“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 15, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
Taxes have always been a potent political issue. But even on this Tax Day, the dominant political stories remain the same: judicial nominations, Social Security, and Tom DeLay. Regarding judicial nominations, the evidence (as NBC’s Ken Strickland points out below) seems to suggest that the nuclear trigger could be pulled within the next two weeks. In addition, there’s today’s New York Times story -- which we’re sure will spark some news today -- that Sen. Bill Frist, on April 24, will join prominent Christian conservatives in a telecast portraying Democrats for being “against people of faith” as they try and block Bush’s judges.

  1. Other political news of note
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    2. Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
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    5. Fluke files to run in California

There’s no breaking news on the DeLay front, but the papers continue to look at Bush’s relationship with the Texas congressman. And on Social Security, White House economic advisor Al Hubbard made some news yesterday morning, when he suggested that the White House is "certainly willing" to look at add-on accounts. With that development, Bush makes another Social Security road trip today -- this time to the battleground of Ohio. The President meets with the Prime Minister of Luxembourg at 9:00 am, and with the President of Rwanda at 9:25 am, then jetting to Kirtland, OH for coffee with small business owners at 12:05 pm and a roundtable on Social Security at 12:55 pm. AARP releases a poll of local voters showing, not surprisingly, that they're opposed to private accounts.

Vice President Cheney makes remarks and does a town hall on Social Security in Pemberton, NJ at 11:45 am. A Cheney aide says the format will be similar to his previous events in Nevada, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and California.

As he prepares to give the first major speech of his chairmanship in Los Angeles tomorrow night, First Read looks at the first two months of Howard Dean's tenure as DNC chair, specifically at the DNC's press strategy of having Dean out in the states rather than in DC. A DNC aide tells First Read that Dean in his remarks tomorrow night will focus more on "challenging Democrats" to stand up for what they believe in, than on criticizing Bush and Republicans. Much more on Dean below.

Meanwhile, RNC chairman Ken Mehlman is in Las Vegas today for another town hall, this time with/about the Hispanic community, at 4:30 pm ET.

The first papal conclave of the cable/Internet age begins on Monday afternoon, with just one round of balloting expected. Starting on Tuesday, assuming the election stretches beyond Monday, several votes will take place each day.

Whither the GOP: the judiciary
So just when might the nuclear trigger be pulled? NBC’s Ken Strickland’s reports that it could happen within the next two weeks. Although neither side has definitive evidence to support its gut instincts, he says, there are several things moving on the Republican side that may indicate the stars are aligning for a showdown in the last week of April. For starters, Strickland points out that it’s probably not a coincidence that the Senate GOP Leadership has developed a new communications arsenal this week that includes tapping former RNC chair Ed Gillespie to spearhead the message on judges for the NRSC; Bill Frist's newly created "Advise and Consent Working Group" and his website featuring "enhanced and in-depth" sections on judicial nominations; and the daily, coordinated Republican floor speeches.

Moreover, Frist Communications Director Bob Stevenson actually has said "it's possible" that the Majority Leader will employ the option within two weeks. Although he contends it still may not happen, this is certainly more than Stevenson has said in the past. But the most telling thing on timing, Strickland says, may come from the Judiciary Committee: On Thursday, April 21st, three previously filibustered judges are expected to be available for full Senate confirmation votes. But Strickland reminds us that the nuclear option becomes moot if the GOP leadership doesn't have 51 to pull it off. And at this moment, that's the biggest question of all.

The New York Times front-pages that Frist, on April 24, “has agreed to join a handful of prominent Christian conservatives in a telecast portraying Democrats as ‘against people of faith’ for blocking President Bush's nominees. Fliers for the telecast … depict a young man holding a Bible in one hand and a gavel in the other. The flier … reads: ‘The filibuster was once abused to protect racial bias, and it is now being used against people of faith.’”

“Organizers say they hope to reach more than a million people by distributing the telecast to churches around the country, over the Internet and over Christian television and radio networks and stations.”

“Dr. Frist's spokesman said the senator's speech in the telecast would reflect his previous remarks on judicial appointments… The telecast, however, will put Dr. Frist in a very different context. Asked about Dr. Frist's participation in an event describing the filibuster ‘as against people of faith,’ his spokesman, Bob Stevenson, did not answer the question directly.” - New York Times

The Washington Post says this in its piece about Frist probably going nuclear sometime soon: "While Democrats and Republicans alike say the filibuster issue is a matter of high principles and constitutional rights, Frist's choice is inextricably linked to presidential politics. At least two GOP colleagues who are pressing him to seek the rule change -- George Allen (Va.) and Rick Santorum (Pa.) -- also are weighing presidential bids. Both of them are wooing key conservatives clamoring for the filibuster ban. Some independent analysts say that Frist... has created his own dilemma, and his handling of it will be an sign of whether he has the skills to seriously vie for the White House."

John McCain told Hardball's Chris Matthews that he would break with his party and vote with the Democrats against the nuclear option because conservatives "won't always be in the majority. I say to my conservative friends, some day there will be a liberal Democrat president and a liberal Democrat Congress. Why? Because history shows it goes back and forth." But McCain said he is also worried about the short term: "I don't want to shut down the Senate . . . We're in a war. We're in a war. Shouldn't we be doing the people's business?"

More ads in the fight over the judiciary, this time from the conservative side. – Washington Post

Whither the GOP: DeLay
The New York Times notes that 10 former GOP House members -- all of whom left Congress before the late 1980s (and most of whom are moderates) -- sent a letter to Speaker Hastert, arguing that “revisions in House ethics rules this year were an ‘obvious action to protect Majority Leader Tom DeLay’ from investigation. They said the changes needed to be reversed ‘to restore public confidence in the People's House.’”

“The letter may be another blow to Mr. DeLay, who is under investigation by a grand jury in his home state, Texas, and is facing growing calls from fellow Republicans to answer accusations involving his financial ties to lobbyists and his management of his political and campaign committees. A spokesman, Dan Allen, said Mr. DeLay would withhold comment on the letter until it had been received in the House. Spokesmen for Mr. Hastert did not immediately return phone calls for comment.” - New York Times

The New York Times also traces the history of Bush’s relationship with DeLay, and it notes that the two men “have never been pals. They made that clear in the fall of 1999, when Mr. Bush, the Republican front-runner for president, accused Mr. DeLay of balancing the federal budget on the backs of the poor and Mr. DeLay shot back that Mr. Bush ‘does not know how Congress works.’ In an interview that fall, Mr. DeLay also recalled that, when he first met Mr. Bush, the future president was ‘oil-field trash - that's an endearing term, by the way.’ In private conversations afterward, Mr. Bush was heard to express contempt for Mr. DeLay.”

“But Republicans say that, for now, Mr. Bush's political need for his fellow Texas Republican transcends his personal distaste and the growing questions about Mr. DeLay's ethical conduct… ‘They need DeLay, and they particularly need him on Social Security,’ said a Republican strategist close to the White House who asked not to be named because the situation was so ‘toxic.’” – New York Times

The Dallas Morning News says Bush "is choosing his words carefully, embracing Mr. DeLay's leadership but steering clear of his ethical problems." Bush also declined to blame the liberal news media for DeLay's troubles: when asked if he agreed with DeLay's claim the media smeared him, Bush answered, "Of course not."

Finally, we noticed this morning that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has redesigned its entire Web site, which is now entitled “Tom DeLay’s House of Scandal.”

It's the economy
The price of a barrel of crude oil briefly dipped below $50 yesterday for the first time since February 22, but still closed at $51.13 -- above $50 per barrel for the 37th consecutive session, per our friends at CNBC.

White House economic advisor Al Hubbard did the Monitor breakfast yesterday and made a little news. He touched on gas prices, saying they are of "significant" concern to the White House: "I assure you [Bush] is very concerned about it, he will be speaking about it, and he will do everything to address it."

On Social Security, Hubbard said Bush is willing to discuss establishing add-on accounts to Social Security, instead of the "carve-out" accounts the White House has been advocating. "He has not endorsed add-on accounts, Hubbard said. "[But] we are certainly willing" to consider them. On solvency, Hubbard said the eventual solution will be "a combination of things" -- mentioning possibilities such as raising the retirement age, changing the practice of receiving benefits at age 62, reducing benefits by tying them to prices instead of wages, and progressively indexing those benefit reductions. He added that the White House is willing "to discuss" raising the payroll-tax cap.

Hubbard also said the Administration isn't interested in a partial or incremental solution to Social Security, arguing that the fix in 1983 wasn't the 75-year fix that was originally envisioned, because Congress spends any surplus in the trust fund. Asked whether the Administration was partially to blame for spending this surplus (especially after it inherited a sizable one), he replied, "Unfortunately, the federal government has never been good at saving money... The President knows the government will not save the money."

Finally, Hubbard also was asked whether the Administration is truly serious about reducing the deficit. "With all due respect you haven't read the newspapers recently," he said, noting that Bush's budget calls for some "significant" budget cuts. (The follow-up question: Why hasn't Bush cast a single veto? Is "veto" in his vocabulary? "It is in his vocabulary,” Hubbard replied. “He has not had to use it, because Congress has met his... requests.")

USA Today says that "Hubbard's comments were the most explicit discussion of a possible compromise on the accounts by Bush or one of his top aides since the president launched his Social Security proposal in the State of the Union address Feb. 2... Hubbard took a different tone Thursday than he did in an interview with USA TODAY on March 9, when he flatly dismissed add-on accounts."

"Although economists agree that surging energy costs in March and early April dampened economic growth, they say it is unclear whether the U.S. economy has cooled only briefly or has begun a more serious slump." - Washington Post

Yesterday, "President Bush's advisory panel on tax reform said it will propose major changes in the tax code this summer." - Washington Post

More on Social Security
The Washington Post says that in Ohio today, Bush “plans to step up his campaign in support of private accounts by highlighting what he will describe as the millions of government workers who were allowed to opt out of the system years ago and refuse to jump back in because their private accounts are doing well, a senior administration official said.”

The Cleveland Plain Dealer says Bush will sit down with members of the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) -- which is the 16th "largest retirement system" in the country -- to discuss his Social Security proposals. According to a White House spokesperson, "PERS has a personal account option that Bush will use to make the point that Americans should be able to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes into private investments accounts." But "critics of the Bush plan, as well as PERS staff, say the system can't be compared to the president's proposals" because it gives built-in guarantees, something they say Bush’s proposal does not offer.

More: About 150 people will attend today's invitation-only meeting and "[n]either the audience nor reporters will be able to ask questions."

The Cleveland Plain-Dealer also writes about the members of Congress from Ohio who have yet to jump on board of Bush’s proposal. Also, Rep. Steve LaTourette, says "that despite his reservations about private accounts, he plans to introduce Bush today at the roundtable Social Security discussion at Lakeland Community College, and is happy to do so. He said Bush has repeatedly told him that he is open to a wide range of ideas on how to fix the program."

The Wall Street Journal says that both Republicans and Democrats don’t know what will happen after Bush ends his 60-day Social Security tour to educate the public about Social Security’s problems. “White House advisers say it is on to Phase Two: The Solution. Yet the president has lobbed the ball to Congress, and Republicans are stumped. They fear they could be doomed if they come up with a reform plan, given the political risks of tampering with the popular benefits program, but also doomed if they don't, since that would embarrass the president just ahead of next year's midterm elections.”

“Democrats, meanwhile, face unsettling questions of their own. While unusually united against the idea of letting workers divert Social Security payroll taxes to personal accounts, Democrats are divided on what, if anything, to offer as an alternative. Many are sensitive to criticism that the party is bereft of constructive ideas.”

GOP Congressman Jim Kolbe has called for Bush to offer more specifics on Social Security, says Reuters. “‘I told the president this morning that I think the time has come where we've got to start putting some of the specifics out there about how we're going to fix the solvency of it,’ Kolbe told reporters shortly after participating in a meeting with Bush and other Republicans on Social Security.” - Reuters

Before the American Society of Newspapers Editors convention in Washington, the Los Angles Times reports, Bush “tacitly acknowledged that he had failed to rally the public behind his proposal to restructure Social Security. But he also expressed his determination to press his case around the country, and suggested that those who opposed his efforts would pay a price at election time. ‘I'm absolutely convinced that, when it's all said and done, inaction will create a political problem for people,’ the president said.” – Los Angeles Times

Per a Democratic House source, the women among the party's House ranks are planning a road show on Social Security, starting with a "Women and Social Security Summit" in DC on May 10, which is expected to be followed by similar events around the country. Rep. Hilda Solis is taking the lead, with Pelosi "very involved in getting the women out, and DeLauro very interested in targeting single women," the source says.

Immigration
The New York Times writes that Bush yesterday said he was surprised to read about new Department of Homeland Security rules that, by 2008, will require Americans to have passports to enter the country from Mexico or Canada. “Mr. Bush said that after reading of the change, he asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to determine whether the law that mandated the tighter controls would allow fingerprint imaging or some other technique instead.”

The Washington Post: “The change has raised concerns among businesses, such as trucking and tourism companies, that rely on easy access to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean islands -- the latter a hot destination for many U.S. travelers. Yet the concern expressed by Bush is unusual, since the White House signed off on the change.”

The Minutemen want to expand their project outside the Arizona-Mexico border stretch they now cover, the AP says.

Whither the Democrats
As Democrats and Republicans have pummeled each other over Social Security, judicial nominations, and Terri Schiavo's fate, one voice has been conspicuously absent: Howard Dean's. The former presidential candidate has stayed largely out of the national press since he was elected DNC chair two months ago.

Until now, that is, as Dean prepares to give his first major speech as party chair at the California Democratic convention tomorrow night. A DNC aide tells First Read the Dean in his remarks will focus more on "challenging Democrats" to stand up for what they believe in, than on criticizing Bush and Republicans. Per this aide, this is step two for the new chairman, articulating a broader message for the party, after devoting the past two months to step one, working with and appealing to state parties and red-state Democrats.

Up until now, Dean and his team have chosen to bypass the national press and take his show on the road. In his first two months as chair, according to the DNC, he has traveled to 15 states (including red ones such as Tennessee, Mississippi, Kansas, and Arkansas); has raised more than $650,000 for the parties in some of these states; and has been covered (generally favorably, it seems) by an estimated 200 local media outlets. DNC spokesperson Laura Gross says this approach is the better way to get Dean's message out and mobilize his grassroots network. But others see it as a way for Dean to avoid -- at least for now -- a national press corps that has been tough on him, and also prove to skeptical Establishment Democrats that he's serious about party-building.

"Do you blame him?" asks DNC member Elaine Kamarck. "Put yourself in his shoes." Kamarck, who supported Dean in his bids for president and DNC chair, thinks his media strategy has been smart so far. "He needs to win over Democrats in red states, which often isn't compatible with playing the national press game." Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg adds that Dean has been wise not to turn the debates over judges and Social Security into Dean-vs.-Bush battles. "The fact that he hasn't been in the middle of everything has been a plus. Sometimes, it's more important what you don't do than what you do."

But has Dean missed some opportunities to score easy points for the Democrats? In late March, for example, Dean blasted Bill Frist for suggesting, after observing videotapes, that Terri Schiavo perhaps wasn't in a vegetative state. Dean, his party's most prominent physician (like Frist), said: "For Senator Frist to say he could make a diagnosis based on a videotape is certainly not medically sound." However, he made that remark only to Tennessee media -- not to the national press. Democrats defend Dean for not making that statement nationally, because they say the party was wary about getting involved in the fight over Schiavo.

Still, Rothenberg wonders how effective Dean can be in whacking Republicans. "The Howard Dean persona is so big, he's so well known, and he is so polarizing that maybe he can't take advantage of those opportunities," Rothenberg says. "That is a problem."

Even though he's stayed largely out of the national spotlight, critics point out that Dean has still committed a few verbal lapses similar to those he made during his presidential bid. One Democratic strategist who asked to remain anonymous complains that Dean calling Rick Santorum (R) a "liar" in a speech last month in Pennsylvania wasn't too helpful for Democrats, because it opens up Santorum opponent Bob Casey, Jr. (D) to charges that his surrogates are from the far left. Dean also raised eyebrows in March when he said, "The South will rise again, and when it does, it will have a D after its name," and in February right before he was elected DNC chair, when he observed, "You think the RNC could get this many people of color into a single room? Maybe if they got the hotelstaff in there."

One Republican Party official doesn't think Dean's strategy has been that effective, noting that visiting red states and trying to court religious and anti-abortion Democrats doesn't necessarily help outline a message or raise a lot of cash. "On some level, I understand what they are doing," says the official. "But I think for him to be effective, he will have to be at a higher level."

Even though Dean has largely ducked the national press, Brian Nick, spokesperson at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, contends he has provided Republicans with plenty of fodder. "He's an absolute lightning rod," Nick says. "Anywhere Howard Dean goes, I'm sure that Republican registration is going through the roof." But another Democratic strategist, who is pleased so far with the Dean-led DNC, believes Republicans are misguided to think they will be able to capitalize on Dean. "If their boogeyman is Howard Dean, then our boogeyman is Tom DeLay. I'll take that fight any day."

Meanwhile, a day before Dean’s speech tomorrow to the California Democratic Party, USA Today runs the first interview that he has given a national news outlet since becoming DNC chair. Dean “says he's ready to begin speaking out more” -- about how Democrats need to show up in all 50 states, and about how Democrats should stop “‘speaking down to voters,’” especially with those whose views are outside of the traditional Democratic orthodoxy.

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