First Read: Bush dominating midterms

Monday, August 7, 2006 | 9:25 a.m. ETFrom Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

In today's issue:
Three months out, Bush is a top election issue (for Democrats)
Lieberman vs. Lamont: the race narrows as the primary looms
The Abramoff scandal claims another victim: Bob Ney (R) retires
Tom DeLay's Texas remap unraveling at the edges

Election Day is three months from today, and while President Bush might be vacationing at the Crawford ranch, he's also everywhere -- as a dominant theme of the midterm campaign.

In upstate New York, the Democratic challenger to Rep. John Sweeney (R) concludes in a TV ad: "I will stand up to the President and say that we need a new direction in this country and in Iraq."  In red state Indiana, the Democratic House campaign committee is running a radio ad against Rep. Chris Chocola (R) featuring a Bush impersonator who says: "You know Chocola, those tax cuts you voted for big oil and gas... I appreciate it."  Even in the closely watched Democratic Senate primary in Connecticut, challenger Ned Lamont has used Bush to bludgeon Sen. Joe Lieberman.

"Inevitably, a midterm election is going to be a referendum on the popularity of the president," says Marshall Wittmann, a former Republican political analyst who's now a senior fellow at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.  But unlike in 2002, when Bush was sky-high in the polls after September 11, hardly any Republican candidates in competitive races this fall have used him in their advertising, except to distance themselves from him.

Much of this can be attributed to Bush's current standing.  The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed his approval rating at 39% -- down from 63% on the eve of the 2002 election, and from 49% before his 2004 re-election.  Also in the new poll, 38% say their vote in November will be a signal of opposition to him, compared with 21% who say it will be a signal of support.  "The Democrats want the election to be about George Bush, his performance in office, and the direction of the country," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

Of course, Bush remains a plus for his party in key ways.  So far in this election cycle, he has made 50 different stops for Republican candidates, helping them raise a staggering $160 million.  "The President's dance card is nowhere as big as the list" of candidates who have asked him to come raise money or campaign for them, says Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman.  Automated phone calls from both Bushes helped an incumbent GOP congressman from Utah win his contentious primary -- over the thorny issue of immigration -- earlier this summer.

Carl Forti, a spokesperson for the Republican House campaign committee, admits that the political environment in 2006 for Republicans is different from 2002 and 2004, but disputes the notion that Bush's absence from campaign ads is surprising, since most of these candidates want to talk about themselves or the issues they think are important.  "I wouldn't expect people in July to have Bush in their ads."  But that isn't true for Democrats.  In Pennsylvania, House candidate Patrick Murphy (D) has a web ad that shows Bush saying, "I'm the decider and I decide what is best.  And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain the secretary of defense."  The ad then shows Bush praising Murphy's opponent, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R), with the line: "Bush decided on Fitzpatrick.  Have you?"

Republicans in some of the nation's most competitive races are asserting their independence from Bush and the GOP.  Rep. Mark Kennedy, running for the Senate in Minnesota, has an ad featuring his son saying of him: "He's principled, independent."  His daughter adds that he "doesn't do whatever the party says to."  Sen. Jim Talent, whose Missouri race might be the tightest Senate contest in the country, states in his TV ad: "Most people don't care if you're red or blue...  They care about getting things done."  In an ad he began running in June criticizing Bush's immigration plan, GOP Rep. Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania says: "When I believe President Bush is right, I'm behind him.  But when I think he's wrong, I let him know that, too."

But some Republicans don't believe it's wise for members of their party to separate themselves from Bush despite his poll standing.  "I don't agree with President Bush on everything," says Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), who's facing a tough re-election campaign this year.  "But you don't bail out on your friends just because they have a tough go."  Pawlenty calls that a "weenie" maneuver.

Despite his standing, Bush and Republicans have proved experts wrong before, defying historical trends by gaining seats in the 2002 midterm elections, and winning more in 2004.  This time, however, Rothenberg says that all things being equal, if he were a candidate in this political climate, he'd rather be a Democrat.  "It is a lot easier to ride the wave than it is to redirect it."

Have you checked out's political calendar lately?

Security politics
The President and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will make statements about efforts to end the fighting in the Middle East at the Crawford ranch at 10:00 am ET.

Two potential presidential candidates, Sens. Chris Dodd (D) and Chuck Hagel (R), said on Sunday shows that US troops should be withdrawn from Iraq if the fighting there turns into a civil war. – Washington Times

Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan is back at her post outside the Crawford ranch seeking a meeting with President Bush.  "White House press secretary Tony Snow said there was little chance Bush would meet with Sheehan, adding that the president was busy monitoring peace efforts in the Middle East." – USA Today

Despite her work over the past year, Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes admits that her job of helping to publicize the Administration's efforts to spread diplomacy recently has become more challenging.  – Dallas Morning news

It's the economy...
Once again, supply disruption is sending gas prices up, at least temporarily.  BP's shutdown of its Prudhoe Bay oil field in Alaska because of pipeline corrosion and a leak is expected to reduce US oil production by an estimated 400,000 barrels per day.  At this writing, it's unclear how long the field will be shut down.  CNBC's Ron Insana said this morning that a lot of events lining up this month -- hurricane season and other possible disruptions in supply -- could send prices higher.

The Fed might finally end its streak of interest rate hikes when it meets this week, but Bloomberg suggests the pause may come too late to trigger a stock market boost.

Lieberman vs. Lamont
The race has narrowed somewhat, per yet another Quinnipiac University poll showing challenger Ned Lamont with a 51%-45% lead over Sen. Joe Lieberman among likely primary voters.  Last week's poll showed Lamont with a 13-point lead, 54%-41%.  As a conventional wisdom cements that Lieberman won't survive the primary, speculation is now centering on whether he'll follow through with an independent bid.  One former Lieberman advisor tells First Read that such a run would be like "doubling down on a bad bet."

Lieberman offered his "closing argument" yesterday as an unnamed advisor suggested to the Hartford Courant that in the event of a primary loss tomorrow, he might not run for re-election as an independent, after all.  In his remarks, Lieberman cast himself as a victim, likening his race to how, he said, former Democratic Sen. Max "Cleland was victimized in his race by ads portraying the disabled Vietnam veteran as soft on terrorism."  Cleland accompanied Lieberman at his speech yesterday.  Lieberman also said on ABC that he has been "scapegoated."

The headline in the New York Daily News: "'I'm not Bush,' pleads trailing Lieberman before vote."

Though "Lieberman reiterated past critiques of the way Bush has handled Iraq, he quickly added that bringing US troops home now would be 'a disaster for the Iraqis and for us.'  Lieberman believes Bush should have built a broader coalition before launching the war and moved faster to create an autonomous government in Iraq." - Boston Globe

The Chicago Tribune notes how some of Lieberman's old friends have decided to vote for Lamont.  "Without the support of even his longtime friends, it seems unlikely that Lieberman can turn around his political fortunes in the final hours of the campaign."

New Republic editor in chief Martin Peretz, whose magazine has been at odds with the liberal bloggers who are backing Lamont, slams him as a "single-issue 'peace'" candidate -- and dings Sen. Hillary Clinton -- in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.  "If Mr. Lieberman goes down, the thought-enforcers of the left will target other centrists as if the center was the locus of a terrible heresy, an emphasis on national strength."  Peretz adds, "Of course, they cannot touch Hillary Clinton, who lists rightward and then leftward so dexterously that she eludes positioning."

The Sunday Washington Post looked ahead to the impact the race could have on the party heading into the presidential campaign, particularly if a Lieberman loss pulls the party further to the left on the war.

Ethics reports Rep. Bob Ney (R) has announced that he will in fact retire at the end of his current term rather than seek re-election.  Ney's entanglement in the Jack Abramoff scandal had already cost him his chairmanship of the House Administration Committee, and Democrats rank his seat among their top pick-up opportunities.  In a written statement this morning, Ney said, "Ultimately this decision came down to my family.  I must think of them first, and I can no longer put them through this ordeal."  The deadline for removing his name from the ballot is less than two weeks from now.  Democrats seem likely to try to tar his replacement on the ballot as his hand-picked successor who is ethically tainted by association.

The AP says, "State Sen. Joy Padgett, a fellow Republican, said early Monday that Ney asked her to run in his place... Padgett told The Associated Press she would run."

The news comes as Roll Call reports that the Justice Department is reviewing documents related to an interview Ney gave to Senate investigators nearly two years ago regarding his relationship with Abramoff.

The Washington Times observes how Democrats have quieted down on their earlier "culture of corruption" argument now that law enforcement is probing the finances of two of their own members, William Jefferson and Alan Mollohan.  "A Pelosi spokesman said the phrase won't go away, but political observers and Republicans have noticed that the message has subsided since the accusations against Mr. Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat, surfaced."

The Sunday New York Times profiled -- with an interview -- Brent Wilkes, a defense contractor who's in the middle of two federal investigations, the bribery case of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R), and another influence-peddling probe that has entangled House Appropriations Committee chair Jerry Lewis.

Between the prospect of his own presence on the ballot in November, and the court-ordered redrawing of Rep. Henry Bonilla's district, the GOP's six-seat gain from the 2003 Texas remap engineered by former Rep. Tom DeLay (R) may get cut by a third over the next two election cycles.  Should Republicans be unable to replace DeLay with another GOP nominee, Democrats believe their odds of winning that district, despite its GOP tilt, will increase substantially.  The redrawing of Bonilla's district is expected to make it more competitive, making a Democratic takeover an eventual possibility.  As Billy Moore, a former Hill aide to Texas Democratic lawmakers, points out to First Read, "Bonilla is sitting on $2.3 million in campaign cash and faces a three month special election that could include several Democrats who start out broke.  He will be hard for Democrats to beat in 2006," but "it may be a different story in 2008."

Also, should DeLay decide to actively campaign for his old seat in order to try to prevent it from falling into Democratic hands, Democrats will try to use his candidacy to bludgeon other Republicans on the ballot around the country.  In the late July NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, DeLay was rated 11% positively and 41% negatively by a nationwide sample of 1,010 adults, his highest negative score yet in the survey.

The Houston Chronicle says the changes to Bonilla's district might prompt former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D) to run against him.  "Since the new districts were drawn after the March primaries, the Nov. 7 election will be an open race, allowing anyone to run in the five districts.  If no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote in a district, a runoff will be held between the top two vote-getters."

The Republicans
Remarks by top GOP officials at the Republican National Committee gathering in Minneapolis last week revealed an emerging strategy to cast doubt on particular Democratic lawmakers who would control Congress and its key committees should they attain the majority.

On one level, the aim is to cast doubt on these Democrats as incapable of keeping the country safe.  At the meeting, both RNC chair Ken Mehlman and White House political director Sara Taylor singled out Rep. John Dingell (D) -- who "has his sights set on chairing the powerful Commerce Committee," as Taylor put it -- for allegedly refusing to take a stand against Hezbollah.  In his remarks, Mehlman also asked who the country would prefer to have as Speaker of the House, "number three in line" for the presidency -- incumbent Dennis Hastert, or Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, "who said less than a year after 9/11 'I don't really consider ourselves at war.'"  Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid also got a mention for some past statements on Iran.

Later in his remarks, Mehlman also asked the RNC members to "picture what Congress would look like if we do not" keep the majority" -- including "a House Judiciary Committee chairman" (i.e., John Conyers) who has expressed support for impeaching President Bush.

An RNC official at the meeting says the party will start doing more to highlight "what a Democratic Congress would mean for the country."  This official says the effort will focus on these particular Democrats' policies.  Even so, Democrats are likely to decry the criticisms as personal attacks, perhaps particularly since some of these would-be committee chairs are minorities.

House candidate Lois Murphy, a Democrat running against Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) of Pennsylvania in one of the most competitive races in the country, doubts that a GOP strategy of tying her to Pelosi, Reid, Conyers, and Dingell would work.  "I don't think the people in my district know who those members are."  But they do know who Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Rumsfeld are, she adds.  "I think I have the better part of that argument."

The latest Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll suggests that GOP hopes of winning over more young voters are being hampered by the failure of some Bush initiatives that were designed to win their favor, by the war in Iraq, and because of "Bush's 2004 re-election strategy" which stressed "things intended to drive religious voters concerned about social issues to the ballot box, such as opposition to gay marriage."

More on the midterms
California's top union has come out against Proposition 85, "a November ballot initiative that would require doctors to notify parents before performing abortions on minors."  The decision amounts to a stark shift from the usual union policy of remaining neutral on abortion. – Los Angeles Times

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D) said the state elections, including another round of ballot measures, could produce $300 million in TV ads between Labor Day and Election Day.  "The governor's race alone is expected to exhaust more than $100 million in spending and compete directly with the initiative campaigns for television time." – Sacramento Bee

The New York Times on tomorrow's run off in Georgia between Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D) and challenger Hank Johnson (D): "The money, endorsements and opinion polls favor her opponent, but... McKinney... has been counting on a movie for last-minute help with the Democratic primary runoff vote here on Tuesday.  The movie, 'American Blackout,' is a documentary that embraces Ms. McKinney as a progressive heroine while chronicling the alleged disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida and Ohio in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections."

With five weeks to go in Maryland's competitive Democratic Senate contest between Rep. Ben Cardin and former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, many voters remain undecided.  The CW is that Cardin would be the stronger general election candidate, but Mfume's campaign is benefiting from a lot of African-American support. – Washington Post

In his Sunday column, Bob Novak reported that neutral GOP observers say that Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) "has the lead in organizing early primary states for the 2008 presidential run...  A footnote: A report in this column that Rudy Giuliani intends to run for president has been confirmed by one of the former New York mayor's closest Republican friends.  He said Giuliani definitely is running."

The Boston Globe, in a lengthy Sunday profile of Romney, wonders whether he has what it takes to be president.

The Des Moines Register thinks that in the pool of presidential candidates, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack will have "one distinction: He would face home-state voters right off the bat...  Vilsack's job performance at home is viewed as more critical to his political future than the popularity of his fellow governors is to theirs."

Time magazine reports on Legacy, a little-known but highly influential political organization -- judging from the number of 2008 presidential contenders who have addressed it -- made up of affluent evangelicals.

“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, .