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First Read: The battle over the war on terror

The battle over the war on terror. “First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, from the NBC News political unit.

Tuesday, September 5, 2006 | 9:30 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

In today's issue:
All about Iraq: Bush speech #2, Rumsfeld under fire, Republicans' legislative barrageThe battlefield in Washington state
Katherine Harris faces GOP voters
Abramoff's first Washington court date delayed again

First glanceTwo more presidential speeches and another glossy White House booklet.  A series of congressional floor debates planned to benefit Republicans.  The prospect of Democrat-sponsored rebukes of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.  A trickle of GOP candidates distancing themselves from Rumsfeld and the President's policies.  Sen. Joe Lieberman's first day back at work since he lost his primary.  The underlying theme of all the schedule highlights this week is the war in Iraq.

While President Bush and some Republicans like Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who appeared on Sunday's Meet the Press, aim to cast the war as central to a broader fight against terrorism, a fight they argue that Democrats aren't capable of winning, Democrats are trying to keep attention more narrowly focused on Iraq, which NBC political analyst Charlie Cook calls GOP's biggest problem heading into the midterm elections.

Today, Bush delivers the second in his latest series of speeches designed to bolster public support for the war.  His audience -- again, a military one -- will be the Military Officers Association of America, plus members of the diplomatic corps who represent nations that have been attacked by terrorists.  NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that per Administration officials, Bush will focus on "the nature of the enemy" and will discuss newly disclosed "internal al Qaeda documents" describing the al Qaeda view that the United States is fearful and on the run.  A third speech is scheduled for Atlanta on Thursday.

To accompany the speech, the White House has issued a navy-and-red booklet called "A National Strategy for Combating Terrorism," which looks a lot like their previous "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" from November 2005.  Officials call this a "serious document" that is "driving the internal planning" of the government, O'Donnell reports, though the booklet is written for the public.

Since Bush gave his first big address on the war last week, the united (as their press release emphasized) Democratic party leadership has called for him to begin a phased redeployment of US troops from Iraq by the end of this year, and for him to replace his civilian team at the Pentagon, including Rumsfeld.  Democrat-proposed anti-Rumsfeld resolutions may soon follow in both chambers of Congress.  NBC's Ken Strickland reports that in the Senate, such a resolution could get attached to the defense appropriations bill scheduled for floor debate this week.  As of Friday, Republican leaders hadn't decided whether or not to try to prevent such an effort from moving forward.  NBC's Mike Viqueira -- who notes that there's no such thing in Congress as a "no-confidence vote," despite widespread use of that term -- advises that if House Democrats try to offer such a resolution, it will likely be tabled before it ever comes to a vote.

Democrats' efforts are being echoed by certain Republicans locked in tough races this fall.  GOP Senate nominee Tom Kean, Jr. of blue state New Jersey has also called for Rumsfeld's resignation, and moderate Rep. Chris Shays (R) plans to hold hearings on a "realistic" timetable for troop withdrawal.

Congress returns this week for as few as 15 scheduled voting days before they head home for the rest of the election cycle.  The majority party will spend most of that time trying to widen their edge over Democrats on national security, despite Democrats' criticism of a GOP-run "do nothing" Congress.  First up in the Senate, Strickland reports, will be the defense funding bill.  Later this week, the Foreign Relations Committee will vote on the renomination of UN Ambassador John Bolton.  (Democrats may not have the muscle to successfully filibuster Bolton again, Strickland says.)  Also this month, Hill Republicans will a push a White House-backed bill that would fix the NSA warrantless surveillance program; a bill that would correct the military trials for Guantanamo detainees, which the US Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional; and legislation to beef up port security.

Democrats will continue to bang the drum that Bush's policies have left America less safe.  Much of the party's Hill leadership will join former presidential candidate Wes Clark today in releasing a report "detailing Bush Republicans' failure to secure America and successfully fight the War on Terror in the five years since the attacks of September 11, 2001," per the release.

Lieberman's first face-to-face with his Democratic colleagues will take place tomorrow at the weekly caucus meeting.  A group of Connecticut veterans is appearing in an ad supporting Lieberman back home.

And it's primary day in Florida.  How will Senate contender Katherine Harris (R) fare against her lesser known rivals?  See below.

Got calendar?

Security politics
The Los Angeles Times, ringing in "Security September," says that beyond the "must-pass" defense and homeland security appropriations bills, "the rest of the GOP's security agenda is likely to produce stubborn opposition from Democrats...  But the White House and Republican leaders in Congress believe events last month - particularly the uncovering of an alleged terrorist plot in Britain and a federal court ruling that the domestic surveillance program is unconstitutional - improve the likelihood that they can enact the tough laws they want in these areas instead of compromising with critics."

On the campaign trail, Virginia Democratic Senate nominee Jim Webb's son, a Marine, deploys to Iraq this week.  Patrick Murphy (D), who's challenging Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R), begins running a TV ad on Iraq: " West Point law professor.  Paratrooper on the streets of Baghdad.  Patrick Murphy is running for Congress because we need change...  Start bringing our troops home and focus on the war on terror."  Fitzpatrick's campaign recently sent out a mailing criticizing Bush's stay-the-course handling of Iraq.

The New York Times profiles an Arizona state legislator, Jonathan Paton (R), who not only supports the Iraq war but is also being deployed there.  Mr. Paton "decided that his full-throated support of the war would seem contradictory if he was not willing to serve."

Iraq may be the central issue in many contests across the country, from Connecticut to Ohio to New Mexico, but nowhere on the map does the war hit closer to home than in Minnesota, where state Sen. Becky Lourey is the underdog in the September 12 Democratic gubernatorial primary against favorite Mike Hatch.  Lourey's son Matt, an Army helicopter pilot, died last year in Iraq -- a war she's always opposed.  According to veterans groups First Read spoke with, she appears to be the only candidate running for major office this year who has lost a child in Iraq; in fact, her campaign believes that Lourey might be the highest-ranking elected official in the country who has suffered such a tragedy.

Democratic presidential candidates John Edwards and Joe Biden called for Rumsfeld to resign while campaigning in New Hampshire yesterday. – USA Today

It's the economy
President Bush said in his Labor Day remarks yesterday that the nation's dependence on foreign oil "jeopardizes our capacity to grow."  Roll Call reports that some Democratic congressional candidates are holding events where they sell cheap gas to draw attention to high prices at the pump; Republicans charge that this amounts to vote-buying.

Bush also emphasized the importance of education yesterday, but "according to the White House Council of Economic Advisors," the Los Angeles Times says, "education is not the ticket to a higher salary that it used to be.  The White House panel found that the inflation-adjusted earnings of people with bachelor's degrees fell by 5.2% from 2000 to 2004."

The Washington Post, possibly coining the phrase "mortgage moms," looks at the role the economy is playing in the elections so far: "Flat wages and rising debt nationally have converged to leave millions of middle-class households feeling acutely vulnerable to bumps in their financial planning.  The most visible of these are rising energy prices and a softening housing market.  A less obvious but powerful variable is the interest paid by people carrying credit card debt or mortgages whose monthly payments vary with interest rates."

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
The Wall Street Journal editorial page calls for Republicans to broaden their horizons beyond security to emphasize "sound policies that highlight differences between the two parties," including "spending restraint" and property rights.

There may still be room for tax cuts.  A Journal news story says that because "census data last week highlighted the economic squeeze on many families... House leaders are considering a pre-election bid to make permanent the $1,000 child tax credit and marriage penalty relief provisions enacted in 2001."

Several papers look at how immigration has fallen off the radar despite both chambers and the White House calling it a priority.  "No meeting has been scheduled for House and Senate negotiators to resolve differences between the two chambers' competing plans for tackling the problem," says USA Today.  "The White House is signaling that Bush would prefer to put off a showdown with those opponents until after the elections."  The New York Times suggests pretty much the same.

Bob Novak also notes that an immigration bill won't likely pass this year, which he thinks could imperil Republicans' chances of keeping control of Congress.  "I never have seen a candidate or party succeed in playing the economic nationalist card.  Even worse, a divided party promises to go into the hazardous 2006 election after doing nothing about an issue its constituents think is most important."

Bloomberg reports that the Administration "hasn't dropped its objection to a nationwide cap as a means of cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions even as states impose limits," despite "state initiatives in California and in the Northeast aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions."

The Wall Street Journal reports Bush's Medicare chief is expected to step down.

The Democrats
The Hartford Courant observes that those Democratic candidates who are trying to borrow from Connecticut Senate nominee Ned Lamont's playbook are falling short.  "He gave them some energy, but they are unlikely to duplicate his success."

Former Democratic National Committee chair David Wilhelm is launching, a website aimed at courting religious voters.  Per the release, " will help frame the nation's values debate around the Christian principles of justice and the common good.  The new online community will involve political leaders such as Pennsylvania Senate candidate Bob Casey, Ohio Gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, and U.S. Senator Barack Obama."

USA Today adds, "This fall, the DNC will announce 'our own faith advisory team' of religious leaders 'to provide counsel, direction and a sounding board as we reach out to people of faith,' says DNC chief of staff Leah Daughtry, pastor of a Pentecostal church."

The Sacramento Bee writes that if Democrats take control of Congress, they "will press to get out of Iraq.  They'll mount investigations into the Bush administration's record that could rival those of Presidents Nixon in Watergate and Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair.  They'll push a boatload of social-welfare legislation, such as raising the minimum wage... while blocking the Republican agenda on social issues such as gay marriage, abortion and religion."

Battle for Congress: Washington State
In the latest of a series of missives from his tours of battleground states and districts,'s Tom Curry notes that there's no Lamont in Washington state, and that, as much as anything, explains why first-term Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) seems likely to hold onto her seat.  Like her colleague Joe Lieberman, Cantwell voted to authorize Bush to use military force in Iraq, and many Washington state Democrats were miffed.  But despite the affluence and prevalent liberalism in the Seattle area, no wealthy challenger had the nerve to run against Cantwell, who's expected to get through her September 19 Democratic primary.  Longtime state Democratic leader Karen Marchioro told Curry: "You could have a fundraiser with all the Microsoft people who must be kicking themselves by not seeing what happened in Connecticut.  How many people are just saying, 'Why didn't I think of that?'"

Meanwhile, Republican candidate and former Safeco insurance CEO Mike McGavick, who's waging a strong challenge to Cantwell, has gotten some bad press in recent days.  McGavick revealed a 1993 DUI arrest on his website, but didn't quite tell all: he drove through a red light, not a yellow, and was handcuffed and brought to the police station.  In what's shaping up to be a bad year for Republicans, McGavick is running as the anti-incumbent.  "I don't think this is a year that's about Republican versus Democrat.  I think this is a year about incumbents: Every incumbent will be held to task," McGavick told Curry.

And in the Seattle suburbs, Democrat Darcy Burner is challenging first-term Rep. Dave Reichert (R) in the 8th district.  Kerry carried the district in 2004 with 51%, so in theory it should be within Burner's reach.  But Burner has never run for office before and at age 35, she looks and sounds like she's 25, Curry notes.  She attacks Reichert's switch on increasing federal funding of embryonic stem cell research (he voted "no" on the bill but "yes" on the veto override): "He's clearly been looking at polling of the district," she said.  "He's frightened by the prospect he might be defeated."

Midterm mania
The New York Daily News has Republicans close to Bush worried that Republicans will lose the House.  "The best-case scenario offered by several White House and Republican Party optimists projects losing three Senate seats and eight to 10 House races. That would diminish Bush's legislative clout, but keep the GOP in control."

Stu Rothenberg, in Roll, walks readers through the state-by-state reasoning behind his revised prediction that Democrats will gain 15-20 seats in the House.

Florida holds its primaries today.  In the race for governor, Attorney General Charlie Crist faces off against the state's chief financial officer Tom Gallagher for the Republican nomination, while Rep. Jim Davis battles state Sen. Rod Smith for the Democratic nod.  Polls show Crist and Davis leading their respective races, although Crist's lead is much wider than Davis'.  But the most noteworthy contest today is the GOP primary to take on Sen. Bill Nelson (D), which features the embattled and controversial Rep. Katherine Harris and three other lesser-known Republicans: businessman and retired Navy admiral LeRoy Collins, attorney Will McBride, and developer Peter Monroe.  Polls open at 7:00 am ET and close at 7:00 am ET (for the sliver of the state on Central Time, it's 8:00 am ET to 8:00 pm ET).

The Sunshine State may get more attention today than it will in November.  Per the Cook Political Report, Nelson is expected to easily win re-election, and Republicans are slightly favored to hold onto the governor's seat, especially if Crist is the nominee.  Indeed, the state's only true toss-up race appears to be the House contest between incumbent Clay Shaw (R) and challenger Ron Klein (D).  (University of South Florida political scientist Susan McManus points out, however, that there are competitive downballot races, particularly the statewide contest for CFO.)

How did the political epicenter of the universe six years ago wind up with such a dearth of competitive races today?  Part of the answer is the redistricting the GOP-controlled legislature pushed through earlier in the decade, which solidified Republican-held congressional districts.  Cook report analyst Jennifer Duffy offers another reason: cost.  She notes that the national Democratic party doesn't seem likely at this point to shower money on its gubernatorial nominee, especially when it costs more than $1 million to air a statewide TV ad for just one week in Florida, and when that money could be used for other races.  Then there's the lack of a Democratic bench: They currently hold no statewide offices except for Nelson's seat.  "If Nelson had retired, who could have stepped in there?" Duffy asks.  "You really don't have a whole lot of new faces."

But the reason why the Senate race isn't competitive is largely because of Harris and the GOP's inability to find a prominent candidate who could beat her for the nomination.  Even back in 2005, polls showed Nelson leading Harris -- best known for her polarizing role in the 2000 Florida recount -- by double digits.  Then came a series of gaffes and embarrassments: her ties to Mitchell Wade, who pleaded guilty for bribing former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham; more than two dozen campaign staffers leaving her campaign; Gov. Jeb Bush publicly admitting that she couldn't win; and her recent comments that God "chooses our rulers," and that "if you're not electing Christians, then in essence you're going to legislate sin."

Harris' former campaign manager, Jim Dornan, tells the AP that her "'campaign will go down in history as one of the most disastrous ever run in the United States.'"  Still, the AP notes, Harris is expected to win the GOP primary.

NBC's Joel Seidman notes that neither Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) nor Senate candidate and Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R), both of whom are locked in tough fights in a blue state, appeared with Bush at his Labor Day event in Maryland yesterday.

As the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor of Massachusetts prepare for a debate on Thursday, the Boston Herald notes that Attorney General Tom Reilly has won the endorsement of Rep. Stephen Lynch (D).  The Boston Herald says Reilly is seeking "to portray the endorsement... as validation of his populist campaign theme from a congressman who represents working-class Southie neighborhoods and suburbanites from Metro West and the South Shore."

Tom Suozzi, who's waging a very uphill fight against Eliot Spitzer for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in New York, makes his case as the better and more experienced manager in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean is campaigning with Democrats in his home state of Vermont.

Yesterday's Chicago Tribune looked at how the cruising has come to a halt for congressional lawmakers who are now a little leery of taking advantage of yacht companies' largesse.

And last week, a federal judge again deferred a status hearing for disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, marking the third time since Abramoff's January guilty plea to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials that he has avoided a Washington court appearance, NBC's Joel Seidman notes.  The motion to delay said that "Abramoff has been cooperating with government agents and prosecutors.  The government anticipates that Mr. Abramoff's cooperation will continue for the foreseeable future."  A new status hearing has been scheduled for December 8.  Also avoiding a September court appearance is Michael Scanlon, a former partner of Abramoff's who pleaded guilty in November to trying to bribe public officials.  His attorney also cited his ongoing cooperation with government investigators; he is now scheduled to appear in court on the same date as Abramoff, Seidman says.

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