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« The Fighter Takes The Stage | Blog Home Page | AK: Begich +3 »

Strategy Memo: Two-Month Reset

Good Monday morning. The conventions are over, the nominees are nominated, and the two-month sprint to November is on. Both candidates can expect a bumpy ride. Here's what Washington is watching today:

-- The House and Senate return from their August recess today for a session punctuated by what is expected to be a serious energy debate. But first, the Senate will take up the Defense Authorization bill, with a cloture vote coming early this evening. The House will deal with measures on cigarette trafficking, attorney-client privilege amendments and child soldiers. President Bush will speak about volunteerism from the South Lawn, where he will single out USA Freedom Corps.

-- The second week in September has become a week for volunteering and talking about public service seven years after the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington. Barack Obama and John McCain will each speak on public service on Thursday, the day of that anniversary, and, in a joint statement over the weekend, announced they would limit advertising critical of each other (McCain won't advertise at all that day). Still, it's something lots of candidates talk about, and perhaps the program most easily cast aside amid budget cuts. Keep an eye on both candidates' plans to see just how committed they are.

-- But punditocracy is less interested in public service (Take that particular statement any way you choose) and more in the horse race. And the seemingly impossible appears to have happened: John McCain got a bigger post-convention bump than Barack Obama. It could be McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as vice presidential nominee, or that the Republican convention followed so closely on the heels of the Democratic convention (And without President Bush, much to Obama's chagrin). Slice it whichever way you like, but McCain now holds a one-point lead, 46.7%-45.7%, according to the latest RCP General Election Average.

-- Still, we called it a bump, not a bounce, for a reason. Nothing becomes a real bounce until it is sustained over a few weeks, and a spike of four points from McCain's recent nadir is simply nothing anyone should be thrilled about. Obama peaked just over 49% after his convention, meaning the fundamentals of the race are the same: It's close, but McCain seems to have a lower ceiling than Obama. That ceiling grew in recent days, but neither candidate can cross the 50% threshold. Expect the chattering classes to highlight the latest USA Today/Gallup, Gallup tracking and other polls that show McCain inching ahead as game-changers. They'll say the same thing when Obama inches back ahead next week, a back-and-forth that won't stop until Election Day. Keep grains of salt handy.

-- The only real events left in the campaign will be four prime-time debates broadcast from four universities over the next month and a half. Meetings between Obama and McCain at the University of Mississippi, Belmont University and Hofstra and a clash between Joe Biden and Palin at Washington University in St. Louis could move the dial, and if anything, networks ought to sell more advertising. Nearly 40 million people watched both Obama and McCain accept their party's respective nomination, giving credence to the notion that more people are interested in politics than ever before.

-- But those debates will prove crucial. Jim Lehrer hosts the first, in Oxford, Mississippi, just two and a half weeks from today, and all four ticket members will drop off the trail for a brief period to start debate prep. Who will play Obama and McCain for their rivals? The Republican should tap Joe Lieberman, a constant traveling companion and someone who knows many of Obama's positions as his own. The Democrat, though, lost the best choice for a McCain stand-in when he offered Joe Biden the vice presidency.

-- Perhaps the most dangerous moments for the Obama ticket will come when Biden and Palin sit across from each other in St. Louis. With a penchant for running his mouth a little too freely, Biden risks coming across as cocky and arrogant or as patronizing, something an older white man doesn't want to do while sitting next to a younger woman. The opportunities for gaffes on a serious scale are tremendous. On the other hand, Palin has a lot of learning to do to catch up with the Senate Foreign Relations chairman, and her skills in interviews and debates aren't yet fully known. She will sit down with ABC's Charlie Gibson later this week in Alaska to give her first interview since being named to the ticket.

-- Bias Of The Day: McCain and Palin made two things clear at their convention in St. Paul: They would run as maverick reformers, and they bleepin' hate the media. McCain used to be tight with many in media-world, and the Straight Talk Express was the best place a reporter could be. Now, the media has a new darling, McCain asserts, and it bears out: Obama gets more than one-third more coverage than McCain, Time Magazine writes, and a lot more magazine covers. But is it more commercial bias than political? There's a case to be made for that side of the question as well.

-- Today On The Trail: McCain and Palin are rallying in Lee's Summit, Missouri today, while the Democratic ticket has gone their separate ways. Obama talks economy in Flint, Michigan before hosting a town hall in Farmington Hills, home of the traditional Reagan Democrat. Biden has a town hall meeting scheduled for Green Bay, Wisconsin before rallying supporters in Des Moines, Iowa. And Hillary Clinton hits the stump for Obama in Florida, with an economic event in Kissimmee and a rally in Tampa backing the Democratic ticket. This evening, part two of Obama's interview with Bill O'Reilly appears, as will a separate sit-down he held with MSNBC's Keith Olbermann.