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First Read: Two storms loom in the Gulf

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

Monday, August 28, 2006 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

In today's issue:
All Katrina, all the time - except for Ernesto
Republicans waiting for the next anniversary
More speculation about big Democratic gains this fall

First glance
The prospect of a hurricane bearing down on GOP Gov. Jeb Bush's home state adds new urgency to the Administration's already scheduled plan to showcase improvements in federal disaster preparedness over the past year.  But as the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina looms, there's little they can do to spin the situation in and around New Orleans, where progress has been made but disarray continues to prevail.

President Bush's commemoration of the anniversary, his 13th trip to the Gulf Coast since the storm hit, is an overnight visit featuring events and remarks in Mississippi today, dinner with local leaders in New Orleans tonight, and a series of events in the city tomorrow, including breakfast with Mayor Ray Nagin, a morning prayer service, a roundtable discussion and remarks, and a long sitdown with area residents.  He's also declaring tomorrow a National Day of Remembrance.  And he'll give NBC's Brian Williams an exclusive interview from New Orleans.

Republicans are waiting for this anniversary to pass and for Congress to return to really begin focusing on the next one, the fifth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, which they'll try to use to their advantage as Democrats have sought to do with the Katrina one-year mark.  GOP leaders on the Hill hope to put Democrats on the spot over security-based legislation, backed up by more political attacks from the party's campaign committees.  But Vice President Cheney might offer a hint of what's in store when he keynotes the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention in Reno, NV today at 2:00 pm ET.

Moderate GOP Rep. Chris Shays threw a wrench into the GOP's plans, however, when he told reporters late last week, upon returning from his 14th trip to Iraq, that he now thinks the Administration should set a timetable for withdrawing US troops.  Shays is locked in a tough re-election campaign.  Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal on Friday reported that Hill Democrats may try to hold a no-confidence vote on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during consideration of the defense-spending bill next month.

The latest national poll, from Newsweek, has Bush's job approval rating at 36% and Democrats' edge on the generic congressional ballot test at 12 points among registered voters.

And the tragic Comair crash in Lexington reminds us that seven weeks have passed without Bush naming a new Transportation Secretary.  As NBC's Kelly O'Donnell has noted here previously, Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta, who played a key role in beefing up aviation security after September 11 and who oversaw the creation of the Transportation Security Administration, announced his resignation on June 23 and left the job on July 7.  Since then, Acting Secretary Maria Cino has been running the department.  The Transportation Department oversees federal aviation issues.

Got calendar?

Disaster politics
A new AP/Ipsos poll finds that "most Americans don't think the nation is ready for another major disaster...  Democrats are hoping to capitalize on such perceptions for the November congressional elections, especially among voters who are black and poor...  Today, Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee plan to release a report that summarizes instances in which small businesses in the Gulf Coast region were hurt as limited- or no-bid contracts were awarded to politically connected large firms in the weeks after the storm."

The AP notes that "the president wants to make clear that he has been fully engaged in planning for Ernesto as he vacationed over the weekend at his family's summer home on the Maine coast."  It also says his two days in the Gulf Coast look "a lot like previous trips, many of which have been criticized as featuring too much staged contact with supportive locals and overly dominated by meetings with officials."

Former Speaker and potential presidential candidate Newt Gingrich (R) continues to say -- as he has in previous speeches -- that the Administration's response to Katrina undercut the public's perception that Republicans know how to govern. – Bloomberg

USA Today reports on the status of the pledges made by Bush in his September 15, 2005 primetime speech in New Orleans.

In its look at how Katrina battered Bush's political standing, the paper notes that the White House "has defended the Bush administration's post-Katrina record in the face of a new series of critical reports in the media and from various think tanks.  Last week, it issued lengthy fact sheets detailing steps to help hurricane victims and rebuild damaged areas."  But historian Douglas Brinkley says, "'We live in a sound-bite culture...  And the "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" is the sound bite that's going to live forever.'" – USA Today

The New York Times: "If the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina called into question the president's competence, that Air Force One snapshot [of Bush flying over New Orleans], coupled with wrenching scenes on the ground of victims who were largely poor and black, called into question something equally important to Mr. Bush: his compassion."

A separate Times article looks at the Democratic and GOP politicians who have descended upon New Orleans for the anniversary.  "Finger-wagging Democratic congressmen are pouring down here... and President Bush's cabinet secretaries have been staking out hopeful counterpositions among the ruins."

Security politics
In its coverage of GOP Rep. Chris Shays' call for US troop withdrawal from Iraq, the Hartford Courant reports that "Shays, who interrupted the interview to take a call from a White House official interested in hearing the congressman clarify his comments firsthand, said he is planning hearings next month to help establish a realistic timetable for drawing down U.S. troops."

Also late last week, GOP Sen. John McCain sought to clarify his remarks from earlier in the week that the Administration led Americans to the think the Iraq war would be "a day at the beach."  McCain issued a statement on Friday reiterating his support for the war and commending the President for his "honest assessment" of where things stand in Iraq.

The AP covered a cautious-sounding Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Alaska as he checked out "the nerve center" of the US missile defense system.  (We'd note that while Rumsfeld tries to manage expectations about the system, Republicans already are hitting Democratic critics of the system as part of their assault on national security.)

Bob Novak criticizes the federal judge who ruled against Bush's NSA wiretapping program.  "The judge, a former Democratic politician and civil rights activist, wrote what read more like a political manifesto than a judicial opinion.  What's more, she was responsible for contributions to an organization that was a plaintiff in the case she decided."

The Sunday Washington Post found that "[m]ost Democratic candidates in competitive congressional races are opposed to setting a timetable for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq," belying Republicans' accusation that Democrats want to "cut and run," but creating an awkward source of disunity within the Democratic party.

The immigration debate
Republicans, meanwhile, are mixing their messages on immigration.  The Sunday Los Angeles Times noted the contrast between the Administration's signaling that "it's time to talk about broad immigration reform," and "the message coming from many Republicans on the campaign trail: The border is dangerously porous and talk of reform is premature...  On immigration, the party is essentially trying to send two messages at once," a short-term, hard line message that could help them in the upcoming elections, and a long-term appeal to Latinos to vote Republican.

It's the economy
One thing the Administration doesn't appear to need to worry about with Tropical Storm Ernesto is rising oil prices. - Bloomberg

The New York Times front-pages that the median hourly wage, adjusted for inflation, has declined 2% since 2003, and that wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of GDP since the government began recording the data (while corporate profits have increased to their highest share since the 1960s).  "That situation is adding to fears among Republicans that the economy will hurt vulnerable incumbents... even though overall growth has been healthy for much of the last five years."

Former Sens. Warren Rudman (R) and Bob Kerrey (D) ring alarm bells about federal spending in a Washington Post op-ed, and suggest a series of criteria for a "truly bipartisan" commission to propose ways to curb spending.

The Washington Times covers the online hunt for "the senator who is blocking a bill to create a searchable database of federal contracts and grants.  The bill has the support of the Bush administration and activists on widely divergent sides of the political spectrum.  It also passed a Senate committee without any objections, so the unknown senator is annoying many people."

Time magazine paints a portrait of a tough Democratic Speaker-in-waiting, Nancy Pelosi.

"Barring an unexpected and big event," writes Bloomberg's Al Hunt, "Democrats will win control of the U.S. House of Representatives in November and conceivably the Senate, too...  Privately, Republican congressional leaders are bracing to lose 20 to 30 House seats... and to barely hold on to their Senate majority."  Still, Hunt notes, "[e]ven with a slight Democratic majority, the next Congress is likely to be just as stalemated on big issues such as reducing taxes or overhauling entitlement programs like Social Security.  With Bush wielding a veto pen, Democrats aren't going to enact any important domestic initiatives.  The most important difference... will be much more aggressive oversight."

"Unions have ratcheted up their political spending and voter-turnout efforts as polls suggest the 12-year Republican control of both houses of Congress could be in jeopardy," says the Wall Street Journal.  "Still, if the Democrats make gains this November, the U.S. labor movement will be pushing its agenda amid some of the biggest obstacles in its history," given its declining ranks and internal divisions.

Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean isn't the only one in Rahm Emanuel's crosshairs.  The New York Daily News reports that the chair of the Democratic House campaign committee has criticized George Soros and MoveOn for not playing a bigger role in the midterms.

More on the midterms
On Sunday, the Dallas Morning News looked at how First Lady Laura Bush is doing more and more for Republican candidates.

The Wall Street Journal says that campaign TV ad spending "is on track to possibly break the 2002 record.  But unlike previous mid-term election years, candidates are devoting more money than ever to cable TV in an effort to target voters more precisely.  Though most political ad dollars traditionally are spent after Labor Day, tight primaries and early spending on House, Senate and gubernatorial races have pushed local TV-ad spending above $311 million as of mid-August."

The Sunday New York Times reported that GOP Rep. Chris Shays' new position on withdrawing US troops puts Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) "in an awkward position.  In the past, he has sharply rejected the idea of setting any deadlines for removing troops from Iraq.  But on Friday, when asked whether he could support Mr. Shays's proposal, Mr. Lieberman hedged."

In Massachusetts, the latest Boston Globe poll on the Democratic gubernatorial primary shows basically a dead heat, with former chief federal civil rights prosecutor Deval Patrick at 31%, wealthy self-funding businessman Chris Gabrieli at 30%, and Attorney General Tom Reilly at 27%.

The Globe also looks at how state Democrats are stepping up efforts to raise cash for their eventual nominee, who will face the personally wealthy Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey (R) in November.  They have "launched an effort to raise $3 million for this fall's gubernatorial election, including $1 million for television advertisements in the crucial week following the Sept. 19 primary, when voters traditionally begin to focus on the race.  And they are trotting out some party stalwarts to ensure they reach their goal," including Gov. Bill Richardson next week.

The Washington Post front-pages the battle over South Dakota's referendum to repeal the state's abortion ban, which makes abortion a felony except when the mother's life is in danger.  "South Dakota's fight could be a harbinger of political battles across the country should the Supreme Court strike down Roe v. Wade...  [I]nstead of suing to block the law, opponents are using a 19th-century provision that allows voters to overrule the legislature by referendum.  Meanwhile, the law is on hold."

The Houston Chronicle profiles the Texas Republican who's running as a write-in candidate for former Rep. Tom DeLay's seat, Shelley Sekula-Gibbs.  "She has little to lose politically because she doesn't have to resign from the Houston City Council to run and is term-limited after next year anyway.  Even if she falls short in the write-in effort..., she has a chance to prove her political chops and emerge as the front-runner for the GOP nomination to reclaim the district for the party in 2008."

And per the AP, Gov. Rick Perry (R) is under scrutiny for the alleged "fast-tracking of permits for the coal-fired plants" who have also donated to his campaign.

The Sunday New York Times looked at how New York is overflowing with potential presidential candidates: Bloomberg (who has taken himself out of the running in 2008), Clinton, Giuliani, Pataki.  "The confluence of factors that have elevated the four New Yorkers to presidential prospects is not entirely coincidental.  Since 9/11, New York's image has grown a bit warmer and fuzzier.  Mr. Giuliani's has become iconic.  He and Mr. Bloomberg have reversed the perception that the city is dangerous and ungovernable.  Surging immigration has made the demographics of much of America more like those of New York."

The Sunday Washington Post noted Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh's latest innovative effort to build goodwill with key officials in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The Hartford Courant considers Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd's presidential prospects in advance of his first scheduled trips to Iowa and New Hampshire.  "Dodd is stressing his ability to bring warring political factions together and create a more civil tone in government and politics."

And still more glowing coverage of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's tour of Africa, this time as he visited his father's grave in Kenya. – AP

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