Tuesday, August 22, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

  1. Other political news of note
    1. Animated Boehner: 'There's nothing complex about the Keystone Pipeline!'

      House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.

    2. Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

In today's issue:
Bush, now at 42%, heads to swing-state Minnesota
Another incumbent could go down in defeat today
The White House's new "news-conference strategy?"
A close-up look at House battleground New York

First glance
President Bush heads to Minnetonka, MN for a panel on health transparency at 3:35 pm ET.  "The President believes Americans should have reliable information about the prices and quality of most common medical procedures, and he will sign an Executive Order today to help increase access to this information," per the White House.  After that event, he headlines a fundraiser for the Minnesota GOP and House candidate Michele Bachmann in Wayzata, MN at 5:45 pm ET.

The fundraiser will take place at a private residence and is closed-press, which is par for the course for a private home.  Then-President Clinton attended his share of closed-press fundraisers at private homes.  But the fact that Bush is having a lot of closed-press events lately (he's got another one tomorrow in Virginia) happens to coincide with the storyline of Republican candidates seeking to distance themselves from him.  With Bush standing firm on US troops not "leaving before the job is done" in Iraq, as he said several times yesterday, and the war remaining Americans' top concern, that storyline is likely to persist.  On a brighter note for Bush and the GOP, though, two national polls now show his job approval rating at 42%.

Minnesota Senate candidate Mark Kennedy (R), who has gotten a lot of coverage lately for his ads and other ways in which he's arguably trying to distance himself from Bush, plans to be there for both presidential events today, his campaign tells First Read.  Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) also will attend both events.  (Pawlenty told First Read recently that the Iraq war probably wouldn't be as big a topic in the governor's race, which will turn more on state issues, as in races for the House and Senate.  But one of the two Democratic candidates for governor lost a son in Iraq last year.)

A couple of states whose primaries are usually off the radar screen are on it today, for different reasons.  In Wyoming, Vice President and Lynne Cheney will vote in Jackson around 10:30 am ET.  And in Alaska, GOP Gov. Frank Murkowski could become the fourth incumbent to get ousted in a primary.  Two weeks ago, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D), Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D), and Rep. Joe Schwarz (R) went down to defeat in their primaries, fueling the perception that there's a growing anti-incumbent sentiment in the country.  In Alaska, polls suggest that Murkowski could even finish in third place today.

Murkowski finds himself on the brink of defeat for a host of different reasons: He appointed his daughter to fill his US Senate seat, which some saw as a blatant act of nepotism; he had to make unpopular cuts to balance the state's budget; and despite those budget problems, he had the state purchase a jet for his own use.  "Individually, each of these decisions might be defended," University of Alaska Fairbanks political scientist Jerry McBeath tells First Read.  "The problem was that there was negative fallout from each, [creating]... a cascade of negative perceptions."

Murkowski has tried to right the ship by running a radio ad with the lyrics, "He's a man that's not afraid to take some licks.  He might not win awards for his charisma, but Alaska's going to need Frank in '06."  A newspaper ad noted that while he might need a "personality transplant," it takes a "strong will to make things happen."  Still, public polls show him trailing both former Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin and businessman and former state lawmaker John Binkley.  And a Murkowski loss today would be bad news for the likely Democratic nominee, former Gov. Tony Knowles, who has high name ID and plenty of campaign resources, but would still benefit from facing a vulnerable opponent like Murkowski in his effort to win in this crimson-red state.  Two years ago, Knowles lost a Senate bid against Murkowski's daughter Lisa.

Still, McBeath says he wouldn't discount Murkowski squeaking out a surprise primary win, due to his incumbency and the fact that Palin and Binkley are similar ideologically and could split the opposition vote.  Polls in Alaska open at 11:00 am ET and close at midnight ET.

Checked MSNBC.com's political calendar lately?

Security politics
The latest Gallup/USA Today poll shows Bush's job approval rating at its highest in six months (42%) and an unnamed Democratic congressional candidate beating an unnamed Republican by the lowest margin in a year (2 points).  The paper attributes this to the London terror arrests: "The boost may prove to be temporary, but it was evidence of the continuing political power of terrorism."  That said: "Terrorism is the only area in which Bush has a positive standing and the only one that significantly changed.  His rating is below 40% on six other issues."  CNN's new poll also has Bush at 42%.

The Washington Post says Bush's passionate "defense of his Iraq policy" yesterday "was striking in light of the plummeting support for the war among the public and -- more worrisome for the White House -- among Republicans...  Iraq has become the central issue in the" fall campaign, "prompting some GOP candidates to avoid public appearances with the president."

Bush "put the issue squarely at the top of this year's congressional elections, saying it will be a defining difference between Republicans and Democrats...  Democrats said they welcome the election-year debate and charged Mr. Bush isn't offering anything concrete for voters to back." – Washington Times

"White House aides said yesterday's press conference was the beginning of a more aggressive plan to help Republicans convince the public that, despite setbacks in Iraq, Democrats don't understand that success in Iraq is critical to the broader war against terrorism," reports the Boston Globe.

The New York Times says Bush's news conference was "the most direct attack on Democrats that Mr. Bush has made from a White House lectern this election year, and it effectively signaled the beginning of a more outright political season for him."

The Los Angeles Times looks at the broader point of the news conference: "During his third extended question-and-answer session with reporters in as many weeks, Bush underscored GOP strategists' hopes that even a president plagued by low approval ratings can use his bully pulpit to fill the airwaves with a message designed to help the party's candidates...  On each topic," including on Katrina and gas prices, "Bush acknowledged public anxiety.  But he defended his record and... accused Democrats of weakness...  Although he has often been accused of avoiding critical questioners, Bush's appearance suggested he was settling into a pattern of regular, wide-ranging interactions with reporters in which he can appear confident and presidential."

The Wall Street Journal says three GOP office-seekers have called for "heightened screening of Muslim airline passengers since the foiling of an airline bombing plot in Britain."

It's the economy...
Something else that might indirectly boost Bush: "Gasoline prices likely have peaked for the year as oil costs have backed off record highs and the busy summer driving season comes to a close...  But drivers aren't completely in the clear," since a hurricane or international conflict could disrupt the oil supply and send prices higher. – USA Today

Bloomberg reports, pegged to the shutdown of BP's Prudhoe Bay pipeline because of deterioration, that "decaying pipelines threaten to add 20 percent to energy prices in the next decade...  A growing minority of analysts, oil executives and government officials say the current system for producing and transporting crude will be unable to deliver the energy needed in the next 10 years."

The immigration debate
The Washington Post reports on a new Congressional Budget Office study showing that the Senate immigration-reform plan, which is backed by President Bush, "would raise government spending by as much as $126 billion over the next decade, as the government begins paying out federal benefits to millions of new legal workers and cracks down on the border."

The Democrats
One last note about the Democratic National Committee meeting in Chicago this past weekend: It got far more coverage for its impact on the party's 2008 presidential nominating process than for anything Democratic leaders there had to say about 2006.  In fact, some Democrats worried that the calendar debate would trump what they were really hoping would make news, which was chairman Howard Dean's message that Democrats will not cede the national security issue to Republicans.  But Dean had little to say about the subject that was new, and the attending political press corps focused on the calendar.

Former President Clinton pens a New York Times op-ed noting that the welfare reform law he signed exactly 10 years ago has proved to be "a great success."  He adds, "Regarding the politics of welfare reform, there is a great lesson to be learned, particularly in today's hyper-partisan environment, where the Republican leadership forces bills through Congress without even a hint of bipartisanship.  Simply put, welfare reform worked because we all worked together."

Despite Clinton's sanguine assessment, a Times article says that "social workers and researchers are raising concerns about families that have not made the transition [from welfare to work] and often lead extraordinarily precarious lives.  These include mothers who... continue to need counseling and cash.  They also include another large group of poor mothers - one million by some estimates - who are neither working nor receiving benefits."

Battle for the House: New York
If a wave is going to sink the House Republican majority on November 7, MSNBC.com's Tom Curry writes, it should sweep Democrats to victory in open seats such as in New York's 24th district, currently held by retiring Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R), where Democrat Michael Arcuri is battling Republican Ray Meier.

Meier says his party has lost its way on fiscal matters.  "I view my job as convincing these voters that they should entrust me -- not my party -- me, with their seat in the House," Meier told Curry yesterday after a press conference he appeared at with Rep. James Walsh (R) in front of a veterans' hospital in Syracuse.

But even if Meier loses this seat to Arcuri, Curry asks, is it conceivable that the Democrats could win the district next door by beating entrenched 18-year GOP veteran Walsh?  Walsh's father, a former mayor of Syracuse, used to represent the district in 1970s, and the Walsh name here carries real weight.  Democrat Dan Maffei, who looks young enough to be Walsh's kid brother, nevertheless says he'll oust the incumbent and evokes 1974, when the Democrats gained 49 House seats.

Walsh, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, yesterday showed his prowess at bringing money to Syracuse.  At what used to be a GE facility in Liverpool, NY, Lockheed Martin now designs a new mobile air defense system to replace the Patriot missile.  Walsh helped arrange $375,000 in HUD money -- an earmark -- to help Lockheed Martin convert warehouse space into engineering facilities.

"He's a press secretary," scoffed Walsh about Maffei.  "He has spent a lot of time with the Washington press trying to sell them on the competitiveness of this race.  But he has not broken through here.  People don't know who he is."

Maffei, who grew up in Syracuse before working for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) and on the staff of the House Ways & Means Committee, acknowledges Walsh has higher name ID than he does.  "He was better known before he was born," he says, alluding to Walsh's family.  Two years ago, no Democrat chose to run against Walsh, making this the only district Sen. John Kerry (D) carried where his party had no House candidate.

Today, Walsh has another event to highlight more HUD money coming to the district, $1.7 million for a senior citizen housing project in Cicero, just north of Syracuse.  Meanwhile Maffei is on an early flight to LaGuardia and then to the Upper East Side of Manhattan to do a fundraiser with Arcuri, DCCC chair Rahm Emanuel and Rep. Charlie Rangel.  As of July 1, Walsh had twice much cash on hand as Maffei, roughly $600,000 to $200,000.

More on the midterms
In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and state Democratic leaders have agreed to raise the state's minimum wage to $8 per hour.  "The deal, which will be formally announced today, allows both parties to claim victory in an election year while elevating California's profile as one of the best-paying states in the country."  In response to the news, Schwarzenegger opponent Phil Angelides (D) released a statement saying: "For close to three years, Governor Schwarzenegger has done the maximum to block a minimum wage increase and now that he is trying to save his own job he is giving minimum support to the minimum wage." – Sacramento Bee

President Bush's comment yesterday that he's "staying out of Connecticut" amounted to an informal endorsement of Sen. Joe Lieberman (D), analysts tell the Hartford Courant, while the Lieberman campaign attempted to shrug it off.  "Connecticut pollster Christopher Barnes said that in the last few days 'the president's friends have sent enough signals to Republicans in Connecticut that the White House thinks that Lieberman is the person they should be supporting.'  Bush's statement is the final deal-sealer."

"Critics of [Lieberman's] independent run to keep his job attacked on two fronts Monday, with one group asking an elections official to throw him out of the Democratic Party and a former rival calling on state officials to keep his name off the November ballot," says the AP.  The former request "could lead to a hearing in which Lieberman... would have to argue that he still adheres to the party's principles...  Lieberman campaign manager Sherry Brown branded the effort 'dirty political tricks at its worst.'"

The campaign-trail rhetoric in the Maryland governor's race has been a lot more polite than what's going out to voters in the mail, it turns out. – Washington Post

In Missouri, at 7:30 pm ET, country music legend Willie Nelson will endorse Senate candidate Claire McCaskill (D) and hold a joint press conference on her family farm plan and her support for embryonic stem-cell research.

To add to the missteps and woes of the GOP candidates in New York who are challenging Sen. Hillary Clinton (D), the New York Times reports that KT McFarland ® is canceling campaign events for the next few days “to help her 16-year-old daughter, who was arrested and charged with shoplifting in Suffolk County last weekend.”

The Washington Times covers Sen. Rick Santorum (R) of Pennsylvania, first an upstart reformer, now a member of the GOP leadership struggling to survive his re-election bid as conservatives question whether he has forgotten his roots.

In Tennessee, Democrat Harold Ford's Senate campaign released its own poll this morning, showing Ford leading opponent Bob Corker (R) by two points, 44%-42% (although within the margin of error).  Last night, Ford issued a tough statement regarding Bush's comments on Iraq: "President Bush again today said the best policy to win in Iraq is to stay the course.  My Republican opponent, Bob Corker, agrees...  President Bush and Mr. Corker are ignoring the reality of the present conditions in Iraq and no amount of spin will change that reality."

And in Texas, Sugar Land Mayor David Wallace (R) has dropped the idea of running as a write-in candidate for former Rep. Tom DeLay's House seat and will support Houston city councilmember Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, who's the Establishment-backed candidate in the party's uphill fight to hang onto the seat. – Houston Chronicle

Oh-eight
Per the Des Moines Register, Democratic activists in Iowa are now questioning whether the new changes to the nominating calendar will have the reverse effect of what the DNC had hoped to accomplish.  And the Register's David Yepsen argues the same point: "Packing so many events so closely after the Iowa events just makes Iowa more important.  There is not enough time between these caucuses and primaries for a candidate to recover from a setback here - or to slow the winner's momentum."

Former Sen. John Edwards (D) and House candidate and former NFL star QB Heath Shuler will hold a 12:30 pm event in Henderson, NC to discuss "how to lift more Americans out of poverty and into the middle class."  Prior to the event, Edwards will speak at a United Transportation Union regional meeting in Asheville.

The New York Post has Rudy Giuliani (R) saying that Republicans want Sen. Hillary Clinton to be the Democrats' nominee so they can vote against her.  "'Hillary probably has the distinction of being the best fund-raiser for the Democratic Party - and the best fund-raiser for the Republican Party,' said Giuliani, who ran against her for the Senate in 2000 until he dropped out after a prostate-cancer diagnosis and a divorce."

The Los Angeles Times dubs it "Obama-mania."  AP reports Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu even endorsed Sen. Barack Obama (D), who is currently touring Africa, should Obama ever decide to run for president.  The Chicago Tribune says Obama will get an HIV test this week to set an example for African men.

The AP notes that GOP Gov. Mitt Romney's chief of staff is leaving her job to serve on Romney's Commonwealth PAC, "the committee Romney is using to support his travel and to fund state candidates as he weighs a run for president in 2008."

The Boston Herald reports that Romney's PAC's website now features a biographical video of his "'great American story,' which opens with a victorious Romney standing amid falling election-night confetti."

“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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