“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.

Wednesday, February 2, 2005 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
Although a US exit strategy remains an open question, the Iraq elections have pretty much sold themselves.  The President's real pitch in his State of the Union tonight, which he'll continue tomorrow and Friday with a five-state tour, will be on his Social Security plan.  His comments probably will bear more importance and more scrutiny than any other remarks made about the entitlement program since its inception.

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Bush probably also will take the opportunity tonight before this relatively large international audience to wish the ailing Pope well.  

We know from White House spokespeople that Bush will talk more about principles than specifics when it comes to his plan for Social Security, with the exception of his pet goal of private accounts, which Democrats and some analysts argue would not really fix the program's looming problems.  House Republicans will listen for the specifics, Senate Republicans will listen for the principles, and Democrats will listen for signs that Bush is bending on his plan overall, as signaled by Administration sources in yesterday's Washington Post. 

The party's response to the speech will be delivered by Hill leaders Reid and Pelosi on domestic and foreign policy, respectively.  (We sort of wonder why they aren't doing it the other way around so that the congresswoman from San Francisco is talking about domestic policy, but then again, Howard Dean is about to become DNC chair, so it doesn't really matter.)

Amidst reams of reports on how Senate Democrats are united in their opposition to private accounts, NBC's Ken Strickland says the White House nevertheless is now reaching out to a handful of those representing red states in the hopes of securing their support.  The courtship began yesterday when Treasury Secretary John Snow paid visits to Conrad of North Dakota and Baucus of Montana.  Also, Conrad, Baucus, and Nelson of Nebraska have accepted invites for face time with Bush as he travels to their home states tomorrow (Conrad and Nelson are up for re-election in 2006). 

Per Strickland, when asked Tuesday if he knew of a single Senator who would support the accounts, Minority Leader Harry Reid said, "No, I don't know of a single Democratic Senator."  And though he admitted he hadn't asked every single Senator, he said, "I feel confident...  President Bush should forget about privatizing Social Security.  It will not happen."

Tomorrow, Bush sets off for North Dakota, Montana and Nebraska.  On Friday, he visits Arkansas and Florida.  NBC's Norah O'Donnell says the White House PR blitz will be reinforced by Laura Bush, the Vice President, Snow and OMB director Josh Bolton.  Also, during the day today, Republican Members of Congress will stream through the RNC doing interviews; an RNC source says about 60 were scheduled as of yesterday afternoon.  Still, the source says an even bigger push will come tomorrow and Friday.

The President will devote the first half of the speech to his domestic agenda, and the second half to foreign policy.  The 9:01 pm address runs about 40 minutes without applause -- about the same length as last year's address, which ran 54 minutes with 71 breaks for applause, per NBC's Marcie Rickun.  Laura Bush will be joined in the box by voters from Afghanistan and Iraq.  Bush has no public events scheduled for today. 

In the Senate, floor debate continues over AG nominee Gonzales, and Homeland Security nominee Michael Chertoff's confirmation hearings begin.  Strickland notes that a vote on Gonzales will likely come tomorrow.  The RNC yesterday issued a statement suggesting that Democrats had better not filibuster the first Hispanic nominee for AG -- but Senate Democrats were already indicating that they would not.

The Senate meets at 9:15 am; the House meets at 10:00 am.

SOTU build-up
The San Francisco Chronicle: "President Bush's speaking skills often have been misunderestimated, to borrow one of his famous malapropisms...  [But] Bush will exude the confidence and appetite for big ideas that have turned him from a stilted speaker to one who even Democrats grudgingly concede is effective."

The Chicago Tribune: “The president... will press Congress for restraint in federal spending--even as he prepares to return this month with a $75 billion spending request for Iraq and Afghanistan, pushing the 2005 deficit to a record $427 billion.  That deficit alone may inhibit Bush's ability to win congressional approval for some of his measures.”

In addition to Social Security, Bush's remarks on the domestic front tonight will include "talk about keeping the economy growing by giving workers better education and job training, passing an energy plan that reduces dependence on foreign oil, and limiting liability and medical-malpractice lawsuit awards to hold down business and health care costs...  He will repeat a controversial call for" a guest-worker program.  USA Today

Speaking of that guest-worker plan, Tom DeLay yesterday said he wants to schedule a House vote for next week "on a border security bill that also would limit illegal aliens' ability to obtain driver's licenses" -- but hold off on "a full debate on guest-worker programs and broad immigration reform."  - Washington Times

The Boston Herald notes, "In a nod to his conservative base, Bush also is expected to renew his calls to protect marriage and foster a culture that values life."

On Social Security, the Administration official who briefed yesterday "acknowledged that the president is caught in a Catch-22 position," says the Washington Times.  "Because Mr. Bush has not offered details of his proposal, the official said, opponents are now saying, '"Well, he's not leading.  He doesn't want to provide details.  He wants us to do it."'  Still, the official... said the president will offer some details and will 'move the ball.'"

"The president also will make clear his desire for a diplomatic solution to the dispute over Iran's nuclear program, call on North Korea to return to six-way talks in a bid to end the nuclear crisis gripping the Korean Peninsula, and rally Americans on the need for the United States to stay the course in Iraq."

USA Today looks at the Vietnam-Iraq analogy: "Bush defenders say the analogy is overwrought, especially in the wake of triumphant Iraqis voting Sunday..."  The story adds, "The Iraq debate undergirds two distinct camps about Bush himself.  One heavily favors Bush and believes he is taking the country in a right direction by protecting America while projecting values of freedom and democracy overseas.  The other believes he has run up dangerous deficits while bullying his way through the Middle East and adhering to an agenda of cultural exclusion on issues like gay marriage."

USA Today's "scorecard" on previous Bush SOTU promises made and promises kept.

The AP reports that Rep. Bobby Jindal (R) "is planning to demonstrate solidarity with Iraqi voters by dipping a finger in purple ink," and making "ink available for anyone attending the speech who wanted to make a gesture of support for Iraqis and 'people throughout the world who seek freedom.'"

More on Social Security
"Mr. Bush's strategy to offer a partial outline rather than detailed remedy" in his speech tonight "reflects a split between the two houses of Congress about the president's role in the politically sensitive debate," says the AP.  "In the House, where every seat is up for election every two years, Republican leaders want the president to present a specific plan and work to sell it to the country before pressing Congress to vote.  But key Senate leaders prefer that Mr. Bush work behind the scenes with Congress to develop a bipartisan consensus."

"One thing Bush is expected to discuss is how the private investment accounts would operate...  Mr. Bush is nowhere near ready to propose actual legislation, and a senior administration official cast some doubt on whether the administration would even be ready to spell out details in late February or early March, as had earlier been suggested."

AARP is on day two of its DC conference, but spokespeople say they're waiting to hear the speech tonight before commenting or acting further in opposition.  Tomorrow, the organization hears from Rep. Jim McCrery (R).

That said, AARP is providing some cover for the red-state Democratic Senators being targeted by Bush later this week, Roll Call reports.  The group "is running newspaper ads in the states that Bush is visiting urging opposition to any privatization.  The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare is running similar radio ads in those states, several aides said."

"Among the Democrats targeted by Bush’s barn-storming campaign, Baucus, the ranking member of the Finance Committee and the minority’s point man on Social Security, is taking the most aggressive approach to counter-punching Bush...  Some Democrats, including Lincoln and Pryor, have decided to not attend the president’s events in their state."

The Washington Post looks at how "Social Security's financial problems are a relatively small sliver of the far larger challenges posed by an aging population, economists say...  [T]he fight over Social Security marks only the beginning of a national debate over the cost of a graying society -- and the inevitable reallocation of resources that is sure to produce winners and losers, in the United States and around the world."

The permanent campaign
The Los Angeles Times follows up on the Washington Post's examination of Republican efforts to strip "money and voters from the Democratic Party...  On issue after issue, the White House is staking out positions that achieve a policy goal while expanding the GOP's appeal to new voters or undermining the Democrats' ability to compete.  Interviews with Bush advisors, a recent memo drafted by a senior White House strategist and a speech last month by the Republican Party's new chairman show that the political advantages are very much part of the calculation."

Gonzales and Chertoff
NBC's Strickland says the Senate seems likely to vote on Gonzales for AG tomorrow, and although he is expected to be confirmed, Reid yesterday suggested that 25-30 Democrats will vote against confirmation.  Before then, Democrats could spend as much as 10 hours venting. 

On the floor on Tuesday, Strickland reports, Dianne Feinstein (D) said it all comes down to Gonzales' failure to elaborate on his thoughts on US policy on torture and interrogation, especially as it relates to the memo he received from the Justice Department.  That memo, Feinstein says, allowed for an "excessively narrow" definition of torture.  "His testimony, both verbal and in writing, was full of ambiguity.  It seemed intended not to make his views clear, but to shield his view."  She added, "If you're going to set the policy, if you're going to set the tone, if you're going to be the leader of this department, I want to know what you, as a man -- or as a woman -- think."

But Orrin Hatch (R) says Democrats are trying to hold Gonzales responsible for a memo Gonzales did not write, that came from a agency he did not oversee, Strickland reports.  "Now a small but vocal group of those individuals have attempted to create an almost mob mentality looking for any high official in the Bush administration to take the blame, and Judge Gonzales has become the favorite scapegoat for some."

Yesterday, a statement came across from RNC Deputy Communications Director Danny Diaz "on a potential Democrat filibuster of Judge Alberto Gonzales’ nomination" -- which Democrats have said they would not do.   “[O]bstructing his nomination would show that Democrats still don’t understand the ramifications of an election where President Bush increased his share of the Hispanic vote by nine percent over 2000.”

The Washington Post: "Ultimately, Democrats concluded they had neither the votes nor the political stomach to block confirmation of Gonzales...  After a bruising debate last week followed by the confirmation of Condoleezza Rice as the first black woman to be secretary of state, some Democrats were concerned that they would be perceived as opposing qualified minority candidates."

The Boston Globe: "Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said Democrats appeared to be trying to attack Bush through Gonzales, and to send a message that they would oppose Gonzales's elevation to the Supreme Court.  He said that Democrats are opposing a Hispanic appointee for attorney general just a week after many spoke out against Bush's nomination of a Condoleezza Rice -- a black woman -- to become secretary of state."

Roll Call reports that freshman Sen. Mel Martinez (R) "will speak from the chamber floor in Spanish today, urging his colleagues to confirm" Gonzales.  "Martinez said the bulk of his first-ever Senate floor speech would be in English.  But he noted that he thought it was appropriate to make some remarks in Spanish given the timeliness of the Gonzales confirmation."

On Chertoff, Scott McClellan yesterday "denied... a report that [Chertoff] once advised the CIA on how far interrogators could go in questioning terrorism suspects without violating federal anti-torture statutes."  - USA Today

The Washington Post front-pages the issues that await Chertoff at DHS:.

The New York Daily News writes that Iraqi and US officials said the phased withdrawal of US troops from Iraq could begin late this year -- and possibly sooner.

"As reports pour in from thousands of Iraqi poll observers, several political parties are alleging polling violations and logistical problems on Sunday that they say helped depress the election turnout among the country's disaffected Sunni Muslims."  - Boston Globe

The Hill reports that the "White House yesterday sent congressional Republicans a memo suggesting that GOP lawmakers should refer to Iraqi voters as 'courageous' and to the elections as 'transparent.'  The talking-points memo is silent on a timeline for pulling out the 150,000 U.S. troops in country."

And the Washington Times notes that "[s]keptics of President Bush's attempt to bring democracy to Iraq," like Michael Moore and George Soros, "have been largely silent since Iraqis enthusiastically turned out for Sunday's elections."

More whither the Democrats
The Boston Globe updates the state of play in the DNC chair race in which Dean's opposition has been reduced by half, labor has punted, and no one left seems to have the firepower to block him from getting the post.

“Democrats marveled at how someone who had been viewed as a symbol of some of the excesses of the party… was now on the brink of becoming a face of the opposition to President Bush...  Republicans, who had already been portraying the Democrats as obstructionist and extreme, seemed somewhere between being delighted and amused to have Dr. Dean to kick around again."  - New York Times

The Dallas Morning News covers the withdrawal of former Rep. Martin Frost from the race.

Roll Call wonders whether this is it for Frost's political career.

Bush PR notes
The Boston Globe reports on criticism of the White House for credentialing a "journalist" who seems to have no journalistic credentials.  "Jeff Gannon calls himself the White House correspondent for TalonNews.com, a website that says it is 'committed to delivering accurate, unbiased news coverage to our readers.'  It is operated by a Texas-based Republican Party delegate and political activist who also runs GOPUSA.com, a website that touts itself as 'bringing the conservative message to America.'"

"Now, the question of how Gannon gets into White House press conferences is coming under intense scrutiny from critics who contend that Gannon is not a journalist but rather a White House tool to soften media coverage of Bush.  The issue was raised by a media watchdog group and picked up by Internet bloggers..."  Scott "McClellan said Gannon has not been issued -- nor requested -- a regular 'hard pass' to the White House, and instead has come in for the past two years on daily passes...  Nonetheless, transcripts of White House briefings indicate that McClellan often calls on Gannon and that the press secretary -- and the president -- have found relief in a question from Gannon after critical lines of questioning from mainstream news organizations."

The Sacramento Bee writes that three left-leaning candidates to succeed the late Rep. Bob Matsui (D) blasted the race’s frontrunner -- Matsui’s widow, Doris -- for having too weak a stand on Iraq.

Heart surgeon-turned-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist used to talk about holding people's hearts in his hands as a way of showing empathy and winning people over.  Now he also tells the New York Times that he has cut people's hearts as a way of looking tough: "'I can play hardball as well as anybody,' he said, unprompted, at the end of a recent interview.  'That's what I did, cut people's hearts out.  On the other hand, I do it to cure them, to heal them, to make them better.'"  The Times profile of Frist says the fate of Bush’s agenda rests -- in many ways -- in his hands.

The Los Angeles Times has another one of its occasional looks at the fledgling effort to reform the Constitution to allow foreign-born citizens to run for president.


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