“First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, by the NBC News’ political unit. Please let us know what you think.  Drop us a note at FirstRead@MSNBC.com.  To bookmark First Read, click here.

• Wednesday, April 19, 2006 | 5:10 p.m. ET
From Mark Murray

  1. Other political news of note
    1. Animated Boehner: 'There's nothing complex about the Keystone Pipeline!'

      House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.

    2. Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

How to beat the GOP?
As the White House was announcing key staff changes, two different pillars of the Democratic Party -- the Democratic National Committee and organized labor -- were discussing the upcoming midterm elections. At a breakfast meeting with reporters, DNC chairman Howard Dean said he's optimistic that Democrats can take back the House and pick up seats in the Senate (possibly even taking back that chamber, too). Yet because of redistricting and the few number of retirements this year, he admitted that Democrats aren't going to pick up the huge number of House seats Republicans did in 1994. He also said that Democrats will need a national wave to take the House back. "We need to nationalize the election," he said. "I think people really want change... But the Democratic Party has to be seen as the vehicle for change. That is my job." And Dean argued that Democrats simply can't run on a we-are-not-them strategy for the upcoming midterm elections. He said Democrats need to have a positive message that finds common ground with all Americans, to restore a sense of community that's currently lacking in America.

A few hours later, leaders at the AFL-CIO told a different group of reporters that they are launching an unprecedented mobilization campaign for the midterms. They said they're targeting 21 gubernatorial races, 15 Senate contests, and 42 House races, and would spend $40 million -- more than ever before for a midterm cycle -- on education and voter mobilization. (That amount doesn't include what the AFL-CIO and its affiliate unions will donate to individual candidates.) But these leaders also acknowledged that they are trying to improve on their grassroots program. "Our neighbor-to-neighbor program wasn't as effective as [Republicans']," said Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees who also chairs the AFL's political committee. "We had too much of ... a stranger-to-stranger program."

• Wednesday, April 19, 2006 | 11:15 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner

Rove's changing role
In another significant White House personnel move, Bush's chief political advisor, Karl Rove, is giving up his oversight of domestic policy to focus on politics.  There's been speculation that Rove might leave the White House ever since he emerged last October unindicted but still at risk from special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's ongoing probe in the CIA leak case.  The shift in Rove's responsibilities may reflect recognition by Bush's staff that White House policy efforts from here on out should be focused more on building a legacy for the second-term President than on reshaping the GOP.  Bush's proposal to add private accounts to Social Security, for example, was as much a political effort designed to win younger voters to the GOP as it was an effort to put Bush's stamp on a popular entitlement program.

• Wednesday, April 19, 2006 | 10:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner

McClellan departs, more to come
Perhaps the most recognized face of the White House beyond the President and First Lady is taking his leave.  Two days after chief of staff Josh Bolten asked all senior staff who don't plan to stay through the end of Bush's presidency to quit sooner rather than later, spokesperson Scott McClellan is resigning.  Bush made the announcement with McClellan at his side on the White House lawn this morning.  At his regular White House briefing on Monday, in describing Bolten's request to senior staff, McClellan was asked about his own future.  "I never speculate about personnel matters," he told NBC's Kelly O'Donnell.  "'Personnel' or 'personal' or both?" she asked.  "Two years in this position is a long time, I'm very mindful of that.  But, look, I never get into any of that speculation," McClellan said.

Although McClellan's exit is one of a series, with more expected, it's of particular significance at a time when Republican members of Congress, party strategists, and Washington's pernicious "chattering class" are clamoring for the administration to make changes to both its staff and its message to bolster the party's prospects in the midterm elections.  McClellan has earned praise and criticism for how doggedly he has stuck to the White House line over the past two years, often to the frustration of a White House press corps always in search of further information.  The announcement of his successor may come as part of a bigger announcement of several additions to the White House communications staff, since more changes are expected.

Fittingly for a somewhat topsy-turvy morning at the White House, Marine One, the presidential chopper, experienced an aborted departure when Bush and his staff tried to leave for Andrews AFB for their scheduled trip to Alabama.  Deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin told reporters that he can't recall in recent memory such a thing happening before.

• Wednesday, April 19, 2006 | 9:10 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Holly Phillips

First glance
Oil prices hit a new high of $71.35 per barrel yesterday.  Despite that new record, the Dow Jones Industrial Average saw its biggest point gain in a year because of the prospect of lower interest rates and recent positive data.  For President Bush, therein lies the rub.

Bush spoke out with unusual force yesterday in defense of his defense secretary, but we were struck by how equally forcefully he addressed the issue of rising gas prices, appearing to equate the issue with the war in Iraq as a "major problem."  As we've written here before, record high gas prices aren't just a major problem economically, threatening to affect consumer spending.  They pose a major problem politically for the President and his party.  As they discovered last summer and fall, high gas prices weigh upon the public's view of the economy overall and upon Bush's own job approval rating.  At a time when he and his administration are trying to focus on domestic concerns in advance of the looming midterm elections, to reshuffle their economic team to reflect that new emphasis, and to highlight positive data in an effort to convince skeptical Americans that the economy is performing well, the $70-plus price of a barrel of oil threatens to obscure it all.

Yet Bush's hands are tied when it comes to providing immediate relief.  He can express concern and show that he and his team are paying attention.  He can encourage drivers to conserve fuel.  He can talk about how other countries like China -- whose president he meets with tomorrow -- are consuming more and more fuel.  He can talk up proposals like opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling for oil and natural gas, which continues to languish in Congress.  And he can put oil companies on notice that the Administration is watching for signs of price-gouging, a tactic congressional Republicans used last fall during their first scare about gas prices, hauling oil company executives to Capitol Hill to testify about their record profits.  If Congress weren't on recess right now, there'd probably be rumblings about hauling oil company executives before subcommittees to testify once again.  Even with Congress out, 15 Senate Democrats put their names on a letter to Bush yesterday asking him to support proposed federal price-gouging legislation.

But in the absence of deeds, Bush's best counter to soaring gas prices is words.  "I'm concerned about higher gasoline price," he told reporters, basically unprompted, yesterday morning.  "I'm concerned what it means to the working families and small businesses, and I'm also mindful that the government has the responsibility to make sure that we watch very carefully, and to investigate possible price gouging.  And we'll do just that."

Rose Garden remarks on the war on terror at 9:05 am were a late add to Bush's schedule for today; NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that he will first meet with a group of governors who have literally just returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, including Tom Vilsack (D) of Iowa, Mitch Daniels (R) of Indiana, and Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia.  While in the war zones, the governors met with commanders and  troops and made their own assessments of conditions on the ground which they'll provide to Bush, O'Donnell says.  Bush then travels to Tuskegee, AL for a tour of a university tech center at 12:20 pm ET and remarks on his competitiveness initiative at 12:55 pm ET.

And Vice President Cheney attends the presentation of the 2005 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Awards for performance excellence at the Washington Hilton at 3:00 pm.

It's the economy...
The Wall Street Journal on the surge in the price of oil: "Analysts are split over exactly what has fueled the recent rally.  While some cited anxiety over a possible disruption in Iranian supplies as the driving force, others pointed to a surge in gasoline prices."

As Republicans and the Administration have had to deal with the thorny issues of Iraq and political corruption, the economy has been a bright spot for them as the midterms approach, the Chicago Tribune says.  “But record oil prices, rising interest rates, a softening housing market and less consumer confidence are suddenly threatening to chill the roaring economy in the second half of the year, possibly diminishing the GOP's best issue on Election Day.”

Calling it "one of the 21st century's most important relationships," USA Today previews the Bush-Hu sitdown at the White House tomorrow.  Trying to infer the importance the White House is placing on the meeting, the story notes, "When President Bush wants to really hunker down with a foreign leader, he invites him or her to the ranch in Crawford, Texas.  Hu is getting a half-day at the White House."

China’s growing demand for oil will be one of the chief issues Bush and Hu discuss, the New York Times reports.  “American officials say the subject cannot be avoided at Thursday's meeting in the Oval Office…  China's appetite for oil also affects its stance on Iran, where a growing confrontation with the United States over nuclear programs has already unsettled oil markets.”

Per the Wall Street Journal, the Hu schedule tomorrow includes a "full 21-gun salute on the South Lawn of the White House," "a morning of meetings with President Bush and most of his cabinet," a "'social lunch' for 200 guests," a meeting "at Blair House with Vice President Cheney and half a dozen friendly congressmen, including Republicans Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, Sen. Mark Coleman (sic) of Minnesota and Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois," and "a formal speech Thursday night to huge crowd of diplomats, executives and academics."  What it will not include: a joint press conference with Bush.

Security politics
In his first press briefing since several retired generals openly called for his resignation, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday that that he has not offered the President his resignation and will not offer it, NBC's Courtney Kube reports.  He declined to criticize the retired generals who have called for him to step down and who have harshly criticized his leadership.  Instead, he said he would prefer to reflect on the issues being addressed and be tolerant of what's being said.  He also ran through a laundry list of accomplishments during his time at the Pentagon.  Indeed, whereas Bush came out swinging with his support for Rumsfeld yesterday, the Washington Post's Milbank says the Secretary himself was "Zen Rummy."

The New York Times front-pages the “defense of the defense secretary,” noting that yesterday was the third time in five days that Rumsfeld made his case to stay in his job.

The Washington Times observes that "Rumsfeld did not mention Iraq war planning or the war itself while discussing why some in the military establishment have called on him to quit.  Instead, he talked about his other main objective: transformation for 21st-century threats...  None of the four retired Army generals have mentioned Army transformation as the reason.  Instead, they have criticized Mr. Rumsfeld's management style and what they considered deeply flawed planning for Iraq."

The AP notes that Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin yesterday called for Rumsfeld to be replaced and said he wants to put Rumsfeld to a vote of confidence when the Senate returns next week.

The Washington Post reports on progress made by Karen Hughes in her efforts to overhaul the government's approach to "public diplomacy," using tactics that sound eerily like Bush presidential campaign strategies.  Example: "a team of people who speak Arabic and other languages monitors news reports by computer and on large flat-screen TVs, producing an instant report on the 'hot issues' overseas and suggested messages to counter the bad news."

White House names and faces
The White House staff exodus has begun at new chief of staff Josh Bolten's request.  Jim Towey, head of the office of faith-based initiatives, announced his resignation yesterday.  Speculation is also centering on Treasury Secretary John Snow and spokesperson Scott McClellan.  More announcements are expected in the coming days.

The Hill casts Bush's choice of former Rep. Rob Portman (R) as his new budget chief as another sign of recognition that the White House needs better ties to the Hill.  "But Portman’s good relationships could face a strain in his new position, with restive Republicans pushing for reform of the administration’s budgetary policy and a more concerted effort to rein in runaway federal spending."

"Mr. Portman is likely to become a more visible spokesman for the administration than his predecessor, Josh Bolten...  Public advocacy of the administration's economic policies is another area where the White House believes it needs help," says the Wall Street Journal.

The Financial Times sees "a downgrading of trade policy in the administration’s second term" in Bush's choice.

"Trade analysts said Portman's departure from the trade office, just as international negotiations aimed at liberalizing trade rules were nearing their climax, suggested that the administration had given up on the talks." – Los Angeles Times

With Towey's departure from the White House office of faith-based initiatives comes calls to shut down the office, but Towey defended its existence, saying that "the wall between church and state is still standing, faith-based groups have been welcomed into the public square and the poor have benefited from having access to their programs." – Miami Herald

Disaster politics
According to Jennifer Marusak, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Al Ater's office, Louisiana officials had recorded 18,154 votes as of yesterday for New Orleans' April 22 mayoral election.  While early in-person voting has ended, voters can still send in absentee ballots.  Of the 16,263 people who have requested absentee ballots, 6,965 have returned them.  Overall, 65% of those voting so far have been African-American.

The former chairman of the US Election Assistance Commission tells First Read that the mayoral election represents a "de facto collusion" between the white Democratic Establishment in the state and Republicans who each, he alleges, have their own reasons for wanting to suppress the vote among displaced residents.

Dr. DeForest "Buster" Soaries, a former New Jersey secretary of state who was named the first head of the election-reform panel created by Congress in 2002, charges that these Democrats want to minimize turnout among displaced New Orleans voters so that "certain forces can take the city back."  The CW is that without a large turnout among African-American evacuees, the city will elect a white mayor to replace incumbent Ray Nagin.  Republicans, Soaries says, are watching this election with an eye toward future congressional elections in the state and the prospect that if New Orleans' electorate proves to be much smaller and whiter now than before Hurricane Katrina, the district lines could be redrawn and the city may no longer be in position to elect an African-American to Congress.  (The city is currently represented by longtime Democratic Rep. Bill Jefferson, who is African-American and whose hold on his seat is endangered by ethical problems.)

To back up his allegation of a "de facto collusion," Soaries notes that "no major government official has expressed outrage over the way this election is being handled."  Citing what he calls "inadequate time, information, and access to the ballot" provided to the evacuees who wish to vote, he pronounces, "The only person who will view the results as valid will be the winner."  He singles out the area's still-dysfunctional postal system as a particular source of concern, questioning what will happen if thousands of ballots arrive after primary day.

Soaries, who is now a pastor in Somerset, NJ, also tells First Read that Kimberly Williamson Butler (D), the controversial Orleans Parish official charged with overseeing the election, asked him to come observe the vote count and, if he saw fit, endorse it as credible and fair.  Williamson Butler is running for mayor but has declined to give up her seat despite the appearance of a conflict of interest.  Soaries says he declined the request.

"The Rev. Jesse Jackson launched a get-out-the-vote campaign in New Orleans on Tuesday, appearing at the Guste public housing complex in the first stop of a three-city tour through the state," reports the Times-Picayune.  "Jackson... said the shame of this state and country will be broadcast loud and clear if evacuees spread across the nation aren't included in the voting process."

The latest debate got a little fiery when the Rev. Tom Watson (D) lashed out at Nagin.  "'You drowned 1,200 people!' he told Nagin at one point, jabbing a finger at the mayor.  'I rebuke you.'"  Nagin "seemed to brush off Watson's charges with a smile, and at one point said simply, 'Reverend, you're losing.'" – New Orleans Times-Picayune

The immigration debate
After getting battered for days by the White House and GOP members of Congress who charge that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid "single-handedly" (Bush's word) obstructed comprehensive immigration reform, Democrats are trying to fight back on a similar scale.  The Democratic National Committee is launching Spanish-language radio ads in the same markets in which the Republican National Committee has been running Spanish-language ads, but the DNC ads will also air nationally on Univision radio.  Print ads will follow next week, per a DNC source who tells First Read that they had "planned to do these ads prior to the release of the RNC ad."  (You might wonder what took so long, then.)  DNC spokesperson Mark Paustenbach says, "Our ads will set the record straight about the Democratic party's fight for comprehensive immigration reform, whereas the RNC's ads are a distortion of the Republican Party's extreme record on immigration."

National and grassroots immigrant-rights groups hold a press conference in Washington at 1:30 pm to discuss the talk that has been swirling about a possible boycott by Latino immigrants on May 1.  They will also address questions concerning the actual leadership of the immigrant-rights movement.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is in Orlando today meeting with his colleague Mel Martinez to talk about immigration reform.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), who has been accused by critics of being soft on immigration, vetoed a bill that would have criminalized illegal immigration in the state.  "Napolitano said she opposes automatically turning all immigrants who sneaked into the state into criminals, and that the bill provided no funding for the new duties," notes the AP.

The huge rallies in favor of immigrant rights appear to have sparked a backlash that's resulting in swelling membership in groups like the Minutemen who favor stricter immigration controls, says USA Today.

The midterms
House Republicans have assembled working groups on various issues and are trying to draft a mission statement to help them unify behind an agenda for the midterm elections. – The Hill

The Los Angeles Times says state Controller Steve Westly looked "every bit the front-runner" for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in California in giving a big speech yesterday in Sacramento.  "Westly said he would be reluctant to raise taxes but would not rule out the possibility."  He also "said the state can improve its finances through smarter purchasing, aggressive tax collection and a revamping of the lottery.  Some of those ideas were championed by the Schwarzenegger administration in the proposed government overhaul the governor announced in 2004, though they have yet to be put in place."

In the race for governor of Illinois, the Chicago Tribune says that incumbent Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) and challenger Judy Baar Topinka (R) traded barbs yesterday over whose campaign would be hurt more by former GOP Gov. George Ryan’s conviction on Monday.

In New York, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) today will pick up the endorsements from two firefighter groups, “marking the first major announcement of her reelection campaign,” the New York Daily News says.

The Washington Post reports on the House GOP campaign committee's Machiavellian play to bolster a weak Democratic candidate in a key OHIO district in an effort to keep the stronger Democrat from winning the party's nomination.

The Sierra Club, which usually backs Democratic candidates, holds a press conference at 9:45 am in Providence, Rhode Island to announce it's endorsing incumbent Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee in his battle for re-election.

Harris Miller, one of two Democrats seeking the US Senate nomination in Virginia, kicked off his campaign yesterday by charging that GOP Sen. George "Allen's presidential aspirations have hurt Virginians."  - Washington Post

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