The Note: Final Plays

The great political drama of this pre-election year is playing out inside a 24-hour period on a stage in Kansas City. Yesterday brought a Democratic candidate who wants to end the war (and was against it from the start), and a Republican candidate who still supports it (and accuses the Democrats of planting a "white flag").

And today brings a president who is desperately trying to salvage the war, recalibrating his strategy in a final ploy to shore up support for the mission that will define his presidency. As the politics of 2008 crowd in around him, President Bush has a diminishing arsenal of political moves on the war in Iraq, and he is playing his best (last?) cards simultaneously.

Just a day after publicly putting some daylight between himself and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Bush this morning will deliver a speech comparing the war on terror (and in Iraq) to military efforts in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam: "They are all ideological struggles," he plans to say, per excerpts released by the White House -- an unusual move in and of itself. "Today, the names and places have changed, but the fundamental character of the struggle has not."

Democrats are giving the president just enough room for him to shift the debate before the Petraeus report's release. And just in case, a new GOP-friendly interest group -- with Ari Fleischer providing the public face -- will pump $15 million into an advertising campaign aimed at shoring up support in Congress. (What took so long?)

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama are joining the ranks of Democrats who are acknowledging signs of military progress, even while the Democratic base itches for progress on ending the war from Capitol Hill, Jonathan Weisman and Anne Kornblut of The Washington Post report. "Democrats have been forced to recalibrate their own message in the face of recent positive signs on the security front," they write. "For Democratic congressional leaders, the dog days of August are looking anything but quiet."

Bush's move against Maliki -- the guy who was "the right guy for Iraq" last fall -- is creating the president some maneuvering room. "He seems to be laying the groundwork for a new message, one that says, 'We're doing our job in Iraq; don't blame us if the Iraqis aren't doing theirs,' " write Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times. "The president's remarks are aimed at a domestic audience. . . . Now Mr. Bush is admitting publicly what anyone who follows events in Iraq can plainly see: [his] plan is not altogether working."

Vietnam comparisons are tricky -- that war didn't end so fabulously for the United States, as Democrats are already reminding the president. But Bush plans to "bluntly warn the Democrats against committing the errors of Vietnam -- where America's withdrawal precipitated a communist-led bloodbath," the New York Sun's Eli Lake reports. "The stakes for Iraq and the Bush presidency could not be higher."

As for 2008, Bush is fortunate that the fundamentals of the race -- Democrats who want to end the war, and Republicans who (still) support the president -- have not changed. Even the president doesn't use rhetoric (anymore) quite like former senator Fred Thompson did when he spoke to the same veterans' gathering Bush will address today: "I'm somewhat reminded when I look at Congress . . . of Iwo Jima, where those brave people are struggling, several of them around, you know, trying to plant the flag. Except this time, it's not an American flag, it's a white flag." (That's not just meat, it's red meat -- who would think this man might be running for president?)

As for the Democrats, it was left to Obama, D-Ill., to carry the banner (not a flag) yesterday before the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City. "No matter how brilliantly and bravely our troops and their commanders perform . . . they cannot and should not bear the responsibility of resolving grievances at the heart of Iraq's civil war," Obama said "to tepid applause," per the Chicago Tribune's John McCormick.

The war is not the only area where the battle for the presidency is being waged on two very different fields, one for each party (and, for the Republicans, very close to New York's city limits). Former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., has a new radio ad that escalates his immigration fight with former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., as GOPers arm-wrestle to become the candidate who'd toss the most illegal immigrants over a giant wall with Mexico. The Wall Street Journal editorial page slaps them both down: "Are Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani competing for the Republican Presidential nomination, or for the job of vacation replacement for Lou Dobbs?"

Here's another fight it's hard to imagine the Democrats having: Thompson, R-Tenn., yesterday (again, he's so not running for anything) used his blog to blast Giuliani for establishing the legal right of his city to sue gun makers, ABC's Jan Simmonds reports. (He reminds his readers that he spent enough time as an actor in New York to learn that the city's gun laws are not among the things he likes about the Big Apple -- who was he hanging out with, exactly?) The former mayor fired back through a spokeswoman: "Those who live in New York in the real world -- not on TV -- know that Rudy Giuliani's record of making the city safe for families speaks for itself."

The biggest dust-ups on the Democratic side yesterday didn't quite have the same heft. Still, the Drudge-fomented sensation around Obama's wife's comments forced the candidate to step in and clarify that Michelle Obama didn't have the Clintons in mind when she said last week, "If you can't run your own house, you can't run the White House." "There are no references behind her point that we have an administration that talks about family values but doesn't follow through on it," Senator Obama (who does "The Daily Show" tonight) told reporters yesterday. The full context backs him up, but will Michelle Obama continue to use the line -- whether or not it's coded with political meaning -- now that people are listening for a Clinton-related subtext?

And whose line is it, anyway? Former senator John Edwards' campaign says Edwards, D-N.C., was the first to say the country needs a president who's "not afraid to use the word 'union,' " a phrase mimicked by Obama last weekend in Iowa. "If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, we are extremely flattered again. And again. And again," Edwards campaign spokesman Eric Schultz tells The Washington Post's Mary Ann Akers. Akers writes, "The Obama campaign, ever conscious of the maturity issue, sought to avoid a 'nah-nah nah-nah boo boo!' style retort."

Also in the news:

The Boston Globe finds Romney trying to "polish his record" in Massachusetts by leaving out a few facts about the universal healthcare law he championed. "He decries 'socialized medicine' and says the Massachusetts plan is 'all a private initiative, a private-based, market-based healthcare' -- omitting the fact that the state and federal governments subsidize much of the overall cost and that a public board negotiated the benefits and prices that private insurers now offer," the Globe's Lisa Wangsness writes.

Bloomberg News' Ed Chen catches up with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on the trail in New Hampshire, and finds him attracting die-hard Republicans -- but not enough independents. "Unless he can recapture their hearts and ballots, he's unlikely to repeat his 2000 primary victory, an essential step for him to win the party's nomination in 2008," Chen writes. Cue the cold-water shot from Charlie Cook: "I see no real sign of life."

The Los Angeles Times is out with a well-timed Michelle Obama profile. "She has carved out a niche connecting with women over shared daily struggles," the Times' Maria L. La Ganga writes. "As she crisscrosses the country on behalf of husband, Barack, Obama reaches out to and embodies a new generation of American women." Michelle's words: Race "resonates throughout the comments about my upbringing, my childhood, my access to college. It is there. Because it is me."

Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., is building a unique profile for himself in the Democratic field. He is "quickly emerging in the race for the White House as both the most liberal top Democrat when it comes to Iraq and education and the most conservative when it comes to gun rights and taxes," ABC's Teddy Davis reports. "While Richardson stands to the left of his top rivals on Iraq and education, he has won plaudits from conservatives on guns and taxes."

The Clinton camp sees their candidate as the big winner of the early debates, Newsday's Glenn Thrush reports. "Clinton's staff now views the format as a showcase for her steady style of leadership at a time when competence is cool in American politics," Thrush writes, casting it as "a big improvement from earlier, lackluster debates in 2000 and 2006." Says spokesman Howard Wolfson: "I don't think anyone could anticipate how well she's done, the extent to which the debates have had [an impact] on the rise in the polls."

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., is trying to claim ownership of a sleeper issue: the crisis in the mortgage-lending industry. He met yesterday with Fed chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and urged them to "use all the tools at their disposal" to restore stability to the marketplace. Per David Lightman of the Hartford Courant, "Markets responded somewhat positively, the Federal Reserve Board chairman seemed to earn Chris Dodd's confidence and even the treasury secretary suggested that he was aware of the nation's mortgage crisis. All in all, Dodd, the Senate Banking Committee chairman, probably achieved as much as he could."

If the ground didn't quite shift for former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., at the Ames Straw Poll, he's trying to use quotes to make it shift. "The Earth moved that day," Huckabee said in New Hampshire, per David Templeton of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Writes Templeton, "The Iowa bounce is apparent in New Hampshire, where voters flocked to his campaign events last week even as they expressed concern that his name still lacked the political punch of a Rudy Giuliani, a Mitt Romney, who defeated him in Iowa, or even a John McCain."

As Michigan threatens to blow up the primary calendar anew, the Democratic National Committee is hoping that sanctions against Florida will help the party reassert control over voting dates on behalf of the bewildered candidates, ABC News reports. On Saturday, a DNC panel "is expected to rule that Florida's date violates party rules. The national party will likely threaten to strip the Sunshine State of more than half of its delegates -- and could also prevent candidates who campaign in Florida from receiving any of the state's delegates."

California Democrats are firing back at the GOP-led initiative to award the state's electoral votes by congressional district. The Democrats are offering their own proposal, to have the nation's largest state join a movement that seeks to have presidents elected by the popular vote instead of the Electoral College, the Los Angeles Times' Dan Morain reports. "If the competing measures make it onto the ballot in June or November, California could become a battleground over the electoral college," Morain writes.

Howard Dean has a 50-state strategy -- so why not get some organizing help from the man who won 10? For the record, Michael Dukakis is not optimistic about 2008 -- which is why he's preaching precinct-level organizing just like he had in Brookline back in the day, per Steve Kornacki of the New York Observer. "Some crazy guy will blow up a building with three weeks to go, you know, and then we'll be back in Bush-land again," Dukakis says.

The kicker:

"Mugging is less painful for most people -- and it's quicker." -- Huckabee, explaining the public's fear of the IRS.

"I don't think I'm a kook or a wacko." -- Katherine Prudhomme-O'Brien, the Derry, N.H., woman who asked Giuliani why his family didn't support him -- and who asked Al Gore about Bill Clinton's personal life in 1999.