From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby.
The White House seems to be trying to fill the news vacuum around the Iraq Study Group's release of its report on Wednesday. Yesterday brought the resignation of UN Ambassador John Bolton, a move that was not surprising but does represent the loss of a second top foreign policy figure for the Administration since the midterms. Earlier this morning, Bush made a quick appearance with Defense Secretary nominee Robert Gates, who has his Senate hearing today and will likely be confirmed tomorrow. And a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair is now scheduled for Thursday.
As the last confirmation hearing under the GOP majority, outgoing Armed Services chair John Warner (R) will kick off Gates' session with an opening statement, followed by one from incoming chair Carl Levin (D). (Come January, Sen. John McCain will replace Warner as the committee's top Republican.) The committee may go into a closed-press session after lunch, but there should be a press availability with Warner and Levin later in the afternoon, NBC's Ken Strickland advises. The committee will likely vote on Gates tomorrow morning, after which the full Senate could take up his nomination and confirm him by tomorrow night. Three presidential candidates -- McCain and Democratic Sens. Evan Bayh and Hillary Clinton -- sit on the committee.
Strickland also advises that the Armed Services Committee may have a hearing on the Iraq Study Group's recommendations on Thursday. House Democratic leaders hold a session on Iraq for their ranks today.
In the presidential race, Clinton's team continues to insist that the recent surge in interest in Sen. Barack Obama isn't affecting their timetable, and vice versa. The Clinton team is now rolling out personnel announcements as fast as the RSVP list is growing for Obama's main event in New Hampshire on Sunday.
Also, Sen. Evan Bayh (D) will file papers to create his presidential exploratory committee today; Republican Sen. Sam Brownback did so yesterday. (Much more on this below.) By our count, the 2008 presidential field could include as many as five Midwesterners: Brownback of Kansas and Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska on the GOP side, and Bayh of Indiana, Obama of Illinois, and Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa on the Democratic side. (Not to mention Chicago suburbs native Clinton.)
The Midwest is a general election battleground, and Democrats' recent gains in some of the reddest areas of the region may mean the battleground is bigger in 2008 than it used to be. Brownback's home state of Kansas has a prominent Democratic governor and now, after the 2006 elections, two Democratic House members out of four. Democrats in Bayh's home state of Indiana netted three House seats. "One advantage" to hailing from the Midwest "is that the crescent around the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi have been pivotal in recent general elections," one campaign consultant based in the region tells First Read. "The ability to compete and win those states is a valuable asset."
But that doesn't necessarily mean that Midwestern candidates are better positioned to win their respective nominations. In an interview with a local news outlet in South Dakota over the weekend, former Sen. Tom Daschle (D) said Vilsack could find it tough going because of where he's from. "Generally speaking, I was thinking mostly about the fact that Midwestern states are small in population and therefore not as good a launchpad for a national campaign," Daschle explains to First Read. "Having said that, even though they all lost, Bob Dole, George McGovern, Fritz Mondale and Gary Hart could all tell you that it posed only limited liability as they sought national office."
Another reason why a Midwestern base could be a hindrance in a primary is the region's lack of big financial centers, boasting Chicago and Omaha, versus New York or Los Angeles. Senators from the region may be somewhat better off than, say, Vilsack in this respect because of their Washington connections. Also, the states that follow Iowa on the nominating calendar, like New Hampshire and South Carolina, have strong personalities of their own, as another Midwest-based consultant points out. Once the candidates leave Iowa, they won't return to compete in the Midwest until, perhaps, an early Michigan contest on February 5, by which point the nomination could be settled.