The Democrats have another reason to worry about California. Not only does the Los Angeles Times editorial board go out of their way to praise John McCain’s political courage, they scold both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for their shameless pandering. I know it’s snowing in Minnesota today, but did Hell freeze over as well?

John McCain’s “Time for Action” tour of small and hard-hit towns played a bit like an extended campaign commercial, but with an important difference. Yes, there were the photo ops of the candidate in locales usually bypassed by Republicans seeking the White House, including an African American quilting hotbed in rural Alabama, a shuttered factory in a struggling Ohio town and an impoverished Appalachian community in eastern Kentucky. But instead of promising truckloads of aid if he’s elected, McCain talked up his vision of a government that helps more by doing less.

It’s not a new message from the Arizona senator, who follows an unpredictable political muse but typically favors smaller government and less regulation. Yet the context was important. Standing outside the Ohio factory Tuesday, in a state where Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton pandered to protectionists, McCain actually stood up for the North American Free Trade Agreement and free trade. The lost factory jobs aren’t coming back, McCain said, and rather than waging a futile fight against globalization, Washington should do a better job training workers for careers in the new economy.

The next day he visited Inez, Ky., where nearly a third of the population lives below the poverty line and almost half of the adults never made it through high school. President Lyndon Johnson announced his War on Poverty in Inez, but McCain was there to withdraw the troops. “Government can’t create good and lasting jobs outside of government,” he said, adding that it should focus on encouraging businesses to create opportunities for the poor and reduce regulatory barriers to improving education.

Polling in California shows that McCain could at least compete against the Democrats in the Golden State. He gained eight points on Obama in a month, going from 15 points down to seven on April 17th, which didn’t take into account Obama’s disastrous debate performance on the 16th. McCain trails Hillary by only five points. Even competing against the Democrats in California will force them to spend money in a state they’ve handily won for the last four cycles, and which they cannot afford to lose.

More significantly, it appears that the mainstream media has decided to start looking much more closely at the campaign style of the Democrats. The protectionist pandering, which would normally excite the LA Times, has instead become worrisome. The Democratic kill on the Colombia free-trade pact, which would have benefited the US more than the Colombians who already have free access to our markets, has taken the blinders off at the LAT, at least. Worse, the mixed messages sent by the campaigns on their populist protectionism has people wondering where the candidates really stand — especially after Barack Obama’s weird insinuation about bitter middle-American xenophobes clinging to “anti-trade sentiment” after he has stoked it with his campaigning for the last several months.

In the end, honesty wins out against double-speak. The dishonesty coming from the Democrats has become so obvious that even the LA Times has to acknowledge it. Perhaps in 2008, the media will engage in some straight talk themselves.