“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 28, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First Glance
What do Social Security, judicial nominees, and 2008 have in common, beyond currently sucking up all the oxygen in DC?

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Town halls and European tours over with, the key players are back in DC and back to Social Security.  Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that Bush may be willing to deal to get some form of private accounts.  Bush still faces a tough sell on "something as built into the public mindset as Social Security," as one veteran GOP consultant puts it to First Read, but Harold Ickes told the Post that he fears a compromise "may yet allow the president to turn Social Security from a program identified with Democrats to one identified with Republicans." 

Bush ends this week pushing his plan in New Jersey and Indiana.  RNC chairman Ken Mehlman does a town hall aimed at winning over African-Americans on the President's agenda at Howard University in DC tonight at 7:00 pm.  Interest groups on both sides have plans for this week; see below.

The Senate tackles another component of Bush's second-term agenda this week: US circuit court nominees William Myers and Terrence Boyle get their Judiciary hearings, Myers tomorrow and Boyle later this week.  Oppo drops on Myers by liberal interests started late last week. 

After a Sunday full of "maybe's" and apparent "no's" from the likes of Biden, Romney, Santorum and Schwarzenegger on presidential bids in 2008, the governors, still in town for the NGA conference, keep the '08 talk alive.  They'll outline their bipartisan opposition to Bush's proposal to cut $60 billion in federal Medicaid spending over the next decade when they meet with Bush at 11:15 am.  (The Washington Post says there may be a deal in the works here, too.)  The Democratic governors, led by oh-eighter Bill Richardson, hold a presser at 2:30 pm.  The Republican governors hold an "America's Majority Celebration" at 5:30 pm.

But the answer to our question above is: Bill Frist.  The Senate Majority Leader is simultaneously positioning to run for president and oversee passage of Bush's agenda, a juggling act which has him at the mercy of the White House and social conservatives, and means that occasionally the whole Senate may be along for the ride.  Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report suggests to First Read that the Senate "might have gotten off on a better foot" this session had Frist not begun "his pull to the right on issues like Arlen Specter’s [Judiciary] chairmanship."

Beyond lacking the 60 votes needed to cut off a filibuster on Social Security, Frist may not have the 51 he needs to employ the nuclear option on judicial nominees.  Democrats and affiliated interest groups are betting he doesn't.  Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice insists that GOP old bulls won't fall in line.  But Sean Rushton of the conservative Committee for Justice says his folks believe entire GOP conference supports going nuclear, except for Specter.  Rushton: "If Democrats choose to filibuster, then we expect the Majority Leader will pull the trigger." 

Gee, no pressure on Frist there.  First Read gets into the difficulties that Hill leaders in general and Frist in particular might face in running for president below.  The Senate meets at 2:00 pm today; the House is not in session.

And in Texas, the civil trial starts today on allegations that illegal campaign contributions influenced the state's recent redistricting.  Tom DeLay is not a target, but will be on many minds.  The Austin American-Statesman says that "[f]rom the state Capitol to the nation's halls of power, political operatives on both sides are waiting to spin the verdict as a litmus test for other lawsuits pending against the Republicans and their business allies as well as for Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle's criminal investigation."

Social Security
The Wall Street Journal bills Bush's Social Security plan as emblematic of his goal of an ownership society, but adds HSA's, housing, and education and job-training as other fronts on which Bush is nudging the country in that direction.

The New York Times follows up on the Washington Post's Sunday report that had Rep. Clay Shaw (R) offering a compromise to create private accounts on top of Social Security.  “Such ‘add-on’ accounts have been widely considered a potential compromise on the Social Security issues, since Democrats are strongly opposed to diverting payroll taxes for such accounts.  Mr. Shaw said in an interview on Sunday that he was shopping his plan on his own, without the blessing of the Republican leadership or the White House.” 

(Shaw hails from Florida.  Roll Call points out that of "the 10 Congressional districts with the highest percentage of Social Security beneficiaries, seven are held by Republicans; five of those seven are in" Florida.)

The Los Angeles Times leads with Bush/GOP efforts to court African-Americans on private accounts, including RNC chairman Mehlman's town hall at Howard tonight.  "The most provocative element of the GOP message to blacks: Their shorter life expectancy means that Social Security is not a favorable deal for them, a point contested by Bush's critics."  

The story notes that -- as with young people, we'd suggest -- Bush's efforts may make black voters more open to supporting the GOP in the future whether the accounts happen or not. 

Rounding up the interest group fight, USA Today points out that "[s]ome of the tactics have little connection to the debate's subject."  The latest move from pro-private accounts USA Next will be a letter this week "to conservative activists"  outlining AARP's "'shameful record of liberal activism.'"  The paper also runs an accurate story on the tactics being employed by USA Next and how they are, and are not tied to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. 

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein finds the USA Next attacks on AARP "vile," noting that AARP "has never ruled out supporting individual investment accounts as an addition to Social Security," and that the attacks signify a larger deterioration of public discourse over politics and policy -- "a war of all against all, as activists allied with both parties routinely strafe any institution or individual they believe is aiding the other side." 

Brad Woodhouse of Americans United to Protect Social Security, the new Democrat- and labor-affiliated group formed to oppose private accounts, tells First Read that they "will be making thousands of patch-through calls from folks against privatization to members as they return from recess in an attempt to keep the heat on from the successful anti-privatization efforts of the past week."  Woodhouse says the group also "will be organizing large protests at the President's Social Security town halls in Indiana and New Jersey (and wherever else he takes his road show this week)."

And the Campaign for America’s future tells us it plans to begin airing TV ads today in Shreveport, LA today blasting Rep. Jim McCrery’s (R) political contributions from Wall Street.  Last week, the group ran print ads criticizing McCrery, who chairs the House Ways and Means Social Security panel, arguing that his financial dependence on Wall Street makes it tough to represent “Main Street” in the debate over Social Security.

The Senate
It might be easier for governors to run for president than it is for US senators, as we wrote last week in advance of the NGA meeting.  But it's a lot easier for US Senators to run for president than it is for their majority and minority leaders, as we realize in considering Bill Frist's week of Social Security and judgeships, capped off with another visit to New Hampshire this weekend.

Beyond being a "face" of the party in either case, the roles of majority leader and presidential candidate require vastly different skill sets.  Hill leaders are "inside-game wizards, not voter-connecting wizards," says one veteran Republican consultant -- who also points out that the DC press corps often has a fascination with their candidacies which is not shared beyond the Beltway.  Their efforts are "far more interesting to hopelessly DC-centric elite media than to actual voters."

Other differences: "Majority leaders require management skills while presidential candidates require the skills that allow them to be managed," the Cook Political Report's Duffy tells First Read.  And a Democratic strategist familiar with the demands of both roles points out that "most Senate leaders rarely if ever meet with people they don't know," whereas if you're running for president, "all you do is talk to strangers."

One Senate Republican aide adds that "it's hard to carve out a legislative niche since you're responsible for shepherding all legislation through, so none is really your own."  This aide suggests Bob Dole was hurt in 1996 by not having trademark legislation to point to.  

Dole looms out there as the obvious example of an unsuccessful run by a Senate leader -- even though he eventually quit his post to run full-time.  The Democratic strategist says one reason why Tom Daschle opted not to run for president in 2004 was because he couldn't see a way to do both jobs, and both he and his Senate colleagues preferred that he not give up his minority leader post.

Also, consider that Dole in 1995 and Daschle in 2003 were experienced hands at leading their caucuses.  Imagine the challenges for a recently minted majority leader who might still be honing that skill set, and whose presidential candidate skill set is questionable, to try to balance the two.  

Elected to the Senate in 1994 and elected majority leader just over two years ago when Trent Lott had to give up the job, Frist is fulfilling a pledge to serve only two terms and will quit his Senate seat and the leader job in 2006 -- like Dole, thus freeing him up to run for president.  But Frist's situation differs from Dole's in a couple of very key ways: 1) The 2008 campaign has already started, forcing him to travel early and ensuring he'll have to juggle both jobs for nearly two years; 2) the usually hierarchical GOP isn't making way for a favorite candidate this time, exacerbating point #1; and 3) the lame-duck White House, knowing that every moment counts as far as passing the legislation that will be Bush's legacy, wants as much of it passed as quickly as possible. 

Judicial politics
Nan Aron of the left-leaning Alliance for Justice suggests to First Read that Judiciary panel chair Arlen Specter "recognizes that this is the time to flex his muscle as chair.  Nothing has happened yet.  If he's going to lay down his own marker, now's the time to do it."  Aron adds that Specter's illness might inoculate him against criticism from GOP colleagues and conservative groups.  "I think he's got to know that people aren't going to go after him.  How would it look?"

Julie Bernstein at the Alliance adds that when Myers gets his hearing tomorrow, "Democrats will show the GOP that they’re unified and strong in their rejection of" Bush's nominees.  She predicts Frist will "try to paint their actions as obstructionist," but points out the Senate’s 95-percent approval rating of Bush’s judges."

Roll Call reports that master of Senate rules Robert Byrd is "preparing to become a major floor presence if the GOP tries to invoke the 'nuclear option' later this spring."

GOP realignment
Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker lays out Bush's effort "to establish the GOP as America's majority party, not just for the next four years, but for a generation."  Among the policies that Bush believes "will lure independent voters, even Democrats, to the GOP:" private accounts, immigration, tort reform, and civil service regulatory changes.  – USA Today

The values debate
The Wall Street Journal says the Bush Administration is requiring private US AIDS organizations to pledge opposition to prostitution before they can get federal grants.  The Journal notes that Bush "has made AIDS prevention and treatment a centerpiece of his effort to convey a compassionate side to his conservatism."

Rep. Charlie Bass (R) of New Hampshire is preparing a bill to repeal President Bush's stem-cell policy; the bill could have close to 200 House supporters, but "conservative forces are gearing up to fight it," says the Washington Times.

Bob Novak notes how Republicans and conservatives -- like Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- are trying to shift the focus in the debate over stem-cell research away from scientific research and onto the scientific community’s desire to clone human beings. 

After a flurry of bad press last week about his "flip-flops" over issues like gay marriage, the Boston Globe says Romney is trying to "walk a careful political path, as he delivers out-of-state speeches that critique Massachusetts and its perceived liberal excesses while he pledges to pass an ambitious agenda with the help of newly wary Beacon Hill Democrats."  

Whither the Democrats
The New York Times writes that a group of wealthy Hollywood donors, led by the wife of actor Dennis Hopper, has written a letter objecting to the US Senate candidacy of anti-abortion Rep. Jim Langevin (D).  “The letter writers say they support the primary candidacy of Matt Brown, Rhode Island's secretary of state, for the seat now held by Lincoln Chafee, a Republican…  The letter is the latest sign of resistance from abortion rights supporters to the efforts of some Democrats to find middle ground in the abortion debate.  Abortion rights groups say their constituents are heavy contributors to the party.”

Joe Biden told NBC's Tim Russert that yes, he's considering a presidential bid in 2008, and that Hillary Clinton would be tough to beat out for the nomination.  The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz looks at the press corps' Hillary fever.

Yesterday's Miami Herald wrapped up John Edwards' appearance at the annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Florida, where, shockingly, he had the "air" of a candidate. 

"Caulifornia"
Tomorrow marks the deadline Governor Schwarzenegger gave the legislature for action on his proposed reforms, including his redistricting plan and a proposal to revamp the state pension system that looks something like Bush's Social Security private accounts.

Adopting a Bush White House tactic that brought them some flak, Schwarzenegger's office has sent California TV stations "a mock news story extolling a proposal that would benefit political boosters in the business community by ending mandatory lunch breaks for many hourly workers.  The tape looks like a news report and is narrated by a former television reporter who now works for the state...  Snippets aired on as many as 18 stations earlier this month, the administration said." – Los Angeles Times

Schwarzenegger has no planned public events today; he has private meetings in Monterey and Sacramento.

The Los Angeles Times says the mayoral candidates' antics to draw attention and support are making these final days before the primary pretty amusing.

First glance links
The Washington Post's Sunday Social Security scoop
The Post on Medicaid
The Austin-American Statesman on the Texas trial

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