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A1: The stories you need to read before your first conference call.

-- U.S. Special Operations forces launched a raid on Islamic State militants in Syria earlier this summer in an effort to free journalist James Foley and other hostages, the Pentagon said Wednesday. One U.S. commando was injured in the raid, the first known U.S. ground operation into Syria since that country's civil war began. But Foley and other hostages weren't where intelligence suggested they would be. (Washington Post, New York Times)

-- Washington Post White House Bureau Chief Scott Wilson's take: "In many ways, the operation perfectly captures Obama's use of force principles and his overall security strategy. That is, it's covert, in service of a very specific mission, and leaves no footprint. No big force, no long stay. It is a way of attempting to manage a crisis - in this case, in Syria - without addressing in a decisive way a resolution of the crisis itself. All that said, it was a risk taken in pursuit of saving a life - or several - and should be admired in that spirit."

-- Israeli airstrikes killed three top Hamas commanders early Thursday in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip. Israel said 243 rockets and mortars had been fired from Gaza since the collapse of a peace deal on Tuesday; 37 were intercepted by the Iron Dome system. One Israeli civilian was injured by mortars near Gaza. Israel has carried out more than 150 airstrikes since the end of the cease-fire. (New York Times)

-- Just six people were arrested in Ferguson, Mo., overnight in what state Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald Johnson called a fairly calm night. About 100 clergy members from St. Louis joined protestors. Attorney General Eric Holder visited the family of Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager shot and killed by a police officer. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

-- Five Ukrainian soldiers were killed in rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine as troops continue reclaiming territory from the pro-Russian separatists. More than 50 people died in fighting in the Donetsk region, while fighting continues around Luhansk, just 12 miles from the Russian border. Ukrainian troops said they had seized two Russian infantry vehicles near Luhansk. (Associated Press)

-- Dr. Kent Brantly, one of two American aid workers who contracted Ebola in West Africa, will be discharged from Emory University Hospital in Atlanta today. In a statement, Samaritan's Purse president Franklin Graham said Brantly had recovered from the virus. Hospital officials plan a news conference today to discuss the conditions of Brantly and Nancy Writebol, the other American who had contracted the disease. (Associated Press)

-- Front Pages: WaPo leads with the failed rescue operation to save James Foley, while coverage of McDonnell's trial splashes over four left columns. NYT led with ISIS demands for ransom in exchange for Foley. WSJ also leads with the failed rescue.

National Roundup: What's happening outside the Beltway.

-- North Carolina: Finally, a live-caller poll. Sen. Kay Hagan (D) leads state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) by a statistically insignificant 45 percent to 43 percent margin, with Libertarian Sean Haugh pulling 5 percent. Both candidates have higher unfavorable ratings than favorable, and Hagan's job approval rating, 41 percent, is actually lower than President Obama's, 45 percent. (USA Today, Suffolk University methodology here)

-- Michigan: As state Republicans prepare for their convention this weekend, tea party leaders are hoping to oust Lt. Gov. Brian Calley (R) on Gov. Rick Snyder's (R) ticket as a way of voicing displeasure over some of the administration's decisions. Calley allies have been working for a year to elect convention delegates, who could help him survive a challenge from Hartland tea party leader Wes Nakagiri (R). (Detroit News)

-- Mississippi: Special Judge Hollis McGehee told lawyers for Sen. Thad Cochran (R) and state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R) that he doubts McDaniel's challenge to the June 24 Senate runoff election can be completed by Election Day. The trial is likely to begin Sept. 15 or Sept. 22. McGehee will hear motions from Cochran lawyers seeking to dismiss the case on Aug. 28. (Jackson Clarion-Ledger)

-- Colorado: A measure that would require labels on foods with genetically modified organisms will appear on the November ballot, Secretary of State Scott Gessler's (R) office said Wednesday after certifying signatures. Opponents in the agriculture industry say the measure would increase the price of food. (Denver Post, Washington Post) Get ready for an expensive race: A GMO initiative in Washington State drew more than $43 million in campaign spending in 2013. A similar measure is on the Oregon ballot this year.

-- Virginia: The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday stayed a federal appeals court ruling that would have allowed same-sex couples to begin getting married on Thursday. The stay is likely to remain in place until the Supreme Court decides whether to hear some or all of the more than a dozen challenges to state same-sex marriage bans. (Richmond Times-Dispatch)

-- More Virginia: Former Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) took the stand in his own defense Wednesday, laying out his biography and values in about two hours before court adjourned for the day. McDonnell said his wife, Maureen, was "not as happy as I was" about becoming governor of Virginia. Today, McDonnell returns to defend himself from corruption charges stemming from his relationship with former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams. (Washington Post) Keep up with our live blog here.

-- Arkansas: Sen. Mark Pryor (D) is up with a new and remarkable ad touting his support for the Affordable Care Act. In Arkansas. Granted, he doesn't mention the bill by name -- it's "a law that prevents insurance companies from canceling your policy if you get sick." Pryor appears alongside his father, David, in the ad. (Washington Post)

DC Digest: What's on tap today in DC.

-- President Obama is still in Martha's Vineyard.

-- Vice President Biden attends meetings at the White House today before heading to Wilmington this evening. Biden heads to Chicago on Monday to raise money for Gov. Pat Quinn (D) and the DCCC. (Chicago Tribune)

-- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meets Greek Defense Minister Dimitrios Avramopoulos at the Pentagon this afternoon. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has a back-to-school conversation with teachers and principals at Jefferson Academy in Southwest D.C.

-- If Republicans regain control of the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says the GOP will attach riders to spending bills that will severely curtail President Obama's power. "We’re going to pass spending bills, and they’re going to have a lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy," McConnell said. (Politico)

TV Time Out: Our exclusive look at who's advertising, and where.

-- With 11 weeks to go until Election Day, we take our semi-regular 30,000-foot view of the national advertising landscape. Here are the five races with the most political spending this week:

-- North Carolina: Are we surprised? The two sides are spending $2.8 million on TV ads this week for or against Sen. Kay Hagan (D) and state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R), led by $720,000 from Freedom Partners, the Koch group. The DSCC leads the Democratic side at about $475,000 this week.

-- Arkansas: About $1.4 million in ad spending drops this week, led by Crossroads GPS at around $360,000 for Rep. Tom Cotton (R). That's a little less than the combined spending from the DSCC and Patriot Majority, on behalf of Sen. Mark Pryor (D). Republicans are spending $900,000 versus a little over $500,000 from Democrats.

-- Florida: The first time a governor's race has made our list. The Florida Democratic Party is dumping a little shy of $1 million (!) into ads this week, while Tom Steyer's PAC drops another $350,000 against Gov. Rick Scott (R). Scott's side has spent more against former Gov. Charlie Crist (D) so far this year, but this week Democrats are making their presence felt.

-- Colorado: The battle between Sen. Mark Udall (D) and Rep. Cory Gardner (R) has attracted $1.26 million in spending this week alone. Crossroads GPS is the biggest spender, at around $240,000 this week, but here's one race where the candidates are starting to spend more than outside groups. Udall's camp is spending $225,000 this week, while Gardner's shop dropped $230,000 on TV.

-- Georgia: The only race on our list where Democrats are outspending Republicans. Of the $1.23 million on Georgia airwaves this week, about $1 million comes from businesswoman Michelle Nunn (D) and her allies. The NRSC is spending $230,000 for businessman David Perdue (R), who's still recovering from a bitter runoff.

-- Those are just the biggest-spending races. All told, this week alone, Democrats, Republicans and their outside associates are dropping at least $16 million on political ads. And it's August, when everybody and their brother is on vacation!

B1: Business, politics and the business of politics

-- The Justice Department and Bank of America are working on final terms for a $17 billion settlement over faulty mortgage securities that contributed to the financial crisis. It will be the largest penalty ever paid by a single company. About $7 billion will co to consumer relief, while nearly $10 billion will be split by the Justice Department and state attorneys general in New York, Illinois, Delaware and Kentucky. (Washington Post)

-- Stocks are trading modestly higher after a mixed Wednesday on Wall Street. Most international markets are trading higher today. (CNN)

C4: The comics page, fun things to read when you're bored at work

-- FXX begins its ultra-marathon of every Simpsons episode ever made today at 10 a.m. The network will air all 552 episodes from today until 11:30 p.m. on Sept. 1. The Washington Post's Emily Yahr suggests DVR'ing "Krusty Gets Busted," which introduced Sideshow Bob; "Marge vs. the Monorail," one of this author's personal favorites; and "Who Shot Mr. Burns," which airs Sunday at 1:30 a.m. The New York Times likes the Beer Baron episode (Homer: "To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems!") and "A Fish Called Selma." The Tampa Bay Times recommends "Deep Space Homer," among others.

-- "Billy Corgan, Smashing Pumpkins." "Homer Simpson, smiling politely."

Attn Matt Drudge: Things conservatives will get outraged by today.

-- Census Bureau data shows more than 109 million Americans lived in households that receive federal benefits in the 4th quarter of 2012. That includes 82 million residents of households with a Medicaid recipient, 51 million food stamp households, 22 million WIC households and 20 million in households where someone receives Supplemental Security Income. (CNS News)

Attn HuffPo: What outrages liberals today

-- At least 18 members of Congress who have taken the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge also voted for the Budget Control Act of 2011, which cut funding for ALS-specific research by $5 million. That research budget increased by $1 million in a subsequent deal in 2014, but funding levels remain below pre-recession levels. Members of both parties are all wet: 10 Democrats and 8 Republicans have both taken the challenge and voted to cut funding. (Huffington Post)