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Friday, May 27, 2005 | 9:15 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, and Chris Donovan

First glance
The Memorial Day recess couldn't come soon enough for all parties involved.  President Bush, after getting less than he wanted on his judicial nominees, seeing the House pass a stem-cell funding bill he opposes, and losing the Bolton cloture vote yesterday, gives the commencement address at the US Naval Academy at 10:20 am then bugs out for Camp David.  Bush has not one but two veto threats hanging out there for when Congress returns, on the highway bill and the stem-cell funding bill.

  1. Other political news of note
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      House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.

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    5. Fluke files to run in California

Bill Frist is staggering politically after his double defeat on the filibuster and on Bolton, both of which cast doubt not only on his ability to lead but on his ability to count votes.  There are conflicting accounts of whether Harry Reid told his friend Frist that Frist had the votes for cloture, or whether Reid told Frist that Reid himself had the votes to prevent cloture.  But MSNBC.com points out that Arlen Specter left DC at 4:00 pm yesterday, "which made it appear at that point that the Republican leadership had more than enough votes to reach the 60 they needed."

Senate Democrats head into recess pressing their new case that Republicans don't care about the people's business.  But it wasn't just Senate Republicans who spent the week wholly engrossed in two matters of not much immediate import to Americans.  Now fighting off White House and GOP charges that they filibustered Bolton, they seem unable to tear themselves away from processy wheeling and dealing, and need a fresh start to make their "people's business" case effectively.

The drip-drip on Tom DeLay became a steady stream yesterday when a civil court judge ruled against the treasurer of TRMPAC for failing to properly report hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate contributions which were funneled into Texas House races in 2002.  TRMPAC was founded by DeLay and associates to promote Republicans seeking state legislative seats as the first step toward achieving the mid-decennial Texas redistricting that netted the GOP five more US congressional districts; the case was brought by Democratic state lawmakers who were defeated in that 2002 election.  DeLay says he knew nothing about the improperly accepted and used contributions, and the judge's ruling does not mention him.

This civil case is separate from the criminal case being pursued by Travis County DA Ronnie Earle, although Democrats point out that the charges in the two cases are similar, and view yesterday's ruling as a good sign for Earle's chances.  But the charges in the criminal trial require a higher burden of proof..

And, signaling that congressional Republicans aren't facing criticism only from Democrats, the Wall Street Journal editorial board excoriates the GOP-run Congress this morning: "Americans have learned to expect little from Congress, and by that standard the 109th version controlled by Republicans has met expectations...  Among the 2004 campaign promises that aren't close to being fulfilled are making the Bush tax cuts permanent, reforming Social Security and expanding the market for private health care.  Instead of any of those big three, Congress next seems poised to pass a subsidy-laden energy bill and a highway bill with some 4,000 earmarks for individual Members.  For this we elected Republicans?"

Lastly, with Bush speaking at the Naval Academy today, we decided to do our Friday oh-eight look at one of the Academy's most famous grads, and someone who has also been in the news this week: John McCain.  If he runs, just how would he approach the GOP primary calendar?

Whither Senate comity
The Wall Street Journal on the Bolton vote: "While the vote was technically about a narrow parliamentary question, it carries broader political stakes.  The Senate has been debating Mr. Bolton's nomination for months, and the White House had clearly been hoping to put it -- and the politically damaging questions about the administration's use of Iraq war intelligence that it was reopening -- behind."

"Even though this week's deal on filibusters involved only judicial nominations," USA Today says, "Democrats feared it would prevent them from blocking the Bolton nomination.  The 14 senators... who signed the deal promised to use filibusters only in 'extraordinary circumstances.'  Sen. Chris Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who was leading the effort to block the Bolton vote, acknowledged the timing was 'awkward.'"

The Los Angeles Times reports that "Frist tried throughout the day to meet Biden's demand for information about records Bolton has requested over the past four years from the [NSA]...  According to a Frist aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the majority leader lobbied the administration to give Biden and [Lugar] access to the records sought by Bolton...  The Frist aide said the administration agreed to show edited versions to Biden and Lugar, but the Democrats rejected that offer."

MSNBC.com says that the end result of last night’s vote was that “the Republicans had badly miscalculated their vote tally.  Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., accused the Democratic leaders of reneging on a commitment that some Democratic senators would vote for ending debate…  ‘The Democratic Leader did indicate to the Majority Leader that they intended to help him get votes for cloture,’ said Frist spokeswoman Amy Call after vote.”  Reid’s office, however, disputed that assertion, saying Reid had told Frist he would be unable to get him the 60 votes for cloture.

Polling note: Americans don't have much confidence in the United Nations right now, which isn't to say that an Ambassador Bolton or any other Bush emissary would necessarily be able to help reform the body.  Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll say they have "not very much confidence" in the United Nations or "none at all" (47% and 20%, respectively), while 30% have "quite a lot" or "a great deal" of confidence in it (21% and 9%).  In September 1995, when Gallup asked this question, the response was an even split.

The Washington Times covers Reid's broad thematic speech yesterday, in which the paper says he "accused Republican leaders of being so consumed with partisan political 'sniping' that they've neglected a troubled economy and a weak national defense."

Bush II
The President's lack of awareness of that stray Cessna has "focused attention on how the White House handles the flow of information to Mr. Bush," the Wall Street Journal says.  "Though White House officials say their system works well, they allow that at least two incidents -- including one where the president didn't know about a controversial policy shift -- have prompted them to consider recalibrating their briefings."

USA Today offers a "viewers guide" to Bush news conferences, noting that they "have usually come at the end of the month, and if that pattern holds, he's due for one."

The Chicago Tribune looks at how the White House is using AG Alberto Gonzales in its efforts to woo Latino voters.

Ethics and institutions
The Houston Chronicle says the judge’s opinion yesterday, “which defense attorneys said they will appeal, is the first judicial ruling that indicates TRMPAC's activities were illegal.”

Liberal MoveOn plans to continue hammering DeLay next week, when it sends its members in GOP districts report cards listing how much money their congressmen have received from DeLay's PAC, and comparing their congressmen's voting records to DeLay's.  MoveOn also will ask their online members to deliver petitions to these congressmen, asking them to "fire" DeLay from his leadership position, and will run radio ads.

One of us wrote in another publication earlier this week about similarities between how some Wall Street executives and some members of Congress have experienced ethical lapses of varying degrees, and how Congress may pay for this with seats in 2006 in the same way some execs have paid for it with perp walks.  "Both institutions have cultivated a set of ingrained habits that may encourage some in their ranks to forget appearances or skirt the rules out of ignorance, laziness, arrogance or flat-out corruption - to travel on a lobbyist's dime without finding out who's footing the bill; to put relatives on the payroll; to take shortcuts around financial reporting rules; or to pad the books to degrees that jeopardize their companies' solvency..."  - USA Today

Well, we got some feedback worth sharing.  One Republican member of Congress (whose last name is not Shays) tells First Read, "One other problem worth mentioning.  Members spend a lot of time around rich people.  They begin to believe, given their power and responsibilities, they should enjoy similar lifestyles.  That is always a mistake because they turn to lobbyists and corporations to enable them to do so.  When you are a frequent guest of the moneyed class and their minions, sometimes you forget that you are not a member of the country club."  This same member added, "Politics is like diving.  You get points for style.  We are winning right now, but we are winning ugly.  You have to make the people in the stands like you, because they care about how you look as much as what you do."

A national Democratic strategist, also looking skeptically inward, writes of DeLay's problems in particular, "The question will be, can the Democrats take advantage of it like Gingrich did in 2004."  This strategist suggests that Harry Reid, "who seems to be making the calls for the party," is a "consummate inside player who loves backroom room deals and has mastered outreach to K Street."  Referring to the judicial nominees compromise: "The Senate Democrats are unwilling -- as evidenced by the deal... -- to run against Washington and to throw away their own little perks in order to be a true opposition party.  They think they can govern but they end up making us look like we don't stand for anything.  We fought Owen for four years and now we roll."

In Tennessee, Democratic Rep. Harold Ford's entry into the race to replace Frist in the Senate has been marred by the arrest of his uncle, a state senator who is being accused of taking bribes to influence legislation.  - AP

The Houston Chronicle, incidentally, also covers DeLay’s ire over an episode of NBC’s Law & Order, in which a detective investigating the murder of a judge says, "Maybe we should put out an APB (all points bulletin) for somebody in a Tom DeLay T-shirt.”  “The context for the remark was DeLay's comment during the recent struggle over the fate of brain-damaged Florida woman Terry Schiavo, in which DeLay said, ‘This loss happened because our legal system did not protect the people who need protection most...  The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior.'"  Law & Order creator and executive producer Dick Wolf said he had thought "'all of our viewers understood that these shows are works of fiction...  But I do congratulate Congressman DeLay for switching the spotlight from his own problems to an episode of a TV show.’”

It's the economy
USA Today says it's not just real estate that's soaring, but stocks associated with home-buying and -building.  "Shares of everything from home builders to mortgage lenders and makers of building materials are surging, even faster than home prices, as the industry rocks."

The Wall Street Journal warns junk-bond investors that GM and Ford are coming their way on Wednesday.

The Washington Post says AFL-CIO president John Sweeney seems likely to win a fifth term at the organization's July convention, and the SEIU is likely to leave the AFL, possibly taking four other unions with it.

The Senate Energy Committee yesterday approved its version of the energy bill, which differs from what the House has passed.  On the asbestos litigation reform bill, which also made it out of committee yesterday but still needs a lot of work before getting a floor vote, the Washington Post explains why it matters: "The measure is meant to deal with what has become a slow-motion economic crisis for American business and for tens of thousands of former asbestos workers and their families.  Damage claims from ailing workers have been cited as the reason that more than 70 corporations have filed for bankruptcy protection since the 1970s, with many cases still clogging courts across the nation."  - Washington Post

The New York Times says the committee vote gives the bill considerable momentum, though "its fate remains uncertain."

Washington state
On Day Four of the lawsuit challenging Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire’s victory last year, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer writes that “Republicans squeezed past a potential roadblock… when the judge in the case said they could present statistical evidence to support their claim that Republican Dino Rossi actually won the race…  The GOP's statistical method calls for subtracting illegal votes from the candidates' totals in proportion to the overall vote each candidate received in the affected precincts . That means that an illegal vote from a pro-Gregoire precinct would cut more deeply into her total than Rossi's.”

The Seattle Times notes, however, that the judge said this “doesn't mean he has decided that contested elections should be decided by the sort of circumstantial evidence argued by Republicans and their expert witnesses.  ‘That will be the ultimate decision of the court here at the end of this case,’ Bridges said.” 

Oh-eight (D)
A decision in the David Rosen trial is expected to come anytime now -- right when USA Today reports that new Gallup data shows Senator Clinton for the first time getting a majority of Americans saying they're likely to vote for her if she runs for president in 2008.  The story notes that Clinton gets her strongest support "from those with the lowest income."

Kerry will keynote the National Head Start Association’s 32nd Annual Training Conference in Orlando today.  He'll talk about the future of Head Start and ask for support for his Kids First Act, which aims to provide healthcare to 11 million uninsured children.  Kerry introduced the bill earlier this year with a multi-state tour and e-petition drive.

Oh-eight (R)
The media has always been John McCain's comfort zone.  This week, he's the subject of a 15-page profile in the New Yorker.  An A&E movie based on his "Faith of My Fathers" memoir airson Memorial Day.  And of course, he spearheaded the last-minute deal on the judicial filibuster, however long that deal may last.  All of which has prompted the question: Is he running again for president?  But perhaps an even better question is: If he runs, how does he approach the GOP nominating calendar?

In 2000, McCain picked his fights, avoiding Iowa and its mostly conservative caucus-goers; competing and winning in more maverick-friendly New Hampshire; avoiding Delaware, where he still finished second; and then battling Bush and losing in South Carolina, which proved to be decisive.  McCain went on to win Michigan and Arizona, but by the time the 15 primary contests on March 7 rolled around, it was too late.

This time around, if he runs, the CW suggests he will once again pick his fights, perhaps skipping Iowa and other early battlegrounds dominated by conservatives, who are now angry with him over the judges deal.  But William G. Mayer, an expert on the nominations process at Northeastern University, thinks McCain can't avoid those races because he could potentially be the highest-profile GOP candidate.  "The reason he got away with it five years ago was because he could say, 'I'm the underdog,'" Mayer said.  "That's a much tougher sell this time around."  Moreover, skipping Iowa didn't help the two Democrats who tried it in 2004, Clark and Lieberman.

On the other hand, McCain might be able to pull off skipping those contests because odds makers might not expect him to do well in them.  But for now, this is all speculation -- RNC communications director Brian Jones says the RNC still hasn't decided on the specifics of its 2008 calendar, and that such decisions might not come until after Ken Mehlman's chairmanship ends in 2006.

Still, the GOP contest could once again come down to South Carolina, which could again be a stumbling block for McCain.  Indeed, South Carolina usually plays a pivotal role in GOP nomination contests.  Richard Lessner, executive director of the American Conservative Union, says "New Hampshire Republicans are not like Republicans anywhere else in the country."  Here's a breakdown of how the competitive GOP contests before 2000 actually played out:

1980
Reagan was the front-runner, but Bush 41 spent months in Iowa organizing and won a surprising victory there.  Reagan changed his strategy and went on a campaign blitz throughout New England, and he won New Hampshire by more than a 2-1 margin.  Reagan then beat former Texas Gov. John Connally in South Carolina, reducing the field of candidates to essentially him and Bush -- and he continued to win big victories in several more states.  Bush did beat Reagan in Pennsylvania in April, and he won primaries earlier in Massachusetts and Connecticut (the states where he was born and grew up, respectively), but that was it.  By the time Bush won the Michigan primary in May, it was too late.  Bush dropped out of the race a week later.

1988
Bush did not expect to win Iowa over Dole, but also didn’t foresee Pat Robertson beating him there for second place.  With only eight days until the New Hampshire primary, a stunned Bush canceled a trip to the South and flew to a candidate forum in Nashua he had previously decided to skip -- and he beat Dole decisively.  Dole won in Minnesota and South Dakota the following week, and with South Carolina approaching, he attacked Bush over the Iran-contra scandal.  But to no avail: Bush won South Carolina, and then went on to win all 16 Super Tuesday primaries.  That was it.  Dole stayed in the race with his campaign “hanging by its fingernails,” as he admitted, but after another defeat in Illinois a week later and facing low poll numbers in the upcoming Wisconsin primary, he quit the race at the end of March.

1992
Bush won Iowa easily, since neither Pat Buchanan nor David Duke challenged him there.  Bush then went on to win in New Hampshire, but Buchanan stunned him by grabbing 37% of the vote.  A week later, Bush won South Dakota, yet even with Buchanan's name kept off the ballot, 31% voted "uncommitted."  Bush then swept the three states that held primaries (Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts), as Buchanan continued to get about one-third of the vote.  Then came Super Tuesday, which Bush again swept.  Buchanan seemed to back off but still stayed in the race, even when Bush declared he had enough delegates at the end of April.

1996
When the primary season started, Dole was the frontrunner.  Yet he skipped the Louisiana caucuses, and Buchanan gained momentum by beating Phil Gramm there.  Then, in the first big contest in Iowa, Dole won -- but by a much smaller margin than expected.  After Gramm dropped out, Buchanan became the conservative candidate and shocked everyone by winning New Hampshire a week later.  Victories for Steve Forbes in Delaware and Arizona at the end of February overshadowed Dole’s two victories in the Dakotas.  Indeed, going into March, Dole had only won three states.  Next came South Carolina, which he won and which also became a turning point.  The wins kept coming from there.

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