Sen. Barack Obama, slipping in national polls, is showing signs of being distracted by the enthusiasm generated by the McCain-Palin ticket and is planning a sharper message focused on economic anxiety.
With both sides turning more negative on the campaign trail, Republicans continue to put their vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, front and center before large crowds. She and Sen. John McCain appeared before a rally of at least 15,000 Wednesday in Fairfax, Va. -- a crowd size far more common at Obama events.
Meanwhile, Sen. Obama was pushing his team to remain focused. "We're simply not going to let this happen anymore," Sen. Obama told his close friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett during a phone call Wednesday, Ms. Jarrett said in an interview. Sen. Obama "used as firm and commanding voice as I've ever heard him use" in expressing a plan to "stay focused on John McCain rather than be distracted" by the Palin phenomenon, she said. She said the Palin pick and its impact were "unexpected."
In his regular calls with senior strategists Wednesday, Sen. Obama made clear that he wants to put an end to the tactics Republicans use every four years "to distract voters" from issues, a top adviser said.
Seeking to better connect with middle-class voters, Sen. Obama plans to meet former President Bill Clinton Thursday for lunch at the former president's New York office. The two men haven't cemented a relationship since the primary fight with Hillary Clinton. But Sen. Obama told late night talk-show host David Letterman Wednesday that Mr. Clinton would "be campaigning for us over the next eight weeks, which I'm thrilled by.''
Sen. Obama's frustration bubbled over in the battleground state of Virginia, where he declared, "Enough is enough," at a campaign stop in Norfolk. He was responding to Republican accusations that comments he made Tuesday -- calling the McCain-Palin policies "lipstick on a pig" -- were a sexist reference to Alaska Gov. Palin. Wednesday, the McCain campaign released a new ad called "Lipstick" accusing Sen. Obama of sexism.
"They seize on innocent remarks, try to throw them out of context," Sen. Obama told a group of supporters, mostly female, in a high-school library.
Republicans remain giddy over the Palin boom, and how she is performing in public. But since her nomination, she has appeared only in scripted settings. That ends later this week, beginning with an interview with ABC News. More interviews are planned before her October debate with Sen. Obama's running mate, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden.
Behind the scenes, aides are prepping Gov. Palin for her next big tests: questions from the press, and, early next month, the vice-presidential debate. When she isn't on the stump, Gov. Palin has been cramming. She carries briefing books with tabs on "foreign relations," "budget" and "energy," and index cards with talking points to study between appearances. Advisers counsel her on whether her hair should be pulled up or left down at her shoulders.
Her entourage includes many advisers who have worked for President George W. Bush, including Tucker Eskew, Tracey Schmitt and Nicolle Wallace. Steve Schmidt, the McCain campaign's senior adviser, traveled with her to Alaska Wednesday, where her son is preparing to deploy to Iraq. Her foreign-policy adviser, Stephen Biegun, has worked for President Bush and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Her domestic-policy adviser, Joe Donoghue, is a longtime aide to Sen. McCain.
Sen. McCain hasn't any plans to hold big public rallies without her. In fact, the campaign wants to keep the pair together as much as possible, fearing a solo-stump appearance by Sen. McCain would draw far fewer attendees. "The question is: How often will they be apart?" a senior adviser said.
For his part, Sen. Obama has appeared flustered at times as he defends himself against Republican attacks. Obama backers are worried. During a question session in Norfolk, a voter told Sen. Obama he was frightened that tactics that led to John Kerry's 2004 defeat by President Bush could throw his candidacy off track. Sen. Obama replied that he would respond by emphasizing issues such as the economy, education, health care, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"This whole thing about lipstick, nobody actually believes that these folks are offended," he said. "Everybody knows it's cynical. Everybody knows it's insincere... This is a game we play. It's a game. It's a sport, and maybe if it wasn't such a serious time, that would be OK."
At campaign headquarters in Chicago, the Palin phenomenon is clearly getting under the skin of some aides, who complain she is getting "celebrity" treatment. "The McCain campaign attacks Obama as a celebrity, but they are completely managing Palin's celebrity -- with only handpicked interviews and magazine covers in People and Us," one Obama adviser said. "We're not running for American Idol here -- ultimately we believe the country is smarter than this."
In his Letterman appearance, Sen. Obama poked fun at the shift in media attention. "As somebody who used to be on the cover of Time and Newsweek," he said, sparking laughter. "I had a recent offer with Popular Mechanics...said they had a centerfold, yeah, with a wrench. But, no, look, she's on a wild ride, and there's no doubt that she has energized the base."
Going on the offensive is tricky for a candidate who has pledged to bring more civil politics to Washington. "His talk of new politics is as empty as his campaign-trail promises, and his record of bucking his party and reaching across the aisle simply doesn't exist," McCain-Palin spokesman Brian Rogers said Wednesday.
Some of the McCain campaign's ads have drawn dissent beyond the Obama campaign. After getting complaints from CBS News, YouTube on Wednesday pulled one that used a clip of "CBS Evening News" anchor Katie Couric seeming to accuse Sen. Obama of sexism. In the clip, taken from an episode of the program during the Democratic primary in the spring, Ms. Couric talked about how Hillary Clinton's campaign exposed persistent sexism in the media and American life.
Said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds: "We are going to absolutely spare no resources in defending the reputation and record of our vice-presidential candidate.
like Matt Stoller and Jerome Armstrong who predicted Obama's imminent demise during the primary.