Gaming the War: Bush Seeks to Win Back the Public

Here are 10 things we know heading into President Bush's 9 pm ET address on the Iraq war this evening:

1. Rudolph Giuliani isn't voting for Hillary Clinton, and Mitt Romney isn't voting for Barack Obama.

2. All of the Republicans -- including John McCain -- would rather attack Democrats (and Moveon.org) than back the president's strategy.

3. All of the Democrats -- particularly Barack Obama -- would rather talk about the president's mistakes (though not necessarily their own votes) than what to do next.

4. There will be more than 100,000 US troops in Iraq on Jan. 20, 2009, and there might be 150,000.

5. There will be more than 100 congressional hearings on Iraq before Nov. 4, 2008, and there might be 1,000.

6. Obama sounds like an NPR listener -- and just may be a big Ted Koppel fan.

7. John Edwards is copying Fred Thompson's playbook (!), and while he needs to find a cheaper way to dominate the message wars, his two-minute (paid) rebuttal to the president will make him the envy of the news cycle.

8. The Democrats who want to be president will -- again -- be pushing an uncomfortable congressional majority leftward.

9. Gen. David Petraeus bought the president a smidge of wiggle room on Iraq -- and a bit more time.

10. That may not be a good thing for the GOP (and the White House will severely miss Tony Snow as that dynamic develops).

The president's speech has the feel of overkill (hasn't his team made his points for him already this week?), yet that doesn't diminish the stakes as he tries to get the public back on his side (or, at least, not wholly against him) for one last push.

Democrats aren't buying that his plan means real troop withdrawals, but Bush is seeking to reclaim the "uniter" mantle nonetheless with a different tone, if not a major change in substance.

"With lawmakers openly skeptical of his troop buildup, Mr. Bush will cast his plan for a gradual, limited withdrawal as a way to bring a divided America together -- even as he resists demands from those who want him to move much faster," write Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Steven Lee Myers of The New York Times.

Democratic leaders in Congress know there's little they can do to force the president's hand (though we won't hear that admission from Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., in his rebuttal tonight). But the 2008 candidates have begun to find their voices again on Iraq -- in ways that seem destined to make congressional leaders squirm.

Obama, D-Ill., unveiled his latest Iraq plan yesterday -- and though it's not really that different than Clinton's, he included plenty of veiled shots at the Democratic frontrunner.

"It was not lost on Obama's audience at Ashford University -- in the town of Clinton, of all places -- whom he meant to single out as a politician who failed to read the Iraq intelligence for herself: Hillary Clinton," Newsweek's Richard Wolffe writes.

But Obama isn't saying how he'll vote on the question of troop funding when and if it comes to that again in Congress -- a (lack of) position that is drawing him fire from Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and will also no doubt provoke Edwards, D-N.C.

"When asked if he would 'tell leadership that a vote to continue to fund this war without a concrete timetable for withdrawal is wrong,' Obama would not tip his hand," ABC's Jonathan Greenberger reports.

Greenberger also noticed Obama sounding very much like former ABC News anchor Ted Koppel in one analogy he's using to criticize the president's plan for troop deployments.

Obama yesterday: "So they raised prices 25 percent, and then they say we're going to slash prices by 25 percent. And you start thinking you got a real bargain on your hands. Until you realize that they pulled a fast one on you."

Koppel, a day earlier on NPR: "We don't even particularly care that the price may have been jacked up before it was slashed. There's something about a 25 percent-off sale that sets our pulses pounding. Thirty-thousand U.S. troops out of Iraq by next summer. What a deal."

Clinton, D-N.Y., isn't buying this as a troop withdrawal either: "Taking credit for this troop reduction is like taking credit for the sun coming up in the morning," she said yesterday, arguing that the troops were scheduled to come home anyway, per ABC's Eloise Harper.

And recent polls show that whatever Clinton is doing on the war seems to be working, the Los Angeles Times' Peter Wallsten writes.

It is "a paradox of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination: Although a plurality of Democratic voters considers the Iraq war to be the most pressing issue facing the candidates, the more hawkish Clinton has found a sweet spot in the debate."

Per Washingtonpost.com's Chris Cillizza, "Clinton's strategic decision not to apologize [for her war vote], which aides insist was the result of her own personal conviction not any sort of political calculation, looked like a mistake at the time but, to date, has paid off. By not apologizing, Clinton avoided being painted as a craven politician who will say and do anything to be elected. And, so far, the base hasn't punished her for the lack of an apology."

Edwards will have two minutes of nationally televised rebuttal time all to himself this evening after the president's address -- but he's paying for it, on MSNBC.

This will make things more uncomfortable for Obama and Clinton: "Tell Congress you know the truth," Edwards says in the ad, per the AP's Nedra Pickler.

"They have the power to end this war and you expect them to use it. When the president asks for more money and more time, Congress needs to tell him he only gets one choice -- a firm timeline for withdrawal."

As for the Republicans, Romney, R-Mass., can happily "thank heavens" that Obama isn't president, and Giuliani, R-N.Y., is free to deplore Clinton's "political venom."

But what does it say about the Republicans' confidence in the Iraq war strategy that they feel more comfortable attacking the Democrats' reactions to the Petraeus testimony, rather than embracing the president's plan going forward?

McCain, R-Ariz., is a bit of an exception.

He is also attacking Democrats (he's traveling around with a mounted copy of the MoveOn.org ad -- repeating, "denounce that ad.").

But at the same time, McCain is going "all-in" on the president's plan, ABC's John Berman reports.

McCain, in an interview: "I am sure there is a political element, because if we're able to succeed in Iraq, I think those of us who supported it would receive credit for supporting it." He added that he advocated a troop "surge" before his opponents "had any knowledge of it."

Anyone else sense the "McCain comeback (again)" storyline developing?

"No one asked if he was dropping out this week," writes The New York Times' Michael Cooper.

"And the McCain campaign, buoyed by good reviews Mr. McCain received last week at a debate in New Hampshire and by the prospect of his taking on a high-profile role in the Senate debate over Iraq, is very much hoping that it is beginning a comeback." McCain, in a conference call with fund-raisers: 'All we need is a little money, my friends.'"

Petraeus' recommendations brought "stark clarity to the race for the White House in 2008," write John McCormick and Christi Parsons of the Chicago Tribune.

"The report served to solidify rather than change the positions of the major candidates. Indeed, the real debate among Democrats will be whose plan for troop withdrawal is embraced, while Republicans -- with the exception of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas -- continue to support the president."

On the Hill, Democrats are regrouping and preparing "incremental changes instead of aggressive legislation to break the grip Republicans have held over the direction of war policy," The Washington Post's Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray report.

Both the president and Democrats in Congress have the same target: "a handful of Republican moderates in the Senate whose votes the Democrats need to overcome the threat of a GOP filibuster."

"Several proposals were being weighed, including one requiring the American military role to be shifted more to training and counterterrorism, in order to reduce the force by more than President Bush is expected to promise on Thursday," Carl Hulse writes in The New York Times. "Another would guarantee troops longer respites from the battlefield, effectively cutting the numbers available for combat."

"The president will not get he wants -- a complete codification of his policy -- but the Democrats will not get what they have wanted -- a fixed timeline for withdrawal," ABC's George Stephanopoulos said on "Good Morning America."

"You're starting to see Democrats and Republicans come together around the idea of nudging the president for a faster withdrawal from Iraq," concluded Stephanopoulos.

The Democrats are having their typical struggles with party unity, but it remains the Republican Party that has the most to lose in the war over the war.

"While Democrats are made uneasy by the war, it is a downright liability for the GOP, and some Republicans are inching away from it," Timothy P. Carney and Robert Novak write in the Evans-Novak Political Report.

"Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) notably has refused to join his fellow Republicans in declaring he would have invaded Iraq knowing what he does today." (The Romney camp disputes that point, but he has dismissed such questions as hypotheticals.)

For a fresh reminder of the many (many) woes facing the GOP, here comes a disgruntled former candidate to weigh in.

Steve Laffey, whom the national Republican establishment worked to defeat in a (failed) attempt to save Lincoln Chafee's Senate job in Rhode Island, is out today with a new book -- "Primary Mistake" -- that slams Karl Rove, Sara Taylor, Ken Mehlman, Sen. Elizabeth Dole, Chafee, and just about anyone else whose name he remembers from 2006.

"When you put power over principle to such an extent, you end up losing both," Laffey, a co-chairman of Giuliani's Rhode Island campaign steering committee, said in an interview with ABC News. "These types of people spend too much time together. They don't really know what's going on out there. It's scary."

Of the Rove/Taylor/Mehlman political team at the White House, he says, "It was all about, how do we win? And I think they did that rather badly. They didn't get what Reagan got from the very beginning."

And this on McCain, who campaigned for Chafee in Rhode Island: "He wants to run the country and he wakes up one morning and he doesn't have any money? How can he be elected president?"

Also in the news:

Here's a storyline that Giuliani hopes dies a quick death: He's facing new questions over his immigration stance, with recent comments "saying he does not think being in the United States illegally should be a crime," the Washington Times' Stephen Dinan writes.

Giuliani said last week: "It shouldn't be [a crime] because the government wouldn't be able to prosecute it. We couldn't prosecute 12 million people."

Rudy's record on schools gets a scrub in the Los Angeles Times.

"New York City schools went through eight years of political chaos during Giuliani's terms," Ralph Vartabedian writes. "He left behind an expired union contract, an army of angry teachers and a school system that by his own admission was still delivering inferior educations to hundreds of thousands of students."

Clinton said in the HuffingtonPost "mashup" debate that her healthcare plan is coming on Monday, and that it will lay out a plan of "how we can cover everyone."

She also had sharp words for her rivals who are blasting her for accepting lobbyists' contributions: "I think it's a little inauthentic for people to say, 'don't take money from lobbyists but it's OK to take it from their spouses, their children, their associates and from people that work for companies that employ them,' " Clinton said, per the AP's Beth Fouhy.

The Clinton campaign will happily accept back any of the $850,000 it's returning to donors brought in by Norman Hsu, Clinton said yesterday in a conference call with reporters. "I believe that the vast majority of those 200-plus donors are perfectly capable of making up their own minds about what they will or won't do going forward," she said.

Former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., has been in the race a week now, and the conservative punditocracy is not impressed.

(And seriously: Why is the campaign still obsessing over this Website that's been taken down?)

George Will in The Washington Post: "Fred Thompson's plunge into the presidential pool -- more belly-flop than swan dive -- was the strangest product launch since that of New Coke in 1985. Then, the question was: Is this product necessary? A similar question stumped Thompson the day he plunged."

Robert Novak is also underwhelmed: "Almost immediately after the launch of Fred Thompson's long anticipated presidential candidacy, important neutral Republicans decreed privately that it had crashed and burned on takeoff. Many of these critics had wanted to board the Thompson campaign but were repelled by his 'gatekeepers.' "

Thompson was on the short end of a few 99-1 votes during his time in the Senate, on measures that "asserted federal power over traditionally state functions," Wes Allison of the St. Petersburg Times writes in his paper's new joint project with CQ, Politifact.com.

"But he wasn't perfect. As a senator from 1994 to 2003, Thompson did divert from his federalist philosophy in at least one big way: supporting President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act of 2001."

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., picks up a significant endorsement today in Des Moines, with Iowa House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy set to cite his leadership on Iraq in going with Biden at 10 am CT, per the Biden campaign.

Dodd is stepping up his pressure on the other Democratic candidates on Iraq. "I'm asking my colleagues in the Senate to state clearly and directly whether or not they will support Iraq legislation if it fails to include a firm, enforceable deadline to begin and complete redeployment of troops from Iraq," he says in a new online video.

"Good stuff," writes TPM's Greg Sargent. "The key word there, of course, being 'complete.' "

The Washington Post's David Broder sees Romney putting together a potentially winning strategy.

"No one is close to Romney in Iowa polling, and no one has the grass-roots organization he built to win the straw vote. The New Hampshire race is closer, but the support in the state for both John McCain and Mike Huckabee means that Romney conceivably could win with a plurality well short of a majority," Broder writes.

Former governor Mark Warner, D-Va., is set to jump into the race for Sen. John Warner's, R-Va., Senate seat with an e-mail message to supporters at 9 am ET, multiple news outlets are reporting.

"I am very certain he is going to run for the Senate," a senior Warner adviser tells Tyler Whitley of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

This means Democrats get to check off the box of one of their three dream candidates in key pick-up opportunities. (They're still working on Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire and Bob Kerrey in Nebraska.)

The early-voting states are leaning left, Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla reports.

"A new Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll shows voters favoring a Democratic candidate by a 16 percentage-point margin in Iowa, which went narrowly for President George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential race. The party has a 21-point lead in New Hampshire."

This is bad news for McCain, who would love to get some New Hampshire independents voting in the Republican primary come January.

We don't have an attorney general nominee yet, but we do have a political battle emerging over one possible choice.

"Ted Olson will not be confirmed," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., declared yesterday, per ABC's Ann Compton, Z. Byron Wolf and Theresa Cook.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto said no choice has been made, but that whomever the president nominates will be "exceptionally qualified."

Newt's making noises about running again.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., tells the Union Leader's John DiStaso that he may jump in the presidential race next month if he can secure $30 million in campaign commitments, and if the current "vacuum" of ideas persists.

And Al Gore will get tongues wagging again when he attends the Emmy Awards on Sunday, Variety's Ted Johnson reports.

"Gore is destined to once again face a media onslaught of questions of whether he will run or not run for President, even though he has not given one iota of indication that he will do so," Johnson writes in his blog.

The kicker: Fatter (not dumber) today

"I hope the headline will read, 'Hillary is back and we're going to get it done this time.' " -- Clinton, on her dream coverage of her healthcare rollout.

"I was looking for the headline, 'Clinton supports Obama.' " -- Obama, on his dream coverage of his event yesterday in Clinton, Iowa.

"That House is going pink." -- Matt Drudge, sharing his prediction that Hillary Clinton will win the White House.

"I am prepared to tell you that Americans are getting fatter and dumber. I have no problem saying that. . . . I've also said that the Americans are going to get the government they deserve." -- Former senator Mike Gravel, D-Alaska, in the Huffington Post's "Mash Up" debate (begging the question: Which candidate is fattest and dumbest?).