Washington Wrap

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

Timing Is Everything: As six of the Democratic presidential candidates gather in New Hampshire Tuesday morning to participate in an AARP forum, Medicare and prescription drugs are sure to be at the forefront of the discussion. On Monday, the AARP endorsed a bill engineered by the Republican leadership that many Democrats oppose.

Five of the six candidates participating - Wesley Clark, Howard Dean, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt and John Kerry - are against the bill. At the forum, Clark came out swinging, saying the AARP was wrong to endorse the bill. In his opening comment, Gephardt referred to his father as he usually does on the stump.

Joe Lieberman went a step further and brought his 89-year-old mother Marsha to the event. Lieberman said he's still considering supporting the deal, which was brokered with other centrist Democrats, Sens. John Breaux and Max Baucus.

Clark said, "This Republican-brokered deal is bad medicine for seniors." Kerry and Edwards also attacked the bill and Howard Dean flashed his stethoscope and called it a "disaster."

Edwards continued his attacks on HMOs and drug companies, saying on Monday, "You can practically hear the celebrations at the HMOs and drug companies because of this prescription drug bill." Kerry attacked the ad campaign the group is planning to get people to support the bill saying, "I wish AARP would oppose this bill. I wish they would spend their $7 million on spending on telling seniors what is wrong with this bill."

At one point, Edwards said that Lieberman's mother supports his bill to which the Lieberman camp sent out a response from her that read, "That John Edwards is a nice looking boy, but I don't know what he was talking about."

In addition, Gephardt and Kerry both attacked Dean on Medicare, a staple in these debates for the past few months.

The AARP, meantime, says that although the bill isn't perfect, anything is better than the current Medicare setup. "The bill represents an historic breakthrough and important milestone in the nation's commitment to strengthen and expand health security for its citizens at a time when it is sorely needed," the AARP said.

Gephardt Cries Foul: With 62 days until the Iowa caucuses, frontrunner Rep. Dick Gephardt's support of the 2002 Iraq resolution is coming under fire in a new ad from Howard Dean's campaign. Showing a photo of Dick Gephardt in the Rose Garden with President Bush and Congressional leadership, the ad goes to the heart of Dean's criticism of his presidential rival.

With a white screen flashing the date, the announcer says, "October, 2002. Dick Gephardt agrees to co-author the Iraq war resolution – giving George Bush the authority to go to war. A week later, with Gephardt's support, it passes Congress."

And, in case viewers forgot, the announcer goes on to remind them that Gephardt went further and voted to spend $87 billion more on Iraq. The spot is the most negative ad of the campaign so far and it helps illustrate how tense things have become between Dean and Gephardt. In the latest Des Moines Register poll, Gephardt narrowly leads Dean, 27 percent to 20 percent.

Gephardt campaign manager Steve Murphy blasted Dean for going negative and argues that these negative ads are the real reason Dean decided to forgo public financing. "While Howard Dean argued that he needed to ignore campaign finance spending restrictions to beat George Bush, it is now clear that the real reason was to beat Dick Gephardt in Iowa."

Dean campaign media consultant Steve McMahon said the ad wasn't negative merely an "honest disagreement over an important policy matter."

Murphy also claims that the Dean ad was the first negative ad in Iowa Democratic Caucus history. This is not quite true. Republicans have been running negative ads for years, and Al Gore ran an ad in 2000 accusing rival Bill Bradley of voting against flood relief for the Midwest. However, Iowa is usually the place candidates introduce themselves and the tone of the campaign tends to be a bit nicer there than it is in states later down the road.

Lieberman Gets A Boost In Florida: Joe Lieberman's struggling presidential campaign got some good news Tuesday in the form of an endorsement from one of Florida's most influential politicians, reports CBS News' Tali Aronsky.

It was Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., who opened the Lieberman conference call this morning. "I want you all to know, and this nation to know, that I am endorsing Sen. Lieberman for president." Hastings went on to say that he "personally knows all the candidates, Dean less so, and has no axes to grind with anybody; neither does Joe Lieberman." However, Hastings said he's endorsing Lieberman because "Joe has extraordinary courage which he has demonstrated in both his public and his personal life."

Hastings went on to cite Lieberman's "strong" record on national security and a Wall Street Journal article in which most economists favored Lieberman as the presidential candidate most likely to get the U.S. economy back on track. Hastings said he and Lieberman share a cause: civil rights, and noted that while many people talk about participating with Dr. King, Joe Lieberman actually did.

Lieberman returned the kind words, pointing to Hastings' life as an example of the American dream. "If you work hard and have God-given talents, you can make it," Lieberman said. He also cited Hastings as a civil-rights pioneer, noting he is "Florida's first black congressional representative since the Civil War". Lieberman added that he will look to Hastings as a "trusted adviser on matters of civil rights, social security and healthcare."

While Lieberman left the conference call early to prepare for New Hampshire's AARP forum, he did so only after dropping this anti-Bush barb: "We both know the damage the Bush administration – in fact, two Bush administrations – have done to the people of Florida. Floridians deserve better."

Then Hastings, after playing coy with reporters on the question of whether he will throw his hat into the ring for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Bob Graham, finally handed over this nugget: "I will fish or cut bait on Thursday," he said.

Stay tuned. In the meantime, this Hastings-Lieberman friendship could be a productive case of one back scratching another. If Hastings does decide to run for Graham's Senate seat, he could get a boost from the Florida-popular Lieberman. And a cash-strapped Lieberman could gain a much-needed fill-up by tapping into Hastings' Democratic-rich 23rd Congressional District, which includes parts of Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties.

Barbour Blasts Off: On Monday, Haley Barbour, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and governor-elect of Mississippi, responded to Howard Dean's repeated campaign trail assertions that Republicans are trying to "divide the country by race." Speaking with reporters after a meeting of GOPAC, the Republican grassroots training arm and political action committee, Barbour said, "There are people who when they are losing want to blame someone using race. Usually that's just sour grapes for the losers."

Sticking to its guns, on Tuesday morning, the Dean campaign shot back. Jay Carson, deputy press secretary for the campaign, told CBS News, "I don't even want to dignify that sort of divisiveness with a response."

While Carson would not go further, some of Barbour's other remarks also highlighted race issues in the current election cycle. Barbour, who controversially donned a Mississippi flag, which has the Confederate Flag embedded in it, said of his own election campaign, "I had the same message for everyone." He dismissed the idea that the recent loss of Bobby Jindal, who is Indian-American, in the Louisiana governor's race suggests that Republican voters are reluctant to vote for minority candidates saying, "he was running against the sitting Lieutenant Governor."

In a more light-hearted moment that nonetheless focused on the issue of race, Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin countered the assertion that Republicans do not want to vote for black candidates. With former Representative J.C. Watts, R-Okla., who is black, by her side, Fallin said that polls indicated he would be a top candidate in the race for the Oklahoma Senate seat being vacated by Don Nickles. Watts, who said on Oct. 26 that he was not interested, blushed visibly. Barbour, seizing the moment to tout the Republican Party's inclusiveness, responded, "When's the filing deadline?"

With race figuring prominently in a press conference ostensibly about the value of grassroots campaigning, it seems possible that the issue will play a major role in the upcoming presidential election.

Howard's Loss: The Dean campaign has confirmed a report in the Sunday London Times that the body of Charles Dean has been found in a grave in central Laos. The discovery ends a 30-year mystery of what happened to Howard Dean's brother "Charlie" after he traveled to Indochina to see the effects of the Vietnam War.

Howard Dean spoke about his brother and his trip to the excavation site where they believed he was buried in an interview with CBS News Anchor Dan Rather last month on "60 Minutes II". "It gave me a sense that you ought to live for the moment with people," Dean said. "It was certainly the most awful thing that ever happened to our family. It was terrible for my parents; it was even worse for them than it was for us."

It has been rumored that Charlie Dean may have been working for the CIA, because he was listed as a POW/MIA, but the agency won't discuss the theory and his family isn't sure.

Dean is expected to release a statement this afternoon.

Quote of the Day: "I would call our allies around the world and offer them all Krispy Kremes and make up and engage them in helping us to come out with honor." -- Carol Moseley Braun, on how she would handle the situation in Iraq. ("Hardball")