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First Read: Obama on Democratic outreach

Obama on Democratic outreach.  “First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, from the NBC News political unit.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006 | 5:30 p.m. ETFrom Alex Isenstadt

Obama on Democratic outreach
With Bush in Germany and with many focused on the latest violence in the Middle East, politics has been mostly quiet today -- except for the 500 or so liberal college students who today attended the Campus Progress National Student Conference, an outgrowth of the liberal Center for American Progress. Sen. Barack Obama (D) delivered the conference's keynote speech, and he talked about politics and the state of the Democratic Party. Decked out in a brown suit and red tie, Obama spoke about working as a community organizer after his college days. But Obama also responded to some questions from the audience: He was careful in playing up expectations that Democrats could win over both the House and Senate this fall, saying only that he thinks his party will pick up seats in both chambers. He also said that Democrats should expand their outreach -- "not just preach to the converted" -- by pushing reforms on issues that people care about, like energy and health care.

There were other Democratic luminaries at the conference. Strategist Paul Begala, who was on hand to give out awards for campus activism, took a few jabs at Rush Limbaugh and President Bush and fired up conventioneers with a call "to take back this country." Former Clinton White House press secretary Joe Lockhart also was scheduled to appear in a panel discussion called "Media Bootcamp."

Wednesday, July 12, 2006 | 9:30 a.m. ETFrom Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Alex Isenstadt

In today's issue:
Bush takes off for Germany, leaving Washington debating his economic and detainee policyHow do the parties plan to get out your vote?GOP accomplishments: Republicans say there's something; Democrats say there's nothing

First glance
President Bush is en route to Germany, where's he'll stay till Friday, when he heads to the G8 in Russia.  A House committee holds a hearing on the legal rights of suspected terrorists, the second of three Hill hearings on this subject this week.  The partisan battle is joined over the state of the US economy.  And far below the public's radar screen, among the parties, candidates, interest groups, and 527 organizations, thoughts are turning to getting out the vote in November.

At this point in the midterm election cycle, there's no reason to think the Republican National Committee's 72-Hour Program, the party's highly coordinated get-out-the-vote machine, will be funded or will function any less well than it has in the past.  The concern for Republicans is that their voters, some of whom may feel dispirited or frustrated with their lawmakers, may not turn out in the same numbers as they have in recent elections.  Democrats face the opposite challenge: building a turnout machine that will efficiently take advantage of the voter enthusiasm they're seeing in the polls, and not let a single potentially competitive state or district fall through the cracks in a year when every seat counts.

In 2004, Democrats enjoyed an unprecedented GOTV operation in 17 battleground states that was tightly managed by the Kerry presidential campaign and by a separate, $100-plus million entity funded by the likes of George Soros called Americans Coming Together (ACT).  In 2006, there's no presidential campaign, nor is there ACT.  Those familiar with the now-defunct organization say it was a one-time deal.  Some operatives and donors who were involved in it are currently focusing on the next presidential race, overlooking the midterms.

Through conversations with numerous Democratic operatives, representatives of 527 groups, and others familiar with the 2004 and 2006 GOTV efforts, two things become clear.  First, the party's turnout operation this year is shaping up to be a patchwork of individual, and likely overlapping efforts.  On the 527 level, for example, there's been no attempt to replace ACT with another centralized entity.  Some of the groups are making their own plans; MoveOn, for one, says they're launching a "liquid phone program" that will allow members to take part in a phone bank that can quickly shift calls from district to district or state to state.  And second, while there's real confidence among the GOP campaign committees that their turnout operations will be taken care of, the various Democratic committees don't appear ready to trust or rely on each other much at all.

In Democratic circles, the rap on the party's Senate and House campaign committees up until now has been that, while they have leveled the financial playing field with their GOP counterparts, they're more focused on message and media than on getting out the vote.  The House campaign committee has come under particular criticism for this approach.  However, they say they're building their own district-by-district field operation to turn out voters in their races, overseen by executive director Karin Johanson, who ran ACT's efforts in Florida last cycle.

The Senate campaign committee plans to announce, in the coming weeks, a turnout operation they've been assembling in their targeted 15 or so states.  That operation will include a voter ID program; a plan to reach out to undecideds, independents, and moderate Republicans; and what they claim will be the largest off-year GOTV program in party history.  They expect those operations, overseen by political director Guy Cecil, to bolster Democratic candidates up and down the ballot in those states.

The committees' complaints against the Democratic National Committee are that chairman Howard Dean is too focused on leaving a legacy of party staffers in unwinnable red states and not focused enough on races that can be won, and that the DNC hasn't hoarded much money to transfer to the committees to use on turnout.  The committees worry that the RNC will shift millions of dollars to its House and Senate campaign organizations to fund turnout efforts.  (Asked whether that will be the case, one RNC source said, "We are going to focus on the House and Senate in a way that the RNC has not in the past, and a lot will be for GOTV.")  The DNC's approach, on the other hand, has been to lay groundwork for state parties to run the overall GOTV efforts, in keeping with Dean's pledge to build a 50-state party.  Coordinated campaign directors already have been hired in some states.

Why this growing concern about turnout operations?  Democratic staffers and strategists point to the special House election in San Diego last month and note that while their nominee performed as well as any has in the district, she did no better, despite a national political climate in which the party's voters are more motivated than Republicans.

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Budget and spending politics
The House GOP leadership -- which seems to have dropped the phrase "Bush economic boom" -- holds a press conference to tout recent signs of a strong US economy and their "protecting American values agenda" at 10:00 am.  Democratic Hill leaders hold a 12:30 pm press conference to counter the GOP's claims of a strong economy by highlighting gas prices and what they call Republican "economic failures."

The New York Times on the Administration's effort to trumpet the economy: "Aides to Mr. Bush say they believe that the economy is one of three issues that will be central to the midterm elections.  But the other two - Iraq and immigration - are so much on voters' minds that some analysts say no matter how much Mr. Bush focuses on the economy, voters are unlikely to tune in."

USA Today on the deficit news: "Led by President Bush, Republicans touted the $296 billion deficit estimate for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 as evidence that five years of tax cuts have worked...  Democrats noted the new estimate isn't much below the 2005 deficit of $318 billion.  They said the original estimate was too high, allowing Republicans to boast about the lower number four months before mid-term elections."

The Washington Times notices that "no Democrats were present for the announcement of the deficit news," and that the glow "may be short-lived.  Some lawmakers said the higher revenues are a bubble that will not last, and even Mr. Bush's own figures show a higher deficit for fiscal 2007, at $339 billion."

"Even as President Bush was touting lower deficit numbers, the Republican-controlled Senate marked the end of its Independence Day recess by adding billions to his budget," says the Wall Street Journal.  "In a single day, returning senators approved almost $1 billion in added port- and border-security funding that would be partially offset by increased fees charged to foreign citizens entering the U.S.  Off the floor, the Senate Appropriations Committee gave initial approval to a second spending measure adding an additional $1.4 billion to the president's requests for Justice, Commerce and science agencies."

If the war on terror is the one issue that reliably unifies Republicans, then Social Security reform is the issue that does the same for Democrats.  Bush's effort to create private accounts might be dead for the year, if not dead for the duration of his presidency, but Democratic operatives are doing what they can to literally get the band back together in time for the midterm elections.  The effort highlights how Democrats haven't managed to find another issue this year that has the same galvanizing effect on their party and their voters.  But they surely were glad to hear Bush and his budget director talk yesterday about the need to enact entitlement reform in order to fix the nation's long-term fiscal issues.  Liberal- and labor-funded Americans United peppered the home bases of vulnerable Republican incumbents with press releases yesterday calling on them to repudiate Bush's plan to "privatize" Social Security.

Security politics
The Administration yesterday said it will "apply the Geneva Conventions to all terrorism suspects in U.S. custody, bowing to the Supreme Court's recent rejection of" its previous policy.  The announcement "underscored how the administration has been forced to retreat from its long-standing position that President Bush be given extensive leeway to determine how to interrogate and prosecute terrorism suspects," says the Washington Post.  Still, Bush officials "disputed the suggestion that the new Pentagon policy represents significant change, because the administration already said that it treats detainees humanely."

The Boston Globe says the Hill debate "will color the election-year discussions over how to handle suspected terrorists in US custody.  Republicans see the debate as a chance to paint Democrats as soft on suspected terrorists for wanting to grant them due-process rights.  Democrats want to focus attention on areas where Bush, a Republican president, has worked unilaterally -- and, at least in this instance, outside the law."

The Chicago Tribune calls the Administration's decision "a dramatic policy shift."'s Tom Curry reports that GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham sounded like a potential vote against the confirmation of Bush appeals court nominee William Haynes because of concerns about Haynes' past support for the Administration's policy toward detainees.  Senate Democrats may filibuster Haynes' nomination, which could prompt Majority Leader Frist to trigger the nuclear option.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) continued the GOP's press against Democrats on missile defense yesterday, telling reporters that North Korea's failed launches raise new concerns about some Democrats' earlier talk of cutting the missile defense budget.

The immigration debate
More choking up by key officials over immigration reform.  After Joint Chiefs chair Peter Pace teared up in talking about his Italian immigrant father at a Senate field hearing on Monday, Karl Rove appeared to choke up at the end of a speech on the issue yesterday as he recalled President Bush's visit with a wounded soldier at Bethesda Naval Hospital, notes NBC's Wendy Jones.  "Rove, who shared his own family story of Norwegian immigrants, also told the crowd that assimilating by learning English was critical to both national unity and boosting the pay and career potential of immigrants," the Los Angeles Times reports.

House GOP leaders are expected to announce more scheduled immigration-reform hearings today. – The Hill

The Los Angeles Times says that while the public appears pretty evenly divided over the Senate and House approaches to immigration reform, the momentum right now, based on recent action at the state level, lies with those who take the hard-line (i.e., House) position in support of border security and employer enforcement and against a guest-worker program.

The Democrats
Today, Senate Democratic leaders Harry Reid and Dick Durbin plan to go to the floor and begin a countdown of the days left in this month's scheduled work period, in the hope of highlighting how many days are left without action on their five priorities: federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, college affordability, gas prices, reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, and a "real debate" on Iraq.

Senate Democrats Kennedy, Schumer, Clinton and Menendez hold a 1:45 pm press conference to reiterate their hope to block any effort to raise members' pay without raising the minimum wage.  They also will release a report comparing minimum wage salaries to compensation for corporate CEOs.  The report is called, "Their Fair Share: Creating a Just Economy for Minimum Wage Families."

The New York Times front-pages that while Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) used to be Public Enemy No. 1 to the health care industry, "times change...  Mrs. Clinton is receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from doctors, hospitals, drug manufacturers and insurers.  Nationwide, she is the No. 2 recipient of donations from the industry, trailing only" GOP Sen. Rick Santorum.

More on the Bush agenda
The New York Post previews Bush's trip to the G8, writing that he will "push for nuclear energy around the world... as a way to bring down the price of oil."

Bloomberg considers the potential impact of the "do-nothing" label Democrats are trying to affix to Republicans, who haven't passed any of Bush's big legislative priorities this year.  "Republicans say... they will be able to point to achievements including extending tax breaks on capital and dividends, renewing the anti-terrorism Patriot Act and cutting entitlement spending by $39 billion over the next five years.  That's in addition to legislation approved last year overhauling bankruptcy laws, restricting class-action lawsuits, creating a free-trade agreement with Central America and rewriting energy laws.  Democrats say those aren't likely to resonate with many voters."

Roll Call says Senate Republicans are gradually warming to the idea of voting on stem-cell research funding legislation to get on the record about the issue -- and to have Bush veto the bill.  "Still, Democrats are gearing up for a fight, and they say they plan to use the weight of the American public as their strongest weapon to convince the president to change his mind.  Roughly three-quarters of Americans support stem-cell research, they say."

Looks like House Republican leaders may have spoken too soon about their plan to bring the Voting Rights Act reauthorization to the floor this week.  Roll Call says that divisions remain within the House GOP ranks over the act's multilingual ballot provision and its "pre-clearance" requirements for states covered by the act to seek an OK from the Justice Department before making any changes to their electoral procedures.

The Los Angeles Times says the split within the GOP ranks over the act, like the split over immigration, "pits the 'big tent' political aims of President Bush's closest political advisors against conservatives who argue that they are being asked to vote against their values.  And the dispute is erupting at the same time that White House officials are deciding whether Bush this weekend should make his first speech since taking office to the [NAACP].  The disagreement in the GOP-dominated Congress could spoil Bush's ability to cite renewal of the Voting Rights Act as proof that minorities can trust Republicans."

As reported first on MSNBC's Hardball yesterday, conservative columnist Robert Novak, in a column posted on, writes that he identified three names as sources to the grand jury in the CIA leak case.  Novak does not reveal his principal source in the column, but does mention Karl Rove as a source.  He adds that his recollection of these events differs from Rove's.  Novak says he provided the three names and that reports that he took the Fifth Amendment were "untrue."

The Houston Chronicle writes that the Texas GOP pleaded with federal courts yesterday to be allowed to replace former Rep. Tom DeLay (R) on the ballot, "saying that time is running out to make the change."  The party "said picking a DeLay replacement could 'easily take 28 days' and must be completed by Sept. 1 so the state has enough time to print ballots."

Seven months after Jack Abramoff's perp walk, Republican lawmakers have come up with a (far from surefire) plan to pass lobbying reform. – The Hill

The San Francisco Chronicle says of the House's vote to ban Internet gambling yesterday, "Republican leaders... hoped [it] would minimize the damage to the party from the scandal involving" Abramoff, whose "machinations, which are weighing down Republicans as they seek to keep control of the House in November's elections, sank a previous effort to ban Internet gambling in 2000."

A Texas Native American tribe which contributed $50,000 to a non-profit run by Abramoff is expected to file the first civil lawsuit in the Abramoff influence-peddling scandal today in Austin, NBC's Joel Seidman reports.

Attorneys for Democratic Rep. William Jefferson filed motions in federal court yesterday to delay federal investigators from obtaining custody of the materials seized in the May raid of Jefferson's Capitol Hill office.  The New Orleans Times-Picayune, Jefferson's hometown paper, reported yesterday morning that investigators "expect a decision by a Virginia grand jury on whether to indict Jefferson fairly soon after the material taken from the office is made available."

And the Sacramento Bee reports that Rep. John Doolittle (R), who is being hounded by reports of alleged ethical misconduct relating to payments his wife has received from his fundraising efforts, has agreed to debate Democratic challenger Charles Brown.

More on the midterms
Just in time for the midterms, a bipartisan group of top political consultants will launch a new social-networking website called, to be edited by former chief AP political writer Ron Fournier.  The point of the site, the founders say, is to provide users who have lost their faith in government and the political system with a means to seek each others' opinions about politics, as well as other topics.  The consultants, many of whom have achieved their success by crafting the kind of polarizing campaigns that they say have turned people off, also hope that the site will turn a profit.

A former chief of the GOP House campaign committee and high-profile moderate Republican says the Club for Growth and other conservative groups "are hurting the party by refusing to help candidates who don't pass their 'litmus test' and by attacking some incumbent Republicans," reports the Washington Times.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) will ask Bush today to promise protection for more than 20% of the state's public forestry, the San Francisco Chronicle says.  "Schwarzenegger plans to make the announcement today as part of a carefully choreographed strategy to polish his green credentials and appeal to the state's environmentally oriented electorate to win re-election in November."

And Roll Call reports on how Democrats look at New York and see a target-rich environment for House races, with six of nine GOP-held seats potentially vulnerable.

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