From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Carrie Dann
*** Obama at 264: A week after Obama's poll numbers spiked in battleground states and after McCain's campaign announced it was retreating from Michigan, Obama has opened up a nearly 100-point electoral-vote lead, according to NBC's new map. Obama now has a 264-174 advantage over McCain, up from his 212-174 edge last week. The changes are all in Obama's direction: We've moved Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin from Toss-up to Lean Obama. Also, every single Toss-up state is now a red state, and we are close to moving another red state -- Missouri -- to the Toss-up column. But let's remember: This is where the RACE IS RIGHT NOW, not where we expect the race to be in a month. And we move a state into lean when we believe there's significant evidence based on our reporting and a few of the public polls (we trust) that a candidate has a lead of five points or more.
Likely Obama: CA, CT, DE, DC, HI, IL, ME, MD, MA, NY, RI, VT (157 electoral votes)
Lean Obama: IA, MI, MN, NH, NJ, NM, OR, PA, WA, WI (107 votes)
Toss-up: CO, FL, IN, NV, NC, OH, VA (100 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)
*** The Path to winning: Per our map, to reach 270, Obama has to hold on to the Kerry states -- winning New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin -- and pick up just one more state other than Nevada (which would get him to 269 and send the election to the House). Here's McCain's challenge: If he's unable to turn a blue state red, then he has to win EVERY SINGLE Toss-up to get to 270. It's doable, but it's also the poker equivalent of drawing an inside straight. Also, not only does McCain share Vietnam veteran status with the last two Democratic nominees for president (Gore and Kerry); he also shares the need for a similar Electoral College strategy. At this point in the campaign in both 2000 and 2004, Gore and Kerry seemed to have limited room to maneuver in the states. Gore pulled out of Ohio (about this time) to focus on Florida, and Kerry pulled out of Missouri to focus on Ohio. McCain's pullout of Michigan has the same feel to it -- meaning it's not a bad strategy given the circumstances. The fact is, like Gore and Kerry, McCain's got a narrow path to 270, which explains why Sarah Palin was in Omaha yesterday and why there is more money being thrown into Maine. McCain's campaign is not playing for a big win, just any win. And while both Kerry and Gore did end up losing, it was VERY close. When the environment is against you, it's not a bad strategy.
*** Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania: If there is one blue state the McCain campaign may never give up on, it's the Keystone State. Of all the Kerry blue states, it's the most competitive -- even right now at a time that appears to be Obama's high-water mark. Of the remaining blue states in play, Pennsylvania may be the most culturally sensitive and may explain why the McCain folks want to shift the debate a bit to character (see below). Shifting the campaign to character isn't about changing the national narrative; it's about keeping the undecided column larger in Pennsylvania. Now, the character strategy could backfire in a Florida or even a Nevada or Colorado. But Pennsylvania, by the numbers, is worth it to McCain. Speaking of state-by-state strategies, anyone remember the last time Obama was in Ohio?
*** To Ayers is human: The good news for the McCain campaign is that by using Palin to conduct the attack, the Ayers hit on Obama got an airing over the weekend that it hasn't received in months. (And she'll do it again today, per remarks released by the McCain campaign.) But by unleashing a principal to conduct the attack, the campaign is being about as transparent as it could be: This could be their last shot to change the contours of the race. What if Ayers had been a part of the character attack the McCain camp was conducting a few months ago? (Remember Paris and Britney?). So is this the only choice McCain has right now, given the circumstances of this race? Is creating character questions the only way -- or do voters already have some questions about Obama and they want more from McCain? By the way, while Palin's Ayers line got all the attention this weekend, wasn't this line the tougher attack: "This is not a man who sees America as you see it and as I see America"?
*** Tipping your hand: Also, who in McCain Land keeps saying these things on background? "It's a dangerous road, but we have no choice," a top McCain strategist told the New York Daily News. "If we keep talking about the economic crisis, we're going to lose." These lines have been gold for the Obama talking-point memos. This is the big criticism the McCain camp has received this weekend -- why are they telegraphing their attacks and telegraphing their state-by-state decisions? Of course, Michigan Republicans could have been the ones to initially leak the McCain pullout rumor, hoping they could guilt the McCain campaign from actually doing it. Oops.
*** And here comes Keating: Remember the M.A.D. (mutually assured destruction) nuclear policy with the Soviets? Well, the Obama camp is indicating they'll "go there" if McCain wants to "go there." Today, it's launching a multimedia campaign to resurrect McCain's involvement with the Keating Five saving-and-loan scandal. The question we've got: Whom will the voters punish for the negativity? The Obama camp is gambling that McCain will get blamed for starting this fight. We'll see. Obama's brand could be just as tarnished if he's seen as being too negative, and we've seen what the negative campaign has done to McCain's image lately.
*** Health care returns: Ayres and Keating haven't been the only attacks. Over the weekend, Team Obama went after McCain on the topic of health care, charging that McCain's plan amounts to a tax increase on employees who get coverage from employers. As a tactic, this has been a fairly artful hit on McCain. Of course, as fact-checkers have pointed out, the attack is more false than truth. But as for the tactic, the Obama campaign has been pushing pivoting to health care for a week, hoping to be seen as the candidate of the middle ground on the issue. First, he started running an ad about health care that emphasized he was in the middle on the issue; now, the campaign is unleashing this attack on McCain's plan that attempts to paint his health care philosophy as "radical." He's put McCain on the defensive on the issue and it's an issue that was already breaking toward the Democrats.
*** License and registration: Today is a big day in battleground state land… It's the final day to register to vote in many important states. This is Part One of the Obama strategy of changing the electorates in places like Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia. It appears the Obama effort to add more Dem voters to the rolls has worked. Part Two of his plan is to figure out how to get these new voters to vote.
*** Biden off the campaign trail: Per NBC/NJ's Mike Memoli, Biden has canceled his schedule through at least Tuesday following the death of his mother in law, Bonny Jean Jacobs, after a long illness. Joe and Jill Biden remain in Delaware. "Other details will follow," said spokesman David Wade, "but we appreciate everyone's respect for the family's privacy during this difficult time." Palin spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt released this statement: "Gov. Palin sends her condolences to Jill and Joe Biden and their entire family following the passing of Jill's mother, Bonnie Jacobs. Her thoughts and prayers are with the Bidens' during this sad time."
*** On the trail: McCain holds a rally in Albuquerque, NM. Obama continues his debate prep in Asheville, NC. Palin, in Florida, has rallies in Clearwater and Estero before hitting a fundraiser in Boca Raton.
Countdown to the second presidential debate: 1 day
Countdown to the third presidential debate: 9 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 29 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 106 days
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