Higher Standards Bite Obama, McCain

For a campaign that's short on poetry of late, we've sure got a fair dose of poetic justice.

First, some data points as we try to figure out why really rich folks need to squeeze an extra quarter of a percentage point on their mortgages:

- Jim Johnson trips on the wire Sen. Barack Obama set for his opponents -- the latest casualty of a "game" where Obama helped set the rules.

- Sen. John McCain helps Obamaland color in a fading argument -- slipping up with the same kind of gotcha-gaffe manner his campaign delights in using against Obama.

- The Obama campaign brings you www.fightthesmears.com -- a sort of snopes.com for all things Obama that also serves to chart the distance between Obama and John Kerry as presidential candidates. (Lead item, on the legend of the Michelle Obama "whitey" tape: "No Such Tape Exists.")

- James Carville wants a former vice president to run for vice president (and while Obama's not returning Carville's calls any time soon, he chose the one name that's guaranteed to get him some notice).

- Is this the Obama bump? Obama's up, but Brand McCain remains strong: It's Obama 47, McCain 41 in the new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll -- compared to 51-35 in the generic Republican-vs.-Democrat White House ballot.

The Obama campaign is showing that it knows how to fight with the big boys -- but his big week got sidetracked on its date with destiny, and Obama really does have himself to blame.

Washington wisdom dictates that you don't run for president as a Democrat without having Jim Johnson vet your running mates -- except that Obama's campaign rationale centers on rejecting Washington wisdom and Washington players.

Johnson "resigned from that unpaid position [Wednesday] amid criticisms that Johnson represented a world of influence and special interests that stood in stark contrast with what Obama's campaign purports to stand for," ABC's Jake Tapper writes. "The perceived chasm between Obama's rhetoric and his association with Johnson served as a distraction for his campaign and an opportunity for his critics."

This is a complete reversal from Obama's defense of a day earlier -- and perhaps the timing had something to do with this:

"For one previously undisclosed loan last year for a Montana real-estate project, Countrywide overrode its internal limits on loan size, amount of allowable debt and number of loans to a single borrower, the lender's loan records show," Glenn R. Simpson and James R. Hagerty write in The Wall Street Journal. "At the time he got the loan, what the records indicate were Mr. Johnson's monthly obligations were nearly twice his stated monthly income."

Yes, you do have to vet the vetters -- or, as your oppo staff will tell you, others will vet them for you.

"[Johnson's] resignation highlights the difficulties for Mr. Obama's campaign in trying to live up to his promises to remain independent of the Washington establishment and the special interests that populate it," John M. Broder and Leslie Wayne write in The New York Times. "As questions about Mr. Johnson grew, Mr. Obama felt he had to move quickly to rid the campaign of a man who had come to symbolize the Washington fixers that Mr. Obama was running against, aides said."

The Journal can claim this scalp with its weekend scoop -- but credit Obama with a big assist.

"Politicians deploy righteous indignation like college students use credit cards -- to excess and with abandon," Time's Michael Scherer writes. "But there are sometimes hidden costs in the fine print, interest payments not due for months, especially when the outrage is calculated for maximum political effect."

Gail Collins sees an unforced error: "It's like having your career ruined because you invited the wrong person to host a party in honor of your nephew's godparents," she writes. "Gentle spirits may decide that it's a good thing that the Obama campaign is getting this sort of thing out of the way early. Crueler ones may note that at least they can't blame this one on Hillary."

And Johnson departed maybe a day too late for Obama to get any real credit for decisive action: "The American people have reason to question the judgment of a candidate who has shown he will only make the right call when under pressure from the news media," said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds.

In the same vein of living by one's own standards, we bring you McCain himself, setting back his efforts to distance himself from President Bush with one tin-eared phrase Democrats are pouncing on.

By saying that the timeframe for removing troops from Iraq is "not too important," McCain looked (to Democratic eyes) Bush-like in his steely (rusty?) resolve.

"On behalf of Sen. Barack Obama's campaign, Democrats pounced, saying McCain's statement showed the Arizona Republican had little concern for the troops," the Chicago Tribune's John McCormick writes.

A hundred years lasted a few months, "Bomb Iran" was fading like the Beach Boys themselves -- it was time for McCain to help a Democrat out (and the DNC was quickly up with a Web video highlighting the rhetorical lowlights).

Leaving aside the fact that the new politics appears to last about as long as it takes for another gaffe to emerge from the other side, and that the context on this quote makes McCain's meaning pretty clear -- this stuff works (ask Kerry -- tapped to fight this one for Obama on Wednesday, in a role what had to make him smile just a bit).

Yes, this moves the campaign to a playing field where McCain is rightly confident: national security. Yes, McCain can legitimately claim independence from President Bush, even on the war. Yes, McCain may even be right that the public has soured on this kind of politics.

Still, for Democrats who are trying to brand "third Bush term" into the national consciousness, this was a gift.

"Wednesday's flurry was another in a series of Democratic attacks aimed at portraying McCain as committed to an open-ended U.S. presence in Iraq," per USA Today's David Jackson.

It was an old trick, but was it an OLD trick? Democrats repeatedly referred to McCain as "confused" -- "seeming to feed into concerns voters might have about the Arizonan's age," ABC's Jake Tapper writes.

"Wednesday's dustup was the first time the age issue was raised seriously in the general election campaign," Richard Sisk writes in the New York Daily News.

Time for McCain to ask for a new kind of politics: "Instead of taking someone's comments out of context and flashing them around on the cable shows, why don't we hear complete answers and complete thoughts," McCain said Wednesday, per the Washington Times' Stephen Dinan.

McCain hoped Thursday would bring the first of his joint town halls -- but Team McCain is still waiting on a counterproposal from Obamaland. "By making the entreaty, the McCain camp is betting the veteran senator from Arizona would gain an edge. And the Obama camp appears in no hurry to give it to him," AP's Jim Kuhnhenn reports. "Look for an empty chair Thursday to symbolize Obama's absence from a McCain town hall in New York's Federal Hall."

New from the Obama campaign Thursday: www.fightthesmears.com.

Time's Karen Tumulty has the details: "The Obama campaign has built what might best be described as a Web-based rumor clearinghouse, located at fightthesmears.com, in which it hopes all the shady stories about Obama's faith, his family and his rumored connections with controversial figures can go to die," she writes. "Obama is enlisting his millions of supporters to help him hunt down and quash these stories, just as those supporters helped him turn his insurgent campaign into a history-making juggernaut."

On the Obama bump . . . Pollster Peter Hart sees President Bush as a "200-pound ball and chain" around McCain's ankle: "Unless he finds some way to cut it loose," Hart tells The Wall Street Journal's Jackie Calmes, "he's going to be dragging it right through the election."

But dragging he is -- Obama leads outside the margin of error, but he's not down by as much as Republicans feared in the new WSJ/NBC poll, the first taken since Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton conceded.

"Sen. Obama continues to do poorly among white male voters, according to the poll. More ominous is his weakness among white suburban women, who generally are open to Democratic candidates and whose votes could be decisive. While Sen. Obama has a slight lead among white women generally, a plurality of suburbanites prefer Sen. McCain," Calmes writes.

"Some good news for the likely Democratic nominee: Despite suggestions during the nomination contest that many Hispanics and Hillary Clinton supporters wouldn't support him, the poll shows both groups overwhelmingly do," she writes.

(And what do those generic-ballot numbers suggest about congressional races?)

Karl Rove leads the way in the latest GOP critique of Obama. "Mr. Obama believes in talking and in meeting, in the hope that his charm will sweep despots off their feet like college students in Madison, Cambridge and Berkeley," Rove writes in his Wall Street Journal column.

"If Mr. Obama wants to portray himself as Reagan, then let him show it by spelling out his strategy for Iran and the other rogue states he's pledged to spend his first year visiting. What specifically will he say in those meetings that will cause their leaders to change? What will he do to create the conditions that lead them to abandon their aggressive course? If Mr. Obama keeps dodging these questions, then the American people will have every reason to view him as unprepared for the world stage."

Obama's words on gas prices Wednesday get run through the grist/twist mill: "I think that I would have preferred a gradual adjustment. The fact that this is such a shock to American pocketbooks is not a good thing," Obama said on CNBC.

They pounced on the Hill, and this statement Thursday morning from the McCain campaign: "Barack Obama's assertion that the only problem with higher gas prices is that they've gone up too fastĀ -- saying he'd prefer a 'gradual' increase insteadĀ -- shows how clearly out of touch he is with Americans struggling with record gas prices."

The McCain quote that's circulating in Democratic circles: "I can't be a referee of every spot run on television," McCain told the Boston Herald's Hillary Chabot, in what just might be a softening on 527s. "I admire Sen. Obama and his accomplishments, but we all know there are groups who want to attack me."

Writes Chabot: "When 'The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth' released high-impact ads attacking Kerry's actions in Vietnam, McCain -- also a decorated war veteran -- called the ads 'dishonest and dishonorable' and urged fellow Republican President Bush to condemn the ads as well."

Not to be lost in Wednesday's dust-ups: Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., is on the first line of McCain defenders -- on partisan political spats, not just Iraq policy.

Said Lieberman, responding to the Democrats' attacks on McCain: "The obvious fact is that more than most any American, Senator McCain knows the sacrifices that our men and women in uniform make and the burden that their families bear and it really is wrong to suggest otherwise."

"For now, Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democrats' 2000 vice presidential nominee, is still welcome at Senate Democrats' weekly lunches -- even if he is actively campaigning for Republican presidential candidate John McCain," Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times. "But the welcome mat may not be out for long."

"Sure, it's somewhat awkward," understates Lieberman, in an interview with Simon. "What I did was unconventional. I understand that. I'm a Democrat -- an independent Democrat, but still a registered Democrat -- supporting a Republican."

You want awkward? Lieberman will help conduct a radio interview of Vice President Dick Cheney at 9 am ET Thursday.

Speaking of veeps -- current and almost -- how about Carville's advice for Obama? "If I were him, I would ask Al Gore to serve as his vice president, his energy czar, in his administration to reduce our consumption and reliance on foreign energy sources," Carville said on CNN Thursday.

Politico's Ben Smith: "I'm not sure James Carville -- with whom Obama had a public spat -- is the first person whose advice he's going to take, though come to think of it there is an open slot on the vetting committee today."

The Sked:

Obama holds a town-hall meeting in Wisconsin at 1 pm ET. From the campaign: "Obama will also meet with the first in a series families who will help to demonstrate the relief American families will get from his plan as opposed to the policies of President Bush and John McCain. . . . Obama will visit with these tax relief families periodically on the campaign trail, and he'll be discussing their stories every time he talks about tax relief --because this isn't about numbers on a chart, it's about real relief for struggling families."

Politico's Mike Allen: "Karen Hughes may spit out her corn flakes: 'Tax families' were a signature element of President Bush's presidential campaign in 2000 and his road show for his tax cut in 2001."

Waiting for McCain in New Hampshire: "Analysts say Obama offers three times the tax break for middle class," is the headline on the Nashua Telegraph story.

McCain has a full day: Boston in the morning, a return to New Hampshire in the afternoon, and New York Thursday evening, for the event at Federal Hall that might have been a joint town hall.

President Bush is in Rome, and First Lady Laura Bush wakes up in Paris.

Get the full political schedule in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

Home Front Rumbles:

"At least 14 Republican members of Congress have refused to endorse or publicly support Sen. John McCain for president, and more than a dozen others declined to answer whether they back the Arizona senator," The Hill's Kristen Coulter and Bob Cusack report.

One of them, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is kinda sorta still running for president -- at least until he speaks before the Texas Republican Party convention Thursday in Houston.

Then there's religious leaders. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, to the AP's Eric Gorski: "What I hear from people . . . is, 'John McCain was not my first choice, John McCain was not my second choice, John McCain was not my third choice. However, I would rather have a third-rate fireman than a first-class arsonist.' And they view Obama as a first-class arsonist."

On the other side: "Barack Obama, for all his attention and primary successes, does not go over so well in a fair number of Democratic lawmakers' home districts," AP's Ben Evans and Sam Hananel report. "If it turns out one of them is an ax murderer or something like that I'll make a choice," said Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga. Otherwise, "I don't think I need to get involved."

Obama does need the big money people involved -- and that's David Plouffe's big task for the balance of this week. "With Senator Barack Obama's campaign manager scheduled to meet Thursday with top fund-raisers for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York, there is resistance from at least some in her once-vaunted network to supporting Mr. Obama," Michael Luo writes in The New York Times.

Said Susie Tompkins Buell: "The Obama campaign has a lot to show me before I will consider being there for them."

Lynn Forester de Rothschild "said she had questions about Mr. Obama's trustworthiness," per Luo. "I love my country more than I love my party," she said. "I can't just fall in line."

More trouble in paradise: The uproar continues (mildly) over Obama's new economics policy director, Jason Furman. "For years we've expressed strong concerns about corporate influence on the Democratic Party," said AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney "in a statement implicitly critical of the symbolism of the appointment, no matter Mr. Furman's economic skills," per The New York Times' Louis Uchitelle.

More encouraging: "Barack Obama has moved into double-digit leads over Republican John McCain in two new polls of women voters, suggesting he is drawing support from women who once backed Hillary Rodham Clinton," Jill Lawrence writes for USA Today.

At least Howard Dean knows his role. At a Christian Science Monitor lunch with reporters, he "repeatedly answered questions with caveats such as 'that won't be my call' or 'the nominee comes in and runs the DNC,' " per ABC's David Chalian.

This fun exchange, on whether Obama should honor his pledge to accept public financing for his campaign: "I don't know what he's going to do and I'm not going to comment on it."

In time for Obama's visit to Wisconsin: "In the first Wisconsin survey since his Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton bowed out, Obama leads Republican John McCain by double digits, outpolls McCain among independents and benefits from an election landscape that is extremely harsh for the GOP," Craig Gilbert writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

It's Obama 50, McCain 37 in the survey from the University of Wisconsin Department of Political Science/WisPolitics.com.

And New Jersey's not in real play -- not yet. "With a double-digit lead among women, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the likely Democratic presidential candidate, leads Arizona Sen. John McCain, the likely Republican standard-bearer, 45-39 percent in New Jersey, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today."

On the veepstakes front . . . Gov. Tim Kaine, D-Va., gets front-page Boston Globe treatment: "Kaine's biography and political resume fill many of the perceived gaps in Obama's profile, making him for some analysts a dark horse in veepstakes 2008," Lisa Wangsness writes. "Obama . . . clearly has warm feelings for Kaine, who befriended the Illinois senator when he came to Virginia to stump for Kaine in 2005. (They discovered that their mothers came from the same small town in Kansas.)"

And sorry Dennis: "Democrats in the House of Representatives yesterday scuttled a colleague's proposal to impeach President Bush on a wide range of charges, including lying to the American public about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, torturing war captives, and misleading Congress in an attempt to destroy Medicare," The Boston Globe's Susan Milligan reports. on Rep. Dennis Kucinich's impeachment push

Fun with green screens: ABC's Ron Claiborne has the details on Stephen Colbert's challenge to his viewers, using McCain's election-night speech from last week.

New from the DNC: John McCain vs. the fact-checkers.

GOP strategist Todd Domke spins through the next five months so you don't have to endure them.

The Kicker:

"There's only one thing that can stop Obama -- and it's in . . . me." -- A hulking out "McCain Girl," ready for battle against Obama Girl.

"I only sleep with Democrats." -- Line from new YouTube video, entitled "Blue Balled."

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