The Note: We're With Stupid

One week out, we know that one of the following equations will produce a number greater than 270 (and only one could possibly approach 370):

Change + Bush + Virginia + Montana + Ground Game + (Air War x 4) + Axelrod - Schmidt - Neiman Marcus - Backbiting - Surprise +/- Biden + Tina Fey

Experience + Liberals + (Bradley x 2) + (Surprise x 3) + Joe the Plumber + Pennsylvania + Schmidt - Axelrod - Bush +/- Palin +/- Bill Clinton

We know every smart mathematician ends up with the same result these days. But we also know every smart conversation ends with the same two words . . . and yet.

And yet . . . it's just distinctly possible that this election that's been all about little things may wind up being about the big things (probably not including seven-year-old radio interviews). Things like national security and public corruption and the direction of the nation and, above all, the economy.

It's a formula that even Sen. John McCain appears comfortable with now: Joe the Plumber himself (finally) hits the trail for him Tuesday, ABC's Bret Hovell reports, and it's all about the economy for him, too.

McCain's latest ad is economic in message, alternating pictures of the candidates (and it's not hard to figure out which words belong with which man -- and which man looks better in the chosen photographs): "For higher taxes . . . For workin' Joes . . . Spread your income . . . Keep what's yours . . . A trillion in new spending . . . Freeze spending, eliminate waste . . . Pain for small business . . . Economic growth . . . Risky . . . Proven."

But who's really happier with this turn? "Both candidates are focusing their rhetoric increasingly on economic issues -- a main area of concern for voters in the continuing global financial crisis," Christopher Cooper and Elizabeth Holmes write in The Wall Street Journal.

Said former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, R-Md.: "In the cloud of this economic turmoil a lot of things often times get lost in translation. . . . It is important for campaigns to step back and reassess and remind."

One basic problem with a debate like this, this late: "Senator Barack Obama, making what aides called the 'closing argument' of his campaign, declared on Monday that it was time to 'get beyond the old ideological debates.' And then Mr. Obama and his opponent, Senator John McCain, spent much of the day engaged in just such a debate," Peter Baker and Michael Cooper write in The New York Times.

Contrast the closing styles: Obama is going broad, with soaring speeches before big crowds -- and McCain is making it all about the attack: liberal vs. conservative, safe vs. risky, the plumber vs. the redistributor.

Even if McCain was totally comfortable with the turn to the economy (no sure bet when Obama has effectively claimed the tax issue as his own -- all while expanding a map that continues to shrink for his opponent), distractions emerge anew.

The GOP brand takes another beating -- delivered from the District of Columbia, but with impact a place you can't see from any rooftop deck in the nation's capital.

Make that plus-one (most likely) in the Democratic push for 60, in ruby red Alaska -- and make that minus-one for a McCain-Palin campaign that's anxious to tell its own stories for a change.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska -- Uncle Ted up in Alaska, and the former Senate president pro tem back in Washington -- convicted on all counts, per ABC's Jason Ryan, Pierre Thomas, and Theresa Cook.

"Political handicappers refused to write him off but said his chances of reelection were greatly diminished by yesterday's outcome," Del Quentin Wilber writes in The Washington Post. "Within hours of the verdict, Democrats were sending out news releases seeking to link their opponents to Stevens's trouble."

" 'It's not over yet!' Stevens said angrily to his wife as he walked from the courtroom Monday afternoon," Erika Bolstad and Richard Mauer report in the Anchorage Daily News -- calling it "a crippling blow not just to his election chances next week but to his legacy as Alaska's longest serving and most accomplished living politician."

As for Gov. Sarah Palin (an Alaska voter, in addition to the state's governor): "I'll carefully monitor now the situation and I'll take any appropriate action as needed. In the meantime I do ask that the people of Alaska join me in respecting the workings of our judicial system, and I'm confident that Senator Stevens, from this point on, will do the right thing for the state of Alaska," she said Monday, per ABC's Imtiyaz Delawala.

(Ummm -- that's nice, but who's she voting for? Per ABC's Jake Tapper: "A Palin ally writes: 'You seem to be under-reading her statement. She was clearly making the point that he needs to do the "right thing" and given he was convicted on all 7 counts, it seems pretty obvious what the "right thing" is.' Really? Stevens thinks the 'right thing' is to keep fighting the charges and to continue running for re-election.)

Leaving well enough? "This has been a tight race all along, with his challenger, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, running an exceptionally tough contest against someone who had always represented his constituents. But we're told the riches of the DSCC won't be pouring money in for ads soonest," Kate Phillips writes for The New York Times.

Another wrinkle: "Since picking Palin, McCain & Co. have staked out Alaska as the living, beating heart of American authenticity," writes Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson. "And so, today, Ted Stevens' felonious betrayal of the public trust is going to allow Democrats to campaign like it's 2006 -- against the Republican 'culture of corruption' that proved so electorally toxic to the GOP two years ago."

More immediate worries: "There is no question that there is a rift between Sarah Palin's camp and that of John McCain inside the Republican campaign, sources tell ABC News. And you are seeing people within the McCain campaign starting to look to the future," per ABC's George Stephanopoulos.

"The Alaska governor herself has been pushing out on her own against McCain's handlers," he continues. "In recent days she has been speaking her own mind about what she thought of McCain's strategy in Michigan, and what she thought of his decision not to go after Rev. Jeremiah Wright. And we're seeing more and more of that in the closing days of the campaign."

"John McCain thought he was being clever picking a fellow maverick to be his running mate. The problem with mavericks, however, is that they don't follow instructions. Pretty soon they go rogue and before you know it you've got a full-fledged diva on your hands," Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post.

(Meet Tito the Plumber: "Not since the Jackson Five has the name Tito been used so often," Palin said.)

"Sarah Palin may soon be free. Soon, she may not have the millstone of John McCain around her neck. And she can begin her race for president in 2012," Politico's Roger Simon writes.

At least it's a productive fight -- right? "The person who went and bought the clothes and, as I understand it put the clothes on her credit card, went to Saks and Neiman Marcus . . . the staffer who did that has been a coward," Fred Barnes said on Fox News.

He then said he was talking about senior McCain advisor Nicolle Wallace. Per Politico's Ben Smith: "Wallace fired back in an email to me that Barnes is 'incorrect' that she charged the clothes to her card, and 'incorrect that I went to any stores.' Public records suggested that another Republican operative, Jeff Larson, paid for the clothes."

(But was it her idea?)

Oh yeah -- the party's falling apart, too. "The social conservatives and moderates who together boosted the Republican Party to dominance have begun a tense battle over the future of the GOP, with social conservatives already moving to seize control of the party's machinery and some vowing to limit John McCain's influence, even if he wins the presidency," Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times.

"Republican Party leaders from several states -- including tightly contested, must-win battlegrounds -- have begun privately voicing reservations about McCain strategies and the campaign's failure to return phone calls or respond to suggestions and offers of volunteer support," Ralph Z. Hallow reports in the Washington Times.

You know something's serious when you're talking about Montana: "How bad does the electoral map look for John McCain? Consider that the Republican National Committee begins advertising this week in Montana, a classic Republican state," Laura Meckler reports in The Wall Street Journal.

Said a Republican official: "One of the appeals of Montana is that it's a cheap insurance policy."

"Republican John McCain has history on his side in Montana; Democrat Barack Obama has 19 campaign offices," per the AP's Matt Gouras.

Maybe the real reason: "Ron Paul is on the ballot. And Ron Paul supporters aren't happy with John McCain," per The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder.

(Word to the wise: If Montana flips blue, cheap insurance will be the least of the Republican Party's worries on election night.)

Even less McCain offense: "Republican presidential candidate John McCain has diluted previous television ad buys and fallen behind Democratic rival Barack Obama's weekly ad pace in Minnesota, according to an Associated Press examination of Twin Cities TV records."

Then there are very serious things: "Authorities in Tennessee have arrested two men described as white supremacists for an alleged plot to assassinate Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and more than 100 others," ABC's Jack Date reports. "The alleged plotters were also planning a 'killing spree' that included murdering 88 individuals by gunfire and 14 African-Americans by decapitation, with the attempt on Obama's life as the 'final act of violence.' "

"The two Tennessee men arrested Monday, Daniel Cowart and Paul Schlesselman . . . told the Secret Service they first planned to kill 112 African Americans, and then 'dress in all white tuxedos and wear top hats during the assassination attempt' of Obama," ABC's Brian Ross reported on "Good Morning America" Tuesday. "Authorities say both men have strong racist views and met on the Internet through the Website of a white supremacist neo-Nazi group called the Supreme White Alliance."

"A senior Barack Obama aide tells ABC News that Obama's Secret Service detail had not been briefed on the alleged plot to assassinate the Democratic nominee, an indication that the plot had not reached the point of posing a serious threat to Obama," ABC's George Stephanopoulos reports.

Back on the economy, McCain never unfurled the line that was loaded in the Teleprompter, about "Barack the Redistributor," but McCain found a cable-ready voice by the end of the day: "Senator Obama is running to be redistributionist in chief. I'm running to be commander in chief."

"McCain's new turn-of-phrase came after his campaign unearthed an obscure, 7-year-old radio interview in which Obama discussed the issue of wealth distribution as it related to the Supreme Court and its decisions under Chief Justice Earl Warren," Maeve Reston and Seema Mehta report in the Los Angeles Times.

"A game-changer by Obama," declares Washington Times columnist Wesley Pruden.

Of course, it's all about you-know-who: "McCain, lagging in opinion polls in the last two weeks of the campaign, has repeatedly cited Obama's comment to an Ohio voter, since nicknamed 'Joe the Plumber,' that 'when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody,' " Bloomberg's James Rowley writes.

"The remarks inaugurated a final phase in the campaign in which advisers said McCain -- implicitly acknowledging that Democrats are likely to strengthen their hold on both chambers of Congress -- would offer himself up as a bulwark against the hazards of single-party dominance of the legislative and executive branches," Sasha Issenberg writes in The Boston Globe.

What qualifies as a hopeful sign for McCain these days: "Barack Obama's grip on the key issue of the presidential race -- the economy -- has loosened slightly," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes. "Obama last week held an almost identical, 18-point advantage on the economy -- but it's eased to 10 points in the latest ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll, its closest in a month."

But: "Overall vote preferences, including among movables, have not followed, and the race remains essentially steady, with Obama leading McCain by 52-45 percent among likely voters. Obama's been at or above 50 percent, McCain no better than 46 percent, since mid-September in ABC/Post polls."

Obama's close: "Obama reminded voters that even after months of campaigning and three presidential debates, his White House rival had not provided the American people with a way to differentiate his policies from those of his predecessor, George W. Bush," per ABC's Jake Tapper.

The Boston Globe's Scott Helman: "Obama, in a high-energy appearance in this northeastern Ohio city, sought to remind supporters of the gravity of next week's election, saying the outcome will determine whether the economy will create 'bottom-up' prosperity, families will see healthcare relief, and America will finally commit to renewable energy. . . . Obama, unlike McCain, has kept a largely consistent message throughout the presidential campaign, [advisers] say, and what he wants to do in the final days is simply reinforce it with fresh energy."

"Obama aides acknowledged that the speech recycled the case he had made for his candidacy when he officially entered the race in February 2007 from the steps of the old State House in Springfield, Ill.," the New York Daily News' Kenneth R. Bazinet and Richard Sisk report. "Top Obama strategist David Axelrod said the new speech 'sounds a lot like our opening argument' and 'I don't think that is a bad thing.' "

Firin' 'em up? "Democrat Barack Obama, making his closing argument to the American people, returned yesterday to the soaring rhetoric of his campaign's early days, calling for a new politics free of partisan divisions and promising to 'change the world,' " Thomas Fitzgerald and Mario F. Cattabiani write in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

A tough construct: "During the next six days leading up to Nov. 4 Election Day, Barack Obama will try to seal his lead in the polls by returning to form and giving big speeches to big crowds, while his underdog rival, John McCain, appears prepared to stay on the attack to get back into the race," Tom Brune writes for Newsday.

Is Obama already winning? "In our new ABC News tracking poll out today, 9 percent of people nationwide say they have already voted. They support Barack Obama over John McCain by a 21 point margin [60-39]," ABC's John Berman reported on "GMA" Tuesday. "In the eight states that look like toss-ups, Obama leads by nearly 50 percent, 74-25 percent."

From the annals of recriminations . . .

Matthew Dowd breaks down what went wrong for the McCain campaign -- and ascribes 60 percent of the blame to the political environment, and only 10 percent to Palin, and 3 percent to the financial crisis. "Keep in mind: before this happened, the economy was already the number one issue -- it just became even more important because of the mess," Dowd writes on his blog.

Bob Shrum writes that McCain made a bad bet on the economy: "Now McCain is learning the hard way, even if he won't yet admit it, that the Reagan playbook's time has come and gone. The old Republican trick was to lie about taxes: Democrats would raise everybody's and Republicans would cut everybody's. . . . But he'll lose the argument --and the Presidency -- because the Republican era of wholesale deregulation and the redistribution of wealth, upward, is over."

Rich Lowry says it's about, well, McCain: "Let's consider a chief culprit in the campaign's current low state -- the candidate," Lowry writes in National Review. "This is the McCain paradox: No other Republican candidate had a character and background -- as a courageously independent spirit -- better suited to making the presidential campaign competitive this year. But perhaps no Republican candidate was so poorly suited to the task of running a presidential race."

Reed Galen picks up on a similar theme: "The structural, logistical and message advantages of running unopposed for four months were allowed to slip away," he writes for Real Clear Politics. "With Obama and Hillary Clinton dueling during their tortuous and increasingly vitriolic primary campaign, the McCain campaign allowed week after week to pass without providing for the structural needs of a modern get-out-the-vote program or properly positioning their nominee for victory against either of his potential opponents."

Bob Herbert blames Karl Rove -- or, at least, the lessons he taught: "The heyday of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove is over," Herbert declares in his New York Times column. "Yet Senator McCain handed the reins of his campaign to Rove's worshipful acolytes. With the nation in a high state of anxiety over the conflagration in the credit and financial markets, Senator McCain traveled the country ranting Rovelike about Bill Ayers, trying to instill a bogus belief that the onetime '60s radical and Senator Obama were good buddies and perhaps involved in some nefarious doings together."

Who's presumptuous? "Senators Barack Obama and John McCain have been ever vigilant in recent days for signs of January Fever," The New York Times' Mark Leibovich writes (in a useful catalog of sports analogies). "The candidates have slipped a few times into the 'when I'm president' construction in campaign speeches, but usually are careful to use the cautionary 'if I'm president' refrain."

Again, we ask: Who's presumptuous? "So much for the formality of next week's election. Many pundits and publications seem so certain of a big Democratic win that they're exploring the intricacies of an Obama administration and whether the party will have a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate," Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post.

The Sked:

It's a Pennsylvania day, in time for the next shot for the Phillies at a Series-clincher.

John McCain holds three rallies Tuesday -- first in Hershey at 10 am ET, then in Quakertown at 1:15 pm ET, and finally in Fayetteville, N.C. at 5:30 pm ET.

McCain will be joined in Hershey and Quakertown by Sarah Palin. Palin then has two more Pennsylvania rallies of her own -- in Shippensburg at 4:15 pm ET and in State College at 8 pm ET.

Barack Obama will also begin his Tuesday in Pennsylvania, with a rally in Chester at 10 am ET. He then heads to Virginia for two additional rallies -- first in Harrisonburg at 5:15 pm ET, then in Norfolk at 9:30 pm ET.

Joe Biden spends the day in Florida (deep in the heart of Rays territory) with two rallies planned -- in Ocala at 11 am ET, and in Melbourne at 6:45 pm ET.

Michelle Obama is out west Tuesday. She holds a rally in Las Vegas at 2:15 pm ET and in Colorado Springs at 6:30 pm ET.

Joe the Plumber himself hits the trail for McCain in Ohio, on a bus tour for former Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

Also in the news:

Arianna Huffington is looking for a little Obama generosity with Senate candidates: "Democrats, while being careful not to count their electoral chickens before they're hatched, are privately worried about winning without enough of a majority in the Senate to really change things. The enduring theme of Obama's campaign has been fundamental change. But, with victory within sight, the question becomes: how much change can he deliver if Democrats don't reach a filibuster-proof 60 seats in the Senate?"

Battles to come on the Hill: "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is quietly preparing to ease 90-year-old Sen. Robert C. Byrd from his perch as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee," Politico's John Bresnahan reports. "Reid has not yet discussed his plans with Byrd. But in a recent closed-door meeting with his advisers in Las Vegas and a private conversation with Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Reid has laid out a scenario that would have Inouye -- the committee's second-ranking Democrat -- taking over Byrd's chairmanship by the time the 111th Congress convenes in January."

(And Reid hopes Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., will "do the right thing and take care of this on his own," Breshaham quotes a source close to Reid as saying.)

Hitting the TV in a battleground state near you: the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, featured in a new ad from the National Republican Trust PAC. "For 20 years Barack Obama followed a preacher of hate and said nothing as Wright raged against our country," the ad says.

McCain problems in Florida: "Florida and its 27 electoral votes are essential to John McCain's hopes of winning the presidency -- but less than 10 days from the election even some Republicans in the state say it is tilting toward Barack Obama," Politico's Jonathan Martin writes. "Now, with McCain constrained by his decision to take federal funds and poll numbers showing a dead heat or an Obama lead in the state, the Illinois senator is doubling down. Obama is investing even more money on TV and matching it with personal attention in hopes of landing a death blow to Republican hopes by taking a state that went comfortably for President Bush in 2004."

And in Virginia: "Virginia has become a make-or-break state for McCain, and Prince William County is its red-hot center," Time's Jay Newton-Small writes. "The site of the first and second battles of Bull Run more than 140 years ago, it now marks a new Mason-Dixon Line on the electoral map: a midpoint between the largely blue-leaning industrialized North that stretches up to Maine and the agrarian, conservative South."

On broken pledges, and broken (spending) records: "On the question of public funding of presidential campaigns, we Democrats who strongly support Sen. Barack Obama's candidacy and who previously supported limits on campaign spending and who haven't objected to Obama's opting out of the presidential funding system face an awkward fact: Either we are hypocrites, or we were wrong to support such limitations in the first place," former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., writes in a New York Post op-ed.

Chuck Norris is back! The National Rifle Association is going up with a new spot in 10 battleground states Tuesday: "Some politicians support your rights, but unfortunately, their voting records say otherwise," Norris says (playing it straight, mostly). "Check the candidates' records, to see who stood up for your families, and who protected the criminals." Says the narrator: "Just let them try and outlaw those guns."

Might this be McCain's problem? "Political mavericks -- such as Sen. John McCain, whose White House race has been fueled by his reputation for going his own way -- inspire conflicting feelings among voters, according to UC Irvine research released Monday. . . . Because maverick politicians may disagree with their own group on important issues, they can expect to experience significant backlash from members of their own political party, even though they gain respect from those holding opposing views."

The Kicker:

"You're going to be on all the TV? . . . Are you going to interrupt my TV?" -- Malia Obama, as quoted by her mother on Leno Monday night.

"No, we didn't buy time on Disney and Nick." -- Barack Obama's response.

"It's scripted, of course." -- Sarah Palin, to Sean Hannity, on Obama's half-hour Wednesday-night special.

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