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Washington Wrap

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

Don't Throw Me In That Briar Patch: Does being "the subject of the first attack ads in this campaign" – as John Edwards claims in a release about a conservative group's newspaper ads and billboards – mean the North Carolina senator and Democratic presidential candidate has made the big time?

The ads were paid for by an Alexandria, Va.-based group called Americans for Job Security, which Edwards spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri dubbed a "front for the insurance industry with White House ties."

Palmieri says the attention shows that the White House and Republicans are taking Edwards' potential as a challenger seriously. "Frankly, we are flattered by their assessment that Sen. Edwards is the Democrat to attack in Iowa and New Hampshire," she said.

Americans for Job Security's full-page newspaper ad, which ran Tuesday in Raleigh, and the planned billboards, slated to be up for six months near airports in Iowa and New Hampshire, attack Edwards' previous profession as a plaintiffs' trial lawyer. They also suggest he has neglected his home state while campaigning for the Oval Office, the Raleigh News and Observer reports. The ad even criticizes Edwards for buying a $3.8 million Georgetown house.

A TV version of the newspaper ad is ready to go in Charlotte and Raleigh, but is on hold, for now, because it would be a felony to run it under McCain-Feingold, the group says.

One planned billboard, with pictures of donkeys and Edwards' face, has the following text: "A Montana man named Jack Ass sued the MTV show 'Jackass' for $10 million saying they plagiarized his name … Next time you see John Edwards, tell him lawsuits like this are asinine."

Another planned billboard says: "A Texas prisoner sued Penthouse magazine for publishing what he said was a disappointing layout of Paula Jones. Next time you see him, tell John Edwards that it's time for lawsuit reform."

The group's head, David Carney, tells the News and Observer that Edwards is being targeted as a "leading voice for those who want to preserve the status quo" in the legal system, not as a Democratic presidential candidate. As to why the billboards are planned for Iowa and New Hampshire, Carney explains, "You have to be where the action is."

In 2000, Americans for Job Security spent $1.8 million on anti-Al Gore ads, the Charlotte Observer reports. Another anti-trial lawyer group, Americans for Tort Reform, plans to post an anti-Edwards website later this month.

Crowning The Leader: Twenty-nine members of Congress endorsed Rep. Dick Gephardt, their former leader, on Tuesday. The list is topped by Gephardt's successor as House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer. The group, which is leadership-heavy, includes Reps. John Spratt, Dave Obey, Bob Matsui, Nita Lowey and Patrick Kennedy. The 29 Democrats are automatic delegates to next summer's Democratic National Convention.

There is only one member of the Black Caucus on the list, Rep Bill Clay of Gephardt's home state of Missouri, and only four women. While Gephardt has more House endorsements so far than any other presidential candidate, most of the 205 Democratic members are still up for grabs.

Sen. Joe Lieberman's campaign sent out a list of endorsements to "interested reporters" this morning that includes 10 House members, and fellow Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd, as well as a slew of state and local elected officials in the early primary states.

Don't Sit Too Close To The Phone: Asa Hutchinson, a top law enforcement official for the Department of Homeland Security, was sworn in only four months ago. Yet Arkansas Republicans, who are looking for a strong opponent to take on Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln next year, are pressuring Hutchinson to enter the race. Republican Party officials told The New York Times that Hutchinson would only consider running if he received a personal request from President Bush.

But Hutchinson said in a telephone interview with the Times, "I'm committed to this job at Homeland Security. This is not something I can abandon, nor would I want to."

Earlier this year, Hutchinson was sworn-in to direct the Homeland Security Department's efforts to organize the 170,000-employee agency and oversee border and transportation security. Department officials told the Times that if Hutchinson returned to Arkansas it would suggest the president was putting politics ahead of domestic security, and would also interrupt the department's organizational efforts.

Hutchinson repeated his statement: "If I was asked by anyone, including the president, I would give the same answer: I am committed to this mission at Homeland Security." But, he would not comment on whether he met with White House political director Karl Rove to discuss the Senate race earlier this month as some Republican officials have suggested.

If Hutchinson decided to run, it might be an issue of family honor. His brother, Tim Hutchinson lost an Arkansas Senate race to Democrat Mark Pryor last year. Since the defeat, Tim Hutchison has been working as a "homeland security" lobbyist, although he pledged not to lobby for his brother.

If Hutchinson keeps his pledge, Arkansas Republicans are expected to turn to Gov. Mike Huckabee. The Republican State Party Chairman Marty Ryall told the Times, "there's no question Asa would make a great candidate and a great senator." But, he added, "he has made it clear he's happy with what he's doing. I don't think we'll be seeing him as a candidate."

Return Of Assault Weapons?: House Republicans plan on letting the current 10-year ban on the sales and importation of assault weapons expire next year, even though President Bush said he'd support a renewal of the ban in his 2000 presidential campaign.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Tex., told reporters Tuesday that "the votes in the House are not there" to extend the ban, which expires in September 2004. It's now expected that DeLay won't bring the bill up, allowing the ban to run out next year.

The bill, signed into law in 1994, bans guns such as Uzis, AK-47s and other kinds of semi-automatic weapons and has drawn the ire of the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun organizations since debate on the bill began 10 years ago.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who were at the forefront of the debate in 1994, introduced a bill last week to renew the ban and predicted the House would deal with it this way. The Senate bill would be moot, however, if the House doesn't take up legislation.

"The White House has said it supports renewing the assault weapons ban," Schumer spokesman Phil Singer told CBS News today. "They're going to have to actively lobby House Republicans to get the ban renewed."

A House Republican aide told the Washington Post: "If the president demands we pass it, that would change the dynamics considerably."

But the ban's supporters aren't holding their breath. President Bush has received criticism from pro-gun groups and some Republican House members for his vocal support of the ban, especially during his presidential campaign. Now, groups such as the Gun Owners of America seem to think Bush will let the ban expire without the House taking action, allowing him to be on the record supporting the ban while at the same time smoothing over relations with the pro-gun lobby.

Whorehouse, Day Two: Gubernatorial candidate Haley Barbour's comment that "Head Start is a godsend for Mississippi. Some of those kids in it would be better off sitting up on a piano bench at a whorehouse than where they are now," has drawn swift reaction from his Democratic opponents, according to The Clarion Ledger.

Barbour made the remarks Tuesday to Laura Clark, principal of the Sacred Hart School in Southaven, Miss. The principal said she was surprised by his statement, but "wasn't offended by it. I believe I know what he meant." But Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Rickey Cole compared Barbour's comments to Ronald Reagan's using "welfare queens" in his campaign speeches. Cole said: "This could very easily be some cynical little underhanded attempt to make a thinly veiled swipe at Head Start families in order to pander to those reactionary Mississippi voters who have a stereotype in mind when they think of Head Start families."

Barbour's spokesman Quinton Dickerson said that Cole was "reading too much into it."

On Tuesday, Mississippi's Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove responded in a written statement, "Haley's spent too much time in Washington. Folks here in Mississippi don't appreciate talk like that." Barbour, the former Republican National Committee chairman, will face Republican candidate Mitch Tyner in the Aug. 5 primary and hopes to challenge Musgrove in the Nov. 4, 2004 election.

Quote of the Day: "There's a place we're eying now in West Virginia" - Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle praising the ingenuity of Texas Democrats in fleeing town to defeat a Republican redistricting measure. (Courtesy of CBS News' Bob Fuss)

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