“First Read” is a daily memo prepared by NBC News’ political unit, for NBC News, analyzing the morning’s political news. Please let us know what you think. Drop us a note at FirstRead@MSNBC.com.

Monday, December 13, 2004 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

First glance
What a difference four years and incumbency make.  You have to dig through local news to find stories on the electors gathering in every state and in DC today in stage one of the two-stage process by which President Bush officially secures his second term.  On January 6, Vice President Cheney will preside over the joint session of Congress at which the electoral votes are counted. 

  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

Coincidentally, the Ohio recount requested by the Green and Libertarian parties begins this week, and the Ohio papers say party activists plan to protest outside the electors' 12 noon meeting in Columbus today.

In suddenly chilly, holiday-happy DC, insiders play parlor games:

1) Kerik fallout.  Kerik's withdrawal as the President's nominee to head DHS has caused a speed bump in the White House's fast-paced but otherwise orderly reshuffling of the Cabinet.  Whereas all involved probably hoped the process -- which began late Friday night after the evening news -- would have ended by this morning, it turns out that Kerik had more than just a nanny problem.  After Bush praised Kerik to the skies repeatedly on the campaign trail, now the White House is squarely putting the blame on him and Giuliani's on the run.

2) The still-developing race for DNC chair, which had Howard Dean on his best behavior on Meet the Press, praising Terry McAuliffe and not praising MoveOn.org.  On one level, the race for chair is a battle over the direction of the party following their 2004 losses, but on another level it's basically a race to run the PTA. 

The range of ideological leanings, skills and styles of the possible candidates fuels the notion that the February election will be the Democratic Party's first pushpin in its roadmap toward 2008.  But equally important to bear in mind for anyone trying to track this race day by day (and for the party's congressional leadership, who seem to think they have a real say in the outcome) is that it has as much to do with the fickleness of the 400-plus DNC members who make up the electorate, and with the egos of the eight or so possible candidates, as anything else. 

The field remains amorphous because many of the possible candidates won't run if they don't think they can win.  And the ultimate choice by the DNC members could be as much about who strokes them best as it is about the direction they think the party should take.  For journalists covering the race, it's tough to find sources who don't have their own agendas, and for the candidates themselves, they may be counting on commitments of support from members who ultimately won't give it.

3) Timetable on a SCOTUS shuffle.  Speculation builds about an "imminent" Rehnquist retirement among those interest groups lined up to oppose a Bush SCOTUS nominee and/or a Bush elevation of Scalia to chief justice -- even as Rehnquist's assertion that he will swear in Bush on January 20 would seem to put a temporary lid on any changes to the Court. 

President Bush has no public events scheduled for today; McClellan gaggles at 9:45 am and briefs at 12:30 pm.  The White House begins its two-day economic summit on Wednesday.

Other countries' elections
The Army Times has a top US officer in the region asserting that the province which includes Fallujah "can be brought into" the planned January 30 election.

Following the announcement by Austrian doctors that reformist presidential candidate Yushchenko had indeed ingested dioxin, "the Ukrainian prosecutor-general's office announced Sunday that it had reopened an investigation into allegations that...Yushchenko was poisoned..." -- Los Angeles Times

And the AP adds that the parliament re-opened its investigation today. 

Reuters says the withdrawal of "jailed Palestinian uprising leader" Marwan Barghouti from the January 9 presidential election to succeed Arafat "clears the way for an easy victory by new PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas - a veteran Palestinian leader known for his moderate views and seen by Israel and the United States as a peacemaker capable of renewing negotiations."

And in Romania yesterday, both presidential candidates declared victory. - USA Today

Kerik and Bush II
USA Today says of Kerik's withdrawal, "The controversy was a stumble by and an embarrassment for the administration, which has been moving sure-footedly toward setting the stage for President Bush's second term.  Since his re-election last month, Bush has announced that nine Cabinet members were resigning and six others staying on.  He has nominees for every opening except a new secretary for Health and Human Services and, now, Homeland Security."

The Washington Times rounds up the Sunday talk-show verdicts on Kerik.

And the New York Times speculates on whether the botched Kerik nomination has now strained ties between the White House and Giuliani.

The Wall Street Journal depicts the White House as "scrambling to find a Homeland Security secretary with management experience and national stature to fill the void...  But few qualified contenders want the job, according to administration insiders, senior Republicans and top officials inside the Department of Homeland Security."  On the list: Lieberman, Hutchinson, Hagin, Allbaugh, and Fragos Townsend.

On the HHS slot, the Journal adds, "Mark McClellan, who heads the agency that runs Medicare and Medicaid, has been mentioned for months as the top candidate...  However, there has been some concern that moving Dr. McClellan out of his current role would disrupt his agency's work on the 2006 Medicare drug benefit.  That has prompted talk that Claude Allen, deputy secretary at HHS, could move up to the top job, at least for a year or two."

SCOTUS politics
The Washington Post says Senate Republicans may resort to the "nuclear option" to confirm a Bush SCOTUS nominee with just 51 votes, instead of the 60 required to end a filibuster.  The story notes, "White House officials are willing to say little about their Supreme Court strategy...  But several lawyers and former administration officials who have discussed the issue with West Wing aides said they see indications that Bush is headed toward nominating what one called a 'strong ideological conservative' rather than accommodating Democrats with a choice who would be confirmed with little controversy."

Business and the Bush agenda
The Washington Times anticipates Bush's naming of his tax reform panel which, it notes in comparison to the 2001 Social Security panel, "will have a shorter time span for its deliberations - no later than sometime next summer."  "Mr. Bush's plan to reform the tax system has triggered a wave of anxiety among many business leaders, who fear they will be the losers in a revenue-neutral overhaul that would be offset by ending long-favored corporate tax breaks."

The Washington Post reports on a top business trade association exec's gloomy forecast for his colleagues: "Despite the Republicans' impressive victories on Election Day, the corporate agenda won't be easy to get through Congress.  What the House giveth, the Senate will taketh away."

Among the obstacles to "the economic legislation that business lobbyists care most about:" the fact that "Americans don't care as deeply as they once did about pocketbook issues," and "the federal budget deficit."

And Roll Call notes some coyness on Wall Street over Bush's proposal to reform Social Security, noting that "Wall Street lobbyists seem to be wary of a public relations backlash if they get too conspicuously involved in the debate.  The fear, apparently, is that Wall Street will look greedy if it leads the push to reform Social Security."

USA Today says that when the Fed meets tomorrow, "one issue that likely will be discussed is how the dollar's decline is affecting the U.S. economy."

DNC chair/Democrats' post-mortem
Knight Ridder says of the eight possible DNC chair candidates who addressed the party's state chairs meeting on Saturday, "All eight vowed to work more closely with state party organizations and send more campaign money to the states.  Most also promised to shun Washington-based advice in favor of listening more to Democrats from around the country."

The Washington Times covers Dean on Meet the Press yesterday.

Outgoing Senator Daschle, who lost in a red state, doesn't think Democrats need to move to the right: Washignton Post and New York Times.

The AP reviews how much the Democratic 527 groups raised for the 2004 campaign and how they spent that money in a story pointing out that "[w]hatever the reasons John F. Kerry and the Democrats lost the race for the White House, money wasn't one."

You know we've hit the doldrums when political columnists take to reviewing each others' articles.  At the bottom of the Los Angeles Times' Brownstein's critique of the latest New Republic cover story is this: "Until Democrats have a president who can fight the war on terrorism in a manner the party broadly supports, their message on national security will remain heavily negative - and splintered.  Without the White House, Democrats are more likely to fight with each other than coalesce behind a 'fighting faith' for the long struggle against Islamic radicalism."

The values debate
The New York Times front-pages efforts by Christian conservatives, after their victories in 2004, to push ahead with their agendas on state and local issues.  “In Texas, conservative Christians are backing an amendment to prevent human cloning, a measure that would also block the kind of cloning used in embryonic stem-cell research.  In Georgia, advocacy groups hope to win approval this year of two measures limiting abortion, after redistricting helped Republicans take control of the state legislature.  In Kansas, conservatives have won a majority on the State Board of Education, which is expected to introduce changes this spring to the high school science curriculum challenging the theory of evolution.  And in Maryland, some black churches have joined with a white Republican state delegate to push for a ban on same-sex marriage.”

January 20
The New York Times examines the huge effort to provide security during the inauguration: "...the inaugural events will be the first in decades to be held in wartime and the first since the terrorist attacks of 2001.  They will take place at buildings that symbolize American democracy, and hundreds of thousands of people are expected to attend, including the highest-ranking government officials, other prominent Americans and dignitaries from around the world.  It is hard to imagine, say security experts, a bigger target for terrorists.”

2004
Electors in Massachusetts will meet at 3:00 pm today to cast their ballots for Kerry. - Boston Herald

The Cincinnati Enquirer says electors in Ohio will meet at 12 noon.  "The Kerry campaign says Bush won Ohio.  Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe says Bush won Ohio.  The Democrats who serve on the county boards of elections say Bush won Ohio.  What are the chances of Bush's 119,000-vote victory, which puts him over the top in the Electoral College vote, being overturned?  'None,' said Carlo LaParo, spokesman for Secretary of State Ken Blackwell."

The Cleveland Plain Dealer explains why: "The recount... will not restore votes lost because of problems such as the shortage of machines that created long lines in some counties.  It also will not fix complaints about how provisional ballots - given to voters whose names do not appear on voter-registration lists - were handled by poll workers and how they were counted."

But: "Even though the recount won't make a difference this time, it could in future presidential races. That's why legal experts are calling for Ohio legislators to change state law and force recounts to be completed before the Electoral College meets."

The AP says, "The Electoral College's vote in the Ohio Senate chamber is expected to be accompanied by demonstrations outside the Capitol sponsored by groups who do not accept that President Bush won the key swing state by 119,000 votes...  Led by a coalition representing the Green and Libertarian parties, the dissidents are paying for recounts in each of Ohio's 88 counties that will begin this week.  The recount is not expected to be completed until next week."

The Kerry campaign sent a letter to the Ohio board of elections over the weekend making 11 recount-related requests. - AP

Today in Washington state, the state Supreme Court hears arguments in Democrats' lawsuit seeking to compel counties to consider thousands of previously thrown-out ballots in the gubernatorial race between Dino Rossi (R) and Christine Gregoire (D).  As of Friday night, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that Rossi had picked up a net of 28 votes in the manual recount, increasing his lead over Gregoire to 70 votes.  “Gregoire's best hope of reversing Gov.-elect Dino Rossi's victory may be in King County, where the manual recount of 900,000 votes began yesterday under the close watch of dozens of observers.  ‘This isn't over until Dec. 23 when King County comes in.  It has a third of the vote,’ Gregoire said.”

2008
The AP says McCain's latching onto steroids and baseball "has revived Republican speculation about McCain and the 2008 presidential race." 

"McCain has not established a political action committee or latched onto the fund-raising circuit in early primary states.  Then again, he does not have to."  That said: "If McCain were to run, he would turn 72 on Aug. 29, 2008, at the height of the campaign.  Only President Reagan was older - 73 at the start of his second term.  McCain's health is another issue.  The senator has had several cancerous lesions removed from his skin."

Roll Call notes that much of Senate Majority Leader Frist's fall 2004 giving went to downballot candidates in Iowa and South Carolina.

The Washington Times says "Hillary Rodham Clinton is staking out a position on illegal immigration that is more conservative than President Bush," and points out, "With the vast majority of Americans in polls viewing illegal immigration as a serious problem, Mrs. Clinton... could make deep inroads in the conservative red states, especially those in the South that the Democrats have largely written off in recent presidential campaigns."

And the Des Moines Register reported this weekend on Kerry's return to Iowa on Friday to thank his supporters there.

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