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Politics Today: Off-Year Election Day is Here

Politics Today is's inside look at the key stories driving the day in politics, written by CBS News Political Director Steve Chaggaris:

**Today's elections: What will they mean for White House?

**Obama talks to Karzai with Afghanistan decision looming

**Inside the Palin campaign

ELECTIONS: New Jersey and Virginia voters go to the polls today to vote for governor and a host of other state and local seats; voters in New York's 23rd and California's 10th congressional districts will fill vacant House seats in special elections; several cities including New York, Boston, Atlanta and Detroit vote for mayor and some states have controversial ballot initiatives to be voted on today.

And what do all of these elections mean in terms of the national political mindset? Not as much as you think.

The Associated Press' Liz Sidoti: "Heading into Tuesday's elections, Democrat gubernatorial candidate R. Creigh Deeds was trailing Republican Bob McDonnell in polls by double digits in Virginia. In a three-way race in New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine was in a close race with Republican Chris Christie and independent Chris Daggett. And in the race to fill the vacant 23rd Congressional District seat in New York, Democrat Bill Owens was in a tight fight with conservative Doug Hoffman after the GOP's hand-picked candidate bowed out over the weekend.

"Elsewhere, California Lt. Gov. John Garamendi is expected to maintain the Democratic Party's hold on the open 10th Congressional District seat near San Francisco, while New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is expected to cruise to a third term. Atlanta, Houston, Boston, Detroit and Pittsburgh also will elect mayors, while voters in Maine and Washington weigh in on same-sex unions and voters in Ohio decide whether to allow casinos.

"To be sure, it's easy to overanalyze the results of such a small number of elections in a few places. The results will only offer hints about the national political landscape and clues to the public's attitudes. And the races certainly won't predict what will happen in the 2010 midterm elections.

"But, given that Democrats control the White House and Congress, defeats in Virginia — a new swing state in national elections — or New Jersey — a Democratic stronghold — would be setbacks for the White House, even though both states having long histories of electing governors from a political party opposite that of the president.

"After all, this is a president who won a year ago in an electoral landslide after building a fundraising and organizational juggernaut that attracted scores of new voters into what Obama loyalists have called a movement. And this is a party that has comfortable majorities in the House and Senate — and that controls governor's mansions in Virginia and New Jersey."

"Republicans appear positioned for strong results in three hard-fought elections Tuesday," write the Wall Street Journal's Naftali Bendavid and Anton Troianovski. "But isolated, off-year contests aren't always reliable indicators of what will happen in the wider federal and state races held in even-numbered years.

"Democrats and Republicans are jostling to glean messages from voters in a race for a U.S. House seat in far northern New York, as well as from contests for governor in New Jersey and Virginia. Republicans, increasingly optimistic, say the contests foreshadow trouble for President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party's ambitious agenda heading toward the 2010 congressional elections. ...

"A Republican sweep in Tuesday's key contests would at minimum show that Democrats face much tougher political terrain than they did a year ago. GOP victories would also help the party's fundraising and candidate recruitment for 2010, providing backing for arguments that Republicans have the momentum, and that voters are turning against the Obama agenda.

"But it can be difficult to draw broader conclusions from off-year contests, which often turn on local issues."

"It is probably not wise to draw broad lessons from Tuesday's results about what might happen in next year's mid-term Congressional elections and a raft of high-profile governor's races," adds the New York Times' Adam Nagourney. "That said, it is worth watching whether Mr. Obama succeeds in turning out his supporters — especially people who voted for the first time last year — in New Jersey and to a lesser extent in Virginia.

"That will be an early sign of his ability to transfer his own appeal to other candidates and whether he has succeeded in building a sustainable new coalition of Democratic voters. That is something that will not be lost on Democratic members of Congress, especially those in moderate and Republican-leaning districts whom he will be pressing to cast tough votes on issues like health care and climate change, as they eye their prospects for re-election next year. Similarly, in Virginia, keep an eye on whether independent voters who supported Mr. Obama so strongly in 2008 turn out for Mr. Deeds, vote for Mr. McDonnell, or just stay home."

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank says what's taken from tonight's results is in the eye of the beholder.

"Pre-election handicapping and expectations-setting are political staples, but perhaps never more so than now, in a post-presidential-election year in which voters in Virginia and New Jersey are choosing governors. (An odd contest in Upstate New York to fill a vacant congressional seat has been added to the fun.) As a predictor of future elections, the Virginia and New Jersey races are unreliable. But as fillers of airtime and column inches, they are immensely valuable.

"This year, Democrats are determined to assert that the elections are not a referendum; this is because they expect to lose. Republicans, who expect to win, are pro-referendum."

N.J. Governor: Newark Star-Ledger's Claire Heininger and Josh Margolin write, "As they limp across the finish line Tuesday, Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine and Republican Chris Christie are carrying the weight of their political parties on their shoulders. And it's a heavy burden.

"President Obama and national Democrats are counting on Corzine to stave off a GOP sweep in New Jersey and Virginia. State Republicans are looking to Christie to end years of Trenton exile. ...

"Corzine ... downplayed the importance of his re-election to the national political environment -- despite his insistence that the race is not about him, but about Democratic values, and recent pleas by Obama and other top Democrats to further their agenda by returning him to office. With the Republican candidate holding a double-digit lead in Virginia -- the other marquee governor's race this year -- Democrats view a Corzine win as vital, if only for the sake of perception. ...

"As voters cast their ballots Tuesday from Bergen to Cape May, the two front-runners are bruised, having battered one another for months. Corzine went after Christie's ethics and told women he was a threat to their health. Christie called Corzine a failure and a liar. Both were attacked for their lack of ideas and honesty by independent Chris Daggett.

"And they are now in a statistical dead heat, according to the latest battery of polls."

Virginia Governor: "Democrat R. Creigh Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell campaigned across Virginia on Monday, leading efforts to draw out voters with a blitz of door-knocking, phone-calling and TV advertising in the final hours of the hard-fought race for governor," reports the Washington Post's Amy Gardner.

"McDonnell called on supporters and volunteers to take voters to polls Tuesday, and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin recorded a phone call that was piped into homes across the state urging people to 'vote your values.' Deeds ended the day rallying in Alexandria with Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D).

"State election officials said they were hoping for a voter turnout rate of about 45 percent, which would be on par with recent governor's races. Hitting 45 percent, or 2.2 million voters, would set a record for a Virginia governor's race, although it would fall below turnout in last year's president election, when 3.8 million Virginians voted.

"About one-third more voters -- 99,000 -- have cast absentee ballots than four years ago, according to the State Board of Elections. It was unclear whether that number swelled because more voters are using the absentee system or because voter enthusiasm is higher."

Washington Post, "8 things: A poll watcher's guide to the Virginia election"

Politics Daily's Jill Lawrence, "Is Bob McDonnell the Future of the GOP?": "Virginia's new status as a presidential swing state, having gone Democratic last year after a 44-year GOP run, means whoever is governor will now assume a key role in national elections. At the very least a 2012 GOP nominee would rely on a Gov. McDonnell to help him or her carry the state."

NY-23: "While praising Democratic Congressional candidate William L. Owens as a man of values, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. took shots at supporters of Mr. Owens's opponent during a campaign appearance Monday in Watertown," reports the Watertown Daily Times' Brian Kelly.

"Appearing at the North Side Improvement League on Mill Street, Mr. Biden claimed Conservative candidate Douglas L. Hoffman was 'handpicked' by radio host Rush Limbaugh as successor to Army Secretary John M. McHugh. ...

"The longest applause Monday was reserved for Assemblywoman Dierdre K. Scozzafava, R-Gouverneur, who suspended her campaign for the Congressional seat Saturday. She endorsed Mr. Owens on Sunday. ... Ms. Scozzafava did not attend Monday's rally, but her husband, Ronald P. McDougall, president of the Central Trades and Labor Council, did."

"What started as a three-way race with Hoffman initially playing the role of spoiler turned into a frantic duel when Republican Dierdre Scozzafava abruptly dropped out over the weekend and backed Owens," the Associated Press' Valerie Bauman. "She was sharply criticized in the strongly Republican district for some views, including her support of abortion rights and same-sex marriage, that some conservatives balked at.

"The schism has pushed high-profile support Hoffman's way, including from former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and others. Scozzafava was initially backed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who said he was disappointed by her support of Owens following her withdrawal.

"Polls have shown the two candidates nearly even in the district, which has about 45,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats."

The New York Times' Adam Nagourney writes, "Questionable spin watch: If Mr. Hoffman wins in New York, look for conservatives to argue that that the vote is a vindication of the appeal of the populist brand of conservatism pressed by leaders like Ms. Palin. But the way the race has played out in Virginia suggests otherwise. If Mr. McDonnell wins, it will be after having run a race in which he aggressively distanced himself from his history of advocating socially conservative positions, suggesting that Republicans seeking to get back in power in swing states should strike a moderate tone.

"In the last hours of the campaign, Mr. McDonnell told ABC News he was unaware of automated telephone calls that were being made to Virginia households on his behalf by Ms. Palin. In October, he made a point of saying that he did not expect Ms. Palin to campaign for him, even though he said he had thought earlier that she might. 'She seems to be too busy with books and other things like that,' he said. 'We have 20 events scheduled down the line and she's not one of them.'"

The Los Angeles Times' Janet Hook writes, however, "The triumph of conservative forces over the Republican Party establishment in upstate New York has emboldened like-minded activists around the country, and it could drive the GOP sharply to the right as it lines up candidates for the 2010 midterm congressional elections.

"The rebellion that drove a moderate Republican off the ballot in a special House election today is sending a clear message to the party leadership and its candidates: Ignore the conservative grass roots at your peril.

"That message is likely to resonate in the coming months in several congressional primaries and in races where third-party challenges are springing up and threatening to divide the Republican vote."

Politico's Charles Mahtesian and Alex Isenstadt report, "In what could be a nightmare scenario for Republican Party officials, conservative activists are gearing up to challenge leading GOP candidates in more than a dozen key House and Senate races in 2010.

'Conservatives and tea party activists had already set their sights on some of the GOP's top Senate recruits — a list that includes Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida, former Rep. Rob Simmons in Connecticut and Rep. Mark Kirk in Illinois, among others.

"But their success in Tuesday's upstate New York special election, where grass-roots efforts pushed GOP nominee Dede Scozzafava to drop out of the race and helped Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman surge into the lead on the eve of Election Day, has generated more money and enthusiasm than organizers ever imagined.

"Activists predict a wave that could roll from California to Kentucky to New Hampshire and that could leave even some GOP incumbents — Utah Sen. Bob Bennett is one — facing unexpectedly fierce challenges from their right flank."

Other races today: San Francisco Chronicle's Joe Garofoli on the special election in California's 10th Congressional district, "GOP sees turnout on Tauscher's seat vote as key": "Analysts say Tuesday's East Bay congressional election to replace Democratic Rep. Ellen Tauscher shouldn't be close. Democrats hold an 18-point advantage in voter registration in the district, Tauscher won her last four races with at least 65 percent of the vote, and their nominee Tuesday is Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, a familiar name from his three-decade political career. Garamendi's GOP opponent in the 10th District race, David Harmer, is not only running hard but getting resources from national and state party officials. Even if Harmer loses, party officials say the turnout results may be a barometer of voter feelings toward the Obama administration and the Democratic Party's control of Congress."

NY Times' Michael Barbaro on the New York Mayor's race, "Bloomberg and Thompson Make Last-Minute Economic Appeals"

Atlanta Journal Constitution's Kristi E. Swartz on Atlanta's mayoral election, "Race puts Atlanta election on national media's radar"

Boston Globe's Michael Levenson and Donovan Slack, "Menino, Flaherty rally their forces for today's mayoral election"

Detroit News' Leonard N. Fleming on that city's mayoral race, "Poll: Bing leading Barrow, with 25% still undecided"

Houston Chronicle's Rick Casey, "A scouting report on the Houston mayor's race"

Portland Press Herald's Matt Wickenheiser, "A last push from both sides for votes as gay marriage decision day arrives"

5505386HEALTH CARE: "House Democrats are wrestling with how their health-care bill will deal with abortion and immigration issues as they prepare to bring the bill to the floor as soon as Friday," reports the Wall Street Journal's Janet Adamy.

"Democratic leaders in the House warned members that debate on the floor may stretch through the weekend and into next week so the House can vote on the bill before the Nov. 11 Veterans Day holiday. After critics attacked an earlier draft of the health bill during the August recess, Democrats are wary of letting it languish during a break.

"House leaders unveiled their revised 1,990-page bill last week after months of negotiations. The $1.055 trillion measure would expand health insurance to 36 million Americans and create a new government health-insurance plan to compete with private insurers, among other things.

"But Democrats are still trying to reach a final agreement on how the bill addresses funding for abortions and insurance coverage for immigrants.

"Although the issues are small parts of the legislation, they have become flash points for Republicans and Democrats that could determine whether key lawmakers support the bill."

Washington Post's Perry Bacon Jr., "Democrats' concerns over abortion may imperil health bill"

NY Times' Robert Pear and Carl Hulse, "Democrats Say House Bill Would Cut Premiums for Many": " As the House moved toward climactic votes on legislation to remake the health care system, the Congressional Budget Office said Monday that middle-income families might be required to pay 15 percent to 18 percent of their income on insurance premiums and co-payments under the proposal. Democrats cited the figures as evidence that the legislation would reduce premiums for many low- and middle-income families who currently lack affordable coverage."

McClatchy Newspapers' David Lightman, "House Republicans roll out health insurance alternatives": " Small businesses would have an easier time banding together to offer insurance to employees. Consumers could cross state lines to buy coverage. There'd be no big government expansion. Those are among the ideas that Republicans in the House of Representatives plan to push later this week, as lawmakers expect to begin debating how to overhaul the nation's health care system."

LA Times' Tom Hamburger and Kim Geiger, "Healthcare provision seeks to embrace prayer treatments": "A little-noticed measure would put Christian Science healing sessions on the same footing as clinical medicine. Critics say it violates the separation of church and state."

5374308AFGHANISTAN: New York Times' Helene Cooper and Jeff Zeleny, "Obama Warns Karzai to Focus on Tackling Corruption": "President Obama on Monday admonished President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan that he must take on what American officials have said he avoided during his first term: the rampant corruption and drug trade that have fueled the resurgence of the Taliban.

"As Mr. Karzai was officially declared the winner of the much-disputed presidential election, Mr. Obama placed a congratulatory call in which he asked for a "new chapter" in the legitimacy of the Afghan government.

"What he is seeking, Mr. Obama told reporters afterward, is 'a sense on the part of President Karzai that, after some difficult years in which there has been some drift, that in fact he's going to move boldly and forcefully forward and take advantage of the international community's interest in his country to initiate reforms internally. That has to be one of our highest priorities.'

"The administration wants Mr. Karzai and the Afghan government to put into place an anticorruption commission to establish strict accountability for government officials at the national and provincial levels, senior administration officials said Monday.

"In addition, some American officials and their European counterparts would like at least a few arrests of what one administration official called 'the more blatantly corrupt' people in the Afghan government."

The Washington Post's Scott Wilson and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, "Karzai is wild card for U.S. strategy in Afghanistan"

SARAH PALIN:, "In 'Sarah From Alaska,' Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe draw on their experiences as embedded campaign reporters, the many weeks they spent reporting in Alaska during Palin's last days as governor, and exclusive interviews with almost 200 former McCain/Palin staffers, top political minds, friends, and foes in Alaska to tell the remarkable behind-the-scenes story of Palin's political career and the events leading to her surprising resignation.

"The authors share new insights and bring to light illuminating stories from Palin's governorship and vice presidential campaign. Read the excerpt>, which includes a prescient remark that Palin made to senior campaign aides after her debate with Joe Biden and revealing emails that demonstrate how she worked behind the scenes to try to convince the campaign's top strategists not to give up on winning the state of Michigan, much to their annoyance.

"'Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar' is now on sale at and is available in bookstores nationwide."

Washington Post's book review.

NY Times' Jeff Zeleny, "In Iowa, Second Thoughs on Obama": "One year after winning the election, Mr. Obama has seen his pledge to transcend partisanship in Washington give way to the hardened realities of office. A campaign for the history books, filled with a sky-high sense of possibility for Mr. Obama not just among legions of loyal Democrats but also among converts from outside the party, has descended to an unfamiliar plateau for a president whose political rise was as rapid as it was charmed. Interviews with voters across Iowa offer a window into how the president's standing has leveled off, especially among the independents and Republicans who contributed not just to his margin of victory in the caucuses here but also to the optimism among his supporters that his election would be a break from standard-issue politics."

USA Today's Mimi Hall and Maria Puente, "Obama's updating first family's image": "President Obama may not have delivered on all the policy changes he promised since his election a year ago, but he and his family have brought dramatic social change to the nation's capital and to the country's collective image of its first family — and not just because they're the first African Americans in charge at the White House.The contrast with recent presidents is clear: George W. Bush had older kids, went to bed early, headed for his Texas ranch as often as he could and presided over a White House tightly buttoned down after the 9/11 attacks. Bill Clinton had his own reasons to stay low-key after the Monica Lewinsky scandal began in his second term."