USA Today leads with a poll showing former Gen. Wesley Clark leading all White House aspirants, including the one currently working in the building: Asked who they would vote for in a race between President Bush and Clark, 49 percent went with the former general while 46 percent supported Bush. The poll stated a 4 percent margin of error. President Bush's approval rating also fell to 50 percent, the lowest of his presidency. The New York Times leads with, and others stuff, an order by Attorney General Ashcroft limiting federal prosecutors' use of plea bargains. The Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide newsbox with another preview of President Bush's U.N. speech today, saying he will try to "shift attention" from Iraq and will call for new efforts to stem nuclear proliferation. (FYI: TP couldn't cite the Journal yesterday because, well, its subscription had run out.) The Los Angeles Times leads with the oral dis-fest that a federal appeals court review panel gave those arguing that the California recall delay should be upheld. The Washington Post, ever loyal to its local leaders, goes with a near-banner headline: "290,000 REMAIN WITHOUT POWER."
Ashcroft's new rules allow plea bargains to be used in "limited, narrow circumstances," namely when a defendant has given "substantial assistance." Given that, the Times doesn't explain whether Ashcroft's rules are substantively different than previous guidelines or just a more symbolic "sending a message"-type order. The Journal, which the NYT credits with breaking the story, has some stats suggesting that Ashcroft's order will have an effect, though a small one: In 1989, when then-Attorney General Richard Thornburgh issued a similar directive, the percentage of defendants seeking trials in sentencing-guideline cases was 11.9 percent. Two years after the order it was 14.6 percent. The Journal says it then "plummeted" during AG Reno's reign, after she loosened the guidelines.
Proponents of the recall delay have argued that punch-card ballots, which won't be phased out in California until March, have a higher rate of error than newer voting methods. But one of the judges on the panel that is considering overturning the delay pointed out that the main study cited against punch-cards didn't consider whether manual recounts knock down the theoretical error rate. "It is entirely possible punch-card ballots are no worse" than other methods, said the judge. Slate's Dahlia Lithwick also savors the panel's performance.
A front-page piece in the LAT previews the other big speaker at the U.N. today, Secretary-General Kofi Annan.Though the LAT doesn't headline it, Annan will denounce the White House doctrine of "pre-emption." He'll also make some broad suggestions to improve the U.N., including possibly expanding the Security Council.
The Journal says the administration has agreed to give Turkey an $8 billion loan, "terms of which are so generous that it amounts to a $1 billion gift." In return, Turkey will provide "unspecified" help with Iraq. Hey, LAT, is Douglas Frantz free to do any specifying? (He's an investigative reporter for the paper ... based in Turkey!)
The LAT fronts Iraqi criticism of the U.S. decision to allow full foreign ownership of any non-oil-related business in Iraq. The worry is that foreign capital will trounce Iraqi businesses before they have a chance to get off the ground. But some analysts—not just conservatives—said the decision was a good idea, explaining that Iraq's needs are so huge that the only way it can get it all is to liberalize investing rules.
Writing in a NYT op-ed, the American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Pletka ponders whether Iraq needs more American troops or more foreign troops. Her answer: neither. The problem isn't a lack of soldiers, it's a lack of solid intel, and Iraqis are better at that: "They speak the language, know the local population and are more sensitive to anomalies in behavior, dress and speech that give away bad actors. They are also perfectly capable of painting schools and directing traffic. Most important, a better Iraq will come about only if Iraqis themselves feel a sense of ownership."
The WP's Dana Milbank plays compare and contrast:
Acting pursuant to the Constitution and Public Law 107-243 [congressional authorization for military force in Iraq] is consistent with the United States and other countries continuing to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001."
—President Bush, March 18 letter to Congress
"We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the September 11th."
—President Bush, Sept. 17