From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby
Forty-three days until election day... Having determined that fighting terrorism remains their party's best issue, the Bush Administration has worked strenuously over the past several weeks to cast their chief political liability, the war in Iraq, as central to the broader war on terror. This week, the effort includes meetings between President Bush and his counterparts in Afghanistan and Pakistan and burst of legislating by the GOP-run Congress before they leave for the rest of the cycle.
Up until now, Democrats have struggled in the face of Bush's use of the bully pulpit to keep the spotlight trained on Iraq by arguing that the war there has made the country less safe. Today, they'll kick off a series of Senate sessions examining the Administration's approach to the war; the first will feature three retired generals who served in Iraq and will blast Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Yesterday on FOX, former President Clinton offered a strident defense of his own record and critique of Bush's on fighting terrorism. But it's the recently released National Intelligence Estimate which is helping Democrats bring their argument full circle with its verdict that the war in Iraq is encouraging terrorism. More on this below.
The White House billed this week as Bush's first round of heavy-duty campaigning, even advancing it with an unusual press release touting the uptick in his job approval rating. But most of Bush's events this week are closed to the media, starting with his appearances today on behalf of Connecticut Republicans and Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine. His events for Iowa, Arkansas, and Wisconsin Republicans on Tuesday; for Tennessee Senate nominee Bob Corker on Wednesday; and for Rep. Deborah Pryce in Ohio on Thursday are all closed. All of these events are at private homes, and under recent presidents, closing events at private homes has been SOP. But why so many events at private homes for the Campaigner-in-Chief? By comparison, the more popular Laura Bush campaigns openly this week for Republicans in top races in Ohio, New York, Iowa, Michigan.
As Bush hits the trail, the latest RT Strategies poll conducted for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report from September 21-24 shows him with a job approval rating of 40% and a 14-point Democratic lead on the generic congressional ballot test, 49%-35%, among registered voters.
Hanging over Bush's trip north today, as NBC's Kelly O'Donnell points out, are his remarks in an August 21 news conference that he was "going to stay out of Connecticut." He was referring at the time, of course, to the state's unusual Senate race in which the GOP had clearly made a strategic decision to support "independent Democratic" Sen. Joe Lieberman instead of their own underwhelming nominee. As O'Donnell says, there's no way this won't come up today -- in part because Bush is going there to raise money to help Republicans hang onto their three vulnerable House seats, but isn't helping GOP Senate nominee Alan Schlesinger. And in part because one big reason why the three Republicans are vulnerable is because of, well, Bush. One of them, Rep. Chris Shays, just launched a new TV ad in which he says, "I've gone against the President and the Republican leadership when I think they're wrong."
Later today, Bush will headline a fundraiser in Cincinnati for DeWine, who's also airing a new TV ad stressing his independence. New Columbus Dispatch polling shows DeWine trailing his Democratic opponent by 5 points and also suggests that Democrats will easily win the governorship. In addition to his events for DeWine, Bush will make remarks on the economy.
On Capitol Hill, it's a week for last best shots as Congress is scheduled to depart -- the House on Thursday, the Senate on Friday -- and remain out until November 13. As NBC's Ken Strickland notes, the fate of the GOP's entire national security agenda, as many as six different pieces of legislation, will get crunched into this week. The two biggest items are also presidential priorities: the newly negotiated bill creating military commissions and rules for detainee treatment, and legislation that would authorize the NSA warrantless surveillance program and allow it to be reviewed by the FISA court. Other items on the agenda include two defense funding bills, which includes emergency money for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the homeland security funding bill; a port security bill; and border fence bill.