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Friday, June 17, 2005 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Katie Adams

First glance
We’re still engrossed in the debates over Social Security, Bolton, judges, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s special election. But we’ve got to admit that today’s election in Iran, where seven candidates are running for president, is a great story. It involves the future of the Middle East, the specter of Iranian nuclear weapons, Sean Penn (who’s covering it for the San Francisco Chronicle), and a Bush Administration that’s already questioning the election’s legitimacy.

  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.

    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

Back home, Bush embarks on his second day of promoting the new Medicare prescription-drug benefit, which goes into effect in January. Today, he does it Maple Grove, MN at 12:05 pm. (As with his conversations on Social Security, this event is invitation-only.) On the Hill, NBC’s Ken Strickland reports that Majority Leader Frist has delayed a cloture vote on John Bolton's nomination until Monday. But he notes that Democrats say they have the votes to sustain their delay. Will Democrats end up paying a price for continuing to stall Bolton’s nomination? Will some type of compromise eventually be reached over the documents Democrats are seeking? Or will Republicans begin to give up?

One GOP Senator privately tells Strickland that it would be "bad PR" for Republicans to have another vote showing Democrats gaining more support in their campaign against Bolton and for the documents they’re requesting (since Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor says he might now vote against cloture). In addition, there’s plenty of coverage of yesterday’s congressional skirmishes over US presence in Iraq, the Downing Street memo, Dick Durbin’s comments, and the Senate energy bill. The Senate is not in session; the House meets at 9:00 am.

On the Democratic side, Howard Dean travels today to Bush country -- Texas -- speaking in Houston at 3:00 pm to the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin Conference, and then attending a fundraiser in Dallas at 7:00 pm. Dean then moseys on down to Austin on Saturday to attend two events there.

And since he's recently been in the news defending the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and whacking Howard Dean, we devote our Friday look at the great oh-eight race to Dick Cheney. Yes, yes, we know: He says he's not running. But could he change his mind?

Other countries’ elections
The Washington Post covers Bush’s remarks yesterday blasting Iran’s presidential election, saying that whatever the result, “power will continue to be held by ‘an unelected few’ who are out of step with political changes sweeping the rest of the region… Bush's statement followed other stern rebukes of Iran by several senior U.S. officials over the past two months…Together they signal a more aggressive U.S. campaign to prod political change in Tehran.”

That said, Reuters has critics charging the Bush Administration with hypocrisy over its calls for democracy. “To much of the Arab world, the Bush administration appears hypocritical as it hammers longtime foe Iran over its flawed presidential election set for Friday but refuses to call Egyptian election reform the sham most political analysts say it is. ‘U.S. contradictions on democracy aren't new, but rarely has an administration been so self-righteous in its rhetoric -- and that only exposes for the world its double standards,’ said Stephen Zunes, a politics professor at the University of San Francisco.”

The Washington Post breaks down today’s election and says the favorite, per public opinion polls, is ex-president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and his main challenge is coming from reformist Mostafa Moin and former national police chief Mohammad Qalibaf. That said, “many people have vowed to sit out a process they call inconsequential in a country where unelected clerics exercise ultimate authority.”

The Los Angeles Times: “Supporters of reformer Mostafa Moin said Thursday that they had detected a late surge in his favor. But polls say Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatic and wealthy cleric who was president from 1989 to 1997, remained in the lead.”

USA Today notes that Iranian’s newspapers are predicting that no candidate will receive 50% of the vote, which will force a run off. “Despite the limited choice, the candidates hold a variety of views, and the campaign has been freewheeling by Iranian standards. There have been few references to religion and many promises of reform and outreach to the West.”

The New York Times notes the violence that has preceded today's elections. "Iranians are accustomed to their share of political violence, with clashes between riot police and demonstrators a nearly routine part of this country's discourse. But the explosions, which have taken place across the country, have raised concerns that political extremists have escalated their tactics... The bombings have also underscored the tensions that rest just beneath the surface here, where anxiety and fear exist side by side with the images of a democratic election process."

The politics of Iraq and Guantanamo
With declining public support of the Iraq war, and with yesterday’s bipartisan House resolution calling for the Bush Administration to develop plans to withdraw troops from there, the Los Angeles Times says that Bush will deliver an upcoming speech on the situation in Iraq, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pledged to work harder to explain the Administration's objectives. “‘I'm going to, like I think all members of the administration, perhaps try to do more to get out to the public to talk about what it is we are trying to achieve and what it is we are achieving,’ Rice said at a news conference. ‘So I would say this is not going to be an American enterprise for the long term.’”

The Washington Post covers the GOP criticism of Sen. Dick Durbin’s remarks comparing the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo to Nazi and Soviet interrogation tactics -- but Durbin didn’t back down.

Donald Rumsfeld writes a USA Today op-ed defending the Guantanamo detention center. “Arguably, no detention facility in the history of warfare has been more transparent and received more scrutiny than Guantanamo. There have been numerous visits from members of the news media, congressional representatives and the International Committee of the Red Cross… The real problem is not Guantanamo Bay. The problem is that, to a large extent, we are in unexplored territory with this unconventional and complex struggle against extremism. Traditional doctrines covering criminals and military prisoners do not apply well enough.”

The New York Times covers yesterday’s informal Democratic hearing on the Downing Street memo, which participants said is proof that the Iraq war was preconceived.

USA Today reports the House has proposed an additional $45 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan (not requested by the Bush Administration), and the measure will likely come up for a vote on Monday. “Since the 9/11 attacks, Congress has given the president $350 billion to fight terrorism and for combat and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. That matches the cost of the Korean War in today's dollars, according to Steven Kosiak, director of budget studies for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. It also translates into $1,180 per person in the USA.

More Bush agenda
The Minneapolis Star Tribune previews Bush's Minnesota visit today to promote his Medicare prescription-drug plan. The paper adds that his visit “is generating criticism because the appearance is not open to the public. Participants were invited to attend."

USA Today on Bush’s speech yesterday promoting the Medicare prescription-drug benefit: “The outreach effort is a response to criticism from AARP and some Democrats that the administration flopped badly in getting a temporary drug-discount card program for seniors off the ground in the past year.”

The Los Angeles Times: “Behind the nationwide outreach campaign … is a concern among experts that low-income seniors may not hear about the drug benefit. They noted that about 25% of those eligible initially signed up for food stamps when the program started four decades ago.”

The Washington Post: “Bush and [HHS Secretary] Leavitt said they are aware of the challenges and plan to tap several federal agencies and independent groups to help sign up beneficiaries. The pair travel to Minnesota today to continue the sales pitch. ‘You can help by making a call to your mother or father and tell them what's available,’ Bush said. ‘You can help by showing an older neighbor how to fill out a form.’”

The AP on Monday’s Bolton vote: “Republican officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, conceded they were unlikely to prevail, barring a last-minute compromise.”

NBC’s Strickland adds that Bolton met face-to-face yesterday with his two biggest detractors, Sens. Joe Biden and Chris Dodd. According to a written statement from Dodd's spokeswoman, the two men told Bolton he needs to convince Vice President Cheney to provide the information they've requested regarding National Security Agency intercepts.

The latest New York Times/CBS poll is out, and like other recent surveys, it shows Bush and Congress at some of their lowest ratings. "When asked an open-ended question about the most important problems facing the nation, Americans cited the economy and jobs, war and terrorism at the top of the list. Social Security, which has consumed an enormous amount of political energy this spring, did not make the top six, suggesting voters have a different view of political priorities than the Republican-controlled Congress and the White House."

The Wall Street Journal writes that Senate and House Republicans are scrambling to produce Social Security legislation that would allow them -- and Bush -- “to seize some measure of victory.” Yet the article explains that these packages probably won’t include Bush’s plan for private accounts and might not meet his demand to keep the system solvent.

In a conference call yesterday, the liberal group Institute for America’s Future released a study showing that benefit cuts in Social Security affect rural populations nearly twice as much as people living in urban and suburban areas. This occurs, the Institute said, because rural Americans tend to earn lower income, tend to be older, and tend to qualify more for disability insurance than people living elsewhere.

The Washington Post front-pages that Bush Administration officials have succeeded in weakening key provisions in the upcoming G-8 statement on global warming. “Under U.S. pressure, negotiators in the past month have agreed to delete language that would detail how rising temperatures are affecting the globe, set ambitious targets to cut carbon dioxide emissions and set stricter environmental standards for World Bank-funded power projects, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post… The administration's push to alter the G-8's plan on global warming marks its latest effort to edit scientific or policy documents to accord with its position that mandatory carbon dioxide cuts are unnecessary.”

Finally, the Senate yesterday moved closer to passing its energy bill after it defeated a Democratic-sponsored amendment that would have required a cut in oil imports, the Wall Street Journal says. “But Democrats may have scored political points by forcing Republicans to vote against the symbolic amendment. Democrats say the amendment would have cut U.S. oil imports by 1.5 million barrels a day, as much as the country imports from Saudi Arabia.” The article adds that the Senate hopes to pass the bill in the next few weeks.

It's the economy
The Wall Street Journal notes “the Labor Department said that new claims for unemployment benefits rose 1,000 last week to 333,000, a tiny increase after a steep decline of 19,999 in the previous week.”

Meanwhile, the AP writes that crude-oil prices today climbed above $57 per barrel “on fears of insufficient gasoline supplies from near-maximized U.S. refineries during the high-demand summer driving season… Oil prices are up more than 50% from a year ago and at their highest level since early April. This is despite the decision Wednesday by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to increase its output quota by 500,000 barrels a day on July 1, and to consider another 500,000-barrel increase later this year if prices don't fall.”

In a red-hot housing market that has raised home prices by an estimated $5 trillion in the past decade, USA Today says that many are now selling their homes to make a profit. “Although it's impossible to quantify such activity, and the National Association of Realtors estimates the numbers are small, anecdotal evidence suggests house-rich folks are cashing out. Unlike a typical situation where sellers take profits and plow them into bigger homes, some people worried about an upcoming price drop are getting out of real estate altogether.”

Ethics and institutions
The Washington Post recounts Rep. Duke Cunningham’s relationship with a defense contractor -- a relationship that includes Cunningham living on his yacht, and Cunningham selling him his home (which resulted in a $700,000 loss for the contractor). And, of course, the defense contractor has won hefty government contracts. “But the congressman said in written statements that he has done nothing wrong, did not sell his house at an inflated price and would disclose additional details about paying for his stay on the yacht as soon as he compiled them.”

The values debate
Calling it a "dramatic" turn of events, the Boston Globe covers Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's announcement yesterday to support a state constitutional ban on gay marriage and civil unions -- a reversal from his earlier suggestions that he would support civil unions as a compromise. In order to get the amendment to voters in 2008, proponents must collect 66,000 signatures and get support from 25% of the legislature.

The New York Times says "Romney's "endorsement of the amendment is likely to inject new vigor into the efforts of gay marriage opponents, who failed to block a court decision that allowed the marriages to begin in May 2004."

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe says Romney's newly formed PAC sent letters to GOP leaders in 17 states, "offering help in their 2006 campaigns and highlighting his conservative stands on issues from taxes to same-sex marriage." The Globe, which obtained a copy of one of the letters, says it uses "carefully worded descriptions of some of Romney's positions to play up his conservatism."

Oh-eight (R)
This might come as a surprise to many, but Dick Cheney can be a funny guy. In April, at the black-tie Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner, Cheney delivered this joke: "I realize we have probably got some potential candidates for 2008 in the room right now. So I want to make my plans absolutely clear: I have no intention of running for the nomination in 2008... We have a lot of terrific candidates out there. And just to prove my confidence in the field, I have agreed to lead the search committee to pick the next nominee." The crowd of journalists erupted in laughter.

Cheney, of course, was referring to his role in 2000, when he led Bush's veep search committee and picked, well, himself. Since that time, however, Cheney has maintained in almost every interview that he will not run in 2008. In fact, a couple of times, he has even uttered the Sherman statement: "I will not accept if nominated, and will not serve if elected." But Scott Reed, a GOP political strategist who served as Bob Dole's 1996 campaign manager, sees a scenario in which Cheney could break that promise and get away with it. “Say the war on terror is not going well. Then say the Republicans are tripping over themselves in Iowa," Reed told First Read earlier this month. "Bush then turns to Cheney, ‘I need you to do this.’” That, Reed said, would rock the GOP field and would elate diehard conservatives.

Indeed, some conservatives -- Fred Barnes, CNBC’s Larry Kudlow, and Tod Lindberg -- have recently written columns wishing that Cheney would run. But Joel Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University and also an author on the modern vice presidency, thinks that Cheney would run only if there's a contested (and divisive) nominating convention, or if none of the conservative candidates breaks through the field. Both are unlikely scenarios.

Goldstein also isn't sure that Cheney wants to be president. "His strength is not as a political campaigner," he says. "He doesn't seem to have much enthusiasm for the role." Cheney's got other question marks: his health, his age, his polarizing tenure, and the Iraq war (assuming the poll numbers on the war don't improve). And then there's history -- only four vice presidents (Adams, Jefferson, Van Buren, and Bush 41) have been elected to the presidency immediately after their term as veep. Goldstein points out, however, that this statistic is slightly misleading, since a few other modern vice presidents (Nixon, Humphrey, and Gore) have come very, very close to winning.

But all those things haven't stopped some from hoping Cheney runs, and also finding some wiggle room in his statements. When he interviewed Cheney in March, Kudlow asked him if he would reconsider running in '08 if Bush asked him. Cheney replied, "I'm ... committed four years from now, I don't plan to be here. I'm going to be out on the road or back with my grandkids or fishing streams I've not yet fished.” I don’t “plan” to be here suggests some wiggle room. Cheney also noted in the interview that Bush had "persuaded" him to join the ticket after serving in the private sector for eight years -- a statement Kudlow later interpreted as leaving the door open just a tiny bit.

And as he told Imus earlier this year, he can sometimes change his mind. Speaking about how he ended being Bush’s vice president, Cheney said: "I really went off to Texas, enjoyed life down there, and then [Bush], then governor asked me to get involved, and first asked me to help with the campaign. And I couldn't do that, because I was working full time. And then he asked me the possibility of running as his running mate, and I begged off the first time, and then he put me in charge of the search, and, well, we all know how that turned out." Yes, we do.


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