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First thoughts

From Mark Murray and Domenico Montanaro
 *** "I Am Not Gay": While GOP Sen. Larry Craig's press conference yesterday wasn't as shocking and bizarre as Jim McGreevey's was a few years ago, it was quite a spectacle. And it raised more questions than answers, the chief one among them: Why would a local newspaper investigation force a three-term US senator to plead guilty to disorderly conduct regarding lewd behavior in a men's restroom? Republicans don't seem to be buying the defense, and before Craig's presser, the Senate GOP leadership released a statement recommending that the Senate Ethics Committee look into the incident. Of course, GOP Sen. David Vitter's recent press conference about his links to a DC madam's phone list was just as big of a spectacle -- and Vitter (with his wife's help) seems to have survived that incident, at least for now. But then again, being linked to a DC madam doesn't seem to compare to playing footsie with a plainclothes police officer in a men's bathroom stall. We're not the first to say this, but the biggest beneficiary to all of this has been Alberto Gonzales. Did he pick a great week to finally resign, or what?

*** Katrina, Before And After: Heading into the summer of 2005, the Bush White House was suffering its first true political defeat -- over Social Security -- and the situation in Iraq kept getting worse and worse. But few at that point envisioned that the White House and GOP were in danger of losing control of Congress. In the July 2005 NBC/WSJ poll, Bush's approval rating stood at 46% (almost where it was before he won re-election), and his fav/unfav was 47%-43%. Then came Hurricane Katrina and the federal government's widely criticized response to it. In the next NBC/WSJ survey, Bush's plummeted to 40%, then his lowest rating in the poll, and his fav/unfav numbers essentially flipped. Katrina -- which slammed into the Gulf Coast exactly two years ago today -- is hardly the sole explanation for the White House's current woes (and even lower poll numbers). But it served as the point at which the wheels started to come off.

*** Not The Big Easy: President Bush, whose approval rating now stands at 31% in the latest NBC/WSJ poll, commemorates Katrina's second anniversary with a visit to the Gulf Coast. He begins the day with a stop at a New Orleans charter school, where he participates in a moment of silence and then makes a statement on the city's recovery efforts. He then heads to Mississippi, where he makes another statement. None of the presidential candidates will be joining Bush in New Orleans, but many of them (Clinton, Edwards, Huckabee, Hunter, and Obama) were there in the last few days.

*** Its Downballot Impact: But Katrina didn't only influence Bush's political standing. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D), whose response to the hurricane was just as widely condemned as Bush's, isn't running for re-election this year -- and Republican Bobby Jindal seems a safe bet to claim that seat. Other Gulf Coast governors, however, have seen their political fortunes rise, simply because their states didn't look as bad as Louisiana did. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (R), stung in 2003 by a failed tax increase, cruised to re-election last year. And Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), who took a hit before Katrina for working to eliminate Medicaid benefits for thousands of poor state residents, is now in a strong position to win re-election this year, although a recent Bloomberg News article alleging that Barbour's friends and family financially benefited from the federal reconstruction aid there might complicate things.

*** Labor Gains: A day after Clinton won the endorsement of the United Transportation Union, Dodd picks up his biggest prize so far -- and perhaps his best piece of news since he launched his presidential bid -- when the International Association of Fire Fighters endorses him today at a press conference in DC. The IAFF, of course, is the sole major union that backed John Kerry before he went on to win in Iowa in 2004 (and it also has been the group hammering Giuliani on his 9/11 record). But while Kerry was overshadowed by Dean at this point in the '04 race, he was the initial Democratic front-runner and was still registering in double digits in national polls. That's not the case for Dodd. But, as the Hartford Courant's Lightman puts it, the endorsement is certainly "an important boost to his underdog campaign."

*** Billary Returns: The Clinton campaign just issued a press release noting that Clintons -- both Bill and Hillary -- will campaign together over the Labor Day weekend. On Sunday, they hit New Hampshire and then travel to Iowa on Monday.

*** On The Trail: Elsewhere today, Biden campaigns in Iowa; Edwards, in Georgia, gives a speech that his campaign says will touch on all the issues upon which he has built his campaign (poverty, health care, global warming); McCain raises money in California and Arizona; and Romney hits two fundraisers in Georgia. 

Countdown to MA-05 Special Election: 5 days
Countdown to LA GOV election: 52 days
Countdown to Election Day 2007: 69 days
Countdown to LA GOV run-off (if necessary): 80 days
Countdown to Iowa: 137 days
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 159 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 433 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 510 days