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Starting Gate: Down They Go

There was a time, early on in this general election campaign, when the eternal optimists envisioned a gentlemanly campaign, conducted by two politicians who pride themselves on being above the kind of politics that have dominated recent presidential races.

There was John McCain, who remembered well the kinds of attacks launched against him in the 2000 primaries and who promised his campaigns would not go down those roads. And there was Barack Obama, the transformational figure promising to literally change politics as it's known, to lift up the national discourse and reinstate civility. If there were ever two candidates who could avoid "going negative," McCain and Obama seemed a good bet.

Now, a month away from Election Day and in the middle of an economic crisis, the campaign is starting to go down a very familiar road. Character is back as a campaign issue, with the McCain campaign hitting hard on Obama's past association with Weather Underground activist William Ayers and the Obama camp responding by revisiting the Keating Five scandal McCain was involved in long ago.

Sarah Palin has taken the lead in raising the Ayers associations, telling voters in Florida just this morning that the association makes her wonder about how Obama sees America. The Obama campaign responded by revisiting the Keating scandal, calling it a "window" into McCain's "economic past, present and future."

Early expectations aside, the campaign was almost certain to arrive at this point sooner or later. Like the rest of us, the political strategists on both sides can read the polling data and they see the same indicators we do and it's not encouraging for Republicans. With the McCain campaign pulling up stakes in Michigan and focusing energies on states like Colorado, Florida and even Nebraska (where Obama's team is trying to pull out a spare Electoral Vote), it's clear they are on the defensive.

And once the lid has been opened on the character issue, it's very hard to close again. Listen carefully to the messages coming out of talk radio and the blogs this week for indications of where this is going from here. It's safe to assume that we've only seen the beginning of the great character debate of 2008.

Around The Track

  • Sarah Palin says the decision to rush off to Omaha was her decision, not an indication that the campaign is concerned with the state, CBS News' Scott Conroy reports.
  • McCain finally gets his "town-hall" debate with Obama tomorrow night, can he capitalize on it?
  • New voter registration in key states heavily favors Democrats, according to a Washington Post survey.
  • The RNC plans to file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission today challenging the legality of some of Obama's contributions.