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The Morning Grind / DayAhead

Message mangling ... and a mulch melee

By John Mercurio
CNN Political Unit


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- John Kerry the Fisherman was overshadowed by John Kerry the Soldier yesterday, as release of his military records clouded his message on the environment. (For a moment, though, the two images collided as Kerry noted, somewhat curiously, that a Louisiana waterway reminded him of the Mekong Delta).

That same message-mangling could happen again today as Kerry, continuing the eco-theme by attending an Earth Day rally in Houston, Texas, instructs aides to drop an 11-page document on some 200 meetings he's held in the Senate over the past 15 years with lobbyists.

The move, which began yesterday when Camp Kerry gave the scoop to The Washington Post, is designed to contrast his Senate career with what he views is the Bush administration's cloak-and-dagger approach to meetings with corporate lobbyists. Expect this line of attack to continue until next Tuesday, when the Supreme Court decides whether Dick Cheney should disclose meetings he held with oil, gas, coal and nuclear industry lobbyists before he wrote a new national energy policy.

But Kerry's move is also designed to change the subject: Aides hope to shift the media gaze from Vietnam (and Teresa Heinz Kerry's tax returns) to the administration's cozy relationships with lobbyists.

One quick note: The Washington Post says the Kerry list may be incomplete. The Post writes, "Several lobbyists contacted say they had additional encounters with the Massachusetts Democrat over the years that are not listed on the report." Stay tuned.

V.P. tea leaves

Also today, lots of new V.P. buzz: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson travels east to speak at the University of (battleground) Pennsylvania Law School, once again proving he's not a regional Democrat. (Richardson said at Monday night's Jefferson-Jackson-Bailey Dinner in Connecticut that being in the state proved he had "arrived.") Also, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano is in the capital speaking about education.

Sources tell The Grind that Jim Johnson, longtime Democratic operative and head of Kerry's V.P. search team, is wrapping up the informal consultations he's been holding this month with party leaders and is preparing the more formal and intensive process of vetting a dozen would-be wanna-be's. Johnson -- working with Kerry, campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill and uber-adviser Bob Shrum -- will start vetting either next week or in the first week of May, sources said.

As of yesterday, Johnson hadn't held a V.P.-related meeting, by phone or in person, with anyone on Kerry's staff other than Cahill.

Nonetheless, a couple rumors have reached the stage of being reportable.

First, sources say Kerry has told friends that his personal choice, all other things being equal, is Dick Gephardt. "He's worked with him the most [among V.P. prospects]. He personally likes him the best. He trusts him the most, and he likes [Gephardt's wife] Jane and the kids. He's most comfortable putting him on the ticket," one non-Gephardt source told the Grind.

Of course, all other things are anything but equal in this process. Gephardt ran a disappointing presidential campaign and has plenty of detractors -- even, sources say, within Kerry's inner circle.

One other thing: We're hearing that Florida Sen. Bob Graham will not make it onto Kerry's short list. Graham, who at 68 would be the fourth oldest V.P. ever upon taking office, has met with Johnson, but is not expected to advance to the vetting process.

But Kerry's not ignoring Florida Dems completely. Sen. Bill Nelson, a good friend of Shrum's, still may make the list.

Not the same old speech

At a New Orleans, Louisiana, fund-raiser last night with Galactic, the best funk band in the biz, CNN's Sasha Johnson reports that Kerry used some new material to criticize the president's handling of Iraq.

Kerry referred last night, for example, to the different backgrounds of his crew in Vietnam and the lessons they learned serving together.

"What mattered was that we're all Americans fighting under the same flag, praying to the same God, taking care of each other literally all in the same boat. And we learned some rules about what happens to a country when it forgets its soldiers," Kerry said.

"[We learned] what happens when leaders in Washington fail to lead and what happens when decisions are made out of pride rather than common sense and logic and historical values. We need to restore to this country, to our foreign policy today, those lessons. We need a commander in chief who understands how you take a nation to war if you have to. This president misled our nation."

Lawn wrangler

And finally today, does anyone know the back story on Wanda Baucus' mulch melee? If so, please call us.

Wanda Baucus, 56, the wife of Montana Sen. Max Baucus, was arraigned yesterday in D.C. Superior Court on a misdemeanor change of assaulting another woman at Johnson's Nursery in Tenleytown. She was released on her own recognizance under condition that she stay away from the other woman and the store. (Full story)

At about 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Baucus apparently grew agitated when she did not get help loading the mulch into her car while the other woman was being assisted, a police spokesman said. Witnesses told police that Baucus put a bag of mulch behind the woman's car, preventing her from leaving the store, and that after exchanging words, she allegedly struck the woman several times, police said. The woman had bruises and scratches on one cheek.

Wanda Baucus's lawyer, David Schertler, said he disagreed with the version of events offered by the police and witnesses. The senator says he stands behind his wife "110 percent."

Saving Specter?

With his back against the wall, Sen. Arlen Specter is going to get a cash infusion of nearly $300,000 from the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the final days leading up to Tuesday's nail-biter of a GOP primary in Pennsylvania.

The money will be spent on get-out-the-vote efforts for the veteran senator, who is clinging to a five-point lead over Rep. Pat Toomey in the closely-watched race that has featured President Bush staking some of his political capital on a Specter victory.

One GOP official noted that the NRSC could spend up to $1.3 million on the incumbent's behalf, but is budgeting significantly less as a sign of the leadership's confidence that Specter can eke out a win.

"We're not pushing the panic button," insisted one GOP official. "We're comfortable with where the race is now."

The NRSC quietly cut a check of about $100,000 as a first installment last week and will sprinkle more money into the state as needed. If the NRSC was desperate, an official promised, "it wouldn't be six figures, it would be seven figures."

CNN Congressional correspondent Ed Henry contributed to this report.


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