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« NV 03: Titus Leads | Blog Home Page | KY: McConnell +11 »

Strategy Memo: Race Clouds All

Good Friday morning. If Congress is lucky, they're done for the month of August after today. If anyone else is lucky, they actually get to spend the weekend on their own time. Are we starting to see why Congress' job approval rating is 17% in the latest RCP Average? Here's what Washington is watching today:

-- The Senate will try once again to pass the Defense authorization bill, a measure Republicans blocked yesterday. That move elicited accusations from Democratic leader Harry Reid that the GOP had taken a pass on an opportunity to support the troops; it's part of the Republican effort to force votes on energy exploration. The House will take up the Military Construction appropriations bill, which will include veterans' funding as well. President Bush is visiting his parents in Kennebunkport, Maine, while Vice President Cheney fundraises for Republican candidates in Birmingham, Alabama.

-- The presidential contest is sliding into the mud so fast it's enough to make one's head spin. Yesterday's bitter accusations and counter-accusations put the final nails in anyone's hope for a civilized campaign, and, given that race is now a central part of the discussion, at least for today, there's a possibility that both campaigns are going to get worse before they get better. Then again, at times two campaigns involved in a nasty fight will stop and come to some sort of truce before continuing in a more positive measure. If these two campaigns think things are getting out of hand, they could do the same thing.

-- Here's how we got this far: John McCain's advertisement calling Barack Obama a Hilton- or Spears-like celebrity encouraged a first response of disappointment from Obama, who told reporters right before getting on a campaign bus in Missouri that he wondered why McCain didn't have enough positive things to say about himself. Later, at a campaign event in Springfield, Obama went farther: "What they're going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know, he's not patriotic enough. He's got a funny name. You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills," Obama said, per the Post's Weisman and Eilperin.

-- McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, offered a stunning response: "Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck. It's divisive, negative, shameful and wrong," read the statement, emailed to the media yesterday. With the first African American heading a major party ticket, it was probably inevitable that race would play an overt role in the campaign, as Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith write. But to have it brought up by McCain, and to accuse Obama of starting it, is a twist most didn't see coming.

-- Campaign aide Steve Schmidt, who is running day-to-day operations for McCain, tells Martin and Smith that their goal is to prevent a preemptive strike they see Obama using: That every normal contrast and attack is race-based and worthy of blame. Schmidt's money quote: "Say whatever you want about Bill Clinton, but it's deeply unfair to suggest his criticism of Obama was race-based. President Clinton was a force for unity in this country on this subject. Every American should be proud of his record as both a governor and president. But we knew it was coming in our direction because [the Obama campaign] did it against a President of the United States of their own party." Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, told reporters his candidate had not charged McCain with playing the race card.

-- How do racial politics play out? Both candidates say they want to avoid injecting race into the campaign, but as we wrote above, this year, that's almost impossible. On the exterior, any discussion of race helps Obama, as the media becomes morally outraged and as his legions of backers become more, to borrow a phrase, fired up and ready to go. But Obama can't cry wolf too many times, especially when no one sees McCain himself overtly using race. McCain's celebrity ad is one thing (Poetic justice for anyone who thought it was over the line: Most Republicans agree it's a terrible ad), but it's a stretch to say it has racial overtones. Race can help or hurt Obama, but there's no upside at all for McCain, which makes any use of the issue by his campaign a mistake, and one they haven't made yet.

-- On the primary front, Obama looks like he's in good position even with those Democrats who once backed Hillary Clinton. But the small and vocal minority is causing problems at the party's platform committee, which is meeting this weekend in Cleveland, where they will push for an added item accusing the media of "pervasive" sexism. The move comes as Clinton's chances to be number two on the ticket slip further into oblivion, the LA Times' Peter Nicholas writes. Does anyone care about a platform argument when considering which candidate to vote for? No, but Obama now faces the choice of perpetuating the Clinton-rift story or of placating the vocal minority at the risk of admitting he benefited from sexism.

-- Issue Of The Day: Not race, but energy could make the biggest difference this November. House Republicans yesterday asked for a special session over the August recess to deal with energy issues, CNN reports, which is about as likely to be granted as a snowball's chances of surviving somewhere exceedingly hot. That's a smart way to keep the issue at the fore, and it's already cost Democrats the ability to control the appropriations debate, as this reporter wrote today. House Minority Leader John Boehner told reporters this week that the issue wasn't going away, and the GOP already knows it's one of the few issues that works in their favor.

-- Today On The Trail: Obama is in St. Petersburg, Florida for an economic town hall at a local high school, before stopping by Orlando for an event later today. McCain starts his day in Orlando, where he will address the National Urban League, followed by a press availability in Panama City, Florida. Later tonight, he'll swing by a country music concert.