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Washington Wrap

Dotty Lynch, Douglas Kiker, Beth Lester, Clothilde Ewing and Sean Sharifi of the CBS News Political Unit have the latest from the nation's capital.



Thursday's Headlines

* Clark Continues To Move in New Hampshire

* Harkin Remains Undecided

* Florida" Recount Redux?

* Gary Hart Considers a Return To Politics
* FEC Rules Federal Candidates Can Raise Money for "527" Groups

* Center for Public Integrity Releases "Buying of the Presidency 2004"

Clark Keeps Number Two Spot In N.H.: Wesley Clark continues to gain steam in New Hampshire while his rival, John Kerry, continues to slip, today's American Research Group daily tracking poll finds. Frontrunner Howard Dean leads the pack with 35 percent, followed by Clark at 18 percent, Kerry at 12 percent and the rest of the field mired in the single digits. Undecideds are in third place with 16 percent. Today's results (from a survey between Jan. 5 and Jan. 7) confirm ARG's previous tracking poll (done Jan. 4 to Jan. 6) that showed Dean at 36 percent, Clark at 16 percent and Kerry at 13 percent.

Perhaps concerned that the old saw about absence making the heart grow fonder is poppycock, Kerry returns to New Hampshire for a day of campaigning on Thursday. Clark, who is skipping Iowa, has been encamped there almost non-stop since the start of the year.

Harkin Still Undecided: With 11 days until the Iowa Caucuses, Iowa's Sen. Tom Harkin is still torn over whether to endorse any of the presidential candidates before the caucuses. The thinking is that if Harkin does endorse anyone publicly it will be Howard Dean who Harkin acknowledges being "intrigued" by the former governor, the New York Times Reports. Harkin has been urged by some of his chief advisors to follow the lead of Gov. Tom Vilsack and remain neutral in the contest. "There is something to be said for that," Harkin said. "But there is something to be said for the fact that we are political leaders, aren't we? There are a lot of undecided Democrats who are out there calling me and wondering what to do." Stay Tuned.

Chads, Anyone? President Bush will make his 18th trip to Florida as president today. Speaking in West Palm Beach, Mr. Bush is expected to tout his No Child Left Behind Act.

Speaking of Palm Beach County, former Florida secretary of state and current U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris is expected to soon announce her intentions on running for Democratic Sen. Bob Graham's seat, reports the AP. "She is very, very serious about it. She's in Washington today talking to political advisors and I think she will let us all know next week," said Tramm Hudson, Sarasota County's GOP Chairman.

Harris is still a symbol of controversy in the state. As secretary of state she oversaw the 2000 Florida recount that gave George W. Bush a narrow victory, and with it, the presidency. Most national Republicans would like to put the 2000 election to bed and are hoping she will defer to former HUD Secretary Mel Martinez, who filed papers this week.

The New York Times takes a closer look at Bush-Cheney fundraising in the fourth quarter, what impact the stunning $130.8 million 2003 total means for Democrats running against the president and campaign manager Ken Mehlman's refusal to say when, or if, the campaign plans to stop raising money. The Los Angeles Times takes a look at how McCain-Feingold actually helped the president raise such a staggering amount of money in just seven months.

Hart Considers A Comeback: Nearly 16 years after leaving the public stage, Gary Hart is considering a return to politics. The two-term U.S. senator and two-time presidential candidate decided against running for either president or senate this year but may be reconsidering a bid for to challenge Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told CBS News: "It's our understanding he has a genuine interest in the race and he's considering it." Hart has not set a deadline for a decision and the DSCC is not pushing him. "We recognize it's a decision in his hands and in his time frame," Woodhouse said.
Both Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., and state party leaders are urging him to jump in.

Democrats are searching for a candidate after their first choice Colorado Rep Mark Udall decided against a run.

Soft Money Creep: The Boston Globe reports that the FEC ruled Wednesday that the president, vice president, members of Congress, and candidates for those offices may play a role in campaign fund-raising events even if those who come to the event are asked to give money that exceeds ceilings set by McCain-Feingold. The Globe reports that, "so long as those officeholders or candidates do not themselves directly ask for money beyond those ceilings, they may appear as speakers or in other capacities at the events, the FEC ruled. The sponsors must tell the audience that the officeholders and candidates themselves are not there to raise money outside the limits, but others there may make such solicitations."

What does it really mean? The main beneficiaries, it seems, will be so-called 527s, groups set up by quasi-independent interest groups that are not affected by spending and fund-raising limits in McCain-Feingold. In its ruling, the FEC said that those individuals may appear as featured guests, have their identities as speaker included on writing invitations, and may sign requests for donations at 527 fund-raisers.

And, the Globe reports, "if such an individual makes a speech at such an event, but does not ask for money, the audience need not be told that the individual is not raising funds that the law forbids them to solicit, so long as the invitation includes such a disclaimer."

Mo Money, Mo Problems?: The Center for Public Integrity, whose earlier work uncovered the use of the Lincoln Bedroom by the Clinton fundraising machine has released the newest installment in its "Buying of the President," this one focused on the run-up to the 2004 election. Some of the book's major findings include new facts about the Bush-Cheney campaign and its supporters.

The book shows that disgraced energy corporation Enron remains Mr. Bush's largest contributor and that top officials of the newly reorganized Enron have continued to give to Mr. Bush, including donations from company chairman Joseph Sutton. The book also tracks the connection between large donations to Bush-Cheney and changes in policy, for example in the timber, mining, and chemical industries. The book notes, "The oil and gas industries, which won the right to drill in national parks, contributed some $17 million to Bush and the RNC."

The book also uncovers a letter sent by Vice President Dick Cheney to then-Vice President Al Gore in 1997 asking that clean air law revisions enjoy a "full and open debate," something that Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center, told reporters is "not exactly how critics have described the secret, off-the-record, exclusive meetings the vice president has had with energy executive the past three years."

On the Democratic side, the book looks at each of the major candidates, such as Howard Dean's gubernatorial decisions on power companies and financial disclosure, money Wesley Clark received as a lobbyist and the contributions Dick Gephardt received from Anheuser-Busch and his role in legislation affecting the alcoholic beverage industry.

The book also includes background information on the major donors to and financial background of each of the candidates competing this year. The result, concludes the Center, is that "the book examines the political parties and primary systems and shows how monied interests pre-select the candidates in each party." As Lewis concludes, "the real powers that be in this country are not on any ballot."

Quote of the Day: "I've never aligned myself with a presidential candidate during the primary season. But this time, the stakes are too high" -- Madonna, on supporting Clark (Madonna.com).

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