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Strategy Memo: Shift Happens

Good Wednesday morning. What do Chris Wallace, Harold Reynolds and David Brooks have in common? They all watched the Washington Nationals commit three errors in the top of the first inning en route to a drubbing. Well, 20,000-some other people watched the same thing, too. Besides a terrible baseball team, here's what Washington is watching today:

-- The Senate is likely to pass a housing measure that would provide a $300 billion pool to prevent mortgage foreclosure, while continuing to confirm a number of judicial nominees long held up by disagreements between top Democrats and the White House. The next battle on which to gear up will be a debate on FISA, with two prominent Democrats promising a filibuster on a provision that would provide immunity to telecom companies. President Bush meets with his national security team at the White House before taking off for Laurel Manor, Michigan, for a fundraising dinner benefiting the Republican National Committee.

-- One is an outlier, two could be the start of a trend. Many dismissed a Newsweek poll out Monday that showed Barack Obama leading by a wide 15-point margin, and their arguments made sense: Nothing really happened in the last few weeks, making John McCain's precipitous drop in support suspect. Now, though, a new LA Times/Bloomberg survey shows McCain trailing by twelve points in a head-to-head matchup, and by fifteen points when former Rep. Bob Barr and independent candidate Ralph Nader are involved. The latest RCP Average has Obama leading by 7.5 points, and that gap is widening. It's been a month since any survey showed the two candidates tied, and more than seven weeks since McCain led a poll.

-- Maybe, though, something did happen in the last few weeks. While the early part of the general election campaign seemed focused on a McCain-led debate about Iraq, the discussion has shifted in recent weeks to arguments over the economy. That's Obama territory: Voters prefer Obama's positions on taxes by a 45%-31% margin and on the economy by a 49%-48% margin. What's more, voters say, by a wide 50%-23% margin, that Obama cares more about people like them. McCain wins on protecting the country from terrorism, by a 49%-32% margin, and on handling the war in Iraq by a mere two points. With the debate shifted away from McCain's foreign policy and security wheelhouse and onto Obama's domestic issue turf, Obama's big lead starts to make more sense.

-- What's more, Obama voters are just more excited, making the prospect of record turnouts look more realistic. 47% of those who back the Illinois Senator are very enthusiastic, while just 13% of McCain voters can say the same thing. That could lead to Republican voters staying home, costing the party not just the White House but down-ballot seats as well. How big is the enthusiasm gap between the parties? Consider that both candidates score a little over 80% of their base (83% of Democrats will vote for Obama, 81% of Republicans for McCain) and that independents in the poll actually favor McCain by a 36%-33% margin. One upshot McCain will have serious problems overcoming: This year, thanks to a depressed GOP brand and an unpopular president, there are just fewer Republicans.

-- Obama will take advantage of his early lead and his large warchest and will initially target fourteen states that cast electoral votes for President Bush in 2004, Politico's Ben Smith writes today. Expect frequent stops in the narrowest of those fourteen states, including Iowa, New Mexico, Ohio and Nevada, along with significant financial commitments in Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Virginia, North Carolina, Montana, North Dakota, Indiana, Georgia and Alaska. That's 147 electoral votes (148 if you count top aide Steve Hildebrand's promise to campaign in Nebraska's Second District) that Republicans carried in 2004, a year the party won just 286 electoral votes. Ohio alone could have put Kerry over the top. Had he targeted, and won, all fourteen listed above, it would have been a 399-139 romp.

-- Perhaps most importantly for Democrats, Obama has said he will send staff to all 50 states, and Hildebrand tells Smith that means he will help down-ballot Democrats take back key seats in states unlikely to give up their electoral votes. What to do with fifteen staffers in Texas? Why not help the state party win back control of the state legislature, something that's going to take five seats in both chambers to pull off. That would give Democrats a much greater hand in redistricting in the Lone Star State, a place where Tom DeLay cost the party a huge number of Congressional seats when he inspired a mid-decade redistricting ahead of the 2004 elections. How about those Wyoming staffers? Congressional candidate Gary Trauner could use the help. Obama, in short, could enter the White House with the strongest Democratic Party in generations at his back.

-- What can John McCain do to not only win, but to stop a bloodbath for his fellow Republicans on other parts of the ballot? Well, not much. But he can make a comeback, and he's by no means out of the race yet. Polls, including the LA Times/Bloomberg survey mentioned above, continue to show most voters don't believe Obama has the experience to be president. So it's up to McCain to hammer away at that sentiment and sew as many doubts as possible. But, as the New York Times' Michael Cohen wisely recalls, it can be easy for the more experienced candidate to overplay his hand: Both President George H.W. Bush referring to Al Gore and Bill Clinton as "bozos" and suggesting his dog Millie knew more about foreign policy, and later, Gore's sighing into the microphone during a key debate, went over stunningly poorly.

-- Lent Hand Of The Day: Obama has asked top donors to help retire a significant portion of Hillary Clinton's outstanding campaign debt, CNN and others reported late yesterday. The move came two days before the two are scheduled to sit down with Clinton's national finance team and three days before they will appear jointly at a rally in Unity, New Hampshire. After what some aides called a productive phone conversation between the two last weekend, Obama wants to help retire $10 million in Clinton debt. That, by the way, is debt to her campaign vendors, not the money Clinton lent her own campaign. It looks like that $11.4 million is essentially gone. Ironic, at all, that McCain-Feingold is the law conservatives most love to hate, but that will also cost Clinton somewhere north of $11.1 million?

-- Today On The Trail: McCain is the second candidate to visit Sin City in two days, stopping at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas for a speech. Later, McCain will open a campaign office and attend fundraisers, one at a country club and one sponsored by consultant Sid Rogich and casino tycoons Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson. Obama's only public event is a press conference outside a Chicago hotel early this afternoon.