“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 25, 2005 | 9:30 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
Remember when BC'04 tied Kerry to Whoopi Goldberg after Goldberg turned the President's last name into a sexual reference at that "Hollywood-style New York" fundraiser?

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The Terri Schiavo case is immeasurably grave and tragic. We raise the Whoopi incident only to point out that in politics, when you share a stage with passionate activists, you can be affected by the review. What's going on with the Schiavo case now, and whatever may happen as it nears its seemingly more and more inevitable conclusion, may affect how the public views congressional Republicans, the President, and the GOP.

Figuring that out, however, will take time and patience. We don't know that the new Gallup poll showing Bush with his lowest approval rating of his presidency, 45%, is because of the Schiavo case. It may -- or, may also -- have to do with Social Security, the economy, gas prices, and/or the war. And to the extent that it is because of the Schiavo case, it may inch back up later on.

But consider what's going on now. The judges involved are under protection. Schindler family ally and anti-abortion activist Randall Terry is threatening political retribution. Pat Robertson on CNN said the case approaches "judicial murder." A man was arrested in Seminole, FL after wielding a box cutter in an effort to steal a gun so he could, as he said, rescue Schiavo. Some advocates for the replacement of Schiavo's feeding tube are urging Governor Bush to attempt to do so by force.

And then there's what's going on in DC, where the words "activism" and "activist" are being thrown around a lot. Consider Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa, a relative backbencher. Yet his feelings about the Schiavo case compelled him to declare war on the nation's judiciary yesterday: "The judiciary has circled their wagons, not around the Constitution, not around the law, not around justice, or jurisprudence, but around themselves," said King in a written statement. "They have set themselves up as Supremacists, accountable to no mortal force and in denial of the Immortal Force. No law, however Constitutional, will be beyond the reach of this malignant form of judicial activism."

How "activist" is it, really, when all the courts are ruling the same way? Have all the judges involved allowed their decisions to be affected by the same personal opinions? Is it just as arguable that Congress and the President -- who put together that act of Congress -- were activists here? Or Governor Bush, who proactively sought a means for the state to claim custody of Schiavo?

We'll repeat a couple of points from earlier this week. First, while hampered by their reluctance to take up the Schiavo issue, at some point, Democrats may be able to weave the Schiavo case into their larger argument -- building off the nuclear option, Social Security, Tom DeLay, and the Bolton and Wolfowitz nominations -- that Republicans are, if not “drunk with power,” as Harry Reid put it, then at least showing an arrogance that has come with years in the majority.

Second, again, for all his very best intentions, Bill Frist may have compromised his greatest strength as an oh-eighter when he used his authority as a physician here. Or, he is at least at risk of neutralizing this asset through overuse, as Kerry did with his Vietnam service. Spokesperson Bob Stevenson took another whack at putting the "diagnosis" storyline to rest yesterday with a written statement: "Before addressing the Senate concerning Terri Schiavo last Thursday, Senator Frist carefully reviewed medical information, records, video tapes and sworn affidavits that were in the court records. He spoke with physicians involved in the case... The suggestion by some that Senator Frist was making a 'diagnosis' in the Schiavo case is absurd." Stevenson noted that "the bill passed with bipartisan support and without dissent."

By the way, look who's going to Tampa on Wednesday for a Social Security town hall: Senators Frist, Santorum, and Martinez. The event is being sponsored by pro-private accounts Progress for America.

And, First Read noticed a group of Republicans who have stayed relatively silent all week: socially moderate Republican oh-eighters. More on this below.

Schiavo politics
The Washington Post covers anger in the Native American community over Bush's relative silence on the Red Lake school shootings, particularly when compared to his response to the Schiavo case -- and also ties in proposed Bush budget cuts, specifically "the president's proposal to cut $100 million from several Indian programs next year."

The Chicago Tribune notices that after the Supreme Court ruled against the Schindlers, politicians didn’t rush in front of TV cameras. Why? Because public opinion, according to polls, isn’t on their side. “Whether fallout from the Florida case will slow that agenda -- particularly overhauling Social Security -- remains an open question. When Congress returns from its Easter break, will the leaders be able to turn away attempts at a broader debate over living wills...? Will there be a lingering effect from the case and could it extend to the 2006 election?”

The San Francisco Chronicle also notes how public opinion is steadfast: "'People want to be in control. They certainly don't want government in control,' said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. 'It's bipartisan -- it's conservatives, and it's liberals. People think these are the choices of their families and should not be part of the political process.'"

The AP asks, "Should Congress guide the nation's morals, or just make its rules? Micromanage the states, or let them govern themselves?" One Democratic member "wonders who will suffer more at the polls, Democrats who voted 'yes,'" for the Schiavo bill, "or lawmakers who didn't show up."

The New York Times notes that although Jeb Bush's last-ditch effort to keep Schiavo alive may have failed, “it has cemented the religious and social conservative credentials of a man whose political pedigree is huge and whose political future remains a subject of intense speculation.”

The Times looks at how Schiavo’s parents, and Bill Frist, have said that Schiavo is being “starved," how that image is emotionally powerful, and how it may not apply in this case: "a patient in a persistent vegetative state, which the courts have determined Ms. Schiavo is in, based on scientific evidence, is vastly different from a conscious person's being refused meals."

The Times also notes how conservative groups are using Schiavo’s name as a fundraising tool to help raise money for her family’s legal battle -- but also for their broader agendas.

The New York Daily News: “Some activists are making ugly threats, making up ‘Wanted’ posters for lawmakers and handing out the home addresses of judges who rejected legal appeals to keep Schiavo alive. ‘I am afraid,’ said state Sen. Frederica Wilson (D-Miami), who has received numerous death threats by phone and mail because she voted against a measure to reinsert Schiavo's feeding tube. ‘We're talking about the sanctity of life, and [they're] threatening my life.’”

Schiavo: Congress and the courts
Leading with GOP Rep. Steve King's remarks, the Washington Times reports, "Conservatives inside and outside Congress are vowing a showdown with the federal judiciary..., as Republicans say courts at all levels have flouted congressional subpoenas and legislative intent that her feeding tube be reinserted pending a final decision in the case... Mr. King said he is planning a legislative strategy that will involve offering amendments to appropriations bills designed to 'put the courts back in their appropriate constitutional place,' but said it is too early to say exactly what he will pursue."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page says that on right-to-die cases, "to the extent that government gets involved, the proper venue for settling debates is state legislatures, where the will of the people... can be heard. It is not the courts, where judges can be tempted to impose their own values, especially in the absence of specific guidance from the law." The page also says, "If the outrage over Congress's supposed abandonment of federalist principles means that liberals have discovered the virtues of a restrained judiciary, we welcome them to the club."

On the other hand, David Broder writes, "In a properly functioning system of representative government, with divided powers and an independent judiciary, judges are obligated to avoid legislating from the bench and the legislature should exercise great restraint in intervening in judicial proceedings... [F]or Congress to substitute its opinion for the considered judgment of Florida courts that have invested hundreds of hours in this tragic case is unconscionable in constitutional terms." And he adds, "This is not the first time that Republican leaders such as Sen. Bill Frist and Rep. Tom DeLay have cast aside sound conservative principles and precedents to achieve a short-term political objective."

Bush II
USA Today on Bush's lowest Gallup approval rating yet: "The White House declined to comment. Republican National Committee spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said that Bush is taking on 'tough issues, whether it's to reform Social Security, promoting the spread of democracy or making a renewed pitch to Congress to pass comprehensive energy reform.' Independent political analysts said the drop may reflect opposition to the White House and Congress intervening in the Terri Schiavo matter."

USA Today considers the second-term changes to Bush's Cabinet and notes that "some students of the presidency say the shifts amount to an admission of miscalculations in his first four years and a tip-off that he is thinking about his spot in history." One expert points out, "Second terms can be susceptible to scandal, and a president's power wanes as his interests diverge from the interests of those in Congress who must face voters again."

The Washington Post says Bush's addition of former Soviet republics Latvia and Georgia to his Moscow itinerary is "likely to irritate the Russians, while demonstrating U.S. concern over Moscow's attempts to exercise sway over parts of its former empire."

The GAO is investigating the HHS hiring of conservative columnist Maggie Gallagher to promote Administration pro-marriage efforts. – USA Today

Social Security
The New York Times takes an in-depth look at “progressive indexation,” and wonders if it can help Bush sell his overhaul of Social Security. “Many Democrats are skeptical. One problem, opponents say, is that middle-income and affluent people would feel increasingly short-changed as their benefits fell well behind their payroll taxes.”

From the Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire: "AARP slams" progressive indexing, which would "tie initial benefits for upper-income retirees to inflation rather than wage growth, resulting in smaller checks. Middle-income retirees would see lesser reductions, with low-income seniors unaffected. 'Over our dead bodies,' responds AARP lobbyist Rother, predicting all groups would suffer over time... Bush tells an aide 'We're making good progress,' but personal-account backers fear solvency-only deal."

The interest group war over private accounts has become the standard battle over stats about field operatives, ad dollars spent, etc. As anti-accounts Americans United e-mails (and e-mails) about its expansion across the country, the Washington Times reports that "[a]n army of well-financed grass-roots organizations is operating in 32 states to build public support for President Bush's Social Security investment accounts plan, after a slow start earlier this year..."

A new Pew Poll finds that "that just over four in 10, 44 percent, of all those polled, support creation of the accounts, down from 54 percent in December, while 40 percent are opposed."

Post-recess
We wrote yesterday that the Schiavo case is keeping the immigration debate boiling within the GOP from becoming bigger news just yet. The Washington Post today notes that when Congress returns from recess, the GOP will face "a showdown over illegal immigration" because the House version of the war supplemental "carries tough immigration restrictions," and the Senate version does not. "The immigration debate pits one core GOP constituency (law-and-order conservatives) against another (business interests that rely on immigrant labor)." The article adds, "Rancor over illegal immigration has become a staple on conservative blogs and talk radio, with much of the wrath directed at Bush."

The Washington Post also reports that the GOP leadership in the House "has agreed to allow a floor vote on a bill that would loosen the restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research imposed by President Bush in 2001... The vote, expected to take place within the next two to three months, would be the first of its kind on the politically charged topic since Bush declared much of the research off-limits to federal funding."

The Wall Street Journal bullets: "Democrats renew gun-control drive after Minnesota school shooting. House Judiciary Committee Democrats write Republican chairman Sensenbrenner to help stop copycat killings by moving renewal of the federal assault-weapons ban. A spokesman says Sensenbrenner, involved in Terri Schiavo's case this week, hasn't had time to consider the letter."

Also: "Trade moves up on Congress's post-recess agenda. Republican leaders plan eight-week blitz for Central American free-trade agreement. Senate Finance Committee plans April hearing, while House leaders kick off lobbying effort fueled by groups including the Business Roundtable."

The Post also reports that consumer rights groups are bringing in prominent civil rights leaders "to try to keep a lending industry-backed bill on predatory mortgage lending from rolling through Congress the way recent bankruptcy legislation did."

Whither the Democrats
The Washington Times reports, "Black Democratic leaders are openly talking about the importance of faith, opening the door to pro-life Democrats, and changing the culture of violence in hip-hop music, indicating a more open posture toward conservative values among the party's most loyal voting bloc."

The head of MPAA, a former Democratic member of Congress, "says Hollywood must build a bridge to the Republican-controlled Congress in order to deflate perceptions of a liberal bias... The former congressman dismissed the notion that the movie industry acts as one entity, but admitted that's precisely how the public reacts whenever a handful of liberal actors back Democratic candidates." - Washington Times

The Boston Globe explores the budding camaraderie between DNC chairman Dean and Harry Reid, saying that Reid's recent comments (calling Greenspan a "hack" and saying Bush is "drunk with power") have made him the "fire-breathing face of the party," which has won admiration from Dean... Together with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, Dean... and Reid... are shaping a Democratic Party that is rigorously oppositional, a strategy that GOP opponents call 'obstructionist,' and one that some Democrats find invigorating while others criticize as shortsighted."

The Boston Globe's Vennochi looks at criticism of the Kerry campaign from Hillary Clinton's camp, and says that "Clinton is also reaching out to the middle, seeking common ground on contentious issues from war to abortion. It is an early, but impressive show of political gamesmanship. And it is all happening while the rest of the Democratic pack of presidential possibilities train their arrows mainly at President Bush and Republicans in Congress... [A]t the moment, Clinton is concentrating on the base that lifted Kerry up, while letting others talk about the obstacles that blocked his path to the White House."

Oh-eight (R)
In the week since Terri Schiavo came to dominate Washington's attention, we've seen a few Republican oh-eighters eagerly jump into the fray. Frist put his medical credentials and credibility on the line by suggesting, based on videotape, that Schiavo does respond to outside stimulus; Santorum -- although he has to win a tough re-election fight first -- complained that convicted murderer Scott Peterson enjoys more constitutional rights than Schiavo does; and Jeb Bush -- although he insists he's not running for president -- has been one of this story's main actors.

But what about other oh-eighters in the party, especially those who are a bit more moderate on social issues? A Lexis-Nexis search turns up no statements or mentions by Romney about Schiavo. Ditto Giuliani. Hagel said he supported the Senate bill allowing Schiavos parents to bring a case to federal court, but he was not present for the Sunday vote on it. And McCain only talked about Schiavo after he was pressed about her situation on ABC: "I hope we're not... making this human tragedy a political issue," McCain said. "We've got plenty of other issues that are political in nature for us to fight about. I think that the motivation of my colleagues is that we want to save this, give this young woman's family a chance to care for her for as long as she lives. I don't think it's any more complicated than that."

Is the Schiavo case another example of how conservative the Republican Party has become in recent years, giving a moderate GOPer has little hope of winning the party's presidential nomination? Or could some kind of political backlash make a moderate a more appealing choice? Political analyst Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia tells First Read that he doubts the Schiavo affair will impact the 2008 field much at all. "My strong guess is that this will be long, long forgotten in two months -- much less in 2008. No one will remember this except for the fundamentalist Christian conservatives who feel so strongly about this."

That said, he argues that it's "highly unlikely" that a moderate Republican will win the party's presidential nomination in 2008. "Democrats like mavericks," he noted. "Republicans don't."

Romney has taken out a reference to Roe v. Wade in a proclamation declaring the "Right to Privacy Day" which commemorates that a "Supreme Court ruling legalizing birth control for unmarried people." notes the Boston Globe. Romney's office says the mistake is clerical, while "abortion-rights advocates said the senior staff members' sudden concern about the Roe v. Wade reference fits a pattern of shifting language by Romney..."

Lastly, the Washington Times covers the "small but growing" number of leading conservatives who are urging Cheney to run for president in 2008.

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