Wednesday, August 2, 2006 | 9:35 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi andAlexIsenstadt

In today's issue:

FIRST GLANCE
President Bush wends his way from Washington to Crawford by way of Kirtland Hills, OH, where he'll headline a fundraiser for Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, the GOP nominee for governor, at 6:25 pm.  Blackwell is one of the party's trio of African-American candidates for high-profile statewide office this year, along with Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who's running for the Senate, and former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann, who's running for governor of Pennsylvania.  (There will be a fourth if Keith Butler wins his Senate primary in Michigan next week.)  All face races that are at least somewhat uphill. 

Blackwell, who's being buffeted by political headwinds at several levels, trailed Democratic opponent Ted Strickland in a recent Columbus Dispatch poll by 20 points, 47%-27%.  Ohio State University political scientist Herb Asher tells First Read that although the actual margin might not be that wide, Strickland appears to have a sizable "double-digit" lead.  Asher attributes it to a combination of factors, including a poor national environment for Republicans; a poor statewide environment for Republicans; and Blackwell's apparent inability to unite the party base.  A social conservative, he "is seen too much as an agent of the Christian right," Asher said.

At the national level, Democrats see a broader array of pick-up opportunities in Ohio than in any other state but Pennsylvania: an open governorship, a vulnerable Senate seat, and at least three competitive House seats held by the GOP.  President Bush narrowly -- very narrowly -- won the state in 2004, but his standing has suffered here as it has in every other swing state. 

Exacerbating the negative climate for Republicans generally are the scandals that have plagued Gov. Bob Taft's administration, as well as Ohio's lagging economy.  Asher adds that it will be difficult for Blackwell and Republicans to attack Strickland and Democrats on these issues because "Democrats at the state level are so powerless that there is no way to blame them."  Indeed, although Democrats are fielding strong candidates for governor and the Senate this cycle, their bench is only just recovering after years of GOP dominance in the state.  This year, Asher argues, "if the Ohio Democrats can't win statewide office... you sort of wonder when can they win."

Blackwell is also a lightning rod for Democrats for the role he played, as secretary of state, in overseeing Sen. John Kerry's narrow loss to Bush in Ohio in 2004 -- an outcome which sealed Bush's re-election and about which some Democrats remain as suspicious as they do of then-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris' role in the 2000 recount.  (Coincidentally, Harris is also seeking a high-profile statewide office this year, and it will be interesting to see if Democrats use their roles in Bush's 2000 and 2004 victories against them, such as for voter mobilization.)

The fundraiser tonight is closed to the press, and the Ohio Democratic party is criticizing Bush and Blackwell for the "tightly controlled non-public fundraiser, in flood-ravaged Lake County."  Coincidentally, Bush yesterday declared the region a major disaster area, and has added a briefing with Lake County emergency management officials at 5:00 pm to his schedule.

Add Cuba to the Administration's growing laundry list of foreign policy concerns as Israel sends more ground troops into Lebanon.  The consensus among experts and analysts interviewed in the morning papers appears to be that a Raul Castro administration might not be as powerful as his brother's, but that it would be close enough that predictions of the demise of the Castro regime are probably exaggerated -- and that the Administration may be too dependent on support from Cuban-Americans to venture to say so.

And add Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to Sen. Joe Lieberman's laundry list of concerns, as the revs campaign for Lieberman challenger Ned Lamont today.

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Have you checked out MSNBC.com's political calendar lately? 

CASTRO POLITICS
The Chicago Tribune says the Administration is promoting the hope that Cuba "could make a transition to democracy--and promising to peacefully support any such move.  Nonetheless, Bush administration officials say they expect nothing but a transition of power from Castro to his equally dictatorial brother Raul" if Castro doesn't recover.  "The difference between the administration's public proclamations and actual expectations reflects the pressure that Cuban-American politics place on the White House, with Bush and every Republican president since the 1960s counting on the fervent support of the Cuban-born exile community in South Florida." 

Other assessments of the state of play in Cuba are in USA Today, Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal.

Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd yesterday tied the Administration's Middle East policy to Cuba by arguing that they can't sit on the sidelines while Cuba faces a potentially tumultuous period of transition.  "We need to try and have some sort of glidepath" that could avoid violence that might emerge, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports Dodd saying.  "Sitting back and standing around doing nothing is not wise" in this situation, Dodd asserted, adding that there's the potential for an "explosion" in Cuba.  Cuban-born Florida Sen. Mel Martinez (R) said his biggest concern now is a possible mass migration to the United States "that would be a very bad thing that would involve loss of life."

SECURITY POLITICS
The New York Times front-pages how Bush's unequivocal embrace of Israel right now is yet another departure from his father's presidency.  "Unlike the first President Bush, who viewed himself as a neutral arbiter in the delicate politics of the Middle East, the current president sees his role through the prism of the fight against terrorism.  This President Bush... also has deep roots in the evangelical Christian community, a staunchly pro-Israeli component of his conservative Republican base." 

Democratic lawmakers' letter to Bush calling for a phased-out withdrawal of US troops from Iraq to begin by the end of the year continues to reverberate.  Reid e-mailed supporters touting how Democrats are now speaking "with one voice" on the war.  Anti-war group MoveOn's Washington director Tom Mattzie issued a written statement yesterday calling the unity reflected in the letter "good news for America.  The public is looking for real leadership on Iraq and now they have it...  The Democratic call for redeployment also offers voters a real contrast with the Republican war without end." 

And some Republicans continue to criticize Democrats' letter as part of their "cut and run" campaign against the party.  In an e-mail to supporters yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist wrote, "...make no mistake, this proposal put forth in this letter would establish an artificial timetable for withdrawal of American troops before their mission is completed.  And this proposal would let our Iraqi allies know that we'll abandon them to the terror of Zarqawi's successors by a date certain."

Also in the New York Times: Democratic Sen. Max Baucus' nephew Phillip, a Marine, has been killed in the line of duty in Iraq.  The red-state Senate Democrat voted for the war resolution in 2002. 

Washington Post: Frank Wuterich, "the Marine Corps staff sergeant who led the squad accused of killing two dozen civilians in Haditha, Iraq, will file a lawsuit today in federal court in Washington claiming that Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) defamed him" in "public comments about the incident earlier this year."  Wuterich's attorneys "argue in court papers that Murtha tarnished the Marine's reputation by telling news organizations in May that the Marine unit cracked after a roadside bomb killed one of its members and that the troops 'killed innocent civilians in cold blood,'" and charged "that the incident was covered up."  Murtha's office declined to comment.  We'd note that the suit is being filed just as Murtha is embarking on a tour to campaign for Democratic House candidates. 

IT'S THE ECONOMY...
The Wall Street Journal covers Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's New York debut, in which he came out for "a bipartisan approach to reducing the budget deficit and acknowledged that the gap between the best- and worst-paid workers has continued to widen on President Bush's watch."  He also said that "ballooning spending on entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, increased dependence on foreign sources of oil and 'a disturbing wave of protectionism' threaten the nation's prosperity...  Mr. Paulson was clearly trying to prove that he's in touch with what's happening in the economy and with what concerns Wall Street." 

Bloomberg covers the A/C-driven spike in natural gas prices and notes, "Gas traders are also watching Tropical Storm Chris, which may become a hurricane as soon as today.  The storm was 60 miles northeast of the Caribbean island of St. Martin earlier today, and is expected to reach the Florida Keys by Monday morning, meaning it is still several days away from posing any threat to Gulf of Mexico rigs.  Energy prices sometimes rise on tropical systems if they are deemed a threat to offshore production." 

The Los Angeles Times: The Senate yesterday passed a bill that would expand offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, but the bill differs enough from the House version that tough negotiations are expected.  "Senators from both parties, attuned to constituents' ire over high fuel costs, were eager to pass energy legislation before heading home for the summer recess.  Eighteen Democrats joined 53 Republicans to support the Senate bill...  But critics of the Senate bill said it would provide no immediate relief from high pump prices." 

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is in Minnesota today for a couple of events emphasizing renewable energy.

MORE ON THE BUSH/GOP AGENDA
In their push to pass a partial estate tax repeal, Senate Republicans "propose to revive generous business-travel deductions for spouses to appeal to Democrats from tourism-dependent states such as Hawaii," says the Wall Street Journal

The Houston Chronicle writes that Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez praised the Pence-Hutchison immigration compromise that would delay a guest-worker plan until the border is secured first.  "'They both believe their proposal is a starting point.  We encourage the House and Senate to continue talking, and to continue this rational approach to finding solutions.'" 

President Bush was pronounced healthy yesterday after his annual physical, though he seemed a bit displeased by having gained almost five pounds, and blamed all the recent birthday cakes marking his 60th.  "PREZ FATTER BUT STILL FIT," the New York Post headlines. 

THE DEMOCRATS
Leading Senate Democrats will highlight the tenth anniversary of the last time Congress raised the minimum wage today by calling on Republicans to pass a "real" increase -- i.e., not one that's tied to tax breaks for the wealthy.  NBC's Mike Viqueira reports that Friday will indeed be the day for votes on this package -- and that the fate of a companion bill that would bolster worker pensions hinges on the success or failure of the first measure.  If the vote to stop debate on the minimum wage/estate tax repeal package succeeds, that makes it more likely that the Senate will get around to a vote on the pension-reform bill on Friday, as well.  If not, then pension reform might have to wait until September.

As all eyes in Washington were focused on events Cuba and the Middle East, two Democrats running in competitive Senate races yesterday sought to highlight an issue they think people will pay attention to this fall: the Medicare prescription drug benefit.  On a conference call with reporters, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Rep. Sherrod Brown of Ohio blasted the program's so-called "donut hole," the gap in coverage that forces some seniors to pay for their drugs out-of-pocket.  Brown said the problem rests on the shoulders of Republicans, arguing that the Administration had performed a "bait and switch" -- hiding the details from lawmakers when creating the plan, and not informing seniors about the gap until they had signed up.  "Bottom line: [Democrats] want to fix this," Stabenow said. 

Channeling a recent First Read lead, the Washington Post looks at Democrats' various and sundry voter turnout efforts, obstacles posed by the absence of a presidential GOTV effort and big donors like George Soros, and the lack of trust among all the different entities involved.  "Several Democratic lawmakers and strategists said the current overall approach is flawed because it is difficult to get groups to share information and divide assignments so that all of the key... races are covered." 

THE VALUES DEBATE
"Conservative Republicans who brought international attention to Kansas by approving academic standards calling evolution into question lost control of the state school board in primaries," the AP reports.  "As a result of the vote, board members and candidates who believe evolution is well-supported by evidence will have a 6-4 majority.  Evolution skeptics had entered the election with a 6-4 majority." 

MORE ON THE MIDTERMS
The Los Angeles Times looks at how senior House Republicans are facing unusually tough challenges which are forcing them to dust off their campaign machinery and hit the trail.  "With Democrats needing a 15-seat gain to win control of the House, most of their top targets are junior GOP lawmakers or perennially vulnerable incumbents in swing districts.  But they almost assuredly will have to beat more-entrenched Republicans like Pryce to win a majority." 

The AP notes that House Speaker Dennis Hastert was near Bush's Crawford ranch campaigning for Iraq war vet Van Taylor (R), who's challenging Rep. Chet Edwards (D).  "Hastert, who said he is 'playing offense' by campaigning in 42 districts nationwide throughout August, said Republicans are targeting some Democratic districts in Georgia, South Carolina, Vermont, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa and Washington." 

Senate Democrats are about to unveil a Web site that might look familiar.  The point, per a spokesperson for the party's Senate campaign committee, is "to serve as a central depot for people to access information and news coverage about GOP Senate candidates."  The site?  www.fudgereport.net

The AP covers former President Clinton stumping yesterday for CALIFORNIA gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides (D) -- and helping him raise an estimated $4 million. 

Roll Call: There's much speculation about how the outcome of the Democratic Senate primary will affect the prospects of the party's House candidates in CONNECTICUT, where Democrats hope to pick up as many as three GOP-held seats. 

And the New York Times reminds us that pledges by many high-profile Democrats to remain loyal to the party's nominee could, if Lieberman loses the primary, "set the stage for an extraordinary battle pitting some national Democrats against a fixture of the party who was their own vice presidential candidate in 2000." 

Not shockingly, Castro is becoming a topic in the FLORIDA gubernatorial race.  State Sen. Rod Smith is criticizing Rep. Jim Davis, his rival for the Democratic nomination, for meeting with Castro in 2003.  The Miami Herald notes that "Davis' trip to Cuba is unlikely to be a top issue for most Democratic primary voters, but it matters a great deal to Miami-Dade's predominantly Republican Cuban exiles, many of whom take a hard-line view on travel to the island," and so if Davis becomes the party's nominee, this could come up again during a general election campaign. 

In KANSAS yesterday, Jim Barnett, a conservative doctor, won the GOP gubernatorial primary and will now face incumbent Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D), who is the clear favorite to win in November, reports the Kansas City Star.

In NEW JERSEY, Senate candidate Tom Kean, Jr. (R) holds a press conference at 10:00 am challenging opponent Bob Menendez (D) "to stop taking trips paid for by lobbyists and special interests," per the release.  Meanwhile, Menendez will launch a "Stop Privatization" tour on Thursday that hits Kean on Social Security reform.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer previews Bush's stop in OHIO today.  And now that Bush has campaigned twice for Sen. Mike DeWine (R), First Lady Laura Bush will step in to help too, reports the Dayton Daily News.  She will attend a $1000-a-plate fundraiser on August 16 to raise cash for the incumbent.

And Bloomberg focuses on Sen. Maria Cantwell (D), an embattled incumbent in WASHINGTON STATE, as Senate Republicans' potential crucial vote in favor of a partial estate tax repeal, given how she is "in a tough re-election race and under conflicting pressures from multimillionaires in her home state of Washington...  Cantwell's state is also home to outspoken advocates on both sides of the estate tax issue." 

“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.

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