“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.

Friday, March 4, 2005 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
Isn't it (a little bit) ironic: Amidst widespread soul-searching over what the party should stand for, and acknowledgement that they didn't give voters enough reasons to favor them over Bush in 2004, Democrats are gaining intense, self-propelling energy from their opposition to Bush's Social Security plan.  Every discouraging poll for the President and off-message word from Hill Republicans encourages them more. 

  1. Other political news of note
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      House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.

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    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

Democrats have said for weeks that Bush is overreaching with private accounts.  Now Bush is publicly striking a note of compromise and privately corralling straying GOP Hill leaders.  It may prove to be smart politics for Democrats to continue to oppose Bush's plan without offering alternatives, but it's a gamble.  If they succeed in stymieing Bush's efforts and nothing happens on a program which a majority of Americans agree is in some degree of trouble, and Democrats themselves have vowed election year after election year to protect, what will they have to tout?  Numerous party strategists and policy wonks, albeit on the periphery of this fight, tell us that Democrats must put forth some positive alternative of their own.

Today, as the President hits the road to tout his plan, it feels like the entire Democratic party -- the Hill, the DNC, and amassed interest groups -- is rising up to meet him. 

Bush has conversations on "strengthening Social Security" in Westfield, NJ at 10:50 am and at Notre Dame in Indiana at 4:35 pm.  In both areas, the DNC airs radio ads, targeted at the local GOP congressman, which "mention benefit cuts three times in less than 60 seconds," per the release.  Anti-private accounts group AUPSS (don't ask), which sees Bush's trip as its big debut on the road, holds rallies near Bush's event sites in New Jersey at 9:00 am and at Notre Dame at 2:30 pm.  "We’ll have a bigger debut of sorts here in DC soon," including TV ads, spokesperson Brad Woodhouse tells First Read.  More on the AUPSS plans below.

Harry Reid and 41 Democratic Senators -- remember, they only need 40 -- sent Bush a letter last night urging him to ditch private accounts, and suggesting they are open to considering the accounts as add-ons.  Not signing: Kent Conrad and Ben Nelson (and an out-of-town Russ Feingold).  A separate Reid statement asserts that Senate Democrats "want "to pay back the Social Security Trust Fund for all the money used for other purposes;" and want to "explore incentives for personal savings and increase public saving by restoring fiscal discipline and ending raids on the Social Security Trust Fund." 

Reid and colleagues hit the road for a two-day, four-stop tour that includes New York and Philadelphia today; Senators Clinton and Kerry attend the New York event at Pace University at 10:00 am.  Reid travels to Phoenix and Las Vegas tomorrow.  Ted Kennedy collaborates with his state AARP and AFL-CIO on a separate town hall on Social Security in Brighton, MA today at 10:15 am. 

House Democrats say they held 100 town halls last week and have 160 members holding more than 300 within the next month.  A spokesperson tells First Read that they're doing counter events when possible, as well as conference calls with White House and local reporters.

From the rapidly responding RNC: a research document this morning that seems targeted more to Republicans than to Democrats, arguing that GOP candidates ran and won on Social Security in 2002.  Yesterday, the RNC sought to make the case that Bush's proposals would benefit women, and released survey data from Hill GOP pollster David Winston that rebuts some recent Democratic polling.  Winston says in his memo, "the Democracy Corps [is] back on the attack with the kind of overheated hyperbole that didn’t work last November...  The Democrats’ image of being the party without ideas cost them in the last election and continues to drag down their numbers."

Bill Frist is in New Hampshire again this weekend, Evan Bayh is speaking in Colorado, Mitt Romney is dodging on whether he'll seek re-election in 2006...  First Read offers a little snack for those with 2008 cravings at bottom.

Social Security
Bush's first stop in Westfield, NJ this morning.  The Star-Ledger notes that the state's GOP members have not endorsed Bush's plan and await more details.  Bush will speak to "mostly Republicans" at the town-hall style meeting.  

Protestors will gather on and around "a flatbed trailer complete with a sound system and a full slate of speakers including Reps. Frank Pallone (D-6th Dist.) and Robert Menendez (D-13th Dist.)."  - Star Ledger

The Indianapolis Star says that at his second stop in Notre Dame, "Bush will speak with six pre-selected locals about his plan to let workers under age 55 divert some income from Social Security into individual accounts...  He may take questions from the audience -- which is already set, too.  Rep. Chris Chocola, R-Ind., distributed tickets through business groups, Boys and Girls Clubs and student and church groups.  No tickets remain." 

(Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is also invited to Bush's event today.  The Indianapolis Star covers a stand-off between the Governor and state House Democrats who want Daniels to apologize for comparing "them to terrorists earlier this week for refusing to come to the House floor."  Daniels says he won't apologize. )

AUPSS (Americans United to Protect Social Security) is seeking to match the Administration's 60-day push, putting out "at least 60 ordinary Americans and their real stories related to Social Security - survivors, retirees and the disabled who rely on it - folks who were alive in the 30’s who remember an America without Social Security - and a 50 percent poverty rate among seniors, young folks who are concerned about the President’s effort to replace Social Security, homemakers, women, minorities and so on," per the group's release.  They also plan to bracket Bush and other White House officials are their events.  "The President had his tax families - we’re going to have our Social Security families and individuals - and they will run the gamut of age, income level and ethnicity."

The Washington Post covers Bill Frist's course correction and restatement yesterday of his "support for private accounts."

After Frist made these remarks, a Democratic Senate campaign committee spokesperson e-mailed reporters, "The Senate Majority Leader can’t say one thing on Tuesday and then reverse course on Thursday simply because his political patrons in the White House take him to the woodshed."

The Washington Times reports that Senate Finance chair Chuck Grassley, after telling his hometown paper that Bush should focus on solvency rather than on private accounts, "pledged his support for such accounts and noted that they 'are on the table along with all the other ideas to strengthen Social Security.'"  But the story adds, "The White House has 'destroyed the message' because the president is not focusing on the financial benefits and other advantages of large private accounts, said Peter Ferrara, senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy Innovation..." 

The Chicago Tribune: “Thursday's developments indicated part of a Republican attempt to regroup after apparent disarray in the ranks and mixed messages about where the party stands on Bush's plan." 

A source opposed to private accounts directed us to CNBC financial-advice guru Suze Orman's recent comments on WNYC radio.  On the Brian Lehrer Show, Orman argued that the Administration's Social Security plan is too complicated.  "I think they should leave Social Security alone," she said.  Orman, who has written a book called "The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous, and Broke," also said Treasury Secretary John Snow had met with her to ask for her advice on how the Administration can better sell its plan for Social Security.  Her advice?  "People should not have choice... He was very open to it."

Two of the top interest groups in the Social Security debate rank among the four most effective interest groups in Washington, per National Journal.  Although we've heard its detractors -- like the folks over at USA Next -- describe AARP as Washington's single most powerful lobbying group, the magazine's latest survey of congressional insiders ranks the NRA as the most effective, followed by AARP, which tied for second with AIPAC -- and then the US Chamber of Commerce.

GOP pollster Frank Luntz has written a widely distributed memo instructing Republicans on how to talk about Social Security.  But the New Republic asks, “‘How stupid are politicians who listen to Frank Luntz?’…  His advice, rather than brilliant and Orwellian, is mediocre and obvious.  It is a wonder that Republicans still treat him as an oracle and Democrats as a threat.” 

Al Neuharth writes in USA Today, "As a political independent, I love a good fight between Democrats and Republicans.  Oftentimes, compromises mean it doesn't matter too much who wins."  But, Neuharth says, Bush's "second-term plan for a partial privatization of Social Security, if he succeeds, will make us grateful for generations to come.  We older folks (55 and over) won't be affected.  But our children and grandchildren could elect to invest...  Based on all historical economic and investment data, the privatization aspect of Bush's Social Security proposal is that sure and simple." 

A GOP realignment?
African-Americans aren't the only traditional Democratic constituency the White House and RNC are appealing to on Social Security: Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez had a Spanish-language op-ed in La Opinion yesterday arguing "that the rising number of young Latinos in the workforce and the disproportionate dependence of Latino retirees on Social Security meant they had the most to lose if Bush's plans were not adopted."  Administration officials say "the Gutierrez message... would be repeated in White House staff briefings with Latino leaders and in speeches to gatherings of Spanish-speakers..." – Los Angeles Times

On the other side, "one advocacy group backed by the AFL-CIO [plans] a series of town hall meetings in heavily Latino areas, and a leading Cuban American Democrat [sent] an e-mail... warning 'that a shift to worker-owned accounts could hurt lower-income Latinos who had less experience with private investing than other groups did.'"

The White House announced yesterday that President Bush will host Mexican President Vicente Fox, along with Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, at the Crawford ranch on March 23.

Schwarzenegger leaves for Columbus, OH today to headline the Arnold Fitness Weekend.  The San Francisco Chronicle: "There's a simple reason that when the governor made his sole out-of- California campaign appearance for President Bush last fall, his destination was Columbus.  In the Democratic-leaning capital city of this key political swing state, Schwarzenegger is king." 

The Los Angeles Times reports that "Schwarzenegger has a financial interest in the... three-day exhibition... that also features archery, judo, table tennis and posing by the world's 'fittest, most shapely' women, according to promotional material...  Schwarzenegger's partner in the exhibition, James J. Lorimer, would not disclose how much the event takes in or the governor's share...  Lawmakers and watchdog groups say Schwarzenegger should sever his ties to a moneymaking enterprise.  Otherscite another reason for staying away: a bodybuilding subculture tinged with steroids." 

(In an interview with the Bee, Schwarzenegger said he does not want to become a national spokesperson on the evils of steroids, but he did say he has taken steps to rid his two fitness magazines of penis enlargement ads because they are inappropriate for young readers.  )

Even supporters of Schwarzenegger’s redistricting plan say the Governor has run out of time to create a new map for 2006, the AP reports.  The most likely date of a special election on Schwarzenegger’s plan, November 8, “would leave very little time to put new districts in place for the June 2006 primary.  An earlier election is unlikely because Schwarzenegger's allies wouldn't have enough time to collect the signatures needed to put the initiative on the ballot, election officials say.”

Meanwhile, the Bee reports that in a victory for unionized nurses, a state superior court judge ruled that Schwarzenegger “overstepped his authority when he relaxed hospital staffing requirements.” 

The ad war in the LA mayoral race exploded yesterday when endangered incumbent James Hahn went up "with a spot slamming challengers Bob Hertzberg and Antonio Villaraigosa for seeking the early prison release of a drug trafficker." – Los Angeles Times

Whither the Democrats
The Washington Post covers Harry Reid's critique of Alan Greenspan as a "political hack" yesterday and looks at Reid's record as minority leader, stretching back to when Reid suggested "he might vote for conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia if Bush were to nominate him to be chief justice," for which Democrats took HIM to the woodshed. 

The Wall Street Journal editorial page says of the AFL-CIO meeting in Las Vegas that AFL president "Sweeney and allies prevailed with their strategy to keep pouring money into Beltway politics on behalf of the liberals who lost control of Congress in 1994," as opposed to devoting more funds to union organizing.  The page says union membership is declining because labor has become "part of the ideological left and its regulatory and high-tax agenda.  So instead of favoring oil drilling in Alaska, which would create thousands of new middle-class jobs, Mr. Sweeney's shop leaned toward the rich liberals of the Sierra Club."

Washington State
There hasn’t been much action on this front for some time, but the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says that Dino Rossi (R) made public a list of 1,135 felons who he said voted illegally in the November gubernatorial election, along with 45 dead people who apparently voted.  “Those allegedly illegal votes are the core of a lawsuit Rossi and the state Republican Party have filed in Chelan County Superior Court in an attempt to invalidate Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire's 129-vote victory in a hand recount.”  However, according to the paper, one woman on the felon list “said she had her voting rights reinstated almost two years ago."

National political reporters head into the early stage of a presidential campaign with their own measures for handicapping the field, based on some combination (in varying proportions) of history, prior professional experience, reporting, and common sense.  Indeed, the handicapping is already starting, as some "preemie" candidates head to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, New Hampshire again, and (if you're Bill Frist) New Hampshire yet again.  So for fun, we asked some presidential-tier communications gurus to predict, based on THEIR experience, how the political press corps will get into covering 2008.

A veteran GOP presidential campaign consultant who also prefers not to be named: "I think the key sanity lens to snap on the 'scope is that the current 2008 pre-season isn't that real.  Very easy to stick a toe in and get mentioned, but nothing with any outcome-driving muscle will start till mid-2006.  Just all hot air for now, and a sign that political world is bored."

Clinton/Kerry strategist Joe Lockhart: "I think the real dynamic is how increasingly bored you’ll get in covering the guy who just won, not the guy/guys who lost.  I think there will be a lot on the guys who pass the magical and mystic threshold, every time they do something for the first time: first trip to Iowa, New Hampshire, the South; first big policy speech; first break with the President on policy." 

More Lockhart: "Kerry and Edwards are in completely different places.  Edwards has the advantage of it being assumed he will run as the logical next step.  Kerry has to get over the CW of once you’ve taken your shot in a general election, it’s time to get out of the way for others.  People will cover him, but with a lot more skepticism/scrutiny than they will cover Edwards, and a helluva lot more than one of the new faces."

Former RNC communications director Jim Dyke: "Who can beat Senator Clinton is the question on both sides.  Does that ever get to be a boring question?  Hard to say since we have never been in" that situation before, "but I suspect the answer is no."  More: "You have a hungry mob that has just been told the restaurant is closed for two years -- so I suspect they will gravitate to anyone who has some food."

Gephardt/Kerry strategist Steve Elmendorf: "Everything is going to be played off Hillary, and second, the press is going to look at the last war and evaluate everything through that prism, and that may not be accurate.  Who's going to be hot on the Internet, the next Howard Dean -- that may or may not be how it all turns out." 

One GOP operative who asked not to be named says that on the Republican side, the press will "spend a lot of time examining the Bush-McCain relationship and whether McCain still wants it,... a lot of time wondering if Jeb will run, and we'll all start wondering if Social Security will help or hurt Rick Santorum's chances."

Bush campaign media consultant Mark McKinnon: "Alexandra Pelosi has mounted lipstick cameras in cabs around the neighborhoods of Hillary Clinton, JFK, John McCain, Bill Frist, and Rudy Giuliani for her next project: 'The Taxi Cab Confessions - Political Style.'"

Another Democratic communications consultant predicts the media will have three early obsessions: 1) "Who does Karl call, who does Karl visit, who is the beneficiary of those on-background WH official blessings."  2) "Can a northeastern liberal win the primary; can a northeastern liberal win the presidency; which northeastern liberal is the frontrunner on either side."  And 3) "Whether or not those big lights in the sky are really stars or merely aurora borealis in the pan... (often spotted in New York, Arizona, and around anyone wearing a military uniform) which appear once every four years" and burn out.

Gore/Kerry (stage one) message meister Chris Lehane predicts the press "will analyze and cover the '08 field in much the same way that millions of Americans will be approaching their NCAA March Madness brackets...: people will suddenly become experts and offer definitive and comprehensive analysis on teams or candidates that they have never actually seen.  And while relative dark horses from far-away places will capture people's imaginations... it will be the teams and the candidates who have strong fundamentals that will be standing at the end of the day."  Those fundamentals: "strong character, ability to connect with voters, capacity to manage a large organization, a message that resonates, good people on staff and money."


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