Herewith six (plus one) observations to take us into the final week of August:
1. Alberto Gonzales will not be missed (except when confirmation hearings make us long for conclusion -- any conclusion), and his resignation will only embolden Democratic probes.
2. Hypotheticals are dangerous (and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton knew that before she answered her own last week) but blistering statements don't pierce thick armor.
3. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., is telling the president to put "teeth behind your words," but it's his Republican colleagues who need to fear a bite for anything to change.
4. Rules may be rules, but the only Democrats who'll decide whether Florida's primary votes matter are named Hillary and Barack (with apologies to Alexis and Jim).
5. For the second straight year, the dominant late-summer political anniversary will be the one commemorating Hurricane Katrina, not 9/11 (and no volume of congressional testimony will change that).
6. Karl Rove is spinning when he issues Clinton-related predictions, but there is no Democrat he and the rest of the GOP would rather see atop the ticket.
6.1 All this Clinton-bashing -- from both parties -- says more about the bashers than those whom they bash (but that doesn't make it less dangerous to the Democratic frontrunner).
More on that in a second, but first the news flash that will drive the day: Attorney General Gonzales has resigned his post, The New York Times' Steven Lee Myers reports on the newspaper's Website. "Mr. Gonzales, who had rebuffed calls for his resignation, submitted his to President Bush by telephone on Friday," Myers writes. "Mr. Bush has not yet chosen a replacement but will not leave the position open long."
Gonzales will face the cameras at a 10:30 am ET press conference. Cue the jubilant reactions from the Democratic '08ers, and the calls for an attorney general who will "unite the country," "heal the divisions," "fight for all Americans," etc. etc. Former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., was first out of the box: "Better late than never." (Karl Rove only got three words from Edwards -- "Goodbye, good riddance" -- in case you're keeping score.)
When the Gonzales furor dies down, Clinton, D-N.Y., will still have her 20-point lead in the national polls, her tuned fundraising machine, her crisp messaging and oppo-research operation, and the help of the most popular Democrat who currently exists. But she's also being tested like never before, with a growing chorus of critics emerging from inside and outside of her party -- making her candidacy into a battle for the heart of the Democratic Party -- and, to a degree, the Republican Party.
Clinton has precisely zero margin for error in the Democratic primary. She received another turn on the hot seat over the weekend with an uncharacteristic mini-gaffe: asking and answering her own "what if?" with regard to terrorism. "If certain things happen between now and the election, particularly with respect to terrorism, that will automatically give the Republicans an advantage again," she said last week in New Hampshire. "So I think I'm the best of the Democrats to deal with that, as well."
Her rivals (and the lefty blogosphere) begged to differ -- and they were more than happy to deliver lectures on what is and is not presidential. (Wait -- isn't that Clinton's game?) Politicization of terrorism, they said in near-unison, with Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., one-upping his rivals by calling it "tasteless."
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., added his voice today on ABC's "Good Morning America," telling Robin Roberts: "I don't think that there's room in this campaign or any campaign to use terrorism as a club to beat opponents over the head with. Karl Rove and this administration perfected that politics of fear, and I think that part of what we want to see is a change from that approach to one that says, 'We're unified in making sure that America is secure.' "
Wondering why they're weighing in? "Obama has outraised Clinton, and the three leading candidates remain close in polls in Iowa, but as they prepare to gear up for an intense period of campaigning after Labor Day, Clinton is in the strongest position," writes The Washington Post's Perry Bacon Jr. "In distinguishing themselves from the front-runner, Obama and Edwards are portraying Clinton as yesterday's news."
Republicans are also making clear that they're set to unload on the Democrat they most love to hate. The "Hillary haters" were happy to talk about their mission with the Chicago Tribune's Jill Zuckman, who profiles the folks behind StopHerNow.com and Citizens United, to name just two anti-Hillary groups that have already sprung up five months before anyone can hope to clinch the nomination. "Armed with new technologies and fueled by animus, they are bent on preventing 'four more years' of Clintonism," Zuckman writes. "Every old charge, it seems, is being repackaged and sold as new. Every rumor is given a new, blog-stoked currency."
Wondering why? Here's the GOP talking point Politico's Jonathan Martin picked up from the Midwest Republican Leadership Conference: "Hillary Rodham Clinton is going to be the Democratic nominee and that could be the GOP's saving grace in an otherwise uphill battle." Republicans, Martin writes, are "unenthused or just plain uncertain about their potential White House nominee. But GOP faithful also seem quite confident and even upbeat about the prospect that the senator from New York is, as Rove put it, the 'prohibitive favorite to win the nomination.' "
Obama led off the Democratic march through New Orleans with his visit yesterday, but he's skipping the cancer forum and the New Orleans summit that Clinton and former senator Edwards are attending. (How much media attention is Obama really losing out on so far by skipping presidential forums?) "Part of what I think the next president is going to have to do is to reinspire a new generation of civil servants," Obama told Robin Roberts this morning. "There's no reason to assume that this is the last controversy or catastrophe that we're going to be dealing with in the years to come."
Obama's plan would "streamline the bureaucracy, strengthen law enforcement to curb a rise in crime and immediately close the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet in order to restore wetlands to protect against storms," per The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny. "The procession of politicians, particularly Democrats, who are set to pass through New Orleans this week are eager to use the city as an example of why Americans need their government and the challenges facing the next president."
On Iraq, Warner yesterday reiterated his call on the president to initiate a troop withdrawal, saying on NBC that Bush "has got to put teeth in these comments that we're not there forever." And if the president doesn't take his advice, he's holding out the possibility of joining Democrats in mandating a troop withdrawal. "I don't say that as a threat, but I say that is an option we all have to consider," Warner said.
He got some senatorial pushback on ABC's "This Week." "I don't think it's in our best interest to put so much pressure on the new Iraqi government that it absolutely collapses," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told ABC's Terry Moran. "I'm frustrated by the slow pace, but I don't think the solution is to pull the plug." And Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., pushed back at the president's comparison of Iraq to Vietnam: "We have good people implementing a bad strategy. It's just not the same situation."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, meanwhile, is striking back at his congressional critics. "They should come to their senses," Maliki said, per ABC's John Hendren. No doubt this will quiet the criticism -- if you can't get tough with your own countrymen, why not attack those wacky Americans?
The Democratic National Committee slapped down Florida on Saturday, threatening to refuse to seat the state's delegates at next summer's convention if Florida Democrats don't find a new (later) way to choose those delegates. This may be left for the candidates to sort out by deciding whether or not to campaign in the Sunshine State -- precisely what the DNC hoped to avoid. "Beyond what is emerging as a clear embarrassment for the party, the practical results of this dispute were unclear," writes The New York Times' Adam Nagourney. "To a considerable extent, it could prove to be little more than a reminder of how little authority the party appears to have over its nominating process this year."
Here's something that could scare the DNC into backing down: The move "could give Republicans a big, early leg up in Florida's presidential election," writes Adam Smith of the St. Petersburg Times. "At a time when leading Republican presidential candidates are aggressively organizing in Florida, the move may discourage Democrats from starting comparable early efforts in Florida." Said former DNC chairman Don Fowler: "We have to enforce our rules, but we don't want to shoot ourselves in the head trying to heal a little cut on the hand."
Also in the news:
Former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., showed no new leg and avoided specifics at his speech before the Midwest Leadership Conference in Indianapolis on Saturday. But "for a candidate who hasn't officially entered the presidential race, Fred Thompson arrived at the Indiana Convention Center on Saturday sure looking like one who had," writes Rob Schneider of the Indianapolis Star. Said Thompson: "We have more cynicism towards our leaders than we have had in a long time."
While Thompson (still, and STILL) waits to declare his candidacy, his no-nonsense prosecutor's image takes another hit in today's New York Times, with Jo Becker portraying him with as the kind of figure Arthur Branch would have no use for. "The public image of the impartial, 'let the chips fall where they may' prosecutor that Mr. Thompson has cultivated masks a more nuanced reality," Becker writes. In both Watergate and in investigating then-CIA director William Casey, Thompson "sometimes straddled a fine line between investigating his targets and defending them. Dozens of interviews and records from two administrations reveal a lawyer who often struggled to balance the agenda of his party against his duty to pursue the truth aggressively and independently."
Ari Fleischer (he of the new ad-war gig) offered his take on the Thompson candidacy over the weekend, telling ABC's Christine Byun in Indianapolis that Thompson will find out quickly whether he made a major mistake in waiting so long to announce. "I think from the moment Fred Thompson declares -- he's got a one week window -- for people to say he's for real or not," Fleischer said. "If he's for real, the sky's the limit. If people get a let-down feeling after his announcement, because he got in so late, it will be harder for him."
The Washington Post profiles its latest campaign "guru": Pete Rouse, Obama's chief of staff, who was part of a contingent of aides who joined Obama from the office of former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. "Pete Rouse is the Outsider's Insider, a fixer steeped in the ways of a Washington that Obama has been both eager to learn and quick to publicly condemn," writes the Post's Perry Bacon Jr. And Bacon identifies one area where he kept Obama from would could have been a fatal political mistake: He talked him out of voting for John Roberts' Supreme Court nomination.
The Economist finds Rove's successor -- and he's working for Hillary Clinton: Mark Penn. "There are striking similarities between the new Rove (53) and the old (56). They are both masters of demographic trends and poll data. They are both fixated on the possibility of realigning chunks of the electorate -- Latinos in Mr. Rove's case, suburban mothers in Mr. Penn's. They both like peering into the future."
The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut examines Edwards' rural appeal. "Edwards is casting himself as the candidate of rural voters, someone who understands the plight and values of family farmers (especially powerful in Iowa) and who could do in a general election what he argues Clinton and Obama could not: attract culturally conservative voters," Kornblut writes. It's key to his electability argument: "I think John Kerry accelerated in Iowa and New Hampshire, partly, in January because people were looking for a winner," Edwards tells Kornblut. "I think it will be similar" in 2008.
Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., talked taxes Saturday in New Hampshire -- and set up Democrats as unrepentant tax-raisers while pitching himself "as the tax-cutting heir to President Bush," ABC's Jake Tapper reports. "'We must take things away from you for the common good,'" Giuliani paraphrased Clinton as saying. "Do you understand what that implies? No, it's not Karl Marx. What she's saying in that is that 'We know better, the government knows better.'"
"Don't count him out quite yet," Bloomberg's Catherine Dodge writes of President Bush, who "is making use of his last remaining political tool -- the president's executive authority -- in an effort to rescue remnants of his tattered agenda." Dodge writes: "In recent weeks, the president announced an initiative to round up illegal workers and punish the businesses that hire them, and issued rules limiting a government health-insurance program for children that lawmakers want to expand. Through veto threats and executive directives, Bush is also attempting to recover Republicans' reputation for fiscal responsibility."
Why isn't former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., catching on: "The short, cruel answer is that many people who should be his most enthusiastic supporters don't think he could win if he were pitted in a nasty race against the one Democrat conservatives loathe most," Newsweek's Holly Bailey writes. "In short, Huckabee is too nice to be president." Huckabee tells Bailey: "I am not a Republican clone. . . . I'm not right out of the laboratory of the RNC."
Maybe he started trying to make up for that yesterday. Huckabee is stepping up his fight with the Club for Growth, which is running ads attacking his record on taxes. Offering up a conspiracy theory that builds himself up, "You have to wonder who gave them that money," Huckabee said, per ABC's Tahman Bradley. "I have to think it's one of the other candidates." He also had this to say about Thompson: "People are expecting him to basically come in and be the fifth head on Mount Rushmore. Whether he can live up to that -- I think there's a real challenge for anybody to live up to that, including if Ronald Reagan were to come back."
Washington Post columnist David Broder likes how Bloomberg-Hagel (or Hagel-Bloomberg) sounds. "Hagel said that he and Bloomberg have 'had some talks' but that neither of them is ready at this moment to form a partnership or stake out a strategy," Broder writes. "It really comes down to a question of the strength of those tidal forces moving out there in American politics. . . . John Kennedy liked to say that a rising tide lifts all boats. The Bloomberg-Hagel pairing would test that proposition."
Is it Watergate, Bill Jefferson, or silly thuggery? Dodd's Hartford office was broken into on Saturday night.
The Mark Foley investigation is wrapping up in Florida, and the former congressman, R-Fla., "is unlikely to face criminal charges for sending sexually explicit e-mails to teenage boys," reports Amie Parnes of Scripps Howard News Service. "Sources close to the investigation told Scripps that to date there has been no criminal finding against Foley."
"I don't want to do this." -- Jack Edwards, 7, asking to get out of an interview about what it's like to be a kid on the campaign bus.
"I don't care whether you want to do this." -- John Edwards, in reply.