Capital Briefs: August 20-24

‘AMNESTY MEL’ RIDES AGAIN:  It apparently wasn’t enough for Republican National Chairman and Florida Sen. Mel Martinez to be on the opposing side when the full RNC passed a resolution at its Minneapolis, Minn., meeting earlier this month calling for the use of all means necessary to secure the border. Now Martinez has publicly criticized two of his party’s leading ’08 presidential hopefuls for calling for border security first and opposing the now-dead administration-backed comprehensive immigration bill that Martinez supported. Referring to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Martinez said in a speech to the St. Petersburg, Fla., Area Chamber of Commerce: “It’s about leading on tough issues. It was easy to say, ‘This wasn’t good enough, this isn’t right, I don’t agree with Martinez’ … But at the end of the day, what is your answer?  How would you solve this?”  Martinez, who has been privately called “Amnesty Mel” by RNC opponents of his immigration stand, was strongly criticized by some RNC members we spoke to for his latest salvo on the issue.  Asked if he would support a recall of the Floridian as chairman, Michigan State Chairman Saul Anuzis told us: “No, I would not support a recall of Sen. Martinez.  I just respectfully disagree with his position on immigration.  I think comprehensive immigration reform died under its own weight, and we should proceed with those reform and enforcement items that have a broad national consensus … securing our borders, ID cards, English immersion and similar endeavors.”

AMES AFTERMATH:  The Republican presidential hopefuls who got a boost from the Straw Poll in Ames, Iowa, last week, were first-place finisher Mitt Romney (31%) and runner-up former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (18%).  The poll is a fundraiser for the state party and more than 14,000 ballots were purchased (most by the candidates) for $35 each to the state GOP.  Spending an estimated $2.5 million and assisted by a large organization of paid staffers and volunteers (including 96 family members), Romney demonstrated he could win support from establishment Republicans, such as Doug Gross, top aide to former Iowa GOP Gov. Terry Branstad, and House Speaker Chris Rants, as well as evangelical conservatives in the Iowa Christian Alliance. Huckabee’s campaign reportedly spent only $150,000 on the straw vote, and he clearly scored a major publicity triumph with his surprise second-place finish.  On the Monday after the straw vote, Huckabee was featured on national talk shows and profiled in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, whose headline on the Ames event was “Huckabee, Iowa Poll’s Real Winner?”  The Arkansas man charmed Iowans by performing with his own rock band and employing his sense of humor. As to whether this showing will be enough for him to break into the top tier of ’08 hopefuls, one source close to Huckabee told Human Events that fundraising was his big stumbling block and that “we must take advantage of this momentum and do some serious fundraising over the next three months.” Romney’s fellow “A-team” candidates, Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and the still-unannounced former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, all passed on Ames, as did former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.  Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson ended his campaign after placing sixth in the straw vote.  As if to acknowledge who were the winners in Ames, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, disappointed with his third-place finish (15%), jabbed at Romney and Huckabee, telling reporters that “the problem is most governors don’t have foreign policy experience.”  Brownback also took a shot at President Bush, saying, “We’ve got to walk more humbly and a lot more wisely than the current President. I really believe the next President needs to go in with knowledge on foreign policy and not learn it on the job.”

HASTERT, PRYCE, WHO’S NEXT?  Republicans on Capitol Hill were wondering last week if a GOP retirement flood might be getting under way after former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill.) and Representatives Deborah Pryce (R.-Ohio) and Chip Pickering (R.-Miss.) all announced they would not run for re-election next year.  Pryce, as vice chairman of the GOP Conference, is the fourth-ranking House Republican.  Coming days after seven-termer Ray LaHood (R.-Ill.) announced his exit from Congress, the latest exits have increased speculation that a large number of long-serving Republican House members will soon say they are calling it quits, fearing ’08 will be a bad year for the GOP.  Among the most talked-of “no-go” prospects are veteran GOP Representatives Ralph Regula (Ohio), Elton Gallegly (Calif.), Jim Sensenbrenner (Wis.) and Bill Young (Fla.).

ROVE REVIEW:  As Karl Rove left George W. Bush’s side last week, the only future plan he would confirm is writing a book.  Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill and state and local GOP leaders were wondering whether the man Bush has hailed as “the architect” of his two elections as President would explain whether he felt the White House’s push for a comprehensive immigration package had been a mistake because the brawl over the issue left the Republican Party bitterly divided on this important issue heading into an election year. In assessing Rove’s impact on the GOP, David Frum, a former Bush speech-writer, said last week that “the only wedge issue Mr. Rove deployed was immigration and he deployed it against his own side, dividing business donors from the conservative voting base.”  Remarking on the condition of Republicanism after Rove, coarse Democratic gun-for-hire James Carville wrote: “If the trends hold, the one thing that we can be sure of is that Mr. Rove’s political grave will receive no lack of irrigation from future Republicans.” 

AFTER ROVE:  With Rove’s departure last week, White House correspondents increasingly speculate that Bush Chief of Staff Josh Bolten has had the word spread to all ranking administration officials that, if they plan to leave, they should to do so by Labor Day.  This has never been officially confirmed.  Asked about the “out-by-Labor Day” rumor, Deputy White House Press Secretary Dana Perino told reporters: “I haven’t heard Josh say those words specifically, but I think there has been an understanding that there is a natural time for people to leave.” She added that “as we get into the last 16 months of the administration, I think people need to consider whether or not they are going to be able to serve out the entire term.”