“First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, from the NBC News political unit. Please let us know what you think.  Drop us a note at FirstRead@MSNBC.com.  To bookmark First Read, click here.

• Wednesday, June 14, 2006 | 3:05 p.m. ET
From Huma Zaidi

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Bush defends war planning
Still jet-lagged from yesterday's surprise visit to Iraq, President Bush met with reporters in the Rose Garden this morning to make remarks about his trip and take questions. With some positive developments this week on the Iraq front, the Administration has been making the issue it's main focus in recent days -- at the very same time liberals have gathered in Washington for the "Take Back America" conference, where many of them have voiced their opposition to the war.

Bush countered their criticisms by stressing that the US will not pull out of Iraq until the time is right. "Don't bet on it; don't bet on American politics forcing my hand, because it's not going to happen," Bush said. "I'm going to make decisions not based upon politics, but based upon what's best for the United States of America." Tonight, we'll release our latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll and find out if and how the recent developments in Iraq have affected the president's standing.

Bush said his trip was veiled in secrecy because he's a "high-value target for some" and that Iraq is a "dangerous" place. He also said he does not regret his decision to go to war, and doesn't think it compares to Vietnam (as Sen. John Kerry suggested yesterday) but stressed that there are still "serious" challenges ahead that require "sacrifice and patience."

• Wednesday, June 14, 2006 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi andAlexIsenstadt

First glance
The Grand Old Party of George W. Bush, Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman has always believed that the best defense is a good offense.  That's what we're seeing this week as the White House and Republican lawmakers go on offense over Iraq -- an effort that's including, within 24 hours, a surprise presidential visit to Baghdad and a Rose Garden news conference -- and to a lesser extent as the Republican National Committee touts Rove's clearance in the CIA leak case.  Playing offense on national security and casting the war on terror (into which they fold the war in Iraq) in stark terms worked for the GOP in the 2002 and 2004 elections.  High-profile Democrats like the party's Hill leaders and Sens. John Kerry and Russ Feingold are providing fodder for their efforts this week by appearing before a liberal confab calling for a timetable for the US troops to come home.  In the GOP leadership's worldview, that is now "the" measure of weakness on national security.

The question is whether public opinion on Iraq has shifted enough since 2004 that the debate has become too gray for such black-and-white terms.  On cue, a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted over the weekend will be released tonight on NBC Nightly News at 6:30 pm ET.

Continuing his full-court press to capitalize on recent positive developments in Iraq, President Bush holds his aforementioned news conference at 9:45 am, then sits down with members of the Iraq Study Group at 1:45 pm.  Also scheduled is a closed meeting with the bipartisan congressional leadership at 2:45 pm.  The Democratic Hill leadership had to scuttle its plans for a big town hall meeting on domestic issues today in order to go to the White House to talk about the war.

Also today, Bush meets with the President of Columbia at the White House at 11:00 am and hosts members of Congress at the White House for a picnic at 6:30 pm.

While Bush plays good cop by reaching out to Democrats in Congress, House Republicans play bad cop with their resolution in support of the war, which is scheduled for a full day of floor debate tomorrow.  Earlier this week, it looked as though the debate could wind up being a mature, wide-ranging discussion of the US role in Iraq, but as Thursday has drawn closer, the day is looking increasingly like a partisan effort by Republicans to cast Democrats as being weak on security.  House GOP leaders will emphasize their commitment to the war at a press conference today around 10:00 am.  Four members of Congress, two Democrats and two Republicans, hold a presser at 1:00 pm to denounce House GOP leaders for their "unwillingness" to hold what they view as a truly open debate on the war.  The four belong to a group of largely Democratic members -- dubbed the "Cut and Run Caucus" by GOP leaders -- who are pressing for US troops to come home no later than October 1.

Per a senior Democratic House aide, the caucus' steering and policy committee met last night to talk strategy for the debate tomorrow.  For their part, Democrats want to hold "a serious and considerate debate which will highlight [their] support for the troops, the GOP's failure to secure the homeland by implementing the September 11 commission recommendations, the GOP's support of the Administration's 'cut and run' strategy in Afghanistan..., and the Administration's failures in Iraq."  This aide notes that Democrats also are working toward an alternative resolution "that would meet the criteria of a serious debate."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Greensboro, NC today addressing the expected 20,000 attendees at the Southern Baptist Convention.  As NBC's Andrea Mitchell notes, this is hardly the usual forum for a Secretary of State.  Rice's speech seems to be an attempt to sell the war to the GOP's conservative base, whose support for the effort and for other Administration foreign policy initiatives has been flagging of late.

The liberal Campaign for America's Future wraps up its "Take Back America" conference with speeches by presidential candidate and Sen. Russ Feingold at 9:00 am and by Sen. Barack Obama at 12:45 pm.  A favorite on the Democratic left, Feingold is likely to get big applause for his call for US troops to come home this year, and for his sponsorship of a resolution to censure Bush for authorizing the controversial NSA warrantless wiretapping program.

Liberal bloggers and the Democratic Senate campaign committee scored a victory last night when their chosen candidate, former Reagan Navy Secretary Jim Webb, won the party's nomination to challenge Sen. George Allen (R) in Virginia.  Senate campaign committee chair Chuck Schumer holds an off-camera briefing with reporters today at 1:15 pm.

And First Read is pleased to point out that MSNBC.com now features an extensive political calendar with hot links to key people and events.  Your new favorite calendar can be found there.

Security politics
Bloomberg on Bush's trip to Baghdad yesterday: "Bush will avoid trying to make too much out of his five-hour trip to Iraq..., political analysts say...  Still, Bush's visit may help assuage American fears that U.S. policy in Iraq is rudderless."

“It was powerful political theater, choreographed by an experienced team that played up the drama and secrecy of the moment, and were rewarded with a day of relatively unfiltered cable news coverage," says the New York Times.

The Chicago Tribune: “The president's appearance in Baghdad… risked undermining the Iraqi leader's stature as head of a sovereign nation, analysts said.”

The Washington Post, in its "bump for Bush?" analysis, points out how many of his recent political problems are rooted in Iraq.  "Even Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove's legal problems stemmed from Iraq and the initial White House effort to justify the decision to invade."

Tomorrow, the Senate is expected to pass the so-called emergency supplemental funding bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Hurricane Katrina recovery, NBC's Ken Strickland reports.  But if Sen. John McCain (R) has his way, it may be the last time the Iraq war gets funded in this manner.  Per Strickland, McCain plans this week to try to prevent the Administration from further circumventing the regular budget process to pay for the war by proposing such an amendment to the defense authorization bill.  McCain's reasoning, per Strickland, is that Iraq isn't an emergency anymore -- that the United States' task there is clear and long-term.  McCain supports President Bush's position on the war (indeed, he may even be a bit more hawkish than Bush) but is a longtime critic of earmarks and other forms of excessive spending.

Also in the Senate, some Democrats are stopping "short of endorsing an amendment by Sen. John Kerry... to withdraw troops by the end of this year," the Washington Times notes.  NBC's Strickland says there may be an effort in the works to draft a more general, consensus amendment.

The Chicago Tribune, covering the liberal Take Back America conference, says "reverberations" from the Democratic speakers' disputes over Iraq "are likely to last well beyond November, spilling into the 2008 Democratic presidential race.”

Kerry's speech was his "sharpest condemnation of the war and his broadest repudiation of his own vote to authorize force," says his hometown paper.  "It was a concise distillation of principles that Kerry... did not produce in the presidential campaign." – Boston Globe

It was not lost on the press corps that the White House, in their efforts to preserve the necessary high security of Bush's trip to Baghdad, issued false information about his Tuesday schedule.  White House counselor Dan Bartlett told reporters on Tuesday morning that the Baghdad trip was in the works for several weeks, planned by a small group of aides.  On Monday night, the White House issued an official schedule for Bush that not only said he'd be at Camp David this morning, but included a late addition of a press availability in the Rose Garden at 2:30 pm.  The press office re-issued the same schedule on Tuesday morning, an hour before Bush popped up in Baghdad.  Bush himself chose his words very carefully in talking about the scheduled videoconference with the Iraqi Cabinet, always saying that the meeting would involve secure video, but not specifying that he would be on the Camp David end.  The pool reporter at Camp David yesterday morning titled her report, "Teleconference at Camp David -- In Which The Intown Pool Discovers It Is Part of an Elaborate Ruse, And Is Never Actually In The Same Room As POTUS."

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
A New York Daily News analysis says Bush "is savoring the best week of his second term, and downcast Republicans are talking a far more bullish game.  'We've got so much good news popping out these days I don't know where to start,' the newly energized GOP source crowed."

Republican House campaign committee chair Tom Reynolds tells Roll Call that "the best way for Republican lawmakers to regain confidence about their standing across the country would be for President Bush’s numbers to rebound, something Reynolds believes is slowly starting to happen."  That said, "Republicans certainly are aware that their recent uptick could be temporary," because of immigration reform, congressional scandals, and Iraq.  "Despite those potential pitfalls, Republicans in both chambers said now is the time to try to gain some ground."

The Wall Street Journal contemplates the possibility that "Bush's political slide has hit bottom...  It is too early, of course, to know whether the positive news will be sustained enough to help him improve his standing, as well as the Republican Party's endangered majorities in Congress...  Moreover, a number of potential pitfalls for the White House remain, including stubbornly high energy prices and growing unease in financial markets, underscored again Tuesday as the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 86.44 points to erase its gains for the year.  Still, Republicans are relieved to hear good news after months of bad news."

With GOP support, the House Appropriations Committee yesterday approved a minimum wage hike, capping "a day in which Republicans completed an election-year shift of billions of dollars within the president's budget, first cutting from defense spending and then reinvesting the money in education and health programs that the administration targeted for cuts."

The AP says that despite “record low approval ratings, House lawmakers Tuesday embraced a $3,300 pay raise that will increase their salaries to $168,500.  The 2 percent cost-of-living raise would be the seventh straight for members of the House and Senate.”

The Democrats
Their planned town hall on domestic issues has been scuttled because of the White House meeting, but the Democratic Hill leadership still will distribute a card to their ranks today laying out the "new direction" in which Democrats would take the country should they gain control of Congress this fall.  This new direction, they say, will include affordable health care and education, energy independence and lower gas prices, a higher minimum wage, improved retirement, and fiscal discipline.  The flip side, of course, lays out how Bush and Republicans are taking the country in the wrong direction.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in laying out the plan for USA Today, tells the paper that "Democratic candidates will be 'independent representatives for their districts,' a nod to the differing views within the party on issues such as abortion, gun control and Iraq."

With Rep. John Murtha (D) issuing a challenge to his colleague Steny Hoyer for the majority leader post should Democrats retake the House in November, we observed here yesterday that press coverage of the prospective contest might give the impression that House Democrats are arguing over anticipated spoils at a time when they need to appear unified.  Later in the day, Murtha said he's decided to suspend his campaign for majority leader until after the elections.  As NBC's Mike Viqueira notes, Murtha's campaign wasn't exactly welcomed by many Democrats, who saw it as a potential distraction from their effort to retake control of the House.  Nor did it reflect well on Murtha ally Pelosi to have this happen because many assumed that she was behind the challenge to her longtime rival Hoyer.  But as Viq also notes, it's unclear what practical effect Murtha's "suspension" might have, since neither he nor Hoyer is likely to sit on his hands until November.

The Washington Post covers Sen. Hillary Clinton's less-than-friendly reception at the Take Back America confab yesterday -- and her arguable rebuke from Kerry, who spoke after her -- because of her position and comments on the war.

The New York Times says that Clinton, in a speech yesterday to the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, moved “to shift the debate over abortion rights to the subject of access to family planning services, saying that the nation's focus should be on preventing unwanted pregnancies."  Her "remarks… reflect the degree to which Democrats around the country are trying to find a middle ground on the polarizing issue of abortion rights.”

And she won't be supporting a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning, the New York Daily News writes.  "Clinton (D-N.Y.) has co-sponsored a bill to ban flag-burning.  But she said yesterday she opposes enshrining that in the Constitution."

Reporting from red state Nebraska, USA Today looks at Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean's efforts to rebuild state parties everywhere instead of just focusing on states Democrats historically have won or have had a chance to win.  "The DNC is now spending $120,000 a year to pay the salaries of three organizers and a spokesman here.  Nationwide, the party has hired and trained about 190 people in 50 states in its $10-million-a-year program...  Dean's critics don't dispute the need to build a strong party infrastructure.  But they worry about competing with the GOP.  The DNC under Dean... has about $9 million on hand...  The Republican National Committee has $45 million on hand."

Ethics
The Washington Post reports on Rove's clearance in the CIA leak case, "With Rove's situation resolved, the broader leak investigation is probably over...  A source briefed on the case said that the activities of Vice President Cheney and his aides were a key focus of the investigation, and that Cheney was not considered a target or primary subject of the investigation and is not likely to become one.  There are no other outstanding issues to be investigated,... though new ones could emerge as Fitzgerald continues to prosecute" former Cheney chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby.  The story adds, "Rove does not emerge from the investigation unscathed...  His credibility took a hit inside and outside the White House."

"Democrats on Tuesday said they would do all they could to keep alive the larger issues of the case...  But the Democrats' aggressive talk has raised a pivotal question: Does the lack of a much-anticipated indictment of the country's most important Republican strategist mean that a bomb floating over GOP-led Washington has fizzled?  Or is there still political meaning to an investigation that has kept the White House and its enemies in suspense since (Valerie) Plame's name was leaked three years ago?" – Los Angeles Times

The failure "to charge Karl Rove shows there often are no consequences for misleading the public," says the AP.  Rove misled reporters, which "saved" the White House "from a political liability during the 2004 presidential campaign," but his "truth-telling to the FBI saved him from indictment."

The Boston Herald says Rove knew he had been cleared minutes before he took the stage to attack Kerry and Rep. John Murtha on Monday night in New Hampshire.

Tomorrow, House Democrats gather to consider whether or not to temporarily expel Rep. William Jefferson from his Ways and Means Committee seat, details still TBD.

Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan has released documents showing he made a lot of money off of real estate investments in recent years -- and is conceding that he needs to amend some of his financial disclosure forms. – Washington Post

Immigration politics
"Hopes for a quick deal on an immigration bill were dealt a blow yesterday after [House Speaker Dennis Hastert] said he wanted to take a 'long look' at a Senate bill offering potential citizenship to millions of illegal aliens," the AP reports.  Hastert "said hearings on the Senate bill should be held before appointing anyone to a House-Senate committee to negotiate the differences between the two chambers' bills.  Later, he said he was unsure what the House's next move would be."

It's the economy
The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped far enough yesterday to erase its gains so far this year, but the Wall Street Journal sees a silver lining -- that it could actually be a sign of a still strengthening economy.

More on the midterms
RNC chair Ken Mehlman and House Majority Leader John Boehner attend a donor maintenance event for the RNC's Majority Fund today at lunchtime.

In Maine, the Bangor Daily News tells us Chandler E. Woodcock won the GOP gubernatorial primary and will face incumbent Gov. John Baldacci (D) in the fall.

In South Carolina, state Sen. Tommy Moore won the Democratic nomination to face Gov. Mark Sanford (R) in November.   But in a “‘stunning blow,’” writes the Columbia State’s Lee Bandy, Sanford got just two-thirds of the vote in his GOP primary.   “The vote reflects a significant minority within the Republican Party who are dissatisfied with the governor’s performance.  Most of the vote was a protest vote against Sanford.” – The State

And the Washington Post on Jim Webb's victory in Virginia's Democratic Senate primary yesterday: "Although Webb has portrayed himself as the candidate who will appeal to conservative voters in southwest Virginia and bring out new military supporters in the Tidewater, it was the tried-and-true Democrats from Northern Virginia who provided his margin of victory...  More than 42 percent of all the votes were cast in the Washington suburbs, and Webb won an overwhelming majority of them."

The Richmond Times-Dispatch notes that the Iraq war could be front and center in the Allen-Webb race.  “Webb is a staunch opponent of the war in Iraq, while Allen has been one of President Bush's most vocal war supporters.”

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