“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, February 10, 2004 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
Rejoining the much tougher fight for his Social Security plan after a successful boost for class-action reform yesterday, President Bush travels to Raleigh for a town hall on Social Security at 11:10 am, then heads on to Blue Bell, PA for a conversation on the same subject at 4:35 pm. 

  1. Other political news of note
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    5. Fluke files to run in California

Democrats on the Hill will try to counter the bully pulpit: Those in the North Carolina delegation hold a conference call at 1:30 pm.  And New Jersey gubernatorial candidate and Sen. Jon Corzine (D), a former Big at Goldman Sachs, teams up with John Podesta's think tank to roll out a report titled, "Market Risk of Bush's Privatization Plan" via conference call at 12 noon.

Another group of Hill Democrats awaits the Administration's announcement of the annual trade deficit -- specifically, that it's expected to set another record.  Senators Clinton and Dorgan, among other party lawmakers, "will unveil new legislation to place a cap on the nation’s trade deficit and require the President to take action to reduce the trade deficit if the limit is reached."  The presser is at 2:30 pm.

And the DNC winter meeting kicks off today at the Washington Hilton, with key business taking place tomorrow morning in the Rules Committee meeting and a plenary session, and on Saturday with the election of DNC officers -- capped off by the formal dubbing of Howard Dean as chair.  The highlight today is a tribute to outgoing chair Terry McAuliffe at the National Building Museum at 7:00 pm; John Kerry and Bill Clinton will speak.  Tomorrow morning, the party's Hill leadership, John Edwards, and Bill Richardson address the plenary session.

At the winter meeting today, Dean makes informal remarks to the Association of State Democratic Chairs at 3:45 pm; does the same thing to the National Democratic Ethnic Coordinating Committee at 6:30 pm; and drops by the party honoring McAuliffe at 8:00 pm.

Amidst the efforts to unify, however, come signs that the party will continue to have trouble keeping itself together, due largely to a 2008 presidential nominating fight that seems to have already begun, and to some 2006 battles that -- at least right now -- look pretty uphill.  That said, a Dean-led DNC that beefs up the party’s grassroots support, and also provides a needed dose of energy, could potentially pay important dividends.

In and of itself, freshman Sen. Mark Dayton's decision to retire rather than seek a second term in Minnesota might not put Democrats at any further risk of losing that Senate seat, contrary to the usual CW that an open seat is tougher to defend than an incumbent.  Dayton was looking very vulnerable; the Cook Political Report had already rated his race a toss-up. 

The problem for Democrats is what it signifies on a broader scale -- and not just that Minnesota is now a swing state, in case they needed any more reminding.  Historically, the President's party has gotten hammered in what are generally called "second-term, midterm" elections -- elections taking place halfway through a President's second term.  But a survey of the 2006 Senate races reveals some potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbents, and suggests the party could have trouble just breaking even, much less netting seats.  The picture isn't much rosier on the House side, though it's very early in the cycle for House races.  Could this be another way in which President Bush defies the tenets of political history?

By the way, we're in the usual silly season as far as possible replacement candidates for the retiring incumbent go, and Democrats are tossing around names like Al Franken and Garrison Keillor.

Bush today
The Raleigh News & Observer notes that Bush’s speech in Raleigh -- as with his other Social Security barnstorming events -- will be invitation-only.  Moreover, the AARP, “which claims 955,000 members in the state, will begin in two weeks holding 15 forums across the state to discuss the group's opposition [to Bush’s plan]. A television campaign and a direct-mail effort is likely in targeted congressional districts.”

North Carolina Senators Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr will accompany Bush in the state today, but the paper adds that "five of the seven GOP House members in the state have not committed to” Bush’s Social Security plan.

The Philadelphia Inquirer notes that Sen. Rick Santorum said "yesterday that he would welcome running for reelection next year on the issue of Social Security, regardless of whether Congress acts between now and then."

Bush's priorities
Social Security first, then the newly raised Medicare funding issue, President Bush said yesterday.  "Meanwhile, the White House yesterday took the rare action of publicly taking issue with a news organization about an article.  In a document titled 'Setting the Record Straight,' the office of the press secretary said The Washington Post had used numbers in a front-page story that are 'flat wrong.'"

Still, the higher $724 billion cost estimate for the Medicare prescription-drug program over 10 years "reignited an intense congressional debate over why Republicans pushed such an expensive program into law," says USA Today.  Although "the higher figure should not surprise lawmakers who voted for it... it still drew protests from Republicans concerned about excessive spending...  Democrats portrayed the new projection as evidence that the administration has obscured the program's true cost."  The Senate Budget Committee chairman yesterday said he thinks Congress will "have to go back and re-address it."

"Several senior Democratic and Republican congressional staffers who deal with healthcare spending said the administration's explanation for the changes was essentially valid," says the Los Angeles Times.  But: "The new cost figures hit with unexpected force among lawmakers pressed by rising deficits and facing difficult decisions on major programs...  Some said the new numbers raised doubts about the seriousness of Bush's vow to tame the deficit and the accounting for a number of his proposals."

"In hearings, speeches and interviews, Democrats said the sharply higher Medicare cost estimate is a matter of credibility, not bookkeeping quibbles," says the Washington Post, "and they wielded it as a new weapon in their bid to prevent President Bush from converting a portion of Social Security payroll taxes to personal accounts.  Some House and Senate Democrats called for a congressional investigation into the hard-fought 2003 Medicare prescription drug battle..."

The New York Times: “Democrats seized on the new cost estimates as evidence that the Bush administration's accounting should be viewed with skepticism.”

In fact, the Chicago Tribune gets comment from Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, whom Bush is courting to support his Social Security plan.  “Nelson said the shifting projections were causing him to feel some trepidation about the numbers the administration is citing to prod Congress to revamp the Social Security program. ‘When the bottom falls out of the numbers, it's bad,’ Nelson said.”

As for class-action reform, after a series of amendments offered by opponents failed, "President Bush and his business supporters won a large and long-sought victory yesterday with a series of Senate votes that virtually guarantee enactment of legislation restructuring rules for class-action lawsuits."  - Washington Post

The Wall Street Journal: "Majority Leader Bill Frist was increasingly hopeful of sending a clean bill to the House as early as today...  Under a deal brokered by business and Republican leaders, the House has pledged to forgo lengthy negotiations if the bill remains unchanged, and will send it to President Bush for his signature." 

However, the New York Times notes that Bush, at his class-action-lawsuit event yesterday, sat alongside former Clinton Administration solicitor general Walter E. Dellinger III - who, it turns out, is a paid lobbyist trying to pass the class-action-reform legislation through Congress.

Remember the retool of civil service regulations taking place at the Department of Homeland Security?  The Washington Post reports that the Pentagon today will announce that there, too, pay raises "will be tied to annual performance evaluations that take into account an employee's conduct and professional demeanor...  Bush administration officials have said both systems should serve as templates for government-wide changes in civil service rules, although several lawmakers have cautioned against moving too quickly."

"Greg Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, said unions would be left with no meaningful role at the Pentagon and employees would be at the mercy of managers' whims."

Social Security
Two surveys conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University show that while Americans don't have high hopes for the solvency of Social Security if nothing is done, they don't think the problem has reached the crisis stage.  The story notes how public opinion on Social Security is often affected by a lack of understanding and thus is fairly volatile.

USA Today says that as early as this coming weekend, AARP will start airing TV ads "aimed at convincing younger workers that Bush's proposal would undermine Social Security and would not do anything to ensure the solvency of the retirement program."

Noting the RNC's challenge to MoveOn's TV ads charging that Bush could force Americans into "working retirements," the paper also says the RNC plans to keep aggressively questioning TV ads it views as misleading. – USA Today

USA Today also visits the congressional district of GOP Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite of Florida, where it gets Brown-Waite saying she hasn't decided on Bush's plan yet, and seniors worrying about private accounts.

Bob Novak wonders whether House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R) has overstepped himself by trying marry Social Security reform with tax reform.  Novak notes that Thomas’ tax reform ideas don’t include a flat tax or a national sales tax, which doesn’t please conservatives.

Partisan warfare
"Maryland's legislative leaders said yesterday that they do not believe that a longtime aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) worked alone to circulate rumors about the personal life of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, and they called for an independent investigation," says the Washington Post.  O'Malley is viewed as a Democratic rising star.

The New York Times covers O’Malley’s news conference yesterday, at which he denounced the rumors of an affair.

Fearing that more and more presidential candidates will forgo public financing in favor of the chance to raise more in private funds, as Bush and Kerry did, the FEC is proposing to raise spending limits. – Washington Post

Whither the Democrats
The Boston Globe covers Kerry’s $1 million donation to the DNC.  “The donation leaves Kerry with about $10 million in his campaign fund, which he can tap for a possible presidential run in 2008.”  The paper adds that the donation “is a signal that Kerry intends to work through the existing party organization after his unsuccessful presidential campaign. One aide to the senator said it should send a message of good will to Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who was Kerry's rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, now in line to be the next Democratic National Committee chairman."

Roll Call notes that Kerry's got a brand-new PAC.

And Roll Call also reports that "House Democrats have consulted leading military experts to help craft a strengthened message on Iraq, hoping to bolster their party’s position on defense issues and move beyond honoring American troops and calling for an exit strategy...  That strategy focuses on moving away from criticizing the Bush administration for a lack of an 'exit strategy' and moving toward talking about a need for a 'success strategy' in the region, sources said."

Speaking of which, pro-life former Rep. Tim Roemer (D), the last candidate to concede the DNC chair race to Dean, writes in a Washington Post op-ed about how he had hoped to "have a conversation with Democrats about our challenges in communicating a national security message and about how we come together to talk about the many values issues that unite us as Democrats and that also figured in the 2004 election."  However, "the abortion issue dominated much of the discussion of my campaign for the DNC chairmanship."  He then writes about how the party needs to "be inclusive and respect different views on abortion."

And speaking of abortion, outgoing Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt criticized John Kerry for his defense of abortion rights during the presidential campaign, the AP reports.  “‘I have great respect for John Kerry, but there's no question he did not articulate these issues well,’ Ms. Feldt said recently. ‘He seemed equivocal. He ceded the moral high ground to the other side.’”

The DNC doesn't even have a new chair yet, officially, and there's already polling on the 2008 Democratic primary.  Gallup has Hillary Clinton leading the pack with 40% to Kerry's 25% and Edwards' 17%.  The outcome prompts USA Today to ponder the fate of women presidential candidates.

Joe Biden has a Wall Street Journal op-ed calling for an international "contact group" for Iraq.

And the Washington Times reports, "Fewer visitors than expected have dropped by the much-ballyhooed, $165 million Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., since its November gala opening, but" Clinton himself is a regular visitor.

Other countries' elections
Saudi Arabia is holding its first nationwide elections today, for members of municipal councils.  Women may neither run for office nor vote, the Los Angeles Times reports.

"The release of nationwide returns from Iraq's election was postponed on Wednesday.  The election commission rejected thousands of suspect ballots and decided to re-examine 300 ballot boxes.  But neither those irregularities nor a resurgence of attacks against supporters of the U.S.-sponsored move to democracy diminished the intense jockeying for positions in the next government..." – USA Today

Values
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the New York Times writes, said he would propose legislation outlawing stem cell research that involves creating human embryos specifically for scientific experimentation -- as state Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill that would permit that kind of research.  “Many proponents of the bill have assumed they would have the backing of Mr. Romney, a Republican whose wife, Ann, has multiple sclerosis, a disease that could potentially be helped by the research. Mr. Romney had previously said he supported stem cell research in general, but had not elaborated.”

“Stem cells derived from embryos are controversial because, unlike stem cells obtained from adults or from umbilical cords, the only way to obtain them is to destroy the embryo.”

Media notes
"The conservative reporter who asked President Bush a loaded question at a news conference last month resigned yesterday after liberal bloggers uncovered his real name and raised questions about his background," writes the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz.  "Jeff Gannon, who had been writing for the Web sites Talon News and GOPUSA, is actually James Dale Guckert, 47, and has been linked to online domain addresses with sexually provocative names."

The Boston Globe puts it this way: "Jeff Gannon … abruptly quit yesterday after bloggers connected him to websites apparently devoted to gay sex."

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