Who benefits from early voting?

With so many Democrats seemingly preparing to hurl themselves from the nearest cliff, firm in their conviction that Barack Obama has been fatally trumped by Palin-mania, it is perhaps sadistic to cite another potential factor that might darken their mood even further.

That would be the burgeoning trend of early voting.

Roughly 30 states this autumn will offer the option; the idea is to make voting easier and cull the long lines that have lately marred the election-day process in many key locales. Early-voting experts now predict that 33 percent of the '08 electorate could cast ballots in advance of November 4, and that would mark a sharp increase over 2004, when 20 percent voted early.

Most noteworthy, however, is that early voting will be available in some of the most important '08 battlegrounds: Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa, Florida, and Ohio. Those were all red states in 2004, and Obama can kiss his chances goodbye if they stay red in 2008. Obama optimists have long figured, however, that he could take advantage of the early-voting option in those states by registering scads of new voters, mobilizing the enthused partisans who are already registered, and getting them all to cast early ballots.

But here's a thought that could lengthen the Democratic line at the cliff: What if these early-voting laws actually wind up benefiting John McCain?

Under this Democratic doomsday scenario, the peak period of Palin-mania might well coincide with the early-voting window, prompting many bedazzled citizens to vote en masse for the GOP - whereas the voters who wait for election day might well realize, with good reason, that Palin's "reformer" image is a fraud and that Palin, with fewer national security credentials than a think tank scholar, really has no business being situated a heartbeat away from running the war on terror. (If McCain does better than expected in the early voting, we will undoubtedly hear some Democrats complain that these reforms are a disservice to democracy, and that all voters should have full access to all candidate information before making such a crucial decision.)

On the potential upside for Democrats, however, is the early-voting deal in Ohio. Thanks to a loophole in state law, the most populous counties - which also happen to have large student and urban populations - will be permitted to conduct instant registration and instant voting between Sept. 30 and Oct. 6. (Again, the motivation is to cull long lines in heavily populated areas on election day.) Expect to see Obama in Ohio that week; his prospects in that crucial state may hinge on enhanced turnout in college and urban communities.

It's commonly assumed that McCain is imperiled if he loses Ohio, but here's another potential hitch for Democrats: The Ohio GOP doesn't like the fact that this instant registration and voting rule is not being applied equally to all 88 counties....so they may well decide to file a lawsuit.

One of the great underreported stories of this campaign is that a photo finish could trigger voting-law litigation in key states, and both sides are planning accordingly. Which means that if any election lawyers are lined up with their Democratic brethren at that cliff of despair, they might want to step out and report for work instead.

Meanwhile, on the Palin front, new information continues to strip away the faux-reformer image crafted by the McCain camp (assuming anybody is noticing). In the last 24 hours alone, we have learned, among other things, that the hockey-mom heroine and alleged enemy of earmarks has requested federal pork money for things like studying the mating habits of crabs and the DNA of seals (precisely the stuff that McCain always rails against); that this alleged champion of ethics has hired a former gas pipeline company lobbyist to oversee a deal involving the gas pipeline company; that this alleged role model for women has hired a police chief accused of sexual harassment to head the state police; and that, while serving as mayor of Wasilla, she presided over a crime policy which required that rape victims foot the bill for their own medical examinations, for the so-called rape kits that police use to gather forensic evidence. (The state legislature, thinking it was a tad unfair for rape victims to pay such costs, abolished the policy during Palin's tenure.)

We'll see if any of this gets a mention when Charlie Gibson quizzes Palin on ABC News tonight and, mostly, on 20/20 tomorrow night (conveniently at 10 p.m. on a Friday, a time when most Americans are otherwise occupied). She is currently busy memorizing the necessary talking points, under the tutelage and protection of her new GOP entourage. And with respect to that entourage, consider some of the key names: Taylor Griffin, Tracey Schmitt, Tucker Eskew, Steve Biegun, Nicole Wallace, Mark Wallace.

They're all George W. Bush alumni, from either his White House, his campaigns, or both. This may be a long shot, but one is tempted to argue that McCain's reliance on the old Bush team - directly contradicting his claim that he is breaking with the past - is perhaps a more important issue than Barack Obama's appropriate use of a standard American colloquialism about pigs and lipstick.