The Filter: Oct. 22, 2008

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

(Charlie Cook, National Journal)

Today it seems very unlikely that the focal point of this election is going to shift away from the economy. And as long as the economy is the focal point, it's difficult to see how this gets any better for Republicans up or down the ballot... The metrics of this election argue strongly that this campaign is over, it's only the memory of many an election that seemed over but wasn't that is keeping us from closing the book mentally on this one. First, no candidate behind this far in the national polls, this late in the campaign has come back to win. Sure, we have seen come-from-behind victories, but they didn't come back this far this late... As things are going now, this election would appear to be on a track to match Bill Clinton's 1992 5.6 percent margin over President George H.W. Bush, the question is whether it gets to Bush's 1988 7.7 percent win over Michael Dukakis or Clinton's 8.5 percent win over Robert Dole in 1996. Maybe some cataclysmic event occurs in the next two weeks that changes the trajectory of this election, but to override these factors, it would have to be very, very big.

(Michael Barone, Wall Street Journal)

Can we trust the polls this year? That's a question many people have been asking as we approach the end of this long, long presidential campaign. As a recovering pollster and continuing poll consumer, my answer is yes -- with qualifications... Harvard researcher Daniel Hopkins, after examining dozens of races involving black candidates, reported this year, at a meeting of the Society of Political Methodology, that he'd found no examples of the "Bradley Effect" since 1996...  What this suggests is that Mr. Obama will win about the same percentage of votes as he gets in the last rounds of polling before the election. That's not bad news for his campaign, as the polls stand now. The average of recent national polls, as I write, shows Mr. Obama leading John McCain by 50% to 45%. If Mr. Obama gets the votes of any perceptible number of undecideds (or if any perceptible number of them don't vote) he'll win a popular vote majority, something only one Democratic nominee, Jimmy Carter, has done in the last 40 years.

(Mike Allen, Politico Playbook)

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. "So this is the new tactic."

(Michael Powell, New York Times)

It is tempting, in contrasting the Obama of a year ago with the presidential candidate of today, to conclude that Miles Davis has turned himself into Barry Manilow. That is not quite the case; he still draws crowds — 100,000 in St. Louis on Saturday — that would warm a rocker’s heart. And his words can still soar, as when he and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton formed a campaign duet Monday in Florida. But this Mr. Obama is a consciously, carefully, intentionally more grounded one, and a touch duller for the metamorphosis. The slow muting of Mr. Obama’s rhetorical dial, particularly noticeable as world markets gyrate and unemployment spikes, speaks to a candidate who has run a rigorously disciplined campaign. His goal a year ago was to soar while rivals still cast their eyes down; now he must convince voters that he can walk just a step or two ahead of them, and so help navigate treacherous ground.

(Jane Mayer, New Yorker)

A week or so before McCain named her, however, sources close to the campaign say, McCain was intent on naming his fellow-senator Joe Lieberman, an independent, who left the Democratic Party in 2006. David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, who is close to a number of McCain’s top aides, told me that “McCain and Lindsey Graham”—the South Carolina senator, who has been McCain’s closest campaign companion—“really wanted Joe.” But Keene believed that “McCain was scared off” in the final days, after warnings from his advisers that choosing Lieberman would ignite a contentious floor fight at the Convention, as social conservatives revolted against Lieberman for being, among other things, pro-choice... With just days to go before the Convention, the choices were slim. Karl Rove favored McCain’s former rival Mitt Romney, but enough animus lingered from the primaries that McCain rejected the pairing... Other possible choices—such as former Representative Rob Portman, of Ohio, or Governor Tim Pawlenty, of Minnesota—seemed too conventional. They did not transmit McCain’s core message that he was a “maverick.” Finally, McCain’s top aides, including Steve Schmidt and Rick Davis, converged on Palin.

(Jason Zengerle, New Republic)

When Obama first approached Axelrod about joining his 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate, Axelrod demurred. Indeed, according to David Mendell's biography of Obama, Axelrod told Obama to forget about statewide office altogether. "If I were you," he advised, "I would wait until Daley retires and then look at a mayor's race." But Obama kept courting Axelrod, because Axelrod had proven the master of the key to Obama's political future: He knew how to sell black candidates to white voters. It's a formula Axelrod developed working on a series of black mayoral candidates' campaigns in cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Once Obama finally won him over, in 2002, Axelrod used it to elect Obama to the U.S. Senate. And now, with Axelrod serving as the Obama campaign's chief political and media strategist, that formula is poised to send the first African American to the White House. "It was always very important to Barack to have Axelrod in his corner," says Valerie Jarrett, a close friend of Obama's and now a senior adviser to his campaign. "He thought Axelrod would bring just the right expertise to the equation."

(Michael Gerson, Washington Post)

Obama does not appear to view himself as a lapsed radical. He sees himself as the reconciler of opposites, the seer of merit on both sides, the transcender of stale debates. He is the racial healer who understands racial anger. The peace candidate who prefers a more aggressive war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The outsider who surrounds himself with reassuring establishment figures. During the presidential debates, Obama reinforced this image as an analyst, not an ideologue -- the University of Chicago professor, not the leftist community organizer. His entire manner douses inflammatory charges of extremism... All things being equal, conservatives prefer liberals to be ironic and self-questioning rather than messianic and filled with gleaming-eyed intensity. In Obama's case, this humility might translate into an administration focused on achievable goals, run by seasoned, reasonable professionals (such as Tom Daschle and Dennis Ross), reaching out to Republicans in the new Cabinet and avoiding culture war battles when possible. But there is a reason we don't generally praise Niebuhrian soldiers, Niebuhrian policemen -- or Niebuhrian presidents. Sometimes events call for courage and clarity, not a sense of irony. And courage may be required to confront a genuinely radical and passionate Democratic Congress.

(Richard Wolf, USA Today)

Democrats are voting early in greater numbers than their Republican counterparts in several closely contested states, reversing a pattern that favored the GOP in past elections. The trend is evident in Ohio, North Carolina and Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico, state and county figures show. In Georgia, blacks are voting in greater numbers than they did in 2004. The early voting trend is about even in Colorado. Republicans claim the edge among absentee voters in Florida, but Democrats are voting in far greater numbers at early voting polling places where voters lined up this week. "This is like a mirror image of what we've seen in the past," says Paul Gronke of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College. "This cannot be good news for John McCain. It's the 100-yard dash, and (Barack) Obama is already 20 yards ahead."

(Jonathan Martin, Politico)

For the GOP, the cavalry apparently isn’t coming. Republicans attuned to conservative third-party efforts say that with less than two weeks to go until Election Day, the prospects for any 11th-hour, anti-Obama ad campaign are highly unlikely. Many in the party, including inside the McCain campaign, have held out hope that a deep-pocketed benefactor would emerge to bankroll ads in the campaign’s final days – spots that might, for example, resurrect the most incendiary clips from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But thanks largely to lack of passion for McCain within the conservative base, diminished hopes that he can win and a sharp decline in the stock market that has badly pinched donors’ pockets, veteran Republican operatives say it appears almost certain that what could be the most damaging line of attack against the Democratic nominee will be left on the shelf.

(Matthew Mosk and Sarah Cohen, Washington Post) 

The record-shattering $150 million in donations that Sen. Barack Obama raised in September represents only part of the financial advantage the Democratic nominee has amassed entering the final weeks of the presidential contest, newly released campaign finance records show. Obama and the Democratic Party committees supporting his campaign had $164 million remaining in their collective accounts entering the campaign's final full month, compared with $132 million available for Sen. John McCain and the Republican Party. The advantage is compounded by Obama's ability to continue to raise money through the election because he decided not to participate in the federal financing program. McCain opted in, meaning he received $84.1 million in federal funds to spend between the Republican National Convention and Nov. 4, and he must rely solely on the Republican National Committee for additional financial support. Behind Obama's staggering fundraising numbers, compiled on more than 80,000 pages filed with the Federal Election Commission late Monday, are signs that it was far more than just a surge of Internet donors that fueled a coordinated Democratic effort to try to swamp McCain.

(Elisabeth Bumiller and Jeff Zeleny, New York Times)

Senator Barack Obama has a double-digit lead in recent Pennsylvania polls. Senator John Kerry beat President Bush here in 2004. The previous three Democratic presidential candidates won, too. And this year there are 1.2 million more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state. But in these frantic last weeks of the 2008 campaign, Mr. McCain has lavished time and money on this now deep-blue state — he made three stops here on Tuesday — as if his political life depended on it. And, from his campaign’s point of view, it does... Mr. McCain’s strategists insisted that the state and its 21 electoral votes were within reach and crucial to what they acknowledge is an increasingly narrow path to victory. They say that their own polls show Mr. McCain only seven or eight percentage points behind Mr. Obama... Mr. McCain’s strategists argue that their candidate has a dual appeal: to the pro-gun working-class voters in the western coal country, many of whom supported Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York in the Democratic primary, and to independents and moderates in the swing counties around Philadelphia.

(Holly Ramer, Associated Press)

New Hampshire voters twice have launched McCain toward the GOP nomination. He trounced Bush in the state's 2000 primary and pulled off a stunning comeback win last January. But now McCain is trailing Obama in the polls here, and both candidates are in hot pursuit of the state's four electoral votes. McCain on Wednesday makes his fifth visit to the state since locking up the nomination. Political consultant Dean Spiliotes says McCain's strong ties to the state are based on mutual recognition of the importance of retail politics. McCain's biography-heavy campaign works well in a small state where a candidate can meet a lot of voters face-to-face, he said... State trends are working against McCain, however. New Hampshire was the only state to vote for John Kerry in 2004 after voting for Bush in 2000, and Democrats swept both its congressional seats, the governor's office and both houses of the state Legislature in 2006. Those results were fueled in large part by anti-Bush and anti-war sentiment, but Spiliotes argues the shift is certainly more than a blip, if not a permanent trend. In the last two years, Democrats have increased their voter rolls by 20 percent, compared to a 6 percent gain by Republicans. The GOP has seen its advantage over Democrats shrink to just under 6,000 votes. Undeclared voters, who were key to McCain's primary wins, have decreased but still outnumber those registered with either party. Spiliotes believes most of them lean Democratic given that New Hampshire's growing industries, such as technology startups, medical centers and precision manufacturing, attract people from metropolitan areas.

(Jeanne Cummings, Politico)

The Republican National Committee has spent more than $150,000 to clothe and accessorize vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and her family since her surprise pick by John McCain in late August. According to financial disclosure records, the accessorizing began in early September and included bills from Saks Fifth Avenue in St. Louis and New York for a combined $49,425.74. The records also document a couple of big-time shopping trips to Neiman Marcus in Minneapolis, including one $75,062.63 spree in early September. The RNC also spent $4,716.49 on hair and makeup through September after reporting no such costs in August. The cash expenditures immediately raised questions among campaign finance experts about their legality under the Federal Election Commission's long-standing advisory opinions on using campaign cash to purchase items for personal use.