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Wall Street bumps the fluff off the front page

Someday, we will learn. When it's September and important issues cry out for attention, but we seem consumed by trivia - watch out.

In September 2001, cable news and even some "serious" newspapers were preoccupied with Gary Condit, a married California congressman who had an affair with a Justice Department intern who disappeared and later was found murdered.

It was all-Condit all the time in the news - until Sept. 11, when something far more consequential happened and Condit slipped back into obscurity.

This year, a calamity has occurred in the financial world. The nonsense about Sarah Palin's family dynamics and other matters, down to and including lipstick on pigs, has been banished by the mayhem on Wall Street as ruthlessly as the Condit story was erased seven years ago.

Once again, New York has become the focus of the nation's eyes, which guarantees that the mass media concentrated there will keep this economic crisis story where it belongs - at the center of attention.

The presidential candidates certainly recognize the change. It took less than 24 hours after Sunday's dramatic developments involving Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and AIG for John McCain and Barack Obama to prepare new statements and fresh ads on Wall Street issues.

But McCain stumbled at the outset with a comment that the economy is "fundamentally sound," and the Democrats pounced. Obama, campaigning in Colorado, delivered an unusually tough critique of McCain's long record as an advocate of deregulating markets. Obama was reinforced in an orchestrated chorus of Democratic voices, liberated from their preoccupation with the governor of Alaska and her family.

Neither man had much to offer in the way of advice. The meetings of Treasury, Federal Reserve and banking officials in New York were dealing with questions of such technical complexity and financial importance that the politicians knew better than to intervene.

The lack of content does not reduce the political significance of what has happened. For months, McCain's managers have understood that his biggest challenge is that eight out of 10 Americans think the country is moving in the wrong direction. To overcome the voters' natural inclination to punish the party in power, there are relatively few things McCain can do.

One is to sow doubts about Obama and his prospective actions, and McCain has been assiduous in doing that. He and his cohorts have questioned Obama's experience, criticized his tax policies and challenged his approach to energy issues.

Another is to create a narrative that diverts attention from the voters' fundamental dissatisfaction. That was the purpose of McCain's reform initiative - a narrative rooted in his own rebel personality and anti-establishment history, reinforced by the choice of Palin as his running mate. That storyline was well-launched at the Republican National Convention and it visibly tightened the race.

But now the structural weaknesses in the economy - already visible in rising unemployment and stagnant incomes for most workers - have caught up with some of the most famous players in the game. The jobs and savings sacrificed in the great stock market sell-off were significant in themselves. And these were potential Republican voters who took this shellacking. They and their friends and neighbors will be that much harder to enlist in the McCain cause.

The larger effect is the psychological damage to an electorate already struggling to maintain any optimism about the country and its future. For all the excitement Palin has generated, the national mood is still a major barrier for McCain and the Republicans.

There may be other external events that jolt the presidential race - and the debates are still to come. But for now, Wall Street and its woes are causing big problems for John McCain.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist David Broder at davidbroder@washpost.com.