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

First glance
Social conservatives turn out, even in bad weather.  The fact of political life that heartens GOP candidates and strategists at election time haunts them now (and may or may not at election time, TBD.)  Along with the Easter egg-rollers, the White House gets protestors asking that President Bush order the replacement of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube.  The DC-based Christian Defense Coalition will hold a press conference at 12 noon, followed by a 1:00 pm protest outside Speaker Hastert's office.

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As emotions run higher in Pinellas Park and elsewhere, we'll repeat what we said on Friday -- that anything that happens as a result could, by association, further affect how the public views the President, GOP lawmakers, and the party.  At the same time, anger among the protestors is increasingly being directed at the Bushes.  In retrospect, while any long-term effect remains TBD, the GOP's involvement is looking increasingly lose-lose, at least for now.

This may also hold true to the degree that the story distracts attention from Bush's top legislative priority.  Remember the debate awhile back about Bush having several weeks, per some lawmakers on the Hill, or a couple of months, per the White House, to make headway with the public on private accounts?  No one foresaw that Washington would get so tied in knots for over a week by the Schiavo case.  And the progress of her situation is such that it will hang over Bush as he makes his next Social Security stop in Cedar Rapids, IA on Wednesday.

Also showing up in Florida early this week: RNC chair Ken Mehlman goes to Orlando on Tuesday to appear with Martinez at a forum about "the shared values and issues facing the Hispanic community and the Republican Party," per the release.  Asked why now, an RNC aide says they've been looking for a convenient date for this event for some time.

Today, President Bush returns from Crawford and takes part in a celebration of Greek Independence Day at the White House at 3:00 pm, currently his only scheduled public event.

Second-term presidencies have been known to get bogged down by scandal, but right now, Bush II seems more likely to get distracted by apparent conflicts between his agenda and various facets of conservative philosophy -- social, fiscal, and governmental -- for which the Administration will constantly be appeasing one faction of the party or another.  Beyond the Schiavo case, today the US Supreme Court hears another case that pits the Administration not only against state courts, but against those conservatives who feel that international law should have no bearing on US judicial decisions.  More on Medellin v. Dretke below.

And out in California, a state judge's weekend reaffirmation of her decision allowing Governor Schwarzenegger to raise unlimited sums of money for his ballot initiatives may prove to be a mixed blessing for him, in that all that fundraising may further erode his reformist image.  Schwarzenegger is on an increasingly bumpy road as his efforts to enact reforms through a special election take on an increasingly partisan taint.  Democratic sources confirm to First Read that Schwarzenegger has been meeting with state lawmakers in an effort to strike some kind of deal that might eliminate the need for a special election.  But Schwarzenegger tells the Washington Post in an interview that he still relishes the prospect of a good electoral fight.

Schiavo politics
The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein references the polls and points out, "To many analysts, the resistance to Washington's role illustrated the challenges Bush and other social conservatives face in forging consensus for a 'culture of life' agenda that includes issues such as abortion, embryonic stem cell research and end-of-life cases...  [M]any on both sides agree that the emotional confrontation... will reinforce the shift from economic interests to cultural values as the principal force unifying each party's electoral coalition."  Also, "many Democratic strategists believe the party could benefit among moderate swing voters who believe Republicans overreached in the matter."

The Sunday Los Angeles Times laid out key similarities between the Schiavo situation and the previously unreported circumstances under which DeLay and his family permitted his own comatose father to pass away in 1988.  "Both stricken patients were severely brain-damaged.  Both were incapable of surviving without medical assistance.  Both were said to have expressed a desire to be spared from being kept alive by artificial means.  And neither of them had a living will."

Following up this morning, the New York Times has this line from DeLay’s recent speech to the Family Research Council: “‘Congress has a legislative and moral duty to do what we can to protect [Terri Schiavo],’ Mr. DeLay said…  ‘Her life is being threatened, and we have it in our power to act on her behalf.  Every human life deserves at least that much.’”

The Raleigh News & Observer says "some analysts contend that the president's dramatic reaffirmation of his close ties with the Christian right may erode his appeal to centrists, including Republican moderates in the Senate."  The story also notes that "Frist's effort to preserve Schiavo's life could help him with conservative religious voters during the 2008 presidential primaries."

Social Security
Today in New Mexico, Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Rep. Tom Udall (both D) address a forum about Social Security at a vocational school located in GOP Rep. Heather Wilson's district at 9:00 pm ET.

Or if New Mexico doesn't suit you, try Des Moines.  Previewing Bush's Wednesday visit, the Register notes that Iowa is now "smack in the middle" of warring lobbyists, interest groups, and politicians intent on winning the debate over Social Security.  “In Iowa, television, radio and print advertisements… will be only the tip of the iceberg.  There will also be phone banks, in which callers try to talk to Iowans about Social Security; mini-tours of the state by prominent speakers; and distribution of opinion pieces written for newspaper editorial pages, officials with the groups said.”

Also back home in Iowa, in between town halls, the AP caught up with GOP Senate point man Chuck Grassley, who said he's "finding little clamor for" the President's proposals "among the people who have kept him in the Senate for 25 years...  The mixed message he is getting is not the one the White House wanted when a week earlier Mr. Bush urged lawmakers to meet with people in their states and districts...  One troubling aspect of Mr. Grassley's town meetings is the demographics: Everywhere he goes, he sees a lot of people with gray hair, but not many young people."

At the same time, the President's new congressional liaison tells Roll Call she "believes the landscape for Social Security looks promising.  Although polls have shown opposition to the president’s plan, [Candi] Wolff points out that they also have shown a recognition that there is a problem with the program that needs to be fixed."  "Howard Paster, the first Hill liaison to then-President Bill Clinton, likened Wolff’s challenge on Social Security to the one he faced in trying to sell Clinton’s controversial economic plan to Congress in 1993..."

Bush II
The New York Times front-pages Karl Rove in his new gig as deputy White House chief of staff for policy, a job that has allowed him to play a large role in selling Bush’s Social Security proposal.  “[T]he intensity of Mr. Rove's involvement in politics and policy makes his current status unusual and gives him remarkably broad authority inside the White House and out.  And in giving Mr. Rove his new title, Mr. Bush, freed from the need to think about re-election, seemed to acknowledge what everyone in Washington knows: that in this administration, as in all others, politics and policy are inextricably intertwined.”

Looking at his jokes on the trail, his softer tone on foreign policy, and his abandonment of his my-way-or-the-highway approach on domestic issues like Social Security, the New York Times wonders if the second-term Bush is a different president.

This is a complicated one, so bear with us.  The Washington Post lays out a case that the Supreme Court will hear today, in which the state of Texas is accusing President Bush of "attempting to impose on a sovereign state not only his will, but also the will of an international court that has no authority over criminal justice in the United States."  The case, Medellin v. Dretke, involves "51 Mexicans who were convicted of murder and sentenced to death... without first having access to diplomats from their home country.  The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague has ruled that their rights... were violated, and that they are entitled to new hearings in Texas courts."  In an effort to strike a compromise, Bush instructed "the Texas courts to comply with the ICJ's ruling by holding a hearing for one of the Mexicans, Jose Ernesto Medellin, a Houston gang member convicted in 1994 of raping and murdering two teenage girls in Houston."  Bush then "withdrew the United States from the part of the treaty that gives the ICJ enforcement authority, ensuring that... no similar cases could arise at the ICJ again."

"Bush took these steps to smooth diplomatic tensions with Mexico and other nations over the death penalty cases," the Post says, "while also appeasing those in his administration who are skeptical of international bodies such as the ICJ."  But Texas "officials say their ex-governor is trampling on Texas's sovereignty."

USA Today notes that the case "pits the authority of state courts against the Bush administration."

The Sunday Washington Post laid out how business has been the big winner thus far of Bush's second-term agenda, backed by bolstered GOP ranks in the Senate and a small but crucial number of Democrats.

Post-recess
Roll Call finds some possible answers, but nothing conclusive, on why Congress' approval rating has slipped.  Possible explanations: Schiavo, Social Security and judicial nominee gridlock, a lack of focus on issues of more direct importance to Americans, and/or not enough notice of those measures which Congress has already passed this year.

Mitch McConnell said yesterday that Senate Republicans have the votes to go nuclear.  – USA Today

Roll Call reports that "Democrats and their allies hope to duplicate the level of coordination" they've mustered on Social Security in uniting to defeat a GOP effort to go nuclear before it's initiated.  "Senior Democratic aides will meet today at AFL-CIO headquarters... with top union officials," including from AFSCME and the SEIU, "and other interest groups."  The effort involves various ad campaigns, including some targeted at specific lawmakers.  (We presume that this coalition would then be primed and ready to try to defeat any Bush judicial nominees they view as objectionable.)

"America’s Health Insurance Plans today kicks off a bristly lobbying and advertising campaign that’s designed to propel medical malpractice legislation to the forefront of Congress’ agenda," the paper also reports.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page on DeLay's ethics issues: "Taken separately, and on present evidence, none of the latest charges directly touch Mr. DeLay...  The problem, rather, is that Mr. DeLay, who rode to power in 1994 on a wave of revulsion at the everyday ways of big government, has become the living exemplar of some of its worst habits...  Whether Mr. DeLay violated the small print of House Ethics or campaign-finance rules is thus largely beside the point.  His real fault lies in betraying the broader set of principles that brought him into office..."

More on the values debate
The Washington Post reports, "Some pharmacists across the country are refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control and morning-after pills, saying that dispensing the medications violates their personal moral or religious beliefs."  The Post says, "Supporters of pharmacists' rights see the trend as a welcome expression of personal belief.  Women's groups see it as a major threat to reproductive rights and one of the latest manifestations of the religious right's growing political reach...  The issue could intensify further if the [FDA] approves the sale of the Plan B morning-after pill without a prescription -- a controversial step that would likely make pharmacists the primary gatekeeper."

In Boston today, a wealthy Democratic businessman and activist "is expected to enter the fray" over embryonic stem cell research by launching an "emotionally charged" TV ad "featuring parents of two children with diabetes who argue that Governor Mitt Romney would block promising research that could cure the disease."  A state "Senate vote, scheduled for Wednesday, will be the first test of the political viability of" a bill "which would give the state's official endorsement to embryonic stem-cell research, including stem cells obtained from cloned human embryos."  - Boston Globe

"Caulifornia"
The Washington Post interviewed Schwarzenegger, who "gave every indication that he relishes the opportunity to defeat, not compromise with, his opponents.  When it was suggested that Schwarzenegger sounded as though he would be disappointed if a face-off were averted by compromise, he responded without hesitation.  'There's something very attractive about it,' he said.  'You're absolutely right'...  The governor said the battle is not Democrats vs. Republicans.  But his opponents see him and his agenda as part of a partisan and ideological battle that echoes the priorities of President Bush and the Republicans in Washington."  The story adds, "in interviews last week, neither side sounded optimistic about the prospects for compromise" that would stave off a special.

Oh-eight (D)
Edwards is focused on his poverty center and on getting his wife well -- but he's got trips to Iowa and Wisconsin scheduled within the next week.  The AP says Edwards' two-day Iowa trip includes a fundraiser for Rep. Leonard Boswell and "an interview with Iowa Public Television, which will be broadcast statewide," and an ed board at the Register.

As a general note to all oh-eighters, including the other half of the 2004 Democratic ticket, we don't care if you're exploring or keeping your options open.  But why not just admit it?

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