The Los Angeles Times leads, New York Times off-leads, Washington Post fronts, USA Today reefers, and the Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide newsbox with the Democratic debate last night in New Hampshire. It marked the candidates' last televised encounter before Tuesday's primary, in which two new tracking polls show that Howard Dean and John Kerry have switched places, with Kerry surging between five points and 10 points into the lead. The NYT, alone among papers, leads with a proposal the U.S. is apparently considering to transfer more power to the Iraqi Governing Council instead of pushing for caucus-style elections in Iraq—even as the WPand LATreport redoubled opposition to the American caucus plan from the country's most influential Shiite cleric. The WP leads, NYT fronts, and LAT reefers the Senate's approval of a mammoth $820 billion omnibus spending bill after Democrats gave up trying to block it. USAT leads with the results of a survey that suggests tougher and longer deployments could lead to an "exodus" of reserve soldiers from the military.
The coverage of the debate last night played into a variety of master campaign narratives—from the strategic lesson that negativity doesn't pay in such a close, crowded race, to the idea that Howard Dean was waging a last-ditch effort to save his sinking candidacy. The WP's front-page analysis emphasizes that electability was the main issue, as candidates responded to "anticipated GOP attacks," while the NYT off-lead goes on to describe the debate as "relentlessly civil" and the LAT lead suggests that "the candidates almost entirely avoided assailing each other, even when prompted by the panel of four questioners."
Dean's first televised interview with his camera-shy wife was sufficient to rate a number of stories that throw around the words "soft" and "gentle" as though he were a fabric-softener: The WP fronts, and the LAT and NYT go inside with, Dean's continuing attempts at self-effacement. According to the Post, he referred to himself as having "warts" at least four times yesterday, and all three papers report that Dean recited the "Top Ten ways I, Howard Dean, can turn things around" on the Late Show With David Letterman. No. 1: "Oh, I don't know, maybe fewer crazy, red-faced rants?"
The passage of the enormous appropriations bill—only $328 billion of which represents discretionary spending—had been held up since December by Democrats who objected to provisions that raised the cap on ownership of TV stations, eased rules for overtime pay for white-collar workers and made it more difficult to perform background checks on gun buyers. The LAT quotes Sen. Robert Byrd saying it's "a Frankenstein of a bill" on the Senate floor.
The NYT's lead suggests the Bush administration is "under growing pressure" to transfer power to an expanded version of the Iraqi Governing Council, an idea being pushed (surprise, surprise) by the current chairman of the council, who met with reporters and editors at the Times yesterday and is the story's only named first-hand source. According to the NYT, this idea represents a "third option"—an alternative both to the American caucus proposal and to the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's demand for immediate and direct elections. (According to pieces inside the WPand LAT, a spokesman for Ayatollah Sistani underlined the cleric's opposition to the caucuses yesterday, calling the plan unacceptable in "its totality and its details.") Still, TP has trouble figuring out who—apart from the chairman of the council—actually supports this third plan. The Times piece reports that the U.S. still officially clings to its original proposal and an "official" told the paper that the plan to expand the Governing Council has been around at least since the fall. "Our answer was 'no' then and so far the answer is 'no' now."
According to a story the WSJ runs on Page One (subscription required), Halliburton has admitted to the Pentagon that two employees took kickbacks worth up to $6 million for awarding a lucrative contract to a Kuwaiti company. The contract is separate from the exorbitantly overpriced gasoline contract that the Pentagon is already investigating, but it involves the same office of a Halliburton subsidiary, Kellogg Brown & Root.
The LAT fronts Vice President Cheney's outspoken NPR interview yesterday, in which the Veep reiterated his belief that weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq, that there was a definite link between al-Qaida and the former Iraqi regime, and that "we haven't had confirmation one way or another" about Iraq's involvement in 9/11. The LAT, unfortunately, dances around actually checking the accuracy of what Cheney said. No such timidity from the Post's Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus, who do a thorough and unflattering fact check. Regardless, Cheney should be happy to know that the man who looks likely to take over the U.S. hunt for illicit weapons in Iraq is a noted skeptic on the issue. According to a story inside the NYT, he told PBS two weeks ago that "the prospect of finding chemical weapons, biological weapons is close to nil at this point."
The U.S. did not capture Osama Bin Laden yesterday, according to a "U.S. official" who issued a terse denial in a Reuters wire piece. "It's not true," the official said. Enough people apparently believed the al-Qaida leader was in custody to cause a spike in the value of the dollar for a few hours. Of course, TP imagines the official had to deny knowledge: That story's not supposed to be leaked until late October.
Ill Communication ... All the papers front word that the Spirit rover on Mars stopped having "meaningful communication" with NASA on Wednesday. The estranged robot has probably gone into "self-protection mode," according to the WP. "The Spirit seemed to have a voice and power," the NYT writes, "but for some reason was left with nothing to say."