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First Glance

From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby
Politics abhors a vacuum, especially in the new-media universe without news cycles, and with Democrats fired up by the midterm election results and itching to put the Bush presidency behind them.  So it was that 150 political reporters and 10 times that many activists jammed into a Manchester hall to hear the Democrat who is both the most widely anticipated and most inexperienced candidate in the 2008 field, assuming he decides to run.  Gov. John Lynch (D) joked to the cheering crowd that the organizers of the event could have gotten the Rolling Stones to appear, but they preferred Sen. Barack Obama.

Unlike many of the others who are considering vying for president this cycle, Obama has a natural ability to fly at 30,000 feet, politically speaking.  While several activists in the hall yesterday remarked that his rhetoric isn't as lofty as Bill Clinton's, as an African-American with his unique background, he personifies his own message of hope and optimism even better than Clinton did.  It's at 15,000 feet -- the fleshing out of policy proposals, the endurance of incessant questions on the campaign trail -- where the ride could get rough for an inexperienced candidate. 

Obama has not one but two extremely high bars to meet.  First, he may have trouble living up to the near idyllic standard some seem inclined to hold him to.  He tries to shrug this off by suggesting humbly that he's merely a stand-in for the hope many Democrats feel about the coming election.  And second, to win his party's nomination and, if he does that, the presidency, he may eventually have trouble living up to the bar he sets for himself about representing a new kind of politics that transcends partisanship, and not caring about whether he's up or down. 

Obama's appearance likely caps off this ultra-early stage of the presidential season, which will resume in earnest with campaign announcements in early January -- unless some candidate decides to jump the line and announce over the holidays.  Spokesman Robert Gibbs tells First Read that was Obama's last presidential-related event of this year.

The attention paid to Obama obscured Democratic Rep. William Jefferson's re-election on Saturday with 57% of the vote.  Ultimately, the GOP paid a price at the ballot box for their proliferating ethical problems in 2006 while Democrats did not.  But they now face the prospect of Jefferson's presence undercutting their message as they hold a series of votes on ethics reform during their first week in the majority. 

After the feds found $90,000 in cash in his freezer and two of his associates pleaded guilty to a kickback scheme, Republicans tried to use Jefferson to muddy the waters on ethics in the midterm elections.  Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi stripped him of his Ways and Means Committee seat to send a message of zero tolerance on ethical issues.  But most New Orleans politicians backed Jefferson in his re-election campaign despite his problems, including Mayor Ray Nagin, another local politician who was written off for dead, only to stage a comeback in a runoff. 

Although deprived of his committee seat, no one can force Jefferson out of Congress, even if he eventually gets indicted.  And as NBC's Doug Adams points out, any indictment of Jefferson probably wouldn't happen until May 2007 at the earliest.  A federal judicial panel recently extended the deadline for briefs in his case until mid-April, with oral arguments to come after that.  Pelosi has said that Jefferson can have his committee seat back once he resolves his legal issues.  Until then, Democrats face the awkward prospect of complaints that New Orleans, of all places, is not being adequately represented in the House.

Continuing the White House effort to dilute the impact of the Iraq Study Group's recommendations, President Bush has three straight days of meetings with various officials to talk about Iraq.  Today's meetings are with State Department officials and "outside experts."  It remains to be seen whether Democrats will make as effective use of the GOP's internal splits over Iraq heading into the 2008 presidential race as Republicans did of Democrats' divisions over the war in 2004.  A new Newsweek Poll shows 39% of Americans agree with the Iraq Study Group's recommendations; 20% disagree; and 26% say they are not aware of the Group.  Sixty-eight percent believe that the United States is losing ground in Iraq, the highest rating ever in the poll; and 21% think the United States is making progress.  Bush's job approval rating in the poll is 32%.