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Monday, November 7, 2005 | 9:10 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Ryann Gastwirth

First glance
President Bush starts the day in Panama and ends it in Richmond.  On the final leg of his South and Central American tour, Bush does a roundtable with business and civic leaders, lays a wreath at the American cemetery, tours the Panama Canal locks, and has an event with Panamanian baseball players.  He then returns home and proceeds immediately to Richmond, VA, where he'll headline an 8:00 pm rally for GOP gubernatorial nominee Jerry Kilgore, who's locked in a toss-up contest against Democrat Tim Kaine.

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The last time Bush visited Virginia, for a speech in Norfolk on the war against terror on the day Lewis "Scooter" Libby was indicted, Kilgore did not appear with him.

Both Kilgore and Bush are gambling here, though the payoff may be big.  The Kilgore campaign hopes that the President's ability to motivate the party base to get out and vote will more than compensate for however many crucial swing votes his presence may further drive toward Kaine.  Virginia is the only state holding elections tomorrow to get a late visit from the President, but observers will be closely watching races all around the country for signs that the GOP's conservative base is depressed or fatigued in key states like Virginia and especially Ohio.  Meanwhile, congressional Republicans are taking heart from recent private polling showing that the base is still firmly behind Bush and the party, calling that a key distinction between their situation today and Democrats' circumstances in 1993 and 1994.

Among the target audience for tonight's Bush-Kilgore rally are voters in Henrico County, a suburban county just north of Richmond that traditionally leans Republican, but was won by Democratic Gov. Mark Warner in 2001.  Brad Coker of the polling firm Mason-Dixon, which polls for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, tells First Read that Henrico could tip the balance in the Richmond area, where the race is a dead heat.  Coker's last poll showed Kaine leading Kilgore by one point statewide and in the Richmond area by 2 points, with independents breaking for Kaine.

Bush is taking a risk with this appearance, as well, having never campaigned for a candidate in a tight race with his own personal standing so low.  With no publicly available tracking polls in this contest, there's a chance that Kaine widened his lead in the last two days since the rally was scheduled, which could make Bush's turnout effort meaningless.  But the White House must have determined that since Democrats will try to hang a Kilgore loss around Bush's neck no matter what, Bush might as well position himself to get a boost from a Kilgore win.  "It's winnable and that's why Bush is going," says one Virginia GOP strategist.

Kilgore campaign spokesperson Tucker Martin tells First Read that the idea for the appearance came from the White House.  "We said, 'Come on down.'"  In announcing the rally last Friday, the campaign's written statement noted, "We are thrilled to have the support of the Leader of the Free World.  The best way to fire up our voters is to have the President come into Virginia less than twelve hours before the polls open.  George Bush knows how to win elections, and in a close race, this is the greatest boost we could have asked for."

In response, Kaine spokesperson Mo Elleithee tells First Read: "While we're campaigning across the state on Monday with Mark Warner, they're going to bring in George Bush? Yeah, I'll take that deal any day of the week.  I can't think of a better visual to drive home our message -- do you want someone who is going to govern like Mark Warner, or someone who's going to govern the way they do it in Washington?"  More: "I just need to figure out where to send the thank you note."

After tonight's rally, the President has a second carefully structured week of bully-pulpit and ceremonial events as he and his White House try to put their troubles behind them: a Katrina recovery event on Tuesday, a statement on Pakistan/India earthquake recovery efforts and the awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Wednesday, a meeting with the President of Yemen on Thursday, and remarks on the war against terror in Pennsylvania on Friday.  Meanwhile, White House staffers take a refresher course on ethics this week, overseen by White House Counsel Harriet Miers, per the Saturday Washington Post.

And Iraq will remain on the front burner this week, for a host of reasons including but not limited to: Democrats' continued focus on pre-war intelligence; Senate Intelligence Committee hearings on the topic; a visit by controversial Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi; and some GOP lawmakers' differences with the Administration over the treatment of detainees.  Ditto the spending wars, as House Republicans continue their uphill effort to build support for their $54 billion "deficit-reduction" package.

The Bush "re-launch"
The AP says Bush's trip to the Summit of the Americas was a wash -- "a nothing-lost-and-little-gained two days for the president."  That said, the Administration "didn't travel to the summit with high hopes."

The Houston Chronicle examines Bush's low poll numbers and notes that "as the president's public approval rating has slid markedly in the polls this year, pollsters and public experts say that for many other Americans, the negatives go beyond issues such as Iraq, Katrina and gasoline prices - to a visceral, second-term voter fatigue about Bush's personality."

The Des Moines Register covered potential presidential candidate and former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle's speech on Saturday, in which he "declared President Bush's presidency 'essentially over,' but said Democrats can capitalize in 2006 only if they establish a message that goes 'to the soul of our country.'"

National security politics
The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein says the "positive models for Bush" among the other two-term presidents post-World War II are Eisenhower and Reagan, who both "tripped in their second term but recovered."  That said, "Bush faces a more imposing challenge than Reagan or Eisenhower - neither was fighting an unpopular war while he tried to rebuild his second term...  It probably won't help that the Libby indictment points toward a potential trial that may reopen debate about the justification of the Iraq war even as its costs mount...  Some close to Bush believe an intensified debate over Iraq would help him by providing Democratic alternatives to contrast his ideas against, as he did effectively in 2004.  That could be right.  But events in Iraq now drive attitudes about the war more than arguments."

Move America Forward launches a "a national pro-troop, pro-Iraq War" radio ad campaign this week, per its release.  The first ads will air in Sacramento, "urging the Sacramento City Council to rescind the resolution they passed on an 8-1 vote last week that called for the withdrawal of all U.S. Troops and bases from Iraq."  The ads feature relatives of US troops killed in Iraq.

Over the weekend, Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy joined his colleague John Kerry's call for the withdrawal of 20,000 troops by the holidays.

Knight Ridder on Sunday previewed Chalabi's visit to Washington later this week.  "It may not be easy for an administration that tends to divide the world into friend and foe, with few shades of gray in between, to decide how warmly to embrace Chalabi."

The New York Times covers Senate Intel Committee chair Pat Roberts’ remarks yesterday that initial work by his committee had “found no evidence of ‘political manipulation or pressure’ in the use of such intelligence…  Mr. Roberts did not say what the draft reports would conclude.  But he did make clear that past work by his committee and other commissions did not point to any evidence that made him believe that intelligence had been distorted.”

The Washington Post front-pages new details about Vice President Cheney's "intense and largely unpublicized campaign to stop Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department from imposing more restrictive rules on the handling of terrorist suspects."  That campaign has put Cheney at odds not only with lawmakers from both parties, but also -- and "increasingly" -- with other Administration officials.  "Beside personal pressure from the vice president, Cheney's staff is also engaged in resisting a policy change.  Tactics included 'trying to have meetings canceled... to at least slow things down or gum up the works' or trying to conduct meetings on the subject without other key Cabinet members, one administration official said."

Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, a possible presidential candidate, thinks the Administration "is making 'a terrible mistake' in opposing" Senator McCain's "proposed ban on torture and other inhuman treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody...  The Senate OK'd the ban last month as part of a budget bill, but the White House has threatened a veto.  The House has not included the ban in its version of the budget bill.  Negotiators from the two chambers must agree on a final version." – USA Today

Ethics
The Wall Street Journal takes its turn previewing journalists on the hot seat in the expected Libby trial.  "It would be difficult at this point for the news organizations to argue that their reporters need to protect confidential sources.  In addition to discussing their sources with Mr. Fitzgerald and the grand jury, the reporters have each made those conversations public...  Instead, the battleground now is likely to be how broadly reporters can be questioned beyond their previous testimony before the grand jury."

House Administration Committee chair Bob Ney announced on Friday that he has been subpoenaed for documents about his dealings with indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff as part of the ongoing federal investigation into Abramoff's activities.  Ney is now the first member of Congress to officially get dragged into the federal Abramoff probe.  His spokesperson notes that Ney has voluntarily provided information to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee for its probe of Abramoff's work for a Native-American tribe, and has also volunteered his time to the House Ethics Committee.

The Alito nomination
Senate Judiciary Democrat and possible presidential candidate Joe Biden thinks Alito should get an up-or-down vote.  "Other committee Democrats, however, said it was too soon to tell whether a filibuster might be necessary, citing initial concerns about Alito's conservative record from the bench." – USA Today

The Los Angeles Times says Alito is Bush's second nominee whose record is hard to pin down.  "Democratic staffers who have been reading Alito's opinions acknowledge that they do not read like the work of a right-wing ideologue."

Bob Novak looks at what he sees as the difficulty for abortion-rights groups in opposing Alito.  “The right to abortion as asserted in Roe vs. Wade has popular support, but that will not be reconsidered by the Supreme Court in the foreseeable future, and Alito would not make the difference if it were reviewed.  However, a Justice Alito probably would make it harder to get an abortion, and that is a difficult goal for the Democrats to oppose.”

Sunday's Boston Globe ran an extensive biography of Alito, revealing "a man who is the mirror opposite of Scalia in both temperament and style."

The Washington Times covers the new People for the American Way TV ad, which debuted yesterday and highlights Bush's weak political standing: "'George Bush's presidency is in trouble, and he'll do anything to save it, even giving the radical right wing the power to choose who sits on the Supreme Court,' the announcer says...  The ad ends by telling viewers to contact their senators and telling them 'the court belongs to all of America -- not to the radical right.'  PFAW declined to say how much the group is spending on the ad, but said it is running in targeted local markets as well as on national cable."

Taxes and spending
The Washington Times reports, "House Republicans say President Bush must become engaged -- personally making phone calls and twisting arms -- if he wants the House to approve the $53.9 billion spending-cut plan that party leaders are struggling to shepherd through this week...  White House spokesman Trent Duffy on Friday said Mr. Bush will be involved in the House effort...  House conservatives say there's momentum in their conference to make the fiscal changes.  But the size of the bill -- which would touch programs under eight House committees -- leaves many provisions for individual members to complain about."

Energy politics
Roll Call reports that House Speaker Dennis Hastert this week "will call in top oil executives and their Washington, D.C., lobbyists for private meetings to discuss why industry profits are soaring...  Hastert said he will ask the officials when they will increase the nation’s refinery capacity, when they will expand the nation’s energy resources and why they have yet to sign on to a deal over a natural gas pipeline in Alaska."

Joint hearings on oil company profits will take place next Tuesday.

Even as Republicans in Congress target their friend the oil industry, investors are hanging their hopes on it.  Amidst concerns that future corporate earnings won't be as strong as they've been for this past quarter, USA Today notes that investors' hopes are buoyed by rising expectations for energy company profits.  "Specifically, investors are now expecting energy companies' earnings to grow 54% in the fourth quarter, which is 2 percentage points higher than their growth in the third quarter..."  (Which, we'd note, could entail new record profits and thus more political pressure on Republicans to distance themselves from the industry.)

A survey shows retail gas prices at pre-Katrina levels.  "The lowest average price in the nation for regular unleaded among the stations surveyed was $2.06 a gallon in Tulsa.  The highest was $2.74 in Miami." - AP

2005 and 2006
The New York Times -- channeling First Read from a month ago -- wonders if tomorrow’s elections, especially Virginia’s, might be a sign of the impact of Bush’s plummeting popularity.

In Virginia, Kaine does a fly-around with outgoing Gov. Mark Warner to Roanoke, Alexandria, Richmond, and Norfolk.  Kilgore campaigns in Fairfax, Norfolk, Roanoke, and Abingdon before heading to Richmond to link up with Bush.  Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman will travel to GOP phone banks around the state thanking volunteers for their efforts, an RNC source tells First Read.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch covers Kilgore stumping at conservative churches in Northern Virginia yesterday and boasting about the GOP’s turnout operation.  “There were signs, however that momentum is not going Kilgore's way.  His Democratic opponent Timothy M. Kaine is drawing larger, more enthusiastic crowds and has inched ahead inconclusively in the polls.”  The article also has details on Bush’s appearance with Kilgore tonight: It is “open to the public, but people must have tickets to get in.  Republicans expect more than 2,000 people to attend.”

The Washington Post front-pages the two sides' turnout efforts.

In the New Jersey governor's race, Democrat Jon Corzine campaigns in Newark, Wallington, Lyndhurst, East Rutherford, Cliffside Park, Passaic, Hackensack, Jersey City, Hoboken, Newark again, Bordentown, and Trenton.  Republican Doug Forrester campaigns in Iselin, Ridgewood, New Brunswick, Westfield, Bordentown, Middletown, Toms River, and Hamilton.

The new Newark Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers poll has Corzine leading Forrester, 43%-37% -- yet criticism of Corzine by his ex-wife “has pushed independent voters toward” Forrester.  “‘There appears to be a trend toward Forrester,’ poll director Murray Edelman said, ‘but I don't see this being a strong enough trajectory for him to win.’”

And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigns in Chico, Roseville, San Ramon, Fresno, Corona, Orange, and Del Mar.  The Los Angeles Times covers the final weekend of stumping.  Schwarzenegger "characterized Tuesday's vote as a chance to right a political system that has gone seriously off kilter...  The governor's opponents, gathered en masse at a union hall in South Los Angeles, depicted Schwarzenegger's agenda as a power grab by a chief executive run amok."

The San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday wrote how Warren Beatty and Annette Bening have been protesting at Schwarzenegger’s events.  “The couple, backed by a ‘Truth Squad’ bus of nurses, teachers, firefighters and other critics, crashed Schwarzenegger's first event of the day -- a rally scheduled at a private airplane hangar in San Diego…  Attracting a media crush, they caught the governor's staff flat-footed.”

Tomorrow's elections include a total of $17 billion in borrowing for schools, transportation and roads, a record amount for a year without any federal elections, Bloomberg notes.

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