Washington Prowler

Blue Dogs Bowles

Carolina Democrats divided. Also: Clinton's tortured legacy. Plus: First Bush veto faces veto.

By 9.13.02

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TORTURED POLITICS
Former Clinton ambassador to the U.N. Security Council Nancy Soderberg revealed more about the way her administration did its job than anything about Iraq last night when she appeared on Chris Matthews' "Hardball." In discussing President Bush's Thursday speech to the U.N., she said that his references to children being tortured by Saddam and parents having to watch were obviously inserted into the speech after a lot of "polling."

In fact, the Bush team did no polling in preparing his speech. Whereas Clinton, for any major policy speech, would have at least two polls prepared beforehand as well as have a focus group watch the speech live. "Nobody did polling better than we did," said a former Clinton Capitol Hill liaison. "There's no way Bush's people could be doing what we were doing."

BLUE DEMOCRATS
A year ago, former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles wanted nothing to do with the North Carolina race to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Jesse Helms. Now he's the Democratic nominee, with all the headaches and challenges that go along with it.

The biggest challenge is the lead in the polls that Republican Elizabeth Dole has on him. But the bigger, more immediate headache is former North Carolina Speaker of the House Dan Blue, who challenged Bowles for the nomination, and is a leader of the African-American community in the state.

Everyone agrees that if Bowles is to have a shot at beating Dole, he has to have the black community in his corner all the way. But Blue, while losing graciously, has not come forward with a full endorsement of Bowles. Instead, he's taking a wait-and-see, let's-meet-and-discuss-things approach. Although there is little doubt that Blue eventually will have to support Bowles's candidacy, the former Clinton hand is going to have to do some work to get his backing, according to North Carolina Democratic insiders.

"Blue was in a position more than a year ago for the nomination, and Bowles kind of pushed him aside," says a Blue supporter in Charlotte. "Blue would have had to work harder to win, so you can see why the party would want a big-money type like Bowles. Still, it rankles."

In all, eight Democrats sought the nomination. Bowles, Blue and secretary of state Elaine Marshall were the highest profile candidates. And while it wasn't an overly negative Democratic primary, both Blue and Marshall attempted to paint Bowles as a corporate shill, with little interest in the guy who lives paycheck to paycheck. Bowles, though, buried his competition with more than $2 million in media buys across the state.

In the end, it was Marshall who introduced Bowles at his victory party. Blue was nowhere in view.

In Tuesday's primary Blue carried the county he represented while in the statehouse, as well as more than a dozen other counties heavily populated by African Americans, making it clear his support will be needed by Bowles in the general election. "He has to have Blue on board," says a Republican political consultant doing work for Dole on Tobacco Road. "If the endorsement process doesn't go smoothly, Bowles has an even harder time expanding on his base. Blacks make up at least 30 percent of the Democratic vote here."

It's unclear, though, what Bowles can offer Blue politically in exchange for a strong endorsement. "The party is already trying to figure out what can be done to make this relationship work. Blue for a few days is holding all the cards," says the Blue supporter. "But if he doesn't do something with them, he'll end up looking like the bad guy in this thing, especially if the Democrats lose their best shot at taking the other Senate seat."

VETO RELIEF
Democrats in the Senate have the Bush Administration over a barrel. A water barrel, to be specific. On Tuesday a bipartisan majority in the Senate, in a 76-19 vote, passed an emergency funding bill to relieve drought-ravaged states. The $6 billion relief spending was part of the 2003 Interior Department appropriations bill.

The spending, which the White House said it would veto, put President Bush in an extremely tough position. Earlier this year, Bush political staffers made much of his support for the farm subsidy bill, expecting that it would bring Republicans candidates in agricultural states added support. Most pointedly, Bush's support was aimed at influencing hearts and minds in South Dakota, home state of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and where Republican Rep. John Thune is running a highly competitive race for the Senate seat held by Democrat Tim Johnson.

"We looked so smart five months ago backing agriculture spending and drought relief," says a Senate leadership staffer. "Now look where we are. Spending billions more of Democratic pork and there is nothing we can do about it."

That's where the over the barrel comes in. With such a strong vote, it's clear the Senate could override a veto. And that what frustrates many Republicans on Capitol Hill. "The president has rarely used the power of veto to influence votes up here, and one of the first times that he does, he gets it kicked back in his face with a veto-proof majority vote. That's just embarrassing."

Some Republicans believe that had the Bush team made it clear it would more readily use the veto earlier in the legislative season, then Daschle and the Democrats might have shown a bit more self-control in larding down the Interior appropriations bill. "The White House has to flex some muscle up here, show Republicans they won't back down from a fight. This appropriations bill was a perfect example," says a Republican Senate leadership staffer. "But to simply threaten a veto isn't enough. Now, after threatening a veto on this one, we'll have to swallow hard and watch it signed into law."

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