“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, April 1, 2005 | 9:15 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
A Vatican spokesperson says the Pope is aware of the gravity of his situation after suffering heart failure during treatment for his urinary tract infection.  An updated, abridged version of our papal conclave explainer is below.  While John Paul II's situation extends and adds poignancy to the Terri Schiavo-inspired debate in the United States about end-of-life issues, the next papal conclave may not magnify other hot-button social issues being debated here, beyond perhaps issues related to biotech advances like embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. 

  1. Other political news of note
    1. Animated Boehner: 'There's nothing complex about the Keystone Pipeline!'

      House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.

    2. Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

The other two major events yesterday which more directly involve Washington lawmakers, Schiavo's death and the release of the WMD report, yielded a pretty fair picture of the state of the two parties as Congress prepares to return from recess.  You could argue that Democrats did not use the break well, while Republicans used it too well.

On WMD, despite the opening for Democrats to criticize the President, a survey of written statements shows much criticism of intel officials and the Administration, and little of Bush himself.  Kerry, in one of the tougher statements we saw, charged that Bush "has enormous work to do to restore the credibility of American intelligence gathering."  But along with intensity, something else was missing -- and we don't just mean the DNC statement that lacked a quote from Governor Dean.  We mean the dearth of Democratic lawmakers willing to criticize the report on TV.  None were to be found on the Russell Rotunda yesterday around, say, 2:45 pm as McCain did one of his round-robins in front of the TV cameras.  Yes, it's recess.  Members are on CODELS.  But when was the last time a member wanted to talk in front of a camera and couldn't find one?

On Schiavo's death, intensity is also the issue for Republicans -- i.e., too much of it.  Tom DeLay gets the most attention for over-the-top rhetoric: "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior, but not today."  But Rick Santorum also used a press conference call yesterday to threaten some kind of federal-level legislative retribution against the judicial system, details TBD.  Asked about the possibility of impeaching federal judges, Santorum said that would be the House's call.  "But I can tell you the frustration level is getting higher and higher."  He also said, in reference to the 11th Circuit's criticism of the White House and Congress, "For a judge to come out and say Congress doesn't have a right... shows you how out of touch judges are with the law and the Constitution of this country."  We do wonder what Santorum would be saying and doing about Schiavo if he weren't being challenged for re-election in 2006 by a pro-life Catholic Democrat.

And we'll say it again: Schiavo, the nuclear option, DeLay, Wolfowitz -- Democrats may not be effectively building a case that Republicans have become an arrogant majority right now, but that doesn't mean Republicans can afford to keep giving them material.  The nuclear option will be on the table almost immediately after the Senate returns next week.  NBC's Ken Strickland reports below on Judiciary chairman Arlen Specter's latest efforts to ward off a Senate shutdown.

Also today, the President and Laura Bush focus on their anti-gang initiative with a visit to a DC charter school at 10:25 am, followed by Bush remarks at 10:50 am.

Complicating the Bush/Mehlman minority outreach effort, the Minuteman Project starts tomorrow.  One thousand volunteers will patrol 23 miles along the Arizona border for a month to try to foil illegal immigrants.

Former Clinton national security advisor Sandy Berger appears in a federal court in DC to plead guilty to removing copies of documents and notes about Clinton-era US anti-terror efforts from the National Archives during the 2004 presidential campaign, when he was serving as a Kerry advisor.  Berger is offering to accept a three-year suspension of his national security clearance, which would make it hard for him to advise his party and its presidential nominee in 2008.

And, if it's Friday, it's the day we look at another aspect of the great oh-eight race: the downsides and upsides to running for president without the platform of an elective office.  At bottom.

The papal conclave
The last papal conclave was in 1978, when John Paul II was elected.  Per NBC consultant George Weigel, the conclave begins no sooner than 15 days and no later than 20 days after a pope's passing.  A two-thirds majority is required for election.  However, under a new provision established by John Paul II in 1996, the cardinals can choose to move to a simple majority election if, after 13 days and 30-plus ballots, they are still unable to achieve a supermajority. 

That said, recent papal conclaves haven't lasted anywhere close to 13 days.  As braced as the media may be for a long election, this may not last longer than a week, or even less.  (One wag who works in US politics points out that speculation about a long conclave reminds him of the media's obsession, likely never to be fulfilled, with brokered conventions.)

Cardinals who have passed their 80th birthday by the time the pope passes away are not permitted to vote.  All cardinals, no matter what age, take a solemn oath not to reveal anything about the election, under penalty of excommunication.  That oath may be interpreted narrowly or more broadly -- in which case, per Weigel, the cardinals probably will be willing to discuss big issues facing the Church, although they will not discuss the actual electoral process.

Schiavo politics
The Washington Post reports that "DeLay spokesman Dan Allen said the House leader was not advocating violence" in his statement yesterday, "but was 'stating disappointment at the way the judiciary ignored the intent of Congress and the president.'" 

The Washington Times says "Schiavo's death is expected to have major political ramifications as pro-lifers declare war on the judiciary and galvanize for the coming fight over Supreme Court vacancies...  Democrats were not relishing the prospect of open warfare against an energized, motivated pro-life movement.  Yet" Ted Kennedy "promised to mount a spirited defense against the conservatives." 

The New York Daily News: “The call is being echoed across talk radio and from many influential religious conservatives: Judges must favor protecting life, and failing that, their authority must be weakened." 

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein, on the same topic, adds that Schiavo's death "may also intensify conservatives' demands that Senate Republicans" go nuclear.  "Yet Democrats and their allies believe Schiavo's death simultaneously weakens the GOP hand in that dispute.  Democrats are preparing to link the Republican move against filibusters with Washington's last-minute effort to require additional judicial review in the Schiavo case..."  Brownstein says the "first measure of Senate interest should come on Wednesday, when the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee conducts a hearing to explore these issues." 

The Boston Globe reports, "Some political observers believe that House majority leader Tom DeLay" and Frist "will heed the call of religious conservatives."

The Washington Post says this all reflects how "Democrats, following a traditional approach, believe they can return to power by staking out ground as the party of the center.  Republicans, using a strategy employed successfully by President Bush..., believe the key is not in appealing to the middle but in motivating its active conservative base." 

The Des Moines Register says Edwards, who was in town yesterday, noted that "the courts performed their duty in Terri Schiavo's case, and Congress had no business getting involved as it did last month."  Meanwhile, GOP Rep. Steve King, "a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said he plans to propose ways to rein in the courts, which he argued are subject in some ways to congressional oversight...  '[W]hatever is established by the Congress can be taken away.’”  (While serving on Judiciary, we wonder if King ever read Marbury v. Madison?) 

The New York Post gets what we believe is the first comment from Giuliani about the matter: “‘I think the right decision would have been to keep the feeding tube in, under the circumstances of the case.'" 

At a speech to a largely African-American, clearly Republican crowd at Howard University last night -- where two-thirds of your First Read team was nearly taken out by a scuffling protestor and a university policeman -- RNC chair Ken Mehlman was asked a question about religion's role in politics.  He replied that religion has always played a role in American politics, noting that Martin Luther King Jr. was president of the Southern *Christian* Leadership Conference.  Faith, he said, motivates people to make this nation a stronger place.  "Our country is better for it."

Catholics for Faithful Citizenship, a left-leaning group, e-mailed a press release last night blasting Santorum and other Catholics for exploiting Schiavo to promote their agenda.  "They are essentially cafeteria Catholics, pursuing a vindictive and counterproductive campaign to criminalize abortion, the drive to further increase military spending, and the obsession with more tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% as social services are slashed...  Their misrepresentation of the Catholic Faith to promote their extremist agenda hurts us all, and devalues the moral standing of our Church in the world."  The group also issued a press release earlier this month endorsing Santorum's Democratic opponent, Bob Casey Jr. (D).

Post-recess: the Senate and Delay
Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter told NBC's Ken Strickland yesterday that he's "making some progress" in his efforts to avert a Senate shutdown under the use of the nuclear option -- efforts which included a persuasive talk with President Bush earlier this month.  As evidence of his progress, Strickland reports, Specter points to the all-but-certain committee approval of appellate nominees Terrence Boyle and Thomas Griffith later this month.  Neither nomination made it out of committee last session.  (Democrats dispute that “progress,” saying Republicans under then-Chairman Orrin Hatch had the votes to advance them to the floor, but chose not to.)  Though Specter expressed confidence in their ultimate full Senate confirmation, he conceded, "you never know until the roll is called" for the votes.

But Specter's most direct effort to defuse the potential nuke was made during a trip to Pennsylvania with Bush, during which Specter encouraged Bush to consult with senators, particularly Democrats, before making nominations.  Strickland says Specter recounted for Bush stories from Hatch's book "Square Peg," in which Hatch, then the committee chairman, engaged in an open dialogue with President Clinton over SCOTUS nominees.  Specter said the President was "non-committal" to the idea.  He said the President told him, "'the Senate's business is the Senate's business'" and the president's business is to nominate judges.

The Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire reports, "DeLay's woes have House Republicans mulling options.  Lawmakers ponder leadership change if DeLay is indicted in Texas campaign-finance probe or steps aside...  Top party strategists expect DeLay to hang on at least through 2006, but fret about battering from Democrats and conservative pundits.  'We may be reaching a tipping point,' says a White House adviser.  DeLay's chances of succeeding Hastert as speaker are considered remote.  Hastert postpones retirement until 2008 but aides cite White House wishes, not DeLay." 

Social Security
National Journal gets Speaker Hastert acknowledging "that President Bush's call for completion of a Social Security bill this year could be unrealistic and that the legislation might have to wait until 2006," the Washington Post leads.  "The president's aides immediately responded by saying Bush is committed to winning passage this year...  GOP lawmakers have also said Bush needs to sign the bill this year because they want close to a full year before the election to explain what they have done, and for retirees to see they are still getting their checks and scheduled increases." 

USA Today's headline: "30 days, 100-plus events, scoreless.  Bush faces tough sell on the road." 

The Bush Administration and some in the media have latched on to Robert Pozen's progressive-indexing idea as a possible compromise on Social Security.  But the New Republic says Democrats would never trade getting progressive indexing for giving up their objection to private accounts.  Bush "is boxed in by his decision to make the inclusion of private accounts and the exclusion of tax increases his two nonnegotiable demands.  The only real policy olive branch he can offer Democrats is on the restructuring of benefits, and it's not enough." 

The New York Times details organized labor’s efforts to oppose private accounts, and notes that Republicans are fighting back, in part by urging "the Labor Department to investigate whether labor's tactics violated the ban on secondary boycotts - boycotts against any party not directly involved in a labor dispute - and other laws.” 

Immigration
The New York Times leads its coverage of the Minuteman Project by profiling 82-year-old Walter McCarty.  “‘I hope to go out on patrols at night, find some illegals,’ said Mr. McCarty, who had his .38-caliber pistol strapped to his leg as he stood outside the citizen patrol's makeshift headquarters here in Tombstone..."  A project spokesperson says they have refused “to allow extremist groups to join [the] campaign and promised a peaceful protest...  But the project has attracted support on Web sites of groups like Aryan Nations..."  Also: “Conservatives, like Representative Tom Tancredo... and Bay Buchanan... are offering support and will address weekend rallies here…” 

"The Senate is bracing for its first fight over amnesty for illegal immigrants in nearly 10 years" now that "a debate over granting legal status to illegal agriculture workers will be allowed on the pending emergency spending bill," says the Washington Times.  Sen. Larry Craig is offering an amendment that would "legalize the 500,000 to 1 million illegal immigrants now working in the agriculture industry." 

The economy
USA Today: "Rising gas prices are threatening efforts in a dozen states to raise money for road and bridge repairs by increasing gas taxes." 

The Washington Post: "Medicare payments to physicians jumped 15 percent last year, an unexpectedly large increase that prompted Bush administration officials yesterday to announce that monthly premiums for America's seniors will rise to $89.20 in 2006, $1.50 more than initially projected." 

Oh-eight
The last person to win the presidency who was not already serving in elective office at the time was Reagan in 1980. Before Reagan, it was Carter in 1976.  Prior to that, it was Nixon in 1968. And before Nixon, it was Eisenhower in 1952. Of course, these weren't your average candidates: Reagan had been an actor and two-term governor of California; Nixon had been a two-term vice president and narrowly lost the presidency to JFK in 1960; and Ike had been, well, Supreme Allied Commander.

In 2008, we could see several presidential candidates who won't be holding down an elective office during the campaign.  On the Democratic side, Edwards is currently heading UNC's new center on poverty, and Warner is term-limited and will be giving up his seat later this year (though he might run for the Senate in 2006).  On the GOP side, Romney might not seek re-election in 2006; Frist is abiding by a two-term pledge and retiring from the Senate; and Giuliani may stick with business rather than seeking some other office before 2008 rolls around.  And this list is by no means exhaustive.

So given history and the potential breadth of the fields, we decided to ask some who have seen it up close about the upsides and downsides of running for public office from public office, and not. 

Bill Dal Col, campaign manager for Forbes 2000, observes that running for president while not holding office -- as Forbes did -- does have its pluses, "but not having an official platform can be viewed as a detriment."  The biggest disadvantage, Dal Col says, is the lack of media attention, especially on matters of policy.  "The earned media wouldn't come to us first.  They would go to the elected officials."  Running for president while not in public office also can make it "hard to show or display your leadership skills," says Democratic strategist and Gore 2000 manager Donna Brazile.  Gore, after all, defeated Bill Bradley -- who had left the Senate after 1996 -- in the 2000 primaries.

A whole other problem is raising money -- particularly, Dal Col says, because being out of office can make it harder to develop and maintain a national fundraising base, he says.  Brian Kennedy, who was Alexander's political director in 2000, says that powerful members of Congress like McCain and Dole have used their status to raise considerable sums, putting other candidates -- especially those no longer serving in office -- at a disadvantage.

Dal Col notes that Reagan and Nixon were exceptions to all of this, because both had national followings and national fundraising bases from previous offices.  Among the non-incumbents in the 2008 field, he says, Edwards and Frist will have national fundraising bases.  But he wonders if either will be able to gain his own national following and attract media attention -- something that could be especially difficult for Edwards if he's running against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nod.

One Democratic strategist who asked not to be named sums up that for the non-officeholder, "like the rock star, you're only as good as your last hit song.  Giuliani enjoys high numbers that are frozen in time from September 11, so not being in office is an advantage for him.  For Edwards, right now his image is of course frozen in time from our loss in 2004, which is a disadvantage.  He's busy creating new visibility for himself but it's inherently more difficult without the megaphone elected office provides."

That said, there are advantages to campaigning while not tied to a public office.  Dal Col cites not having to make controversial votes.  Indeed, Republicans turned vote-mining into high art in 2004 with Kerry's Senate record, whereas one reason why they were nervous about Edwards was because there was so little to hit him with, and one GOP researcher says there may not be much more in 2008.  Meanwhile, Kennedy and Brazile both cite time and focus.  "You can commit full-time to the endeavor," Kennedy says.  Brazile notes that you have more "free time to schedule and to take advantage of the long presidential seasons."

Kennedy also doubts that not holding office actually precludes someone from receiving media attention.  "It is how viable you are perceived" as being, he says.  "If [the media] think you have a shot, they will have you on TV."  After all, Dean -- who left the Vermont governorship in January 2003 -- got perhaps more media attention than any other Democrat before the 2004 Iowa caucuses.

But beyond visibility, demonstrations of leadership and policy expertise, and fundraising, there's another area on which candidates for president who are in and out of office can find themselves in different situations: oppo.  First Read checked in with experts on this topic from both parties (who, as usual, prefer to remain nameless).  The Democratic strategist: "Non-officeholders have the slight advantage in being able to more closely guard their business dealings and associations.  But when that information is ultimately collected and analyzed" -- like, the way Giuliani's dealings are being scrutinized now -- "it makes quite a splash." 

The Republican notes that former state officeholders in particular "have an advantage" when it comes to being researched, "especially in a primary, because you have to go out into the field to research them.  You can't research by sticking around some DC office."  And the researcher adds that local papers, often a good source of nuggets, aren't easily available via Lexis-Nexis.

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