First Read is taking the holiday weekend and will return on Tuesday, September 5th.  In the meantime, you can find the latest political news on MSNBC's politics page.

Thursday, August 31, 2006 | 11:35 a.m. ET
From Ken Strickland and Elizabeth Wilner

  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

Amid the brouhaha over Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's comments about the Administration's Iraq war critics yesterday, the White House announced five judicial nominations, including a couple of controversial retreads who've had trouble getting through the process in the past. One of them, Terrence Boyle, has languished in the system for years, most recently because of possible conflict-of-interest issues.

But another, William Haynes III, may become the standout of this particular class. Senators of both parties have balked at Haynes' nomination because of concern over his role, as then-Pentagon counsel, in writing the controversial memos outlining US torture policy toward detainees. The issues of torture and of US military commissions are expected to play prominently in September as Republicans bring a raft of security-related bills to the floor in an effort to gain some leverage against Democrats heading into the midterm elections.

The judicial nominations also represent a White House effort to gain some leverage for the election. When Congress returns to Washington after Labor Day, they will only be in session for a few weeks before departing again until after election day, and they're looking at a full plate already. It seems unlikely that the Senate will get around to considering these nominations before leaving town again. But some social conservatives at the party base, who feel strongly that Bush put conservatives on the bench, will be enthused by the move. And from a more pragmatic standpoint, with Republicans currently expected to lose Senate seats on election day, they may have less muscle to push through judicial nominees after November.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006 | 9:30 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

In today's issue:
Rumsfeld's bad cop to Rice's good cop: Bush officials test September 11 messages
With the Katrina anniversary behind them, the Bushes hit the trail
Dr. Frist: practicing medicine without a license?
First Read, now off for the weekend, wishes everyone a happy and safe holiday

First glance
While most eyes have been focused on the still-recovering Gulf Coast during the first half of this week, the Bush Administration has been dispatching some of its biggest names in national security to test September 11 anniversary messages before military audiences, including the veterans' conventions that are held at about this time every year.  On Monday, for example, Vice President Cheney told the Veterans of Foreign Wars that while other countries have been hit, Bush's anti-terror policies have protected the United States from another terrorist attack since September 11, 2001.

It's within this larger context that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld asserted yesterday, at the American Legion's annual convention, that critics of the Administration's Iraq and anti-terror policies are trying to appease "a new type of fascism."  He also called Iraq the "epicenter" of the war on terror, illustrating the fine line Bush and his officials are trying to walk on this topic as Bush is now saying he never suggested that Iraq was behind the September 11 strike.  When NBC's Brian Williams pointed out in his interview with Bush yesterday that Iraqis were not the attackers, Bush said, "They -- they weren't -- no I agree, they weren't Iraqis, nor did I ever say Iraq ordered that attack, but they're a part of -- Iraq is part of the struggle against the terrorists...  I personally do not believe that Saddam Hussein picked up the phone and said, 'al Qaeda, attack America.'"  Democratic operatives say they plan to hit back hard on Rumsfeld's comments today, details TBD.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice played good cop to Rumsfeld's bad cop yesterday.  Despite her equally prominent role in setting the Administration's Iraq policy, Rice's rare domestic address to the American Legion highlighted how she has suffered far less criticism over the war than Rumsfeld, in part because of her less confrontational style.  She echoed some of Bush's words from his recent news conference, strongly defending America's role in Iraq and warning of severe consequences if America quits "before the job is done."  She also said she's aware of the concern across the country about the course and future of the war, but urged Americans to stay committed to the effort, NBC's Libby Leist reports.

This series of speeches will be capped off by Bush's own address to the American Legion tomorrow.  It's not the first time the Administration has used these audiences to try to send messages on national security during a campaign year.  In 2004, Bush used a VFW speech to announce that he was calling for what his campaign termed as "the largest troop realignment since the end of the Cold War," though that realignment did not directly affect troop status in Iraq.  At the time, the campaign claimed the "plan will strengthen the military's ability to address threats in a post 9/11 world and improve its ability to protect America."  (Sen. John Kerry addressed the VFW two days later.)  The Wall Street Journal says today that Bush's speech tomorrow will kick off a third round of presidential remarks intended to bolster public support for the war.

Today, Bush raises money for the Arkansas GOP and gubernatorial nominee Asa Hutchinson, his former undersecretary of homeland security and DEA chief, at a private home in Little Rock at 1:30 pm ET; the event is closed-press.  He then flies to Nashville for an open-press fundraiser for GOP Senate nominee Bob Corker at 6:30 pm ET.  He overnights in Salt Lake City, where tomorrow, he'll address the American Legion.

First Lady Laura Bush hits the trail for a few troubled Senate contenders.  She headlines both a fundraising breakfast and lunch for nominee Mike McGavick in Washington state.  Perhaps to air the issues before Mrs. Bush showed up, McGavick blogged last week on his campaign website about two "great failures" of his personal life: his divorce, which left his son with a "'part-time' dad," and a citation for a DUI "when I cut a yellow light too close in 1993."  She then heads to Montana to raise money for GOP Sen. Conrad Burns, who started off looking vulnerable because of his ties to corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff, but more recently has walked into the caught-on-tape buzz saw with a series of unfortunate remarks.  All of Laura Bush's events today are open-press.

First Read is now off for the holiday and will return on Tuesday, September 5.  We wish everyone a safe and happy Labor Day weekend.

Got calendar?

Security politics
The Wall Street Journal says Bush's American Legion speech tomorrow will kick off "another major public-relations offensive to strengthen support for the Iraq war -- this time likely emphasizing the high stakes and changing nature of the battle more than the progress being made...  The speeches will be aimed at rebutting mounting public calls -- from Democrats and even a few Republicans -- for setting some kind of timetable for at least a limited troop withdrawal."  Moderate GOP Rep. Chris Shays, who last week called for US troop withdrawal, told the Journal "that a new outreach by the president could be helpful to Republicans if the White House is honest about past mistakes and future prospects.  But overemphasizing differences with Democrats could hurt, he said."

(Remember this item from earlier in the week?  When interviewing Shays about his call for US troop withdrawal, the Courant reported that he "interrupted the interview to take a call from a White House official interested in hearing the congressman clarify his comments firsthand." – Hartford Courant

In his own American Legion speech yesterday, Rumsfeld "accused critics of the administration's Iraq and counterterrorism policies of trying to appease 'a new type of fascism,'" says the AP.  "In unusually explicit terms, Mr Rumsfeld portrayed the Bush administration's critics as suffering from 'moral or intellectual confusion' about what threatens the nation's security and accused them of lacking the courage to fight back."  His words came in the context of "what he called the lessons of history, including the failed efforts to appease the Adolf Hitler regime in the 1930s."

"By likening today's U.S. foreign policy to that during World War II and the Cold War, Rumsfeld sought to portray skeptics of the Bush administration as being on the wrong side of history."  The Los Angeles Times notes that Rumsfeld "has become one of the administration's most divisive figures, and demands for his resignation have become a litmus test in congressional races around the country as Iraq confronts deepening violence and civil strife."

"Rumsfeld also criticized the American media for what he characterized as a preoccupation with reporting only the negative aspects of the conflict in Iraq and the larger war against terrorism," says USA Today.  "He said a database search of leading newspapers turned up 10 times more mentions of abuse by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison than to the fact that Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith was awarded the Medal of Honor...  'Those who know the truth need to speak out against these kinds of myths and distortions that are being told about our troops and our country.'"

Democratic lawmakers, scattered around the globe for recess, fired back with a barrage of written statements.  The DNC holds a press conference call today to highlight the alleged failure of "the Bush Republicans in Congress to support America's veterans."

Also today, Rep. Barney Frank criticizes the Administration's lack of attention to the war in Afghanistan, and for painting Democrats as weak on national security, in a Boston Globe op-ed. Frank suggests that Afghanistan is absent from the national debate "because of a conscious, unfortunately successful effort by the Bush administration and its conservative allies to ignore it.  That's because acknowledging the war there would invalidate their charge that their political opponents are unwilling to take a forceful stand against terrorism."

Just one week after Bush said the United States will remain in Iraq "so long" as he's president, the liberal Americans United for Change has launched an ad in Norfolk, VA; Columbus, OH; and Waco, TX called "Change."  The ad is a montage of Bush's past declarations that the Administration will "stay the course," not just in Iraq, but on issues such as college tuition costs and gas prices.  A second ad running in Montana attacks the Administration on high energy prices.  The total ad buy for both ads -- which will run through Labor Day -- is $500,000.

Disaster politics
The Times-Picayune notes that after meeting with Bush earlier in the day yesterday, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin "was noticeably absent for the remainder of Bush's visit."  For the President, "quickening the flow of relief money was a major theme of the anniversary visit, and a topic on which Bush strove to display his mastery of Katrina details...  He at times came up lacking," including in a local radio interview in which he overestimated Army Corps of Engineers spending.

As Bush urged scattered New Orleans residents to come home, "[t]op Democrats said [residents] are not to blame for not returning.  They said the president and Republicans must do more than take the blame, by opening up the federal checkbook and making sure programs he promised last year get up and running." – Washington Times

The Washington Post, always attuned to staging, notes of Bush's schedule yesterday that the White House "carefully chose the scenes it wanted to highlight on this, the anniversary of one of Bush's biggest political embarrassments."  The high school he spoke at "has reformulated itself as a charter school...  New Orleans has seen a flowering of such charter schools in the past year, and Bush hailed the trend, a small example of his more conservative policies taking root in the aftermath of Katrina."

"In the midst of the otherwise sober commemorations..., Bush made two last-minute stops that brought him in touch with the city's music and one of its icons," including delivering "a National Medal of Arts to Antoine 'Fats' Domino to replace the one lost when the singer's home in the Lower 9th Ward was destroyed." – Los Angeles Times

"The key for me is to keep expectations low," Bush told NBC's Williams during their interview yesterday in discussing his reading list -- a possibly inadvertent recognition of one of the reasons behind his success both on the campaign trail and as president.

It's the economy
A potential boost for Bush and Republicans: "Gasoline prices are falling fast and could keep dropping for months...  AAA foresees prices 10 cents a gallon lower by the end of next week.  It reported a nationwide average of $2.84 Tuesday, the lowest since April 20.  It's good news for consumers and the economy.  Continued lower prices 'may act like a tax cut' and stimulate spending, says Richard DeKaser, chief economist at National City in Cleveland." – USA Today

New Census Bureau data released yesterday showed that the nation's "median household income rose last year for the first time since 1999," but the "jump hid some somber news.  Earnings actually fell for people working full-time.  Household income rose because more people worked in the households, albeit at lower paying jobs."  Also: "The portion of Americans living in poverty declined to 12.6% in 2005, down from 12.7% a year earlier.  The change, although not statistically significant was the first poverty rate drop since 2000." – USA Today

Presidential contender and former Sen. John Edwards (D), who has focused on fighting poverty since leaving office, said in a statement yesterday that "Katrina should have been a defining moment in the fight against poverty - the American people's desire for change should have been matched by action from this Administration.  But it wasn't.  And a year later, we see the result of the Administration's inattention and neglect - stagnation."

The New York Times covers the report's indication of "continuing erosion in the percentage of Americans covered by health insurance."

The Democrats
AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney will hold a press briefing at 12 noon today to detail the labor group's "election mobilization" efforts for the midterm elections.  As we reported earlier this month, the group plans to spend $40 million and will focus their efforts on 21 gubernatorial, 15 Senate, and 50 House races.  The AFL says this effort -- which they hope will reach more than 12.4 million voters in 21 states -- is the largest in their history.  Sweeney will discuss how they plan on making advances on workers' issues like the minimum wage and health care, and will present new polling information on other issues.

The Financial Times recalls DNC chair Howard Dean's remarks to another paper recently that "the 'religious community' would have to decide 'whether they want to be tax exempt or involved in politics'.  It was not the most intelligent thing he could have said, given the current state of church-state relations in the US.  Mr Dean tried to contain the damage by explaining that he was not pushing for challenges to the tax exemption of conservative churches.  He was simply warning against giving congregation lists to political parties and other forms of prohibited political action by bodies of worship." – Financial Times

More on the midterms
Sen. Chuck Schumer, chair of the Democratic Senate campaign committee, held an off-camera briefing yesterday in which he stated that Democrats are poised to make significant gains in November, although he admitted that taking back the Senate will be tough.  "The campaigns continue to roll in our direction," he said.  "We're feeling very, very good."  Schumer noted that Democrats have a "good chance" of winning Virginia, something he admitted he wouldn't have said a few weeks ago (before Allen's "macaca" comment).  He also observed that embattled GOP Sens. Mike DeWine, Rick Santorum, and Jim Talent have already spent millions on ads -- while his candidates haven't -- and those races haven't changed.  "If you spend five and a half million and can't get over 40%, you have a huge problem," he said about Santorum.

Regarding the intra-party debate over how much financial help the DNC will deliver for the midterms, Schumer said that there are "ongoing negotiations" and that he is "hopeful we can come to an agreement that makes [everyone] happy."  But he refused to discuss what those negotiations might entail.  "We want the DNC's help in every possible way they can help."

The Arkansas News Bureau reports that the "one thing Republican Asa Hutchinson can count on from today's scheduled visit by George Bush is money for his gubernatorial campaign...  A bump in stature among key independent voters may be too much to expect from a widely unpopular president whose job approval rating has dipped below 40 percent even in Arkansas, a state Bush carried handily in two presidential elections, observers said."

Note that the Tennessean makes a similar point in previewing Bush's visit there for Senate nominee Bob Corker: "In a race that's being watched across the nation, there's no doubt that the president can help Corker raise money for the two months ahead.  But voters' views of the president, and their views of one of Bush's key issues - staying the course in Iraq - could help Corker or hurt him at the polls in November."

Regarding Connecticut's Senate race, Schumer yesterday noted that he will meet with nominee Ned Lamont in the coming days and intends to help him in any way he can.  Does he consider Lieberman to be a Democrat?  Schumer replied that Lieberman is running as an independent Democrat: "I'll take him at his word, but the DSCC is supporting Ned Lamont."  The Hartford Courant suggests that Schumer might be hedging on Lieberman because Democrats could come up just short of a majority in the Senate and need every Democratic seat -- including a Lieberman-held seat -- they've got.

Maryland's two African-American members of Congress, both Democrats, are expected to endorse Senate candidate Kweisi Mfume today.  Mfume is competing against one of their colleagues, Rep. Ben Cardin, who as of now is favored to win the September 12 primary. – Roll Call

In the Rhode Island GOP Senate primary, which in many ways is the opposite situation from the Lieberman race in Connecticut, Bloomberg looks at how the "national Republican leadership is supporting [moderate incumbent Sen. Lincoln] Chafee, despite his many defections, because it believes he is the only one who can win the general election." - Bloomberg

And Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) has called for a special election to "coincide" with the November general election to fill former Rep. Tom DeLay's seat.  This "means that preferred GOP write-in candidate Shelley Sekula-Gibbs will have her name on the ballot, if she runs in the special election as well. Candidates have until Friday to file."  Also, "Mr. Perry's decision could give the special election's winner a slight edge in seniority over other members of next year's freshman class in the U.S. House." – Dallas Morning News

Oh-eight
First, he arguably dented his own physician credentials by "diagnosing" Terri Schiavo via videotape.  Now the AP reports that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist -- who would make his heart-surgeon credentials a big part of his presidential platform, if he runs-- "did not meet all the requirements needed to keep his medical license active - even though he gave paperwork to Tennessee officials indicating that he had, his office acknowledged Tuesday.  Tennessee requires its licensed physicians to complete 40 hours of continuing medical education every two years.  Frist... submitted a license renewal with the Tennessee Health Department stating he has fulfilled that requirement."  A Frist spokesperson told the AP that Frist "is working to clear up the problem and had contacted the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners to see if corrective steps are necessary."  The aide suggested that "Frist may have been unaware of" a recent change in guidelines.

Ethics
Remember Kenneth Tomlinson, the controversial head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting who was ousted last year?  The New York Times front-pages that State Department investigators have found that Tomlinson, who now oversees the agency responsible for government broadcasts to foreign countries, "has used his office to run a 'horse racing operation' and... improperly put a friend on the payroll."  He also "repeatedly used government employees to perform personal errands and... billed the government for more days of work than the rules permit."  Through his lawyer, he "issued a statement denying that he had done anything improper."

And a lawyer for former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has acknowledged that Armitage was Bob Novak's source in the CIA leak controversy. – New York Times

“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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