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Republican Offers Lessons on Taking the Heat

By John F. Harris
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page A04

Back in their home districts, House Republicans lately have been getting hammered with hostile questions about President Bush's plans for Social Security. This past week, Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.) offered a tutorial on how to handle the heat.

"Have you been getting hard questions at town hall meetings?" Kingston's office asked in an invitation to GOP press secretaries and other staff members to a "mock Social Security Town Hall Meeting." Over a pizza lunch, Kingston, the vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, offered to play a beleaguered congressman getting grilled by constituents.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) sponsored a "mock Social Security Town Hall Meeting" on Capitol Hill.

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The e-mail invitation was passed on by a Democratic source who professed incredulity that Republicans now need rehearsals for town hall meetings.

The idea for the event, Kingston assistant Righton Johnson said, was to show that there are good answers to the tough questions members are getting when they go home. She said the answers emphasize "why Social Security is broken and what needs to be done to fix it." While Kingston invited staff members to role-play -- pretending to be ordinary citizens -- most of the 45 GOP hands who showed up did not get into the theatrical spirit and instead just asked more conventional questions about political strategy, she said.

Greg Crist, communications director for the House Republican Conference, said Kingston's event was part of a week of sessions with pollsters and Social Security experts to help GOP members handle the controversy Bush has generated.

Hillary Clinton Allies Join DNC

People who are eager to see a Hillary Rodham Clinton angle in nearly every Washington personnel move -- and three years before the next presidential election, there are plenty of those -- will enjoy a frisson from the latest machinations at the Democratic National Committee. The new communications director for the party is Karen Finney, who served as deputy press secretary in the first lady's office during the Clinton years. She was also a spokeswoman for Clinton's successful Senate campaign in New York in 2000.

Finney's move is part of a shuffling at the DNC under new Chairman Howard Dean. She is replacing Jano Cabrera, who said he is headed to a beach in Maui and will announce longer-term plans by May 1. Research director Jason Miner is also moving on, and will be replaced by Mike Gehrke, who like Finney worked in the Clinton White House, and later did research for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

As for Hillary Clinton's political network, it's been a busy month, with longtime friend and Democratic operative Harold Ickes taking over America Coming Together, the influential labor-backed political group, and New York-based consultant Howard Wolfson taking on a contract to shape strategy at the state Democratic Party in New York.

Obama Forms Political Action Committee

While Hillary Clinton took a go-slow approach in her first years in the Senate, another political celebrity is trying a hit-the-gas strategy. Sen. Barak Obama (D-Ill.) just two months into his term, has started his own political action committee, something politicians more commonly wait a few years to do after hitting the national stage. "This is so cool. Stay in touch," said Michael Strautmanis, an Obama aide serving as point man at the PAC, e-mailed supporters.

RNC Raises $21 Million

The Republican National Committee has jumped out to an early -- and big -- lead in the 2005 race for cash, announcing that it has raised more than $21 million since the beginning of the year. That's more than twice as much as the Democrats reported. The RNC said Friday it raised $10.2 million in January, $11.4 million in February and had $22.4 million in the bank at the end of last month. The Democratic National Committee, which reported a burst of donations after Chairman Howard Dean's election last month, told federal election officials it raised $5.4 million in February and was sitting on a similar amount -- $5.36 million -- at the end of the month. It reported raising $3.4 million in January.

Vilsack Hires Official for PAC

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) briefly looked at running for president in 2004 and is among a long list of Democrats who may be considering a White House bid in 2008. In what may be the first step in that process, Vilsack has decided to start his own political action committee and has snared B.J. Thornberry, who until recently served as executive director of the Democratic Governors' Association, to run it.

Thornberry said the committee isn't looking toward 2008 but is focused on helping governors in their 2006 races. "We're in the very preliminary stages," she said.

Left Sets Conference on Constitution

The most common question on the political left these days seems to be: How can we emulate the right? That's the avowed aim of a conference next month at Yale Law School on the theme of "The Constitution in 2020." Among the scheduled speakers are former Clinton White House chief of staff John D. Podesta and former solicitors general Seth Waxman, Drew S. Days III and Walter Dellinger.

The sponsors include the American Constitution Society and its Yale chapter. ACS was founded as a counterpart to an influential conservative group, the Federalist Society. And the conference's name plays off a paper that former Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese III commissioned, titled "The Constitution in the Year 2000."

Organizer Karen Dunn -- another Hillary Clinton veteran, as it happens -- said the idea is to discuss in a long-term way how to bring "progressive values" into debates about law and constitutional interpretation.

A Newt Alternative in Las Vegas

If you are on the Vegas Strip next month and get shut out for tickets to Wayne Newton, you could have a fallback with a different Newton. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is playing at Vegas next month, with an April 14 appearance at the Silverton casino, just a few miles south of the Strip. The Silverton said Gingrich will appear to "tell his inspiring story."

Staff writer Dan Balz and political researcher Brian Faler contributed to this report.

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