How’s this framing of The Candidates Dueling Economic Plans for the press giving McCain a “mad pass” (Josh Marshall’s words) on his pledge to balance the budget? From the Associated Press’s Nedra Pickler:

Barack Obama says John McCain’s plan to balance the budget doesn’t add up. Easy for him to say: It’s not a goal he’s even trying to reach.

Not only does Obama say he won’t eliminate the deficit in his first term, as McCain aims to do, he frankly says he’s not sure he’d bring it down at all in four years, considering his own spending plans.

“I do not make a promise that we can reduce it by 2013 because I think it is important for us to make some critical investments right now in America’s families,” Obama told reporters this week when asked if he’d match McCain’s pledge.

McCain is awarded points for trying right off the bat (the questions of whether McCain’s budget does add up, whether balancing the budget should be a top priority to try for in the first place and at what expense it might be achieved or even if it’s likely to be achieved, and what Obama is proposing to try first or instead all being details for later in the piece, when many readers have already moved on after gleaning that McCain is tackling a top-priority problem head-on while Obama is not even trying).

I know we’re all always striving to come up with catchy leads, but this one is more of a mislead. If readers stick with Pickler long enough, they learn that “Obama’s criticism of McCain’s pledge as ‘overly ambitious’ is backed up by fiscal experts” (oh, you mean Obama’s not just The Slacker to McCain’s Man With a Plan?) indeed that “budget watchers say it’s hard to figure what either candidate’s impact will be since neither is offering full details of his spending programs.”

Impact, schmimpact! With its lead, the AP has awarded McCain points for showing up, Plan In Hand.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.