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First thoughts: A shift toward Obama

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Carrie Dann
*** A shift towards Obama: As the slew of recent national and state polls suggest, our new map reflects a shift in Obama's direction. Four new states have been added to our Toss-up category: three red states (Florida, Indiana, and North Carolina) and one blue state (Pennsylvania). This gives Obama a 212-174 edge, after his more narrow 233-227 lead last week. What's interesting about these shifts is that while Obama is showing an improvement in fast-growing states (CO, FL, NV, NC, VA), he can't seem to put away the Northern tier states of slow-growing states (MI, PA, WI) or make progress in what some believe is still the all-important state of OH. BTW, how is it that, nationally, Obama's numbers are going up but he's struggling in big states like MI, PA and OH? Is this about Obama's inability to make the sale with older white voters? If he can change the electorates in these Southern and Western states, he can afford to lose two of those three industrial states, but it puts more pressure on him to win two of the following three: FL, NC and VA.
Likely Obama: CA, CT, DE, DC, HI, IL, ME, MD, MA, NY, RI, VT (157 electoral votes)
Lean Obama: IA, MN, NJ, NM OR, WA (55 votes)
Toss-up: CO, FL, IN, MI, NV, NH, NC, OH, PA, VA, WI (152 votes)
Lean McCain: MO, MT (14 votes)
Likely McCain: AL, AK, AZ, AR, GA, ID, KS, KY, LA, MS, NE, ND, OK, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, WV, WY (160 votes)

*** Hoosier toss-up: The most surprising move in our map is Indiana, a state that no one believed was a new battleground -- even when Obama's team was first laying out its 25-30 state strategy. Indiana, in fact, is probably the surprise of the cycle. It's a state that probably is somewhere BETWEEN Lean McCain and Toss-up, but because the state's poll numbers look more like a Toss-up state than a Lean McCain state, we're tipping it into the Toss-up category for now, especially since the RNC has decided to ad the state to its TV buy list.

*** Could election night end at midnight: With the Toss-up list expanding at this point in the campaign, it gives the opportunity for either candidate to end up winning somewhat comfortably in the Electoral College. In the last two elections, the candidates basically split the final Toss-up states in half. Two weeks ago, we appeared to be on a similar trajectory. Today, that doesn't seem to be the case. The one thing the public may have learned about the candidates is that the two have VERY divergent worldviews. There's a bright line between these two candidates; it's not a case where both are trying to blur their views.

*** Bill is back … back again … Bill is back … tell a friend:

The 42nd president did it again: He's put into doubt how much he really supports Obama. His non-response about whether Obama -- like McCain -- was a "great man" made some wonder if Meet The Press was running the Darrell Hammond SNL parody yesterday rather than the actual Bill Clinton. Seriously, watch Hammond and Clinton side-by-side on the issue of Obama, you can't make it up.

*** Losing the mo': At the end of August, it appeared McCain had the momentum in the presidential race. And a month later? Well, just look at today's rough day for McCain in the op-ed pages. Left-leaning EJ Dionne declares that the Arizona senator lost the month of September; Paul Krugman (normally left-leaning but hardly an Obama fan) writes that McCain "scares me" if the next president has to answer a 3:00 am phone call on the economy; Fareed Zakaria bluntly says that Palin isn't qualified to be VP; and even McCain friend Bill Kristol admits that McCain "is on course to lose the presidential election." So how does McCain get his groove back? Whenever the pressure's been on McCain to change the trajectory of the race, he's figured out a way -- so get ready for a wild week. We're guessing lots of stuff is going to get thrown on the wall to see what sticks. Kristol, perhaps the most listened to of the McCain backseat drivers, even suggests (among other things) playing the Jeremiah Wright card.

*** Do we have a winner? On Friday night, it wasn't clear who won the debate. For as many people who thought McCain won, there was a smart analyst who picked Obama. But three days later, it's McCain -- as we mention above -- who's dealing with how-does-he-turn-things-around? stories, not Obama. And it's Obama who is receiving a poll bump. We're not fans of insta-debate polls, nor weekend tracking polls. But every single one of them shows movement in Obama's direction. Could it be that voters were judging Friday night's debate in the is-he-ready? prism? It's the most logical explanation for the Obama bump, even when arguably, on a point-by-point scoring system, McCain may have gotten the best of Obama on debate night.

*** It's Palin's week, we're just lucky to cover it: Palin's political future is on the line this week. This isn't about Palin performing well enough at the debate to stop the conservative chattering class from wringing its hands; this is about Palin's future national prospects period. Three weeks ago, she was being called the next Reagan. Now the campaign would be satisfied if she could at least be compared favorably to Quayle. But those are "treading water' expectations.

Video: With Obama and McCain having tussled over economic and foreign policy in their first debate, Sarah Palin now faces scrutiny for her grasp of the same issues in her upcoming forum with Joe Biden. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

If she's got true ambition to be the future leader of the Republican Party, she's got to pull out of this perception tailspin and fast. Perhaps it is getting close to being too late: With SNL, Tina Fey, and now the conservative elites, the concrete is drying around Palin's feet. The good news for her is that a record number of people apparently want to watch her debate Joe Biden. She'll have a good chunk of folks watching the debate who are downright rooting for her to not to screw up. A poor performance at the debate and not only will Palin start becoming a true liability for the McCain campaign, she'll damage her ability to transition into a national leader.

*** Four out of five experts agree…: Whatever happens Thursday, you'll know it's a good night for her if a viewer can easily ascertain an issue Palin appears to be an expert on. The campaign wants her to be the energy person, but they've actually done little to reinforce her credentials. She hasn't spent time at key energy symbols (oil rigs, nuclear plants etc.), nor has she spent time with energy reporters. Today is only a taste of the Palin backseat driving the campaign is going to be dealing with in the run-up to Thursday.
*** On the trail: McCain and Palin hold a rally in Columbus, OH. Obama campaigns in Denver, CO. And Biden is down in Wilmington, DE.
Countdown to the vice presidential debate: 3 days
Countdown to the second presidential debate 8 days
Countdown to the third presidential debate: 16 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 36 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 113 days
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