The Filter: Sept. 29, 2008

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

(Michael D. Shear, Washington Post)

Wednesday morning was the last straw. A group of economic advisers privately told McCain that the situation was more dire than he realized. "They basically said, 'John, you're running for president. Can't you do something?' " said one participant in the meeting. The 90 minutes inside the library was supposed to have been a formal rehearsal. Instead, there was chaos. McCain frantically dialed his Senate aides, seeking the latest on the bailout negotiations, while his top lieutenants -- Mark Salter, Rick Davis, Steve Schmidt and Charlie Black -- scrambled to engineer one of the most unprecedented moments in presidential election history: McCain's declaration that he would "suspend" his campaign and seek to delay Friday's debate.  The decision to confront the economic crisis with a dramatic gesture was vintage McCain -- bold, swaggering, surprising -- and held out the possibility of a game-changing moment as a political byproduct. But it also highlighted the differences with Barack Obama's calm and steady campaign. McCain seemed to be lurching from one strategy to the next, defensively reacting to events while trying to regain his footing on a subject that had been difficult for him.

(Patrick Healy, New York Times)

Mr. McCain was by turns action-oriented and impulsive as he dive-bombed targets, while Mr. Obama was measured and cerebral and inclined to work the phones behind the scenes. Mr. McCain, who came of age in a chain-of-command culture, showed once again that he believes that individual leaders can play a catalytic role and should use the bully pulpit to push politicians. Mr. Obama, who came of age as a community organizer, showed once again that he believes several minds are better than one, and that, for all of his oratorical skill, he is wary of too much showmanship. For Republicans, Mr. McCain’s performance proved mixed, however... His decision to suspend his campaign and return to Washington even though he lacked an alternative to the bailout risked making him look impetuous in a moment of crisis. He comes out of this without an easily definable role or set of obvious results, though his top advisers said he had bought time for House Republicans to raise their own concerns... For Democrats, the episode was one more reminder that Mr. Obama was more analyzer-in-chief than firebrand — though in this case, they gave him high marks for his style. Still, given concerns among Americans about the economy, Mr. Obama risked seeming too cool and slow to exert leadership. Aides and political allies to both men agreed Sunday that perhaps no episode thus far in the campaign better demonstrated how they would approach managing problems as president.

(Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray, Washington Post)

In the two weeks that the Wall Street financial crisis has dominated the political debate, the presidential race has shifted from what had been essentially a dead heat to one in which Sen. Barack Obama has opened up a narrow but perceptible advantage nationally, as well as in a number of battleground states... For McCain, the danger is that previously undecided voters will become comfortable that Obama is ready to be president. The longer Obama can hold even a small lead, the more difficult it will be for McCain to reverse it, absent something unexpected happening. McCain's best hope, strategists said, is for the crisis atmosphere around Wall Street and the credit markets to lessen, allowing the campaign debate to focus on other questions as much as the economy. The agreement reached early this morning on Capitol Hill about a Wall Street relief package may help with that. Schmidt said the campaign will press two arguments as forcefully as possible in the coming days. One is that Obama is not ready to be commander in chief and that, in a time of two wars, "his policies will make the world more dangerous and America less secure." Second, he said, McCain will argue that, in a time of economic crisis, Obama will raise taxes and spending and "will make our economy worse."

(Douglas Belkin, Wall Street Journal)

Joe Sullivan worked his way through a cheese pizza during Friday's presidential debate, and as the candidates argued over the idea of face-to-face talks with rogue states, he couldn't help but think of his own divorce two years ago. "It's always better to communicate," said Mr. Sullivan, who is 55 years old. "It's the most important thing you can do; countries, people, doesn't matter." With much of the country clumped into red or blue states, the votes of working-class white suburbanites like Mr. Sullivan in such swing states as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania could decide this year's election. Ohio, with its 20 electoral votes, is evenly split in the polls between Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain. Sen. Obama can count on strong support from big cities. Sen. McCain is polling well in rural communities and more-distant suburbs. As many as 24% of voters in the state say they are undecided or could change their mind before the Nov. 4 election, according to a poll by the Ohio News Organization, a consortium of eight newspapers. Despite millions of dollars in TV ads and direct-mail ads flooding into the homes of Ohio voters, Mr. Sullivan's reaction to the debate highlights how the decision-making process among this bounty of voters can be quirky, personal and unpredictable.

(Jo Becker and Don Van Natta, Jr., New York Times)

In a room reserved for high-stakes gamblers at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, he tossed $100 chips around a hot craps table. When the marathon session ended around 2:30 a.m., the Arizona senator and his entourage emerged with thousands of dollars in winnings. A lifelong gambler, Mr. McCain takes risks, both on and off the craps table. He was throwing dice that night not long after his failed 2000 presidential bid, in which he was skewered by the Republican Party’s evangelical base, opponents of gambling. Mr. McCain was betting at a casino he oversaw as a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and he was doing so with the lobbyist who represents that casino, according to three associates of Mr. McCain... As factions of the ferociously competitive gambling industry have vied for an edge, they have found it advantageous to cultivate a relationship with Mr. McCain or hire someone who has one, according to an examination based on more than 70 interviews and thousands of pages of documents... In his current campaign, more than 40 fund-raisers and top advisers have lobbied or worked for an array of gambling interests — including tribal and Las Vegas casinos, lottery companies and online poker purveyors. 

(Ron Fournier, Associated Press)

How can it be that in 2008 - 143 years after slavery was abolished, decades after the civil rights movement - an AP-Yahoo News poll could find that racial misgivings could cost Sen. Barack Obama the election? In search of explanations, two Associated Press reporters - one black, one white - listened to people of both races along Detroit's divides: Alter Road, which separates the city from the tony Grosse Pointes near Lake St. Clair, and 8 Mile Road, the vast northern border between a mostly black Detroit and its mostly white suburbs. They found people of both races living just blocks apart who nonetheless spoke of each other like strangers. There was suspicion, contempt - and yet, for many, a desperate hope that Obama's candidacy might be the final step in America's long path to racial equality. For whites, their support of Democratic economic policies forces them to confront their racial prejudices. It is here you meet decent people with much in common - both sides of 8 Mile Road are populated by blue-collar Democratic families. But many still can't get past their racial differences. Whites say their neighbors consider blacks to be violent and solely responsible for problems in the black community. Blacks say many of their own consider whites to be spoiled and condescending. But nobody - well, hardly anybody - acknowledged their own prejudices. Both blacks and whites instead blamed "they," a vague and unaccountable surrogate for their own racial attitudes.

(Monica Langley, Wall Street Journal)

At the urging of the Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, Gov. Palin will leave late Monday for his Arizona ranch to prepare for the high-stakes debate. The moves follow several shaky performances by Gov. Palin last week and come amid concern and grumbling from Republicans, and even a few queries from her husband, Todd Palin, according to campaign operatives and Republican officials.  McCain campaign manager Rick Davis and senior adviser Steve Schmidt are planning to coach the candidate ahead of the debate, according to senior advisers. They traveled Sunday to meet the Republican vice-presidential nominee in Philadelphia. After her appearance with Sen. McCain at a rally in Columbus, Ohio, these top officials plan to fly with her on Monday to Sen. McCain's ranch in Sedona, Ariz., which they hope she will find a comforting place to prep, these people said. More broadly, the McCain campaign aims to halt what it sees as a perceived decline in the crispness and precision of Gov. Palin's latest remarks as well as a fall in recent polls, according to several advisers and party officials.

(Jim Kuhnhenn, Associated Press)

One talks too much. The other hasn't talked enough. For voters, Thursday's vice presidential debate promises a transfixing match between the loquacious veteran Sen. Joe Biden and the still-underexposed Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. For the campaigns, the encounter in St. Louis represents a potential white-knuckle moment: The free-wheeling Biden vs. the tightly managed Palin in a test of knowledge, fluency and grace before millions of TV viewers. Vice presidential candidates seldom decide elections; people vote for who's at the top of the ticket. But in a contest as close as this one between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, a misstep could set back either campaign in the final weeks before Election Day. What's more, both Biden, the Democrat, and Palin, the Republican, have become Obama's and McCain's ambassadors to independent voters, but each with different tasks: Biden to reassure them about Obama, and Palin to reassure them about herself. And while the stakes may not be as high as they were in Friday's presidential debate, the running mates face more land mines than Obama and McCain did.

(Howard Kurtz, Washington Post)

David Axelrod was surrounded by a pack of camera-toting, mike-wielding, pushing-and-shoving media types, one of whom asked whether his man Barack Obama had been "too nice" in the just-completed debate with John McCain. "I don't think he was too nice. . . . There were clear differences. . . . He made a very strong case, absolutely," the onetime newspaperman said in his meandering style. Twenty feet away, McCain operative Steve Schmidt was robotically hammering home a single number. "Senator Obama was right tonight when he said John McCain was right 11 times. . . . It was a home run for Senator McCain. . . . The person who is losing the debate, the person who is on defense, is the person who says his opponent is right 11 times," the shaved-head strategist declared. Obama may have won the insta-polls after Friday's debate here at the University of Mississippi, but the McCain team won the spin war, a postgame ritual that quickly seeps into the punditry enveloping such events. What was equally striking, inside the massive media tent, was that some of the journalists who profess to want an elevated debate on the issues -- which is precisely what they got, courtesy of moderator Jim Lehrer -- seemed unusually interested in style points. 

(Albert R. Hunt, Bloomberg News)

Several days of interviewing a dozen top Democratic and Republican politicians underscores what voters say and polls show: Ohio is dead even and saturated with attention. (The interviews were conducted before Friday night's debate). There is a case that Obama, who needs to win 18 more electoral votes than Democrats captured in 2004, can win without Ohio's 20 electors, assuming he holds all the states that voted Democratic four years ago. He could then carry Florida or some combination of Iowa, Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico. That leaves little margin for error. Republican McCain has even less. His only credible winning scenario, without taking Ohio, is to carry every other Republican-leaning state and pick up New Hampshire. That's a long shot. Republicans and Democrats say the intensely contested 2004 Ohio presidential race, where George W. Bush edged out Democrat John Kerry, is the starting model for this election. The dynamics feature the economy -- a devastating picture in many parts of the state even before the recent financial crisis -- and an ingrained cultural conservatism.

(William Kristol, New York Times)

John McCain is on course to lose the presidential election to Barack Obama. Can he turn it around, and surge to victory? He has a chance. But only if he overrules those of his aides who are trapped by conventional wisdom, huddled in a defensive crouch and overcome by ideological timidity. The conventional wisdom is that it was a mistake for McCain to go back to Washington last week to engage in the attempt to craft the financial rescue legislation, and that McCain has to move on to a new topic as quickly as possible. As one McCain adviser told The Washington Post, “you’ve got to get it [the financial crisis] over with and start having a normal campaign.” Wrong. McCain’s impetuous decision to return to Washington was right. The agreement announced early Sunday morning is better than Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s original proposal, and better than the deal the Democrats claimed was close on Thursday. Assuming the legislation passes soon, and assuming it reassures financial markets, McCain will be able to take some credit. But the goal shouldn’t be to return to “a normal campaign.” For these aren’t normal times.