“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, May 6, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
The wounds aren't immediately mortal, but the Iraq war has arguably claimed a political casualty in Tony Blair.  Somewhat paradoxically, the Labor leader has won an unprecedented third consecutive term as prime minister, but Labor's share of the vote could be the lowest in history, and its majority in the House of Commons has been severely reduced.  Speculation is rife about how long Blair can or will remain in his post before turning it over to anointed successor Gordon Brown, though the buzz may calm down in time.  The new Parliament will meet on Wednesday; the official "state opening" takes place on May 17.

  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

President Bush has departed for Latvia, Georgia and Russia amidst various spats with Russia over his stops in the other two countries to promote democracy, as reported by the New York Times, and over whether or not Russia forcibly occupied the Baltic states in 1940 as Bush has suggested, as reported by the Washington Post.

Today's the deadline for Senate Foreign Relations staffers to wrap up their investigation of claims against UN ambassador nominee Bolton, per the agreement reached earlier between chair Dick Lugar and ranking Democrat Joe Biden.  That agreement also called for a committee vote on Bolton for May 12.  But tense negotiations over getting Democrats some documents they want from the State Department could jeopardize the scheduled vote, NBC's Ken Strickland reports.  More on this below.

The Senate returns next week to not only Bolton and a vote on the war supplemental, but to weighty expectations that Bill Frist will employ the nuclear option and eliminate the filibuster for Bush's judicial nominees.  Washington -- and nowhere else in America -- has been on the edge of its seat over this for two months now.  Bear in mind that while the fuss seems aimed at Bush's federal appellate nominees, it's really about the Supreme Court.

As Standard & Poor's junks two US auto makers, new national polling data shows that high gas prices are fueling Americans' perception of a weak economy.  One was done by Gallup.  The other is a survey from Public Opinion Strategies, one-half of the NBC/Wall Street Journal polling team, which shows "that the more voters have been affected by gas prices, the more sour they are in their evaluation of the economy."  The poll also shows that 88% of Americans are taking at least one step toward combating high gas prices, with 16% saying they have cut back on their household spending.  More below.

First Read interviewed California Treasurer Phil Angelides (D) yesterday about his challenge to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (assuming Schwarzenegger runs for re-election), and his doubts that there will be a special election on Schwarzenegger's reform proposals this year.   That interview is below.

And if it's Friday, it's the day we check out some aspect of the great oh-eight race.  Today: Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's stunning weight loss, documented in his new book, and how that could boost his presidential prospects.  The last US president who weighed even close to Huckabee's former weight of 280 lbs. was William Howard Taft, and that was long before campaigns were covered on TV.  See below.

The UK Elections
"With at least 50 Labor MPs losing their seats - including two ministers - there was immediate speculation about how long Mr. Blair could stay as Prime Minister in what he has already stated will be his final term in office." -- Times Online

"The incomplete results gave Labor 343 seats, the Conservatives 195 and the Liberal Democrats 59.  The share of the vote looked much closer, with Labor winning a 36% share of the national vote against the Conservatives, on 33%, and the Liberal Democrats on 22%.  That result puts Labor back in office with the lowest share of the vote in British electoral history."  -- The Guardian

"With a significantly reduced majority, the Prime Minister is going to find it increasingly hard to govern...  Some 50 Labor MPs are hardline opponents of Mr Blair...  For that reason, Labor whips have said that they believe they will have trouble getting legislation through Parliament with a majority of less than 100." – Times Online

"Blairites emphasized the fact of a third term, as they worried whether he could survive on a reduced majority.  One insider said that the result called for 'stability' inside the party rather than instability - which would mean no immediate leadership contest."  Still, "[f]ew expect him to last beyond 2006, and some believe he will go more quickly."  - The Guardian

It's the economy
Standard & Poor's reduced General Motors and Ford's ratings to junk status yesterday.  CNBC's Ron Insana suggests to those who own stock in either company to sit back and see how they respond before deciding what to do with the stock.

The Washington Post says the "announcement caught Wall Street off guard and caused both companies' stocks to drag down the whole market."

The Wall Street Journal raises the union and pension issues, saying the auto makers' "decline now threatens to accelerate as more nonunion car plants open in the South, and new rivals from South Korea and China gear up to attack the rich U.S. market...  The two companies are burdened by heavy pension and health-care costs for current and retired employees."

The Detroit Free Press: "Beyond the obvious financial impact on GM and Ford, the downgrade has some psychological impact on them and the entire Detroit auto industry, said auto and financial experts."

The new Gallup survey "suggests high gasoline prices, moderate job growth and rising interest rates are taking a toll on consumers' view of the future," says USA Today.

The latest national survey from Public Opinion Strategies shows that 88% of Americans are taking at least one step toward combating high gas prices, including making efforts to find the cheapest gas sold in their area (49%); cutting back significantly on how much they drive (34%); and considering making their next car fuel-efficient (24%).  Sixteen percent say they have cut back on their household spending.

While 16% might seem relatively low, it includes 22% of those under age 45, and 20% of middle-income households.  And overall, 46% of those polled tell POS that rising gas prices have had “a lot of impact” on them and their family.  The firm finds that, not surprisingly, "those in lower income households are more likely to say gas prices have impacted them a lot..., but this is an issue that is affecting nearly everyone, including the upper middle class."

The firm also reminds us that the mid-April Gallup poll showed that 19% of voters saying rising energy and gas prices was their top economic concern -- more than any other economic issue.  The POS poll, conducted shortly after that (April 18-20), "demonstrates that the more voters have been affected by gas prices, the more sour they are in their evaluation of the economy."  As GOP pollster David Winston recently told Capitol Hill Republicans, Americans are beginning to link gas prices to jobs.  And, POS finds that "there is a decidedly political twist on who is cited first" when it comes to placing blame.

The Wall Street Journal reports, "Few expect Bush and Congress to scrap the income-tax code, but business braces for possibility that new corporate levies could offset reductions for individuals, as in Reagan-era legislation."  One option being discussed "would finance relief from" the AMT "by eliminating deductions for state and local levies.  That would hit residents of Democratic-leaning coastal states such as New York and California."

The Los Angeles Times adds to the DeLay investigative narrative by reporting from the Northern Mariana Islands, "Two former top aides of [DeLay's] brokered a political deal here five years ago that helped land" Abramoff "island government contracts worth $1.6 million...  DeLay declined to respond to a series of detailed questions for this report but his spokesman issued a statement defending the congressman's actions, which he said were aimed at improving the standard of living for U.S. citizens living in the territory."

The New York Times also traveled to the Northern Marianas to get reaction about Abramoff’s lobbying work for the territory.

And the Wall Street Journal has new details on DeLay's 2000 trip to Scotland, noting that Abramoff "hired an Arizona golf-tour company to make the arrangements and invited his clients and associates to interact with the House majority leader, newly available documents show."

The Washington Post covers DeLay's "emotional homily yesterday" to commemorate the National Day of Prayer, "on the need for greater humility in public servants, declaring himself a sinner before a largely Christian audience and warning that pride has brought down leaders throughout history."

The Washington Times says he "got standing ovations before and after his speech."

Bush II
Foreign Relations Committee staffers wrap up their final day of investigating claims against Bolton today under a agreement reached earlier between chair Dick Lugar and ranking Democrat Joe Biden.  The agreement also called for a committee vote on Bolton for May 12.  But tense negotiations over obtaining documents from the State Department could jeopardize the scheduled vote, NBC's Ken Strickland reports.  Earlier, Biden had asked Condoleezza Rice for materials that would have addressed claims that Bolton had exaggerated intelligence on Syria's WMDs.  Lugar later sent Rice a letter essentially saying she didn't have to honor Biden's request because the information was of "marginal relevance."

Yesterday, Biden reminded Rice in a letter that his commitment to go along with the May 12 committee vote on Bolton "is predicated on my expectation... that the Executive Branch will cooperate in providing access to witnesses and documents."  Hours later at a news conference, Rice responded with what appeared to be a subtle nod to Lugar by saying, "I believe that we're responding to the Committee Chair (Lugar) when asked to do so and will do so as rapidly as possible."

Strickland says Democrats could retaliate through procedural moves and delay Bolton's committee vote as they did in the past.  Or they could ultimately filibuster Bolton's nomination on the Senate floor.  That would be a prickly option for Democrats who are already under the "nuclear" threat for blocking judicial nominees.

The Washington Times reports that Sen. George Voinovich (R), whose concerns led to the delay in the Bolton committee vote, "has not heeded White House calls to privately question the nominee about his concerns."

The Arizona Republic previews Cheney's stop in Arizona today, where he's helping to raise funds for Rep. Rick Renzi (R).   "Cheney will greet Renzi backers at 5 p.m. during an invitation-only reception...  Information was not available Thursday on how many supporters are expected and how much they'll be paying."

The values debate
A lead proponent of changing the Kansas public school curriculum to include the teaching of intelligent design and of criticism of evolution couched his arguments yesterday to the state board of education by calling intelligent design "a 'new and maturing science,'" saying "it would be inappropriate to mandate teaching it.  Instead, he said, students should learn evidence against the theory of evolution, particularly when it comes to species evolving into new species."  The hearings continue today, tomorrow, and next week. – Topeka Capital-Journal

The Boston Globe notes that the hearing had "a courtroom format similar to the famed 1925 Scopes Trial in Tennessee," and that "the dispute seemed similar -- only this time evolution's critics insist science, not religion, is their motivation...  Yesterday's witnesses studiously avoided references to God and Christianity, flaunted their scientific credentials, and tossed around words like 'reasoned,' 'empirical,' and 'peer review' as they touted intelligent design theory."

"The debate over Kansas' curriculum, political experts say, reflects a broader effort by conservative Christian groups to move their agendas forward by electing like-minded officials at the state and local levels...  Local school boards in Georgia and Pennsylvania recently voted to alter their science curriculums and provide for the teaching of alternative theories.  Both moves are being challenged in court.  And the Ohio Department of Education passed a measure ensuring that teachers could hold classes that challenged the theory of evolution.  At least nine states, including Kansas, are considering bills that would affect how evolution is taught in their schools..." -- Los Angeles Times

Kerry tells the Boston Globe he thinks it's a "mistake" for the Massachusetts Democratic party to "include a plank in its official platform in support of same-sex marriage, saying that such a statement does not conform with the broad views of party members."  The state party chairman says they're going to support it, anyway.

California state treasurer and 2006 gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides (D) touched on a host of issues in an interview with reporters yesterday:
-- On whether he can beat Schwarzenegger: "The fact is, in the end, democracy and elections are still about what matters to working men and women, and Arnold Schwarzenegger has taken the state in the wrong direction...  This is going to be a clear-choice election."
-- On how he compares himself with Schwarzenegger: "I am, in many ways, the anti-Arnold...  I do not believe in the survival of the fittest."
-- On Schwarzenegger's recent controversial comments about immigration: "A real governor would lobby for adequate funding [to combat illegal immigration]."  And instead of calling into the "Ken and John" show, where Schwarzenegger made his remarks about the Arizona Minutemen, "he should have picked up the phone and called George and Dick at the White House."
-- On whether Schwarzenegger will run for re-election: He believes so.  "He is the ultimate fake-out artist...  There are [GOP and business] forces that want Arnold to stay."
-- On whether there will be a special election this year: He doubts one will occur.  "What a waste of time and waste of money...  This is all about diversion because the governor has so abysmally failed what he proposed to do."

The Los Angeles Times points out that before Schwarzenegger's controversial comments about immigration lately, "he had virtually ignored the issue since being elected.  He made immigration a campaign theme in 2003 by promising to block driver's licenses for illegal immigrants - which he did, in his first major official act - and to secure more federal funds to deal with it."  But after that, nothing, until recently.

Oh-eight (R)
Selling a presidential candidate to voters requires a good narrative to help them understand where he or she came from and what he or she stands for.  Bush's transformation from a Texas party animal into a tee-totaling born-again Christian is one example -- and indeed, was a story many voters, especially conservative ones, could relate to.  Kerry's war-hero narrative is another example.  And already in the field of potential oh-eight GOP candidates, there are plenty of strong narratives: Rudy Giuliani, confident leader during September 11; Frist, the good doctor (although he might have dented this image during the Schiavo case).  And George Allen has football.

And then there's Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), the man who lost 100 pounds.  We're not kidding.  Huckabee, who has just published "Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork: A 12-Stop Program to End Bad Habits and Begin a Healthy Lifestyle," has catapulted himself into a bonafide oh-eighter, and it's doubtful he could have made such jump in this age of TV when he weighed 280 pounds.  The last US president who weighed even close to that amount was William Howard Taft, and that was long before TV.

First Read spoke with a few experts who said Huckabee's weight-loss narrative could be pretty powerful if he decides to run for president.  For starters, his story is something millions of voters can relate to.  According to the latest stats from the Centers for Disease Control, 64% of American adults are overweight, and 30% of them are obese.  And Huckabee's message could be inspirational to these people.  As he writes in his book, "I can't promise that... the president of the United States will point you out in a crowded room and call you 'Skinny,' but I can promise that if you faithfully follow the simple, practical, and doable advice you will get in this book, you will be well on your way to... health and fitness."

What is especially powerful about Huckabee's weight loss, says one Republican communications strategist, is his transformation.  "People like to vote for people who've changed themselves," the strategist notes, citing Bush and even Hillary Clinton's more moderate persona as examples.  The GOP strategist adds that having Huckabee talk about his weight loss on shows like Oprah and write about it in a book are ways that can also help set him apart from the pack.  "Voters begin to ask, 'Who is that guy who lost the weight?'"  But the GOP strategist cautions that the weight-loss narrative should only be a launching point -- Huckabee also needs to talk about how he has transformed Arkansas and how he would transform the federal government.

Also, on weight loss and campaign discipline, the GOP communications strategist points out: "When you look at the people who have won presidential campaigns, they have won with disciplined organizations."

Dr. Richard Waterman, co-author of “The Image-is-Everything Presidency” and political science professor at the University of Kentucky, notes that Huckabee -- as he tours with Bill Clinton to combat obesity -- is able to demonstrate that he's willing to “reach across the aisle” on the important issue of health care.  Waterman also suggests that Huckabee can use his story to push for his health-care initiatives in a way that better resonates with voters than directing them to a website for details on a health-care plan.

But there are also possible downsides to this narrative.  Dr. Arthur Frank, medical director at George Washington University's Weight Management Program, says it could backfire on Huckabee if he somehow gains the weight back (after all, as any politico will admit, it's very easy to pack on extra pounds during a presidential campaign).  Frank, in fact, brings up Oprah as an example, noting how she lost a lot of weight with a lot of fanfare, but then gained it back.  Frank also says that if Huckabee comes across as someone who's had special services that aren’t readily available to all in this weight loss (and Huckabee did receive assistance fromthe University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences), then some voters might be lukewarm to his story.


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