“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 23, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
At this writing, Bush, in Mainz, already has met, done a press avail, and had lunch with the German Chancellor.  Next up, he and Laura Bush check out the Gutenberg Bible, then Bush addresses US troops in Wiesbaden before heading on to Bratislava for the night.  Per Scott McClellan, many of the troops Bush will see are from the 1st Armored Division, which served in Iraq and is the same division with whom Bush shared his surprise Thanksgiving meal in 2003. 

  1. Other political news of note
    1. Animated Boehner: 'There's nothing complex about the Keystone Pipeline!'

      House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.

    2. Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

The Social Security debate is getting ugly and personal, as Democrats decry an Internet ad by USA Next, the "new Swiftees," that links AARP to same-sex marriage, and a liberal group today targets GOP Social Security point man Jim McCrery.  First Read also gets some frank talk from Republicans about their party's need to win over young people through private accounts, not only to get them passed but to narrow a gap in support caused by the war in Iraq; more on this below.  DNC chairman Dean also targets young folks with speeches today and tomorrow at college campuses in Ithaca, NY and Topeka.

Newt Gingrich did the Monitor breakfast yesterday in which he: said the White House lost its focus on young people and took an unfortunate detour down the "crisis" road on Social Security; suggested the President's floater on increasing the payroll tax ceiling means there will be one; touched on Bush and "Karl's" involvement in the 2008 presidential race; and mentioned that he's traveling to New Hampshire in April and Iowa in May -- but later on in the meal, called it "implausible" that he will serve in elective office again.  More below.

In the name of states' rights, and over Bush Administration objections, the Utah legislature "is poised to repudiate the No Child Left Behind Act and spurn $116 million in federal aid tied to it because state policy-makers are fed up with federal control of education and dictates," reports the Washington Times.  The move could trigger similar decisions in other states.

Los Angeles mayoral candidates are having a tough time competing with the weather for news coverage, says the Los Angeles Times, though Mayor Hahn (D) at least gets to tour flood- and mud-damaged areas. 

Pity Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), who might not have considered that the Boston press is so seriously jonesing for a new hometown presidential candidate to cover that they would so quickly transfer their energies to scouring his statements on civil unions and abortion.

The two sides, including the 527 groups, achieved rough parity on fundraising and spending in the presidential election year.  But GOP party committees had a 6-to-1 financial edge over their Democratic counterparts as of late January, and the New York Times wonders whether the Dean online fundraising machine can help.  Tomorrow, Dean kicks off a "Red, White, and Blue tour" as part of his "national campaign to reach out to all Americans in every state."  He addresses a $5/ticket fundraiser for the Kansas Democratic party on Friday. 

All First Glance links at bottom.

Bush in Europe
The focus of today's Bush-Schroeder talks: Iran mustn't develop nuclear weapons.  The AP says efforts were made to downplay US-German differences on how to prevent that. 

Although Bush’s trip has been mostly positive so far, the New York Times front-pages that the tone changed somewhat yesterday when Bush said there was “deep concern” about the EU lifting its arms embargo against China. 

The Los Angeles Times previews the Bush-Putin meeting tomorrow with Putin's remarks yesterday that Russia "was committed to the democratic ideal but would pursue it in its own way." 

The Russian Ambassador tells the Washington Times that the meeting "should produce concrete results, but... any attempt to 'corner' Russia over political liberties and press freedoms would be 'counterproductive and doomed to failure.'"

And the New York Times suggests there may be some "nyah nyah" going on, with Putin likely to respond to Bush’s earlier criticism of Russia “by raising... concerns about the situation in the United States and certain troubling aspects of Washington's policies'" -- like maybe Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, and the 2000 presidential election. 

Social Security
Dean-founded Democracy for America has sent supporters an e-mail blasting USA Next's temporary Internet ad linking AARP with gay marriage.  "The right-wing fringe has declared war on Social Security -- and this week they launched their newest attack...  Sign our petition to stop these dishonest, bigoted attacks from spreading any further...  Your petition will be delivered to every TV station that aired the swift boat ads during the 2004 campaign and any station that airs this new garbage in 2005."

The New York Times says USA Next took the ad down and claimed it was a “test.”  AARP said it has not taken position on same-sex marriage, the Times notes, but the group did oppose a state amendment in Ohio banning such marriages, because “the second clause blocked legal recognition of any union, potentially including unmarried heterosexuals, that approximated marriage rights.”

Showing that the left can also play hardball, too, Campaign for America's Future hosts a conference call at 11:30 am to blast Rep. Jim McCrery's (R) ties to the financial industry.  The group will note that McCrery, who heads the Ways and Means Social Security panel, received $200,000 in contributions from securities and commercial banking interests -- which could profit from the establishment of private accounts.  "McCrery can't possibly reach the people on Main Street when he's in the back pocket of Wall Street," CAF spokesperson Toby Chaudhuri told First Read.  In addition to the conference call, the group will make this same point in TV ads which will air this week in McCrery's Louisiana district; Chaudhuri says the ad buy is in the "tens of thousands" of dollars.

We asked why CAF is targeting someone who previously had expressed doubts about Bush's Social Security plan (but who later said Congress should give it a chance, only after the White House gave him a hard sell)?  Chaudhuri: "McCrery took money from the big banks and flip-flopped on his support for the president's Social Security privatization plan.  There is a reason it's called the Third Rail of politics.  Someone is about to get zapped."

The Boston Globe suggests House Democrats may have trouble gathering big crowds to their Social Security town halls.  At Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer's event yesterday, turnout was low and many "ducked out" before the Q&A was over.  "Hoyer's event yesterday lacked the pomp and polish of the round-table discussions Bush has been having, but he came well-equipped with facts, figures, and props."

Hoyer said at the event that he wants Ross Perot to re-emerge "with his 30-minute infomercials blasting government deficits," says the Washington Times

Asked to follow up on his comment in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal about Social Security reforms meaning there will be a tax increase on the core Republican base, Gingrich told reporters gathered for the Monitor breakfast yesterday that he believes there will be a tax increase if "they go the route they're going."  On raising the payroll tax ceiling, Gingrich said, "to suggest that is acceptable at this stage of the debate is to guarantee that it would happen."

Gingrich said he would advise Republicans to pursue changes to Social Security into the 2006 election year, but also would advise them to focus on giving people the choice of private accounts.  He lamented how the debate has taken "a detour" down the "crisis" road: "You can win the argument on the right to choose," but "trying to focus on some general sense of crisis doesn't work." 

Republicans aren't just playing offense on younger voters here -- some defense is also involved.  To the extent that the Iraq war hurt the President among any particular voting bloc last November (and perhaps continues to hurt him now), it hurt him with young people.  According to the exit polls, President Bush lost to Kerry among voters aged 18-24 by 13 points, Bush campaign senior advisor Matthew Dowd tells First Read -- a fact that has gotten less notice than the slimmer margin by which Kerry beat Bush among voters aged 18-29.

Dowd: "Social Security private accounts are very positive with this group."

And at the Monitor breakfast yesterday, Gingrich echoed that the Administration needs to focus its Social Security effort on young people: "Young people deserve the right to save money."

On the other hand, National Journal's Charlie Cook suggests to First Read that the trouble with focusing the Social Security debate on young people is that they "cannot even conceptualize the prospect of turning 40 or 50, let alone 60 or 65.  I think it is a flawed premise that you can reach these people on the Social Security issue.  I have heard it said that the... argument most salient with younger voters is the possibility that they might have to take care of, literally or figuratively, their parents or in-laws, but that doesn't really apply to Bush's more future-oriented scheme."

Part of the Administration’s strategy to sell its plan is to maintain that it will not affect seniors and those nearing retirement.  But the New York Times, covering GOP Sen. Rick Santorum's town hall in Chester, PA yesterday, says these people don’t want to be shut out of the debate.  “At one point, Mr. Santorum looked out at the raised hands and said somewhat plaintively: ‘I'm seeing a lot of older hands. I'm not seeing any younger hands.’”

More GOP realignment
As for other facets of the GOP realignment, when asked about GOP efforts to win over African-American voters, Gingrich said the slight uptick in Bush's support among blacks in 2004 was "the beginning of a re-emergence."  He said the "left wing" of the African-American community's leadership doesn't have much to offer African-American voters beyond "higher taxes and schools that don't work."  He noted support among black entrepreneurs for the abolition of the death tax, and Bush's new effort to help first-time offenders re-integrate into society, as additional ways for the GOP to make inroads.

RNC chairman Ken Mehlman, in an "interview" with a member of the RNC Internet team that was e-mailed to party supporters, talked up his town hall meetings with African-Americans and said he's working to identify new Republicans and new conservatives around the country.  (Also, asked about the influence of new media "like blogs" during the campaign, Mehlman said the effect of new media "makes the news business more competitive," and "holds news networks and channels more accountable.")

And, Gingrich was asked about speculation that the Vice President, as part of the Bush/Rove/Mehlman effort to reshape the GOP, might step down after the 2006 elections, allowing Bush to name a new VP for the purposes of further reshaping the party, giving a candidate a leg up on the 2008 nomination, or both.  Gingrich called it "highly unlikely:" "The President uses Cheney every day."  He said that if Bush and "Karl" want to give someone a boost, they can appoint that person to the Cabinet.  As for whether or not the field is wide open in 2008, "that depends on how neutral Bush and Karl decide to be."

Judicial politics
Sen. Orrin Hatch stands ready to help ailing Judiciary Committee colleague Arlen Specter get Bush's judicial nominees to the Senate floor, including use of the nuclear option, says The Hill.  Hatch "declined to say when the nuclear option would occur but suggested that it is a question of when, not if."

That said, we haven't seen Majority Leader Frist assert that he has the necessary votes to employ the nuclear option since the Washington Times suggested it and Frist appeared to walk it back.  Senate Democratic aides tell First Read they don't see where Frist gets those votes.

The Washington Post says former Interior Department solicitor William G. Myers III, now a Bush judicial nominee, has been cleared by the DOI of blame in a case that could have become a cause for objections to Myers' nomination.

The Washington Post's Milbank covers the absence of not one but two SCOTUS justices yesterday: "Sandra Day O'Connor... temporarily put liberals' fears to rest: [John Paul] Stevens's absence owed not to illness but to a canceled flight.  Still, the two empty chairs... served as a reminder of the uncertainty surrounding the court's future composition.  Not a single justice in the chamber predated the Reagan presidency."

And USA Today covers the Supreme Court's decision to consider "whether the Bush administration can block Oregon physicians from prescribing drugs to help terminally ill people commit suicide."

Immigration
Gingrich also said yesterday that the United States needs a "much more profound response to immigration."  "America is a cultural DNA," he said; people become American by "acquiring a set of habits."  And he posed a question he said neither party seems willing to tackle: "How do we handle a combination of the borders, immigration, and citizenship which balances" the country's national security, cultural and economic needs?

The Virginia General Assembly -- both chambers -- yesterday approved a measure that would deny illegal aliens access to state and local public benefits, including Medicaid.  The bill now goes to Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, a possible presidential candidate in 2008, whose office would only say the measure is "under review."   - Washington Times

"Caulifornia"
The Governor talks about his plan to control state spending at Cal Expo in Sacto at 2:00 pm ET, while First Lady Maria Shriver accepts a "champion of children" award from Nancy Reagan in Beverly Hills at 3:00 pm.

Schwarzenegger’s approval rating has dipped to 55%, according to a new Field Poll.  “More than a third of registered voters - 35 percent - now disapprove of his performance in office, up from 22 percent in September...  Poll Director Mark DiCamillo said Tuesday the numbers should be viewed in context.  ‘For many governors, these kinds of ratings would be considered a honeymoon - they're still quite positive,’ he said.  ‘But for Schwarzenegger, compared to what they were last year, he's no longer walking on water, I guess.’” – Sacramento Bee

The Governor's "numbers have eroded markedly among independents, just 48 percent of whom approve of his job performance -- a sharp decline from five months ago, when they gave the governor's job performance 64 percent approval." – San Francisco Chronicle

The AP says Schwarzenegger is ticking off nurses and teachers with Hollywood tough talk, though "Schwarzenegger's supporters dismiss the criticism and accuse unions of using the controversies to generate publicity."

First glance links
Utah/No Child Left Behind
Running in the rain
Mitt Romney's blue-state blues #1
Mitt Romney's blue-state blues #2
Whither that Dean fundraising magic

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