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First thoughts: When race is an issue

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** When race is an issue: Let's get something straight: Anytime race is THE topic du jour in the campaign, it's a bad day for Obama. Period. There are a lot of voters out there who don't want to have their vote judged through the prism of race. (If somehow a swing voter in Ohio, Pennsylvania or Michigan is made to feel that voting against Obama will make them a racist, they'll be resentful.) While today's papers are filled with "who played the race card first?" allegations between the two campaigns, know this fact: The Obama campaign doesn't want the race issue to become an overarching theme of the campaign. How do we know this? Check out the very defensive Obama campaign response to Rick Davis's sledgehammer against Obama. So as you follow this back-and-forth, it's worth knowing the Obama campaign is going to do their best to downplay race, and the McCain campaign is going to walk a line on the issue. They certainly know if they look like they are injecting it into the campaign, it'll cost them with swing women voters -- but they also know McCain could benefit from a backlash. The thing that galls McCain and many Republicans is what they believe is a double standard. They don't understand how Obama and Dems in general get away with playing the race card to fire up black voters without getting called on it. It's messy politics and catnip for the media, but the cold hard analysis is the cold hard analysis.

VIDEO: As the fallout from the McCain campaign's "Celeb" attack ad continues, the new attack from John McCain is the claim that Barack Obama is repeatedly playing the race card when he points out that McCain wants voters to notice that he doesn't look like past presidents. Newsweek's Howard Fineman discusses.

*** The bear hug: When the McCain folks hit "Send" on that Rick Davis email at 11:46 am ET charging the Obama campaign with playing the race card, what it did was knock Obama's message of the day -- hitting McCain on Exxon's quarterly profits -- off the political front burner. (After all, what are we talking about today? Exxon? Or race?) And in a way, it appears that the larger strategy behind the negative ads, Britney and Paris, Landstuhl, etc., is to knock Obama off his message of the day and keep him busy responding to these charges. Compare this week, for instance, with last week, when Obama controlled the message. As the McCain campaign and RNC folks are touting, they've won the week, if you count winning the week as controlling the message (by the way, check out how many views the "Celeb" ad has gotten on YouTube). To use a boxing analogy, McCain is putting Obama into a bear hug -- making it nearly impossible for the Illinois senator to move (in the polls?) or land a punch. But as a big boxing aficionado, McCain also must realize that the fans often don't take too kindly to boxers who constantly bear hug their opponent. And at some point, the refs break up the bear hugging and the boxing match is forced. But for now, the McCain campaign appears to have a way to knock Obama off message. The only problem for McCain, he's still not on any message of his own, other than "not-Obama." The campaign believes their energy message did break through. Time will tell.

*** The Clinton story will never go away: One interesting development in this race card story is that Howard Wolfson seemed to back up the McCain campaign's argument for sending out yesterday's statement. "I think the McCain camp watched our primary on the Democratic side very carefully and they know that any accusation of racial divisiveness can be very, very harmful for a candidate's prospects," he said. "They heard something that Sen. Obama said and they felt they had to respond quickly to make sure that nobody got the impression that they were engaged in those kind of racial politics." And when you combine Wolfson's remarks with the fact that some Clinton supporters are pushing for a platform at the Dem convention stating that Clinton's candidacy exposed gender bias in the media, it could be an interesting day on the Dem blogs. Just asking: If Obama had lost, would there have been a push in the Dem platform to add a line that claimed the primary results exposed "pervasive racial bias in the media"? 

*** Meet Charlie Crist: With McCain (and Obama) in Florida today, our latest veep profile is of the recently engaged Florida Gov. Charlie Crist… His first job out of law school -- after three tries at the Florida bar -- was as general counsel of Minor League Baseball... Nicknamed "Chain Gang Charlie" for sponsoring legislation to bring back shackles to Florida prisons... Swims 20 laps, does 250 crunches, and usually eats just one meal a day... In high school, he was starting quarterback and class president; at Florida State, he was homecoming king and VP of the student body... Crist is largely credited with helping McCain win Florida, but his centrism -- which makes him popular in Florida -- could hurt the Arizona senator among conservatives, if Crist is picked as veep. His stance on abortion is unclear (though he claims to be "pro-life"); he's "fine" with civil unions; opposed NAFTA in a 1998 questionnaire (though he claims to be "for free and fair trade")... And he's only been governor for about a year and a half.

*** Poking Big Labor: The front page of today's Wall Street Journal is a shot across Big Labor's bow. The news that Wal-Mart is overtly warning its employees that an election of a Democratic president could result in unwanted unionization of the big chain (and perhaps other businesses) is going to make the labor movement both excited and nervous all at the same time. Make no mistake: Big business is VERY nervous that a 60-seat Senate, coupled with a 250-member Dem House and a Dem president, will mean labor laws will be eased to the point that unionization will become easier again. It's a recurring worry we've been hearing from business, and the one thing that's keeping them from trying to have it both ways with the Democrats. Wal-Mart's decision -- which obviously wasn't meant to be shared in the media -- will serve as a spark to get Big Labor even more fired up. The irony to all this is that the guy at the top of the ticket who may benefit from this enormous financial push by labor was the third choice out of three in the Dem primary. Both Clinton and Edwards had more initial labor support in the primaries than Obama.

VIDEO: Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, pleads not guilty to seven felony charges. NBC's Pete Williams has the details.

*** Talk about an October surprise: So is the embattled Ted Stevens actively working against his party? The senator, up for re-election in November, has successfully pushed for an expedited trial in October. Does Stevens realize how much attention his trial will get in the Alaska papers? Sure, he may be found not guilty, and that's apparently the gamble. But wow -- this is about the last thing the GOP needs. A guilty verdict in October would be devastating, not just to Stevens but also to the entire party. Ask Mitch McConnell if he wants a Stevens guilty verdict used in his surprisingly tough race in Kentucky? Ditto Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina…

*** This doesn't really help the GOP, either: Endangered Sen. Gordon Smith (R) or Oregon is up with another TV ad, praising Democrats -- this one notes his bipartisan efforts with John Kerry and Barack Obama. An earlier ad of his mentioned Obama. Is this the final sign that Oregon won't be in play for McCain come November? 
*** On the trail: Both candidates are in the Sunshine State. McCain gives the keynote address at National Urban League conference in Orlando; later he's in Panama City, where he holds his first media avail in eight days, hits a fundraiser, and then stops by a "Country First" concert with John Rich. Meanwhile, Obama holds another economic security town hall in St. Petersburg and then attends an organizing meeting in Orlando. 
Countdown to Dem convention: 24 days
Countdown to GOP convention: 31 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 95 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 172 days
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