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First thoughts: Entering the lull

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Entering the lull: This week begins what's essentially a two-month lull in the presidential race. Later this week is the July 4th holiday, next comes the Olympics in early August, and then we have the conventions -- the Democrats' ending on August 28 and the GOP one on September 4. Then the day after, the sprint toward the November finish line truly begins. During this two-month lull, neither Obama nor McCain can win the election. But they both sure can lose it. That happened to John Kerry in August 2004, when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth effort began and when his campaign wasn't spending much money (saving its millions in general election funds to begin at the same time as Bush's kicked in after the September GOP convention). What these next two months in the Obama-McCain race are about is positioning for September 5. Obama begins that process by delivering a speech on patriotism in Independence, MO today and -- as Politico's Mike Allen reports -- a faith-based address in Ohio tomorrow. McCain, meanwhile, hits Pennsylvania, a battleground state Republicans haven't won since 1988. There are at least a combined four bounce opportunities: the two VP selections and the two conventions. McCain's goal for these next two months: to have this a low single-digit race by September 5. Obama's goal is more obvious: 1) to begin erasing character doubts about himself, 2) bankrupting McCain financially in the lean red states, and 3) building not only a national lead but double-digit leads in as many states as he can.

*** Patriot Games: Per his campaign, Obama today in Independence, MO -- just days after his event in Unity, NH -- will "discuss what patriotism means to him and what it requires of all Americans who loves this country and want to see it do better." NBC/NJ's Athena Jones notes that there haven't been a lot of town halls lately (cue the RNC hit on Obama for not just refusing town halls with McCain but with any voters at all, but we digress), so the all-but-certain Democratic nominee hasn't been asked about flag pins or the incorrect rumors about why he doesn't believe in pledging allegiance to the flag. Those are questions he used to get (especially in Indiana and North Carolina.) Jones adds that there are still a lot of people out there who are iffy about Obama because of his name, his background, and his upbringing. It may be true that a lot of these folks are probably not Obama supporters -- still this issue is an important one to address if his campaign hopes to expand the electoral map. And this patriotism stuff isn't just about flag pins; it's about attempting to counter the real hit that may be having an effect on Obama: the "is he one of us" question.

VIDEO: NBC Political Director Chuck Todd talks about John McCain and Barack Obama's patriotic messages this week and discusses McCain's trip to South America.

*** Patriot Games, Part II: Speaking of the topic of Obama's speech today, it seems American presidential politics can't quite get beyond this question: Just how big of a military hero were you? Yesterday on CBS's Face The Nation, it was Wes Clark questioning McCain's military record. "I don't think getting in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to become president," he said, as well as this: "[McCain] has been a voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee. And he has traveled all over the world. But he hasn't held executive responsibility. That large squadron in the Navy that he commanded -- that wasn't a wartime squadron." These comments weren't helpful at all to the Obama campaign, as Team McCain used them -- and made sure reporters were aware of them -- by issuing this statement from retired Admiral Leighton "Snuffy" Smith: "If Barack Obama wants to question John McCain's service to his country, he should have the guts to do it himself and not hide behind his campaign surrogates. If he expects the American people to believe his pledges about a new kind of politics, Barack Obama has a responsibility to condemn these attacks." Clark, of course, was a Clinton surrogate during the primary season. What makes us think we won't see Clark as an Obama surrogate again? Clark's folks tell First Read that the general honors McCain's service and would never disrespect it. However, they say that McCain is running for president "on his experience in national security, and Clark was talking about his qualifications in those terms." It's a tricky hit. On one hand, Clark was looking like he was doing a VP audition by proving he's comfortable attack McCain. But did Clark go too far since now even Obama supporters will have to acknowledge McCain's military service honorably?

*** Does Obama have an Iraq problem? When the New Yorker is asking this question, then that means he MUST really have a problem. This isn't the Weekly Standard writing about this. "With the general election four months away, Obama's rhetoric on [Iraq] now seems outdated and out of touch, and the nominee-apparent may have a political problem concerning the very issue that did so much to bring him this far," the New Yorker's George Packer observes. "The relative success of the surge is one of the few issues going McCain's way; we'll be hearing about it more and more between now and November, and it might sway some centrist voters who have doubts about Obama." Then again, 54% in the latest NBC/WSJ poll said that victory in Iraq isn't possible. The question on Iraq is whether Americans are paying attention to what's going over there or whether they've already given up on the five-year-old conflict, no matter the progress. Still, it does seem as if more and more Americans are coming around to the "Pottery Barn" rule: If we broke it, we now own it.

*** Does McCain have a Bin Laden problem? Well, President Bush sure does, but will that carry over to the presumptive GOP nominee? The New York Times front-pages that Al Qaeda's strength is growing in Pakistan. "[I]t is increasingly clear that the Bush administration will leave office with Al Qaeda having successfully relocated its base from Afghanistan to Pakistan's tribal areas, where it has rebuilt much of its ability to attack from the region and broadcast its messages to militants across the world." It's the type of national security reminder that can benefit the Democrats, even with someone supposedly as inexperienced on the issue as Obama who -- by the way -- was in the Illinois state senate on Sept. 11.

*** McCain's pluses and minuses among Latinos: If it hadn't been for those comments by Wes Clark, the chief political news from the weekend would have been Obama's upcoming European and Middle tour, as well as McCain's and Obama's duel speeches before the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). During the Democratic primary season, the CW was that Obama had a Hispanic problem. But after the first round of national polls, it's not Obama who has this problem but McCain. Per the June NBC/WSJ poll, Obama got 62% of the Latino vote versus McCain's 28%. McCain has strong credentials among Hispanics -- he's from the border state of Arizona and he's championed comprehensive immigration reform (although the DNC will be sure to remind you that McCain later walked away from supporting his own legislation). But the problem that he's likely encountering is the Republican Party's anti-immigration crusade of 2006 and 2007. After all, ask yourself this: To which party does Tom Tancredo belong? And what battleground state does he live in? That said, McCain's upcoming trip to Latin America will get him lots of coverage in America's Spanish-language media. And that might help him distinguish himself from others in the Republican Party and start improving his standing among Hispanics, particularly in places like New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Florida.

VIDEO: This week, both Barack Obama and John McCain will be targeting the West, a key battleground in the race for the White House. NBC's Kevin Corke reports.

*** Speaking of western states: Both McCain and Obama targeting the west this week. McCain's doing it by heading south -- to places like Colombia and Mexico, hoping the Spanish-language media coverage gets him positive (and wall-to-wall) Spanish language media coverage. Meanwhile, Obama's spending most of his week out west, starting Wednesday in Colorado, then North Dakota on Thursday and spending the 4th in Butte, Montana.

*** Also worth pointing out: The centrist Democratic Leadership Council is holding its national meeting in Chicago. What's interesting is that Obama isn't attending. In addition, no Democratic presidential contender attended last year's meeting, either. Obama might be moving to the center on some issues, but he certainly isn't DLC-ing it….

*** On the trail: McCain makes two stops in Pennsylvania, touring and then holding a media avail at Turbine Airfoil Design in Harrisburg, and later conducting a town hall in Pipersville. Obama is in Missouri, hosting an event at the Truman Memorial Building in Independence.

Countdown to Dem convention: 56 days
Countdown to GOP convention: 63 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 127 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 204 days
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