“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.

• Friday, April 21, 2006 | 6:20 p.m. ET
From Huma Zaidi and Steve Majors

  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

Watching the New Orleans vote
Imagine that you're lying in bed the night before a big party at your home. Staring at the ceiling, you begin questioning whether you're adequately prepared for the big day: Who will show up? Will there be enough of everything for everyone? Will people get lost on their way? Well, we suspect that might be similar to what elections officials in Louisiana might be going through tonight.  After all, it's the night before New Orleans holds its highly anticipated mayoral election since Hurricane Katrina blew through there last summer. Polls in New Orleans open bright and early at 7 a.m. EST tomorrow.

Many people are wondering how many voters will come out to vote? Will there be enough machines and polling places for everyone? Will people go to the right polling precincts? Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater held a briefing with reporters this afternoon to answer some of these questions. The truth is, Ater says, they don't know how many people will come out to vote tomorrow. With the unprecedented circumstances under which this election is being held, there are no hard and fast rules to predicting turnout. Ater adds that the state will post "greeters" at major polling places to ensure that voters don't end up at the wrong polling precinct.  Because many precincts that voters had used in the past were damaged after Katrina and deemed unusable, Ater says signs directing people to the correct precinct will be placed at the old ones.  As far as contesting the results, Ater says Louisiana has a long history of challenged elections and said he wouldn't be surprised if someone contests tomorrow's results.

As we head off for the weekend, here are some numbers to sum up the election one last time:
• 297,000: The approximate number of registered voters in New Orleans.
• 20,409: The number of residents who had voted up until yesterday via early in-person voting and mailing back absentee ballots.
• 22: The number of candidates running for mayor.
• 14: The number of hours the polls will be open tomorrow.
• 12: The number of days, starting on Sunday, that the state has to certify the elections results.
• 9: The number of days one has to file a lawsuit challenging tomorrow's election results.
• 1-800-883-2805: The number you should call if you're a registered New Orleans voter with questions about how and where to vote. 

You can also see Louisiana primary election resources here and New Orleans Mayoral profiles here .

• Friday, April 21, 2006 | 5:15 p.m. ET
From Mike Viqueira, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

Democratic ethics concern
Beleaguered Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV) is temporarily stepping down as ranking Democrat on the House ethics committee in the wake of a reported federal probe into his finances. Mollohan will, however, continue to serve in Congress.

Mollohan has been under fire since the Wall Street Journal reported two weeks ago that Justice Department was looking into how the 12-term member became dramatically wealthier over the past few years, primarily through real estate holdings he obtained in conjunction with his wife and a former staffer.

There are also questions about how Mollohan used his position on the appropriations committee to direct millions in "earmarks" to his West Virginia congressional district. Much of the money went to non-profit organizations that were formed by Mollohan to promote economic development. Some of those who run these outfits have also been political contributors to Mollohan, as well as investment partners.

The Mollohan news is particularly interesting, because Democrats -- in the wake of the scandals and ethics investigations surrounding Republicans Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, and Randy "Duke" Cunningham -- have attacked the GOP and its candidates for engaging in a "culture of corruption." But the investigation of Mollohan seemed to undercut that message somewhat, especially because of his position on the ethics committee.

The announcement comes on the same day that Vice President Dick Cheney is headlining a fundraiser for Mollohan's opponent, Chris Wakim in Morgantown.

• Friday, April 21, 2006 | 1:45 p.m. ET
From Kelly O'Donnell and Mark Murray

Bush goes California trekking
When President Bush lands in California, he won't be stepping onto necessarily friendly ground. For one thing, California is a deep-blue state, where Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans. Then there's Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), who's meeting with Bush today, but who also has recently criticized the president on a range of issues. And then there are gas prices, which have increased in the state to an average that's above $3 a gallon. Yet despite it all, it seems like Bush is going to be able to enjoy some exercise in the Golden State. As reporters boarded Air Force One, they spotted two high-end bicycles being loaded onto the plane. One TREK bike bore a small presidential seal on the frame, with a beautiful paint job that reads, "United States of... America."

• Friday, April 21, 2006 | 9:10 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Holly Phillips

First glance
We’ve been on the run. Driving in the sun. Looking out for No. 1. California, here we come…

Even if those music lyrics aren’t your speed, and you prefer something else like “California Dreamin,’” you probably get where we’re going with this: A day after his meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, where gaffes overshadowed any substantial diplomatic progress, Bush jets to California for a four-day trip on the West Coast. Today, at Cisco Systems in San Jose, he participates in a panel on his American Competitiveness Initiative at 5:10 pm ET. On Saturday -- on Earth Day, and as gas prices keep inching upward -- Bush will take a tour of the California Fuel Cell Partnership in West Sacramento, where he’ll give a speech on transportation technology at 6:00 pm ET, and then will attend an RNC reception at 9:35 pm ET. On Sunday, in Twentynine Palms, CA, Bush will have lunch with Marine Corps and Navy families before attending a Marine Corps training exercise. And on Monday, he will have some more events before traveling back to Washington.

Three pieces of data tell the story of Bush's current situation: the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at a five-year high, gas prices are above $3 a gallon in some places (including in the Bay Area), and the latest FOX poll shows Bush's approval rating at 33%. Joining Bush today at Cisco Systems is California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), who will be lobbying the president for more federal assistance to fix the state’s levee system. On Wednesday, in fact, Schwarzenegger complained about the lack of federal help. Schwarzenegger, of course, is running for re-election this year in this very blue state -- after a very rough 2005 -- and demonstrating that he can be “The Collectinator” and distancing himself from Bush are two keys to his success.

Indeed, earlier this month, Schwarzenegger took a direct shot at the Bush Administration on the issue Bush will discuss on Saturday: the environment. "I have to say that the federal government has so far fallen short with showing leadership when it comes to the environment,'' he said at a news conference on April 4, per the San Francisco Chronicle. "I think that I, as governor, don't want to wait for the federal government or for any other states, as far as that goes, to see what they're doing.''

While Bush flies to California, Vice President Cheney departs Washington to make two fundraising stops. The first one is in Indianapolis for an RNC fundraiser, where he’ll be joined by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R). Afterwards, Cheney heads to Morgantown, WV to attend a closed fundraiser at a private home for war veteran and congressional candidate Chris Wakim (R). Wakim is challenging Rep. Alan Mollohan (D), the ranking member on the House Ethics Committee, who’s now facing a federal investigation into his finances, although he hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing.

After one postponement and weeks of planning, New Orleans holds its election tomorrow to pick the city's next mayor -- or at least winnow the field. Twenty-two candidates are on the ballot, and unless one of them breaks 50% of the vote tomorrow, the top two finishers will compete in a runoff on May 20. The frontrunners -- all Democrats -- are incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, and businessman Ron Forman, a former Republican. More than 20,400 people have cast ballots over five days of early in-person voting and weeks of mailed-in absentee ballots.  That's neither an impressive number for a city with 297,000 registered voters, post-Katrina, nor for a bloc of displaced voters estimated to be in the tens if not hundreds of thousands. Civil rights advocates argue that the evacuees, the vast majority of whom are African-American, were not given enough information and time to cast ballots; longtime political observers inside and outside Louisiana say that minority voters at least traditionally have been disinclined to vote absentee.  Anyone who hasn't yet voted but wishes to can do so tomorrow at a select number of polling precincts set up throughout New Orleans from 7:00 am ET until 9:00 pm ET.

Congress comes back next week, putting the war supplemental, immigration, extending the Bush tax cuts, and probably gas prices back on Washington's front burner. And in our weekly look at the great oh-eight race, we report on yesterday’s DNC meeting, where 11 states made their pitches to hold their presidential nominating contests either right after the Iowa caucuses or after the New Hampshire primary. What did these pitches say about the upcoming presidential race? And which states may be favored to grab one of these possible early slots on the calendar? See below.

It's the economy...
As Bush hits the Bay Area today, the San Francisco Chronicle says, “San Francisco's average price for a gallon of regular hit $3.03 Thursday, jumping more than 4 cents overnight. San Jose reached $3.01, according to the AAA auto club… The last time Californians faced these prices, a hurricane had just flooded Gulf Coast refineries and trashed a major American city.”

USA Today: "California on Thursday became the first state in the continental USA to see average gasoline prices go above $3 a gallon in 2006, while the price at the pump in Los Angeles hit an all-time high."

The New York Times front-pages how Democratic candidates across the country are seizing on the high gas prices and the populist anger at oil company profits. “Increasing gasoline prices have put Republicans on the defensive at a time when they are counting on the economy to help offset the myriad other problems they face, starting with the Iraq war. Republicans say they have spent years advocating policies that would reduce the reliance on imported oil, largely by promoting more domestic energy production, and they point to the energy bill that President Bush signed last August as a step in that direction.”

The Washington Post also covers the political blame game over soaring gas prices. "Major refiners say that the shortage of capacity in their industry has been years in the making and, because of the long time it takes to build refineries, will also be years in the fixing.”

The Democratic Senate campaign committee released data yesterday showing that GOP Sens. Conrad Burns, Rick Santorum, Jim Talent, George Allen, and John Kyl -- who are all facing competitive races -- have been among the largest recipients of oil and gas industry campaign contributions this year.

Treasury Secretary John Snow has a Washington Post op-ed previewing a high-profile economic conference in Washington this weekend (another reason to think he's staying put for now), making the case for a strong US economy, and noting that the Administration is on track to cut the deficit.

Disaster politics
Even if there isn't a runoff in Saturday’s New Orleans mayoral race, that might not bring the election to an end. Civil rights groups have been arguing for months that the city has not done enough to ensure that the voting process is fair and accessible to everyone, especially minorities.  Louisiana elections commissioner Angie LaPlace says that anyone who wants to challenge the validity of the results has nine days to file a lawsuit, after which the court must respond within four days. Any litigation will have to be addressed within one week of filing. Chris Wartelle, public information officer for the Louisiana Department of Justice, says her group will attempt to resolve any fraud complaints filed after the election.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune writes up the last mayoral debate between the top seven hopefuls. "After six weeks of trudging the political trail, their answers broke no new ground, and the rigid format left little opportunity for the personal attacks that have punctuated previous meetings."

"With polls opening in New Orleans tomorrow morning, efforts to bus thousands of displaced African-American voters from Atlanta, Houston and other southern cities back to their hometown appear to be faltering -- a development that could hurt incumbent Ray Nagin in a tightly contested mayoral race," says the Wall Street Journal. "If Mr. Nagin fails" to make the runoff, "the margin of defeat may be found in the missing votes of those who were too consumed with piecing their lives together elsewhere to make the trek back to New Orleans."

Hu
The news coverage varies a bit on how tough Bush was on Chinese President Hu, but the Administration did downplay expectations for the meeting. Observing that Bush "raised no new demands for quick Chinese action to resolve differences over trade, currency and human rights -- and he got no promises," Bloomberg says Hu "got what he wanted out of his meeting with his U.S. counterpart, George W. Bush: the respect due a full-fledged power on the world stage.  What Bush gained may not be known for months or even years."

The Washington Times says "there was little to show for the daylong talks... Perhaps the biggest achievement of the day was an assurance by Mr. Hu to work to make the Chinese currency more 'flexible'... Afterward, U.S. officials deemed the effort 'disappointing.'"

The Wall Street Journal points out that Hu "spent far more time during his American visit this week with business executives than with policy makers." On the Bush-Hu meeting yesterday: "Both leaders came into yesterday's summit... facing big political challenges at home... But the Chinese and American leaders entered the meeting with different approaches -- with Mr. Hu apparently feeling the need to take a mollifying tone with the U.S. and Mr. Bush facing pressure to take a tough line with China."

The AP says the newspaper that sent the woman who protested at yesterday’s White House event didn't expect her protest. "Stephen Gregory, a spokesman for the Falun Gong-affiliated newspaper The Epoch Times, later identified the protester as Dr. Wang Wenyi, a pathologist and Falun Gong practitioner based in New York. She had received a press credential through the newspaper, Gregory said... 'We expected her to act as a reporter; we didn’t expect her to protest. None of us had any idea that Dr. Wang was planning this,' he said."

More Bush/GOP agenda
The San Jose Mercury News writes about today’s Bush-Schwarzenegger events. “Schwarzenegger is expected to meet the president when he touches down in the Bay Area. The governor will ride with Bush in the presidential motorcade to Cisco Systems in San Jose, where they will appear together. There, Bush plans to discuss his American Competitiveness Initiative with a handful of Silicon Valley executives, including host Cisco CEO John Chambers. The governor, in turn, will lobby Bush for more federal funding” for California’s levee system.

The Sacramento Bee previews Bush’s Earth Day remarks at the California Fuel Cell Partnership in West Sacramento. “Neither local elected officials nor members of the public have been invited to attend the event. The California Fuel Cell Partnership is inviting only representatives of its member companies. ‘It's going to be a very controlled event,’ said Yolo County Supervisor Mike McGowan.”

Is Harriet Miers next? The New York Times writes that, per an influential GOPer with ties to new chief of staff Josh Bolten, Bolten “has raised the possibility of moving … Miers from her job as President Bush's counsel as part of a continuing shake-up of the West Wing.” But it “was unclear whether he would follow through or if the move would be acceptable to Mr. Bush, who has a longtime personal bond with Ms. Miers.”

The New York Times also reports that the Food and Drug Administration said yesterday that “‘no sound scientific studies’” support the use of medical marijuana, “contradicting a 1999 review by a panel of highly regarded scientists. The announcement inserts the health agency into yet another fierce political fight.”

"With the May 15 enrollment deadline for the new Medicare prescription-drug benefit approaching, private insurers and the government are making a last-ditch push to sign people up and declare the venture a success," says the Wall Street Journal in rounding up the winners and losers among business and seniors. "New government enrollment data released yesterday show that, as of April 18, nearly 20 million people are enrolled in Medicare drug plans. Another 6.8 million are in retiree plans getting a subsidy for drugs from Medicare. More than 10 million Medicare beneficiaries have drug coverage from other sources, such as former employers and benefits programs for veterans and Native Americans... That leaves roughly six million people who are eligible for drug coverage but so far haven't signed up."

Groups and individuals supporting a guest-worker plan and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants held a press conference yesterday to argue that polling data in the immigration debate has been consistent: Most Americans view immigration as a serious issue, want secure borders, and favor any plan that would allow illegal immigrants to earn citizenship. In addition, they pointed to a new Gallup poll showing immigration as the second-most important issue facing the country, behind the war in Iraq.

The midterms
The CW in Washington is that Democrats have a better shot at winning back the House than the Senate. Yet the fact that the Democratic Senate campaign committee continues to outraise its GOP counterpart has to count for something. The Washington Post, in covering the latest fundraising data from the various campaign committees, notes that Sen. Elizabeth Dole was tapped to chair the Republicans' Senate campaign committee "in part because of her reputation as a fundraiser." "Equally significant," the Post says, is that Democrats have the same amount in the bank as their GOP counterparts on the House side.

Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman heads to Charlotte, NC for a fundraiser this afternoon, while Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean continues to oversee his party’s spring meeting in New Orleans.

The Washington Times covers Democrats' seemingly wide lead over Republicans in the generic congressional ballot test, noting that when screened to likely voters, the lead can narrow.

In his weekly National Journal column, Charlie Cook looks at voter intensity in the upcoming midterms, and he notes that there are many more people now who strongly disapprove of Bush’s performance versus those who strongly approve. And he writes that findings “indicate that disapproval of a president is a much stronger driver of voters’ midterm election decisions than approval is. And intensity -- whether intense approval or intense disapproval -- matters a great deal.”

Bloomberg says New York Democrats Spitzer and Hillary Clinton and Eliot Spitzer are running so strong that they may help Democrats pick up as many as six congressional seats in the state.

With its state primary less than two weeks away, the New York Times reports on the gubernatorial race in OHIO, where both the Democratic and Republican candidates “are jockeying for the mantle of reform.”

Oh-eight (D)
Yesterday in New Orleans, an influential group of Democratic National Committee members heard from 11 states hoping to win the DNC's approval to hold one of the party's earliest presidential nominating contests in 2008. Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, South Carolina, and West Virginia all submitted applications -- Hawaii's came late -- to the DNC rules and bylaws panel. The DNC's intent is to give a more geographically and demographically diverse electorate an early say over the selection of the party's nominee by scheduling one or two more caucuses shortly after Iowa's and one or two primaries shortly after New Hampshire's. But what the pitches by the 11 states really showed was how the calculus for choosing the strongest possible presidential nominee has changed in recent years.

In appealing to the DNC for one of the expected early slots, many states touted their sizable populations of African-Americans, seniors, and industrial labor union members, to whom Democratic presidential candidates traditionally have appealed. But they focused as much if not more on voting blocs, attributes and issues that have only recently become important to the process: Latinos and veterans, "red-state" status, a commitment to faith and values, and concerns about immigration and national security. Mississippi noted its tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Nevada hyped its Mormon and Jewish populations.

West Virginia Democratic party executive director Tom Vogel summed up the two points of the process in making his pitch for his state: "We have to have the best candidate," i.e., one who can win red states like his. But later on, when asked about the diversity of West Virginia's population, he abashedly conceded, "The bottom line is, we're white."

DNC rules committee members, some of whom were looking out for their own home states, sat through nearly four hours of presentations, occasionally seeking to put applicants on the spot. The party chair from New Hampshire, who feels her state's primary is being threatened by this plan, pointed out to the advocate for Michigan, who has been agitating for such changes to the calendar, that voter enthusiasm seemed low for Michigan's nominating contest in 2004. Reps from Nevada got tough questions about whether the party's candidates should have to face questions about their position on gaming.

Some of the questions clearly showed the rules panel members had the general election on their minds. The governor of Arizona, making her pitch for her state via speakerphone, was asked if she thinks a Democrat could still win her state if Sen. John McCain is the GOP nominee. "We have a long way to go before that's settled," she quickly said, but then conceded that "no doubt" McCain would be a favorite son. Arkansas reps faced similar questions about the possibility of Gov. Mike Huckabee becoming the Republican nominee. At the same time, some of the advocates were frank about why they believe their states would give the candidates a better vetting than Iowa or New Hampshire. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D), pitching her home state of Arkansas, noted how "values" are more important to Southern voters.

A source intimately involved in the process, who is familiar with the committee members' thinking, tells First Read that the "main competitors" among the Southern states are Alabama and South Carolina, and that some states like the District of Columbia and West Virginia have less of a shot than the others. Hawaii, whose pitch was a last-minute add to the schedule, was treated as seriously as the others -- almost. When the state party chair greeted rules panel members with "Aloha," there was a resounding response of "Aloha," and one question to him was about the weather in Hawaii in January.

Not addressed at the meeting was the other piece of the calendar puzzle these DNC members are trying to put together: a process for rewarding states who choose to hold their nominating contests later in the year, to keep the calendar from becoming top-heavy.  Committee co-chair Jim Roosevelt, Jr. said that subject would be dealt with at a future meeting.

Per the wires, add Sen. John Kerry (D) to the list of those who are saying they're seriously considering a run for president in 2008 and will decide late this year -- a list which includes his 2004 running mate, former Sen. John Edwards (D), along with Sen. John McCain (R). And speaking of Edwards, he will be in Philadelphia today at 1:00 pm to raise money for Democratic Rep. Chaka Fattah.

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