So, Republican senators, what would you like to talk about when President Bush comes over for lunch today?
The war in Iraq, perhaps? Not so much, unless you want to discuss the non-timeline timeline counting the days until your patience wears out. The attorney general? Also not ideal, not with seven GOP senators joining Democrats in rebuke of Alberto Gonzales yesterday. The courts? Try to avoid discussing the judicial slap-down on "enemy combatants." Certainly the president wants to talk about the immigration bill -- but yes, that would be the same one most of you voted to filibuster last week. Just everybody promise not to say "amnesty." And you thought lunch with Cheney was awkward. . . .
The president is seeking to resurrect his leadership mantle while standing on the shakiest ground of his presidency. The issue of the moment is immigration reform -- Bush's last best chance at a domestic-policy victory -- but the challenges far exceed one piece of legislation, even if it is a monster of a bill. A president who has taken little time to cultivate relationships on Capitol Hill needs Congress more than ever -- but finds few Republicans ready and willing to follow his lead.
That is the story within the story of last night's failed "no-confidence" vote on Gonzales. Yes, it fell short of passing, but pause to consider: Seven Republicans broke ranks on a Democratic measure that was all theater and no substance -- precisely the sort of motion where party unity is normally automatic.
ABC's Jake Tapper reports that the motion's ultimate failure was a setback for Democrats who want to oust Gonzales, though he points out that "no Senate Republican offered a defense of Gonzales." (Presidential candidates Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., missed the vote. And notice how the list of GOP "ayes" coincides so well with the list of senators facing tough 2008 reelection fights.)
On the campaign front, with the presidential candidates busily raising money this week, a few new polls confirm the race's dynamics. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., holds a solid lead in New Hampshire and nation-wide, according to the new CNN/WMUR-TV and Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times polls.
In the New Hampshire poll, despite Clinton's 14-point lead, Obama is seen as more "believable" and "likeable." Poll director Andy Smith says of Clinton, in a sentence that could define her march toward the nomination: "Although she is not particularly liked, she is the one viewed as the strongest leader."
In the Bloomberg/LA Times poll, Clinton is well in the lead, but Obama fares better than Clinton "in hypothetical match-ups with Republicans in the general election, running even or well ahead of the GOP's top contenders," Michael Finnegan writes in the LA Times. And former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., is fading nationally, garnering the support of just 8 percent of likely Democratic voters.
Fred Thompson is the GOP headline: He surges into second place, bleeding support away from front-runner Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is running third. Giuliani is the clear leader, but Thompson, R-Tenn., "has the most momentum on the Republican side," Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla writes, though remember that he hasn't faced a single tough question on the trail yet.
Whether or not Fred Thompson plays in the Iowa straw poll -- his people are making calls but still not committing -- he will be on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" tonight. His advisers say no Arnold-style announcement is coming, but with this (non-)candidate, one never knows.
Also in the news today:
Clinton, who is set to be endorsed by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., today, is celebrating other trailblazers instead of talking about her candidacy in historic terms -- though she's not yet talking about the filly who beat the boys at Belmont, The New York Times' Patrick Healy writes. "Given that her race is far longer than the one run by Rags to Riches, with the primary season still seven months away, Mrs. Clinton has been trying to find subtler ways to cast herself as a trailblazer," Healy writes.
Whether or not history-making qualities are important, Clinton does owe her early lead to female voters -- particularly lower-income women. She holds a 2-1 edge over Obama among women in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll. "Her 15-point lead in the poll is entirely attributable to that margin," The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut and Matthew Mosk write -- though the other Democrats are working aggressively to attract female voters, too.
The Chicago Tribune looks at Obama's efforts to build his "brand" in the early months of his Senate career. Team Obama envisioned him "as unifier and consensus-builder, an almost postpolitical leader" -- and running for president in 2012 or 2016. "But eventually he succumbed to the buzz enveloping his political persona and decided to run for the presidency of the most powerful nation in history after only two years in national politics," Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons write.
As Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., tacks left by calling for a complete troop withdrawal from Iraq, The New Republic's Ryan Lizza spent some time with the governor trying to divine his foreign-policy vision -- without much success. "The safe bet is that Richardson, despite his years on the world stage, has never developed any fixed foreign policy ideology. Or any fixed political identity, either," Lizza writes. Aside from misidentifying former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and fumbling through some questions about Iraq, Richardson had this interesting thing to say about North Korean diplomats: "They're all named Kim."
Richardson and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., are trying to shake themselves out of the single digits by taking to the airwaves. Richardson's is the latest in his "job interview" series," while Dodd today launches two new campaign ads -- that makes five total already -- touting his biography to contrast him with some of the less-experienced candidates in the race. "Have you asked what the others have done?" the voice-over asks in one of Dodd's ads.
Amid fresh signs that conservatives are ready to oppose a Giuliani candidacy, another Planned Parenthood connection emerges for the former mayor: The co-chair of his Iowa campaign, Joy Corning, a former lieutenant governor, was on the board of Planned Parenthood's Iowa chapter as recently as 2005, Politico's Jonathan Martin reports.
Let's see how GOP candidates handle this one: A group of "disaffected conservatives" has launched a new political group aimed at rolling back the president's expansions of executive power, Charlie Savage reports in The Boston Globe. "We have to go back and re-launch the conservative movement," co-founder Richard Viguerie says. So far, the presidential candidates aren't rushing to disavow Bush's record in combating terrorism: Only Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, has signed the group's pledge.
"PRIORITIES AS UNITED STATES SENATOR: ________________ " -- question on the Wyoming Republican Party's two-page application "for consideration as a candidate for United States senator." All Wyoming residents age 30 or older can apply to the party to be recommended as a replacement for the late senator Craig Thomas, R-Wyo.
"My own hunch [is the Gonzales vote] is going to be a boomerang," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., predicting that the Senate vote will heighten Bush's resolve to keep his attorney general in place.