From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby
Election day is 46 days away... Everyone on the GOP side is trying to claim victory after yesterday's conclusion of Deal or No Deal on detainee trials and treatment. The compromise allows President Bush's CIA interrogation program to proceed without undermining the Geneva Conventions in the eyes of the three Senate Republican holdouts. The breach that had threatened GOP unity over its best campaign issue has been healed, and those congressional Republicans who were balking get to look like they don't march in lockstep with President Bush.
The next stage of the Administration's extended campaign to spotlight the broader war against terror are a series of meetings with the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which will take Bush through Wednesday. As with the detainee legislation, though, these meetings aren't completely unproblematic. At this writing, we're awaiting Bush's joint press availability with President Musharraf, at which the issues the Administration hopes to spotlight may take a back seat to Musharraf's claim to 60 Minutes that the United States threatened to bomb Pakistan "back to the Stone Age" just after September 11 if Pakistan didn't cooperate in a campaign against the Taliban. Coincidentally, Musharraf is scheduled to release his memoirs next week, and they'll likely contain a more detailed account of his charge.
If the midterm election debate is centered on Iraq and the war on terror, both parties are also beginning to emphasize particular domestic issues heading into the final six weeks of the campaign. Republicans are zeroing in on taxes, seizing on would-be Ways and Means Committee chair Charlie Rangel's assertion that he can't think of a single Bush tax cut he'd renew, which fits nicely with their simultaneous effort to motivate their base by reminding them who would chair the committees in a Democrat-run House. Democrats are focusing on the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, timed to the start of the coverage gap or "donut hole," and Social Security.
Vice President Cheney is in Pennsylvania today, fundraising for the highly endangered Sen. Rick Santorum. Cheney's visit is expected to funnel about $200,000 into Santorum's campaign, less than the $300,000 he raised for Santorum back in October. We're reminded of how, late last year when Santorum was trailing opponent Bob Casey (D) by double digits, Democrats accused the embattled Republican of distancing himself from Bush, whose own poll numbers were dangerously low. They argued that Santorum's absence from a Bush event in the Keystone State at the time proved that Bush was a liability for GOP candidates on the ballot. Bush, in the state to deliver a speech on terror, made the visit just days after his 11-hour campaign appearance with Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore failed to boost Kilgore over the top in that race.
Things might be looking up for Santorum and for Bush, relatively speaking, now that Santorum has narrowed Casey's lead to the single digits, and Bush's job approval rating is ticking upward. NBC political analyst Charlie Cook says in his weekly National Journal column that Bush's average approval rating, from eight national polls taken in September, has increased to 41%. "The bad news for the GOP is that 41% is still lousy. It's 1 point below where President Clinton was at this stage in 1994... Perhaps it is apt to say that for Republicans, the outlook remains bad but is no longer horrific." The White House that likes to say it doesn't pay attention to polls has issued a press release this morning touting Bush's rising job approval rating.
NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that Bush advisors say they have the first two weeks of October "nailed down" as far as the President's campaigning on behalf of Republicans. They say that Bush will "very vigorously" stump at larger events and that more of those will be public. Until now, many have been held at private residences with no access for the media.
Also today, the Clintons wrap up his Global Initiative (read: shadow United Nations) summit in New York: The Senator takes part in a panel on women and economic opportunity, and the former President delivers the closing address.