Thursday, August 24, 2006 | 9:25 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:
A tale of two anniversaries
Six hot Senate debates on Meet the Press this fall
More fallout from McCain's "day at the beach"
Lieberman: on the ballot, if not exactly on top

First glance
Politics isn't waiting for the big anniversary to arrive.  Six days before the one-year mark since Hurricane Katrina hit, President Bush met yesterday with a Katrina survivor and proclaimed the week of August 27 "Minority Enterprise Development Week" in an effort to head off Democratic criticism of his record on helping Gulf Coast residents, particularly minorities.  Meanwhile, Democrats piled on with statements and reports, including one from the party's Hill leaders on Administration "failures," and another from the Democratic National Committee on alleged "promises made, promises broken."

Hurricane Katrina and September 11, inconceivable disasters that hit the United States one year ago next week and five years ago next month, are the twin milestones of Bush's tenure.  They did more than any other one-time event (i.e., not counting the ongoing Iraq war) to shape public opinion about his presidency and about him personally.  In some ways, the political damage Bush incurred from his handling of Katrina eroded the benefits he reaped from his handling of September 11.  With his presidency struggling somewhat prior to the terrorist attacks, he got a boost in the aftermath, and his party also got the issue that would carry them to victory in the 2002 and 2004 elections.  After Katrina, Bush took a hit in his personal standing, but Republicans hope that a lingering edge over Democrats on fighting terrorism will spare them from big losses in the midterms.

In the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted in September 2005, Americans gave Bush a 48% approval rating for his handling of Katrina's aftermath, whereas in our poll from September 12, 2001, they gave him an 80% approval rating for his handling of the terrorist attacks.  In the September 2005 post-Katrina poll, Bush's ratings on being a strong leader dropped 5 points from that previous July, and his ability to handle a crisis dropped 15 points from that previous January.  The survey also marked the first time Bush garnered both personal and professional ratings below 50%, a situation President Clinton avoided for two terms.

Katrina wasn't the sole cause of Bush's plunge in the polls in 2005, but it expedited a slide that happened over several months, driven by growing dissatisfaction with the Iraq war and rising gas prices, as well as Bush's unsuccessful campaign to reform Social Security.  Katrina also set back efforts by Bush and the GOP to appeal to African-American voters.  The NBC/Journal poll conducted after Katrina last year showed Bush's job approval among African-Americans at 2%, though it has recovered since.

The best Bush can probably hope for is that the Katrina anniversary proves to be a wash -- that the Administration's extensive PR efforts neutralize the Democrats'.  On Monday, Bush will visit Gulfport and Biloxi, MS.  On Tuesday he'll have events in New Orleans, including the signing of a proclamation declaring a National Day of Remembrance.

As Democrats have done with Katrina, Republicans will come out of the gate early in their effort to gain from the September 11 anniversary.  Business and government strategist Billy Moore (D) wrote to clients recently, "Republican Congressional leaders plan to use the month of September... to bring legislation to the floor showcasing a 'security agenda.'  The agenda includes the 2007 Defense and Homeland Security spending bills, reform of warrantless eavesdropping laws, a port security measure and authorization of tribunals for Guantanamo Bay prisoners.  House leaders are preparing a rhetorical offensive attacking Democrats as weak on security issues.  Democrats plan a counterpunch that highlights the failure to capture Osama bin Laden, errors in Iraq and incompetence in the Department of Homeland Security."

The President leaves this morning for a long weekend in Kennebunkport.  NBC's Andrea Mitchell points out that both President Bushes will be in Kennebunkport together for the first time in two years.

And First Read is pleased to announce NBC's Meet the Press 2006 Senate debate series, the show's latest round of in-studio debates building off its previous award-winning debates in 2002 and 2004.  The series, moderated by Tim Russert, will kick off with a September 3 face-off between Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (R) and Bob Casey (D), who are competing in the hottest Senate race in the country.  Following that will be Virginia Sen. George Allen (R) vs. Jim Webb (D) on September 13; Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine (R) vs. Sherrod Brown (D) on October 1; Missouri Sen. Jim Talent (R) vs. Claire McCaskill (D) on October 8; Minnesota candidates Amy Klobuchar (D) and Mark Kennedy (R) on October 15; and the Maryland Senate nominees (still TBD) on October 29.

We'll return on Monday, August 28.  Got calendar ?

Disaster politics
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) tour coastal Louisiana today, including St. Bernard Parish, which is where Bush's visitor/booster yesterday, Rockey Vaccarella, hails from.  (Vaccarella called for a third Bush term.)  The New York Daily News notes, as NBC's Kelly O'Donnell anticipated yesterday, that "Bush's meeting with Vaccarella triggered criticism over his failure to meet one-on-one with peace mom Cindy Sheehan and even some victims of the 9/11 attacks."

NBC's Ken Strickland reports on the study released yesterday by Hill Democrats on the Administration's original "failed response" to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  Among the key findings: that thousands of families are still waiting for FEMA trailers; that an estimated 11% of the $19 billion that has been spent by FEMA has gone to waste, fraud and abuse; that 80% of Gulf Coast businesses with approved SBA disaster loans are still waiting to get their loans; that the Republican-run Congress didn't enact needed housing money for homeowners in Louisiana until June, 10 months after Katrina; and that few hospitals and public schools have reopened.

House candidate Diane Farrell, who is challenging Connecticut Rep. Chris Shays (R) in one of the nation's most competitive races, will be appearing in a panel entitled "Are We Prepared?" with community leaders tomorrow.  Per a release, "One year after Hurricane Katrina, are we prepared for a disaster, natural or man-made?  What other steps need to be taken?"

Security politics
The Washington Post notices a shift in the White House's case for the Iraq war from Bush's Monday news conference.  "For three years, the president tried to reassure Americans that more progress was being made in Iraq than they realized.  But with Iraq either in civil war or on the brink of it, Bush dropped the unseen-progress argument in favor of the contention that things could be even worse...  Bush advisers once believed that if they met certain benchmarks..., the war would be won.  Now they believe they have more or less met those goals, yet the war rages on."

White House spokesperson Dana Perino yesterday tried to brush off GOP Sen. John McCain's "day at the beach" criticism from Tuesday, arguing that McCain "has made similar comments" before.  Perino also pointed out that McCain "shares... a commitment with the President that we win Iraq, and he understands the struggle that we're in.  The President appreciates his support."

The Washington Times notes, "Mr. McCain has become a yardstick that Democratic challengers are using to attack Republicans...  Rep. Sherrod Brown, the Democratic member of Congress who is running to unseat" GOP Sen. Mike DeWine, on whose behalf McCain was appearing when he made the "day at the beach" remark, "pointedly noted that Mr. DeWine did not agree with Mr. McCain."

MoveOn.org Political Action is going up with two ads this week targeting GOP Reps. John Sweeney (NY-20), Randy Kuhl (NY-29), and Charles Bass (NH-2).  The roughly $600,000 ad buy is part of MoveOn.org's "caught red-handed" campaign, which the group says is an effort to hold Republicans "accountable for failing to stand up to the Bush Administration" on Iraq.  One new ad which began airing yesterday, "Dumping Billions," accuses the lawmakers of "pouring" money into Iraq while "needs at home" such as health care and education are "unmet."  The second ad, "Red-Handed Defense," which has already run in other districts, will begin airing today.  It alleges that the three have failed to prevent "war profiteering" in Iraq from companies like Halliburton.

The immigration debate
The latest House field hearing on immigration reform takes place today in Concord, NH.  The Washington Times marks Bush's 100 days of campaigning for his proposed immigration reforms and his lack of success, so far, in winning over House Republicans.

The Wall Street Journal looks at how House Republicans' hard line on immigration reform is alienating business groups, a key part of the party base.

"Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff will tour the Texas-Mexico border this morning with the conservative authors of a congressional immigration compromise, in what will be the clearest sign yet that the Bush administration is prepared to make major concessions to reach an immigration deal this year," reports the Washington Post.  The compromise would address border security first and require a trigger for a guest-worker plan, but it's "unclear whether any compromise stands a chance of passage" before the election.

Lieberman vs. Lamont
Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) has petitioned his way onto the ballot.  Per the Hartford Courant, "the three-term incumbent and former Democratic vice presidential nominee will be harder to spot.  Republican Alan Schlesinger will occupy the top line, followed by Democrat Ned Lamont, Timothy A. Knibbs of the Concerned Citizens, Ralph A. Ferrucci of the Green Party - and then Lieberman."

The Courant also reports that Lamont "was invited to meet Friday in New York with Sen. Hillary Clinton to discuss how the former first lady might help his cause."

The New York Times notes that Lieberman, who often shied away from talking about the war in the primary, is now "speaking more forcefully and in starker detail about why he believes the United States must remain militarily engaged in Iraq."  His comments seem to be "a reflection of his desire to win over independents and Republicans."  (That said, polls show that more than 60% of all Connecticut voters believe the war to be a mistake, and 70% disapprove of Bush's handling of it.)

The Republican National Committee's detailed press release yesterday attacking liberal blogger DailyKos, primarily for his support for Democratic nominee Ned Lamont, was not an end unto itself.  RNC aides tell First Read that the release is one part of laying the groundwork to tie Democratic candidates around the country to Kos, claiming that either Kos has supported them or that there's another "affiliation of some type," per one.  On their list: Arizona Senate candidate Jim Pederson, Colorado gubernatorial candidate Bill Ritter, Maryland Senate candidate Ben Cardin, Minnesota Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar, New Mexico House candidate Patsy Madrid, Tennessee Senate candidate Harold Ford, and Pennsylvania Senate candidate Bob Casey and House candidates Joe Sestak and Lois Murphy.  Unclear how much of an effect this effort will have on the races themselves, but it'll probably keep the GOP base happy.

Battle for the House: More on New York
As part of an occasional series from MSNBC.com's roving Tom Curry...  How can an incumbent who won with 66% two years ago be in jeopardy today, he asks.  Drive through the Albany area on your way to the Saratoga Springs racetrack and you'll notice that Rep. John Sweeney (R) is working overtime to remind the 20th district how indispensable he is.  His radio ads are hard to miss: an elderly lady saying that Sweeney got $118,000 in federal money (earmarks!) to buy two buses for the senior citizens' community where she lives.  "Effective and independent, he works for us," the narrator chimes in.

Independent?  Per its vote ratings for 2005, CQ says Sweeney voted with Bush 82% of the time on roll call votes, Curry says.  They parted ways on a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages and on increased funding of embryonic stem cell research.

As for the $118,000 for the buses, Sweeney says, "Earmarks are one percent of the federal budget, so the buzz coming from the Jeff Flakes on my side of the aisle, and from some demagogic Democrats is just false.  Federal spending is out of control because of mandatory spending" and due to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said.  He calls his earmarks "not pork in my mind; it is necessary requisite spending."

Sweeney is trying to fight off well-funded Democratic lawyer Kirsten Gillibrand.  Albany-born and educated at UCLA Law School, she's the daughter of Albany lobbyist Douglas Rutnik and was a counsel to HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo in the Clinton Administration.  She'd raised $1.2 million in funds as of July 1, compared to Sweeney's $1.7 million.

Sweeney spent Wednesday walking through the Washington County fair; today, Gillibrand will do the same.  Sweeney donned an apron and gloves to help the firemen from Argyle, NY grill racks of chicken.  "I keep saying to people like Charlie Cook and the rest of them: show me the poll that says this race is what they say it is," Sweeney told Curry.  As of last week, the Cook Political Report had this race rated as "lean Republican."  Democrats, Sweeney contended, "can't make the plausible argument they can take back the majority without having races like mine and everybody else in the Northeast.  That's the sales pitch Rahm Emanuel is giving to the nation.  He's trying to create a buzz."

And psychological warfare is crucial, Curry notes: If Emanuel's committee convinces donors that incumbents like Sweeney are vulnerable, and that a wave is building, then maybe it really will build.

More on the midterms
Alaska's primary results came in so late that many papers didn't examine the reasons behind ousted GOP Gov. Frank Murkowski's loss -- including voters' generally bad mood -- until this morning.  "Alaska political experts cautioned against reading too much national significance into the result.  The main reason for Murkowski's loss, they said, was public anger over a host of local issues." – Los Angeles Times

Still: "Political experts say that while local issues are at the root of many tight gubernatorial races, a general unease among voters that begins at the White House and trickles all the way down... could eliminate the traditional edge incumbents have," says the Wall Street Journal.

The Los Angeles Times says that between the minimum-wage hike and prescription-drug discount, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is scoring deals with Democratic legislators that rob their party of issues to use against him in the gubernatorial race.  "Now Schwarzenegger is in intense negotiations with Democrats on legislation that would cap emissions from factories and other immobile sources of pollution."

Democratic strategist Chris Lehane writes in the California Majority Report that his party's nominee, Phil Angelides, needs a game-changer if he's to stop Schwarzenegger.  Lehane suggests that Angelides announce that if elected governor, he will pull California National Guard troops out of Iraq.  "The war is extremely unpopular in California across the spectrum-even with Republicans...  The announcement would generate enormous free media attention and would change the nature of the campaign from a discussion about taxes-a sure loser-to a discussion about Iraq-a sure winner."

Coincidentally, the state Democratic party yesterday announced a TV ad buy that includes one spot which says, "130,000 American troops remain in Iraq under George W. Bush...  Arnold Schwarzenegger's for George W. Bush...  Is he for you?"  State party spokesperson Roger Salazar tells First Read that this ad and a positive spot about Angelides are running in the San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Sacramento markets, among others, and that the buy is "substantial."  On cue, Team Schwarzenegger announced a new ad of their own: "Where does Phil Angelides live?  All he talks about is President Bush."

Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons has endorsed Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) in the Maryland Senate race, blurring the lines when it comes to the state's considerable African-American vote.  "Mr. Simmons... helped the Democratic Party register hundreds of thousands of voters via the Hip Hop Summit Action Network, which he co-founded in 2001." – Washington Times

Christy Mihos has secured a place on the ballot as an independent for governor of Massachusetts.  Mihos' candidacy poses the greatest threat to Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey (R). – Boston Globe

In New York's Senate race, the latest WNBC/Marist Poll shows John Spencer leading KT McFarland in the GOP contest, 38%-16%, with 46% undecided. But Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) bests both of them easily in a hypothetical general election.

Vice President Cheney headlines a reception for Rep. Steve Chabot (R) and the Ohio GOP.  The event will take place at yet another private home in Cincinnati at 4:30 pm and will once again be closed-press.  NBC's Cincinnati affiliate reports that the event will raise about $300,000.

His "macaca" remark is back on the front page of the Washington Post, but Virginia Sen. George Allen (R) hopes it will be for the last time, now that he has directly called and apologized to the young Democratic operative who was the focus of that remark.

Oh-eight
While many of the presidential campaigns are staffing up on one front or the other, few have been as aggressive about putting names out there as the McCain camp.  Last night, Time.com reported that former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick is planning to go to work for McCain full-time next year, overseeing development of domestic and foreign policy.  The Hotline's On Call reported that Dean 2004 webmaster Nicco Mele is also helping McCain.

McClatchy points out that McCain will celebrate his 70th birthday next week and if elected, would be the oldest first-term president in US history.  "Whether this changes the presidential campaign probably will depend on whether McCain appears healthy and vigorous - and thus up to the unique demands of the job - or not."

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) relinquished oversight of the completion of the Big Dig to the Turnpike Authority "despite a federal agreement that gave his administration the power to annually ensure the tunnels were properly maintained," according to documents obtained by the Boston Globe.  The paper notes that during Romney's 2002 campaign for governor, "a major plank in his platform became the elimination of the Turnpike Authority, which he called a haven of patronage and waste."

Sen. Joe Biden (D), in a Washington Post op-ed, reminds readers that he laid out a detailed plan for Iraq months ago.  "Since then, circumstances in Iraq have made the plan even more on target -- and urgent -- than when we first proposed it."

“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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