Tuesday, August 29, 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 and Democrats commemorate Katrina's one-year mark
Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice on the speaking circuit
Bush v. Ahmadinejad?
Happy 70th, Senator McCain

First glance
Having breakfasted earlier with Mayor Ray Nagin, President Bush at this writing is about to attend a prayer service commemorating this first anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina hit.  The service will take place in St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, where Bush delivered his primetime speech on September 15.  The Bushes will then take part in a roundtable on the Gulf Coast Library Recovery Initiative at a local high school, make joint remarks, and visit with local residents and volunteers.

Bush also will give an exclusive interview to NBC's Brian Williams, which will air tonight on NBC Nightly News as well as on MSNBC, CNBC, and MSNBC.com; Williams will also blog about the interview on The Daily Nightly on MSNBC.com.

Vice President Dick Cheney is in Omaha for a fundraising luncheon for a local congressman and a rally with the troops at Offutt Air Force Base.  Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is making a surprise visit to Iraq where, NBC's Pete Williams reports, he'll meet with Justice Department employees and hold a news conference arranged by the US embassy.  And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will speak at the American Legion convention in Salt Lake City today, her second speech to a domestic audience this summer.  NBC's Libby Leist says it's an indication that the Administration is seeking to capitalize on Rice's popularity during this election season.  Up until now, she has largely avoided the criticism over the Iraq war that has dogged Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld.

Per Rice's spokesperson Sean McCormack, her speech will focus heavily on Iraq and "what is at stake" there; she'll also put the current unrest in the Middle East into historical context, Leist reports.  With Iraq looming large in this election cycle, McCormack dismisses suggestions that Rice's speech is tied to the political calendar.  He maintains that she believes strongly in talking about foreign policy to domestic audiences regardless of politics.  Rice won't just be making a speech and leaving town, however -- she has scheduled seven interviews with local TV, newspaper and radio outlets.  (When she addressed the Southern Baptist Convention in Greensboro, NC earlier this year, she did local press as well.)

And GOP Sen. John McCain turns 70 today, which means that this apparent frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination already is eligible for Social Security benefits, Medicare, and even senior discounts for coffee at McDonald's.  While some analysts believe McCain's biggest hurdle in winning the GOP nomination is ideology, his age -- he'll be 72 in 2008, which would make him the oldest candidate to first be elected to the White House -- could be just as problematic.

History shows that concerns about age haven't always doomed presidential candidates.  During his 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan -- then 69, the oldest person to be inaugurated -- told the New York Times that he would undergo periodic medical tests and would resign the office if there was evidence of senility or mental deterioration.  Questions about his age then largely disappeared until he fared poorly in a 1984 debate against Walter Mondale.  But in the following debate, Reagan used humor to defuse the issue: "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."  He went on to easily win a second term.

In 1996, however, 73-year-old Bob Dole couldn't escape questions about his age, even from fellow seniors.  "You know, when you get a little old, your mind starts to go," a 78-year-old man told the Baltimore Sun about Dole.  "You forget.  I do think age is a factor."  Another senior citizen, quoted by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: "Look at Clinton since he went in there.  Don't you think he aged?  And you're going to take it on at 73?"

If questions come up about McCain's age, he might mention his mother, Roberta, who's over 90.  The New Yorker interviewed her a year ago, noting that she was about to depart on a three-month trip to Europe and India.  It also reported that she had recently been stopped for speeding in Arizona, going over 100 mph -- perhaps not surprising for the mother of a former Navy pilot.

Got calendar ?

Disaster politics
The Times-Picayune says that while Bush didn't talk much to reporters after arriving in New Orleans yesterday, "[Mayor Ray] Nagin filled the void, addressing reporters outside the hotel, taking on the touchy issues of race, rebuilding politics and the recent controversy about his reference to the World Trade Center site."

Bloomberg, previewing Bush's events in New Orleans today, notes that as he "promised last year, he left most of the planning to the local and state governments; to this day, there is no overall blueprint for redeveloping the city...  While the U.S. has set aside $110 billion to aid victims of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, only about $44 billion has been spent -- and most went to help people in the immediate aftermath of the three storms that hit five states last year."

Gulf Coast recovery czar Donald Powell and Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen will hold an off-camera briefing on federal recovery efforts and the 2006 hurricane season at 3:00 pm ET.

The Washington Post says Bush's visit to Mississippi yesterday was "carefully scripted by the White House" and "left little possibility of the president encountering much anger over the federal reconstruction efforts...  Some of the same people he met last year were in a friendly audience of several dozen local residents who heard from Bush" yesterday.

"Returning to the Gulf Coast to mark a year's arduous recovery from Hurricane Katrina, President Bush said Monday the rebuilding will take years - not months.  But Bush, who suffered a political blow with the storm and the government response that he later called inadequate, also delivered an uplifting assessment of the work so far, noting the progress since his first visit just days after the storm." – Houston Chronicle

The Chicago Tribune: "Critics of the government's rebuilding program say it is not simply the time it has taken to clear the debris left by Katrina.  They say the Bush administration has shown no signs of readiness to fulfill the president's commitment to address racial inequities in the region that were exposed by the crisis and to help impoverished survivors build new businesses and become homeowners as well."

The Washington Times says 25 House Democrats will "tour parts of the Gulf Coast this week.  House Democrats have released a series of reports faulting the federal government for shortchanging housing and schools, for racking up wasteful spending, and for failing to ensure contracts go to small businesses."

Democratic candidates around the country, from the East Coast to California, plan to hold Katrina-related events today.  The liberal Campaign for America's Future hosts an 11:00 am conference call for reporters with Democratic Reps. Jim Clyburn and Maxine Waters "to outline the failures of the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina one year after the storm's landfall."  Clyburn "will join the call from New Orleans while touring the region with other federal officials."  CAF also will release a report "that details how the conservative ideology of disinvestment, cronyism and corruption has failed America in both the rescue and the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast."

And now for the lighter side of this grim anniversary: The pool reporter covering Bush stumbled upon former West Wing star Rob Lowe last night and filed a bonus pool report. "Since we can't be but who we are, the amiable encounter quickly devolved into a press conference.  Rob Lowe, who seemed to welcome this development, said he is in town starting production tomorrow on a TNT Christmas movie called 'A Perfect Day.'  Rob Lowe said he had never been to New Orleans before.  He said the production company suggested either New Orleans or Canada for shooting, and he picked New Orleans.  He said he also took a pay cut to make it work..."

"Asked what he would say to Nagin and Bush, dining in the next room, Rob Lowe demurred, saying 'I only play somebody smart enough to ask those questions'...  Unfortunately, the town will appear generically in the movie - and not as New Orleans.  He said all of the crew is local and very few people were brought in from LA...  Rob Lowe is just really amazingly cute in person.  Rob Lowe has left the building...  Oh, but first he got an earful from the entire pool about the unrealistic lighting and access by the press depicted in 'The West Wing.'"

Security politics
It's not exactly Zell Miller challenging MSNBC's Chris Matthews to a duel, but it's close: the leader of Iran has challenged Bush to a live TV debate, Reuters reports.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told US troops during a Q+A session in Nevada yesterday that terrorists are manipulating the US media.  "Mr. Rumsfeld was asked whether the criticism he draws as Pentagon chief and a leading advocate of the war in Iraq is an impediment to performing his job.  He said that it was not and that he knows from history that wars are normally unpopular with many Americans...  'What bothers me the most is how clever the enemy is,' he continued, launching an extensive broadside at Islamist groups...  'They are actively manipulating the media in this country' by, for example, falsely blaming U.S. troops for civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said." – Associated Press

The Los Angeles Times, wrapping up speeches yesterday by Cheney and Rumsfeld, says Rumsfeld also "questioned why people were debating whether or not Iraq was part of the war on terrorism, citing brutal insurgent attacks and statements by terrorist leaders about the central role of Iraq to their cause."  Cheney, meanwhile, told attendees of the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention that "'sound policy decisions' by the Bush administration were the reason the United States had not been attacked by terrorists since Sept. 11, 2001."  Cheney's claim is "a frequent theme in his recent speeches" and "contrasts sharply with criticism by Democrats and others who charge the administration has left the U.S. more vulnerable to terrorism by focusing on the war in Iraq."

Cheney also "warned against a 'precipitous withdrawal' from Iraq and suggested that those who advocate reducing the American troop presence are guilty of 'self-defeating pessimism.'"  And he "avoided direct references to the Democrats and the midterm elections." – New York Times

It's the economy
A new Census Bureau report due out today is expected to show that "the number of Americans without health insurance probably rose to a record in 2005 as medical costs increased three times as fast as wages...  The total has climbed every year since [Bush] took office, a point Democrats are likely to seize on in this year's congressional election...  The government also will probably report that the percentage of Americans living in poverty dropped after reaching a six-year high in 2004."  - Bloomberg

The Chrysler Group said yesterday "that it expected gasoline prices to remain at $3 to $4 a gallon for the rest of this decade.  The comments by Thomas W. LaSorda, Chrysler's chief executive, are the first time a Detroit automaker has issued a specific forecast on gas prices since they began climbing to $3 a gallon and higher." – New York Times

Lawmakers will get to face off against another big oil company.  BP executives are scheduled to testify before Congress next week about their pipeline problem in Alaska, and may now face questions about allegations of price manipulation. – Wall Street Journal

The immigration debate
Political scientist Ross Baker writes in USA Today that the House and Senate bills are so disparate for three reasons: "the very different constituencies represented by the 100 senators and the 435 House members, the varying terms of senators and House members, and the greater influence the minority party enjoys in the Senate."

The New York Times profiles Rep. Mike Pence (R), who has sterling conservative credentials -- but who has also angered fellow conservatives for trying to broker a compromise in the immigration debate.

More on the Bush agenda
The Washington Post front-pages the contrast between Bush's initiative "to combat international kleptocracy, the sort of high-level corruption by foreign officials that he called 'a grave and corrosive abuse of power' that 'threatens our national interest and violates our values,'" and his upcoming visit with the President of Kazakhstan, "an autocrat who runs a nation that is anything but free and who has been accused by U.S. prosecutors of pocketing the bulk of $78 million in bribes from an American businessman."  The Administration considers him "a friendly, stable moderate in a region of harsher, sometimes hostile dictators and has been hopeful he will open up and cleanse his government."

The Boston Globe's Canellos says charges that the Bush Administration has overstepped its boundaries have caused a "flurry of concern among some Republicans in Congress, but no serious outrage."  However, "if the Democrats win a majority in either chamber -- a real possibility, according to many analysts surveying the political landscape -- the current brushfire of concern over Bush's interpretation of his own powers could become a conflagration."

More on the midterms
The new Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll has Bush's job approval rating at 39% among registered voters, and Democrats with an 11-point edge on the generic congressional ballot test.

Democratic Senate campaign committee chair Chuck Schumer will hold an off-camera briefing with reporters to talk about recent developments in the Senate races at 1:00 pm.

The FEC is expected to decide today on a proposal that could exempt some forms of radio and TV ads from the current ban covering the weeks before the general election, which could unleash a spate of pre-election ads from labor, business groups, and other interests. – Roll Call

Connecticut Democratic Senate nominee Ned Lamont has been endorsed by the Service Employees International Union. – Hartford Courant

In Florida last night, Republican gubernatorial candidates Tom Gallagher and Charlie Crist faced off in the final debate before next week's primary.  However, per the Miami Herald, voters in Broward County -- home to more Republicans than any other county in the state -- missed the heated debate because the NBC affiliate aired Hurricane Katrina anniversary coverage instead.  The station will air the debate again on Saturday. – Miami Herald

In New York last night, the two gubernatorial candidates not named Spitzer -- Tom Suozzi (D) and John Faso (R) -- participated in a debate.  Nevertheless, Spitzer "was the 900-pound gorilla not in the room last night," as his two rivals spent their hourlong debate taking shots at [him] and hardly laying a glove on each other." – New York Times

Speaking of New York debates, the only one scheduled for the Democratic Senate primary "will probably be scrapped this week because Sen. Hillary Clinton likely won't face her anti-war challenger," the New York Daily News writes.  – New York Daily News

Also in the Empire State, the New York Post notes that targeted Rep. John Sweeney (R) holds a 19-point lead over Democratic challenger Kirsten Gillibrand, per a new Siena College Research Institute poll. – New York Post

Ohio gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell (R), trailing in the polls by double digits, is up with his first TV ad of the general election, which hits opponent Ted Strickland (D) for votes he's cast in the House that allegedly raise taxes.  "In the campaign for Governor, watch out Ohio for Taxin' Ted Strickland," the ad says.  "In Congress, Taxin' Ted voted 31 times to increase taxes -- on gasoline, family income, even Social Security."

The Financial Times reports that McCain "has agreed in principle to speak at the Conservatives' annual conference in October...  Securing Mr McCain as the star turn in Bournemouth would be a coup for David Cameron, who has paid little attention to world affairs since becoming Tory leader in December and has not yet been to Washington...  [T]he Tories are likely to bill Mr McCain as the coming man, with whom Mr Cameron could eventually do business if both were to win power."

In Kenya, Sen. Barack Obama (D) gave a speech about corruption, noting "the irony of a politician from Chicago, known for its long history of public corruption, talking about good government," per the AP.  Combined dispatches in the Washington Times say Obama is in Africa to criticize as much as to praise.

And former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D), who is exploring a bid for the White House, was in Iowa yesterday on a two-day swing through the state during which he said troops should start coming home from Iraq. "Warner's statement that 'we've got to find a way out of Iraq' marks a departure from the wait-and-see stance he articulated this summer, when he said withdrawal should be an option." – Des Moines Register

“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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