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Washington Wrap

Dotty Lynch, Douglas Kiker, and Joanna Schubert of The CBS News Political Unit have the latest from the nation's capital.

Ashcroft v. Edwards: The U.S. Justice Department is investigating whether contributions by several employees of an Arkansas law firm to Sen. John Edwards' Democratic presidential campaign violated federal campaign finance laws.

The Washington Post reports that the investigation by the DOJ – which will be run from Washington, not the satellite office in Little Rock where the law firm is located – was prompted by $2,000 contributions to Edwards by four legal assistants at Turner & Assoc., a plaintiffs' law firm that specializes in Ford Explorer roll-over cases.

One of the legal assistants told the Post last week that she was a promised a reimbursement for her $2,000 contribution by the firm's principal lawyer, Tab Turner. Such a reimbursement would be a violation of federal campaign finance laws, which limit individual contributions to federal candidates to $2,000 and strictly forbid channeling money through other people.

Turner later said the legal assistant would not be reimbursed, and the Edwards campaign said last week that it returned all contributions from Turner & Associates, which totaled $10,000.

The Edwards campaign said it had not heard about the investigation from the DOJ, but said it had followed the law.

"Our campaign abides by the highest standards," Edwards' spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri told The New York Times, "and once we learned of the allegations of wrongdoing by the firm, we returned all the donations we received from employees of the firm. And we're glad to see that the appropriate law enforcement officials are following up on what we consider to be a serious matter."

Edwards - a prominent plaintiffs' lawyer before he was elected to the U.S. Senate from North Carolina in 1998 - led the Democratic presidential pack in first-quarter fundraising with $7.4 million. Nearly two-thirds of that money, about $4.5 million, came from lawyers or people affiliated with law firms. Republicans consider Edwards' trial lawyer past a potential political liability and are expected to focus on it during the campaign. The lawyer-heavy contributions last quarter provided more fodder for that. Some Bush advisers have said that Edwards, a fresh face from the South, could be the strongest opponent against President Bush in 2004. In January, President Bush even held a rally on limiting jury awards during what one senior White House official dubbed "Whack John Edwards Day."

Edwards has not shied away from his previous job, saying on the stump that he was fighting for "regular folks" in the courtroom. Whether an investigation by a Justice Department led by John Ashcroft, one of the most divisive figures in the Bush administration, will be a liability or an opportunity remains to be seen.

For the record, the Edwards campaign said it does not consider the DOJ investigation fishy. "We have no reason to suspect political motivation," Palmieri told the Post.

Never Say Die: President Bush may bring back his tax-cut proposals in September if the Senate passes the plan to significantly limit his $726 billion package. Republican senators have said the tax cuts will not exceed $350 billion, while the House supported a maximum of $550 billion. Some of Mr. Bush's plan will have to be sacrificed to appease Congress, but administration officials told The Washington Post that he will renegotiate some of the more popular tax cuts in the fall in hopes that they can pass on their own.

Mr. Bush is so anxious to preserve his tax cut package from strong resistance in the Senate that he may go straight to America for support. Bush aides are considering an address to the nation or a joint-session of Congress that would include a pitch for tax cuts and a report on the situation in Iraq. One official said the idea was "to mobilize the most important pressure group Congress has: all of America."

In wake of the war, Mr. Bush's popularity is high and the timing might be just right for a presidential address. Today's Quinnipiac University poll shows that New York voters favor Bush ahead of all the Democratic presidential candidates, including Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. Mr. Bush's approval-disapproval rate rose from 50-44 percent in February to 58-37 percent, and 31 percent of voters say they are more likely to vote for Mr. Bush's re-election. However, Sen. Clinton would give him a good race. The poll shows Mr. Bush beating Ms. Clinton, but only by a 47 to 44 percent margin if the election were held today.

Fight, Fight: Peace candidate Howard Dean flashed some of his warrior side on Wednesday. While the other Democratic presidential hopefuls ignored Dick Gephardt's big, new health plan, Dean put out a statement calling it "pie in the sky" and attacked Gephardt for 25 years of inaction on heath care in Congress.

Dean, whose campaign refers to him as Gov. Howard Dean, MD, emphasized that he was the only physician in the field and called Gephardt's proposal a "political proposal for a problem which needs a practical solution." He also attacked Gephardt for no being more aggressive in rolling back the first Bush tax cut.

Gephardt's press secretary shot a memo back saying that Dean's statement was "factually incorrect." He said that Gephardt led the fight against the Bush tax cuts and "unlike Gov. Dean, Rep Gephardt would leave a large share of the tax cuts in place." He attached various statements from Dean saying that he would mainly get rid of the tax cuts for everyone earning over $300,000 a year.

Dr. Dean is getting a bit of a reputation as the "mean candidate," more Dr. Evil than Marcus Welby. Earlier this year he took on both Edwards and Kerry by name and got into a one-on-one with Kerry's campaign manager, Jim Jordan. Gephardt is the latest target in Dean's drive to distinguish himself from the pack. If he keeps this up, he may need some of that health insurance for himself.

Debate-o-rama: With the Democratic candidates starting their debate season earlier than ever before, the next year-and-a-half looks like it will be saturated with forums and joint appearances. Thursday, the Commission on Presidential Debates which has sponsored the general election debates since 1988 announced that it has received proposals from fourteen potential 2004 debate sites for the fall debates. Most are on college campuses but the Pittsburg Convention Center and NPR sneaked onto the list, which includes:

Arizona State University, Tempe, Ariz.
Belmont University, Nashville, Tenn.
Case Western Reserve, Cleveland, Ohio
Centre College, Danville, Ky.
Columbus, Ga., and Columbus State University
Greater Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau, Pittsburgh, Pa.
National Public Radio
Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, N.Y.
University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kan.
University of Miami, Miami, Fla.
University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the City of Charlotte, N.C.
University of South Carolina, Columbia, S.C.
Vanderbilt University and the City of Nashville, Tenn.
Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

The commission will conduct site surveys during the next several months and plans to announce the finalists in November 2003. Who will participate, how many there will be and when they will take place will be a matter of, no doubt, great debate.

Quote of the Day: "George W. Bush -- who was tough enough to stand up to supporters of Saddam -- should refuse to be pushed around by supporters of sodomy." - Ex-Bush adviser Marvin Olasky. ( via National Journal's Wake-Up Call!).

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