The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times lead with the surprise announcement yesterday that, more than a year after he became president, Hu Jintao will assume control of China's military from his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. The move completes Hu's assumption of power and marks the first relatively orderly transition in Chinese Communist Party history. The New York Times off-leads Hu's ascension, complete with grinning photo-op, but leads with the U.S. military's problems staffing its own office in charge of building Iraqi security services, like the police and army. Nevertheless, official word from Iraq remains upbeat, as the Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide newsbox with President Bush's effort to re-reframe the discourse with a U.N. address tomorrow, and USA Today leads with Iraqi Premier Ayad Allawi's statement that the violence in the country won't delay elections planned for January. "Inshallah, we hope Iraqi forces will go into Fallujah soon," he said on ABC before jetting off for his appearance with Bush later this week.
The papers' coverage of the Chinese military handover is frustrating: An event of great political significance has happened in the world's largest country; unfortunately, there's little to report. Perhaps the biggest news is unreliable speculation that Hu might pursue a less militaristic policy with Taiwan now that he's out of Jiang's shadow. Otherwise, we just have distant retellings of political theater: Jiang and Hu walking in the Great Hall before 198 applauding members of the Central Committee; the two leaders lavishing each other with exquisite praise; and random official facts, like Hu's enthusiasm for pingpong and his reputed photographic memory. The LAT says some saw this coming last month when Jiang was airbrushed out of an official photo of Hu meeting with former leader Deng Xiaoping. But in one sign that Hu has not yet fully assumed power, a WP analysis notices that China's state-run media have not yet described him as the "core of the collective leadership," a phrase that has been ritually applied to Mao Zedong, Deng, and Jiang.
Even as USAT reports what Allawi said on U.S. TV, he was in London with Tony Blair, who gave his own impassioned defense of the war in Iraq at a joint press conference. "There is only one side for sensible and decent people to be on in this conflict," he said. The WSJ, in a story on Bush's attempts to control the story coming out of Iraq, says the Allawi visit—which it treats more or less as a campaign event—could turn into "Mission Accomplished," part deux, as troubles there continue to deepen (Subscription required). The LAT says that Dems plan to hit Bush on the deteriorating Iraq situation, while the WP notes that three Republican senators worked the Sunday talk shows, urging Bush to be a little more realistic when it comes to Iraq. Sen. John McCain told Fox News Sunday that Bush has not been "as straight as maybe we'd like to see" about the situation. "We made serious mistakes right after the initial successes by not having enough troops there on the ground," McCain said.
The papers' Iraq roundups lead with grisly news that a militant group in Iraq beheaded three Kurdish truck drivers and posted a video of the murder online yesterday. The NYT says there's a chance the three headless bodies discovered near Baghdad last Wedensday are theirs, but the LAT reports that the Kurds' bodies were, in fact, found on a road near Mosul. Meanwhile, three Lebanese men and their Iraqi driver were kidnapped yesterday, and a group announced that it has at least 15 Iraqi national guardsmen in custody and will kill them unless an aide to Moqtada Sadr is released.
A front-page WSJ story helpfully tries to explain why this is the toughest presidential horserace to track in recent memory (sub. req.). In addition to pollsters' reliance on landline phones and the difficulty in tracking likely voters in an era of massive get-out-the-vote efforts, the Journal highlights a prime way in which the polls are different: whether or not they compensate for fluctuations in self-described party affiliation. Those that do not compensate show Bush with a lead; those that do say it's near even.
But another way to gauge who's winning—or at least who the campaigns think is winning—is to track ad spending. According to the NYT, Kerry has pulled his advertising from several states, most significantly, Missouri, which an analyst says is a "sign that the Electoral College battlefield has shrunk, and it shrinks with a clear advantage to Bush."
Inspired, perhaps, by TheNew Yorker's in-depth look at the possibility that John Ashcroft is playing politics in his intense effort to root out voter fraud, the WP starts following the story, leading with an anecdote from New Mexico: A Sheriff who co-chairs Bush's campaign in the state's largest county complained about thousands of registrations turned in by liberal-leaning groups. When the DOJ opened an investigation, perhaps involving door-to-door interviews of voters, Democrats started crying foul. "It may well be aimed at trying to keep people away from the polls," said New Mexico's secretary of state.
Debate expectations … The WP fronts word that the Bush and Kerry camps have all but agreed to all three presidential debates, according to "people in both parties who were briefed on the negotiations." But, wait! The LAT, which naturally filed its story later, says the Bush campaign denies everything. "No deal has been reached," a spokesperson said. "Reports of a tentative agreement—I don't even know what that means—are false." Either way, the Post says both campaigns are already trying to raise expectations for the other guy: Kerry press advisor Joe Lockhart told reporters Friday that he would "challenge anyone to name a major debate that George Bush has been in where he hasn't been considered the winner." Matthew Dowd wins, however, for his statement Kerry is "very formidable, and probably the best debater ever to run for president."
"I'm not joking," he continued. "I think he's better than Cicero."