“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, March 21, 2005 | 9:15 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
The degree to which moral values "dominated" voters' decision-making in the presidential race was a subject of some debate, but it was enough to send Democrats into the wilderness looking for new ways to talk about faith, gay marriage, and abortion, and embolden President Bush, the GOP, and perhaps especially the social conservative wing of the party which helped Bush secure a second term.

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Although NBC's new "Faith in America" survey, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and Peter D. Hart Research (800 adults, March 8-10, +/-3.5%), does not test the central issues in the Terri Schiavo case, it does offer clues as to what's going on with the country right now, says Dr. John Green of the University of Akron. Green notes that while there's a large consensus "across the population and religious communities" that faith-based organizations should play a role in poverty and hunger, in contrast, when it comes to their playing a role on abortion and gay marriage, there are "strong divisions, with more traditional religiosity, evangelicals and religious Catholics, favoring involvement much more than other folks."

Based on that and other evidence (below), Green suggests that "the division we saw in the 2004 election around 'moral values' seems to be holding." Asked about any sign of a possible backlash, he replies, "I don’t see much evidence that people have tired of the division yet. They may well in the future."

After the GOP congressional leadership resorted to measures usually reserved for national emergencies or to pass continuing resolutions, President Bush at 1:11 am this morning signed into law S. 686, establishing federal court jurisdiction in the Schiavo case. "In cases like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws, and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life," the President said in a written statement. Schiavo's parents then took the case to US district court in Florida, where the judge noted that this will take some time.

We next see Bush in Tucson, AZ at 12:50 pm ET as he resumes his campaign for Social Security private accounts. Congress has once again recessed. But with the Schiavo case still unfolding, the page won't be turned back to Social Security all that fast. For all the best intentions concerning the life at stake, arguments could be made that the Palm Sunday Compromise leaves all the players looking politically, well, compromised.

The Senate Majority Leader, widely viewed as a candidate for president in 2008 (indeed, he went to New Hampshire on Friday night in the midst of all this, NBC's Ken Strickland confirms), used his authority as a physician to argue that, judging from videotapes of Schiavo, "the facts upon which this case was based are inadequate," and to justify Congress weighing in.

Frist told reporters yesterday that he did not see the memo circulating among Senate Republicans laying out how they could benefit politically from this situation, but the memo exists.

The House majority leader -- embroiled in ethics issues which, coincidentally, have been forgotten for the moment -- charged that House Democrats who objected to congressional intervention cost Schiavo "two meals" yesterday. In criticizing the media for "misrepresenting" some facts about Schiavo's capabilities, DeLay also asserted that she is talking and laughing. Some papers today note that DeLay personally attacked Michael Schiavo.

Despite exceptions among the rank and file, the Democratic party leadership has been silent on the first big values debate since the 2004 elections. DNC chairman Howard Dean, who travels to Tennessee tomorrow in his ongoing effort to broaden Democrats' reach in red states, has said nothing. Harry Reid hasn't been heard from since Thursday. A statement from Nancy Pelosi yesterday came AFTER the vote: "Congressional leaders have no business substituting their judgment for that of multiple state courts that have extensively considered the issues in this intensely personal family matter."

That's as close as any Democrat has come to charging Republicans with judge shopping, which is arguably what they did. The oft-used GOP talking point that Scott Peterson got his due process and Terri Schiavo was not getting hers overlooks that the US Supreme Court had the chance to take up this case and opted not to.

At the least, from a political standpoint, the momentum with which Democrats and anti-private accounts forces were heading into the recess fight over Social Security has faded somewhat.

Both Bush and Vice President Cheney hold events on Social Security today. President Bush keeps to his scheduled 12:50 pm visit with seniors and 1:50 pm conversation on Social Security in Tucson, followed by another conversation on Social Security in Denver at 7:15 pm. He then spends the night in Albuquerque. Cheney and Ways & Means chair Bill Thomas have a Social Security event at Cal State in Bakersfield at 1:50 pm. Tomorrow, Cheney has an event in Reno.

When the US Supreme Court resumes hearing oral arguments at 10:00 am, we may see Chief Justice Rehnquist, whose spokesperson on Friday left the door open for Rehnquist's return to work this week.

And Virginia AG Jerry Kilgore (R) officially kicks off his gubernatorial bid in his hometown of Gates City, VA at 5:30 pm. Republican Sens. John Warner and George Allen will accompany Kilgore.

Schiavo politics
Knight-Ridder on the impact of social conservatives as the case hit its apex: "The extraordinary effort by the federal government to try to save the life of Terri Schiavo is a testament to the political passion and influence of social conservatives... Social conservatives -- represented by such groups as Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition -- are a major part of the coalition that has twice elected President George Bush and kept Republicans in control of Congress. Yet until now they have not had as much influence in the Republican-controlled government as they would like."

The New York Times says religious conservatives were more than pleased with Bush’s return to DC to sign the bill. “It was the first time this president had interrupted a vacation to return to Washington, although it was not the first time an emergency had intruded on Mr. Bush's stay at his ranch, as happened when violence between the Israelis and Palestinians escalated over Easter week in 2002."

The New York Daily News notes that Sen. Hillary Clinton did not return to Washington to vote on -- or block -- the Terri Schiavo legislation.

Washington v. the Florida courts
"The legislation will put a federal court in direct conflict with Florida courts, Senate aides acknowledged, a move subject to possible legal challenges whose duration and outcome is hard to predict," says the Washington Post. "Republicans have urged the Florida legislature to overcome its impasse on the issue and try to override the state court's rulings, which could make federal intervention unneeded." More: "When reporters asked DeLay how the bill squares with conservatives' calls to get the federal government out of state affairs, he flashed a copy of the Constitution" and said Congress has "every right to make sure that the constitutional rights of Terri Schiavo are protected.'"

USA Today says "the only question for a federal court probably would be whether Terri Schiavo has been deprived of her constitutional right to due process, says Charles Fried, a law professor at Harvard University who was solicitor general during the Reagan administration. 'The bill itself does not create any new substantive rights'... But U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., compared the issue Sunday to state death-penalty cases that typically are reviewed by federal courts...'" Also, "in a reflection of how bitter the battle over Terri Schiavo has become,... House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and Rep. Dave Weldon of Florida essentially cast Michael Schiavo as an abusive husband."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page says of the Florida court decisions in favor of Michael Schiavo up until now: "Another judge might look differently today on Mr. Schiavo's right-to-die claims given his apparent incentives to be rid of the burden of a severely disabled wife." The page would "have more sympathy" for the states' rights "argument if the same liberals who are complaining... felt as strongly about restraining the federal judiciary when it comes to abortion, homosexuality, and other social issues they don't want to trust to local communities. In any event, these critics betray their lack of understanding of the meaning of federalism... Conservatives support states' rights in areas that are not delegated to the federal government but they also support federal power in areas that are delegated."

The Washington Times notes that in the House, "Democratic opponents delayed the bill with hours of debate, saying that Congress is trampling Florida courts and that federal lawmakers clearly should not be arguing over an individual's medical conditions or personal wishes." But the story also says that "Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, Florida Republican, joined the band of Democrats in opposing the bill. She said she 'burned up the phone' calling medical experts in Florida, and in the end decided that 'to second-guess the Florida Legislature, the Florida courts ... is wrong.'"

The Wall Street Journal round-up says, "Forces on the social right, which have converged around the case, take a generally hostile view of the courts."

Schiavo and the values debate
Eighty percent of those surveyed in NBC's "Faith in America" poll say faith plays some role in their decision-making on marriage or raising children. Per the crosstabs, "the most traditionally religious folk, and especially evangelicals and religious Catholics hold this view," Green points out. "This position seems to be strongly associated with the pro-life sentiments on which the nation is deeply divided. Social Catholics, the non-religious and other folks seem to see less of a role for religion on family matters. So, to the extent that this tragic case is seen as a family issue, it would tend to divide the nation along religious lines."

In contrast, Green points to "a much weaker pattern... on the role of religion in major health-care decisions." Sixty-one percent say faith plays some role in their decision-making about major health-care decisions. "Every religious group shows lower scores here," Green says. "This view of religion’s role does not appear to be as connected to pro-life positions." So to the extent that the Schiavo case is seen as a medical issue, Green says, "there seems to be some openness to a variety of influences on such a decision rather than just religion on the part of many religious groups."

Also in the NBC poll, when asked whether evolution or the Biblical account of creation is more likely to be the explanation for the origin of human life, 33% say evolution while 57% say the Biblical account (44% say God created the world in six days; 13% say God was a divine presence). Green points out on these results that "most people, but especially the traditionally religious, prefer the six-day creation version. This seems to be closely connected to the family decisions role of religion. A traditional view of creation might well help explain a conservative view on the Schiavo case."

The Boston Globe notes that "the case also has broader implications for long-running debates about euthanasia and abortion, with Republicans characterizing their support for her case as a 'right-to-life' issue."

More on the values debate
NBC pollsters Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research found that per NBC's "Faith in America" survey, nearly one-third (32%) of Americans and 34% of registered voters say that religion plays a major role in “determining who to support in an election.” Among Bush voters, 52% say their faith plays a major role in determining who to vote for; 19% of Kerry voters say it plays a major role. In addition, 62% of those who identify themselves as pro-life say their faith plays a major role in deciding who to vote for, whereas 17% of self-identified pro-choice voters say the same.

POS and Hart Research also point out that "states in which Kerry won big are the few areas of the country which side with evolution’s explanation for life on earth." But, the pollsters point out, "80% of African Americans side with creationism as the best explanation, so partisan distinctions are more muted overall."

On that note, the pollsters also point out that the survey reconfirms that "African Americans have consistently demonstrated greater religiosity than other ethnic and racial groups in the United States... African Americans are more likely to indicate a major role of religion in EVERY SINGLE factor tested than do Whites or Hispanics. When looking at participation in religious activities,... the strongest group is African Americans." Per the survey, African-Americans are more likely to attend religious services every week (57%, compared to 40% of whites and 20% of Hispanics); pray every day (93%, compared to 61% of whites and 49% of Hispanics); and discuss religion with family and friends (29%, compared to 14% of whites and 15% of Hispanics).

The Washington Post reports that this week, "as Christians reflect on the execution of Jesus, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is launching a campaign to end the use of the death penalty in the United States... Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington... said the bishops sense that public opinion is shifting against capital punishment, partly because genetic testing has proved that scores of death-row inmates were wrongfully convicted."

The Sunday Post profiled Kansas AG Phill Kline, who is currently fighting resistance from two Kansas clinics in his effort to obtain the medical records of over 80 women for purposes of pursuing cases of statutory rape and illegal late-term abortions.

More court politics
The Wall Street Journal also reports on a "new front... in political battles over American judges: the invocation of foreign law in U.S. court decisions. The Supreme Court occasionally has cited foreign jurisprudence in interpreting constitutional terms such as 'cruel and unusual' and 'due process.' American conservatives are stepping up criticism of the practice, seeing such reasoning as a backdoor to import liberal European ideas into American law." In addition to a House bill already floating, Senate Judiciary member John Cornyn "is expected to introduce a similar measure in the Senate" today. "The resolutions are nonbinding, but they could have a direct effect on judicial confirmations. Some senators suggest they will screen nominees... for the weight they give to foreign jurisprudence, along with other hot-button issues like abortion and same-sex marriage."

Social Security
Harry Reid asserts in a USA Today op-ed that "[i]n the current Social Security debate, only one political party is saying 'no' and refusing to come to the table to address the long-term challenges facing Social Security: the Republican Party." The paper also has an editorial criticizing Democrats for not putting forth any proposals of their own.

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein writes that the "window already may be closing on the most likely compromise," establishing private accounts as an add-on. "And that narrowing opportunity increases the odds that the parties will carry this fight into the 2006 election and probably beyond." Brownstein notes. "Almost all Democrats supported add-on accounts when President Clinton proposed them. Al Gore endorsed them in his 2000 presidential campaign. But among the activist base of the Democratic Party, enthusiasm for add-on accounts is markedly cooling."

Roll Call reports that on Friday, "Republican leaders of the House Education and the Workforce Committee... asked the Labor Department to investigate what they called potentially illegal efforts by the AFL-CIO to pressure financial services firms to withdraw their support for President Bush’s Social Security reform plans," after several top Wall Street firms pulled out of the business coalition backing private accounts.

The House: Delay
Roll Call, following up on DeLay and other House members' acceptance of travel to South Korea paid for by a foreign agent, looks at how "a South Korean industrial tycoon used a nonprofit group set up by advisers to [DeLay] to gain access to dozens of the nation’s top political and military leaders." On that list along with DeLay: Cheney, Hastert, both Clintons, Daschle, and then-AG Ashcroft.

Whither the Democrats
Pegged to the NAACP’s present standoff with the IRS, the New York Times notes that nearly a dozen non-profit groups have publicly complained that government agencies and congressional offices “have used reviews, audits, investigations, law enforcement actions and the threat of a loss of federal money to discourage them from activities and advocacy that in any way challenge government policies.”

The New York Times also writes that subscriptions to liberal magazines such as The Nation, The Progressive, and The American Prospect have jumped since Bush’s re-election. But so have subscriptions to conservative magazines, like National Review. “But if their man won, how do publishers on the right understand the boom? ‘Hate sells,’ quipped Jack Fowler, associate publisher at The National Review.”


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