“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.

Monday, February 14, 2005 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
President Bush's one currently scheduled public event today is the swearing-in of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales at DOJ at 9:55 am, but his focus for the week -- the political world's focus for the week -- is once again on Social Security.  Amidst Democrats trying to label Bush's private accounts as DOA and Republicans on the Hill sounding various notes of caution, Bush travels on Wednesday to Portsmouth, NH, a state he narrowly lost to Kerry in November, to promote his plan, and also continues to meet with congressional lawmakers.  NBC's Rosiland Jordan says it's unclear whether Democrats will be included in the talks.

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Jordan reports that phase one of the President's public campaign for his Social Security plan, this string of town halls and "conversations" with participants viewed as supportive of the Bush proposal, will last another few weeks.  The White House is hoping that constituents will bend their members' ears during the upcoming congressional work period.  That said, it's still not clear that any "phase two" will involve the White House sending any kind of legislation to the Hill.  One Bush official tells Jordan, "We've put out a great deal of detail" already. 

House Democrats, meanwhile, are planning up to 150 town halls on Social Security this month, per a House Democratic source.  And the DNC has commissioned its own poll on Social Security, release TBD. 

Meanwhile, Governor (don't call him "Chairman") Dean convenes a transition meeting, expected to include as many as 25 people, at the DNC today.  Twenty-five people doesn't strike us as too conducive to fast decision-making, and we wonder whether Dean is already getting bogged down in the usual DNC conundrum of inclusiveness at the expense of efficiency. 

Three observations from the DNC meeting on Saturday:

1) At his press conference, Dean refused to answer a couple of questions -- mainly about what other Democrats are saying about him -- by claiming he will not respond to blind quotes.  This line might become a too frequently used excuse.  But, since we also think that the kind of blind quotes Dean was talking about, and Democrats' general lack of discipline when it comes to venting to the press, constantly undermine party unity and distract party leaders, this could be a beneficial move. 

2) Though he may manage to dispense with that form of distraction, for the duration of his tenure as chair, Dean may be asked to reconcile his new rhetoric and positions with the rhetoric and positions from his presidential campaign, which will be a distraction the party isn't used to having its chair face.

And 3) bloggers clearly will become a fixture at Dean press conferences. 

The House and Senate meet today at 12 noon.

Bush's priorities
The Washington Post sees "a budgetary landmine" in Bush's spending blueprint: "Bush's extensive tax cuts, the new Medicare prescription drug benefit and, if it passes, his plan to redesign Social Security all balloon in cost several years from now."  And the Post suggests it may be the first area on which some GOP 2008 contenders take issue with their president: "The knowledge of what's ahead is hardly lost on some of those eyeing Bush's job.  Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been among those raising concerns about the long-term costs of current financial policies."

The Washington Post's Milbank points out that between ag programs, farm subsidies, veterans' programs, and rural airports, "the budget Bush proposed would hit hardest some of his most loyal supporters: the red states that voted GOP last year and other conservative constituencies across the country."  

The Wall Street Journal focuses on programs Bush repeatedly has tried to cut which repeatedly have managed to survive.

The founder of the Laffer Curve praises Bush, including his plan to "associate effort with reward" when it comes to Social Security, as a tremendous supply-side president in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Social Security
On Meet the Press yesterday, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D) declared Bush's Social Security effort "dead," while Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) said Bush is still trying to define the problem. – USA Today

The New York Daily News focuses on Grassley saying Bush would sign a Social Security reform bill that raised taxes, and that “Bush knows that ‘personal accounts will not solve the problem.’”

The Washington Post says of the upcoming slew of town halls on Social Security across the country: "Democrats plan to hold hundreds of hometown Social Security events... as a partial counterweight to Bush's relentless barnstorming on Air Force One...  Democrats also plan to use last week's revelations about the growing projected cost of a new Medicare prescription drug benefit as evidence that Bush cannot be trusted on Social Security."  Meanwhile, "Republican congressional leaders are arming the rank and file with videotapes and PowerPoint presentations making Bush's case on Social Security, and the White House is sending top officials to Capitol Hill on Wednesday for a clinic to answer questions before the lawmakers head for their states and districts."

The Boston Globe looks at one aspect of Social Security that seems to be neglected: disability.  "The disability program has received relatively little attention amid all the talk about overhauling its sister program...  If Bush is concerned about the retirement program being in crisis, he has cause to be even more alarmed about the disability system.  The disability program is scheduled to start taking in less money than it pays out in 2008, compared to 2018 for the retirement program, officials said.  The disability program will then start relying on its trust funds, which are slated to run out by 2029, and it might eventually draw on resources now spent on the retirement fund, potentially worsening the overall problem."

The values debate
Roll Call says "Senate GOP leaders are working with the Republican National Committee on a targeted marketing plan designed to attract minorities to the party" -- specifically, "the black, Hispanic and Jewish communities...  Promoting Republican 'values' to black and Hispanic voters will be a cornerstone of this strategy, including a focus on Bush’s faith-based agenda and his commitment to passing a constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage, organizers said.  The GOP plans to use marriage as a 'wedge issue' in the black community as well as with Catholic Hispanics..."

The Washington Times, incidentally, reports on a Harris poll from January showing that "Americans have come to perceive conservatism as a stronghold of traditional ideas: According to a new Harris poll, the public believes conservatives support moral values and oppose same-sex 'marriage,' homosexual rights and abortion.  And liberals provided almost a mirror image of the findings."

The Chicago Tribune writes that evangelical Christians “don’t all sing from the same choir book” when it comes to politics.   “Abortion, same-sex marriage and stem cell research may be the issues most commonly associated with evangelical voters, but moderate and liberal evangelicals are mounting an effort to make their voices heard on subjects not normally associated with their movement, including poverty, the war in Iraq and the environment.”

Whither the Democrats
The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein says Democrats are aiming to emulate the discipline of the GOP: "Traditionally, U.S. political parties have operated as diffuse, disputatious confederacies.  The GOP today more resembles the tightly regimented parties in a parliamentary system like Britain's...  Democrats, traditionally as easy to discipline as cats, aren't nearly so close to such a synchronized system.  But increasingly that appears their goal."

More tidbits from Dean's first press conference as chair of the party:
-- he prefers the salutation of "Governor," rather than "Chairman;"
-- he will not run for president in 2008;
-- wife Judy will continue her medical practice in Vermont, while Dean plans to shuttle between there and DC;
-- the Dean-led DNC will do a lot of religious outreach;
-- he will travel extensively in the South and West, including a March 1 fundraiser in Mississippi;
-- he said that Hillary Clinton's recent moderate remarks on abortion "were right on target;" and,
-- again, he will not get involved in policy matters.

Terry McAuliffe offers a final pep talk and list of McAuliffe DNC accomplishments in a USA Today op-ed.

Roll Call reports that "the New Democrat movement - seen by many as a potential savior for a party that needs to make inroads in 'red states' - is being roiled by strategic differences and personality conflicts."

The Sacramento Bee reports that "Schwarzenegger is to swoop into Washington on Thursday, with state legislative leaders in tow, for an unprecedented meeting with the California congressional delegation and Bush administration officials in hopes of steering more federal money to the state...  Schwarzenegger pledged after his recall election victory to be the ‘collectinator,’ a play on his starring role in the ‘Terminator’ movies.  So far, there hasn't been a lot to show for it, but that could change dramatically on this trip.”

The Chronicle on Schwarzenegger's DC visit: "Some are hopeful this week's visit will help matters, but many state Democrats 'believe Schwarzenegger has been more talk than action.'"

The AP reports that while Schwarzenegger has not announced whether he'll run for reelection," the California GOP on Sunday changed a party rule and endorsed him 16 months before the 2006 gubernatorial primary...  Delegates at the state GOP convention decided to make an exception to the party's policy of not endorsing candidates before the primary elections so Republicans can pay some early expenses - such as bulk mailing and voter registration - should Schwarzenegger decide to run again."

While USA Today editorializes in favor, a Democratic state Senator in California offers the argument against Schwarzenegger's redistricting concept in a USA Today op-ed: creating swing districts could mean that outcomes boil down to the happiness of a very small slice of the electorate, as opposed to a majority of it.

The New York Times says an influential New York City black minister “all but endorsed” Mayor Bloomberg yesterday -- “another signal that city Democrats cannot take for granted support from leaders of minority groups that they enjoyed in 2001.”

CQ Weekly notes that recently ousted Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina might have a future in politics, possibly running against Dianne Feinstein in 2006.  "California political insiders say that she is interested in politics - and she would get a warm reception from Republicans."

Kerry today gives a 4:00 pm speech at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette Visions Ceremony in Worcester, MA.  Per a Kerry advisor, this is "a major speech about strengthening the military," in which Kerry will make "it clear that 'supporting the troops' means supporting changes in our defense policies -- in our systems, our budgets, and our military planning..."   Later this week, Kerry will introduce a bill "to expand the size of the military by 40,000 troops -- 30,000 Army and 10,000 marines."  (The aide calls this "a step unorthodox for any Democrat" -- though Harry Reid in his SOTU response called for "increasing our Army and Marines by forty thousand troops over the next two years.")

And on Wednesday, Al Gore returns to the public arena to mark the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol around the world, but not in the United States.  He will hold a press conference call from Los Angeles, followed by a speech at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

As Edwards prepares for his first day on the job at UNC-Chapel Hill as the "part-time head of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity", yesterday's Raleigh News & Observer talks about how the former Senator is keeping his eye on 2008.

The Boston Globe reported yesterday that five fundraising accounts linked to Gov. Mitt Romney (R) "raised about $6.6 million in 2004...  The money is a fraction of the estimated $182 million raised by John F. Kerry's campaign for president as of last summer, but at this early point in a presidential campaign, strategists often focus on creating a list of donors rather than collecting large amounts of money."

Other countries' elections
"A coalition of Shiite Islamist parties was declared the victor Sunday of Iraq's Jan. 30 election...  Kurdish parties, which finished second in the voting, joined Shiites in repeating a pledge to bring Sunnis into a transitional government that will be formed in the coming weeks and give them a voice in crafting Iraq's new constitution."  - USA Today

The New York Times says the Shiite alliance’s slim majority -- a worse-than-expected showing -- “seems almost certain to enshrine a weak government that will be unable to push through sweeping changes, like granting Islam a central role in the new Iraqi state…"

The Chicago Tribune: “The outcome was a stinging blow for U.S.-backed interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, whose slate won only 13.7 percent of the vote despite the huge TV exposure afforded by his job and the biggest campaign spending by far of any candidate.”

The Boston Globe says that even with results tallied, "Some Sunni groups have charged that voting irregularities, such as the lack of sufficient ballot papers in Sunni areas, skewed the election.  The electoral commission says it will accept formal complaints during a three-day period and certify the results only after the complaints are examined."

And the AP covers British Prime Minister Tony Blair's appeals for reelection: "The government is widely forecast to win reelection in national polls expected in May, and most analysts agree that there is little chance Blair will not serve another term...  But the divisive Iraq war has overshadowed most of the government's second term and eroded public faith in Blair's judgment.  His popularity has been further hurt by the perception that he follows Washington's foreign policy without exerting real influence...  But many analysts suggest that Blair has weathered the worst of the Iraq storm. His personal ratings have improved markedly from last year's slump and the elections in Iraq have provided some vindication for the war."

Happy Valentine's Day
Sen. Tom Harkin (D) is considering legislation to require the labeling of all chocolate sold in the United States, the Des Moines Register reported on Sunday.  "Harkin is concerned in the wake of the collapse of negotiations concerning child slavery and child labor in the cocoa industry in Africa, particularly the Ivory Coast, which produces up to 43% of the world's cocoa beans."


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