“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.

Thursday, April 7, 2005 | 9:10 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
Over in Rome, President Bush met with the President of Italy earlier this morning.  He and Laura Bush attend a reception at the US embassy at 11:00 am ET, followed by dinner with the Prime Minister of Italy at 1:05 pm ET.

  1. Other political news of note
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      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

First Read devotes as much space to the intersection of politics, faith and values as anyone.  So a day when Presidents Bush, Bush and Clinton and 40 members of Congress are in Rome paying their respects might seem like an odd time for us to pivot to the US economy.  Except that according to the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the second-most watched story after Terri Schiavo over the last several weeks, up through April 3 (with the Pope close behind by then, of course), was gas prices.

Gas prices narrowly beat out Social Security as the second most-watched story by one point, 28% to 27%.  Cool, the White House might think about the fact that Americans are paying so much attention to Social Security.  But consider how much effort the White House is devoting to that issue, and how little they're expending on gas prices.  Psych, Democrats might think when they see the White House dropping the ball on this most basic of pocketbook issues.  But Democrats' only big move on energy lately has been to oppose oil drilling in ANWR.

Neither party is talking about a solution to an issue that hits home for key voting blocs like the middle class and blue-collar workers.  The party in power may bear more of the blame, but can point to energy legislation which they've tried to pass and Democrats, they would allege, have obstructed.  For Democrats, it's potentially another example of tunnel vision on Social Security and judges.

Gas prices, per NBC/Journal pollsters Peter Hart (D) and Bill McInturff (R), are also a reason behind an 8-point drop in the percentage of people saying the country is heading in the right direction, from 42% in February to 34% now.  And gas prices, says Hart, are also a big reason behind the President's lowest job approval rating on handling the economy -- 41% -- in our poll since last May.  This latest poll was conducted from March 31-April 3 of 1,002 adults, with a margin of error of +/-3.1%.

Hart notes, "There's really no difference between voters and non-voters" on Bush's rating on the economy -- but there is a difference between executives and blue-collar workers.  Self-IDed professionals and managers give Bush a rating of 38% approve, 57% disapprove.  Blue-collar workers give him an even rating of 46%-47%.  But McInturff sounds a note of caution over the fact that among those who rated gas prices as the news story they're following most closely, blue-collar voters accounted for 44%.  He points out "how important they are to Bush's coalition," and raises the prospect of what the issue "means for inflation and interest rates."

McInturff also points out that Bush's overall job approval rating -- 48%, down 2 points since February -- is actually quite steady, especially given everything that's been going on.  "There's a real core stability in his standing."

Both parties are guilty of being disingenuous about the energy issue, says nonpartisan analyst Charlie Cook.  Democrats act as though green measures such as solar and wind power, fuel cells, and conservation can solve the problem, but these measures either aren't sufficiently developed, or would hardly make a dent in the problem.  Republicans act as though drilling for oil in ANWR is the silver bullet, Cook says, but it wouldn't yield enough oil to solve the issue, and voters probably wouldn't want new drilling in parks or in sight of beaches.

Pontiff politics
The Washington Times reports on the US presidential delegation in Rome.

The Boston Globe examines the politics of religion between Republicans and Democrats in light of the Pope's death.  "[D]espite their policy differences with the pontiff, Democrats and Republicans alike are eager to claim John Paul's legacy as their own, appealing to a divided Catholic constituency that can swing elections."  The University of Akron's John Green says "that politicians' eagerness to show their affinity for the Vatican is a recent phenomenon...  Over the 40 years since the Kennedy presidency, public fears of Vatican influence have abated, in part because of greater assimilation of Catholics into US society..."

The Washington Post looks at the differences in Bush's and John Paul II's approaches toward fostering a "culture of life," noting that Bush "did have reservations" about setting a precedent by attending the Pope's funeral.

Whither the GOP
Our colleague John Harwood at the Journal lays out our new poll as showing how "a raft of economic and social issues -- Social Security, immigration, gay marriage and the recent national debate over Terri Schiavo -- is splintering the Republican base."  Pollster McInturff calls the Schiavo case "'a story that splits our party'...  A similar split on Social Security, he adds, will make it 'hard, but not impossible' for Mr. Bush to accomplish the centerpiece of his second-term agenda...  Divergent Republican opinions hardly preclude passage of Mr. Bush's initiatives...  Still, they help explain why the president has been unable to generate a groundswell of public pressure for issues such as Social Security overhaul, and why Republican lawmakers have struggled for consensus on taxes, spending and deficits in their budget debates."

Our friends at The Hotline host a conference on the political landscape this morning at the Watergate, featuring a panel discussion on the potential for Social Security to be a lasting campaign issue for 2006, along with discussions of whether the GOP has "solidified their base at the expense of the middle," and whether Democrats are "the permanent minority party."  The new Hotline poll conducted by Westhill Partners shows Bush's job approval on handling Social Security at 28% and Republicans' favorable-unfavorable rating at 42%-46%.  Democrats' fave-unfave is 53%-35%.

Whither the GOP: the House
In the new NBC/Journal poll, Congress gets a job approval rating of 39%, with a disapproval rating on 46%.  The disapproval rating is up 6% since January 2005, but Congress does tend to rate higher in public opinion when it's not in session or just back from long holidays, as they were in January.  For those looking for signs of the Democratic "drunk with power" argument sinking in, 39% approval is nowhere near the lows of the early 1990s.

Public opinion about DeLay in the poll registered at 17% positive and 24% negative, with 41% not knowing him or not sure -- just slightly more negative since January of this year.

The liberal Campaign for America's Future will begin running a new print ad today in the Washington Times saying that "once upon a time," conservatives had high standards, but now DeLay is their leader, per CAF spokesperson Toby Chaudhuri.  "Tom DeLay is destroying the conservative movement," he says.  "They must decide if they stand with DeLay or decency."

If the dynamic that House Republicans claim is in effect is indeed at work, which is that all the criticism of DeLay from liberal groups and Democratic members is actually bolstering his support among GOP ranks, then having CAF take after conservatives in the guise of taking up for them would probably expedite that process.

NBC's Mike Viqueira reports that Majority Whip Roy Blunt said yesterday that support for DeLay among the caucus remains strong as "more and more members see that he is taking arrows" on their behalf.  Blunt credited the negative publicity around DeLay to partisan attacks by Democrats who "don't have any ideas."  He also disputed the notion that the continuing drumbeat about DeLay's travels and associates is a distraction.  "The idea that we are obsessed with this is wrong," Blunt said as he fielded reporters questions at a news conference called to tout Republican legislative achievements so far this session.

Meanwhile, Viqueira says, Pelosi spoke yesterday of the "abuse of power" that DeLay and other Republicans have employed in running the House.

Roll Call says Blunt also "hinted... that GOP lawmakers may seek to retaliate against Democrats over the DeLay travel scandal, suggesting that similar scrutiny should be given to comparable trips taken by [Pelosi], her staff and other Democrats," and also reports on efforts by the GOP House campaign committee to bolster support for DeLay.

The AP: "Pelosi said Congress had been distracted at the same moment Blunt and other GOP leaders held a news conference to trumpet their accomplishments...  They claimed credit for bills to provide funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to provide relief to victims of the tsunami in Asia and to limit class-action lawsuits.  Among Republican priorities for the next eight weeks are a bill that would permanently repeal the estate tax, and a measure that would make it harder for consumers to shed debts in bankruptcy court.  Energy and welfare legislation also are on the list."

The New York Times, in covering how DeLay and his defenders lashed out at the press yesterday, accusing “liberal” papers of trying to bring him down, notes that "some lawmakers and Republicans, speaking privately for fear of antagonizing the leadership, said that there was some frustration with the mounting news accounts and that Mr. DeLay's standing was in danger of diminishing, particularly if there were some explosive new developments.”

Roll Call also reports, "Despite Democratic efforts over the past several election cycles to expand the House playing field, the results of the 2004 presidential election suggest that Republicans actually have more fertile ground for gains between now and the next round of redistricting."

Whither the GOP: the Senate
The problem for Senate Republicans in general, and for aspiring presidential contender Frist -- who may or may not have the votes -- in particular, is that leaders in the conservative community seem to be turning the nuclear option into a test.  Which raises this fact of life for those who hope to build a national base among social conservatives in the GOP: You either belong, or you must constantly prove your credentials.  The community is loyal to those it regards as its own -- look at the pass it quietly but continually gives Bush for not pushing hard for a federal ban on abortion or gay marriage -- but doesn't necessarily reward with lasting appreciation any individual efforts to win them over, including, potentially, Frist's efforts on Terri Schiavo.

The Hill reports that Santorum on Tuesday " reassured conservative activist leaders that [First] is committed to triggering the" nuclear option.  "Santorum met the leaders Tuesday to dispel growing anxiety among conservatives that Frist was wavering over what some Republicans call the 'constitutional' or 'Byrd' option...  The conservatives’ concern was also fueled by Frist’s efforts to negotiate with" Harry Reid.

In the new NBC/Journal poll, 50% said the Senate should maintain the filibuster for judicial nominations; 40% said the Senate should eliminate it.  This is virtually unchanged since February.

Like the NBC/Journal poll, the Washington Post also suggests that the internal split over the nuclear option "is causing tensions within the Republican Party."

A poll conducted for the DNC noted that “'Senate Republican leaders, whose party is now in the majority, want to change the rules to require only 51 votes to end a filibuster - thereby eliminating the current system of checks and balances on the majority party,'” before asking "whether voters approve or disapprove of 'allowing all of George W. Bush’s judicial nominees to get voted on by the Senate.'"  The response: 48% somewhat/strongly disapprove of such a move; 30% somewhat/strongly approve.  Roll Call also says, "The second question mirrors the first’s language but adds: 'Senate Democratic leaders have threatened to slow down or stop almost all but the most essential legislative business' should Republicans move to end judicial filibusters."  The result: 48% approve, 35% disapprove.

Public opinion about Frist in the poll registered at 15% positive and 14% negative, with 52% not knowing him or not sure -- not much change since January 2003.

On Monday night, Frist "will host a private tour of the Capitol... led by a controversial Republican religious operative," Texas GOP vice chair David Barton, "who advocates the impeachment of 'activist' federal judges," Roll Call reports.  Barton also leads "a movement whose goal is to highlight the influence of Christianity on the nation’s history as well as tear down the barrier that separates the church and state."  Remember that Frist rebuked DeLay for talking about retribution against the judiciary earlier this week.  But Frist "in a short interview Wednesday would not address Barton’s position on impeaching judges."

Some in the blogosphere whiffed on this one: That memo which circulated around the Senate outlining how Republicans could benefit from the Schiavo situation was in fact written by a staffer in freshman GOP Sen. Mel Martinez's office.  The staffer has since resigned.  The Washington Post front-pages the story.

The Judicial Conference of the United States yesterday sent a letter asking Congress "to provide more protection, including $12 million for security systems in most of their homes," the AP says.

Social Security
The Washington Post reports that both House Approps Republicans informally, and Rep. Henry Waxman (D) formally have requested government estimates of the cost of the Administration's 60-day tour.  Waxman also wants to know from the GAO "'whether the Bush Administration has crossed the line from education to propaganda.'"

The New York Times covers the Snow/Rove/etc. radio talk-shows tour yesterday to help sell Bush’s Social Security plan.  One conservative radio host told the Times his listeners didn’t need convincing.  “‘When you're talking to the converted, you are really trying to make them better messengers,’ he said during a break between broadcasts.  ‘It's reinforcing the choir.’”

The Washington Times says some House Republicans "want to continue educating the public about the problem and others want to move more aggressively toward legislation."

An e-mail from RNC chairman Ken Mehlman to supporters says of the congressional town halls held over the recess, "These meetings left one clear impression -- Americans want Congress to work together to strengthen Social Security for future generations."  Among other points emphasized in the message, like polls showing "an increasing number of Americans understand the problems confronting Social Security because of the President's and Republican Congress' leadership on the issue," Mehlman adds, "President Bush has said he will not change benefits for Americans born before 1950."

More on the values debate
While a bill allowing civil unions for same-sex couples was expected to pass in the Connecticut Senate yesterday, the Hartford Courant says it passed "[w]ith surprising ease" as "[h]alf the Senate's 12 Republicans and all but three of its 24 Democrats voted for the measure."  The bill will head to the state House next week where, the article says, there are enough votes for its passage.

At the request of Arlen Specter, NIH officials yesterday broke "with a tradition of deference to top administration officials" and "went public... with their distaste for federal restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research."  - Washington Post

The Los Angeles Times looks at how "the Republican push in Congress to legislate on end-of-life issues appears to have stalled, at least temporarily...  The apparent lack of direction among Republicans contrasts with their dramatic intervention in the Schiavo controversy less than three weeks ago."  The story points out, "At this point, Democrats, many of whom opposed the congressional intervention, appear to have more interest in using the Schiavo case to promote legislation."

Senator Clinton, who is also out front on living wills, is one of two Democratic Senators to say they will "put a hold on President Bush's nominee to lead the [FDA] until the agency decides whether to allow the emergency contraceptive Plan B to be sold without a prescription."

Whither the Democrats
The New York Post writes that pollster Scott Rasmussen has created a new "Hillary Meter" to measure Sen. Clinton's move to the political center.  “His meter calculates that Clinton is now 52 points to the left of the political center - a bit closer to center than in January, when she was 59 points to the left.”

The Washington Post covers the new Pew survey showing that Dean's loss in the 2004 primary "left behind a cadre of political activists who now constitute the most liberal faction of the... Party and who believe the party should move to the left as it tries to rebound from [Kerry's] loss to President Bush."  In sum, the survey found that Dean's followers were not as young as some had thought, that "he had strong appeal among voters ages 40 to 59," and that they "are overwhelmingly white."  They also "want the party to challenge Bush more vigorously and embrace 'progressive' policies."

The Washington Post also front-pages Virginia Gov. Mark Warner's final legislative session.  "Faced with solid legislative majorities for the opposing party..., Warner forged close ties with moderate GOP leaders in the Senate, turning that body into an ally."

One Democratic Party message-meister who constantly complains to First Read that the party has given up the reform mantle to Republicans likes to point to New York AG Eliot Spitzer as Democrats' leading reformist pol.  The Washington Post now looks at how Spitzer is raising money for his already frontrunning gubernatorial bid after "alienating some of the biggest political donors in America."


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