“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 11, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

Walking in Memphis, President Bush has another conversation on Social Security there at 10:20 am, followed by a second in Shreveport at 3:05 pm.  Shreveport is home to GOP Rep. Jim McCrery, who chairs the Ways & Means Social Security panel and has been targeted by liberal groups.  To protest private accounts, AUPSS holds a rally at LSU-Shreveport at 1:00 pm, and Democrats Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and John Tanner of Tennessee hold a conference call on private accounts and rural Americans at 11:00 am.

  1. Other political news of note
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    5. Fluke files to run in California

The Washington Post has two items which some might initially suspect are related: a Post survey of Senate Democrats which confirms, as Harry Reid's letter to Bush already suggested, that they have the votes to filibuster a bill that includes private accounts, and Karen Hughes' return to the White House.  But the Post's source says Hughes' focus will be international. 

The Washington Times has a "senior GOP senator" suggesting the White House may get a bad deal on Social Security unless Bill Frist employs the nuclear option.  Democrats, focused on judicial nominations, are convinced that Frist doesn't have the votes to go nuclear.  They may not be factoring in a possible added incentive for GOP senators in getting a Social Security bill.  Or, Frist could simply come under yet more pressure to deliver votes he may not have.

To seeming progress on the small-d democratic front in the Middle East, add new EPA regs as something Democrats or affiliated interest groups are commending Bush for these days.  Enviros are praising the Administration for the new Clean Air Interstate Rule, which is expected to curb pollution-induced heart attacks and other maladies. 

Meanwhile, Bush's desired bankruptcy bill passed the Senate last night by 74-25.  With that bill and class-action reform crossed off Bush's pro-business wish list, med mal and asbestos litigation reform are next.  The Wall Street Journal also says "business lobbyists want to maintain momentum with progress on Central American trade expansion, energy incentives, extension of capital gains and dividend-tax relief," but calls asbestos a "potential casualty" because "consensus eludes fellow Republicans."  The Senate meets at 9:30 am today; the House is not in session.

Senator Clinton and former Senator Edwards are happy to report that their spouses are recovering well from their respective surgeries this week, and are both grateful to all those who have offered their support, per e-mailed statements.  Friday is the day First Read takes a longer look at some aspect of the 2008 presidential race.  Today's topic: The food fight in Washington's Democratic circles over some Edwards comments about the Kerry(-Edwards) campaign.  See below.

Tom DeLay is also doing fine after getting treated for heart arrhythmia yesterday.  He plans to stick to his schedule this weekend, including a trip to Florida today to address the Club for Growth.  DeLay has had this condition for years, and despite the drip-drip-drip of bad press about his ties to lobbyists, foreign agents, and illegal contributions, a source close to DeLay tells NBC's Mike Viqueira that the arrhythmia was not stress-induced.  More on DeLay below, too.

The Memphis Commercial Appeal previews Bush's visit and talks to younger workers who say they aren't worried about the future of Social Security.  "While the 2,000 free tickets for Bush's appearance were snapped up quickly by local officials, party loyalists and the merely curious, it's not clear that the President will be reaching the people he says will be most affected by what he calls Social Security's impending bankruptcy."

More from the Appeal: "[I]n the one hour set aside for his Memphis 'Conversation,' this morning, Bush is expected to present a cast of local characters ready to sell both a dire fear for the future of the nation's principal retirement program and a solution that involves letting younger workers invest part of the 6.2 percent of their payroll taxes in private accounts...  [E]fforts by local AARP volunteers to obtain tickets have been unsuccessful."

The Shreveport Times details planned protests which will split their focus between Social Security and "more of an antiwar theme." 

The New Orleans Times-Picayune says that Louisiana would be particularly affected by changes to Social Security.  "In a state where nearly 20 percent of the population lives in poverty, many Louisianans rely on Social Security as their sole means of income."  Bush spokesperson Taylor "Gross said that Shreveport was chosen for a stop on the tour because of its relatively high concentration of seniors.  The over-65 population in the north Louisiana congressional district is 13.1 percent, slightly higher than the national average."

The Washington Post report on its survey of Senate Democrats notes, "In the clearest sign yet that Bush's efforts to win bipartisan support are flagging, several Democrats whom the White House has been courting said they will not support the accounts at all." 

A Washington Times story packs its real punch in the kicker: a "senior Republican senator" saying "privately that the only way to avoid a bad deal on Social Security may be 'to pull the trigger on the nuclear option.'"  But the lead is notable, too: "Conservatives in and out of Congress say President Bush has been taking bad advice on Social Security, hurting his chance to win private investment accounts for younger workers.  Mr. Bush has refused to rule out measures that would contradict his campaign promises on Social Security, putting himself in what conservatives say is a weak negotiating position with Democrats."  (But the Times doesn't have anyone daring to suggest where this "bad advice" is coming from, beyond a vague mention of "White House staff.") 

USA Today looks at Bush's evolving language in the debate, leading with his recent use of "safety net."  "The new language, which Bush first used a week ago, reflects a new rationale: The government's long-standing commitment to provide economic security for all Americans is at risk, Bush says.  The phrase... hearkens back to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.  It is meant to overcome skepticism about his earlier assertions, now gone from his speeches, that Social Security faces a 'crisis' and will soon be 'flat bust.'" 

And the Washington Times focuses on Bush's rhetoric yesterday, "telling Americans they should demand that their elected representatives 'come to the table' and negotiate," though he also said, "regardless of your party."   

Vice President Cheney tells the Charlotte Observer that he's not concerned with polls that show "Americans are still learning about Social Security's problems...  He said it was 'premature' to say whether the administration will support raising the retirement age, lifting the cap on wages subject to Social Security taxes or other proposals floating around Capitol Hill."  Cheney "also suggested the administration may soon take a more combative tone toward Democrats who have said they'll never favor -- or even negotiate over -- private accounts."

The New York Times says that Bush’s Southern road trip is intended “to buck up - or even win over - members of his own party…  White House officials said the states chosen for Mr. Bush to visit this week had less to do with Democrats and Republicans than with reaching older voters.”   

At the Monitor breakfast yesterday, the DCCC's Rahm Emanuel pointed out, as other Democrats have, that Bush is spending this two-day Social Security trip traveling to Republican areas to focus on his base.  Emanuel deferred (twice) when asked to choose between having Social Security as a campaign issue in 2006 and fixing the system's problems.  He charged instead that private accounts would weaken the system, that Americans must be given incentives to save, and that if Bush were more fiscally responsible, a stronger economy would help shore up Social Security.  After he touted add-on USA Accounts, a Clinton-era proposal, he was asked why the accounts aren't being made part of some party position on Social Security, to which he repeated that if private accounts come off the table, Democrats will deal. 

Asked whether Democrats will continue to simply oppose without putting forth an alternative if Bush continues to insist on private accounts, Emanuel repeated that private accounts would exacerbate the problems the system faces.  In a conference call organized by AUPSS to prebut Bush's visit to Louisiana, House Ways & Means member Bill Jefferson (D) emphasized that Bush hasn't actually proposed a plan to make the system solvent (private accounts still don't address this), so why must the Democrats propose something. 

The RNC yesterday issued a compilation of stats about African-Americans' life expectancy and Social Security in arguing that Bush's plan would make the system fairer to them.  Meanwhile, Sen. Barack Obama (D), in doing interviews via satellite before Bush landed in Alabama, blasted Bush for suggesting that African-Americans could benefit from an overhaul, says the Chicago Tribune.  “‘There is no doubt a disparity in the lifetime opportunities between white America and black America,’ Obama said.  ‘The notion that we would cynically use those disparities as a rationale for dismantling Social Security as opposed to talking about how are we going to close the health disparities gap that exists... is stunning to me.’”  

In a forthcoming and rather colorful New York Times Magazine interview with pro-private accounts USA Next chair Charlie Jarvis, Jarvis talks about what he really thinks of AARP.  He calls their goals "stodgy" and "out-of-date," and says they "don't really know the facts about an issue like Social Security."  To that end, Jarvis says his group will undertake a significant ad campaign in which they will "aggressively brand AARP for what they are, the planet's largest liberal lobbying organization...  We will take a large number of their members away."  Jarvis says his group will work on public health plans, and eliminating and cutting the death tax and cap gains taxes, respectively.

To Jarvis' calling AARP "the planet's largest liberal lobbying organization," we pass on this observation from GW labor and employment law professor Charles Craver about AARP's origins: "It was initially established by insurance industry executives as a way to sell different insurance policies to seniors.  It has never been thought of as a left-wing organization, even though it often seems 'socialistic' when it argues in favor of great government coverage of medical expenses and more generous retirement benefits."

Continuing his efforts to reach out to African-Americans in general, RNC chairman Ken Mehlman's previously postponed town hall at Howard University is now scheduled for March 31.  Given the steady stream of coverage the RNC is getting for doing events geared toward African-Americans, Mehlman sure seems to be getting a lot of mileage out of these town halls, of which he has done just two so far.  But an RNC aide tells us that he has done additional, non-town hall events during his travels.  Mehlman also announced the RNC's African-American Advisory Committee yesterday.

A Harvard law and Kennedy School student touts Condi Rice for president in a USA Today op-ed

Continuing its news-breaking on DeLay, the Washington Post says that yesterday, House Democrats "shut down the ethics committee by refusing to accept Republican rules changes that restrict the panel's power."  As a result, the House currently has "no mechanism for investigating improper behavior by its members...  Democrats said they do not plan to allow the ethics committee to organize until Republicans repeal a series of rule changes they pushed through in January, making it more difficult to initiate an investigation unless at least one Republican member supports the probe."  The Post notes that this happened after it reported yesterday that DeLay, among other members, broke House rules in accepting a trip paid for by registered foreign agents.

USA Today reviews the procedures (many) members (apparently didn't know they) must go through before accepting offers of foreign travel.  

In National Journal's poll of members of Congress, an overwhelmingly majority of Republicans see DeLay as a major asset for the House GOP, despite questions about his ethics.  Not surprisingly, most Democratic members see him as either a minor liability or a major liability for House Republicans.

The DCCC's Emanuel smiled conspiratorially but refused to say yesterday how high DeLay falls on his target list for 2006.

Democratic Washington, close-knit in any case, may already be too close for comfort for the party's slew of potential presidential candidates and their ranks of advisors and consultants.  On top of Hillary Clinton and all the newbies testing the waters, both halves of Kerry-Edwards are working to keep their options open.  With everyone warily scrutinizing everyone else, Edwards, in transitioning from running mate back to rival, is coming under criticism from various corners for how he's conducting himself vis-a-vis Kerry.

The urge is to compare Edwards to Lieberman, who waited until after Gore bowed out to announce and organize his 2004 bid.  One difference, though, is that Lieberman was deferring to the winner of the popular vote.  Asked recently on ABC whether or not he would wait for Kerry as Lieberman did for Gore, Edwards said, "I have enormous respect for [Kerry], but I'll decide what's the right thing to do based on what's going on with my own family."  Since the election, Edwards has visited -- often by invitation -- New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, and will soon travel to Iowa and Wisconsin. 

For every party insider we talked to who takes issue with Edwards already doing key-state travel, one argues that the rigors of the wide-open 2008 race demand as early a start as possible.  A former Lieberman aide tells First Read that Edwards is smart to get out there now: "He doesn't have a platform -- other than that he's running aggressively."  New Hampshire Democratic party chair Kathy Sullivan says, "I respected Senator Lieberman," and waiting for Gore "was his personal preference.  I certainly have no problems with any national Democrat getting out there." 

Edwards aides tell First Read that Edwards is also spending time with wife Elizabeth, who just finished with chemotherapy and a lumpectomy in her treatment for breast cancer and begins radiation soon, and on his new work to fight poverty, for which one senior advisor says he's doing a lot of events that aren't made public. 

But what is "striking" about Edwards' behavior, says one Democratic strategist who did not work on the Kerry-Edwards campaign, "is not that the guy is up and running so aggressively.  It's the constant barrage of very thinly veiled shots at Kerry."  Edwards' "tone toward Kerry, after his blatant and forward campaigning for the job he was given" as running mate, the strategist says, falls "somewhere between bad form and disloyal."

Recent comments by Edwards do echo the conventional criticisms of Kerry, and suggest that Edwards may be trying to distance himself from the effort which bore his name.  On ABC on February 20, Edwards said he wanted to fight back against the Swift Boat Vets "the day it started," but that "the decision was made not to do it, and I did not agree with that decision."  One former Kerry senior strategist tells us that after Edwards was tapped as Kerry's running mate, Edwards senior staff attended all Kerry senior staff meetings, including those at which the Swift Boat Vets were discussed. 

At recent appearances, including at a Missouri party dinner last weekend, Edwards has warned against "political nuance."  "Nuance," of course, was a word widely used in describing Kerry's difficulties in clarifying some of his positions.  Edwards also told the Kansas City Star in an interview that the campaign's decision to pull out of Missouri "was not my decision."  The former Kerry strategist counters, "We went out of our way to make sure that everyone on his team was involved in all decisions we made to pull out of states they were involved in." 

An Edwards spokesperson says, "We disagree with the characterization of how the meetings went."  And a senior Edwards advisor responds, "The idea that the vice-presidential candidate makes strategy decisions does not reflect how these campaigns work."  This advisor adds that Edwards "feels incredibly grateful to Kerry" for asking him to be on the ticket.  Edwards also regularly mentions in speeches that he thinks Kerry would have made a great president.

Edwards aides argue that this is all carping by former Kerry staff.  Other Democratic operatives see it as a choice to, on occasion, not defend his former ticketmate, and to distance himself from the campaign.  One calls it a potential character issue: "Blaming other people doesn't look big, it looks little.  Edwards' job now is to try to stay big." 

One Democratic consultant who worked against both Kerry and Edwards during the 2004 primary raises this question: "What's Edwards going to say when Kerry runs against him and uses Edwards in his own words saying Kerry would be the greatest president in the history of the world?"

But former Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile sees Edwards' efforts as politically smart, noting that when you campaign as the running mate, "You lose your voice, you lose your standing."  Brazile adds, "That was the problem with Joe Lieberman."  And after Lieberman courted Gore, she notes, Gore turned around and endorsed Dean for the nomination.  "Edwards passed the loyalty test when he got on the ticket," she says.

Of course, as the next stage of this very Washington food fight, Edwards critics are reviving the rap on his general election effort, including that he didn't help the ticket win any Southern states.  One e-mail now circulating notes that Kerry-Edwards lost to Bush-Cheney in Wake County, NC -- i.e., Raleigh, where Edwards lives -- while the party's candidates for governor and US Senate won there.

The DNC primary commission holds its first meeting tomorrow at the Washington Convention Center.  Kerry, who's in Florida this weekend raising money for Sen. Bill Nelson, kicks off a full-court press on Monday for his kids' health care initiative, toward which he is applying his presidential campaign grassroots and online networks.  The event takes place in Atlanta.

A new Boston Globe poll shows a majority in Massachusetts saying Gov. Mitt Romney (R) should not run for president in 2008, including just "39 percent of Republicans saying he should not... and 35 percent saying he should."  The poll also points to signs of potential trouble for Romney if he runs for reelection 2006. 

The Georgia House passed the new GOP-drawn district map yesterday.  The map must now be approved by the GOP-run state Senate and the GOP Governor, then OKed by the Justice Department.  DCCC chairman Rahm Emanuel told reporters at the Monitor breakfast yesterday morning that he could see his way clear to supporting a bipartisan means of drawing congressional districts, so long as mid-decade remaps are ruled out. 

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal editorial page touts Governor Schwarzenegger's redistricting proposal, declaring that "the debate is good for the entire country's democratic health, and we can only hope it has some national ramifications."  The page charges "liberal media elites" with ignoring the dearth of competitive districts "as long as it helped to preserve Democratic majorities in Congress."  


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