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First thoughts: Britney-Paris day after

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** The day after Britney-Paris: Today might be a day when John McCain ought to simply forget to read the news clippings, turn off the cable TV, and not browse The Google. The editorials that are blasting his new Britney-Paris ad and other attacks against Obama are piling up. (An example from the St. Pete Times: "The self-described 'happy warrior' in the 2000 presidential campaign has turned sour in 2008, and the candor and straight talk that once made him such an attractive candidate are rapidly disappearing.") And so are the blind quotes from Republican strategists questioning his campaign's tactics. (See the next paragraph.) The danger here for McCain is that, by all accounts, he's more sensitive to criticism by the media and fellow colleagues than your average Republican; as someone who's been praised by the press more often than not, he cares what the New York Times has to say. So today and tomorrow, McCain's body language will be interesting to watch. But since his campaign has made the decision to go after Obama -- it has now produced four consecutive negative ads against the Democrat -- the best course for McCain may simply be to put on the blinders and move forward. The question is whether McCain has the self-discipline to ignore the noise and march forward and accept this strategy as the winning one. 

VIDEO: A Race for the White House panel talks about John McCain's new attack ad targeting Barack Obama and comparing him to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

*** When ex-aides attack: While it's too soon to know whether McCain's Paris-Britney ad will work, it's clear that some Republicans and ex-McCain aides weren't too impressed. "Their increasing bitterness reflects a campaign that is more about some sort of therapeutic frustration venting for the staff than any coherent strategy to elect McCain," one GOPer told the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza. "It's unprofessional to the core." Meanwhile, ex-McCain strategist John Weaver called the ad "childish" and "tomfoolery." "John's been a celebrity ever since he was shot down," Weaver said to the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder. "Whatever that means. And I recall Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush going overseas and all those waving American flags." Indeed, what's perhaps most interesting to us are all the Republicans and ex-McCain aides who have been openly critical of the campaign. In presidential contests, Republicans are normally unaccustomed to this kind of intra-party dissent and criticism. But as we found with the Kerry campaign in '04 and the Team Hillary in '08, it doesn't necessarily help when there are so many people who like to talk. No matter how disgruntled the McCain campaign says these folks are, these ex-McCainiacs have an impressive track record and know how to give a good quote…

*** What's he for? Here's an additional thought from NBC's David Gregory, host of MSNBC's Race for the White House, from his top headline last night: "'What's he FOR?' That was Obama's back of the hand for McCain's stepped up efforts to go negative -- big time -- against the Illinois senator. It's said that campaigns are often about choices. McCain, who can depend on his biography, now seems intent on creating a biography for his opponent, one that borrows from themes raised successfully by President Bush against John Kerry in 2004. Kerry seemed French (remember?); didn't support the troops (though he was a decorated Vietnam veteran); and was weak and a politician first. A McCain source recently told me that the Arizona senator would only attack about something if he believes it. That tells us there is something about Obama McCain has really come to dislike. Or it means making the campaign about Obama is the only way to win. It should also be pointed out that embedded in what some may condemn as baseless negative advertising are serious questions for debate in this campaign about Obama's judgment and plans. It's ironic, however, that McCain -- whose political career has been defined by his biography -- has taken to playing on his opponent's turf. A big challenge for McCain is this: Obama isn't alone; there are Republican allies of McCain's who urge him to spend time spelling out what he is for." The campaign will argue that between the debates and McCain's convention speech, he'll have a chance to spell out what he's for ... but will that be enough?
*** Battleground update: A new round of Quinnipiac polls shows Obama leading in the swing states of Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania -- but McCain gaining ground on him. In Florida, Obama is up by two points (46%-44%); a month ago, the lead was four points (47%-43%). In Ohio, Obama is also up two (46%-44%); a month ago, he was up six (48%-42%). And in Pennsylvania, Obama is up seven points (49%-42%); a month ago, the lead was 12 (52%-40%). The good news for McCain is that he's gaining ground in these crucial states. The bad news for him is that both Florida and Ohio are absolute must-wins for him. That's not the case for Obama. These numbers in these three states match what we've heard on the ground from campaign types. Basically, Obama has moved Florida from Lean McCain two months ago to toss-up; has held his own in Ohio (though some might argue his lead is a bit bigger than Q shows); and continues to hang on to this high single-digit lead in Pennsylvania, which at some point has to frustrate the McCain campaign because it's starting to make GOPers wonder if the Keystone state is the party's new white whale. 

*** Are Obama's North Carolina chances for real? Folks, it's not every day that we get a press release from the RNC announcing a new state director for just one state -- North Carolina. But that's what we found in our email inbox this morning. This is the first acknowledgment from Republicans that they are now taking the Tar Heel State seriously.

VIDEO: President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have agreed to pursue a "general time horizon" for withdrawal from Iraq, even as Maliki announces support for Barack Obama's Iraq proposal. NBC's Patty Culhane reports.

*** President Bush makes some news: From the president's statement this morning: "Beginning tomorrow, troops deploying to Iraq will serve 12-month tours instead of 15-month tours… We're also making progress in our discussion with Prime Minister Maliki's government on a strategic framework agreement. This agreement will serve as the foundation for America's presence in Iraq once the United Nations resolution authorizing the multinational forces there expires on December the 31st."

*** All about the brand: What's the most damaging thing for Senate Republicans out of the Ted Stevens news? He's become the third sitting GOP senator in the last two years who has had trouble with the law. The other two: David Vitter and Larry Craig. The Rule of Three in this case is not something the GOP could use right now. As conservative activist Tony Perkins put it in his newsletter yesterday regarding Stevens: "As Republicans try to claw their way back to respectability before an election cycle that could plunge them even deeper into the congressional minority, they're instead pushed back into the familiar role of damage control. The news of Stevens' indictment can undo any progress the party has made in rebuilding voters' trust. Instead of purging corruption, Stevens' debacle may do even more damage to the Republican brand." Will Senate Dems be able to use this GOP troika to attack the party and whittle away at its brand in the same way the House Dems hurt the House GOP in '06 on this front?

*** Meet Bobby Jindal: When sworn in as governor, he became the youngest sitting governor at age 36… Jindal, a Rhodes Scholar, turned around the failing Louisiana public health system when he was in his 20s… Named Piyush by a family of Indian descent, but insisted on being called Bobby, after Bobby from The Brady Bunch (we're not kidding)… Converted to Catholicism at age 18… Wrote of witnessing an exorcism of a friend who had cancer -- and then afterward, he wrote, "surgeons found no traces of cancerous cells." Attacks on Jindal using religion backfired on Democrats in Louisiana, but how would this play on a national stage?… Recently Jindal got in legislative hot water before he reversed course and vetoed a legislative pay raise…. But likely the biggest obstacle to Jindal being picked is the most obvious one -- he's been governor for less than a year and he's so young, he could be McCain's grandson.
*** On the trail: McCain holds a town hall in Racine, WI, while Obama holds his own economic town hall in Cedar Rapids, IA. Also, Hillary Clinton addresses AFSCME -- the government employees union that backed her in the Democratic primaries -- in San Francisco; Obama speaks to the union via satellite.
Countdown to Dem convention: 25 days
Countdown to GOP convention: 32 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 96 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 173 days
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