-- The Commission on Presidential Debates has announced its finalized schedule and format for this fall's quadrennial debate series, consisting of three presidential contests and one showdown between the vice presidential nominees. The announcement ignited renewed anticipation among political junkies, but a close examination of the debate itinerary reveals several sports-related conflicts that could threaten to siphon from the presidential spotlight a sizable chunk of persuadable potential voters. Of the three presidential debates, two conflict with hugely important dates on the Major League Baseball calendar, and the other will compete with a mid-season Monday Night Football matchup featuring bitter division rivals. And, for good measure, the Oct. 11 VP debate in Kentucky will go head-to-head with a Thursday Night Football game being played in neighboring Tennessee. Yes, plenty of very interested voters will still tune in. But any effort to reach beyond that primary audience and attract politically unengaged viewers will be an uphill climb. -- All the talk regarding gun control following the tragedy in Aurora appears to be just that -- talk. Obama lamented the politics and lack of focus that prevent serious debate on the topic, but he also offered no new proposals. And while he has used his executive power recently to bypass Congress, it seems unlikely he would go out of his way to touch such a politically toxic issue right before an election. -- It was a good week for Missouri GOP Senate candidate Sarah Steelman. Democrats have been piling ads on John Brunner, while the businessman has in turn piled on Rep. Todd Akin. And Steelman? She got a $380K boost from a super PAC as the two St. Louis Republicans continue to slug it out. Three-way races make for unexpected finishes. Just ask Deb Fischer. Meanwhile, a new Mason-Dixon poll shows her within striking distance of the free-spending Brunner, 33 to 27 percent, and leading Sen. Claire McCaskill, 49 to 41 percent. -- The stakes are really high in the run-up to the July 31 runoff for Texas Senate between Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz. The Texas Republican establishment is going all-in for Dewhurst, as he has racked up endorsements from Gov. Rick Perry and a slew of elected officials throughout the state. Meanwhile, Tea Party heroes ranging from Ron and Rand Paul to Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint are going to bat for Cruz, pushing big for him in the final weekend before the election. Cruz has the momentum despite an onslaught of ads from Dewhurst attacking him on a host of issues. The GOP race is a near-coronation for the Republican while also serving as a proxy fight for the heart of the GOP. -- Another primary race that heated up this week? Michigan's GOP Senate contest. It's former Rep. Pete Hoekstra's to lose - he's way up over challenger Clark Durant in polls - but Durant is making a late move, hitting Hoekstra in ads (as is a super PAC supporting him). Durant's effort has taken some hits this week too though, with the Michigan Democrats filing an IRS complaint related to his compensation from a nonprofit, and Hoekstra's campaign questioning the links between the super PAC and Durant's campaign. To pull off an upset on August 7, Durant needs everything to break his way - and so far that isn't happening. -- The battle for independents and moderate GOP voters is on in the Indiana Senate race. Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly released a teleivision ad this week that connects him with Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, who lost the GOP primary to Treasurer Richard Mourdock, Donnelly's general election opponent. Mourdock responded by releasing his own TV spot linking himself to GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels. The dueling ads tell you a lot about the state of the race: Donnnelly needs to peel off moderate Republicans by painting Mourdock, who ran far to the right of Lugar in the primary, as an extremist. Meanwhile, Mourdock is trying to pivot back to the middle, but he could have trouble finding many high-profile, in-state surrogates who appeal to moderate Republicans. While Daniels, who initially backed Lugar, endorsed Mourdock after the primary, the governor has since vowed to stay away from partisan politics after accepting an offer to become the president of Purdue University. And Mourdock can't exactly invoke or campaign with Lugar -- he spent a year savaging the six-term incumbent with negative ads and explosive rhetoric. -- This week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce became the first outside group to go after former Independent Gov. Angus King in the Maine Senate race. King looks untouchable so far in the three-way race, but we'll see if the Chamber ad can put a chink in his armor (and if so, whether other GOP outside groups follow the chamber into the state). Meanwhile, the Maine Small Business Coalition hit back on Thursday, saying the Chamber "does not speak for Maine businesses."
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