“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.

Tuesday, February 1, 2005 | 9:10 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
Its one thing for Republicans to try playing the old "mommy party" card by casting some Democrats as opposed to the Iraq elections.  But how did Democrats wind up facing questions about their support for the advancement of minorities? 

  1. Other political news of note
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    2. Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
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    5. Fluke files to run in California

The president is nudging things along with his hard sell to African-Americans on Social Security private accounts.  Democrats' primary but hardly forceful response, based on Bill Thomas' remarks, has been to accuse Bush of wanting to calculate benefits based on race. 

Then, at the DNC forum last Saturday, Wellington Webb, former Denver mayor and the only minority candidate for DNC chair before he dropped out yesterday, made a remark that got little coverage amidst the Dean/anti-Dean buzz.  In response to a question about opposing Bush Cabinet nominees, Webb said the party needs to be careful in choosing which nominees to oppose because, he said, some people might have perceived the attacks on Condoleezza Rice as "going against a well-educated African-American woman" -- not against Bush's policies, as Senate Democrats intended. 

Of the 12 Democrats who opposed Rice's confirmation, Kerry on Meet the Press probably explained his reasons most clearly.  Russert: "...[Y]ou voted against Condoleezza Rice to be secretary of state...  She is qualified to hold that job, no?"  Kerry: "Yes, and I said so.  But I also said that she was a principal architect, implementer and defender of a policy that has made the United States of America less secure in the world...  I paid her a great tribute for her journey of life.  I mean, I think she's a remarkable person.  And I think she's obviously accomplished a great deal.  But I wasn't voting on whether she was just qualified.  I was voting on the judgments that she brought to the table.  I was voting on the answers that she gave us in committee.  And I was voting on the vision that she offered to the country.  And I found all three, frankly, faulty."

Now Senate Democrats are gearing up to oppose another minority Cabinet nominee.  Floor debate over Alberto Gonzales for AG is scheduled to begin today, NBC's Ken Strickland notes, and as in Rice's case, the rhetoric is expected to be heated even though Gonzales ultimately should be confirmed by a hefty majority.  Strickland reports that Democrats will try to use the debate to make their case against President Bush's policies toward torture and treatment of detainees.  The Judiciary Committee boasts some of the most vocal Democrats in the Senate: Kennedy, Biden, Schumer, and Durbin.

One GOP aide tells Strickland that the extra time Democrats are expected to take up for debate over, and delay of Gonzales' confirmation allows Republicans to get their members on Hispanic radio to talk about what Democrats are doing. 

In case Democrats forgot this fact of the 2004 campaign, Republicans really know how to use radio.

The Senate meets at 9:45 am; the House meets at 2:00 pm.

Meanwhile, the race for DNC chair continues its downward spiral into absurdity.  By this point, the actual vote can't come too soon for a party that already was in disarray before this race even began.  After the executive committee of the Association of Democratic State Chairs recommended to their colleagues yesterday that they endorse Donnie Fowler, a majority of the full ASDC dissed that panel and voted to endorse Dean.  (Maybe that had something to do with Hillary Clinton getting sick yesterday...) 

Today, AFL-CIO officials meet to discuss a possible endorsement of a single candidate.  If they can't reach that decision, unions are expected to unilaterally begin endorsing candidates.  The meeting is viewed by close observers as Martin Frost's last chance to jump-start a campaign that hasn't gotten off the ground, and as perhaps anyone's last chance to emerge as a viable opponent to Dean. 

President Bush's sole scheduled public event today is his signing of a proclamation in honor of American Heart Month at 10:15 am.

SOTU build-up
The Washington Post: "Bush plans to address the future of the Iraq effort in his address to Congress tomorrow, aides said.  They said he will highlight it as the latest in three successive elections in a part of the world where democracy had never before taken root, following votes in Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories."

Scott McClellan said yesterday that the President won't set a deadline for withdrawing troops from Iraq.  The Wall Street Journal: "Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently told reporters he thought Americans would be out of Iraq by the conclusion of the second Bush term; the president is unlikely to add more clarity in his State of the Union speech tomorrow."

The Washington Times notices that the Reid-Pelosi case that "there should not be a set schedule for pulling troops out of Iraq, [contradicted] Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's call on Thursday for the United States to withdraw 12,000 troops immediately and complete a full withdrawal by early 2006."

The New York Times: “Mr. Bush is benefiting from the fact that the Democrats appear in considerable disarray on how to proceed in Iraq."

Among the various Democratic and affiliated interest-group prebuttals and rebuttals to the SOTU that are in the works (not an exhaustive list):
-- Reid and Pelosi's official party response on Wednesday night.
-- A Hispanic response by Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Rep. Bob Menendez.
-- A DNC "viewers' guide" on "the real state of the union."
-- A Sen. Jon Corzine prebuttal conference call today at 12:30 pm.
-- Sierra Club cable TV and print ads on Bush's energy policies.
-- Anti-tort reform US Action's TV ad rollout today at 11:00 am.  (That said, ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC have all declined to run the group's ad, the New York Times says.)

And on Social Security alone:
-- MoveOn TV ads in three senior-heavy House districts urging viewers to call their congressmen and tell them to oppose Bush's alleged plan to cut Social Security benefits.
-- A 2:00 pm press conference call today with Reps. Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Rosa DeLauro on Social Security "and the effects of privatization on women and children."

More on GOP and affiliated efforts to push Bush's Social Security plan below.

Like other recent polls, a new Westhill Partners (i.e., Democrat Ed Reilly and Republican Ed Rollins) survey for The Hotline shows a majority -- 51%-46% -- approving of Bush's job and a majority -- 51%-45% -- having a favorable impression of him.  But that's where the good news for the President seems to end: Another majority, 51%-37%, believes the country is on the wrong track, and 54% disapprove of Bush's handling of the Iraq war.  That said, the survey was conducted from January 25-27, before the Iraq elections on Sunday.

On Social Security, 52% disapprove of Bush's handling of this issue, and only 33% believe the program needs "major change," compared with 43% who say it needs "minor change."  Sixty-one percent don't think Bush's re-election gives him a mandate to change it.

"When President Bush delivers his State of the Union address Wednesday, he'll survey a Capitol Hill landscape that reflects the heartland he won on Election Day," says USA Today, which suggests five reasons why in 2004, "153 counties that voted Democratic for president in 1996 and 2000 chose Bush in 2004.  Only 11 chose Democrat John Kerry after voting Republican in 1996 and 2000."  The five reasons: memories of September 11 and a reluctance to change horses in wartime; Democrats' mommy-party image; values; GOP benefits from demographic shifts; and a better campaign strategy.

The Wall Street Journal Online looks "back at some of the vows -- both memorable and obscure -- that the president made in each of his first four speeches, and whether they made it from the rostrum to reality".

The Bush agenda: Social Security
Strategic leak?  The Washington Post reports that "President Bush is privately expressing support for limits on the cost and risk of partially privatizing Social Security, in an effort to mollify nervous Republicans and win over dubious Democrats, according to White House aides and congressional Republicans."

"Bush... has privately told GOP lawmakers and aides that he would support phasing in changes to the system to keep deficits under control... and push individuals who opt for private accounts into more conservative investments... as they near retirement to mitigate long-term risks."  And, the "Treasury Department is doing a budget analysis to determine how many lower-income Americans could be shielded from benefit cuts necessary to offset the overall cost of creating private accounts, the officials said."

In the SOTU, "the president will not detail the size of new private accounts or the benefit cuts needed to help offset the revenue losses...  But Bush will talk more specifically about how the proposed accounts would offer only a few, regulated investments options, much like the Thrift Savings Plan for government employees."

"The Business Roundtable, which represents large corporations, is planning to spend $15 million to $20 million on ads and other lobbying efforts in support of Bush's plan...  And Progress for America, a group with close ties to the White House, will spend $250,000 next week on national cable ads to support the president's efforts."

Also, we've learned that the pro-Bush United Seniors Association will issue their own poll today to counter the earlier AARP survey, which Republicans argue underrepresented young people. 

A New York Times analysis compares Bush’s Social Security plan with Clinton’s health care plan in the early 1990s, and says the fight over Social Security could be “a potentially sweet karmic payback for the Democrats...  The question is how well Mr. Bush has prepared the public for this debate.  On the campaign trail, he spoke broadly and appealingly about an account that younger workers ‘can call their own...'  But he did not talk about how he would pay for these accounts, or the costs of shoring up Social Security over the long haul, or indeed almost any detail at all, although he promoted the issue in his 2000 and 2004 campaigns.”

Another New York Times story notes that in Bush’s post-SOTU tour, he will visit five states that are home to seven moderate Democratic Senators.  But six of these seven unequivocally oppose the outline the Administration has drawn so far. 

Bob Kerrey writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that liberal "fears that Social Security will be destroyed are exaggerated" -- but also that "President Bush's fears of a bankrupt Social Security and his rhetoric of the program being in financial crisis are also exaggerated."  Kerrey sees two crises: "The first is that in eight years the income from a 12.4% payroll tax will be insufficient to pay the old age, survivor and disability benefits owed at that time..."  The second "is the shockingly low rates of savings and pitifully inadequate amount of preparation being made by American households for their old age."

The Wall Street Journal answers the fundamental questions about the Social Security debate.

Roll Call reports, "Invoking the specter of Watergate, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) has renewed his request for White House documents that may link... Gonzales to the formulation of U.S. policy on the torture of terrorism detainees.  In a letter last week to Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Kennedy warned that Gonzales could find himself in the same shoes as Nixon-era Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, who was prosecuted for failing to testify truthfully in his Senate nomination hearings."

The AP, looking at points of unity and disunity among Democrats and noting Rice's confirmation, says "Democrats hope for stronger solidarity when Alberto Gonzales' nomination as attorney general comes to a vote as early as later this week.  'It's hard to be a straight shooter when you're a blind loyalist,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said last week as Bush's longtime legal adviser's nomination cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote.  Several Democrats said Gonzales failed to give full answers to their questions about his role in crafting administration policies relating to questioning of U.S.-held prisoners in the war on terrorism."

The interim President "said Tuesday it would be 'complete nonsense' to ask foreign troops to leave the country now, although some could depart by year's end;" Iraq has reopened its borders and the Baghdad airport; and "about 200 election workers Tuesday began the second - and possibly final - stage of the count...  Officials said no figures were expected to be released Tuesday."  -- AP

The Washington Times: "Sunni Arabs yesterday appeared shocked by the large turnout of Shi'ites and Kurds in Sunday's elections, with some anxiously looking for ways to bolster their representation in the new government that will emerge from them.  But many Shi'ites, triumphant after voting in high numbers in spite of terrorist threats, had a simple message for the Sunnis who stayed home: Tough luck." 

That said, "President Bush yesterday told the leaders of Iraq that he expects the newly elected transitional government to represent all Iraqis, including the Sunni minority..."  - Washington Times

The Bush budget
Expected to be included, at a tune of $10.3 million: resumption of study "of building an earth-penetrating nuclear weapon designed to destroy hardened underground targets, per Rumsfeld's request. – Washington Post

The Wall Street Journal looks at resistance within the GOP to "Defense Department cuts that target marquee weapons systems."

More whither the Democrats
The Los Angeles Times reports on new organizations being formed by African-American conservatives which "all enjoy support from the Republican Party and its allies in the philanthropic and religious worlds.  The meetings have a common goal: to foster a political realignment that, if successful, would challenge the Democrats' decades-long lock on the loyalty of black voters.  The effort has proved so successful already that Democrats who make up the Congressional Black Caucus are quietly expressing alarm - and planning countermeasures."

After Webb dropped out of the DNC chair race yesterday, he endorsed Dean. 

Roll Call reports that Frost has met with Nancy Pelosi three times during his run for chair and she repeatedly has declined to endorse him (nothing personal, she says), and also that Reid is considering endorsing either Frost or Fowler.

In an open letter to Dean published in Roll Call, DNC member and former Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile laments that the race has come to center on him, and urges him to reach out to all factions of the party: "The hurdles now, like the obstacles you confronted in the Democratic primaries, are mainly about ego.  For all its talk about inclusiveness, the Democratic Party is extremely turf conscious.  Thus, it’s incumbent on you to reach out and bring these people, the very ones who went to the mat to stop you, into the fold."

"Following a bruising loss in 2004, I am truly ashamed of my party for making the most important decision facing it a contest based on who not to support rather than who can help us rebuild."

After complaining of flu-like symptoms and fainting during a speech in Buffalo yesterday, Senator Clinton recovered and went on to her next speech, though a scheduled event in DC this morning has been canceled.

Roll Call reports that not only the Senator, but "at least 30 members of her staff in the New York and Washington offices got sick during a staff retreat at the Rye, N.Y., Hilton."

The New York Post covers New York AG and gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer (D) blasting Bush on investor protection yesterday in DC.  “He charged that Bush ‘failed to protect investors’ during corporate accounting scandals, and blasted the White House for seeking private Social Security accounts that depend on ‘a system that [is] fundamentally broken.’”

The Sacramento Bee says Schwarzenegger raised nearly $29 million last year -- most for his ballot propositions, not for his potential re-election campaign. 

The New York Times rounds up all of Hillary Clinton’s recent statements about “God, faith, prayer and the need to be more tolerant of people who are opposed to abortion and gay marriage because of their beliefs…  Are they a calculated effort to court religious traditionalists as she positions herself to run for the presidency, as her critics maintain?  Or do they reflect the true convictions of a woman who has sought to give a fuller picture of herself since leaving the White House and who, associates say, has been deeply and openly religious her entire life?”

"Friends and supporters of Governor Mitt Romney have established a political action committee that has lavished more than $250,000 on Republican candidates and county GOP organizations across the nation since July, apparently laying the groundwork for a potential presidential run for the Massachusetts politician in 2008," reports the Boston Globe

The Boston Herald adds that "Romney will speak at a GOP banquet on Feb. 21 in Spartanburg, S.C."


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