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First Read: Bush and top politicos head west

Bush and top politicos head west. “First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, from the NBC News political unit.

Friday, July 21, 2006 | 9:45 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Alex Isenstadt

In today's issue:
Top GOPers head west: Bush to Colorado and the ranch, Hastert to the border
Democrats' next big confab, featuring HillaryVoting Rights Act now awaits Bush's signatureCaucuses in Las Vegas in '08?

First glance
President Bush makes his way to the Crawford ranch for the weekend via Colorado, where he'll meet with recently returned US military personnel in Sen. John Kerry's birthplace of Aurora at 1:35 pm ET, then raise money for House candidate Rick O'Donnell at a private home in Englewood at 3:10 pm ET.  O'Donnell is hoping to keep one of the GOP's most vulnerable open seats in its column this November.  Vice President Cheney, also on the fundraising trail, makes remarks at an event for a House candidate in Tampa at 12:30 pm, then goes to Fort Stewart in Georgia to address a rally with the troops at 3:10 pm.  Some members of Congress are joining Speaker Dennis Hastert on a two-state tour of the Mexican border.

Bush isn't the only one with Denver on the itinerary.  From tomorrow through Monday, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council will hold its annual meeting there, a gathering which is expected to draw 300 state and local elected officials, including three possible presidential candidates: Sens. Hillary Clinton and Evan Bayh and DLC chair and Gov. Tom Vilsack.  Also, Sens. Tom Carper and Ken Salazar and Govs. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Janet Napolitano of Arizona, and Christine Gregoire of Washington will attend. The big day is Monday, when Vilsack, Bayh, and Clinton (in that tentative order) will address the conference.  At a breakfast with reporters earlier this week, DLC leaders Al From and Bruce Reed said the purpose of the conference is to help drive the debate of ideas within the party, and to identify and nurture the party's next generation of leaders.

But most eyes will be on the possible presidential contenders, especially Clinton, as she continues to walk the party's ideological tightrope.  A month ago, she addressed the liberal Campaign for America's Future confab, where she was booed for saying that the United States shouldn't set a deadline for withdrawing troops from Iraq.  The reception she'll get from the DLC -- which husband Bill once chaired, and which takes credit for some of his presidential successes -- will likely be much warmer. But there still might be controversy.  Last year, Clinton accepted the DLC's invitation to chair its "American Dream Initiative," which some viewed as another move toward the center for a woman who was strongly identified with the left during her husband's presidency.  That produced howls from the liberal blogosphere; DailyKos blogger Markos Moulitsas wrote: "It's truly disappointing that this is the crap Hillary has signed on to.  More of the failed corporatist bull**** that has cost our party so dearly the last decade and a half."

Shifting to the right has never been easy for Democrats running for president, but could be even tougher now as centrist Sen. Joe Lieberman faces the political fight of his life from an emboldened left.  Like Lieberman, Clinton voted for the Iraq war, but she has said she'll support whoever becomes the party's nominee.  Husband Bill will campaign for Lieberman on Monday -- which probably won't be the last time he steps forward to help temper her stance on a politically dicey issue.  But party strategist Steve Elmendorf tells First Read that the Senator has more support from the base than many might think, and Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, says Clinton received far fewer boos during her speech at his conference than he expected from the liberal, anti-war crowd.

Elmendorf also says that Clinton's work on the DLC's initiative -- which includes coming up with new policies and ideas for the party -- isn't that controversial.  "That is important stuff to talk about in an election," he said.  "Bill Clinton won in 1992 because he came to the table with policies and ideas."

Of course, Clinton isn't the only Democrat who has the opportunity to stake out ground at the conference.  Bayh recently gained attention for saying that the middle class should be the party's top priority.  Per a spokesperson, Bayh's remarks in Denver will focus on how Democrats must be tough on national security -- that voters won't trust Democrats on health care or the economy "unless they trust us with their lives first."  A spokesperson for Vilsack said the Governor is still working on his speech (Vilsack almost always speaks extemporaneously) and thus couldn't reveal its content.  But the aide promised that "the audience will be captivated."

Another big storyline at the conference will be the ground Democrats have gained in Colorado and the Mountain West.  While 2004 was rough election year on Democrats, this state was a rare bright spot: Democrats captured a GOP-held Senate seat, a GOP-held House seat, and control of the state legislature.  And making more progress there -- and elsewhere -- is the message the DLC will offer at the conference.  "If the Democrats want to win the White House in 2008, we're going to have to expand the reach of the party," the DLC's From said this week.  That comment triggered this question: Can Hillary Clinton do that?  He refused to handicap the 2008 field but said, "I think Hillary Clinton has broad appeal."

Also below, in a Friday oh-eight double-feature, we have the latest on the status of the Democratic presidential nominating calendar, which tomorrow will move one step closer to changing.

Have you checked your favorite political calendar lately?

Security politics
The Rocky Mountain News profiles Sgt. Brian Webster of Aurora, CO, to whom Bush will present the President's Volunteer Service Award today, which he has awarded to 500 volunteers since 2002.

The Washington Post says Bush's position on the Middle East, as described by "White House officials, Bush associates and outside Middle East experts," is that "the status quo -- the presence in a sovereign country of a militant group with missiles capable of hitting a U.S. ally -- is unacceptable.  The U.S. position also reflects Bush's deepening belief that Israel is central to the broader campaign against terrorists and represents a shift away from a more traditional view that the United States plays an 'honest broker's' role in the Middle East."

The White House is scheduled to host a meeting today between Administration officials, Iranian-Americans, and human rights activists.  Bush will not attend.

NBC political analyst Charlie Cook, in an "admittedly cynical" National Journal column this week, argues for Democrats playing it safer by just staying out of Republicans' way on national security.  "Nearly five years after 9/11, the Republicans haven’t managed to make Americans feel safe.  And it’s easy to suspect that this fall and again in 2008, the voters will be ready to try something different."

Embattled GOP Sen. Rick Santorum gave a hard-hitting speech on Iran at the National Press Club yesterday, calling the country "the central piece of the Islamic fascist mosaic," and saying it's "working to bring about the end of the free world as fast as [it] possibly can."  He charged that "negotiating" with the Iranian dictatorship would not work -- that complete regime change is necessary (although he said this didn't need to happen militarily).  Santorum also echoed a criticism aired by many neoconservatives -- that the Administration needs to deal with Iran more directly.  "The longer we wait, the more people will be blown up, tortured, incarcerated, intimidated, and assassinated."  It's safe to say that election-year politics played into Santorum's presentation.  After he finished his get-tough-on-Iran comments, an audience member asked him about the United Nation's criticism of the Israeli offensive.  He replied: "When the UN says anything about Israel, I tend to disavow it."  Santorum has been aggressively courting Jewish donors in his uphill battle for re-election against Democrat Bob Casey.

The New York Times writes about GOP Sen. George Voinovich’s change of heart on UN Ambassador John Bolton, which gives the White House impetus to push again for his confirmation.  “Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate minority leader, would not say whether Democrats would try to block a vote on Mr. Bolton.  He said he would confer with other party leaders before coming to any conclusions, but said he was not personally inclined to vote for him.”

The politics of raceThe Senate yesterday passed, and Bush will soon sign, a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act.

Coincidentally or not, the Democratic campaign committees and Ohio state party chose yesterday to announce a new joint effort to highlight and address issues related to voter fraud.  With this effort, they're trying to fold their traditional "election protection" efforts into their 2006 "culture of corruption" campaign, citing the New Hampshire phone-jamming scandal as a driving reason.  The Democratic National Committee said its Voting Rights Institute, which was created in the aftermath of the Florida recount, is now focusing on the Buckeye State because, they charge, state officials there, namely gubernatorial candidate and Secretary of State Ken Blackwell (R), are behind "Republican schemes to disenfranchise voters."

The Financial Times says Bush appeared before the NAACP yesterday "amid evidence that Republicans’ push to improve their standing among black voters has not paid off."  Also: "some black activists say the appearance was intended to offset the Bush administration’s poor response to Hurricane Katrina and the insensitivity they said it showed the poor black residents of the Gulf coast hardest hit by the storm."

The Chicago Tribune on Bush's speech: “[J]udging from the reaction of rank-and-file members of the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization after Bush ended a five-year hiatus here, the president still has a long way to go.”

The immigration debate
USA Today reports off an interview with Speaker Dennis Hastert that he "remains adamant that border security must be improved before Congress considers other changes to the law...  Hastert is making no promises about when or if he will appoint House negotiators to a committee that will work out differences between the two immigration bills.  It will happen 'when I think we're ready to move a bill'...  That may take longer than some supporters of a comprehensive immigration overhaul, such as President Bush, had hoped.  Hastert said he may extend House hearings on immigration and border security into September, a move that could jeopardize chances for a compromise before the Nov. 7 elections."

There's new criticism of a proposed border fence by some House Republicans "who have adamantly demanded heightened enforcement, questioned the wisdom of fencing big swaths of the nearly 2,000-mile border," writes the Dallas Morning News.

Just in time for the midterms, the "Supreme Court’s early October oral-argument schedule" includes "whether government can deport immigrants convicted of state-level felonies if those crimes are federal misdemeanors."  -- Wall Street Journal

Veto #1 fallout
The Wall Street Journal takes its turn looking at competitive races where embryonic stem cell research funding has become, or could become an issue, and how, as the GOP "has grown more socially conservative over the past quarter-century, the suburbs where many Republicans live have become... marked by a mix of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism that is testing Republicans' dominance there."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) yesterday directed a $150 million bridge loan to help fund California's fledgling stem cell institute, the Sacramento Bee reports.  “The Republican governor sought to characterize the state-funded loan as a boost to a biotechnology industry potentially deflated by Bush's [veto].  But Democrats charged that Schwarzenegger only sought to distance himself from a Republican president unpopular in California.”

We'll see two interesting pleas today related to the ongoing Duke Cunningham and Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandals, per NBC's Joel Seidman.  An Interior Department official linked to Abramoff and charged with filing a false financial disclosure report will be arraigned today in federal court.  The official, Roger Stillwell, is expected to plead guilty to a misdemeanor count of false certification.  The charges against him are the first connected to the Abramoff scandal to touch the Interior Department.

And an executive at the defense contracting firm whose owner was convicted of bribing Cunningham has been charged with illegally contributing money to another member of Congress.  Richard Berglund is charged with violating campaign contribution laws and contributing funds in someone else's name to Rep. Virgil Goode (R).  Berglund, a former Army lieutenant colonel, is expected to plead guilty today in federal court, Seidman says.  He's charged with one misdemeanor count.

Seidman also reports that former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's leadership PAC, Americans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee (ARMPAC), has agreed to pay a civil penalty of $115,000 over misstatements of financial activity, failure to report debts and obligations, and failure to properly allocate expenses between federal and non-federal accounts, according to the FEC.  The fine would add another ethical problem to the pile for DeLay should he wind up having to run for re-election if his party proves to be unable to replace his name on the ballot.

The Houston Chronicle adds that the PAC “had been in the process of closing anyway following the Sugar Land representative's resignation from the House last month.”

The Washington Post front-pages its look at HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt's family charitable foundation, which has allowed them to claim "millions of dollars in tax deductions" even as it "paid out very little in actual charity, tax records show.  Instead, much of the foundation's money has been invested or lent to the family's business interests and real estate holdings, or contributed to the Leavitt family genealogical society."

More on the midterms
"At the end of June, Senate Democrats had nearly twice as much cash on hand as their Republican counterparts, according to data submitted to the Federal Election Commission yesterday.  The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raised $8.8 million in June and had $38 million in the bank.  The National Republican Senatorial Committee raised $4.8 million and had $19.8 million in the bank.  The trend is mirrored on the House side -- though the Democratic edge is less pronounced.  At the end of June, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had $31.9 million, compared with the National Republican Congressional Committee's $26.5 million."  -- Washington Post

USA Today says that the widely predicted demise of labor's influence on the campaign trail, due to a deep split in the union coalition after the 2004 election, may have been overstated.  "Between Jan. 1, 2005, and June 30, 2006, federal reports show, major unions in both groups raised more money than they did for the last non-presidential campaign in 2002."

And pegged to a new labor-backed group, Bloomberg reports on how Democrats are borrowing yet another page from the GOP campaign playbook with a proliferation of nonprofit groups that don't have to disclose their donors and are formed for the purpose of influencing the elections.  "During the 2004 election, Democratic supporters -- notably billionaire financier George Soros -- used so-called 527 groups to support favored candidates. Congress has threatened to restrict the 527s this year, prompting Democrats to look elsewhere for fund-raising vehicles."  -- Bloomberg

The AP sums up the state of play in Colorado's 7th district, which Bush is visiting today on behalf of the GOP candidate, and where Democrats have a slight edge in voter registration but are also hosting a tough three-way primary.

Over 300 people are expected to attend Bush's event for O'Donnell today, which will raise about $550,000.  Protestors are also expected; Rep. Diana DeGette (D) will be leading a protest over Bush's veto over the stem-cell research bill and military mothers will protest against the Iraq war.  – Denver Post

Another interesting storyline at this weekend's DLC conference will be Lieberman's fate in his August 8 primary against anti-war challenger Ned Lamont in Connecticut.  After all, Lieberman once served as DLC chair.  The DLC's From told reporters earlier this week that he thinks Lieberman will win the primary. "The Democratic party doesn't need to narrow its appeal," he noted.  "Lieberman is an important defense Democrat.  He's a good-standing Democrat."  We wonder if From is considering changing his prediction now that the newest poll shows Lamont leading Lieberman, 51%-47% -- a 19-point turnaround in that survey.  Will it hurt centrists if Lieberman loses the primary?  From replied, "If he loses... we'll have a better idea on impact after the general election," noting that the primary isn't necessarily a good gauge because it's a low-turnout contest in August.

"By conventional measures, the new poll is confounding," says the Hartford Courant.  "It follows Lieberman's dominant performance in their only televised debate and a sustained advertising campaign by Lieberman to define the little-known Lamont as an opportunist with one issue - his opposition to the war in Iraq.  The poll suggests that Democratic primary voters are tightly focused on Lieberman's support for the war in Iraq - and are not swayed by attacks on Lamont's scant public record as a Greenwich local official."

With Bill Clinton set to campaign for Lieberman, the New York Daily News writes that "some Democratic operatives believe Clinton's attempt to bolster the Lieberman campaign could indicate he recognizes that a defeat for Lieberman, who backs the Iraq war, won't bode well for the White House hopes of the similarly hawkish Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.).  'They know she could be next,' said a longtime Team Clinton loyalist."

In Massachusetts, Democrat Chris Gabrieli is the first gubernatorial candidate to reference the Big Dig in a new campaign ad expected to be released today.  While it doesn't specifically reference the accident, the ad says "the Big Dig proves again that government is not getting the job done," reports the Boston Globe.

More oh-eight (D)The political press corps may be spending January 2008 zig-zagging between the chilly climes of Des Moines and Manchester, NH and the balmy temps of, say, Charleston and Scottsdale.  Or Vegas!!!

Tomorrow, the Democratic National Committee's rules and bylaws panel will meet in Washington to take the next-to-last step toward adding more early contests to the party's presidential nominating calendar for 2008.  The committee is expected to recommend to the DNC that one new caucus take place between Iowa's caucus and the New Hampshire primary, and that one new primary take place just days after the New Hampshire primary, before other states begin holding theirs.  Sources involved in the deliberations tell First Read that the favorites for the early caucus are Arizona and Nevada, and that Alabama and South Carolina have emerged as favorites for the early primary.  Of the dozen states which applied, these four, with their respective blocks of minority and union voters, might best meet the standards set by party officials who are looking to increase the demographic and geographic diversity of the party's early nominating electorate, which is the point of this exercise.

Once the panel formalizes its recommendations, they will go to the full DNC for a vote.  That vote is currently expected to take place on Saturday, August 19, at the DNC's summer meeting in Chicago.  While the recommendations will continue to meet resistance along the way from supporters of Iowa and, particularly, New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation status, they are expected to pass.

But what's been an 18-month-long process for those Democrats involved in this fairly obscure (unless you live in Iowa or New Hampshire) process will only just begin at that point, because these changes to the calendar likely will prompt others -- and on both sides of the aisle.  Along with recommendations for new early contests, the DNC rules and bylaws panel is also expected to recommend a new system of rewarding bonus delegates to states who opt to move their contests later in the process, to stretch out the party's calendar.  Once the DNC votes, other states will be tempted to move their Democratic contests up on the schedule.  On the Republican side, we may see some reactionary moves, as well.

And venerable New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner has pledged to move up his state's primary to protect its status, if he decides it's being threatened by the rules committee recommendations.  A source familiar with New Hampshire officials' thinking suggests that Gardner will do a gut-check in late 2007, and then act as he sees necessary.

“First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, from the NBC News political unit. Please let us know what you think.  Drop us a note at   To bookmark First Read, .