From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby
Twenty-six days until election day... Mark Foley's former chief of staff is expected to tell the House Ethics Committee that he notified Speaker Dennis Hastert's top aide of Foley's inappropriate behavior toward pages, while President Bush stands with Hastert at an open-press fundraiser for Republican candidates in Chicago. Responding to a question about Hastert (one out of 14) during his press conference yesterday, Bush rejected the suggestion that Hastert's credibility has been damaged by the scandal and said he appreciated Hastert's "strong declaration of his desire to get to the bottom of it." He also asserted that the elections will be decided "by security and the economy."
At this writing, the economic angle seems the more promising one for Bush. The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that pessimism about the economy has lifted somewhat in the wake of falling gas prices. Bush also announced yesterday that he has cut the deficit in half (per inflated projections) well ahead of his self-determined schedule, though analysts raise doubts about the longer-term fiscal picture. On the security front, the Administration seems to have few good options for how to deal with North Korea and faces criticism that they've been focusing on the wrong rogue nation, while the Army chief of staff said yesterday that the current US troop level in Iraq may be maintained until 2010.
Purely by coincidence, the Senate Democratic Policy Committee also is in Chicago today for its first field session on the Administration's conduct of the Iraq war, focusing on the training of Iraqi security forces. They've had good luck with their timing: The last time they held such a session, in Washington, it was on the heels of the publication of the first excerpts of the National Intelligence Estimate. The Chicago setting may be designed to give a boost to House candidate Tammy Duckworth (D), an Iraq war veteran who lost both legs in combat and is now seeking to replace retiring Rep. Henry Hyde (R) in a traditionally GOP-leaning, suburban district. Duckworth's opponent will be at Bush's event today.
As often seems to happen when Democrats intensify their "culture of corruption" charges against the GOP, they get a dash of unwelcome news about one of their own experiencing ethical difficulties. This time, a major fundraiser for Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) of Illinois has been indicted on federal charges in connection with two separate fraud schemes. An AP story also popped up yesterday that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid profited from the sale of some Las Vegas land he hadn't owned for three years, and may have improperly disclosed part of the deal.
A top House Democratic aide tells First Read that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Government Reform ranking member Henry Waxman, and Rules ranking member Louise Slaughter -- the Democrats who'd be in charge of ethics if they win the majority -- will do a round of conference calls with regional editorial boards today. Pelosi will "talk about her new House principles that call for more bipartisan participation" as well as her "honest leadership and open government (ethics reform) plan."
The Midwest actually gets a lot of White House attention today. Prior to his Chicago event, Bush is in St. Louis for remarks on energy. Also in Missouri today -- though they won't appear together -- is his wife. Laura Bush raises money there for vulnerable GOP Sen. Jim Talent and participates with Talent in a breast cancer awareness event. And Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman makes no fewer than five stops in Missouri. Laura Bush also campaigns for Rep. Chris Chocola in South Bend, IN today.
And Vice President Cheney is in Topeka, KS raising money for Rep. Jim Ryun (R). Democratic operatives and political analysts don't consider Ryun to be vulnerable, so there's some question about why Cheney's going there. One Democratic operative who's tracking Cheney's fundraising stops tells First Read, "He's been to all of the tiers of races but lately it's been some pretty decidedly lower-tiered contests." Cheney then heads on to New Orleans for a Katrina recovery check-up and a Republican National Committee fundraiser.