend the limit on city offices from two terms to three, Bloomberg was targeted with charges and cursing by enraged hecklers who called him 'liar' and 'sellout' as he was escorted by police to his sport utility vehicle parked outside City Hall."

The Sked:

Barack Obama is in Hawaii Friday, spending time with his grandmother.

John McCain is in Colorado -- he begins the day with a rally in Denver at noon ET, followed by a second rally at Durango at 8 pm ET.

Sarah Palin gives a policy address in Pittsburgh, then heads to Springfield, Mo. for a rally at 1 pm ET. "Private meetings" include her "Troopergate" deposition.

Joe Biden begins his day in Charleston, W.Va., (in play?) with a rally at 10:30 am ET. He then heads to Martinsville, Va., for a rally at 6:45 pm ET.

Michelle Obama hits the trail in Ohio with two rallies scheduled for Friday -- first in Columbus at 11:30 am ET, then in Akron at 3:30 pm ET.

Hillary Clinton will also campaign on Obama's behalf Friday -- she begins the day in Pittsburgh with an event at noon ET, then flies to Colorado for a rally in Aurora at 5:30 pm ET.

President Bush is set to sign the NATO Accession Protocols for Albania and Croatia at 5:25 pm ET. He will then meet with the Secretary General of NATO at 5:45 pm ET.

Also in the news:

A lion's roar: "From his sickbed, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has secretly been orchestrating meetings with lobbyists and lawmakers from both parties to craft legislation that would greet the new president with a plan to provide affordable medical coverage to all Americans, a measure he has called 'the cause of my life,' " Jeffrey Birnbaum reports in the Washington Times. "Among those who are receptive to a bipartisan plan and who have participated in the initial talks is Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the ranking Republican on the Senate health committee, which Mr. Kennedy leads."

How bad is the GOP picture in the House? Paul Bedard, in US News & World Report: "A document provided to Washington Whispers from a House GOP official shows that they could lose a net 34 seats. That means the Democrats would have a 270-165 advantage in the 111th Congress. In the Senate, Republicans expect to lose also but to keep up to 44 seats, ensuring their ability to stage a filibuster. The document provided to Whispers is no gag: It comes from one of the key House GOP vote counters. The source called it a 'death list.' "

NARAL hits the mail: Going out to 290,000 households in Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. From the release: "The piece is targeted to pro-choice Independent and Republican women and exposes how out-of-touch John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, are with voters in this country. In particular, it hammers home that the McCain-Palin ticket is opposed to abortion, even in cases of rape, incest and the life of the mother."

The Kicker:

"Anyone who thinks that they're better than someone else." -- Sarah Palin, asked to define "elites."

"I know where a lot of 'em live . . . in our nation's capital and New York City." -- John McCain, expanded on her definition.

"I come to you tonight in the midst of a very important election between two very qualified candidates: the hot lady and the Tiger Woods guy. Both candidates are heavily patriotized and display much characterization." -- Will Ferrell, in one last star turn as George W. Bush, on "Saturday Night Live's" Thursday update.

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