Polls show McCain and Obama neck and neck; Medicare payouts come under fire.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Aug. 21 2008 5:14 AM

Getting Closer

With everyone still waiting—and waiting, and waiting—for veep announcements, the Wall Street Journaltops its online newsbox with a new poll that puts U.S. presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain in a statistical dead heat. The Washington Post leads with a report on Obama's efforts to break the tie by appealing to voters' pocketbooks; the Democratic nominee lamented U.S. job losses while on the stump in southern Virginia yesterday. The Los Angeles Times leads with a look at the candidates' tax proposals; economists say that both candidates' plans would likely add trillions to the national debt.

The New York Times leads with word that a confidential government report undermines recent claims by Medicare officials that they had slashed fraud and saved the agency billions of dollars in false payouts. According to a leaked draft of the report, senior Medicare officials told auditors not to bother comparing sales invoices with doctors' records; that meant that the audit failed to pick up on at least $2.8 billion in improper spending. USA Today leads with a report on a jet crash at a Madrid airport that killed 153 people, littering nearby woodlands with bodies and charred wreckage.

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Echoing yesterday's LAT poll, the WSJ fronts national numbers suggesting that Barack Obama's lead over John McCain has dwindled to the point where the two candidates are statistically tied. The new poll puts Obama at 45 percent, three points ahead of his Republican rival. Obama's biggest problem, it seems, is a hangover from the primary battle: Only half of Hillary Clinton's supporters are backing the Democratic nominee, and one in five says he or she supports McCain. The NYT also has new poll numbers, in which voters say that neither candidate has made clear what he would do as president. Respondents trusted Obama more than McCain to manage the economy, their top overall priority. For foreign policy, however, McCain came out ahead.

Obama tried to press home his apparent economic advantage yesterday in Virginia's economically distressed southside. As the Post notes, that wouldn't normally be fertile ground for a Democrat, but with popular former Gov. Mark Warner at his side, Obama did his best to win over voters by attacking the Bush administration's economic failings. The NYT sees Obama's renewed economic focus as an attempt to shift from the sweeping oratory of his primary campaign to a more human level. That could help him in Pennsylvania, the paper notes in an off-lead report, where neither candidates' campaign has so far struck a chord.

The McCain camp, meanwhile, is warming up for next week's Democratic National Convention. The WSJ reports that the GOP is making an unusually concerted effort to rain on the Democrats' parade, with Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and Tim Pawlenty all heading to Denver to jeer from the sidelines. On the WSJ's edit page, Karl Rove provides a glimpse of the GOP's plan of attack, arguing that Obama's convention speech will be judged on how well it counters "the impression that he's more of a rock star than a person of serious public purpose." Any balloons, ticker-tape, or cheering crowds, in short, will likely be considered fair game.

A Spanair MD-82 passenger jet, packed with holiday-makers bound for the Canary Islands, crashed on takeoff at Madrid's Barajas airport yesterday. At least 153 of the 172 passengers and crew on board were killed, which the Post notes makes the incident the worst European air disaster in two decades. The LAT reports that passengers had phoned relatives to report technical problems before the attempted takeoff; it's likely to be several days, however, before there's a clear picture of what went wrong. The crash will likely feed scrutiny of MD-80 series planes, which have a solid safety record but, as the WSJ notes, are under investigation by U.S. regulators following an emergency landing earlier this month at JFK.

The WSJ fronts word that after five months of negotiations, U.S. and Iraqi security forces have agreed to a deal that would see U.S. troops leave Iraq by 2011. That marks a major shift from just a few months ago, when many Republicans routinely dismissed the possibility of setting deadlines for troop withdrawals. The AP reports that the deal, which still requires formal approval from President Bush and Iraqi leaders, would see U.S. forces leave Iraqi cities by June 30 next year and would likely provide U.S. troops with immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law.

Reporting inside, the NYT doesn't mention specific deadlines, noting only that the draft would provide a legal framework for the United States to maintain a military presence in Iraq beyond 2008. The NYT also carries an interview with David Petraeus, in which the general—looking "drawn, exhausted and more than a few years older" than when he took command—argues that while substantial gains have been made in Iraq, much more work is needed. "It's not durable yet," he said. "It's not self-sustaining."

Russia shows no sign of relinquishing its grip on Georgian roads and ports, despite a pledge to withdraw forces by Friday. The Post reports that Russian troops were yesterday digging new trenches in the port city of Poti and tightening access to the central city of Gori. The WSJ speculates that growing resentment among local residents could lead to guerilla resistance if Russia does not withdraw. The NYT reports that unexploded cluster munitions have been found in several areas attacked by the Russians. Moscow continues to deny having used the weapons.

The United States and Poland signed a new missile defense agreement yesterday, angering Russian officials, who fear the deal could pave the way for an anti-missile network intended to neutralize Russia's nuclear deterrent. The NYT reports that Russia's military action in Georgia appears to have boosted Polish support for the missile deal, although some residents remained queasy at the prospect of provoking Moscow.

Finally, the headline of the day, courtesy of the NYT: "Distraught Elephant To Remain in Dallas." An elderly, depressive, panic-attack-prone elephant named Jenny is to remain at the Dallas Zoo after a plan to ship the 10,500-pound pachyderm to new digs in Mexico met with an outcry from local residents. Zoo officials now plan to find Jenny a companion and build her a new 15-acre compound in which to enjoy her dotage.

Ben Whitford writes for the Guardian, Mother Jones and Newsweek.

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