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First thoughts: The Olympics lull

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** The Olympics lull: Now we've entered the real lull in the presidential race. Not only is it August, but the Olympics officially start today and Obama begins a weeklong vacation to Hawaii. But, as you've probably guessed, the race won't completely come to a standstill. For one thing, McCain will campaign today in Iowa, and Hillary Clinton picks up the slack for the vacationing Obama by stumping in battleground Nevada, a contest she won back in January. And both McCain and Obama will be running TV ads on the Olympics. Here's Obama's ad, which focuses on the economy and energy (and has background music reminding us of his Super Bowl ad): "The hands that built this nation can build a new economy. The hands that harvest crops can also harvest the wind. The hands that install roofs can also install solar panels. The hands that build today's cars can build the next generation of fuel-efficient vehicles. Barack Obama. A new vision for our economy. Fast track alternative fuels. Create five million jobs developing home-grown energy technologies because America's future is in our hands."

*** I feel good … I knew that I would now: While the overall political environment remains bleak for Republicans, they're starting to feel much better than they have in a long time. Peggy Noonan is the latest to express this sentiment: "For the first time the idea began to take hold that John McCain can win this thing. You saw the USA Today-Gallup poll this week, with Mr. McCain gaining six points since late June among those Gallup dubbed likely voters. Mr. McCain took the lead, 49% to 45%. Among registered voters, it's still Barack Obama, 47% to 44%. A poll came out saying people are tired of hearing about Mr. Obama. Mr. McCain took the lead in YouTube hits. Small stuff, and there will be a lot of twists and turns before this is over, but there's movement down there beneath the crust of the Earth." Of course, that USA Today/Gallup poll is the ONLY major national poll that has shown McCain with a lead; the rest have him down, often in the mid-single digits. The question for Republicans is whether this is as good as it gets -- like a losing basketball team cutting a lead down to single digits, before eventually getting routed -- or whether it's the beginning of a comeback. We won't know the answer until after the conventions. But if this is the low point for Obama, and McCain is still behind, that isn't necessarily good news for the GOP. But attitude is an important thing, and we also sense the optimism with Republicans for the first time in months. Remember the groundskeeper in "Major League" who couldn't speak English? One can sense some Republican backseat drivers of the McCain campaign are muttering, "they're not so s*#@**&"

VIDEO: NBC Political Director Chuck Todd gives his first read on Bill Clinton's role at the Democratic convention and Hillary Clinton's first solo campaign trip stumping for Obama.

*** No more drama? Is the Clinton-Obama drama finally coming to an end? NBC's Andrea Mitchell reported last night that the Obama folks had offered Bill Clinton a prime-time speaking slot at the convention. Mitchell adds that Obama campaign officials insist it was never in doubt that Bill would speak, but it was only after Obama reached out and called the former president himself that a prime-time speech for Clinton was confirmed. The speech is likely to come Wednesday night, probably early evening, not necessarily in the 10:00 pm ET hour when the VP candidate is expected to speak. But imagine this: What if it's Bill Clinton who nominates Obama? Two questions remain unresolved. One, will Hillary submit her name, in writing, to be on the ballot? And two, will any more news come out from Clinton Land about Obama that could put the entire relationship in question again -- say a national magazine article to come out next week that has uncovered about 200 internal Clinton campaign memos discussing Obama and campaign strategy?

*** The fundraising mess: As expected, McCain decided to return some money yesterday involving the sub-bundler used by uber-bundler Harry Sargeant. Now one thing the Clinton and Obama campaigns will probably advise the McCain folks is that once you start returning SOME money, you'll end up having to return ALL of it at some point. It's amazing how many campaigns always think they can return some money and somehow hope that's enough. Obama tried it with Rezko and ended up having to return an even greater sum at a later date. Ditto for Clinton and Norman Hsu. Can McCain use the Olympics lull to avoid returning more Sargeant money money? It's possible, but history suggests otherwise.

*** And the Detroit mess: One of the intangibles in McCain's favor in Michigan has to do with the political mess that surrounds Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Obama obviously needs to do well in Detroit and the surrounding suburbs to win Michigan. It doesn't help his cause that he can't even visit the area without potentially having to be asked about the Kilpatrick issue. It's a distraction on a number of levels, and the McCain folks believe it's just one of the odd intangibles in their favor which could help them pull the upset in a state Republicans haven't carried in two decades. That said, Obama is probably lucky the Kilpatrick news occurred now and not in October…

*** Cohen wins: Facing tons of negativity -- Ku Klux Klan images, less-than-subtle references to his Jewish faith -- incumbent Rep. Steve Cohen (who is white) easily won his primary against challenger Nikki Tinker (who is black) in yesterday's Democratic primary in a majority-black congressional seat in Memphis, TN. Obama even weighed in on the race yesterday, saying in a statement that Tinker's "incendiary and personal attacks have no place in our politics, and will do nothing to help the good people of Tennessee. It's time to turn the page on a politics driven by negativity and division so that we can come together to lift up our communities and our country." However, the Cohen folks weren't all that pleased that Obama never endorsed Cohen over Tinker.

*** On the trail: The butter cow is back! McCain is in Des Moines, where he attends the Iowa State Fair and later attends a fundraiser. He then heads to Arkansas, where he holds a media avail and raises money. Obama travels to Hawaii for his weeklong vacation there. And Hillary Clinton stumps for Obama in Henderson, NV.

Countdown to Dem convention: 17 days
Countdown to GOP convention: 24 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 88 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 165 days
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