The Filter: Oct. 16, 2008

A round-up of this morning's must read stories.

(John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei, Politico)

John McCain’s challenge at the final debate was to present his case for the presidency in a new light. But over 90 minutes of intense exchanges with Barack Obama—sometimes compelling, often awkward—-there was very little new light, and no obvious reason for McCain to be optimistic that he has turned his troubled campaign in a new direction. To the contrary, what McCain offered at Hofstra University was simply a more intense, more glaring version of his campaign in familiar light —- an edgy, even angry performance that in many ways seemed like a metaphor for his unfocused, wildly improvisational campaign. The Arizona senator threw many punches and sometimes may have landed a few, as when he called Obama out for reneging on a clear promise to accept public financing and the spending limits that go with it. But just as often Obama smoothly sidestepped the punches, as when he gave what seemed like a plausible and non-defensive answer on how he came to know the ‘60s-era domestic terrorist Bill Ayers and pivoted to boast about the range of advice he seeks from establishment pillars like Warren Buffet on the economy. More important, what was not evident in all the flailing of arms was a clear or logically consistent case about why McCain should be president and Obama should not be. 

(Patrick Healy, New York Times)

Senator John McCain was in a groove early in the presidential debate on Wednesday night, looking Senator Barack Obama in the eye and chiding him over taxes, over his backbone in standing up to Democrats and over the Obama campaign’s portrayal of Mr. McCain as the second coming of George W. Bush. It looked like Mr. McCain might, just might, raise the level of his game in throwing Mr. Obama off his — Mr. McCain’s essential goal 20 days before the election, as he seeks a comeback in the face of declining poll numbers in battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and Virginia. But then Mr. McCain began to undercut his own effort to paint Mr. Obama as just another negative politician. Mr. McCain grew angry as he attacked Mr. Obama over his ties to William Ayers, the Chicago professor who helped found the Weather Underground terrorism group. Suddenly, Mr. McCain was no longer gaining ground by showing command on the top issue for voters, the economy; he was turning tetchy over a 1960s radical... It seemed as if Mr. McCain was veering from one hot button to another, pressing them all, hoping to goad Mr. Obama into an outburst or a mistake that would alter the shape of the race in its last three weeks. But for a punch to make a difference, the punch needs to do something to its target — to rattle, to wound, or (best of all) cause the opponent to counterpunch in a self-defeating way.

(Dick Morris and Eileen McGan, New York Post)

The short term impact of the third debate will be to help Barack Obama. But the long term implications may give John McCain a needed boost. Obama looked good, but McCain opened the tax-and-spend issue in a way that might prevail. Remember 1992. Clinton had a big lead over George Bush Sr. with three weeks to go. But then Bush and Quayle hammered him over the tax issue and his big spending plans. Day after day, the Republicans gained, and Clinton fell back. By the Thursday before the Tuesday election, Bush had gained the lead. Ultimately Clinton was saved at the bell by the announcement by Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh that he was going to indict Bush's Defense Secretary Cap Weinberger. That restored the Clinton lead and delivered the victory to him. McCain is not as good on television as Obama is. So the immediate impact of the debate was to help Obama. But the tax-and-spend issue is the one that Republicans want at the center of the race, and McCain put it there. So this may turn out to have been a turning point for McCain, after all.

(Nancy Gibbs, Time)

That Obama's fortunes rose as the markets sank shows how central temperament has become in the homestretch of the presidential race. Only weeks ago, you might have expected that McCain's greater experience and his courage in the clutch would lift him as a leader in a moment of crisis. Yet the turn of the polls suggests the reverse; without taking a dramatically different approach on substance, Obama won this round on style and disposition. Both candidates supported the bailout, and both call for tax cuts and policing of markets, but in tenor, they were polar opposites. Temperament is in the eye of the voter. Is one response evidence of composure and self-possession — or of being too laid-back and unassertive? Is the other response a sign of urgency and decisiveness or a frantic lack of control?... So at this crucial moment, what do we make of the two men before us, the passionate Maverick and the cool-handed Hopemonger, Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice? Does the crucible of a campaign actually give you a glimpse of their souls? And does anything that happens on the trail have any bearing on what would happen after they take the oath of office?

(Matt Bai, New York Times Magazine)

Given the fact that he is not, in fact, a white male, Obama would seem to face an even-less-forgiving landscape among white-male voters... And yet Obama has persevered, devoting far more time and money than either of the last two Democratic nominees on an effort to persuade working-class and rural white guys that he is not the elitist, alien figure they may be inclined to think he is... Mathematically, Obama can probably win the election without winning any of these states — or Nevada or Montana or any of the other conservative states where he has campaigned in the past several months. What he probably can’t do, if he doesn’t convert enough voters to throw at least a few traditionally red states into the blue column, is get beyond what he dismissively refers to as the “50-plus-1” governing model, the idea that a president need only represent 50 percent of the country (plus 1 additional vote) to command the office. From the start, Obama has aspired not simply to win but also to stand as a kind of generational break from the polarized era of the boomers, to become the first president in at least 20 years to claim anything more than the most fragile mandate for his agenda. Absent that, even if he wins, Obama could wake up on Nov. 5 as yet another president-elect of half the people, perched uncomfortably on the edge of an impassable cultural divide.

(Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin, Politico)

Senator Barack Obama is on offense, and Senator John McCain on defense, and the next 19 days offer little chance of a change in that dynamic... The Democrat heads out Friday on what aides are calling a “Red State tour,” taking in Virginia, Missouri, North Carolina, and Florida... And Obama is weighing broadening a map that already appears big and red into four more states. A top adviser, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, said Obama is considering expanding his active campaign back into North Dakota and Georgia, from which he’d shifted resources, and into the Appalachian heartland of West Virginia and Kentucky... Meanwhile, John McCain will retreat to set up defensive bulwarks, in a last-ditch strategy of red state hold ‘em. The Republican National Committee’s independent expenditure arm signaled this move before the debate Wednesday, going off the air in Wisconsin and prepping ad buys in Colorado and Missouri. Seven of the eight states the committee is airing ads in were won by Bush in 2004, the exception being Pennsylvania.  The goal now for McCain is to find a formula relying almost entirely on red states, a strategy that leaves little margin for error but is his only hope with polls showing him down double-digits in virtually every blue state.

(Karl Rove, Wall Street Journal)

In the campaign's final two weeks, voters will take a last serious look at both presidential candidates. The outcome of the race isn't cast in stone yet. Barack Obama holds a 7.3% lead in the Real Clear Politics average of all polls, but the latest Gallup tracking poll reveals that there are nearly twice as many undecided voters this year than there were in the last presidential election. The Investor's Business Daily/TIPP poll (which was closest to the mark in predicting the 2004 outcome -- 0.4% off the actual result) now says this is a three-point race.  This week also brought a reminder that Sen. Obama hasn't closed the sale. The Washington Post/ABC poll found 45% of voters still don't think he's qualified to be president, about the same number who doubted his qualifications in March. This is seven points more than George W. Bush's highest reading in 2000 and the worst since Michael Dukakis's 56% unqualified rating in 1988. It explains why Mr. Obama has ignored Democratic giddiness and done two things to keep victory from slipping away.

(Peter Slevin, Washington Post)

No American president has been elected from a place quite like Hyde Park, the home of Sen. Barack Obama. Among the community's notable features are a university famous for intellectualism, a pair of 1960s Weather Underground radicals famous for being unrepentant and a bloc of voters famous for choosing Sen. John Kerry over President Bush by 19 to 1. Judging by the swift demonization, Obama might as well live at the corner of Liberal and Kumbaya... Hyde Park in real life is not so easily typecast. The political ethic is proudly progressive on matters of race and social justice, yet the community is anchored by the University of Chicago, an incubator for some of the nation's most influential conservatives, from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to Nobel Prize-winning free marketeer Milton Friedman... For Hyde Park's most famous resident, who wants to be seen as distinctive but unthreatening, his chosen turf represents the political eclecticism and sense of post-racial possibility at the heart of his personality and campaign. Yet as Obama is learning, the narrative cuts both ways.

(Peter Whoriskey, Washington Post)

Discovering how people search for candidate information -- exactly what words they type into a search box -- is a budding science that is paying big dividends in the presidential race between Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). As never before, the campaigns are buying ads to run along with the results of specific search queries on Google, Yahoo and Microsoft's Live. Because the ads catch people just as they are searching for information and because they can be tailored to the users' immediate interest -- the phrases they type in -- both campaigns are spending millions on the method, which is relatively new in politics. There is an art to choosing the keyword phrases for which to buy advertising -- among them are "water conserving faucets," "inheritance tax" and "fuel calculator." And it requires avid monitoring to keep up with evolving popular interests and campaign messages. Many of the hundreds of keywords chosen by the campaigns for advertising are obvious -- simple variations of the candidates' names.

(James V. Grimaldi, Washington Post) 

Early in 2007, just as her husband launched his presidential bid, Cindy McCain sought to resolve an old problem -- the lack of cellphone coverage on her remote 15-acre ranch near Sedona, Ariz., nestled deep in a tree-lined canyon called Hidden Valley. Over the past year, she offered land for a permanent cell tower, and Verizon Wireless embarked on an expensive public process to meet her needs, hiring contractors and seeking county land-use permits... In July, AT&T followed suit, wheeling in a portable tower for free to match Verizon's offer. "This is an unusual situation," AT&T spokeswoman Claudia B. Jones said. "You can't have a presidential nominee in an area where there is not cell coverage." Ethics lawyers said Cindy McCain's dealings with the wireless companies stand out because her husband, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), is a senior member of the Senate commerce committee, which oversees the Federal Communications Commission and the telecommunications industry. He has been a leading advocate for industry-backed legislation, fighting regulations and taxes on telecommunication services.  McCain and his campaign have close ties to Verizon and AT&T. Five campaign officials, including manager Rick Davis, have worked as lobbyists for Verizon.

(Glenn Adams, Associated Press)

Republican John McCain's campaign sees similarities between rugged Alaska and northern Maine's expanse of lakes, forests and coastline, and hopes that running mate Sarah Palin can help navigate the terrain. The campaign believes the Alaska governor and moose-hunting hockey mom will connect with voters in a region where hunting, fishing and snowmobiling are popular. McCain can win one electoral vote if he takes Maine's 2nd Congressional District, the biggest district in geographic terms east of the Mississippi, a patchwork of forests and lakes that are blanketed by snow for much of the year. Focusing on a single district could make sense in Maine, one of only two states — the other is Nebraska — that allow electoral votes to be split. It means that even a statewide loser could grab one of Maine's four electoral votes. "Certainly the 2nd District is within his sights. He can win this district," said Mark Brewer, political science professor at the University of Maine. McCain television ads are in heavy rotation in Bangor and Presque Isle, although the Republican National Committee has decided to stop running presidential ads in Maine to focus on usually Republican states where McCain shows signs of faltering.

(Tim Craig, Washington Post)

Nearly a half-million people registered to vote this year in Virginia, a 10 percent increase and the highest single-year boost in at least the past decade, according to final figures released Wednesday by the State Board of Elections. With Virginia a key battleground in the presidential race between Democratic nominee Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, elections officials reported unprecedented interest in signing up voters. Virginia does not register by party, so there is no way to be sure whether the crush of new voters will benefit Obama or McCain. But jurisdictions that have traditionally favored Democratic candidates outpaced Republican strongholds in the battle to register new voters. The surge in registrants mirrors trends in other states, as Obama's campaign and outside groups engaged in a massive registration campaign nationwide. Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio and Florida, which like Virginia are crucial battlegrounds in the presidential contest, all report that they added at least a half-million registrants this year. In those states, the new registrants have skewed heavily toward the Democrats.