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Leniency for Libby and the '08 presidential race

Bush's decision to commute the prison sentence of Cheney's former aide could pose a challenge for GOP candidates.

If President Bush's goal in commuting I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's prison sentence was to make sure the former top White House aide did not have to go through the humiliation of spending time behind bars, then he succeeded.

What the president may not have anticipated was the extent of the furor he has unleashed. Not only are Democrats outraged, as expected, but he also faces the wrath of conservative Republicans who long lobbied for a full pardon, not the part-way measure that leaves Mr. Libby's conviction intact and other pieces of his sentence in place – a $250,000 fine and a two-year probation.

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The day after Bush stunned Washington with the July 2 announcement that he was commuting Libby's 30-month prison sentence, following the aide's four-count conviction for perjury and obstruction of justice, the president stated that he did not rule out a pardon in the future. Thus, the commutation does nothing to put the pardon question to rest, and only gives critics more fodder as they accuse the White House of cronyism in helping one of its own.

Even the US district judge in the case, Reggie Walton, is not resting easy. On Tuesday, he filed a court order saying that federal law "does not appear to contemplate a situation in which a defendant may be placed under supervised release without first contemplating a term of incarceration." Judge Walton gave the lawyers in the case until Monday to put forth recommendations for handling the situation.

Still, it is beyond dispute under the US Constitution that the president has the right to issue pardons and commute sentences. But that does not mean the president and his party escape political fallout. For Bush, there's little to lose in public opinion; with job approval rating below 30 percent in major polls, he is already down mostly to core supporters, given that few independents back him and even fewer Democrats.

But for the GOP presidential candidates, the Libby commutation represents one more awkward news point out of the White House that requires a response. So far, the responses have been positive. And even if supporting Bush's move is likely not to hurt candidates in their race for the nomination, it could pose challenges in the general election, when creating distance from Bush will be the name of the game.

"While [the commutation] may not be earth-shattering within the party, it could have an impact in the general next year," says Republican strategist Tony Fabrizio. "Certainly, it is a rallying point for the Democrats, and we don't need to be giving them any more rallying points."

With no hesitation, the top GOP presidential candidates made comments of support for the commutation. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney both called the decision "reasonable." Likely candidate Fred Thompson, who has helped Libby raise funds for his legal defense, said in a statement that, "while for a long time I have urged a pardon for Scooter, I respect the president's decision."

In supporting Bush, these three men are aligning themselves with an action that critics say flies in the face of the president's pledge to "restore honor and dignity to the White House." Libby's felony conviction stemmed from statements he made to a federal grand jury in the course of an investigation into the leaking of the identity of a CIA agent, Valerie Plame. That leak, which neither Libby nor anyone else was charged with, stemmed from a dispute over intelligence reports that suggested Iraq was attempting to obtain materials to build weapons of mass destruction. That dispute fed into the larger debate over Bush's decision to invade Iraq.

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And so, ultimately, the revival of the Libby case cycles back to the central issue of the day, the Iraq war. To some Republican strategists, the Libby commutation cannot do any political damage to Bush that has not already been inflicted, and could serve a useful political purpose for Bush. By the time the general election is in full swing next year, Libby will pale as an issue in comparison with Iraq, says one strategist.

"This commutation gives the people who still like the president and want him to do well solace and encouragement that he has done the right thing," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "The president has not antagonized anyone who was not already against him."

For one top Democratic candidate, Sen. Hillary Clinton, the Libby commutation does not represent an unalloyed political gift. On the eve of her husband's departure from the presidency, in 2001, he pardoned fugitive financier Marc Rich (whose ex-wife was a Clinton fundraiser), to great public uproar. Republicans are responding to Democratic outrage over the Libby move with two words: "Marc Rich."

But Republicans open themselves up to charges of inconsistency when President Clinton's impeachment enters the mix. Mr. Clinton was impeached for lying to a grand jury, the same charge for which Libby was convicted.

Further, in arguing that Libby's prison sentence was "excessive," the president contradicts the administration's position that sentencing guidelines should be followed. Libby's sentence falls within the sentencing guidelines for his crime. Just two weeks ago, the Supreme Court affirmed a 33-month sentence for a man with similar circumstances. The Justice Department had argued in favor of that sentence.