The Note: War Dance

Consider it the first of the 2008 general-election debates -- an untraditional format, reverse-moderated by Gen. David Petraeus.

To the extent that the 2008 campaign ends up being about that issue that dominated the elections of 2002, 2004, and 2006, there's no better place to start (and maybe finish) the discussion than with Petraeus.

His testimony in September framed the Iraq debate for the primaries, and on Tuesday his Senate appearances -- citing security gains, but also calling for a pause in troop draw-downs -- will shape realities and perceptions for the three senators who would be president.

"Each of the three is determined to use the spectacle to advantage, but all face political risks as well as opportunities in the back-to-back hearings before the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees," Elisabeth Bumiller writes in The New York Times.

"Over all, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, both Democrats, are likely to criticize the costs of the war and a lack of political progress. Mr. McCain, an early supporter of the troop escalation who has acknowledged that his political fortunes are directly tied to American success in Iraq, will say that the 'surge' is working, and is likely to add that the Democrats are ignoring the gains."

Tuesday's Capitol Hill hearings provide a handy bookmark for considering the domestic politics of the Iraq war. And if you bet that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would be the happiest to see this day arrive -- well, surely you are among those soothsayers who saw the Jayhawks pulling off an overtime thriller on Monday.

McCain gets his shot first, as the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, where Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker start their day at 9:30 am ET. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., also serves on that panel, and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., may have to wait until early (or late) evening for his shot, as a junior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


It's as if the war has come full circle as a political issue, with McCain -- the recipient, for good or ill, of the Bush legacy on the war -- the most eager to set up Iraq as an issue for this fall. It's early, but just maybe he's starting to get the campaign he wants on national-security issues.

Here's how: McCain's speech Monday cast premature withdrawal as the "height of irresponsibility" and "a failure of leadership." "McCain challenged Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton to confront the consequences of withdrawal," Johanna Neuman writes in the Los Angeles Times.

Yet this could matter more than that: "McCain did not predict how long U.S. troops would need to stay in Iraq, saying only that he hopes to withdraw them at the earliest opportunity and that security needs 'will require that we keep a sufficient level of American forces in Iraq until security conditions' improve," Neuman writes.

"For better or worse, McCain has largely hitched his presidential ambitions to the Iraq War," ABC's Ron Claiborne reports. "McCain is gambling that he can convince the American public, most of whom now say the war was a mistake, that it is still a worthy cause that can and must be won."

But the politics in Congress have shifted in other ways in the past seven months; it's no longer enough for Petraeus to mollify critics by saying the surge is working.

Clinton (eager to change the subject this week) isn't ready to concede that point: "Let's remember what we were told about this surge a year ago: That the whole purpose of it was to give the Iraqi government space and time to do what it needed to do," Clinton told ABC's Robin Roberts on "Good Morning America." "That hasn't happened. . . . So clearly, the surge hasn't worked. . . . The point of the surge, its stated rationale, hasn't worked."

Obama is trotting out a new line -- saying McCain is endorsing a 100-year "occupation" of Iraq. He's already getting blowback from the RNC (out with a viewer's guide for the Tuesday hearings): "Replacing one dishonest attack with another is not the sort of 'new politics' voters are hoping for," spokesman Alex Conant said Tuesday morning.

But the candidates won't be the only hostile Democrats -- and they'll have the company of some frustrated Republicans.

"Unlike in September, when that news was fresh and the administration said a corner had been turned, even some of the war's strongest supporters in Congress have grown impatient and frustrated," Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post.

"Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and Crocker will face many lawmakers who had expected more by now and who are wondering whether any real change will occur before the clock runs out on the Bush administration."

Democrats will seek to turn the issue against Republicans, by pointing out that while the surge has reduced violence, "it has not brought the war any closer to ending or reduced the costs of the conflict," the AP's Julie Hirschfeld Davis reports.

"With the economy eclipsing the war as voters' top worry, Democrats are putting more emphasis on the domestic and military side effects of the Iraq conflict, such as neglecting infrastructure investments at home, overstretching the military and losing sight of the al-Qaida threat."

Toss in some Iran, too: "Iran is emerging as a hot-button campaign issue, with the candidates differing sharply on what approach to take toward Tehran and its hard-line leadership," Yochi J. Dreazen and Laura Meckler write in The Wall Street Journal. "Focusing on Iran could be a double-edged sword for Sen. McCain, who is staking his campaign on his foreign-policy credentials and his belief that U.S. forces must remain in Iraq."

After the testimony is over, ABC's Terry Moran has an exclusive interview with Petraeus on Tuesday evening's "Nightline."

Clinton makes her appearance at a precarious moment for her campaign, with questions swirling about whether there's time for new strategists to put in place a new strategy. The new Quinnipiac Poll shows Clinton's Pennsylvania lead down to six points -- 50-44 -- inside the margin that will be considered an Obama victory, after her lead stuck in double-digit territory for months.

"The refurbished Clinton team faces challenges on two fronts: trying to contain fallout from union members and other blue-collar workers who are essential to her success, and seeking to persuade key supporters and donors that [Mark] Penn's removal can bring fresh energy," John Harwood and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times.

This quote from new strategist Geoff Garin (in words that may be themselves mark a different tone): "I don't want there to be a thermonuclear climax," Garin said. "Senator Clinton is committed to having a united Democratic Party at the end of this process. Senator Obama is committed to having a united Democratic Party at the end of this process. And we will have a united Democratic Party at the end of this process."

The first major post-Penn move was a savvy one -- working on several different levels. Pouncing on the news, Clinton became the first presidential candidate to call on President Bush to boycott the Olympic opening ceremonies, ABC's Eloise Harper reports.

"The violent clashes in Tibet and the failure of the Chinese government to use its full leverage with Sudan to stop the genocide in Darfur are opportunities for Presidential leadership," Clinton said in a statement.

Here's one reason the move was savvy: "The Chinese Olympics present a quandary for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.)," Lynn Sweet and Andrew Herrmann report in the Chicago Sun-Times.

"Chicago is competing for the 2016 Olympics and one of his top advisers, Valerie Jarrett, is the vice chair of the city's bid committee."

Clinton's China-bashing also dovetails with a new trade issue that's hitting Pennsylvania this week: The Alliance for American Manufacturing Association is launching a statewide advertising campaign focusing on job losses due to Chinese trade practices. Tagline: "China Cheats. Pennsylvania Loses." "We need a President and a Congress who will stand up to China," the group's new print ad states.

More from Clinton's post-Penn pivot. "There isn't any doubt about where I've always stood, and where I stand," Clinton said on "GMA" Tuesday, responding to questions about her handling of the Penn affair.

"I took appropriate action with respect to my campaign, when there was a conflict with what I have said. I notice that Sen. Obama has never said or done anything with respect to his campaign representative who went to a foreign government and certainly gave a very different story about where Sen. Obama stood than what Sen. Obama's been saying on the campaign."

Similar comments in a key state: "I did take action when someone on my campaign took a position that was diametrically opposed to mine," Clinton tells the Indianapolis Star's Maureen Groppe. "And I haven't seen that from the other camp after his principal economic adviser told the Canadians not to pay attention to what the candidate was saying."

(And this on whether her post-White House wealth makes it hard to relate to average Indianans: "I don't think so," Clinton said. "We paid a higher-than-average percentage of taxes, gave away a higher-than-average percentage in charity. We had a lot of debts when we left the White House, all of which we have paid off. We are very scrupulous about that.")

But Clinton isn't quite done with Penn: ABC's Jake Tapper reported on "World News" Monday that Penn is still on the campaign payroll, and still participating in conference calls with top aides and advisers. Said Teamsters President James Hoffa Jr.: "She has to take decisive action, complete severance form Mark Penn. Not an adviser, not on the payroll -- nothing, gone."

That won't be so easy: "The latest campaign-finance reports show that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign owes about $2.5 million to the firm of Mark J. Penn, who quit as chief strategist after embarrassing the campaign and left a leadership shake-up in his wake," S.A. Miller writes in the Washington Times. "The money he is owed is more than a quarter of the campaign's $8.7 million in outstanding debt."

Penn will "even maintain his modest role in preparing Clinton for upcoming debates," Thomas DeFrank and Michael McAuliff write in the New York Daily news.

"By keeping their old friend that close, the Clintons could be taking a serious risk of further alienating labor groups, especially in Pennsylvania, where Clinton is staking it all on a big win to launch a comeback."

Per Anne Kornblut of The Washington Post, some "aides wondered how the campaign will function without Penn. And despite the announcement Sunday that he is giving up his strategist role, it remain to be seen how removed he will be."

Penn himself said in a conference call with his company's managing directors that he'll continue to play a role in the campaign, HuffingtonPost's Sam Stein reports.

"Penn Schoen and Berland is going to continue to poll for it and I'll continue to play a role advising Senator Clinton and former President Clinton as well as the rest of the leadership of the campaign," Penn said, per Stein, who listened in on the call.

And Penn offered this prediction on story's lifespan in the news cycle: "There will probably be another day," he said, "but there really is only a one, two, three to the story but not really much more."

So Penn's still in the orbit, and Clinton is not quite free of other Colombia entanglements, either: "The Democratic-leaning advocacy firm the Glover Park Group, former home to Clinton campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson, signed a $40,000 per month contract with the government of Colombia in April of 2007 to promote the very agreement that Clinton now rails against on the presidential campaign trail," Politico's Eamon Javers reports. "That means Glover Park Group was arguingĀ the same position as Penn's firm."

Clinton can thank President Bush for keeping Colombia in the news. Perish the thought of the White House playing politics with the timing, but the president chose Monday (the day after Penn's demotion) to send the Colombia trade pact up to Congress.

"Bush's action will force Congress to take up the proposal under a fast-track process that will require votes within 90 legislative days, which counts the days that Congress is in session," AP's Martin Crutsinger reports.

"Officials said Bush is acting now in order to force a vote before Congress leaves in the fall for the campaign season."

"For Mrs. Clinton, the flap means she will have to redouble her efforts to hold the support of blue-collar Democrats in Pennsylvania, for whom trade has emerged as a major issue amid a slowing economy," Russell Berman writes in the New York Sun. At least's Clinton's healthcare story was true -- partially, it seems. The woman whose story Clinton has recounted numerous times was in fact admitted to the hospital in question (despite Clinton's description of the events), but "[Trina] Bechtel did not get care at another hospital that wanted a $100 pre-payment before seeing her, according to the young woman's aunt, Lisa Casto," The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut reports.

ABC's Jake Tapper: "A closer examination of the story Clinton was originally told indicates that while Clinton erred slightly in relaying the tragic tale, that doesn't mean it's not fundamentally true. On that, the jury is still out."

McCain saw his fundraising pick up a bit last month: "The month of March was good to John McCain -- his campaign raked in more than $15 million, his best haul of this election cycle," ABC's Bret Hovell reports.

"But his two rivals for the White House, Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York, and Barack Obama of Illinois far outpaced that total. Obama, in fact, raised more than Clinton and McCain combined."

Is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice campaigning to be McCain's No. 2? The State Department says no: "If she's actively seeking the vice presidency, then she's the last one to know about it," spokesman Sean McCormack said Monday, per ABC's Luis Martinez.

"She plans on going back west of the Mississippi to Stanford when she's completed her work as secretary of state."

After Obama and Clinton speak to the Communications Workers of America Tuesday morning, the candidates head to the Hill for the Petraeus/Crocker testimony. Get the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

Also in the news:

It's all about electability in the Democratic race, so who's right to claim that mantle -- Clinton or Obama? Both of them, and neither, per ABC News: "While both campaigns selectively cite polling data to make their cases to Democrats, a thorough review of the numbers reveals a more nuanced portrait than either campaign is wont to acknowledge. . . . Clinton and Obama claim they'd pull together very different electoral coalitions."

Matthew Dowd writes on his ABC blog that Obama is probably the stronger candidate: "I would rather have a candidate less defined going into the fall than one defined nearly completely with a large amount negative," Dowd writes. "This is why if you gave the McCain campaign folks truth serum, they would say they prefer Clinton to be the Democratic nominee because most of the work has already been done for them."

The latest from fast-changing Pennsylvania: "Another section has toppled in the once-solid Republican wall of suburban counties surrounding Philadelphia. Bucks County has joined Montgomery County in going Democratic," Larry King writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"For the first time in 30 years, more voters are registered as Democrats in Bucks as Republicans."

The New York Times' Neela Banerjee looks at the endorsement McCain isn't so proud of: the one from Rev. John Hagee.

"Mr. Hagee has been on the defensive over some of his views about Catholics and Jews, and he and Mr. McCain's campaign have been silent about his endorsement. The controversial endorsement points to Mr. McCain's tenuous relationship with conservative evangelicals, a group that President Bush courted with tremendous success and that Republicans have come to view as vital to their prospects in many states."

Bloomberg's Julianna Goldman profiles Valerie Jarrett, a close Obama friend described as a "constant, behind-the-scenes presence on the campaign trail."

"Friends and advisers say Jarrett is a powerful voice in the campaign -- attending strategy sessions with the candidate, serving as a sounding board for both Obama and people offering advice, and playing a key role on conference calls," Goldman writes.

How exactly did former President Bill Clinton make as much money as he did giving speeches? By charging enormous amounts of money in speaking fees, Andrew Zajac writes in the Chicago Tribune, highlighting one charity he charged $450,000 for a single speech.

"The large fee paid to Bill Clinton attests to his continued drawing power, particularly overseas, and a drive to earn money that has invited additional scrutiny because of Sen. Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign," Zajac writes.

Don't expect many Spanish-speaking crowds to pony up big cash to hear the former president speak. The Washington Post's Eli Saslow offers this glimpse of Bill Clinton on the trail in Puerto Rico: "As about 1,000 people crowded under white awnings to escape the heat, Clinton proceeded to give a jargon-heavy speech in English about health care and energy efficiency. Nobody interpreted, and only a handful of audience members seemed to understand him. The crowd -- raucous and dancing a few minutes earlier -- remained mostly silent during the 10-minute speech. Some people left. Others chatted on their cellphones."

The Harrisburg Patriot-News' Brett Lieberman is the latest to write up Chelsea Clinton's lack of media access, and gets this quote from a "Clinton friend": "She's an only child, she's been brought up in the White House and governor's mansion and she's phenomenal, but she's a young 28."

Chelsea got a question about her father's impeachment Monday in Indiana, "against a chorus of boos," per Meranda Watling Lafayette Journal and Courier. Said Chelsea: "If that's what you want to vote on, that's what you should vote on. But I think there are other people going to vote on things like health care and economics."

Clinton hits the Indiana airwaves for the first time, with an ad featuring Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.: "She's got a spine of steel," Bayh says in the ad.

Clinton picks up a superdelegate in Arkansas: Land Commissioner Mark Wilcox.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer, D-Mont., tells ABC's Teddy Davis that his superdelegate vote will go the winner of his state's last-in-the-nation June 3 primary. (And you've got to love a governor who can say this to a reporter without it sounding like a threat: "Have you ever held a gun before?"

A superdelegate is at stake Tuesday in the special election to fill the late rep. Tom Lantos' seat in California's 12th district. The race pits Clinton supporter Jackie Speier against Obama supporter Michelle McMurry, with Speier considered the favorite, 29 years after her first run for Congress, per the Sacramento Bee's Peter Hecht.

The end of the Penn era offers Clinton an opening, the New York Sun's Seth Gitell writes. "Just as throwing an infirm passenger off of a vessel preserves dwindling food and water for those remaining, Mr. Penn's resignation on Sunday will help keep the candidacy of Senator Clinton alive," Gitell writes. "The removal of Mr. Penn can breathe life into a campaign struggling to avoid a fatal death spiral."

But Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne offers a different take: "The immediate cause of Mark Penn's departure as Hillary Clinton's chief strategist was his private work on behalf of a Colombian free-trade agreement that Clinton opposes. But the fact that Penn could not hold on to his privileged position is a reflection of problems that plagued the Clinton campaign even before it lost the Iowa caucuses in early January."

The Boston Globe's Sasha Issenberg profiles Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., on the trail for Obama.

"Above all, Kerry seems to present himself as an early-warning system for the difficulty of beating Republicans: a canary that managed to escape the coal mine, dirtied but able to offer a warning to others in the flock," Issenberg writes. Says Kerry: "I'm very liberated about it. . . . What happens happens. I'm not worried about things. I know who I am."

The Obama campaign stifles some potentially horrible press: "White House hopeful Barack Obama's campaign persuaded a delegate to step down after she was ticketed for calling her neighbor's African-American children 'monkeys,' " Abdon M. Pallasch writes in the Chicago Sun-Times.

"Linda Ramirez-Sliwinski, a Carpentersville village trustee, was elected as an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention. She sports an Obama sign in her front yard."

Sen. Bob Casey Jr. talks faith with Beliefnet's Dan Gilgoff -- and his memories of 1992 are still fresh. Asked whether he blames Bill Clinton for keeping his father from speaking at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, he replied: "I think you can probably unearth how that exactly came about but it was a strategic or at least a tactical blunder that caused a lot of Democrats to be pretty angry for a long time."

Her husband still isn't endorsing, but Elizabeth Edwards has a new job: as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "Elizabeth Edwards will be dealing with health care issues at the progressive think tank,"'s Chris Cillizza reports.

"In her new role, Edwards, who has gained a considerable following in the liberal blogosphere thanks to her willingness to call out politicos -- from Sen. John McCain to conservative commenter Ann Coulter -- will also be contributing to CAP's blog."

The kicker:

"Barack told me the first date he took Michelle to was 'Do the Right Thing.' I said, 'Thank God I made it. Otherwise you would have taken her to "Soul Man." ' Michelle would have been like, 'What's wrong with this brother?' " -- Obama supporter Spike Lee.

"What is he saying? Do we clap now?" -- College student Jerry Nieves Rosario, who speaks only Spanish, struggling to understand Bill Clinton's speech in English in Puerto Rico Monday.

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