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First thoughts: Obama widens lead

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Carrie Dann
*** Obama widens his lead: With 13 days to go, Obama has opened up his biggest lead over McCain in the NBC/WSJ poll, 52%-42%, which is up four points from his lead two weeks ago. This survey -- conducted after the three presidential debates and in the midst of the Colin Powell endorsement -- suggests that these events have made voters more comfortable with the idea of Obama as president. For one thing, 48% say they have confidence in Obama serving as commander in chief, which is nearly identical to the 50% who said the same of McCain. Moreover, 56% say they are either "optimistic or confident" or "satisfied and hopeful" that Obama would do a good job as president; only 44% say that of McCain. And now 55% believe that Obama shares their background and values, which isn't far off from the 57% who believe the same about McCain. Obama never had to best McCain in these categories; he just had to meet a certain threshold with voters, which he has seemed to accomplish in our poll.

VIDEO: Deputy Political Director Mark Murray offers his first read on the latest NBC/WSJ poll, which shows Obama with his widest lead to date.

*** McCain's indie problem: If a political observer jumped into a time machine and traveled from January 2008 to today, he might be startled to see McCain's current performance among independents in the latest NBC/WSJ poll. He trails Obama here by 12 points, 49%-37%. What's striking (and ironic) is that McCain's political brand has been forged by his stature with independents -- and it's what always made him the strongest Republican to run in this cycle. Conversely, McCain is doing very well with the GOP base in the poll. He's winning handily among evangelicals, small town/rural voters, and folks in the South. Did McCain make a miscalculation by trying to please the base -- with Palin, taxes, abortion, judges -- instead of trying to win the middle? As NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D) puts it, "If you don't win the middle in America, you don't win the election." If there is an upside to McCain's focus on the base, it's that it may prevent any electoral landslide.

*** McCain's Palin problem: Speaking of Palin, her numbers have plummeted in our poll. For the first time, she has a net-negative fav/unfav rating (38%-47%), the only principal to carry that distinction. What's more, 55% think she's unqualified to serve as president if the need arises, which is a troublesome number given McCain's age. (Have worries about McCain's age risen because of Palin? Seems to be the case). In fact, her qualifications to be president rank as voters' top concern about a McCain presidency -- ahead of continuing Bush's policies. (Who would have ever thought that Palin would be a bigger problem for McCain than Bush would?) And while inexperience turns out to be voters' top concern about an Obama presidency, it's probably not helpful to the McCain camp that inexperience is now a liability for its ticket, too. If these poll numbers weren't bad enough for Palin, now comes a Politico report noting that the RNC spent more than $150,000 to clothe and accessorize her at high-end stores like Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue -- a story that could further add to the perception that Palin isn't a serious candidate. The campaign released a statement last night that seemed to confirm the report: "With all of the important issues facing the country right now, it's remarkable that we're spending time talking about pantsuits and blouses. It was always the intent that the clothing go to a charitable purpose after the campaign." A few questions here from NBC's Andrea Mitchell: Did the campaign announce that she was donating to clothes to charity because there's a potential tax problem here? And is Palin permitted to accept these kinds of gifts under Alaska ethics laws?

VIDEO: The new NBC/WSJ poll shows that some voters are losing faith with McCain's running mate choice. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

*** What happens when the GOP no longer owns the tax issue? As the McCain camp has spent the past week hammering Obama on the issues of taxes -- and now has a new TV ad on the subject -- it's also striking to find in the NBC/WSJ poll that Obama has a 14-point lead over McCain here (48%-34%). Our guess here is that the Obama campaign's tough health-care attack on McCain ("McCain would tax your benefits for the first time ever, meaning higher income taxes for millions," goes one widely aired Obama ad) has undermined the GOP's traditional tax-and-spend attack on Democratic candidates. Here are some other interesting findings in the poll: Obama has a 30-point lead over McCain on which candidate better offers hope and optimism (53%-23%); a 20-point edge on temperament (50%-30%); and a 20-point lead in improving America's standing in the world (51%-31%). By the way, the percentages of those thinking the country is on the right track (12%), approving Congress' job (12%), and approving Bush's job (27%) have all either reached or tied new lows in our NBC/WSJ poll -- which has now occurred so many times now that it's really not news anymore.

*** McCain Meets The Press: McCain will have an opportunity to answer questions about these poll numbers -- and tons of other issues -- when he and Palin sit down for an interview with Brian Williams, which will air tonight on NBC's Nightly News. Also, on Sunday from Iowa, McCain will appear on NBC's Meet the Press. It will be his first appearance on the show since right before his decisive Florida primary victory.

*** Draper-ing the campaign curtains: First Read got its hands on Robert Draper's upcoming Sunday New York Times Magazine cover story about the McCain campaign. For those following the campaign very closely, there's not a lot of news here (though the voice coach nugget and the Alaska cloak-and-dagger stuff is a great read). But what makes it feel new is how the piece is put together. It provides the framework for the CW campaign-obit, if he loses: McCain couldn't find a reason to be president. He could never make the "why" case -- which just turns out to be a similar problem that hampered Obama's other opponent, Hillary Clinton. The other parallel between McCain and Clinton isn't just message trouble, but also a seemingly lack of focus on simple campaign blocking and tackling. After you read this piece, ask yourself: Where's the McCain campaign's concern about organization, about turnout, about a path to 270? Who on the campaign woke up everyday wondering, "How are we going to find the votes to beat Obama today?" Not the message, but the votes. That's been the advantage Obama had over Clinton -- and now McCain. Obama has had a two-headed David leadership monster: Axelrod on message and Plouffe worrying about the numbers. One can't succeed without the other.

*** McCain's path to 270: So many pundits and analysts are wondering why McCain is continuing to push for Iowa and Pennsylvania, despite the daunting poll numbers in those two states. There are two reasons. First, he's run out of options. If you assume Colorado is gone and that Virginia is teetering, he has to find 270 EVs somewhere. Second, Iowa and Pennsylvania are two of the oldest states in the union, as far as the age of their populations. Both states have tons of seniors, and if McCain can turn things around again with seniors, he should see movement first in these two states. Simply put, the campaign doesn't have a lot of options; it's not worth attempting to hold states that get McCain to 250 or 260 electoral votes. The game is getting to 270, and Iowa and Pennsylvania may be his last hope at keeping a path to 270 alive.

*** Fun fact(s) of the day: A lot of attention is paid to Ohio this time of year, and with good reason: Only twice back to 1900 has the Buckeye State not picked the president> But two other states -- Missouri and Nevada -- also are bellwethers. Since 1912, Nevada has gotten it right every year -- except once when it sided with Ford over Carter in 1976 (as did the rest of the West). Missouri, however, has the longest streak of picking the president, and it has done so in every election since 1960. In fact, aside from 1956 (when Adlai Stevenson won the state by just 0.22%), Show-Me Staters voted for the winner in every election all the way back to 1904. As far as Ohio goes, no Republican has ever won the presidency without winning the state, and only two Democrats did so in the 20th Century -- Kennedy in 1960 and FDR in '44.

*** On the trail: McCain begins his day campaigning in New Hampshire before heading to Ohio, where he holds joint rallies with Palin in Green and then Cincinnati. Obama is in Virginia, attending rallies in Richmond and Leesburg. Biden continues to campaign in Colorado. Palin, in addition to her joint events with McCain, holds a solo rally in Findlay, OH. And Michelle Obama stumps for her husband in Florida.
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 13 days
Countdown to Electoral Vote Count: 78 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 90 days
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