— From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby
Thirty-nine days from election day... After a week of minor bombshells, we're wondering if maybe October came a little early this year as far as surprises go. From a political standpoint, the first reports on the National Intelligence Estimate gave Democrats ammunition for their effort to keep the public's attention focused on the unpopular war in Iraq and their argument that it has made America less safe. The Bush Administration's declassification of further portions of the NIE helped them counter Democrats' arguments. Bob Woodward's forthcoming book has the Administration back on the defensive by charging that they've been hiding the truth about the situation in Iraq.
And now Jack Abramoff has reared his head again, to the possible detriment of the GOP, via a House committee report on White House contacts with the lobbyist. (Which means that scandal-plagued Democratic Rep. William Jefferson is about to be thrust back into the spotlight by countering Republicans again.)
On the one hand, the impact of White House and GOP's month-long push to make fighting terrorism the central issue of the midterm elections has been blunted somewhat. On the other hand, five and a half weeks before election day, Democrats are expending a lot of energy debating Republicans on Republicans' chosen turf. From the bully pulpit that has served him well throughout September, President Bush himself is now calling Democrats "the party of cut and run." His comment yesterday was striking given that he had previously refrained from using this GOP catch-phrase which oversimplifies the Democratic position on the war in Iraq (while at the same time, Republicans also like to point out that Democrats don't have a unified position on the war). Also up until yesterday, Bush always made a point of saying he doesn't question Democrats' patriotism.
At this writing, the President is about to give his first big speech on the war on terror since his address to the United Nations last Wednesday. The speech was added to his schedule two days ago, probably in anticipation of having successes to tout on the legislative front as Congress prepares to leave town, including the defense spending bill and the detainee trial and treatment bill. After the Senate passed the latter bill last night, the House is expected to approve it today and send it to Bush for his signature. The House has also approved the NSA warrantless wiretapping bill, though it's not expected to clear Congress before they depart and its chances for passage during the lame-duck session are uncertain. Bush's audience this morning -- again, a military one -- will be the Reserve Officers Association.
A House Government Reform Committee report being released today finds that Abramoff had 66 contacts with White House staff over a three-year period in Bush's first term, including 10 contacts with Karl Rove, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports. In all, Abramoff and his associates at lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig had 485 contacts with the White House from January 2001 to March 2004, 345 of which were in person. Half of the face-to-face meetings involved meals or drinks. The data comes from documents supplied to the committee by Greenberg Traurig, and offers great detail about the number and nature of the contacts gleaned from billing records and e-mails.
And we've got two midterm election notes for you: Sunday brings the next Meet the Press Senate debate -- this time between Sen. Mike DeWine (R) and Rep. Sherrod Brown (D) of Ohio. The latest media poll in the state shows Brown leading DeWine by five points. And on Monday morning, we'll be releasing the first battery of statewide polls conducted for MSNBC and polling partner McClatchy Newspapers by the opinion research firm Mason-Dixon. The polls will cover the top Senate races, as well as the California governor's race. Check MSNBC.com on Monday morning for your horse-race fix.