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Monday, March 20, 2006 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Holly Phillips

First glance
The United States involvement in Iraq is one day into the fourth year - on track to match the duration of U.S. involvement in World War II and the length of the American Civil War. The Bush Administration is seeking to highlight progress made in training Iraqi troops to take over the fighting from US forces, and in establishing the Iraqi government.  Meanwhile, a debate has boiled up over whether or not the escalating sectarian there amounts to a civil war.  Former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said on the BBC that it does; Vice President Cheney said on CBS that it doesn't.  After steering clear of the term "war" in his brief statement yesterday, President Bush may wade into this debate his remarks today.

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Bush meets with the NATO Secretary General in the Oval Office at 9:30 am, then travels to Ohio for the second of three speeches intended to bolster public support for the war.  Ohio's troop losses in Iraq and its scandal-plagued state GOP helped fuel the near-upset by Democratic House candidate Paul Hackett in a GOP-leaning district last August and are contributing to Republican Sen. Mike DeWine's vulnerability in the midterm elections.

Bush addresses the Cleveland City Club at 12:25 pm.  A senior Administration official advised reporters on Friday to expect Bush to revive the "candor" of his December speeches in both his remarks today and later this week.  He will spell out how the US mission in Iraq began, list what efforts have worked and what efforts have not, and stress that success will be slow but sure in coming.  He also will repeat his call for patience.  "This is a really tough thing...  We are learning as we go," the official said.  Bush also will do Q&A after the speech.  The local paper says Ohio's most prominent Republican lawmakers are skipping the event due to scheduling commitments.

His schedule for the week suggests a heavy emphasis on matters abroad and not much on the domestic front.  Tomorrow, he meets with the new President of Liberia and with representatives of Iraq and Afghanistan non-governmental organizations.  Wednesday brings his third of three speeches on Iraq, this time in Wheeling, WV.  Thursday's schedule is TBD.  Friday, he does two fundraisers for vulnerable GOP members of Congress, including a closed-press event at a private home for Sen. Rick Santorum, whose track record of appearing in public with Bush has gotten spotty as his vulnerability has become more apparent.

While House Democrats spend this congressional recess hitting Bush on the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, Senate Democrats have scheduled a series of events focusing on national and homeland security.  Today, Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member and potential presidential candidate Joe Biden and John Podesta of the liberal think-tank Center for American Progress hold an event to mark the war's anniversary and release a "report card" on the war's progress during the first quarter of 2006.  The event will take place at 11:00 am in the Capitol.  That event will be followed by Sen. Jay Rockefeller focusing on homeland security, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid talking about border security, etc.

Also marking an anniversary, Secretary Michael Chertoff gives a 1:00 pm speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation on his view of his first year at the helm of the Department of Homeland Security.  Prior to that speech, Chertoff addresses the International Association of Fire Fighters' conference on Capitol Hill.  Both national party committee chairs also speak at the conference.

And Vice President Cheney continues to stump and raise money for Republicans congressional candidates, headlining a 12:30 pm luncheon for House open-seat candidate Chuck Blasdel at the notably named Spread Eagle Tavern & Inn in Hanoverton, OH, and a 6:00 pm reception for Senate contender Tom Kean in Newark.  The Democrat- and labor-funded Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities will protest the "anti-family" Bush budget at a rally in Newark prior to Cheney's appearance.

Security politics
The Cleveland Plain Dealer says of Bush's speech today: "President Bush is visiting Cleveland to shore up enthusiasm for both the lingering war and his leadership...  Republican supporters of Bush's strategy, like Ohio Sens. George Voinovich and Mike DeWine, say Cleveland is a good place for him to explain his policies.  Democratic critics, like Reps. Sherrod Brown and Dennis Kucinich, insist he has handled the war ineptly."

The paper also notes, "Every president since Jimmy Carter has addressed Cleveland's City Club."  Bush's appearance marks his 41st visit to the state since 2001, but this time many of the state's most prominent politicians will be absent.  "Sen. Mike DeWine, Sen. George Voinovich and Rep. Steve LaTourette say they're skipping Bush's speech because of prior commitments...  Gov. Bob Taft, whose popularity is even lower than Bush's, isn't expected to attend, either...  Today's event isn't on the schedules of either Jim Petro or Ken Blackwell, the GOP candidates to replace Taft."

(Regarding Bush's expected Q&A, the New York Times notes that in the last three months, participants at White House-sponsored forums have been tossing hardball questions at Bush, and his answers sometimes have made news.  “It is a big change from last year and, particularly, from the 2004 campaign.”

The AP: "White House critics say Bush must do more than give speeches -- he needs to take more action to get a coalition government in Iraq and work toward bringing troops home."

A USA Today analysis shows that "U.S. military deaths during the past month have dropped to an average of about one a day, approaching the lowest level since the insurgency began two years ago," though "Iraqi casualties are the highest since the U.S. military began tracking them in 2004."

Rounding up yesterday's TV and other appearances, the paper says, "Top Bush administration officials sought Sunday to convey a message combining a realistic assessment of continuing violence in Iraq with optimism about the future."

The AP notes that Bush didn’t use the word “war” when he made his brief remarks yesterday on the situation in Iraq.  “Bush did not mention the insurgent attacks, the car bombs or the mounting Iraqi deaths in a two-minute statement to reporters...  Avoiding the word ‘war,’ he called the day ‘the third anniversary of the beginning of the liberation of Iraq.’”

"Strategists in both parties have said that Bush will have a more difficult time sustaining support for the U.S. military presence in Iraq if the public believes that troops are caught in the middle of a civil war," says the Los Angeles Times.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Californians living in the state’s GOP strongholds have become dissatisfied with the war and with Bush.  “While many conservative voters who spoke with The Chronicle remain supportive of America's military men and women, an increasing number are disillusioned with the nation's leader.  And from the VFW halls to the local cafes, an increasing number in the region are expressing a profound concern about the human and financial costs of the continued Iraq conflict.”

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin said yesterday that it's too early to move to censure or impeach Bush for authorizing the NSA domestic wiretapping program.  Roll Call notes that like their Senate counterparts, "most House Democrats are feeling equally wary about censuring or impeaching the president."  And Democratic Rep. Jim Moran tells the Washington Times that Sen. Russ Feingold's move to censure President Bush "is a distraction from their quest to take back Congress in the fall."

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
Some key congressional Republicans aren't just rejecting Bush's latest priorities -- they're going back and voting down some of his past ones.  Roll Call reports that the Senate cast a "a little-noticed vote last Thursday,... apparently for the first time, against President Bush’s proposal to set up personal investment accounts under Social Security, with some unexpected Republicans helping a unified Democratic Caucus defeat the nonbinding proposal."

Bob Novak writes that congressional Republicans are committing acts of defiance against Bush, from opposing his call for the line-item veto, to rejecting his insistence that the May 15 deadline to apply for the Medicare prescription-drug program shouldn’t be delayed.  “This constitutes no rebellion and is not even a divorce.  Rather, it is a trial separation."

The Washington Post covers internal obstacles the GOP faces in its efforts "to craft a policy and political agenda to carry the party into the midterm elections...  While it is a Republican refrain that Democrats criticize Bush but have no positive vision, for now the governing party also has no national platform around which lawmakers are prepared to rally...  The struggles reflect philosophical differences among competing factions within the party, but they also underscore the political consequences of holding power.  Republicans insist they remain united around core principles of smaller government, lower taxes and a strong national defense, but can no longer agree on how to implement that philosophy" or deliver on it.

USA Today picks up on a First Read theme: How few days Congress will be in session this year.  The paper notes that the House "is on track this year to be in session for fewer days than the Congress Harry Truman labeled as 'do-nothing' during his 1948 re-election campaign."

The Washington Post's Sunday Outlook section noticed the unusually high number of Senators from both parties who are running for president in 2008.  Some of those ambitions could get in the way of the Bush agenda.

Disaster politics
The Los Angeles Times previews a tough legislative session for embattled Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

Sunday's New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that National Urban League president and former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial plans to contest the Justice Department's approval of the April 22 New Orleans elections.  Morial says the group will "file a letter of objection" which "will focus on the lack of an adequate public relations effort to educate such voters."  Morial also said his group will "sponsor a mayoral forum and a meet-and-greet session for all candidates in all races, and it will offer information about absentee balloting and other post-Katrina issues...  The forums are scheduled for March 25 in Houston, March 31 in New Orleans, April 8 in Atlanta and April 15 in Baton Rouge.  Exact locations and times have not been announced."

It's the economy...
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, "Treasury Secretary John Snow said the widening gap between high-paid and low-paid Americans reflects a labor market efficiently rewarding more-productive people.  But he insisted Americans are still broadly sharing in the economic expansion."  Snow also "said the administration intends to publicly challenge perceptions that typical workers and families haven't benefited much from the economic expansion.  The extent to which the expansion has been broadly shared is 'the new sort of battle line in the political arena,' he said."  He also "argued the administration's tax cuts have made the tax code more progressive, because the rich now pay a larger share of total individual taxes.  Some scholars counter that the tax cuts still widened the gap between the after-tax incomes of rich and poor Americans."

Fed chair Ben Bernanke addresses the Economic Club of New York today, but the Wall Street Journal warns not to expect him to offer any clues about a possible interest-rate hike at his first Fed meeting next week.

Ethics
Despite winning his primary earlier this month, GOP Rep. Tom DeLay “remains in a legal limbo that could keep him under a cloud through the November election,” the Houston Chronicle writes.  “The investigation into lobbyist Jack Abramoff's bilking of Indian gaming clients has not directly implicated DeLay.  But it has led federal authorities to examine the actions of lawmakers and staffers with whom Abramoff worked, and DeLay is likely to be linked to the probe for the foreseeable future because of his previous close association with Abramoff.”  The paper adds that former DeLay aide Tony Rudy is believed to be cooperating with investigators and is expected to reach a plea deal.

Some of the ethically dubious-sounding ties between GOP Sen. Conrad Burns' staff and a technology center at Montana State University were in fact OKed by the Senate Ethics Committee.

The midterms
Roll Call's Stuart Rothenberg says a Democratic wave, if it happens, could begin in New York.

Pegged to moderate GOP Rep. Sherwood Boehlert's retirement, which he announced last Friday, Bloomberg looks at House Republicans' struggle "to prevent a wave of retirements that would bolster Democratic prospects to regain control of the" chamber.  "Primary filing deadlines will have passed in about half of all congressional districts by late April, and it will then be clear whether Republicans face a wave of retirements, said Amy Walter, House editor of the Cook Political Report.  Nineteen House Republicans retired in 2004."  Seventeen have announced their retirement so far this year.

A couple of Senate Republicans are taking issue with former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle's association with a new Democratic 527 group that aims to oust the GOP from the Senate majority.

The Sacramento Bee notes that in the polls, Steve Westly (D) fares better than Phil Angelides (D) against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).  But Westly’s support of two Schwarzenegger initiatives two years ago, the paper says, could come back to haunt him.  “‘The biggest litmus test in the Democratic Party seems to be not how much you hate Arnold but how long you have hated him,’ said Dan Schnur, a Republican political analyst.”

Sunday’s Miami Herald covers GOP Rep. Katherine Harris' first campaign stop since announcing she'll use $10 million of her own money to pump life into her limp Senate campaign.  Harris "addressed the Reclaiming America For Christ conference in Fort Lauderdale, where speakers railed against homosexuality, abortion and the American Civil Liberties Union...  Her declarations of faith were met with a standing ovation in the church, but might make some more moderate, less religious voters squirm..."

The Herald also explores Harris' ties to former GOP Rep. Randy ''Duke'' Cunningham and says her actions throughout the controversy bring to light her "flake factor."  "Until recently, Harris wasn't particularly picky about where she got her money, or how suspicious it looked...  Having her name surface in the Duke Cunningham scandal was the last thing Harris needed, yet she's been slow to grasp its gravity.  Her pal Cunningham, who campaigned here for her, is heading to the slammer for eight years."

The Chicago Tribune previews tomorrow’s gubernatorial primary in Illinois and gets reaction from the Republican and Democratic candidates, including Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D).  “Blagojevich believes he's earned the right to be the governor of Illinois for another four years.  But the other candidates for governor say the job he's done is one of the reasons they should be elected.”

And per the New York Post, aspiring Hillary Clinton challenger KT McFarland (R), "who repeatedly skipped New York elections, failed to vote for President Ronald Reagan even while working for him in Washington, newly acquired records show."

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