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First Read: A tough fall for Elizabeth Dole?

• Friday, May 12, 2006 | 2:45 p.m. ETFrom Mark Murray

A tough fall for Elizabeth Dole?
This week, Elizabeth Dole, chair of the Republican Senate campaign committee, saw the candidates she wanted in West Virginia and Nebraska win their primaries (although both will face uphill contests in the fall). Besides that, however, Dole has had a tough week: Republicans were unable to convince the Florida House Speaker Allan Bense to challenge the embattled Katherine Harris in that state's Senate GOP primary, and another round of national polls suggests that Republicans are quite vulnerable in November. It was in that context that Dole sat down with a couple dozen national political reporters this morning to discuss the midterms. Asked if Harris can win in the fall, Dole responded, "Katherine Harris will work her head off. She is one determined lady." But she added, "The focus needs to be on Bill Nelson," the incumbent Democratic senator. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

Dole admitted that Republicans face a challenging environment. "No question about it: The wind has been in our face." But she said this environment actually helps Republican incumbents trying to hold on to their Senate seats, because they realize they're in the fights of their lives. "There are no illusions," she said. "They are prepared for aggressive races." In addition, she argued these races would be decided on state issues and on the contrasts between the individual candidates. "Our job is to minimize" the national political environment.

But two Democratic congressional candidates running in high-profile races -- Ohio's Mary Jo Kilroy and New Mexico's Patricia Madrid -- sat down with First Read and other reporters today to drive home the message that national issues will play a big role in November. "You see such a desire for change building up," said Kilroy, who faces incumbent Rep. Deborah Pryce (R). Added Madrid, who will face Rep. Heather Wilson (R): "There is no doubt the national climate is going to be a factor in the race."

• Friday, May 12, 2006 | 9:25 a.m. ETFrom Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Holly Phillips

First glance
New press secretary Tony Snow hasn't even made his on-camera debut at the podium, but he's had quite a first week on the job: a high-profile nomination in Gen. Michael Hayden, a key policy victory for President Bush with the tax-cut extensions, a looming deadline on Medicare prescription-drug benefit registration, and the hanging threat of a veto of the emergency supplemental -- all of which face opposition from some members of Bush's own party as his job approval rating hovers just above the 20s.

Whether they're due solely to Snow's presence or to the overall changes in personnel, close observers may have detected a few changes this week in how the White House sets about the business of communicating.

Late word Friday morning from the Snow-led spokesman's office, President George W. Bush will address the nation Monday, at 8pm, from the Oval Office on the topic of immigration.

Unlike with the New York Times report on the NSA domestic wiretapping program back in December, President Bush "is not confirming or denying existence of the details" of the USA Today report on the NSA phone record database, as White House spokesperson Dana Perino said yesterday.  In the absence of a flat-out acknowledgement by Bush that the database exists, his critics are forced to be equally circumspect in order to avoid being accused of leaking sensitive information.  Remember, once Bush had "declassified" the NSA wiretapping program by speaking publicly about it, members of Congress who had received classified briefings -- Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) comes to mind -- felt free to talk about what they had and had not been told.

With the administration being more tight-lipped about the database, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, for example, had to walk back a call for a full investigation of the program yesterday, later issuing a statement calling for an immediate review of "news reports" about it.  As NBC's Mike Viqueira notes, in a memo to their House colleagues, Intelligence Committee Democrats did not allege that the reported program is illegal.  They were also careful to refer to USA Today and not to acknowledge that they were aware that such a program even exists.  To do so would be a leak in and of itself.

On another front, five times in three days, the White House press office has issued releases, titled "Setting the Record Straight," directly attacking news organizations by name for "misleading" or otherwise allegedly problematic reporting.  Such releases have blasted a "misleading" USA Today article on enrollment in the Medicare prescription-drug program; a New York Times editorial on the economy for continuing "to ignore America's economic progress;" a "misleading" CBS report on the number of seniors enrolled in the RX program; a "misleading" AP article on military recruiting goals; and a Washington Post editorial criticizing the new tax-cut bill, which the White House said conflicted with a Post news story from the same morning.  All of which represents a departure from their usual approach of leaving such work to either the Bush campaign, when there was one, or to the Republican National Committee.

Sometime today, President Bush is expected to sign the two-year extension of his tax cuts on dividends and capital gains into law.  At 9:45 am, he has another photo op with the current and previous secretaries of state and defense.  At 1:55 pm, he makes remarks at a celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and the presentation of the President’s Volunteer Service Awards.  Later on, heads to Camp David for the weekend.

The candidate filing deadline in Florida is today, and with the Senate race apparently set between incumbent Bill Nelson (D) and the embattled Katherine Harris (R), the big question becomes not whether Harris can win -- even Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has suggested she can't -- but whether her candidacy might hurt other Republicans on the ticket there, especially in the race for governor, which Republicans are favored to win.  A top GOP operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, doubts that Harris will impact the party's other candidates, explaining that her image and the problems plaguing her campaign affect her alone.  "She's an entity unto her own self," the operative tells First Read.  "I don't think she'll be a drag on the ticket at all."

But Democrats aren't so sure.  Penny Lee, executive director at the Democratic Governors Association, says Harris' candidacy will be an albatross for the eventual GOP nominee for governor.  "It absolutely has to be."  Lee adds that Harris' presence on the ticket -- in addition to President Bush's low poll numbers -- could help Democrats with Florida's "persuadable middle."

And three upcoming events loom large on the calendar.  Tomorrow brings Sen. John McCain's commencement address at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University tomorrow, his latest effort to court the conservative wing of the GOP in advance of a presidential run.  In our weekly look at the oh-eight race below, First Read reviews other examples of how McCain has shifted to the right on various policies.  And on Monday, Karl Rove, who is no longer the White House domestic policy advisor, nevertheless delivers a "major policy address" at conservative think-tank the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.  Monday also brings the deadline for most seniors to register for the Medicare prescription-drug benefit.

Security politics
Following up on its report yesterday, USA Today says the NSA phone records database "may not breach the Fourth Amendment's privacy guarantee... but it could violate federal surveillance and telecommunication laws."  The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act "requires the government to go before a special court and obtain a warrant for electronic surveillance related to international espionage and terrorism.  The statute defines the covered communication to include any information about the identity of the parties.  A question now is whether that might include the phone numbers someone calls."

The paper also reports, "In terms of the likely political fallout from this controversy, some Republicans argued that the debate could turn to Bush's advantage by focusing on his efforts to fight terrorism - still the area in which he gets his strongest ratings, though his standing on this and other issues has eroded."

The Financial Times notes that in his remarks yesterday defending the Administration's efforts to fight terrorism, "Mr Bush repeated his mantra on the danger of media leaks, in spite of the fact that Lewis 'Scooter' Libby... claimed in court documents Mr. Bush authorized the leaking of sensitive intelligence on Iraq."

The Los Angeles Times says "the rekindled argument also is likely to complicate the push from [Senate Judiciary Committee chair Arlen] Specter and other Republicans for legislation providing explicit legal authority for the NSA warrantless surveillance.  The new disclosure about the scope of surveillance has hardened Democrats' conviction that Congress knows too little about the NSA's program to set rules for it."

"There were no immediate indications that Hayden's nomination" as CIA director "would be derailed" because of the USA Today report, says the Los Angeles Times.  "But there were signs that support for him was slipping and that confirmation hearings scheduled to begin next Thursday would be more contentious."

House Majority Leader John Boehner, who earlier this week had endorsed Hayden's nomination, now says Hayden will "have a lot more explaining to do."  Boehner told reporters during his weekly press briefing that he knew nothing of this program before yesterday, and says he is "concerned" and is "going to find out" what's going on.  "I'm not sure why it would be necessary to have that information," Boehner said.  As a member of the House and not the Senate, Boehner technically has no say on whether or not Hayden gets confirmed.

Hayden is back on the Hill today.  Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has a photo op with him at 2:45 pm.

Add Sen. Barack Obama to the growing list of high-profile Democrats who are talking tough against the administration on Iraq.  Obama lashed out at the Administration's handling of the Iraq war yesterday.  Speaking at a luncheon sponsored by EMILY'S List, Obama said he thinks that the Bush administration is trying to distract the public from military casualties in Iraq by repeating "subliminal" words like "victory."  He also said that "when George Bush said he did not believe in nation building, I did not know he was talking about this nation."

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
The Washington Post notes that the GOP got a much-needed victory with the tax-cut bill, but adds that "with interest rates rising, the dollar falling and the budget deficit stuck at around $300 billion, tax experts warn that the tax code Bush has transformed may not survive to its Dec. 31, 2010, expiration date and that Congress may have to step in again because tax revenue will not meet all of the government's needs."

The New York Times also says the bill sets the stage “for budgetary heartburn in the years ahead.  Virtually all of President Bush's tax cuts in addition to those passed Thursday… will also expire simultaneously at the end of 2010.  Renewing all those tax cuts again in 2010 would cost hundreds of billions of dollars a year, posing excruciating budget choices for the next president as the nation's baby boomers become eligible for billions of dollars in Medicare and Social Security benefits.”

House Republicans end the week having failed to achieve an agreement on a budget.  But: "Behind the red faces, Republican leaders seem privately upbeat and have been willing to consider options to protect education and health programs," says the Wall Street Journal.

Senate leaders Bill Frist and Harry Reid announced yesterday that they have reached an agreement on immigration reform "that would strengthen border security but also would allow millions of illegal aliens who have been in the U.S. for two years or longer to apply for citizenship.  Derided by conservatives as 'amnesty,' the proposal could be amended but senators on both sides of the aisle say they doubt it will be dramatically altered."  - Washington Times

Health care legislation introduced by Senate Republicans during this "health week" wasn't expected to pass, and as the Los Angeles Times notes, it hasn't -- twice.

Bloomberg looks at signs of "growing tension between House and Senate Republicans," which may "complicate efforts to strike compromises on legislation and retain the party's control of the House in the November elections."  Beyond being "the consequences of low party approval ratings, the Iraq war and persistent budget deficits," one academic expert suggests that "another source of division is that House Republicans are focused entirely on this year's elections, while as many as five Republican senators, including Majority Leader Bill Frist, are looking past November to possible presidential runs in 2008."

Rep. Tom DeLay (R) has informed Speaker Dennis Hastert that he will resign from the House on June 9.

Democratic Rep. Bill Jefferson of New Orleans, who is under investigation for allegedly accepting bribes to help promote a broadband telecommunication services firm in Nigeria, now has until Monday afternoon to file objections in federal court in an attempt to prevent the unsealing of potentially embarrassing documents, NBC's Joel Seidman reports.  Already, former Jefferson aide Brent Pfeffer and Kentucky businessman Vernon Jackson have pleaded guilty to bribery-related charges.  Jefferson hasn't been charged and has denied wrongdoing.  The documents include a search warrant affidavit filed in August for the Potomac, MD home of Jennifer E. Douglas, wife of Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar.

Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) was indicted yesterday on charges that he illegally rewarded political supporters with state jobs; Fletcher has denied any wrongdoing.  “The indictment is the culmination of a yearlong investigation that began after a whistleblower provided paperwork to [the Democratic state attorney general]…  On Aug. 29, Mr. Fletcher issued a blanket pardon covering everyone who had been indicted up to that date and anyone who might be indicted in the future except himself.  Fletcher is Kentucky’s first sitting governor to be indicted. – New York Times

The Sacramento Bee notes that Vice President Cheney will headline a fundraiser for Rep. John Doolittle (R) on May 22. “Doolittle is facing an unprecedented number of challengers after 16 years in the House amid questions about his association with disgraced lobbyists Jack Abramoff and Tony Rudy.”

In his weekly National Journal column, NBC political analyst Charlie Cook offers a solution to some of the ethics woes in Congress: "Have a media consultant put together a 15-minute video that reviews the past 30 years of Capitol Hill scandals and what happened to the miscreants involved.  Show it at your party's first caucus and make attendance mandatory.  The ethics show would be the congressional equivalent of the gory driver's ed films used to frighten teenagers."

After a waitress says she saw Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D) at a bar the night of his now infamous car accident, the Boston Herald reports that additional witnesses are telling police the same.

The Democrats
A new set of talking points urge House Democrats to talk up the party's positive agenda "for a new direction."  If Democrats retake the House, per the talking points, they will pass the recommendations of the September 11 commission, cut interest rates on student loans, and "roll back the subsidies for Big Oil."

Not only are the two parties trying to push agenda items to mobilize key voting blocs, but they may be trying to take some of the other party's potentially motivating issues off the table.  According to Jennifer Crider, spokesperson for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Pelosi has told Democratic members in various meetings yesterday and today that if Democrats retake control of the House in November, there will be no attempts to impeach President Bush under her watch.  There has been talk, including from Pelosi herself, that a Democratic majority would pursue congressional oversight of some Bush White House policies, like the energy policy.  But Crider says that Democrats under Pelosi will not pursue an impeachment effort because the "Democratic agenda is to unify the country."  Republicans have highlighted Democratic suggestions about future investigations of the White House in an effort to mobilize their base for the midterm elections.

The Washington Times says Hill Democrats plan to roll out their campaign agenda in June "when Americans will be heading into the summer vacation season, but party advisers warn no one will be listening except Beltway insiders."

Disaster politics
"The second televised debate of New Orleans' mayoral runoff produced few surprises Thursday night, with Mayor Ray Nagin pointing to signs of progress in the battered city and his challenger, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, repeatedly calling into question Nagin's ability to get things done," writes the Times-Picayune, which also notes that Landrieu and Nagin were still debating after the cameras stopped rolling.

After accusing Nagin of drowning 1,200 people because of poor execution in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, former mayoral candidate Rev. Tom Watson is endorsing him. – Times-Picayune

The midterms
The Chicago Tribune profiles Republican Senate campaign chair Elizabeth Dole (R), who admits that the political environment has made her job difficult.  “‘No question, the wind has been in our faces for many months,’ said Dole, in a rare admission that the political landscape is far from perfect.”  More: “‘You could have the greatest NRSC chairman and the greatest NRSC team that this place had ever seen, and they would still be up to their rear ends in alligators,’ said [NBC political analyst Charlie] Cook.  ‘If Republicans hold onto their Senate majority, Elizabeth Dole will be a hero, and if they don't, she'll be a goat--and 95 percent of it is out of her control.’”

In Texas, independent gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman announced yesterday that he submitted 169,574 signatures to get on the ballot -- nearly four times the valid number needed.  Earlier in the week, fellow independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn (a/k/a Scott McClellan's mom) said she had turned in more than 200,000 signatures.  “‘To the young people helping us, fix bayonets now because the new Texas revolution is coming,’ Friedman told about 50 supporters before turning his petitions in to Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams for verification.” – Houston Chronicle

National Journal, in its poll of Republican insiders, finds Sen. John McCain leading the 2008 field with 61% of first-place votes. He's followed by Sen. George Allen at 19% and Gov. Mitt Romney at 10%.  That's a significant change from its previous poll, which showed Allen leading the pack (at 39%) with McCain slightly trailing him (at 38%).  In its poll of Democratic insiders, Sen. Hillary Clinton leads the 2008 field with 72% of first-place votes, and she's trailed by former Gov. Mark Warner at 9%, Al Gore at 6%, and former Sen. John Edwards at 5%.

In his latest effort to "build bridges" with the conservative wing of the GOP in advance of another presidential run, Sen. John McCain is heading to Lynchburg, VA tomorrow to give the commencement speech at Liberty University, which is headed by a leading conservative whom McCain once called "evil," Jerry Falwell.  To review, here are other examples of how the GOP's maverick may be starting to, well, conform:

Bush tax cuts
Then: "I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us," McCain said in 2001.
Now: "American businesses and investors need a stable and predictable tax policy to continue contributing to the growth of our economy.  These considerations lead me to the conclusion that we should not reverse course by letting the higher tax rates take effect," McCain said in a statement after voting for the Tax Relief Extension Reconciliation Act to extend the Bush tax cuts.

Then: In a speech during the 2000 presidential campaign, McCain said, "Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right."  Afterward, McCain refused to retract his statement.  "It was carefully crafted. It was carefully thought out," he said.
Now: On Meet the Press last month, when asked by Tim Russert if he still feels that way, McCain answered, "No, I don't."

Then: “I’d love to see a point where Roe v. Wade is irrelevant, and could be repealed because abortion is no longer necessary.  But certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade, which would then force women in America to [undergo] illegal and dangerous operations,” McCain told the AP in 1999.
Now: A McCain spokesperson told The Hotline in February that McCain would have signed legislation banning abortions in South Dakota, "but would also take the appropriate steps under state law -- in whatever state -- to ensure that the exceptions of rape, incest or life of the mother were included."

Gay issues
Then: Addressing the Log Cabin Republicans in 1999, McCain said, "I am unashamed, unembarrassed and proud to work with you.  [There is] no room for discrimination in the party of Lincoln."
Now: In 2004, McCain said that the "institution of marriage should be reserved for the union of a man and a woman," and on Meet the Press last month said that he is sponsoring a bill to define marriage in those terms.  "In my state of Arizona, we have a ballot initiative on this issue, which I am supporting.  And so -- but if the courts, if the, if through the court process, they say that that's not constitutional, then I would support a constitutional amendment."

Intelligent design
Then: In 1999, McCain said he thought schools should decide whether intelligent design should be taught in science classes.
Now: Last summer, McCain told the Arizona Daily Star he thought "all points of view" should be taught in school, and in December, he told NPR that "young people have a right to be told" about intelligent design.  "'It's a theory, just like evolution is a theory … (even though) it may not be as plausible."

The Wall Street Journal says "Christian conservatives are awaiting the senator's votes on gay marriage and other social issues before deciding whether they can tolerate him as Republicans' 2008 presidential nominee."

After a state-formed commission to help young gay people sent out a press release announcing a gay youth pride parade on official government stationary with Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's name at the top, Romney's chief of staff called the head of the commission and said Romney "planned to issue an executive order 'revoking'" the commission's existence.  Later, Romney changed his mind, saying that such action might be too harsh.  Now he faces criticism from gay-rights activists and conservatives over what he should have done. – Boston Globe

And Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) is scheduled to make his first stop in New Hampshire next month, reports the Des Moines Register.