From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby.
Twenty-seven days until election day... President Bush tends to the base, doing his part to reassure those social and fiscal conservatives who might be thinking the Republican party has come loose from its moorings on moral values and government spending. Today, he's expected to announce that the deficit for the previous fiscal year will be smaller than projected, and that he will have cut it in half well ahead of his self-proclaimed deadline of 2009. (He'll probably credit his tax cuts, which he's touting increasingly on the campaign trail.) Analysts say the longer-term budget picture looks less positive. But many conservatives view deficit-cutting not only as a fiscal obligation but as a moral one, as well. And damage control on the Foley scandal appears to be on Bush's agenda in the form of a meeting with the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Bush also has a suddenly scheduled a Rose Garden press conference at 11:00 am.
At the same time, Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman campaigns with struggling gubernatorial nominee Ken Blackwell in Ohio, where a slew of scandals involving state Republicans, as well as the one that has unfolded in Washington, may be undercutting enthusiasm among the social conservatives who make up Blackwell's base. Mehlman's appearance with Blackwell is also a reminder of his push to recruit African-American candidates to run for statewide office this year -- and that the only two African-Americans who have a realistic shot at winning statewide this year are Democrats. Laura Bush is also in Ohio, raising money for Rep. Steve Chabot before heading on to boost Tennessee Senate nominee Bob Corker.
Most lawmakers are focused on November 2006, but a rare sharp exchange yesterday between two normally collegial Senators suggests they're thinking ahead to November 2008. Sens. John McCain (R) and Hillary Clinton (D), both known for working with colleagues across the aisle, really went at it over North Korea. Campaigning in the key presidential primary state of Michigan, McCain not only voiced his support for Bush's North Korea policy but called the Clinton Administration's policy "a failure" and singled out his Senate colleague by calling on her to stop allegedly blocking legislation that would bolster US missile defense. Clinton's Senate office responded by criticizing the Bush policy McCain supports, defending her husband's approach, and arguing that "Senator Clinton supports a National Missile Defense System that has been tested and actually works."
McCain, who won Michigan during the 2000 GOP nominating contest, faces a challenge there this year from native son Mitt Romney. And what better way to court conservatives than to attack both Clintons at once? McCain said on TODAY this morning that his comments yesterday were in response to Democrats' attacks on the Administration and that he felt this "the wrong time to engage in finger-pointing."
NBC's Ken Strickland observes that McCain's claim that Clinton has blocked the missile defense program is at the least an exaggeration. Over the past couple of years, her record has been mixed. The most recent Senate vote on missile defense, in June 2006, was an amendment proposed by a Republican to direct more money to missile defense testing an operations. Clinton supported it, as did every Senator on the floor. On two occasions, in 2004 and 2005, Clinton did vote for Democratic amendments that would have cut between $50 to $500 million from the program and transferred it to nonproliferation programs. Technically that would have been a "cut," but Clinton folks argue that the money would have been better used in established programs that would stop the spread of nukes. And in 2004, Clinton voted with almost all Republicans to kill an amendment that would have allowed the system to go forward only after the program had been proven to work. She was one of seven Democrats who crossed party lines on that vote, Strickland notes.
And the White House today grapples with two national security hotspots. North Korea is now threatening "physical measures" if the United States and other nations impose sanctions. And a second Senate Republican has expressed skepticism about the Administration's Iraq strategy. Moderate GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe said in a statement yesterday that "staying the course is neither an option or a plan." She said she's "deeply disturbed" by the Iraqi government's inability "to secure its own nation," and that she agrees with Armed Services chair John Warner that the United States should "consider a change of course" if things don't improve over the next two or three months. Also today, the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health is releasing a study estimating that 600,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the war and subsequent hostilities that began in March 2003.