“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, February 4, 2005 | 9:30 a.m. ET
From Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, Kasi Hunt and Elizabeth Wilner

First glance
Admit it: Minus the snow outside, who else feels like its September 2004? Bush is stumping across America to promote his Social Security plan, holding events similar those GOP-friendly “Ask President Bush” forums we witnessed during the presidential campaign. Democrats, meanwhile, are staging their own counter-rallies -- and complaining, once again, that they’re being denied entrance to Bush’s events. And now we learn that the GOP 527 group Progress For America will begin running another ad on Monday backing Bush’s plan to partially privatize Social Security.

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The only thing that’s missing (for now) is someone saying, “I actually voted for private accounts before I voted against them.”

Bush finishes his Social Security tour today, visiting Omaha, NE at 9:30 am ET, Little Rock, AR at 12:50 pm, and Tampa, FL at 4:30 pm -- the home states, respectively, to Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln, Mark Pryor, and Bill Nelson.

Speaking of the 2004 campaign, we'll be hearing what the other half of the 2004 Democratic ticket plans to do with his time. John Edwards will be announcing, via a press release today and a speech to New Hampshire Democrats' 100 Club tomorrow, that he’s going to focus on poverty. Per an Edwards source, Edwards will join forces with the University of North Carolina to highlight poverty as "one of the great moral issues of our time." Edwards' 100 Club speech tomorrow night -- his first public appearance since he and Kerry conceded the election -- will be "optimistic," though the aide says Edwards also will talk about the President and "will probably address the State of the Union."

Sen. Ted Kennedy gives another speech on Iraq today, this time at UMass-Boston at 10:00 am.  Kennedy will "reflect on the implications of last weekend’s elections on the prospects of success in Iraq and react to the President’s State of the Union."

In addition, just in case you forgot about that controversy in Washington State, a superior court judge today will decide whether the GOP challenge to Christine Gregoire’s (D) gubernatorial victory has the legal legs to stand trial.

Finally, looking ahead to next week, the Bush Administration releases its budget on Monday. Since Bush plans to hold discretionary spending below the level of inflation, and also cut more than 150 government programs, we think -- just maybe -- that this budget will produce quite a bit of news.

Bush today
The Lincoln Journal Star says Bush's hour-long event in Omaha could attract as many as 7,000 people, and tickets to the event have been distributed by the Nebraska GOP and the state’s congressional delegation. "No tickets had been made available Tuesday for distribution through Sen. Ben Nelson, the only Democratic member of the delegation, but the White House said later in the day that Nelson will be included in the process."

The Arkansas Democrat Gazette says nearly 2,000 tickets have been distributed by the state Republican Party for Bush's afternoon speech on Social Security. Dozens of uninvited and ticket-less protestors, of course, will try and make their voices heard.

Democrats in the Arkansas delegation bracket Bush with a conference call at 11:30 am ET.

The Tampa Tribune previews Bush’s final stop of the day. "Florida, with 3.3 million Social Security recipients, second-most among states, will be a battleground in an argument that will spill out of Congress and into the general public."

Social Security: The plan
Writing about Bush’s stops in Montana and North Dakota yesterday to tout his Social Security plan, the New York Times says Bush never addressed how the nation could afford the trillions of dollars it would cost over the next few decades to establish private accounts. “Still, Mr. Bush got a rapturous reception from a carefully screened crowd of ticket holders at his first stop of the day, in North Dakota, a state he won easily in November.”

By embarking on a tour touting his Social Security plan, the Los Angeles Times notes that Bush is borrowing a page out of Ronald Reagan’s playbook: He’s “appealing over the heads of Washington politicians to a public whose opinion is in flux.”

“His two-day, five-state swing to make the case for changing Social Security is the beginning of his effort to overcome three daunting obstacles: mixed public opinion, a united Democratic opposition and resistance from members of his own party to the idea of allowing younger workers to divert part of their Social Security payroll taxes into personal retirement accounts.”

Bush’s plan won’t affect the benefits of people 55 and over, but the New York Times zeroes in on Americans in their early 50s, who seem caught in the middle of the Social Security debate. “[T]heir numbers, and the role they might play in the debate, are enormous. People born in the peak year of the baby boom, 1957, turn 48 this year, and millions of those who came immediately before that, in the giddy ramping up of fertility during the Eisenhower administration, have already charged into their 50's.”

The San Francisco Chronicle, meanwhile, talks to the under-30 crowd, and it finds that most support Bush’s plan. "A random sampling on Thursday of San Franciscans in their 20s found a number who favor or at least would consider private accounts for themselves -- largely because they already do some investing, they want a say over their funds, and they weren't counting on Social Security anyway."

Meanwhile, the Washington Post says it incorrectly reported yesterday that workers under Bush’s plan would get to keep only the investment returns that exceed the rate of return. “In fact, the balance in the account would belong to the worker upon retirement, White House officials said.”

“‘Individuals get to keep everything they set aside in personal accounts, plus the increased rate of return they'll realize on their investment,’ White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. ‘So to suggest otherwise is wrong. It is the individual's account, and the government cannot touch it.’”

RNC chair Ken Mehlman sent an email yesterday to supporters asking them to sign an online petition urging their Senators to work with Bush on Social Security. And the email repeated Bush’s argument -- which Democrats say is absolutely false -- that the program is headed toward bankruptcy.  “Unless we act now, Social Security will be bankrupt by the time our children retire,” the email states.

The DNC sent it own email to Democrats, which blasts Bush’s proposal. “Democrats will not stand on the sidelines while Bush pushes his disastrous agenda. We will not let Republicans in Congress wash away hope for our future. With your help, we will hold Bush and the Republicans accountable, and we will stop their disastrous agenda dead in its tracks.”

Social Security: The congress
The Washington Times says that Bush’s stumping for his Social Security proposal, he plans on leaving the "early heavy lifting up to a skittish Congress." More: “Social Security reform will be discussed in two Ways and Means committee hearings next week - on Tuesday with Treasury Secretary John W. Snow and on Wednesday with Joshua B. Bolten, director of the Office of Management and Budget. The House Budget Committee will also hold a hearing on Social Security on Wednesday."

The Washington Post: “In an unexpected blow to the administration, Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), chairman of the subcommittee that handles Social Security, said Bush's plan must be changed in a fundamental way if it is to have a chance. McCrery said he should scrap the idea of funding accounts with money earmarked for the Social Security trust fund.”

“With Senate Republicans privately saying they plan to delay action on the proposal for several months, the president is betting he can eventually overcome opposition by building public support for change, pressuring lawmakers in states where he is popular and spending the political capital that he feels flows from winning a second term in office. So far, no Senate Democrat has embraced the partial privatization of Social Security.”

The New York Times covers the reservations that Republicans McCrery and Sen. Olympia Snowe have about Bush’s plan. But it also says that Sen. Ben Nelson -- the lone Senate Democrat who didn’t sign the Democrats’ letter yesterday vowing to oppose any plan that increases the federal deficit -- is keeping an open mind. “Mr. Nelson, who plans to appear with Mr. Bush when the president travels to Nebraska on Friday, said Thursday that he did not sign the Senate Democrats' letter because he wanted to see more details of the White House proposal before taking a position. And he was uneasy with the letter, which attributed part of the rising deficit to Mr. Bush's tax cuts.”

The Wall Street Journal notes that North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad has “caught the White House's attention with moderate statements on Social Security. Yesterday, Mr. Conrad accompanied Mr. Bush on the Air Force One flight to North Dakota.”

“Mr. Conrad, a senior member of the Finance Committee, which will craft the Senate bill, has allowed that there may be merit to some elements of Mr. Bush's plan. But he has said he isn't enamored of personal accounts as Mr. Bush has proposed them and has repeatedly objected to hefty borrowing in order to finance transition costs.”

The Washington Times adds Conrad “said that at least five Republican senators have approached him in the past 10 days looking to form a bipartisan group to offer an alternative to the president's proposal."

Gonzales
Alberto Gonzales won confirmation yesterday, becoming the nation’s first Hispanic Attorney General. NBC’s Pete Williams notes, though, that the 60-36 confirmation vote is the second largest "no" vote for an AG nominee who won approval. Who holds the record? John Ashcroft, who was confirmed on a 58-42 vote.

The Washington Post says, “Like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Gonzales assumes one of the government's most prominent posts trailed by Democratic opposition that stems from the administration's war and terrorism policies. Gonzales could face the same kind of rocky relations with Congress as his predecessor, John D. Ashcroft.”

The New York Times: “…Democrats characterized the vote as a strong statement of opposition to the policies on the detention and treatment of prisoners in the administration's campaign on terrorism.”

The Washington Times says, however, that Republicans will try to make political hay out of the Democrats’ opposition to Gonzalez. "Republicans said they will be able to make Democrats suffer a loss of support among Hispanic voters for opposing Alberto Gonzales' nomination as attorney general yesterday, but Democrats said Republicans were misusing the issue of ethnicity during the confirmation debate."

Iraq
The New York Times says early returns in Iraq show that “72 percent of the 1.6 million votes counted so far from Sunday's election went to an alliance of Shiite parties dominated by religious groups with strong links to Iran. Only 18 percent went to a group led by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who favors strong ties to the United States. Few votes went to Sunni candidates.”

The Washington Post covers Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz saying that U.S. forces in Iraq will be reduced by about 15,000 next month. “The reduction involves about three brigades … whose tours were extended last month to bolster security ahead of the elections, and an additional 1,500 airborne soldiers who were rushed to Iraq for a four-month stint… But testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Wolfowitz also warned of ‘a very difficult road ahead’ in defeating Iraqi insurgents and indicated that no further drop in U.S. troops was planned this year.”

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff yesterday said that less than a third of Iraq’s 136,000 security forces are capable of being sent into challenging missions, the New York Times reports.

But Donald Rumsfeld -- who was widely criticized for telling a U.S. soldier that you go into war with the Army you have, not the one you want -- pens a Wall Street Journal op-ed praising the Iraqi soldiers. “Many thousands of Iraqi security personnel are performing exceptionally, and a few examples are worth mentioning. On election day, Iraqi security forces stopped a total of eight suicide bombers across Iraq who were hoping to upset the democratic process and kill innocent people.”

The AP reports that Rumsfeld twice submitted his resignation to President Bush during the Abu Ghraib scandal. “‘I felt that he ought to make the decision as to whether or not I stayed on,’ Rumsfeld said Thursday on CNN's ‘Larry King Live’ program. ‘He made that decision and said he did want me to stay on.’”

The SOTU
The Washington Post notes that, because of his staunch advocacy of the death penalty while governor of Texas, “it came as a bit of a surprise” when Bush expressed concern about wrongful convictions during his State of the Union address. And the paper traces how those lines about the wrongly accused got into his speech. 

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan -- who panned Bush’s inaugural address -- gives the President high marks for his State of the Union speech. “George Bush made it clear he does not intend to cooperate with the tradition whereby second terms are all anticlimax enlivened by scandal. He will not be at the mercy of history. He means to continue doing big things.”

The Dallas Morning News focuses on the emotional hug between the Iraqi voter and the mother of the slain U.S. soldier, which it says might be the most remembered moment from Wednesday’s State of the Union address.

More whither the Democrats
A week from now, the DNC will choose its next party chair, and it increasingly looks like that chair will be Howard Dean. USA Today writes, "Trepidation, resignation, cautious optimism and outright enthusiasm are just some of the reactions among Democrats as they contemplate Dean's rise from the ashes of a failed nomination bid.”

The New Republic also writes about all the behind-the-scenes intrigue regarding the race for DNC chair.

2005
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg isn’t backing Bush’s Social Security plan, the New York Times says. “‘I've never thought that privatizing Social Security made a lot of sense,’ said Mr. Bloomberg, who, like Mr. Bush, is a Republican. ‘I think what you'd see is that people would invest - some people would invest - unwisely.’”

“With the former City Council minority leader, Thomas V. Ognibene, vowing to run against him in a primary this year, Mr. Bloomberg faces two potential Republican opponents who are questioning his commitment to his party. At the same time, Democrats running for his job are criticizing him for being too close to the president, which they say they believe could hurt his standing with the overwhelmingly Democratic general election voter pool.”

Misc.
The FEC voted yesterday to raise the limit on federal campaign contributions, the New York Times writes. “Donors can now give $2,100 to presidential and Congressional candidates in each election, up from $2,000, and $26,700 to national political parties each year, up from $25,000.”

“The modifications were required by the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law of 2002, which called for the commission to tie contribution limits to inflation every two years.”

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