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Washington Wrap

Dotty Lynch, Douglas Kiker, Steve Chaggaris and Clothilde Ewing of The CBS News Political Unit have the latest from the nation's capital.

Gen. Clark And The Draft : As Democrats hold their breath waiting to hear whether Wesley Clark will run for president, the retired general spoke to a group of supporters Monday who are urging him to jump into the race.

Via a videotaped message, Clark began, "I want to welcome each and every one of you to the last Draft Wesley Clark MeetUp." He then thanked them for their work: "It's a tremendous inspiration to me, and it's been the encouragement to me to really give serious consideration to joining this race."

Clark also put an expiration date on the speculation, saying, "I'm approaching a decision and I will have to make a decision by the end of next week." co-founder John Hlinko called Clark's message "fantastic" and told that "there's nothing like seeing the person who inspired us, thanking us."

Meantime, the New York Times reports that former President Bill Clinton was overheard touting Clark, a fellow Arkansan. At a gathering at the Clinton home in Chappaqua, N.Y., that focused on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2006 re-election bid, Mr. Clinton said the Democrats have two stars: his wife and Clark.

As Clark continues to mull over a candidacy, he'll at least act like a candidate as he heads to Tennessee on Saturday to be one of the featured speakers at the Knoxville Truman Day dinner.

He'll hit the road again next week to visis the University of Iowa on Friday the 19th – his aforementioned deadline for announcing his presidential intentions. Clark also has four speeches scheduled for the week of Sept. 22, including two in his birthplace of Chicago and one in Texas.

Ground Zero: President Bush is back in Florida today for the 16th time as president. He's giving a speech on education and attending fundraisers in Jacksonville and Ft. Lauderdale that will bring in $2.5 million for his reelection campaign. The Orlando Sentinel says Bush strategists call Florida "ground zero" for the 2004 campaign.

On Monday, he did a similar schools-and-fundraising combo in Tennessee where he picked up another $1.2 million. Vice President Cheney worked the fundraising circuit in Cincinnati and Roanoke, Va., on Monday. Bush advisers won't put a dollar figure on this quarter's fundraising but smile and say they hear it's going "quite well."

One place the Bush-Cheney team didn't go was the 100th birthday celebration of the Teamsters union. The Hill reports that Mr. Bush "declined to deliver a promised video greeting," which signaled a "near breakdown" of relations between the White House and the Teamsters. Union President Jim Hoffa, who flirted with the Bush camp in 2000 before endorsing Al Gore, said he couldn't imagine supporting the president this time, "especially with their policies on overtime, minimum wage and sending jobs overseas."

Last month, the Teamsters endorsed Democrat Dick Gephardt, and Hoffa said that even if Gephardt did not win the Democratic nomination it was unlikely the union would ever endorse President Bush. Hoffa told the AP on Sept. 5 that Mr. Bush, "doesn't understand the problems working families are having … He doesn't feel their pain."

After that, the Hill reports, the Bush campaign reversed itself and didn't send the video greeting.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., sent videos, but few if any Republicans were invited to speak in person. Former President Clinton and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., both addressed the meeting on Saturday. He received four standing ovations, the Hill reports; she got eight.

Dean Under Attack: From the reaction of at least two of his rivals, Howard Dean may have touched one of the third rails of Democratic nomination politics last week when he said the United States should not "take sides" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Washington Post reports Dean told supporters five days ago that "it's not our place to take sides" in the long-running Middle East conflict.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who was the most aggressive of the nine-pack against the former Vermont governor at last week's debate in New Mexico, took issue with Dean's comments.

"If this is a well thought-out position, it's a mistake and a major break from half a century of American foreign policy. If it's not, it's very important for Howard Dean, as a candidate for president, to think before he talks," Lieberman said in a statement.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., questioned Dean's credentials to run American foreign policy. "It is either because he lacks the foreign policy experience or simply because he is wrong that Gov. Dean has proposed a radical shift in United States policy towards the Middle East. If the president were to make a remark such as this it would throw an already volatile region into even more turmoil."

In an interview with the Post, Dean said his rivals were trying to slow his surging candidacy by harping on a "divisive issue" and said he was "disappointed" in Lieberman, in particular. But, in the interview, Dean did not back down entirely from his statement.

"Israel has always been a longtime ally with a special relationship with the United States, but if we are going to bargain by being in the middle of the negotiations then we are going to have to take an evenhanded role," Dean said. A Dean adviser told the Post the Dean was doing "nothing other than what former President Clinton did when he reached out to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians as a path to peace."

The Mideast comments, however, did not tamp down the enthusiasm of the roughly 3,000 supporters – and about ten College Republican hecklers – who greeted Dean on Monday night at a rally at the University of Maryland in College Park. It was Dean's first Maryland rally, and only his second in the Washington area. Twenty-five statewide elected officials appeared on-stage before Dean arrived, and the Yale graduate was introduced by classmate and supporter ex-Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke.

The former Vermont governor gave his usual campaign stump speech, heavy on the anti-Bush rhetoric. The crowd - largely college students but including a wide mix of others, as well - ate it up, interrupting Dean several times with chants of "No More Lies." But Dean also was interrupted several times by a small but vocal group of Bush backers who managed to secure perfect heckling spots looking down on the amphitheater. (Note to Dean staffers: At future rallies, be sure to secure the high ground directly above the TV cameras.)

Gender Gap: The new Field Poll released today in California has some insights as to why Maria Shriver has gone public on behalf of hubbie Arnold Schwarzenegger.

According to the New York Times, Schwarzenegger holds a small lead among potential male voters over his closest rival, Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. But he is trailing Bustamante by 13 points among women. Overall Bustamante leads Schwarzenegger by 30 to 25 percent.

Mark DiCamillo, director of the nonpartisan Field Poll, said the message was obvious. "You can see," DiCamillo said, "Bustamante's lead is all women."

Although Schwarzenegger has taken positions on some social issues that should be attractive to female voters, such as abortion rights, after-school programs, some gun controls and environmental protections, he is having the traditional Republican problem with California women. Schwarzenegger's career as a professional bodybuilder, Hollywood action star and some chauvinistic comments about women are clearly not helping his cause.

On Monday, Schwarzenegger's campaign showcased Shriver at a Wal-Mart, where she was supposed to help register voters. But all did not go according to plan as anti-recall protesters chanted anti-Schwarzenegger slogans, such as "Yes on pants, no on recall" - a reference to a 1988 Playboy interview in which Schwarzenegger said he doesn't like women's slacks. Shriver was whisked away less than 10 minutes into the scheduled 45-minute appearance.

Meanwhile, men and women alike who have chosen to vote by absentee ballot had their first chance to vote on Monday. With absentee voters expected to cast about one-third of recall ballots, campaigns courted them where they vote — their mailboxes.

Busy Week: All nine Democratic presidential candidates courted the Service Employees International Union in Washington, hoping to sway the AFL-CIO's largest union and into giving them its much-coveted endorsement. Andy Stern, president of the 1.6 million union, said the frontrunners for the union's endorsement were Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt and John Kerry.

Stern could make an announcement on an endorsement this week, possibly as early as Wednesday. Stern said on Monday, however, that the SEIU might not back any of the Democrats. "We may never endorse," he said.

Gephardt, in particular, is depending on support from labor. He has 12 union endorsements so far, but needs more from major ones to entice the entire AFL-CIO into backing him in the nomination fight.

Stern, who has had his doubts about Howard Dean, praised him on Monday after his crowd-pleasing remarks. "People who have dismissed Howard Dean so far certainly have done it at their peril," Stern told the AP. "He's touched a nerve with how frustrated people are with what's happening in their lives in the past three years."

Most of the candidates also courted the AFCSME leadership in private meetings Monday and Tuesday. AFSCME is the second-largest AFL-CIO union.

On Tuesday night at 8pm EDT, all nine Democratic candidates will appear at a debate in Baltimore sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus and Fox News. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who did not plan to attend, changed his plans at the last minute and will be on-stage.

Quote of the Day: "President Bush is asking Congress for $80 billion dollars to help rebuild Iraq. And when you make out that check, remember there are two L's in Halliburton." (CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman")

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