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First thoughts: All eyes on Congress

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Carrie Dann
*** All eyes on Congress: Who knew that in the week preceding the first presidential debate -- on the subject of foreign policy! -- that Congress would be dominating and driving the political debate. Obviously, the bailout politics are tricky. The leadership of both parties in Congress seems ready to sign off on the Paulson/Bernanke bailout plan, but the rank-and-file want to extract something from the Administration and Wall Street. Moreover, congressional Democrats fear being the party of the bailout. (If 100-plus House Republicans come out against the bailout, does that make it harder for the Dem leadership to keep their troops in line?) Is there going to be a magic number Nancy Pelosi tells John Boehner and the White House that the GOP needs to get this done by the weekend? And what about the presidential candidates? How much power does McCain have in this? If he comes out against the bailout, he probably can kill it or radically alter it. But then the Republicans own the alternative, right? What a mess. Meanwhile, without fanfare, congressional Dems are allowing the oil-drilling moratorium to expire. Cave, baby, cave. Rural Democrats in tough House races are breathing a sigh of relief this morning.

Video: NBC Political Director Chuck Todd gives his first read on McCain campaign manager Rick Davis' connection to Freddie Mac and looks at a new NBC poll in Virginia.

*** Here's your Obama bounce, part II? The latest Washington Post/ABC poll has Obama with a clear nine-point lead nationally over McCain, 52%-43% -- fueled by the current concerns about the economy. "More voters trust Obama to deal with the economy, and he currently has a big edge as the candidate who is more in tune with the economic problems Americans now face. He also has a double-digit advantage on handling the current problems on Wall Street, and as a result, there has been a rise in his overall support." In addition, a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey has Obama leading McCain 47%-35% among registered voters on the question of who would do a better job handling the economic troubles. Heads up: The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal comes out tonight at 6:30 pm ET. Will it match these numbers or show something else? By the way, what moves numbers more in the polls -- voters changing their minds or the number of Democrats vs. Republicans that are included in the sample? You know the answer.

*** Don't throw stones if you live in a glass house: Are the McCain folks now re-thinking their hit last week tying Fannie Mae's Frank Raines and Jim Johnson to Obama? The New York Times reports that Freddie Mac paid the firm that carries the name of McCain campaign manager Rick Davis $15,000 a month from the end of 2005 through last month. The McCain camp tells First Read that Davis left his firm and stopped taking salary from it in 2006, and that Davis was never a lobbyist for Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. But here are the facts: Davis' name remains attached to the firm; he continues to have an equity stake in it (though equity stakes on consulting firms are sometimes worthless; then again, the firm could market Rick's name); and it now appears that McCain misspoke when he told John Harwood of CNBC and the New York Times that Davis had no involvement with either Fannie or Freddie in the past several years. The good news for the McCain campaign is that Davis didn't seem to influence McCain, given that the Arizona senator co-sponsored legislation to regulate Fannie and Freddie. The bad news: They no longer can legitimately tie those institutions to Obama without being called out for hypocrisy. This has always been the risk for McCain when he chose to have two of Washington's more well-known power players -- Davis and Charlie Black -- at the top of his campaign pyramid. Their status in DC can undermine McCain's anti-Washington message, on which he's now betting the house. Lucky for the campaign, McCain's brand is better established than Davis or Black. And neither campaign is clean on the Washington insider stuff. 

*** Virginia is for lovers of a close race: The latest TODAY Show/NBC/Mason-Dixon poll has McCain ahead by three points in Virginia, 47%-44%. To see the difference between winning and losing in the Old Dominion, check out these numbers in the poll: Obama wins Northern Virginia by a 55%-37% margin, while McCain wins the crucial Hampton Roads area by 48%-44%. But in the recent Washington Post/ABC survey, which had Obama leading in Virginia by three points among likely voters, Obama was at 59% in Northern Virginia and was up 50%-45% in Hampton Roads. This tells you that if Obama does get to 60% in NoVa, he just might win the state even if he loses every other region. But Hampton Roads may very well be the ballgame in the state. By the way, it's worth noting in the TODAY/NBC/Mason-Dixon poll that 58% of undecided voters in the presidential contest are backing Democratic Senate candidate Mark Warner, who leads Republican Jim Gilmore 61%-28% in the poll. Can Obama reel in more of those Warner voters? Will Warner risk alienating any of those wavering presidential Democrats by using his political capital to campaign heavily for Obama in places where Obama isn't doing well by Warner is?

*** Below the radar: While Wall Street's troubles and the debate over the size and scope of a bailout are dominating the national headlines and cable TV, the campaigns are still doing plenty state-by-state basis that's below the radar. For instance, the Obama camp went up with a TV ad in Michigan hitting McCain on his family's 13 cars (three of which are foreign owned), and it also is airing a Social Security attack on McCain in West Palm Beach, FL. Meanwhile, the McCain campaign is making political hay out of Biden's gaffe on clean coal in coal-producing battlegrounds like Virginia. And sticking with the "under-the-radar" theme, the New York Times sent a reporter to Michigan and he noticed a lot of suburban cable attack ads that even use Rev. Wright against Obama.

*** A tale of two VPs: Speaking of that Biden gaffe on clean coal -- saying that the Obama-Biden ticket opposes it when Obama has a clear record supporting it -- the last 48 hours haven't been kind to the Delaware Democrat. We found out that he criticized an Obama campaign ad; he said that people watched FDR on TV during the Great Depression (when the television hadn't even been invented yet); and Obama even seemed to rebuke his running mate for initially opposing the AIG bailout. Meanwhile, Palin is getting plenty of negative attention for restricting media access to an innocent camera spray of her meeting yesterday with Karzai of Afghanistan. In way, Biden and Palin represent two extremes: One gives way too much access and commits gaffes in the process, while the other gives almost no access at all, which opens her up to suggestions that she might not be ready for prime time. While it appears the Obama campaign is attempting to restrict some access to Biden, there's no evidence the McCain campaign wants to open up things at all with Palin.

*** Obama ramping up his ad spending: Here's one other thing worth pointing out today: Liberal-leaning Talking Points Memo reports that Obama's overall ad spending has increased 50% in the past two weeks, while McCain's has remained steady. "In the week ending Sept. 21, Obama spent $9.4 million on TV ads in roughly 15 states, up from $6.5 million in the week that ended two weeks ago, Evan Tracey, who tracks national ad buys for the Campaign Media Analysis Group, tells me. Tracey's analysis is based on fresh data he obtained [yesterday] afternoon. Obama's increased spending -- which has gone up at the rate of over 20% per week over the past three weeks -- is largely fueled by boosts in spending in Florida, Colorado, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, according to Tracey." More: "In contrast to Obama's ratcheted up spending, his data shows, McCain's outlay has held steady at around $7.5 million in roughly a dozen states -- a number that Obama's expenditures have now surpassed." And something's up in Indiana -- lots of evidence that a Republican ad buy in the Hoosier state is coming, either from the McCain campaign, the RNC independent expenditure, or the RNC-McCain joint committee.

*** On the trail: In New York, McCain meets with the leaders of Georgia and Ukraine, chats with Bono, tapes an interview with Letterman, and then visits with India's prime minister. Obama, in between debate preparation, holds a rally in Dunedin, FL. Palin joins McCain to meet with the leaders of Georgia and Ukraine, Bono and India's prime minister, and she also visits separately with Iraqi President Talabani and Pakistan President Zardari. Biden stumps in Cincinnati, OH and Jeffersonville, IN. And Michelle Obama is in Pennsylvania, stopping in Allentown and Philadelphia.

Countdown to the first presidential debate: 2 days
Countdown to the vice presidential debate: 10 days
Countdown to the second presidential debate 13 days
Countdown to the third presidential debate: 21 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 41 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 118 days
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