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Strategy Memo: Back On Top(ic)

Good Monday morning. We're back from our mini-break, and with a week to go before the Democratic National Conventions, we're expecting a busy stretch run to November. Here's what Washington is watching today:

-- We didn't miss much last week, save an international crisis that could have a lasting impact on the presidential contest. With Russian troops apparently pulling out of disputed Georgian territories under a ceasefire negotiated by France and the U.S., full-blown and uncontrollable war has been averted, for the moment. But the skirmish did have an impact; it forced John McCain and Barack Obama's campaigns off message, and off the economy, for a whole week. In the end, that helped McCain a lot more than it hurt.

-- As Russian tanks and troops marched into South Ossetia, McCain's warnings about Moscow's intentions came flooding back, and his strong statements all week gave a glimpse into his approach to a foreign crisis as president. That's something a candidate can only hope to give voters, and McCain's authority on the subject, his knowledge of the area and his history of caution about Russia served him well. Too, it refocused the debate from the economy to foreign policy, at least in the minds of the editorial columnists at the major papers, and therefore off a McCain weakness toward a McCain strength.

-- For Obama, the Georgia crisis was also a positive, in that it gave the campaign a chance to learn without screwing up. Consider it a test run: Their candidate was on vacation, through a fault only of bad timing. Their candidate issued a series of statements on the matter, taking an increasingly harsh tone toward Russia. And their candidate got the chance to make contact with the embattled country's president, Mikhail Saakashvili. The next time there's a foreign crisis that could be a game-changer in a bigger way than the Georgian conflict -- and each campaign has contingency plans for such events -- the Obama campaign will have at least some experience, and will be able to react forcefully either way.

-- That test may be at hand already: Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has resigned ahead of impeachment proceedings that would have stripped the leader of his office, the New York Times writes this morning. Nine years after taking power in a coup, and after ushering his country into the nuclear club, Musharraf denied wrongdoing but handed power to a coalition of parties who will choose his successor. Both Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto's widower, and Nawaz Sharif, the head of state Musharraf deposed almost a decade ago, are considered contenders. Whether either would be as strong an American ally as Musharraf is unlikely, while the kind of control they would assert over tribal territories on the western border also remains to be seen.

-- How would McCain or Obama approach a new Pakistani leadership? The country has nukes along with 165 million people, not all of whom are major fans of the U.S. Too, both McCain and Obama have promised to track down Osama bin Laden (McCain says he'll follow bin Laden "to the gates of hell"), and as likely as not the al Qaeda leader is on the Pakistan side of the border with Afghanistan at any given time. How much pressure would they exert? How far would they go inside Pakistan's borders? It's an issue over which the two skirmished in February, with McCain accusing Obama of willingness to bomb the allied nation without their permission. Watch the issue come up in a debate focused on foreign policy in the coming months.

-- The big winner in the recent focus on Georgia and Pakistan: Joe Biden. Every other top vice presidential contender was on television this weekend except the Delaware Senator, who spent his time on his way to Georgia to meet with top leaders, the Times' John Broder writes. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman joined colleages Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman -- McCain supporters, both -- in the country over the weekend. The difference, though, is that Saakashvili actually invited Biden by name, making his stock in the vice presidential sweepstakes shoot through the roof. If voters aren't happy with Obama's lack of foreign policy experience, he could do a lot worse than picking the guy who chairs the committee.

-- Both candidates had events scheduled for Florida today, and at least some of those on the daily lineup will get the ax as Tropical Storm Fay swirls towards the Sunshine State. Florida Governor Charlie Crist warned that hurricane experts expected the storm to hit the Keys and the state's west coast by tomorrow, causing both candidates to alter their plans. Still, with McCain on this commander in chief kick, he took advantage of the situation, forgoing a fundraiser and receiving a briefing on the storm instead, the AP's Phil Elliott writes. That's another nice contrast McCain can draw, and not with his general election opponent: This time, McCain's briefing could say to some, the president will actually pay attention to a hurricane.

-- Disturbing Trend Of The Day: Republicans in Congress have purged many of their moderates. Now it's Democrats' turn, as some, especially in the online community, begin to campaign against the very moderates who provide the party with their Congressional majority. One group, Blue America, has spent $100,000 and will double that before the election against Democratic freshman Chris Carney in Pennsylvania; they also spent serious cash against Rep. John Barrow in Georgia, with ambitious plans to take out Majority Leader Steny Hoyer in 2010, the Wall Street Journal writes. Of those three, only Hoyer represents a district that would likely stay in Democratic hands if the incumbent lost, assuming a good Republican candidate were to run. What a good way to lose a majority.

-- Today On The Trail: McCain is still in Florida, where he will address a convention of Veterans of Foreign Wars in Orlando. Obama, in his first post-vacation weekday back on the trail, is in New Mexico for a discussion on the economy and a town hall meeting with voters in Albuquerque. President Bush is at the ranch in Crawford, while Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez meets the presidents of Guatemala, Colombia and El Salvador in Atlanta.