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First Glance

From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby
Six days left...  Few things galvanize the Bush White House and GOP -- and get Democratic lawmakers cringing -- as quickly and uniformly as an inartful remark about Iraq uttered by Sen. John Kerry (D).  But as the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows, when it comes to Iraq, Republicans are standing on ground that is far less solid than it was in 2004.

Kerry's initial comment came in a joking riff at the top of a speech in Los Angeles on Monday, sandwiched in between a crack about President Bush and one about special prosecutors.  "You know education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you - you can do well.  If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."  Kerry and associates say the remark was "a botched joke" about the President and his people, not about the troops, and that the White House is now distorting the remark for political gain.  NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that per a source close to Kerry, he was making "a tough and honest joke" about Bush and it came out slightly mangled. 

Provided with an inch, Republican officials looking to rile up their base and distract Democrats in advance of the midterms tried to take a mile, accusing Kerry of insulting US troops serving in the war.  The White House has incorporated the charge into their rallying cry: Vice President Cheney, campaigning in Montana later today, will attack Kerry for allegedly insulting the troops.  Bush, who whacked Kerry at a Georgia rally yesterday, is likely to talk about it in his interview with Rush Limbaugh today.

The moment has allowed a GOP which has become increasingly divided over the war in this final stretch before election day to show a glimmer of their old unity.  The party's ranks remain divided over what course to pursue in Iraq, where US troops just concluded their deadliest month in a year.  Endangered Republican incumbents on the ballot next week continue to distance themselves from Bush and call for Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to resign.

Public opinion about Iraq is markedly different now than when Bush and Republicans clubbed Kerry with his awkward statements about the war back in 2004.  The new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that the war remains the top issue for voters, but is far less popular and a source of growing pessimism.  Today, 27% of registered voters think the war will come to a successful conclusion -- a 19-point drop from October 2004.  The 61% who feel the war will not come to a successful conclusion today also marks the first time that figure has ever crossed 60% in our survey.  Confidence that the war will end successfully also has dropped five points since last month.  And no matter which party is in the majority next year, 34% of those polled said that "more oversight in Iraq" should be Congress' top priority, second only to improving the health care system (36%). 

Overall, the new NBC/Journal poll, taken from October 28-30 of 1,010 registered voters (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15497989), suggests that the GOP slide of recent weeks has leveled off but that the party remains at dangerous lows.  As they did two weeks ago, Democrats lead Republicans on the generic congressional ballot test by 15 points, 52% to 37%.  Bush's job approval is 39%. 

If Republicans are looking to rile up their base, Kerry has his own reasons to try to appeal to his party's liberal core by taking on "a stuffed suit White House mouthpiece standing behind a podium, or doughy Rush Limbaugh," as he put it.  But those ambitions have more to do with his presidential aspirations for 2008 than with trying to help his party win in 2006.  Or at least, that's what annoyed and concerned Democrats in Washington are muttering, even as the party's base cheers Kerry on. 

The situation is uncomfortable for Democratic lawmakers because it has highlighted a fact that had gone unnoticed in the face of the GOP's increasing disunity -- that Democrats aren't all on the same page on Iraq, either.  The last time Republicans were handed such a moment to spotlight this fact was in early August when Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) lost his primary.  Not only that, but despite their tougher rhetoric about the war over the past several months, top Democrats remain spooked by allegations that they don't support the troops.  As Republicans piled on yesterday, few prominent Democrats stepped forward to stand with Kerry.  Perhaps that situation will change -- for better or worse -- when Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean holds a press conference in Vermont today.

Kerry has canceled appearances for Democratic candidates in Minnesota and Iowa, scuttling an anticipated "showdown" in Mankato, MN today, where both Kerry and Sen. John McCain (R) were scheduled to campaign for the candidates in a contested House race, MSNBC.com's Tom Curry reports.  The Republican incumbent yesterday called for the Democrat to return a $1,000 contribution from Kerry's PAC and to cancel the Kerry event "in light of Kerry's inflammatory remarks belittling American armed forces."

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