“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, April 18, 2005 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
Between Bill Frist's presidential ambitions and Tom DeLay's ethical issues, two of the majority party's top three officials seem pretty preoccupied by their own interests these days.  And whereas in the past, DeLay's issues have tended to boil up and then die down, the coordinated Democratic effort to lump his problems together with Frist's latest move, as part of their "arrogant majority" case against the GOP, might have the effect of keeping Delay's problems front-and-center for longer than they otherwise would live.

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Frist's four-minute appearance before the Family Research Council's "filibuster against faith" telecast isn't until April 24, and Democrats and religious leaders are likely to keep up their criticism of Frist all week.  The move comes quite close on the heels of his efforts to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case.  Frist's office has charged that Democrats are hypocritical for criticizing him after Kerry attacked Bush from a church pulpit last October.  Even so, Frist, after arguably compromising his physician credentials by appearing to diagnose Schiavo via videotape, is now potentially compromising his leadership credentials by using them to try to build support for himself among Christian conservatives.

President Bush starts the week with his agenda complicated by the softening economy -- will he push private accounts hard today after the Dow dropped almost 200 points on Friday? -- and also possibly by the fact that the effectiveness of his congressional leadership team is being undercut.

Bush makes remarks on Social Security before a joint session of the South Carolina legislature in Columbia at 12:10 pm, a trip postponed from a few weeks ago because of the Pope's funeral.  NBC's Ken Strickland reports that Bush will be accompanied by home state Sen. Lindsey Graham (R), who has been working toward a compromise solution.  Bush is also having to take time to address high gas prices, using the excuse to call for passage of his energy bill, though the bill won't solve the current problem.  Bush advisor Dan Bartlett tells USA Today "there's no magic wand."

The Senate meets at 1:00 pm; the House meets at 2:00 pm.

Below, First Read updates the state of play in California after Democrats held their convention in Los Angeles this past weekend.  DNC chairman Howard Dean delivered the keynote address.  Dean's response to a question at a West Hollywood breakfast suggesting that Democrats will use Schiavo against the GOP next year got more coverage than his speech, in which he laid into Frist and DeLay, but also said that Democrats need to focus on Americans' concerns about their kids as the way to bolster the party's image on values.  He also elaborated on previous comments that the party needs to talk differently about abortion -- that Democrats let themselves get boxed in by Republicans as being pro-abortion, when he doesn't know anyone who's in favor of the practice.

Dean's counterpart, RNC chairman Ken Mehlman, is raising money in Louisiana and Georgia today.

And the first papal conclave of the cable/Internet age ("Inside the Papal Conclave!!!") begins today.  Later this morning, the cardinal electors will swear not to reveal any details of the process or risk excommunication, then one round of balloting may take place -- but it takes a long time to administer an oath to 115 cardinals.  Starting tomorrow, several votes will take place each day.  Once white smoke does appear, signaling the election of a new pope, it's expected to take about 45 minutes for him to appear on the balcony.

It's the economy
USA Today says Bush's will use his scheduled appearance before the US-Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday to address energy and rising gas prices.  "His message... will be that passage of an energy bill that's been stuck in Congress for four years would have helped prevent soaring prices."  Bush spokesperson Scott McClellan has rejected the idea of tapping the SPR, but has said that "Bush discussed gas prices in two meetings with members of Congress and that the issue will come up when Bush meets next week with" Crown Prince Abdullah.  The story notes that "Bush has not lobbied members of OPEC."

The Los Angeles Times front-pages the difficulties higher gas prices are causing for "the smallest businesses and independent contractors," like lawn services and delivery people.  Whereas automakers and airlines can charge customers more to compensate, they can't.

The New York Times says its "clear that the mood of the investors has changed markedly.  Investors finally seem to believe that high crude oil and gasoline prices are curtailing consumer spending, slowing economic growth and cutting into corporate earnings...  Only six weeks ago, on March 4, the Dow Jones industrials stood just 59 points from 11,000 and both the Dow and the S.& P. 500 were at their highest levels since the summer of 2001…  Now, the Dow is just 87 points from 10,000 and the two gauges are on the verge of giving up all the gains since the election in November.”

USA Today's editorial page carries the arguments for an against Wal-Mart.  An editorial criticizes Wal-Mart's legislative foes for going too far, "[u]sing the law to impose business costs on Wal-Mart to protect competitors," which "punishes Wal-Mart for its success" and "invites wider abuse."  At the same time, an op-ed blasting Wal-Mart by the head of the union leading the fight charges that "Wal-Mart is not the victim of globalization, lower wages and lack of health insurance.  More accurately, Wal-Mart's business practices created many of these problems in America today."

Social Security
The Social Security Administration under both Clinton and Bush has had Gallup poll Americans about Social Security.  But, the AP says, the "survey changed markedly in 2003, when George W. Bush began his reelection campaign...  New questions sought to determine when the public thought the federal retirement program would go broke and whether people knew anything about Bush's plan to let workers invest part of their Social Security payments in private accounts."

The Washington Post front-pages another problematic front in Bush's effort to fix Social Security: the working poor, who, between "work, day care and the endless battle to lift themselves up,... say they would just as soon not have another thing to worry about."

Roll Call says "Democrats’ ongoing refusal to consider" private accounts "continues to give Congressional Republicans fits as they try to hammer out a timeline for possible action on legislation this year...  Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the White House continue to brainstorm ways of convincing Democrats to begin negotiating."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page says that no matter what happens with the Social Security fight, "one of its effects deserves to be damage to whatever credibility AARP had left as a pragmatic and non-partisan organization."  The page blasts the organization for "its continuing deception about the nature of the Trust Fund," which "is a debt, not an asset."

And the page also carries an op-ed that is an adapted memo to Karl Rove, written by the chief of the CATO Institute, who argues that Social Security "should be an emotional issue about liberty and opportunity, not solvency dates."

The GOP: DeLay
The Wall Street Journal reports that "Speaker Dennis Hastert faces pressure within Republican ranks to end the impasse with Democrats over ethics-rules changes pushed through on a partisan vote in January.  Mr. Hastert so far shows no willingness to reverse himself but compromises are being discussed."

A Texas state judge might rule as soon as this week in the lawsuit filed by Democrats against the treasurer of DeLay's PAC.  – New York Times

The Dallas Morning News writes that the NRA, whose annual meeting DeLay addressed on Saturday, is throwing its full weight behind him.  Delay "is counting on the backing of a network of conservative allies such as the NRA, with its 4 million members and active presence in Washington, to keep him in power.  They are eager to put their organizations and their money on the line for him...  And more important, in his fight, they see themselves and their causes as the true targets."

The Washington Post rounds up DeLay's NRA speech, GOP Rep. Roy Blunt's comments that DeLay will withstand the storm, and problems DeLay is facing back home.

Trent Lott urged DeLay yesterday to "be more outspoken in his defense against ethics charges" -- and also said he thinks Bush "'would tell anybody privately or publicly that Tom DeLay has been a strong leader, aggressive leader, and that he hopes he'll stay in that leadership position.'"  - Washington Times

Bob Dole also urged DeLay to come clean on his ethics troubles, the New York Daily News reports.

The Washington Post's Jeffrey Birnbaum covers the DeLay-inspired drumbeat in favor of tighter restrictions on lobbyists.

And the New York Times looks at Georgia LG candidate and former Christian Coalition face Ralph Reed, his lobbying and consulting career, and his ties to Jack Abramoff, which have drawn criticism from religious leaders like Pat Robertson.

The GOP: Frist
Roll Call did its own survey and finds seven Senate Republicans have not decided how they'll vote if Frist tries to go nuclear, but with only two -- McCain and Chafee -- having stated publicly that they oppose it, Frist may be able to win over four of the others.

Bob Novak noted yesterday that per Republican leaders, just three GOP Senators will vote against deploying the nuclear option -- McCain, Chafee, and Olympia Snowe.

USA Today rounds up Democrats' Sunday-show criticisms of Frist for participating in the FRC telecast.

The Boston Globe says that Frist, with "open presidential ambitions... needs a smooth-running ship to build a credible legislative legacy...  But as a Republican vying for primary election votes from increasingly restless religious conservatives, the two-term senator and Harvard-trained surgeon needs to demonstrate a steely determination to lead the charge on the religious right's most hallowed issue: control of America's courts."

Roll Call says the "Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will send out an e-mail to supporters this week that seeks to paint the fight over nominees as part of the evolution of Frist’s presidential ambitions and urges donors to stop the Tennessee Senator’s national campaign in its tracks."  The committee's GOP counterpart "will strike back today with a 30-second Web ad that unfavorably compares Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Robert Byrd (W.Va.) as well as [DNC] Chairman Howard Dean with former Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln."

Bush II
The New York Post notes GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel saying yesterday that he would vote against Bolton’s nomination for UN ambassador if any new negative accusations surface.

Pegged to Bolton's nomination, the Los Angeles Times' Brownstein looks at the changed role of Senate moderates like Lincoln Chafee, "caught between a president pursuing an aggressive, even crusading, conservative agenda and a Democratic Party fighting ferociously to block it.  That frequently leaves the centrists, like Chafee with Bolton, wishing for an alternative that isn't available."

The Wall Street Journal previews today's signing of "the first grant ever under Mr. Bush's Millennium Challenge Account program -- and a test of whether the U.S. has found a better way of delivering assistance."  Madagascar is the big winner.

The Washington Post says Bush's "competitive sourcing" initiative, "which requires civil servants across the government to prove they can do their work more efficiently than private contractors, or risk seeing the work outsourced," may result in thousands of disabled government employees losing their jobs.

The values debate
The Washington Post Style section profiles Rick Santorum, perhaps "the most visible Senate Republican other than Majority Leader Bill Frist."  Among other projects, Santorum is "ensconced in the most divisive issues in America's culture wars: homosexuality, abortion, the role of religion in public life, and most recently, the Terri Schiavo controversy.  He has compared homosexuality to incest and called the preservation of traditional marriage 'the ultimate homeland security issue.'  He is a proponent of applying religious values to political institutions..."  But he's also taking steps to soften his partisan image.  Santorum is being challenged for his seat in 2006 by pro-life Catholic Bob Casey, Jr. (D).

Roll Call reports that Senate Democrats "are crafting a communications strategy to reach out to religious-oriented media outlets ranging from popular television programs to small Christian radio stations."

The west
If you think Democrats in Washington are fired up about the prospect of beating Bush on Social Security this year, you should see how stoked their California colleagues are about the prospect of beating Arnold Schwarzenegger on his hoped-for ballot initiatives.  As in Washington, however, some Democrats are asking whether just opposing the Governor is enough.

Schwarzenegger remains a formidable political force, particularly since this debate probably isn't resonating with regular voters yet.  The special election has not yet been called and the gubernatorial race, if Schwarzenegger does decide to seek re-election (not a certainty), isn't until 2006.  But the Democratic activists gathered at the state party convention in Los Angeles this past weekend were "ecstatic," as party spokesperson Bob Mulholland put it, in what damage he has incurred.

Under heavy advertising fire from opponents to his various proposals, Schwarzenegger's job approval has slipped almost to mere mortal status (somewhere in the 40s, depending on the poll and the sample).  He had to drop his pension reform plan because, insiders from both parties say, it was poorly written.  And indeed, he faces some persisting problems because his team, per state law, is not fully in control of the initiative drafting and signature-gathering process.

Despite the party's lament/attack that Schwarzenegger "could have been a statesman, but instead became a partisan," Democratic strategists always figured that at least some of their voters were going to come home eventually, and that this accounts for some of his slippage in the polls.  But the Governor and his team arguably miscalculated, they say, in starting so many wars with so many factions of the Democratic coalition at once, including teachers and first-responder unions.  He "picked a fight with the whole world," consultant Bill Carrick says.  And whereas the Schwarzenegger folks may have thought the fight would be over the initiatives, Carrick notes, "the other side made it about him."

Exacerbating the situation for Schwarzenegger is the fact that his team can't directly control the initiative-drafting process, leading to the aforementioned problem with the pension reform plan, and to some disorganization between his camp and the groups pushing the various measures.  One state GOP strategist says that because of the way the effort has been structured, Schwarzenegger absorbed some hits from critics before coming up with an effective response.

Democratic party officials say they plan to make their war against Schwarzenegger a referendum against President Bush, who isn't too popular in the state, and will use footage from Schwarzenegger's late-October trip to Ohio to campaign with Bush against him, says Mulholland.  Russ Lopez, spokesperson for aspiring Schwarzenegger challenger and state controller Steve Westly (D), charges that "Arnold is credited with winning Ohio" for the President.

But also evident from their convention this past weekend is that Democrats' efforts to defeat Schwarzenegger's initiatives, and beat him next year, will be complicated by a gubernatorial primary fight that has already begun.  State Treasurer Phil Angelides, who has declared his candidacy and calls himself the "anti-Arnold," is appealing to party activists with red-meat rhetoric.  Angelides spokesperson Dan Newman concedes that while Angelides is pushing proposals, including plans to improve higher education and to make state-owned real estate more profitable, the "anti-Arnold stuff" is what gets the party crowds going.

Westly, who has formed an exploratory committee but has not yet declared his candidacy, is trying to capitalize on Angelides' rhetoric.  At the convention, Westly began a new line of attack on Angelides, criticizing him for allegedly being too negative: "We must do more than bash Arnold." he said -- Democrats must be for something, too.  Another potential candidate, state AG Bill Lockyer, did not appear with Angelides and Westly because he was attending a funeral.

As of now, cases could be made for any of the three winning the nomination.  Angelides may play better with the party's left-leaning primary electorate, whereas the more moderate-sounding Westly or Lockyer could win on electability.

In contrast to the already percolating Democratic fight, one dynamic boosting the state GOP right now is that the bitter public disputes over social issues that used to split the party have faded, the Republican strategist notes.  But Democrats and independent political observers say that conservatives might turn on Schwarzenegger if he drops some of his remaining initiatives or makes it known that he's not seeking a full term.

Beyond California, the Los Angeles Times today covers Democrats' recent gains, and subsequent push to build upon those gains, in the mountain states and Pacific Northwest.  "For all their success, Democrats are burdened in Colorado and elsewhere in the region by the image of the national party, which many Westerners continue to associate with higher taxes, a weak defense and hostility toward a culture that associates guns and sport utility vehicles with recreation, not destruction...  But Democrats believe they have two trends working in their favor: increased suburbanization and the surging Latino population."

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