“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 24, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
The Pope is back in the hospital with a relapse of the flu, per Vatican officials.

  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

In Bratislava, President Bush is meeting with Russian President Putin at this writing, with a press avail to follow.  The two are expected to announce an effort to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism in the face of unsecured Russian nuclear material.  Bush has already seen the President and Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic and addressed Slovak citizens.  After his events with Putin, he returns to DC and has no public events scheduled for the rest of the week.

Social Security is looking increasingly like Swiftees II: The Sideshow.  Pro-private accounts group USA Next removed its web ad linking AARP to gay marriage from its website.  Now Sen. Jon Corzine (D) is calling on President Bush to repudiate the ad, and a Corzine aide says he expects other Democrats will follow suit.  The White House has not responded (if they didn't respond in the case of hundreds of thousands of dollars in TV ads against Kerry, why would they respond over a fleeting Internet ad?).  There's even a veterans' group involved on AARP's side now!?  More on this below.

Meanwhile, the pressure's on Bush to come up with at least one Senate Democratic supporter in the name of bipartisanship.  Treasury Secretary Snow is in Florida, trying to put some heat on Sen. Bill Nelson (D).  Next week, Snow hits Arkansas and Louisiana, hoping to sway Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) and bolster/scare Rep. Jim McCrery (R), who's now under attack from the left.  Senate Democrats say they plan to travel to Pennsylvania and Arizona to return the favor for Republicans Rick Santorum and Jon Kyl.

A trio of reports on other hot-button topics is out there.  The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has released a study showing that the nation's tab for health care could outpace economic growth over the next decade, and that the government will be picking up half that bill.  The National Conference of State Legislatures is calling for major changes to No Child Left Behind.

And a new report on the economic impact of immigration could exacerbate the GOP's difficulty in straddling the issue, appealing to some of the nation's fastest-growing voting blocs as well as to those who advocate immigration controls.  The study out of Columbia University and the Center for Immigration Studies says the net effect of immigration to the United States is a drain on US native workers of about $70 billion per year.  "The study challenges the assumption that immigration is like trade in that it is a net benefit both to the U.S. economy and immigrants' home nations," says the Washington Times -- which also reports on GOP efforts to get a ballot initiative in Colorado which would deny state services to illegal immigrants.

With the latest Field Poll showing lukewarm support for many of his proposed ballot initiatives, Governor Schwarzenegger discusses his redistricting plan today at the Public Policy Institute of California and New America Foundation's Legislative Reform luncheon at the Sheraton Grand Hotel at 3:00 pm ET.  More on Schwarzenegger and an LA mayoral race update below.

In the outreach department, RNC chairman Ken Mehlman is in Trenton, NJ tonight for a 6:00 pm speech at the Annual Black Executive Awards Reception of the city's African-American Chamber of Commerce.  And DNC chairman Howard Dean addresses students at Washburn University in Topeka tonight at 9:00 pm.

All First Glance links at bottom.

Bush in Europe
The Washington Post details the expected Bush-Putin announcement of new nonproliferation measures and says that despite some remaining issues, "some security analysts said the agreement on track for announcement... represented a significant step forward, particularly because Bush administration officials began pursuing a deal only a couple of weeks ago and Russian officials were resisting...  The agreement also helps Bush respond to Democrats' criticism during last year's election campaign that he has failed to do enough to secure Russian 'loose nukes.'"

The Boston Globe says Bush will "signal" that the United States is "unwilling to tolerate the steady erosion of democracy in Russia...  Bush's tone toward Russia has shifted after months of complaints from the president's conservative base about Bush's friendliness toward Putin, whose government has opted to appoint rather than elect governors, crushed independent media, backed an antireform candidate in Ukraine, and dismantled Yukos..."

The AP covers Bush's address to Slovak citizens earlier this morning.

Bush yesterday clarified his “all options are on the table” remark concerning Iran, the New York Times says: “‘That's part of our position.  But I also reminded people that diplomacy is just beginning.  Iran is not Iraq.’”  The paper also says that Bush’s national security adviser “left open the possibility that Mr. Bush would consider offering incentives to dissuade Iran from its nuclear ambitions” - something the Administration had previously rejected. 

Social Security
USA Today focuses on Bush's need -- acknowledged by both sides -- to come up with one Senate Democrat who'll support his plan, while the Washington Post looks at why some Republican lawmakers have been slow to embrace it. 

The Washington Post explains in detail why political implications for both liberals and conservatives make a relatively simple funding shortfall and some equally simple-seeming solutions so dad-gum complicated.

The Los Angeles Times reports on concerns about changes to the program among seniors and those approaching retirement age, even as Bush and Republicans insist nothing will happen to their benefits.  

The Boston Globe's Canellos, interviewing Rep. Richard Neal (D) on the generational gap on Social Security, points out, "Very elderly people remember the 1930s and regard Social Security as a vital lifeline.  Middle-aged people recall their parents' woes in the Depression...  But people under 35... tend to see things differently.  To them, a personal account invested in the stock market seems more secure than a government check, and talk of the Depression is as distant as the Black Plague." 

While some Republican strategists look at private accounts as a way to appeal to younger voters, one Democratic consultant who looks at the world from House races on up suggests to First Read that this fight might help Democrats "get a handle" on culturally conservative middle-class voters, after the party failed to gain traction with this group on economic and cultural issues in the presidential race.  This consultant suggests Republicans may be playing close to a zero-sum game: "Generationally, it might help the Republicans, but it might not give them more votes than they already have."

And, as other strategists on both sides of the aisle have also suggested to us, he thinks the issue will go away if nothing happens on private accounts this year -- that Bush and the GOP will not press to make changes to the system into the election year.

In a conference call with reporters yesterday, the liberal Campaign for America's Future swiped at GOP Rep. Jim McCrery, noting that he has received more than $200,000 in campaign contributions over the past few cycles from financial and banking interests, which might profit from private accounts.  A CAF spokesperson also charged that several former McCrery aides now lobby for those same interests.  Unlike what CAF told First Read earlier, the group will begin running print ads today in the Shreveport Times about McCrery's ties to these financial interests.  "WHO DOES THIS MAN WORK FOR?" the ad asks.  "Not you."  CAF hopes that a fundraising drive will pay for eventual TV and radio ads in McCrery's district. 

McCrery’s hometown paper writes up CAF’s attack, saying a “liberal advocacy group says any recommendations by U.S. Rep. Jim McCrery… about privatizing Social Security are suspect because he has been ‘compromised’ by political donations.” 

Yesterday, the RNC defended McCrery by playing offense, issuing a release charging CAF with being an angry liberal group "from the Michael Moore wing of the Democratic Party."  RNC spokesperson Tracey Schmitt: "Such hypocritical misrepresentations are an effort to forward their special interest agenda rather than be candid with the public about the need to fix Social Security.”

The response we got from McCrery's office looked shockingly(!) similar to the RNC's.  Said McCrery in the statement, "I will not be deterred in my effort to help President Bush do what is right for our country - reform Social Security to make it and our seniors more secure, and our nation more prosperous for everyone.”

Further adding to the Swiftee overtones of this whole sideshow, Operation Truth, a veterans group that has been critical of the Iraq war, sent a letter yesterday to USA Next, blasting it for using the image of a US soldier in its web ad tying AARP to gay marriage.  "Your ad is destructive in that it attempts to convey that any group or persons opposing your side of [Social Security and gay marriage] is not supporting the troops," the letter states.

Sen. Jon Corzine (D), meanwhile, sent a letter to President Bush calling on him to denounce the USA Next tactics.  "Social Security is a time-honored and time-tested safety net for millions for American families.  Talks of altering this safety net should only follow respectable, honorable dialogue between all interested parties...  Deploying mercenaries to smear opponents of your plan is beneath the dignity of the American people and not an honorable tactic during this American conversation."  Corzine spokesperson Brad Woodhouse says the letter was sent by fax and e-mail and as of last night, there was no response.

The New York Times gets the Cato Institute to say that the USA Next web ad “is not very bright politics," and summarizes, “The accusations, counterattacks and internal debate demonstrate the great lengths outside groups are going to build or demolish public support for Mr. Bush's plan.” 

GOP Realignment
As Democrats and unions suspect the Administration of trying to undercut some of Democrats' main sources of campaign contributions, the Washington Post reports that 10 unions "representing federal employees filed a lawsuit yesterday in U.S. District Court challenging" aspects of the Pentagon's new merit-based civil service system. 

Whither the Democrats
John Podesta's Center for American Progress, along with some more academic organizations gathers together regional political, community, and opinion leaders for a conference on "New Strategies for Southern Progress" today and tomorrow at UNC-Chapel Hill.  The aim is "to begin to redefine and update a progressive narrative in the South, one that builds on the past, yet recognizes changing circumstances and new realities," per the CAP release.  Speakers include an array of current and former Southern Democratic lawmakers.

MSNBC.com takes an early look at the key 2005 races -- the mayoral race in New York and the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia -- and sees in them a good chance for Democrats to rebound from their defeats in 2004.  Still, "winning in New York and Virginia, experts point out, won’t be easy for the Democrats.  And even if they win these races, they say, it’s unlikely that the victories will actually foreshadow some kind of larger trend.”

The article goes on to preview the Virginia contest between Tim Kaine (D) and Jerry Kilgore (R), which is probably the most competitive and most interesting race this year.  It takes place in traditionally GOP state, where the outgoing Democratic governor is very popular.  Moreover, Kaine and Kilgore “are the political heirs, respectively, to two men who may very well run for president in 2008: [Mark] Warner and U.S. Sen. George Allen, R-Va.”

"Caulifornia"
The other high-profile contest of 2005 is the LA mayoral race.  And while few have paid attention to it -- even folks in LA are more focused on the rain and the Oscars -- we see two reasons to give the race a look: 1) the five-person primary takes place less than two weeks from now; and 2) incumbent Mayor James Hahn (D) might not even make the May 17 runoff.

Last week, First Read caught up with LA political consultant Joe Cerrell (D), who says that among the five candidates (and Cerrell points out he's friends with all of them), there are three to watch: Hahn; city council member and 2001 candidate Antonio Villaraigosa; and former state Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg.  So Cerrell sees the March 8 primary playing out in one of three ways: 1) Hahn and Villaraigosa make the runoff, repeating their 2001 matchup, which Hahn won; 2) Hahn and Hertzberg make the runoff; or 3) Hahn finishes in third.

Cerrell believes that Hahn is in trouble not because of the "pay-for-play" ethics problems surrounding his administration -- but rather because of a lack of city funds.  “You come up short trying to provide the services that everyone wants,” he says.  He notes that turnout in this race will be low, and Hahn's name ID and fundraising advantage might propel him into the run off -- and perhaps to eventual victory. 

On Sunday, however, Villaraigosa and Hertzberg were jointly endorsed by the Los Angeles Times.  And another Democratic consultant in the state, like Cerrell, thinks a Hahn loss in the primary is entirely possible and says that in the event of a Villaraigosa-Hertzberg runoff, arguments could be made for either candidate winning.

Complicating matters for Hahn: more than two dozen African American religious and political leaders yesterday endorsed Villaraigosa and Bernard Parks. – Los Angeles Times

But complicating matters for Villaraigosa: Latinos in the city aren't paying as much attention as they did when he ran in 2001, and the community is splitting its support amongst several candidates. – Los Angeles Times

At the gubernatorial level, making its way around Democratic circles in California and to First Read's inbox is a spreadsheet laying out Schwarzenegger's job approval ratings in recent polls, ranging from 65% in the October 2004 Field survey, to 60% in polling last month, to 55% now in the latest Field Poll.  Among Democrats, Schwarzenegger's approval has slid from 46% in the October Field survey to 34% in this latest one. 

Again, these are numbers any mere mortal governor would be thrilled with.  But that's what's cheering Democrats -- that Schwarzenegger is showing a barest glimmer of being a mere mortal politician.  At this rate, by the time he starts running for re-election in earnest, he might look almost like a real Republican. 

California GOP consultant Wayne Johnson argues to First Read that on Schwarzenegger's redistricting plan, "the perception that what the Governor is doing is partisan is really not accurate.  He has stepped into a situation that is partisan, and therefore to make anything happen," his efforts look "like partisanship."  Johnson says he knows some Democratic lawmakers "who are not particularly concerned about reapportionment," and charges that "to the extent that Democrats are complaining, that is partisanship."

Part Two of the latest Field Poll shows that “a slim majority of registered voters supports” most of Schwarzenegger’s proposed initiatives, “but two-thirds oppose spending millions of dollars for a special election,” the Sacramento Bee says.  “‘Except for the merit pay proposal [for teachers], I'd characterize the support for the governor's proposals at this time as lukewarm,’ [pollster Mark] DiCamillo said.  ‘With initiatives, the “yes” side is usually hoping for higher numbers early on.” – Sacramento Bee

First Glance Links
USA Today (Health Care)
Nat. Conf. of State Legislators (Education)
Washington Times #1 (Immigration)
Washington Times #2 (Immigration)

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