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First Glance
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...the millions of Iraqis who defied insurgent threats of violence and turned out to vote on Sunday.  Turnout seemed higher than expected, with very unofficial and preliminary estimates around 60%.  Acts of violence occurred but seemed somewhat less than had been anticipated.  Preliminary results may come in the next few days, in time for the President to tout the election as a success in his State of the Union on Wednesday night. 

...John Kerry, who sought to put a good face on his November loss yesterday morning on Meet the Press. 

...Howard Dean, who just suffered a blow to his effort to lock up victory in the crowded race for DNC chair.  If Dean does get elected in the February 12 vote, still a very real though not certain possibility, he would be a national chair lacking solid support from two of the party's biggest interests: the Democratic state chairmen and labor.  Yesterday, a panel of state chairs apparently decided -- they're not confirming -- to recommend that their full cadre colleagues endorse one candidate, and it isn't Dean.  The state chairs vote on the recommendation this morning.  Tomorrow, a big huddle of labor officials is likely to show that unions are also split.  More on this below.

Nor are things quite coming up roses for President Bush on the Social Security front, even as he plans to target five Democratic Senators up for re-election in post-SOTU visits to their states.  On the Hill, at least, Democrats seem more unified than Republicans in either chamber as some in the GOP ranks fidget over Bush's proposal with an eye toward the midterm elections.  Meanwhile, the Democratic Hill leadership delivers a prebuttal to Bush's State of the Union speech today at the National Press Club at 10:00 am.  House Minority Leader Pelosi will talk about domestic issues, specifically Social Security; Senate counterpart Reid will address national/homeland security.  More on Democrats' plans to prebut/rebut the SOTU below.

The President today swears in his Secretary of Education at 10:45 am, with traces of the Armstrong Williams brouhaha still floating in the air, and does a photo op with the Detroit Pistons at 3:00 pm.

The Senate meets at 1:00 pm; the House is not in session.

USA today: "U.S. and Iraqi officials expressed relief that the violence had not been worse and were optimistic that turnout could top their 50% goal.  Overseas, about 250,000 expatriate Iraqis voted.  Sunday's vote was a crucial test of Bush's goal of spreading democracy in the Middle East and a milestone for U.S. policy in Iraq, where more than 150,000 U.S. troops are deployed and more than 1,400 servicemembers have died." 

The Washington Post: "Officials loosely estimated voter turnout at 60 percent nationwide -- a figure that, if accurate, would make Sunday's vote perhaps the freest, most competitive election in an authoritarian Arab world and a rare victory for the Bush administration in Iraq."

The Washington Times says a 60-percent turnout would be "about the same percentage as in the most recent national elections in the United States and Britain." 

"It's too early to know how high the turnout was, or even how it will affect political progress," says the Wall Street Journal.  "The president and top aides portrayed the turnout as a direct repudiation of the insurgents and terror groups that have sought for months to thwart the vote...  U.S. officials also cautioned that the election marked only one big step on the way to establishing a new Iraqi government."

The New York Times notes, “With televised images showing jubilant Iraqis, filling out ballots and participating in the first truly free election in more than 50 years, Mr. Bush and his aides were clearly concerned that the imagery would add to the pressures at home to set a clear timetable for withdrawing the 150,000 American forces...  So even while hailing the accomplishment, they spent much of the day tamping down expectations...” 

More from the Post: "Bush interpreted the election as validation of his broader foreign policy agenda -- the spread of liberty throughout the Islamic world -- outlined 10 days earlier in his second inaugural address...  But Democratic critics and some Middle East analysts cautioned against viewing the election as an indication of the future -- or overrating U.S. responsibility for the outcome...  Analysts also noted that the Bush administration initially resisted the idea of holding elections this soon and only succumbed under pressure from Iraq's most powerful cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani."

"As expected, Shiite Muslims and Kurds turned out in overwhelming numbers, but Sunni Arabs who dominated the country politically until Saddam Hussein's ouster largely stayed away.  Voters in three predominantly Sunni Arab provinces - Al Anbar, Salahuddin and Nineveh, the latter including the city of Mosul - appeared certain to be underrepresented in the final count."  - Los Angeles Times

"Interviews with voters in Baghdad and around the country suggested that two of the biggest vote-getters would be the United Iraqi Alliance, a prominent coalition of Shi'ite Islamist groups that has claimed the mantle of the long-oppressed Shi'ite majority, and the Iraqi List, headed by US-backed interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who has presented himself as a secular alternative willing to crack down on violence."  - Boston Globe

More from USA Today: "There were moments when voting regulations were bent or broken, but they seemed to be motivated by enthusiasm, not corruption."

"About 26,000 Iraqi expatriates in the United States... registered to vote in the election, a small fraction of the eligible voters outside Iraq.  Despite bad weather and tight security, turnout at the five US polling places over the weekend was expected to top 90 percent..."  - Boston Globe

The Bush agenda: Social Security
The Wall Street Journal says Bush officials are combating concerns among the GOP ranks that Bush's Social Security plan could become "his party's "HillaryCare... That is the 'killer analogy,' one Republican lawmaker says..."

Roll Call reports that at the GOP Hill retreat late last week, Karl Rove "emphasized the importance of Social Security and advised lawmakers not to worry that tackling the subject could doom them at the polls.  According to one Republican who was present, Rove argued that the GOP had not lost a single lawmaker because of the Social Security issue in the past three election cycles."  OMB director Joshua Bolten "also touched on Social Security" and "promised that Bush’s forthcoming spending blueprint would be austere and that the White House was well aware of the need to rein in the deficit."

The head of the GOP House campaign committee "observed that 'senior turnout' would be especially important in an off-year election, making it imperative that GOP candidates develop a cohesive communications strategy to deal with Social Security and Medicare."

The Washington Post reports that Republicans left the retreat with a "104-page playbook titled 'Saving Social Security,' a deliberate echo of the language President Bill Clinton used to argue that the retirement system's trust fund should be built up in anticipation of the baby boomers' retirement...  Party leaders said the gathering marked a change from debating how gingerly to take on Social Security, to beginning to work aggressively on doing it while trying to minimize the political risk."

The Washington Times says "Republican lawmakers differ on how specific President Bush should be when he sends a proposal to Capitol Hill for Social Security form, with some saying he should submit a bill and others wanting only principles for reform".

The Washington Times also says today, "Political pollsters say Democratic leaders risk alienating strategic parts of their party's base who support President Bush's plan to let workers invest a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes in stocks or bonds."

And the Sunday Washington Post listed Bush's Social Security plan as one aspect of a broad effort to cripple the Democratic party financially: "a recurring theme of many items on Bush's second-term domestic agenda is that if enacted, they would weaken political and financial pillars that have propped up Democrats for years, political strategists from both parties say."

"Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman rejected the notion that Bush's domestic agenda is driven by calculations about interest-group rewards and penalties.  But he endorsed the idea that the agenda Bush will lay out in his nationally televised speech to Congress on Wednesday night has implications for the long-term balance of power between the parties...  He hopes that individual accounts under Social Security would produce a generation of voters less reliant on government as distributor of benefits, and more ready to identify with the Republican Party as the protector of their interests."

SOTU build-up
Analysts predict that the Fed will increase interest rates by another quarter-point on Wednesday, says the New York Times.  “Inflation … is running higher than a year ago.  Strong oil prices and a weaker dollar both push up the cost of imports, and many analysts have predicted that the soaring trade deficit will cause the dollar to fall even further over the next year...  But in a series of recent speeches and public comments, Fed officials have placed more emphasis on their view that growth will probably remain fairly strong this year...”

The Los Angeles Times points out that "Bush's health insurance agenda is far more developed than his Social Security plans and is advancing at a rapid clip through a combination of actions by government, insurers, employers and individuals."  The story notes that "the Bush administration and Republican leaders in Congress believe they have a new opportunity to move the nation away from the system of employer-provided health insurance" in favor of "a system in which workers... would take personal responsibility for protecting themselves and their families" through a combination of "high-deductible 'catastrophic' insurance policies to cover major medical needs" and HSA's.

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein writes that although Bush officials are seeking to tie his proposals to "Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton,... in each instance, the Bush team is citing the Democrats to sell policies that reverse the strategies those presidents pursued."

USA Today quotes Bush senior advisor Matthew Dowd and Kerry/Clinton strategist Joe Lockhart from a Friday forum in New Orleans.  On Iraq, Dowd predicted "a sea change in the world that started in Afghanistan or Iraq and spread to the Palestinian territories," and that "the president will be judged on Iraq more than anything else that he has done in his presidency."  Lockhart, on the other hand, said of Iraq that "unless things radically change on the ground in the next six to eight months, this could be an issue that consumes the second term of the presidency."

Dowd also asserted that "Democrats have made a big mistake in the last two weeks on" Social Security -- that the "broad majority of the public thinks Social Security is in trouble, it's got big problems, it needs major change."  Lockhart said congressional Republicans are the "group right now that is the most anxious and concerned... because they feel - many of them feel they're being walked out on a plank."

Today, the DNC plans to issue "a fact sheet... detailing the real state of the union," which is "meant to serve as a type of viewers' guide," says one DNC aide.  The outpouring of paper will be "focused on what effects Bush's policies will have on generations to come...  We are looking forward to helping viewers of the speech understand and identify the current and growing fractures within Bush's party: "the GOP: who's not clapping and why."

In his national security-focused SOTU prebuttal this morning, Senate Minority Leader Reid will call for an exit strategy for Iraq, increasing Army and Marine recruitment and the ranks of homeland security officials, and a "21st Century GI Bill."  Pelosi, perhaps in a reflection of her discussions about how Democrats should talk about faith, will note in her speech that Social Security "has enabled our country to obey the commandment: 'honor thy father and thy mother.'"  Pelosi will say, "The President seems to see radically overhauling Social Security as the cornerstone of his so called 'ownership society.'"  Pelosi will reiterate the Democratic line that benefits should not be cut and that any reform of the program should not increase the deficit.

The Washington Times busts certain Democratic members who always show up early for the SOTU in order to claim seats that will allow them to be among the first to shake the President's hand.

More whither the Democrats
In the race for DNC chair, this morning the Democratic state chairs will hold a conference call to decide on their executive committee's recommendation that they endorse Donnie Fowler.  The chairs could agree to endorse Fowler or adjourn with reaching any kind of agreement, after which they would start endorsing candidates unilaterally.  Some state chairs have already endorsed Dean.  Aides to Fowler's rivals are raising questions about how the executive committee arrived at their decision yesterday, with some charging that it had to do with personal animosities and loyalty to Fowler's dad, well-liked former DNC chairman Don Fowler.  Fowler is trumpeting the executive committee's decision as an endorsement of his anti-DC consultant platform.  For those of you who care, watch for a kill-Fowler effort to rev up...

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein says the DNC chair race "now resembles either a high school class election on steroids or a matchbox presidential campaign:".

On Sunday, before Fowler picked up the ASDC executive committee recommendation, the Dallas Morning News profiled Martin Frost, noting that he is (was?) emerging as Dean's primary challenger for chair:.

Boston Globe and Washington Post coverage of the Saturday forum for DNC chair candidates focused on the Dean vs. everyone else dynamic.  The New York Times noted that "[t]he prize is to be leader of a party that is arguably in the worst shape it has been since before Bill Clinton's election in 1992."

Kerry on Meet the Press yesterday praised Dean and noted that the DNC chair should be less of a spokesperson for the party and more of a tactician.

The Boston Globe says of Kerry's Meet appearance that "Kerry acknowledged that he made mistakes and said he accepts responsibility...  Still, the Massachusetts Democrat made clear that he believes his loss was largely due to forces beyond his control.  He said the tape released by Osama bin Laden just days before the election provided a stark reminder of the continuing war on terror and caused his poll numbers to decline, and noted that a switch of 60,000 votes in Ohio would have handed him the presidency instead of Bush."

The New York Times: “Mr. Kerry was calm and confident in his first televised interview since his defeat.  The interview underlined his effort to position himself as a leader of the opposition to Mr. Bush in Congress, and strongly suggested that Mr. Kerry might run for president again in 2008...”

The Washington Post notes, "In seeking to maintain his viability as a presidential candidate, Kerry is swimming against a historical tide..."

The New York Daily News adds that “Tim Russert's lengthy grilling about details of a mission on the Cambodian border 36 years ago showed how well Kerry's opponents undercut his valorous record, and how badly Kerry fought back.”

Bush PR notes
USA Today says that soon-to-be-sworn in Education Secretary Margaret Spellings sent a letter to inquiring Senators Specter and Harkin in which she "acknowledged 'errors of judgment' by the Bush administration in paying a pundit to promote its education policies.  She said she has halted work on the contract.  The admission came Friday as Congress' investigative arm opened a probe into the $240,000 contract with commentator Armstrong Williams, who has said that the deal was a mistake."

The Washington Post notes "a 17-word, one-sentence provision in federal law that appears to warn federal agencies away from hiring public relations firms" -- but that the "statute, which dates to 1913, has been difficult to enforce, rarely applied and interpreted in such a way that many agency public relations efforts are considered acceptable."

In their forum last Friday, Lockhart named Kerry, Edwards and Hillary Clinton as "leading contenders" for the Democratic nomination in 2008, while Dowd, interestingly, named GOP mavericks McCain and Giuliani.  – USA Today

Roll Call looks at how Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback (R) might leverage his considerable influence and popularity among social conservatives into a presidential bid in 2008.

And Edwards steps out this week, including a return to New Hampshire on Saturday and his first big speech since the election...


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