“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.

Friday, January 28, 2004 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
President Bush swears in his secretary of state again, this time for the world to see, and talks to Hill Republicans about Social Security as the opposition effort, scattered as it may be, revs up and gets their attention. But the political spotlight shines elsewhere for the weekend.

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Iraqis living in the United States begin voting today; Iraqis in Australia started voting yesterday. Curfews and travel restrictions within Iraq are in effect. A network anchor-studded US press corps is bumping elbows in the Green Zone, trying to stay out of each other's live shots.

Most Iraqi voters on Sunday will have never participated in a competitive election before. But this is only their first step toward a new government: They will elect a transitional national assembly and 18 provincial councils; Kurds in northern Iraq also will elect an independent parliament. The transitional assembly will draft a constitution on which a referendum will be held later this year, with new elections to follow.

In Iraq, voting begins at 7:00 am local time on Sunday, or 11:00 pm ET Saturday. Polls will stay open until 5:00 pm local time/9:00 am ET on Sunday. NBC's Tammy Kupperman reports that per State Department officials, polling places may stay open for a few hours more.

Still, much of America will sleep through the balloting that holds such high stakes for 25 million Iraqis, for 150,000 US troops seeking to secure the vote, and for President Bush, despite efforts to ratchet down expectations for what the vote will accomplish. Bush tells the New York Times in his latest print interview that "he would withdraw American forces from Iraq if the new government that is elected on Sunday asked him to do so."

The final results are not expected to be announced for at least 10 days, and NBC's Baghdad bureau advises that the official count won't start until 36 hours after the polls close. That means few immediate answers as to whether Iraqis accept or reject the election results. Even so, Bush and the Administration will move quickly to call the vote a success, and those predisposed to dismiss it will move just as quickly to denounce it.

Who knows where the United Nations will come down. A coalition of international election monitoring organizations based in Amman will produce a report at a time TBD.

So, we wonder what Kerry will say about it all in his Meet the Press interview, which begins right at Iraqi poll closing time.

And we wonder how Bush will talk about it in his State of the Union address on Wednesday.

For the media, there's only one way to talk about it: carefully. The logistical hurdles in preparing for this election -- importing voting machines, printing the huge ballot -- have dovetailed all along with America's post-Florida fascination with hanging chads and other quirks of the election process. Even so, the Iraqis' concept of a successful election may not align with the US concept of a successful election. They're not worrying about whether their votes will count -- they just want to be able to vote and make it home.

We wish everyone involved a safe election day.

Jan. 30
In an interview with the New York Times, Bush said he would withdraw US forces from Iraq if the new Iraqi government wants him to do that, but still expects the new government to want US troops to remain. He also acknowledged that many Iraqis view the United States as an occupying force.

The AP has an Iraqi general saying Iraqi troops need six more months before they can take control of cities and towns. But even after that, he said, they would still need help from the United States and its allies in protecting the border.

The Chicago Tribune notes that the new Zarqawi videotape “threatened Allawi himself: ‘You traitor, wait for the angel of death.’” The paper also says US forces have been helping to encourage Iraqis to vote.

"This weekend's balloting is critical to the Bush administration's strategy for Iraq, both in justifying the invasion and in laying the groundwork for troop withdrawal," says the Wall Street Journal. "President Bush has hailed democratic reform as an important weapon in combating radical Islam, citing elections in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories, as a sign of change. Violence is the biggest threat to the legitimacy of the Iraqi election..."

The Dallas Morning News suggests Iraqis aren't the only ones on the ballot in elections Sunday -- Bush is, too. "It's not a question of whether Sunday's election will produce more violence and political strife, analysts said, but how much - and how that will affect Mr. Bush's struggle to hold American support for the war."

The Los Angeles Times covers Bill Clinton at the World Economic Forum: "Clinton questioned the idea that Bush's reelection was an endorsement of his Iraq policy. Instead, Clinton said, Bush won because undecided voters were swayed by his aggressive initial response to the Sept. 11 attacks and success in preventing new terrorist strikes." He also said that the "future of Iraq hinges on the attitude of the victors in Sunday's election."

Fifty percent of the U.S. adults surveyed in the January NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll say the elections won't be legit because violence and boycotts will deter voters; 39% say the elections will be legit (we have seen no recent polling of Iraqis on the same...).

"Insurgents determined to derail Sunday's vote pressed ahead with a wave of pre-election violence that killed at least a dozen Iraqis and one Marine... In Ninewah province, which includes the city of Mosul, officials were scrambling just three days before the election to replace most of the 1,000 election workers who quit for fear of being killed by insurgents." -- USA Today

Knight Ridder surmises from Baghdad that the "insurgents' campaign of intimidation appears successful in nearly paralyzing a city of millions. The capital's notorious traffic snarls were gone Thursday, and residents locked themselves inside at dusk... Local newspapers announced Internet-only editions because printing-press employees won't leave their homes starting today."

The Los Angeles Times reports the more cheerful possibility of an election-inspired baby boom about nine months from now in its look at how Iraqis were stocking up on food and gas in advance of the lockdown.

Per NBC's Scott Foster, the latest US military casualty figures as of Thursday:
Total deaths: 1,416 (includes 3 Pentagon civilians)
Total hostile deaths: 1,087 (includes 3 Pentagon civilians)
Total non-hostile deaths: 329
Total wounded: 10,622

Per State Department officials, approximately 5,300 polling places will be open in Iraq, plus more in 14 other countries around the world, including in five US cities (New Carrollton, MD; Nashville; Chicago; Detroit; and Irvine, CA).

Iraq's borders are now closed and travel within Iraq will be restricted; a nightly curfew starts at 7:00 pm local time. The Boston Globe covers the training and placement of Iraqi security forces:.

Iraq's estimated population is 25 million. As of Tuesday, 14.27 million Iraqis had registered to vote, per State Department officials. Iraqi officials have said they would be pleased if turnout hits 50%. More from the Wall Street Journal:" "U.S. officials said they expect high turnout in both the Kurdish north and Shiite south. In Baghdad, some military officials say turnout could run as high as 60% if the huge population of Shiites in Sadr City, which has been relatively peaceful in recent weeks, get out and vote. In Nineveh Province, home to Mosul, and in al Anbar province, U.S. officials say they will be pleased if they can get between 30% and 40% of the population to show up at the polls."

Iraqis living outside the country have begun to vote. Of the estimated 1.2 million eligible expat voters, less than 25% of them registered to vote, per officials -- including less than 10% of the eligible voters living in the United States.

Candidates must be at least 30 years old. Women must comprise 33% of the candidates so that they will hold at least 25% of the seats on the national assembly. Prohibited from running: former Baathist senior officials.

Voters will elect a 275-seat "transitional national assembly," which will select a president and two VP's to succeed the interim president; these officials will then choose a prime minister. The assembly also write a constitution on which a referendum will be held. The constitution must be drafted by Aug. 15, 2005. The referendum must be held by October 15. If the referendum passes, new elections must be held by December 15; if the referendum does not pass, a new transitional assembly must be elected by December 15. There are about 7,785 candidates for national assembly seats.

Seat distribution in the assembly will be proportional: Seats will be apportioned according to what percentage each group receives of the total vote; individuals will be awarded seats based on how they rank among their party's candidates.

Voters also will elect 18 provincial councils. In three provinces in northern Iraq, Kurds also will elect an independent parliament -- even though there are also Kurdish candidates for the national assembly. There are about 12,000 candidates for these posts.

Two parties are expected to do well: 1) The United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of Shiite groups endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is the leading slate with 228 candidates. This coalition includes members of the Dawa Party, and the Supreme Council for Islamic revolution in Iraq, and Shiites allied with cleric Moqtada al Sadr. And 2) the Iraqi National Accord is the secular party led by Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. The Kurdish Alliance is the only party representing Iraq’s Kurdish minority in the north.

"Iraq's cleric-driven Shiite political parties, banking that the country's Shiite majority will put them in power in voting Sunday, are preparing their list of prime minister candidates to lead the country. Leading contenders are mostly moderate, secular Shiite Arabs who are trying to win over Sunni Arabs and allay fears they would establish an Iranian-style theocracy." – USA Today

Whither the Republicans/Social Security
In his interview with the New York Times, Bush said Social Security would be a centerpiece of his State of the Union address, he declined to talk specifics about his reform plan.

The Washington Post previews Bush's appearance at the Hill GOP retreat today by noting how "mid-level and rank-and-file Republicans have begun to assert themselves on issues including intelligence reform, immigration and a major restructuring of Social Security, the centerpiece of his second-term agenda."

On Social Security, "Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.)... assured Bush at a meeting Wednesday in the White House residence that he is still fighting on his side." The story says Karl Rove devoted most of his remarks yesterday to Social Security.

A poll for the Cato Institute being released today shows a "majority of Americans, including nearly one-third of Democrats, support President Bush's proposal to let workers voluntarily invest part of their Social Security payroll taxes in stocks and bonds," says the Washington Times. "Voters do not appear to agree with Democratic leaders who are arguing that the venerable New Deal-era program does not face any serious problems that need to be fixed in the immediate future or even the distant future."

That said, the Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire notes: "In the Journal/NBC News poll, just 13% say Social Security needs 'complete overhaul'; though Bush rules out a payroll-tax increase for improving solvency, 24% call it an acceptable option, dwarfing the 5% who embrace benefit cuts. Republican Rep. Linder, asserting 'Social Security as a stand-alone reform is probably dead,' touts replacement of income taxes with a 23% consumption levy as a solution to Social Security solvency. A senior White House official calls it 'way too premature' to combine the two issues."

Senate Democrats hold an informal hearing on Social Security today without any Republicans participating and with a favorable bench of witnesses, including FDR's grandson and two SSA employees who will talk about the agency's promotion of Bush's plan.

The "DNC internet team" has e-mailed supporters in an effort to raise $1 million toward a national grassroots campaign to defeat Bush's Social Security proposals. The e-mail also announces a forthcoming prebuttal to the SOTU.

USA Today says thousands of people called "Capitol Hill and local offices this week after receiving an anonymous, recorded message that said their representatives support 'privatizing Social Security.' Recipients were given a toll-free number that connected them to the Capitol. The number belonged to the American Federation of Teachers, which said its line was hijacked." No one has stepped forward to claim responsibility for the message, which "reached people in at least 17 Republican congressional districts in 13 states..."

"Many lawmakers are already jittery about" Bush's proposed private accounts, says the Los Angeles Times. "Although no one could identify the source of the calls, lawmakers interpreted them as an effort to scare voters into pressuring Congress to back away from Bush's still-emerging proposal."

Whither the Democrats
The Washington Post says that with his Iraq speech yesterday, Ted Kennedy "became the most prominent member of Congress to urge pulling out the troops".

It was also the "first time he has called for President Bush to begin withdrawing troops," notes the Boston Globe.

The Washington Times: "The White House was dismissive of Mr. Kennedy's suggestions." And the RNC sent out a press release focusing on a Kennedy quote which arguably looks as though he is blaming the troops themselves, though Kennedy aides would say that's not what he meant.

Democratic strategists James Carville and Stan Greenberg did the Monitor (formerly Sperling) Breakfast yesterday morning. The duo's latest poll shows 51% approve of Bush's job, and 50% believe the country needs to head in a different direction than Bush proposes. "The election was a blip that people went past," Greenberg said. "There is no evidence of a honeymoon" for Bush. In addition, the poll finds that only 41% favor Bush's proposal to reform Social Security.

At the same time, however, the poll shows a 12-point drop in Democratic party favorability among Democrats. "Democrats are feeling very let down -- maybe demoralized by the election," Greenberg said. Carville talked more about the Democrats' frustrations: Bush won, he said, "because Democrats allowed it to happened." Still, Carville noted, "This is not some kind of hopeless situation that can't be fixed."

Asked why Republicans are pushing Social Security when some polls aren't encouraging, Carville said they feel emboldened after their win. Also: "A lot of their people want to do this." They currently see Democrats as disorganized and weak, he said, and this is their chance to change the system.

Greenberg said he's "not that worried" about the prospect of Republicans passing Bush's Social Security reforms, he said, citing the unpopularity of Bush's Medicare prescription drug plan. Carville added that Bush's plan doesn't make sense to people because the government is broke and the Administration wants to solve this problem by borrowing more money.

Asked if they both would be happy with Dean heading the party, Greenberg responded that the DNC chair race is not a big event, adding that he was critical of Dean during the Democratic primaries but doesn't have a problem with him being DNC chair. (Editor's note: And would you please hire our firm if you win?) Carville added that the multi-candidate race proves how disorganized and weak the party is. He said someone should have taken charge and anointed a chair back in November. "This is supposed to be a rigged election anyway," he said. "You think the Republicans would stick six people out there" running for party chair?

Some papers cover all the health care speeches yesterday as Bush vs. Kerry: USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times

EJ Dionne previews Edwards's upcoming speech in New Hampshire next Saturday night, making up in anticipation what he lacks in details.

In advance of the final regional forum for DNC chair candidates in New York tomorrow, Dean rolls out another list of endorsements from 14 DNC members. Meanwhile, Martin Frost’s campaign sent us a letter distributed to all DNC members from Charles Soechting, chairman of the Texas party, who has endorsed Frost. The letter blasts Dean: “In the past few days, you may have received an inaccurate, cowardly email attack from a front group misleadingly named ‘DNC Chair Fact Check’ that tries to smear Martin Frost by distorting both the context and effect of two TV ads aired by his campaign for re-election last year in a 65% Republican district... The ads do not praise any Republican, and they do not attack any Democrat. The cowardly email attacks circulated this week are simply inaccurate attempts to mislead you.”

More on the Bush Agenda
The Washington Post says of Bush's push for a shift to electronic medical records yesterday, "In his 2004 State of the Union address and during the presidential campaign, Bush called for the nation to eliminate paper medical records within a decade. On Thursday, the White House said it wanted to double funding for that effort to $100 million in the current fiscal year and would ask for $125 million in the fiscal 2006 budget that Bush will submit to Congress on Feb. 7... Some experts question whether much money will be saved either through electronic records or health savings accounts."

Key members of Congress, including GOP Sen. Susan Collins, are pushing back a bit on the Administration's move toward sweeping changes to the civil service regulations, saying it's better to test them more gradually. – Washington Post

Bush PR notes
HHS "acknowledged Thursday that it paid a syndicated columnist," Mike McManus, "at least $4,000 for work on behalf of Bush administration efforts to promote marriage," USA Today reports. "McManus, who writes a weekly column syndicated in 30 to 40 newspapers, said he was paid about $4,000 to train marriage mentors in 2003 and 2004. McManus was subcontracted by the Lewin Group, which had a contract to support community-based programs 'to form and sustain healthy marriages.'"

The Los Angeles Times says McManus's contract was "worth up to $10,000".

Misc.
And, the Washington Post Style section runs a photo of the parka-clad Vice President Cheney from Wyoming surrounded by overcoat-wearing dignitaries at the Auschwitz ceremony yesterday.

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