updated 3/21/2006 3:53:22 PM ET 2006-03-21T20:53:22

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First glance
With Congress scattered far and wide and the initiative his for the taking, President Bush will hold a news conference at 10:00 am today, his first since January 26.  Sandwiched as it is between two big scheduled speeches on Iraq this week, it's possible that this news conference will be an effort to address matters of domestic rather than security policy, such as the strong US economy, a story the White House continues to have trouble telling, or the troubled Medicare prescription-drug benefit that congressional Democrats are targeting with town halls during the break.

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After the news conference, Bush will meet at the White House with newly elected President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia at 11:10 am, and with representatives of Iraq and Afghanistan non-governmental organizations in the Roosevelt Room at 1:55 pm.  Vice President Cheney, meanwhile, travels to Scott AFB in downstate Illinois for a briefing by TRANSCOM (i.e., Transportation Command) Commander Gen. Norton Schwarz at 11:20 am ET, followed by a speech on Iraq and the war on terror at 12:35 pm ET.  Per the Almanac of American Politics, Scott AFB is the largest employer in southern Illinois.

Its primary day in the state, so don't expect any of the GOP's candidates here to be joining Cheney at his event.  (Democrats are noting with glee how Republican lawmakers and candidates are steering clear of Bush and Cheney these days.)  There's a potentially competitive governor's race in the making: a handful of Republicans including state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, 2004 Senate candidate Jim Oberweis, and businessman Ron Gidwitz are squaring off for the opportunity to challenge Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), who faces two primary opponents of his own.  Topinka is seen as the favorite in the GOP field, but her rivals have sought to tie her to former Gov. George Ryan (R), who awaits a verdict on corruption charges, potentially setting up Topinka for similar attacks from Democrats during the general election campaign.  A handful of Republicans also are battling for the nomination to take on vulnerable Democratic Rep. Melissa Bean.

But the best-known candidate in the state is Maj. Tammy Duckworth, the badly injured Iraq war veteran and Democratic Establishment favorite who has become the most nationally recognized of the party's bench of Iraq war veteran House candidates.  In her effort to replace retiring GOP Rep. Henry Hyde, Duckworth faces a primary against Christine Cegelis, who challenged Hyde in 2004 and lost, 44%-56%.  Cegelis has tried to cast Duckworth as a candidate of national Democrats, not of Democratic voters in the district.  This primary also has shaped up to be a test of whether war veteran candidates can offer voters a well-rounded choice, or whether voters see them as single-issue candidates who come up short on economic and other quality-of-life concerns.

Cheney stopped in Hyde's district a week ago Monday to raise money for Peter Roskam, the GOP candidate in the race.  Despite the district's Republican tilt, this is expected to be one of the more competitive House races of the year.  Polls in Illinois open at 7:00 am ET and close at 8:00 pm ET.

Also today, continuing Senate Democrats' week-long focus on security issues, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid tours part of the US-Mexico border with the head of the Las Vegas police department.  The two are making themselves available for interviews at the San Ysidro (CA) border crossing at 5:15 pm ET.

Meanwhile, as part of the GOP's effort to keep the heat on Democrats over Sen. Russ Feingold's proposed censure of President Bush for authorizing the NSA domestic wiretapping program, a proposal from which many Democrats are trying to distance themselves, the Republican National Committee is launching a radio ad tomorrow that will air in Milwaukee and Madison, WI -- though the RNC won't say how big the buy is.  The ad calls Feingold the "leader" of those Democrats who "are working against... efforts to secure our country."  "Some Democrats are even calling for Bush's impeachment.  Is this how Democrats plan to win the war on terror?" the ad asks.  An RNC source notes to First Read that "some Democrats are looking to censure the President for an action the majority of the American people support."

Security politics
Bush gave his second of a series of three big speeches about the Iraq war yesterday, though much of the coverage focuses on his unscreened Q&A session afterward.  USA Today: "Bush clearly enjoys the repartee.  Adam Levine, a former Bush assistant press secretary, says the president is 'at his best' in a give-and-take.  More important, this lets him bypass the media."

Knight-Ridder says that while it might be true that Bush "'was careful never to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack on America,'" Bush "did link Iraq to 9-11 in other ways...  The tough questions - all delivered in polite and respectful terms - were striking because Bush typically appears before audiences dominated by screened Republican supporters."

"The White House is hoping to shift opinion on the war by emphasizing the progress it says has been overshadowed by images of violence," says the AP.  "Mr. Bush tried a new tactic to boost sagging support for the war, relating to the audience a lengthy story about a campaign to rid the northern city of Tal Afar of terrorism against civilians...  The detailed description of the campaign -- and the eventual success story -- was meant to underscore another point the White House is trying to make: evidence of progress is more difficult than daily bombings and deaths to capture in media sound bites."

The Washington Post examines Bush's assertions about the success of the US-Iraqi effort in Tal Afar.  "If Americans knew about the success stories, the White House maintains, they would understand Bush's confidence of victory.  Yet even the success stories seem to come with asterisks," a dynamic which "has taken its toll on Bush's credibility, Republican strategists say, making it hard for him to make people see what he sees in Iraq."

In a separate article, the Post notes, "Three years of upbeat White House assessments about Iraq that turned out to be premature, incomplete or plain wrong are complicating President Bush's efforts to restore public faith in the military operation and his presidency, according to pollsters and Republican lawmakers and strategists...  The loss of trust, they said, is affecting Bush's presidency more broadly, as polls show his public support at a nadir."

Sen. Joe Biden, ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and potential presidential candidate, marked the Iraq war anniversary yesterday by saying the outcome "looks increasingly dismal" based on "dangerous incompetence" within the Bush Administration, NBC's Ken Strickland reports.  Biden also argued that Iraq is in the midst of a "low-grade civil war" -- and that, if there is a full-blown civil war, the price of oil could rise to $100 per barrel because it would cause regional instability.  And he repeated his call for Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to be fired, saying "imagine what it would do for US credibility" to see newspaper headlines reading "Rumsfeld fired."

The San Francisco Chronicle says Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) told California constituents yesterday that Bush should replace Defense Secretary Rumsfeld with new leaders who will begin to bring US troops home from Iraq.  “Feinstein has criticized Rumsfeld's handling of the war in Iraq for more than a year, but Monday's speech was the first time she had called for him to be fired.”

As Tammy Duckworth faces Democratic primary voters in Illinois, the Washington Post points out one potential obstacle for Duckworth and other Iraq war veterans running for the House this year: "While they are pitching themselves as tough on national security and reaping some of the benefits of growing antiwar sentiment, many are struggling to raise their profiles and prove they can talk about more than the war."  Also: "election analysts note that most face experienced and well-financed Republicans in districts that have tilted toward the GOP, often for years."

And the Post's Milbank, covering Michael Chertoff on his one-year anniversary at the helm of the Department of Homeland Security and buzz that Chertoff might be on his way out, observes that his problem, "if anything, is he's a model technocrat in a position that sometimes demands a commanding leader."

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
Bush yesterday quietly signed the debt-ceiling increase into law, raising it from $8.184 trillion to $8.965 trillion.

"One of the first independent studies of the Medicare prescription benefit has concluded that many low-income California seniors now have access to a narrower range of drugs than when the state covered their medications, according to a report being released today...  Medicare administrator Mark McClellan took issue with the report's conclusions..., saying that many of the medications that plans do not cover have generic equivalents that cost much less and are paid for by the plans...  Although focused on the California experience, the report's findings could have national implications, as federal and state lawmakers grapple with ways to work out problems with the new benefit." – Los Angeles Times

"With politics pushing lawmakers in multiple directions over how to handle the millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States, politicians and immigration advocates worry that Congress will deadlock the issue," reports the Boston Globe.  If the Senate Judiciary Committee doesn't finish its work by Monday, Majority Leader "Frist's proposal punts the most contentious immigration issues -- what to do with those who are here, and how to account for their economic contribution.  That would deeply disappoint Bush and others anxious to establish" a guest-worker program.

The Mexican government is reaching out to the US government, saying they want to help in the "design, management, supervision and evaluation" of a guest-worker plan.  "In full-page ads in The New York Times, Washington Post and other newspapers, the Mexican government acknowledged a shared responsibility to address illegal immigration." – Dallas Morning News

As Gale Norton gets ready to hand the reins to Dirk Kempthorne, Bloomberg profiles the job of Interior Secretary as a role no one wants running an agency no one understands.

The New York Times looks at how GOP leaders, including Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman, spoke at yesterday’s International Association of Fire Fighters gathering in an effort to reach out to the union.  “The Teamsters, the service employees and other unions have begun cooperating with Republicans.  But rarely have the Republicans made such strong overtures toward a union as they did on Monday toward the firefighters.”  That said, "Howard Dean, the Democratic chairman, received far more applause than any Republican speaker.”

Disaster politics
Democrats on the House Education and Workforce Committee are in New Orleans today at Dillard University's temporary campus for a forum on school and education recovery post-Katrina.  Home-state Reps. Bill Jefferson and Charlie Melancon are among those taking part in the 4:00 pm ET event.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune criticizes some of the city's mayoral candidates for trying to capitalize, on the stump and in campaign ads, on how they pitched in on Katrina recovery efforts.  "The use of images from New Orleans' own hallowed Ground Zero for political advantage clearly rubs at least some people the wrong way.  [Lt. Gov. Mitch] Landrieu, by many accounts, worked tirelessly to help storm victims, whether cameras were in sight or not.  Yet when his campaign discovered the footage from a documentary filmmaker he encountered in the 9th Ward, it couldn't resist purchasing it and putting it in an ad...  But if Landrieu comes across as calculating, neither [Mayor Ray] Nagin nor [Ron] Forman deserves a pass, as both are seeking points for basically sticking around and doing their jobs."

It's the economy...
Analysts who listened closely to Fed chair Ben Bernanke's speech to the Economic Club of New York yesterday concluded that the Fed will continue to raise interest rates, Bloomberg says.  The next Fed meeting is March 27-28.

Ethics
The Houston Chronicle notes that two different three-judge panels in Texas are considering appeals that could effectively end the money-laundering prosecution of GOP Rep. Tom DeLay.  One panel is scheduled to hear oral arguments on Wednesday.  But: “Several judges on the panels have possible conflicts” -- i.e., they’ve given money to Republicans or have been involved in GOP causes -- “that are reminiscent of the ones that got state District Judge Bob Perkins, a Democrat, and Administrative Judge B.B. Schraub, a Republican, removed from the case.”

The midterms
Labor unions in California are trying to keep GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's fundraising drive front-and-center as a campaign issue, attacking his alleged ties to special interests after he ran in 2003 as being beholden to no one. – Los Angeles Times

The Chicago Tribune previews today’s gubernatorial primaries in Illinois: “Voters go to the polls Tuesday to select a Republican nominee for governor while Democrats measure their support for Gov. Rod Blagojevich, all against the backdrop of a former governor whose fate is being deliberated by a federal jury…  The shadow of [George] Ryan's lengthy trial has hung over the campaign for governor for months as each candidate has aggressively stressed his or her ethical posture.”

An editorial in the Belleville News Democrat says that Cheney's speech today will "distract from what should be the main business of the day: local and statewide elections...  While it's always an honor to have one of our nation's leaders visit the metro-east, doing so on Election Day is poor timing."

The Des Moines Register reports that Bush will visit Iowa in April to headline a fundraiser for gubernatorial hopeful Jim Nussle (R).

Cheney traveled to New Jersey yesterday to headline a fundraiser for Tom Kean Jr. (R), who will be challenging Sen. Bob Menendez (D) in the fall.  “But there was one problem: Mr. Kean was a no-show.  Actually, Mr. Kean did show up at the event…  But he did not make it until 6:15, roughly 15 minutes after Mr. Cheney's motorcade had left.  So what should have been a routine political story about a successful fund-raiser… became one in which Mr. Kean was asked repeatedly whether he had deliberately avoided being photographed with the vice president, who is deeply unpopular in New Jersey.” – New York Times

Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman is in Ohio today for a series of fundraisers and other events.

And the New York Times reports that a coalition of conservative nonprofit groups, the Pennsylvania Pastors Network, is conducting training sessions to get pastors to turn out the vote for the November elections -- something that could test the IRS’s promises to crack down on tax-exempt groups who support a candidate or political party.  “The first training session… included a videotaped message from a single candidate, Senator Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvania Republican who faces a difficult re-election fight.  ‘I encourage you to let your voices be heard from the pulpit’ on vital issues, Mr. Santorum said, urging the pastors to champion a proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, according to a recording made by a person at the session.”

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