“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.

• Tuesday, May 2, 2006 | 12:30 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

Ohio primary key to Dems
As we mentioned earlier today, one of the key primaries to watch in Ohio today is the Democratic contest for the congressional seat being abandoned by Rep. Ted Strickland (D), who's running for governor. In this race, establishment favorite Charlie Wilson (D) is trying to win the nomination as a write-in candidate because he amazingly failed to secure the 50 valid signatures needed to get on the ballot. And experts say that if Wilson isn't able to defeat his lesser-known Democratic opponents, that gives the GOP an almost sure shot of winning this seat -- making the Dems' chances of winning back the House even more difficult.

But Democrats are working hard to ensure that Wilson wins the primary. And even organized labor has gotten into the act. AFL-CIO spokesperson Steve Smith says that Wilson will need about 20,000 to 25,000 votes to win the primary, and he believes that the 48,000 union members residing in the district will push him across the finish line. "The workers in the district have really stepped it up for Charlie," Smith tells First Read, noting that union members have made more than 100,000 phone calls in the last 10 days and distributed about 35,000 leaflets to help Wilson's cause. Yet winning the primary is just the first of Wilson's challenges: In the general election, he would likely face Chuck Blasdel, a top-tier GOP candidate.

• Tuesday, May 2, 2006 | 9:10 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Holly Phillips

First glance
President Bush currently has no public schedule for today, but NBC's Mike Viqueira reports that the "Big Five" GOP leaders from the Senate and House will head to the White House at 1:45 pm for a meeting with the President, after which they will be joined by Senate Finance chair Charles Grassley and House Ways and Means chair Bill Thomas to talk about tax cuts.  GOP leaders are closing in on a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts on capital gains, which they hope will become part of a package of tax cuts, earmark reforms, and anti-spending rhetoric that will help them retain their majorities in November.

The party continues to struggle over earmarks as Republican appropriators and some rank-and-file members see the targeted spending projects as a means to gain favor in their states and districts, while the White House, Hill GOP leaders and conservatives see cutting spending as a way to rally the base.  Viq reports that the House GOP leadership's lobbying/earmark reform bill is likely though not certain to pass this week.  At the same time, the Senate is expected to pass a pork-laden emergency supplemental, with the pork expected to get stripped off the bill in conference committee.

Even Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's proposed $100 gas tax rebate may have fallen victim to the tug of war over spending.  Frist plans to pull the measure which would have funded most of the rebate.  Not only did the industry slam it, but as one Senate GOP leadership aide suggests, the plan was "met with skepticism and disapproval from the chamber’s conservatives, who see this as another example of government getting bigger and spending more, rather than getting smaller and spending less."

In a rare show of bipartisanship today, lawmakers from both sides will gather for a 3:45 pm press conference to announce their support for the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act.  (Viq advises that this event will be the first test of the stability of the new Capitol Visitors Center, on top of which the event will be held, with everyone hoping it doesn't collapse.)

And it's primary day in Ohio, the battleground state which decided the 2004 presidential election and which could play an equally determinative role in 2006.  As we've written here before, Democrats see Ohio -- with its competitive races for governor, Senate, and the House -- as a political goldmine because of the scandals plaguing the state GOP and Bush's sinking poll numbers.  At the same time, recruiting failures and other snafus may complicate their ability to net a bunch of seats.  Success in the Buckeye State is a must for Democrats hoping to regain the majority because of the relatively small pool of competitive House races and their need to run the table among competitive Senate races in order to rack up the number they need.

With the Senate race virtually set between vulnerable incumbent Mike DeWine (R) and Rep. Sherrod Brown (D), the marquee contest today is the gubernatorial primary between Republicans Ken Blackwell and Jim Petro.  Blackwell, who attracted attention and controversy in his role as Ohio's elections chief in 2004, is seen as the frontrunner.  But there are concerns that his conservative views and the tough environment for Republicans in the state would put him at a disadvantage in a general election against likely Democratic nominee Ted Strickland.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report expects at least four of the state's House seats to be competitive in November.  In one of them, Joe Sulzer and Zack Space are battling for the Democratic nomination to compete against vulnerable Rep. Bob Ney (R), who has been linked to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.  The nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report calls this seat the "best Democratic opportunity in the nation."  Assuming Ney is the GOP nominee, that is, since there's been talk that he might drop out of the race after winning the primary, which would allow Ohio Republicans to tap a cleaner, stronger candidate.

One of the strangest House primaries in the country is occurring in the district Strickland is vacating to run for governor.  Charlie Wilson is the Establishment favorite in the Democratic field, yet he failed to obtain the 50 valid signatures needed to get on the primary ballot.  The Democratic House campaign committee has been airing ads to help Wilson win his primary as a write-in candidate.  "Even if he does get on the ballot, he will be a seriously damaged candidate," argues Carl Forti of the Republican House campaign committee.  Whichever Democrat wins this primary will likely face Chuck Blasdel, a top-tier GOP candidate.

Two more House races expected to be competitive in November, involving GOP incumbents Steve Chabot and Deborah Pryce, are already set; First Lady Laura Bush is headlining a fundraiser for Pryce at 12 noon today in Columbus.  But three other primaries are worth mentioning: the crowdedDemocratic race for Brown's seat; the similarly crowded GOP field vying to replace retiring Rep. Mike Oxley (R); and the GOP primary between Rep. Jean Schmidt and former Rep. Bob McEwen.  As you'll recall, Schmidt nearly lost this district in an August 2005 special election against Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett (D), then famously suggested on the House floor that Rep. John Murtha (D), a former Marine and one of Democrats' most respected voices on military matters, was a coward for calling for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

Polls in Ohio open at 6:30 am ET and close at 7:30 pm ET.  It's also primary day in Indiana and North Carolina, but neither state is hosting any notable primaries at the congressional level.  Political junkies out there will note that polling places in Indiana, which finally made a complete switch to Daylight Saving Time, open at 6:00 am ET and close at 6:00 pm ET in most parts of the state; polls in the few parts of the state stuck in Central Time open at 7:00 am ET and close at 7:00 pm ET.

The immigration debate
The AP estimates that over 1 million took part in yesterday's boycott.

The economic impact of it may be difficult to assess, but the Wall Street Journal says it "was damped by advance planning at businesses where it was clear there would be a one-day worker shortage...  Overall, the effect was mostly symbolic."

Now that they've flexed their muscle, the Los Angeles Times writes, "the urgent question immigrants and their supporters face is how to translate the passion of the streets into lasting political gains.  In coming months, immigrant rights organizers say, they will shift their energy into making a difference at the polls through registering voters, helping legal immigrants become citizens and getting out the vote in June primary elections around the nation."

Tomorrow, the Minutemen Project, which advocates tighter immigration controls, will kick off a coast-to-coast caravan in Los Angeles; it's expected to wrap up in Washington on May 12.

It's the economy...
Continuing the Administration's full-court press to emphasize the upsides of the US economy for Americans fixated on the downside of gas prices, Edward Lazear, the new chair of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, gives an address on "The Economy" at the think-tank The Hudson Institute in Washington at 2:30 pm.

CNBC's Maria Bartiromo sent the markets into a slide yesterday with her on-air recounting of her White House Correspondents Association dinner conversation with Fed chair Ben Bernanke in which, she said, Bernanke told her that the markets and the media misinterpreted his testimony before Congress last Thursday.  The CW after his testimony was that Bernanke suggested that the Fed is finished raising interest rates.  Per Bartiromo, Bernanke told her they got it wrong -- "that all he and his Federal Open Market Committee members were trying to do is create come flexibility, saying the Fed may pause but the data will dictate whether more rate hikes will occur at future meetings."

House and Senate Democrats hold an 11:30 am press conference to release "a joint House and Senate Democratic report on failed Bush Administration energy policies," per the release.

NBC's Viq reports that House Republican leaders have let endangered Rep. Heather Wilson (R) sponsor a bill that would put some teeth in the Federal Trade Commission's ability to investigate and punish those found guilty of gas price-gouging.  Viq says there also will be another House GOP bill designed to encourage refining capacity, and tomorrow there will be a hearing about the prospect of "giving" the Administration the authority to raise CAFE standards for passenger cars.

Recently released reports by state governments "show that it is hard for authorities to prove consumers are being" gouged, says USA Today.

White House names and faces
Incoming White House press secretary Tony Snow isn't scheduled to start work until next week, but showed up yesterday morning for outgoing spokesperson Scott McClellan's press gaggle, the off-camera huddle McClellan does with the press corps that's quicker and dirtier than the mid-day, formal on-camera briefing.  Snow sat off to one side and observed the room, NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.

Entitlement politics
The Social Security and Medicare trustees report released yesterday shows that "the trust fund for the health insurance system for the elderly will run out of money in 2018 -- two years sooner than predicted a year ago and 12 years sooner than had been anticipated when President Bush first took office.  The problem, the report says, has accelerated largely because hospital costs last year were greater than expected."  The story notes that the "report -- released a month after its due date -- did not produce any surge of momentum.  The chairman and the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee are griping that the White House has diminished the role of independent experts in preparing the trustees' report, by failing to appoint replacements for the public trustees." – Washington Post

The Chicago Tribune: “Even with the projected deterioration, both programs remain such political footballs that bipartisan cooperation and compromise seem further away than ever.  No action is expected until after the 2008 elections, if then.”

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
The new Gallup poll has Bush's job approval rating at a new low for that survey, 34%, and a 15-point advantage for Democrats on which party registered voters would prefer to have in control of Congress.  Republicans point to the 59% who say their own member of Congress deserves to be re-elected, though "that's the lowest percentage" in the survey "since 1994, when Republicans won control of Congress from the Democrats."  Poll results

As we've written here before, Republican leaders appear to have decided that fiscal discipline is a way to rally the base for November.  Roll Call reports that "GOP Senators and aides said that to make their case, the majority will spend the coming months holding numerous press events on federal spending, the budget and earmarks.  Republicans also plan to push for Senate passage of a line-item veto and possibly revisit the issue of a two-year appropriations process."

Aides to House Majority Leader John Boehner are holding weekly meetings with staffers of vulnerable GOP members.  "With limited days remaining on the legislative calendar and an increasingly difficult political dynamic in the House itself, Republican leaders must be more selective in the bills they choose to bring to the floor.  They are still struggling to pass lobbying reform... and were forced to pull the budget early last month when it was clear they lacked the votes necessary to pass it." The Hill

The Washington Post profiles chief House appropriator Jerry Lewis and his battle against the party leadership and the White House over earmarks.

In a profile of Senate Judiciary chair Arlen Specter, Bloomberg quotes Specter on his pursuit of more information about the controversial NSA domestic wiretapping program: "'The party needs somebody to stand up to the president...   I do that, by the way, in a very respectful way.'"

After Sunday's Boston Globe reported that Bush has issued more than 750 signing statements which allow him to "ignore laws that conflict with his interpretation of the Constitution," the paper is reporting criticism from Democratic Sens. Harry Reid, Ted Kennedy, and Patrick Leahy who are all "saying that the president's legal theories are wrong and that he must obey the law."

Disaster politics
The New York Times covers last night’s debate between Mayor Ray Nagin and challenger Mitch Landrieu.  Landrieu “said New Orleans had been ‘crippled nationally’ because Mr. Nagin's outbursts had lost him ‘credibility’ in the eyes of decision-makers elsewhere.  Mr. Nagin portrayed his opponent as too tied to his famous political family - Mr. Landrieu's sister is a United States Senator and his father was the last white mayor of New Orleans - and to what he called ‘the politics of the past.’”

Nagin snubbed Landrieu at the opening of a new aquarium earlier in the day.  As Landrieu was getting ready to make remarks at the event, "Nagin strode into the room.  The mayor walked down the line shaking hands with tourism officials, then skipped over Landrieu." New Orleans Times-Picayune

Ethics
Per the AP, "The Secret Service has agreed to turn over White House visitor logs that will show how often convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff met with Bush administration officials - and with whom he met...  The visitor logs are to be delivered to Judicial Watch," which sued to obtain them, "by May 10."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi yesterday wrote Speaker Dennis Hastert asking him to sign onto her letter to the Ethics Committee requesting an investigation of the allegations reported by the Wall Street Journal surrounding former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R), prostitutes, and possibly other members of Congress, Viq reports.

Outgoing Rep. Tom DeLay (R) "has now shelled out $1.3 million in legal fees in less than two years," per Roll Call.  "Aides to DeLay said no final decision had been made with regard to how the lawmaker will finance his mounting legal bills once he retires from the House...  But the simplest course would be to continue to raise money through a privatized version of the Tom DeLay Legal Expense Trust and raise unlimited donations without having to publicly report who the donors are."  Or, he could "pay future attorneys’ fees with the leftover campaign cash from his re-election committee."  The story notes that "DeLay is just one of four lawmakers to have defense funds that are actively raising money to pay legal bills."  The other three are Republican Bob Ney and Democrats Jim McDermott and Bill Jefferson.

The midterms
Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman today addresses the American Jewish Committee’s 100th Annual Conference Luncheon; DNC chair Howard Dean addressed the group tomorrow.

In Alabama, the federal bribery and racketeering trial of former Gov. Donald Siegelman (D) -- who’s running for governor again this year -- began yesterday, the New York Times says.  “Federal prosecutors have accused Mr. Siegelman and two others… of taking bribes from contractors in exchange for influence in awarding state contracts,” while Siegelman charges that case against him has been orchestrated by incumbent Gov. Bob Riley (R).  Siegelman hopes the trial will be finished by June 6, the date of his primary against Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley (D). – New York Times

A recent chair of the Florida GOP is urging Rep. Katherine Harris to "quit her U.S. Senate campaign 'for the good of her party,'" as a "watchdog group called Monday for a federal investigation into whether she sought a $10 million government deal for a defense contractor in exchange for campaign donations," reports the Miami Herald.

Rudy Giuliani was in Iowa yesterday campaigning for gubernatorial candidate Jim Nussle (R), and the New York Daily News says Giuliani sounded and looked like someone who might be running for president.

The New York Times shines its spotlight on the Senate race in Nebraska, observing that the GOP challengers to Sen. Ben Nelson (D) are doing what once would be considered unthinkable: campaigning against all of the pet projects and pork Nelson has brought back to the state.  “And so, in a reversal of tactics, challengers here and in other states like Montana, Ohio and Rhode Island are telling voters what the incumbents have brought home, in the hopes, it seems, that the national controversy over the pet projects known as earmarks has come home, too.”

The Cleveland Plain Dealer previews today’s primary contests in OHIO: “The Ohio secretary of state's office estimates that 25 percent of the state's 7.7 million voters will go to the polls today in the state's 11,300 precincts.  Four years ago, only 19 percent of those eligible voted in the primary…  Rain is in today's forecast.”

And independent gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn of Texas turned in 115,000 signatures yesterday (she only needed 45,540) to get her name on the ballot.  Strayhorn says, though, that "Secretary of State Roger Williams... is hurting her campaign by refusing to accept signatures as they are gathered and by certifying every signature rather than following the past practice of using a statistical sample."  Williams, who was appointed by GOP Gov. Rick Perry, denies those charges.

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