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First Read: McCain's political timing

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

Wednesday, August 23, 2006 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

In today's issue:
John McCain's "day at the beach"
In the anniversary run-up, Bush welcomes a Katrina survivor to the White House
President George raises money for aspiring President GeorgeIncumbent #4 goes down to a primary defeat

First glance
As Sen. George Allen might warn the White House, the political news doldrums of August can be dangerous.  Certain comments have a way of catching on -- particularly when they're rife with implications for presidential politics.  Surely Sen. John McCain (R) knew that when, one day after Bush stood firm against withdrawing US troops from Iraq anytime soon, McCain happened to say, in a presidential battleground state that has lost its share of troops in the conflict, that the Administration misled Americans early on to think that the war would be "a day at the beach."

Today, Bush raises money for Allen, who's still grappling with a widely publicized comment of his own.  He's also the Republican presidential candidate who might have the most riding on the outcome of the midterm elections because he's pretty much the 2008 version of, well, Bush.

A self-styled folksy former Virginia governor who grew up on a coast (California, not Connecticut), Allen picked up the twang and some other accessories (cowboy boots, Copenhagen) of his adopted South.  He has been an Establishment favorite in the 2008 field by virtue of being conservative enough, mainstream enough, and not overtly ideological.  He's even got the sports pedigree (football coach's son, not baseball team owner), and sometimes tosses a football with the crowd at speeches, just in case anyone forgets.  Indeed, the resemblance between Allen and Bush is striking enough that it's doubtful Allen could shake it off, if he were ever to try.

As Mike Allen (no relation) wrote in last Sunday's Washington Post, "the uncanny echoes of George W. Bush's career have fueled the hopes of Allen backers that he would be Bush's presidential heir.  But as Bush's popularity has slumped, Allen's 2008 outlook has dimmed."  To put it another way, a midterm election that turns out reasonably well for Republicans could be viewed as an endorsement of the status quo and good for Allen.  An election that amounts to a widespread rejection of Bush's GOP probably would cast a shadow over the prospects for the man who looks like Bush's heir.

Today's fundraiser should not be taken as Bush's endorsement of whatever presidential aspirations Allen might be harboring.  It's to benefit Allen's re-election bid, an effort which was expected to be easy at first and has become more difficult lately due to some self-inflicted damage (can you say "macaca") and to the overall poor climate for Republicans.  Virginia, while a Southern state, may be especially susceptible to ill winds for the GOP blowing just across the river in Washington.  In 2004, Bush got 54% in Virginia after Kerry spent little money in the state, and in 2005 Democrats held onto the governorship here.  Allen's 2006 opponent, former Navy Secretary Jim Webb, is hoping his background positions him better than most Democrats to attack Bush and Allen on the war in Iraq.

But Bush's presence can be viewed as a nod to the presidential-level kitchen cabinet Allen has accumulated, including White House advisor Mary Matalin, former Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie, and campaign manager Dick Wadhams, who helped Rep. John Thune (R) topple Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota in 2004.

As for the "macaca" incident, White House spokesperson Dana Perino told reporters yesterday that "Allen apologized and I think it's in everyone's best interest in this day and age of politics when everyone's trying to improve the tone and discourse to accept apologies when they are offered."  Wadhams wrote a memo to Allen supporters and the press (we assume that most "leaked" campaign memos which attack the media are really meant for the media to see) saying they "cannot rely on the news media to get our positive, constructive message out to the voters.  In fact, we cannot expect them to be objective, let alone fair."

Also today, with anticipation building and Democratic criticisms already flying over the upcoming one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Bush will meet with New Orleans resident Rocky Vaccarella at 9:55 am in the Oval Office.  The meeting will be closed-press, but Bush will make remarks to the travel pool afterward.  Per the White House, Vaccarella hails from Saint Bernard Parish, where his home was destroyed by Katrina.  He has been traveling around the South trying to draw attention to the rebuilding effort, and he asked to meet with the President.  NBC's Kelly O'Donnell points out the contrast between how the White House is handling this request and how they rejected anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan's repeated requests to meet with Bush.

Checked's political calendar lately?

Security politics
Per the latest New York Times/CBS poll, 51% believe there is no link between Iraq and the broader anti-terror effort, an increase of 10 points since June.  "Should the trend hold, the rising skepticism could present a political obstacle for Mr. Bush and his allies on Capitol Hill, who are making their record on terrorism a central element of the midterm election campaign."  Also in the poll, Bush's approval rating is at 36%; 60% disapprove of Congress' job; and Democrats have a 15-point advantage in the generic ballot (47%-32%).

The US Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that "Iraq faces an urgent crisis in securing" Baghdad, and that "we cannot achieve our goal of a secure, stable and democratic Iraq if such devastating violence persists in the capital."  He adds, "It is understandable that when the American people hear of new U.S. casualties and witness the images of bloodshed from the streets of Baghdad, they conclude that our plans for stemming sectarian violence in Iraq have failed.  Yet, implementation of the Baghdad Security Plan has only recently begun."

Bush yesterday, "for the second time in three years... authorized the Marine Corps to involuntarily recall reservists for duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa." – Bloomberg

Here's what McCain said yesterday in Columbus: "Stuff happens -- 'Mission Accomplished,' 'last throes'...  I'm as -- more -- familiar with those statements than anyone else because it grieves me so much that we have not told the American people how tough and difficult this task would be.  And it has contributed enormously to the frustration that Americans feel today because they were led to believe that this would be some kind of a day at the beach which many of us fully understood from the beginning would be a very, very difficult undertaking."

Not surprisingly, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid pounced.  Per NBC's Ken Strickland, Reid said on a conference call with reporters yesterday that such recent comments by Senate Republicans show their ranks are in "disarray."  He also cited Hagel's Sunday-show appearance in which Hagel said, "start withdrawing troops."  As for McCain's remark, Reid said, "It's nice that the Senator has suddenly realized that."

McClatchy adds, "When asked if Iraq is becoming another Vietnam, the war in which McCain was a prisoner or war, the senator replied, 'I think that's possible.  But we're certainly not there yet.'"

The State reports that fellow GOP Sen. Lindsay Graham is echoing McCain's sentiments: "A somber Sen. Lindsey Graham acknowledged Tuesday that he 'has never been so unnerved' about the state of the world and compared the threat from Iran to the rise of Adolf Hitler before World War II...  'I think we undersold how hard the war would be,' Graham said."

Disaster politics
The Los Angeles Times, previewing Bush's trip to the Gulf Coast next week, says "the White House has begun a public relations blitz to counteract Democrats' plans to use the government's tardy response and the region's slow recovery in the coming congressional elections."

The Wall Street Journal looks at how the upcoming anniversaries of Katrina and September 11 might affect public opinion heading into the midterm elections.

The Financial Times revisits the New Orleans convention center and cites the Washington Post in noting that "Mr Bush has mentioned the word 'poverty' in public only six times since his post-Katrina speeches and the debate over racial inequality proved no more durable."

Katrina was forming a year ago today, Bloomberg reminds us in a report on how the season might be getting off to a slow start, but could seriously pick up over the next few weeks.

It's the economy...
USA Today weighs conflicting evidence over the pace of the economic slowdown, noting that negative public opinion is at odds with the opinions of many on Wall Street.  "Why the wide range of views?  One reason is the inherent difficulty in forecasting at turning points in the economy.  More narrowly, the differences hinge on how economists, executives and consumers gauge key economic factors: the depth and breadth of the housing decline, the outlook for oil prices, the pace of economic growth abroad and whether inflation has spread beyond energy prices."

The Wall Street Journal says the "rapid deterioration of the [housing] market over the past 12 months has caught many homeowners and builders off guard...  It's too early to say how hard the landing will be, but at a minimum it will be bumpy for many people who need to sell homes.  And the economy as a whole, buoyed in recent years by the housing frenzy, could suffer."

Lieberman vs. Lamont
Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz will hold a press conference at 11:00 am today at the Capitol to make an announcement regarding Sen. Joe Lieberman's petition effort to get his name on the ballot.  The press conference will be held at the state capitol and Bysiewicz will take questions afterward.  A new poll by the American Research Group shows the race basically tied between Lieberman and Democratic nominee Ned Lamont.

"State officials are expected to announce today that they have validated the 7,500 signatures Lieberman needs to appear on the November ballot," says the Courant.  The paper looks at the candidates' fundraising efforts in the weeks just prior to the primary.  Lieberman raised "more than $765,000" from big donors, "a sum that starkly illustrates how quickly the three-term incumbent can tap a vast network of contributors."  Lamont "got about $71,550 in late contributions from major donors, plus another $500,000 that [he] gave his own campaign."  More: "The Lamont campaign said Tuesday it is budgeting $6 million for the general election," but "Lamont, after writing $4 million in checks to his own campaign, hopes to put away his checkbook." – Hartford Courant

During an interview yesterday with the conservative radio talk show Glenn Beck, the New York Times says, Lieberman compared the war in Iraq to the early struggle against fascism and said the world would become more dangerous if we departed from it too soon.  "Later, in appearance with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, Mr. Lieberman said that the war... had not undermined the credibility of efforts to deal with terror threats.  Mr. Lieberman also said that he did not believe Iraq was already in a civil war, a term Mr. Lamont uses regularly."

The Republican National Committee let loose another one of their detailed releases hitting a prominent Democrat.  This time, however, their target isn't DNC chair Howard Dean or a member of the party leadership -- it's DailyKos, who apparently just got back from vacation, and whom they attack because he's a leading Democratic critic of Lieberman.  His new job, the RNC says: "co-chair of the Democrat party."  The release also calls him a "fat cat liberal blogger for hire."  At this writing, there is nothing yet about the release on the DailyKos website.

Battle for the House: New York's Tom Curry offers a narrative for the race in New York's 24th district, which is being vacated by retiring Republican moderate Sherwood Boehlert:

Only a centrist such as Boehlert could hold this seat for the GOP.

The Republican nominee, state Sen. Ray Meier, is to the right of Boehlert on issues such as embryonic stem cell research.

Therefore one should give the edge to Democratic candidate Michael Arcuri.

But whether the voters will follow this logic remains to be seen, Curry says.  In much of the Northeast this year, it's the Republican candidates who are proclaiming they're moderate or nonpartisan or not in lockstep with President Bush.  But in this district, it's Arcuri who says "I'm a moderate," and "I'm not here to run against George Bush," adding, "I happen to disagree with a very large number of his polices."  But: "I'm going to be with the President when I believe he's in the right place on the issues."  Even so, Arcuri is critical of Bush on Iraq and wants all US troops out by next year.

Lest one think this district is Kerry country, Bush carried it with 53% in 2004.

For his part, Meier is distancing himself from Bush, both on Iraq and on what he sees as fiscal irresponsibility and ever-growing entitlement programs: "That's an area where I think both the President and the Republican House have departed from a traditional, mainstream Republican point of view."

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D), running for a second term, may have an effect on this race and others in New York by serving as a locomotive at the top of the Democratic ticket, Curry says.  She has reason to want to make a strong showing in Republican areas Upstate -- to boost her claim that she can win on GOP turf.  But in a stop Tuesday on the main thoroughfare in the town of Newark Valley in heavily Republican Tioga County, Meier found two women convenience store cashiers who voiced admiration for Bill Clinton but kept mum on his spouse -- other than to say tartly they couldn't recall seeing her in Tioga County since 2000.

More on the midterms
As many predicted, incumbent Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) appears to have finished third in his primary yesterday, the Anchorage Daily News says.  In the general election, former Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin (R) will square off against former Gov. Tony Knowles (D). – Anchorage Daily News

First a minimum wage increase, now discounts on prescription drugs.  In California, GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic legislators have struck yet another deal, this time to give more than "5 million Californians with moderate incomes... substantial discounts on prescription medicines...  The deal appears to end a three-year battle that produced two competing ballot initiatives that were rejected by voters in last November's special election." – Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles Times also covers the fight between Schwarzenegger and Democratic challenger Phil Angelides over taxes, noting that Schwarzenegger might have gained the upper hand by relentlessly bashing Angelides for supporting higher taxes.  Angelides recently proposed a series of middle-class tax breaks to combat the assault.

Maryland GOP Senate candidate Michael Steele is on the air with a TV ad in which he talks about how "Washington has no clue what's going on in your life," and says, "I'll talk straight about what's wrong in both parties." – Washington Post

The latest poll in the heated Democratic primary in the Massachusetts governor's race shows state Attorney General Tom Reilly trailing both free-spending businessman Chris Gabrieli and Deval Patrick, despite Reilly's offensive on the Big Dig: Gabrieli leads the race with 32%, with Patrick at 24% and Reilly placing last with 20%.

Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman spends the first of two days campaigning in Michigan.

Vulnerable GOP Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana is on the hot seat again, and again for saying something ill-judged -- this time for talking about how a "nice little Guatemalan man" doing work on his house might be an illegal immigrant. – AP

Rep. Jim Clyburn (D), who hails from South Carolina and chairs the House Democratic Caucus, praises the Democratic National Committee's creation of second-in-the-nation Nevada caucuses and a South Carolina primary in a USA Today op-ed.  "Complaints of front-loading the process should be made to state officials who schedule their nominating contests, not to the DNC...  New Hampshire's legislative actions over the years clearly indicate that it is much more about economics than politics with them."  At the same time, the paper's editorial page criticizes the DNC's move because it keeps Iowa and New Hampshire in place, rather than gives other states a chance to go first, and "makes it even likelier that the nominating process will be over before most Americans get a chance to vote."

A New York Times editorial praises the new calendar.

The Los Angeles Times editorial page criticizes the Democratic presidential candidates who are jumping on the pro-union, anti-Wal-Mart bandwagon.  "They obviously see Wal-Mart as this season's Enron, the one corporation that represents all that is wrong with America...  The candidates are so intent on gaining tactical advantage in the primary season that they risk alienating possible supporters in the general election."

Its official, says the New York Times: Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) "ruled out a run for president in 2008, saying that he would serve out his remaining three years as mayor before leaving politics and starting a full-time career in philanthropy."

The Washington Post front-pages how Sen. Hillary Clinton "is holding up renewal of" the Ryan White Act.  Clinton "said she opposes the measure because it would lower funding for her home state," but "[o]ther states that would lose out include California, Florida and Illinois -- all places Clinton would need to win if she seeks the presidency...  Asked why Clinton might countenance lower funding for Southern and rural states, Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the nation's largest community-based HIV/AIDS medical provider, said, 'I don't think she expects to carry the South.'"

And a recent poll of Iowa GOP caucusgoers reveals that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) is their top pick for president.  Giuliani received 30%, while 29% said they are still undecided, and just over 17% chose McCain, reports the Des Moines Register.  "However, two-thirds said they would be unlikely to support a candidate whose position on abortion differed from theirs, a potential problem for Giuliani, who supports abortion rights."

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