updated 11/8/2005 9:24:27 AM ET 2005-11-08T14:24:27

“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.  To bookmark First Read, click here.

First glance
President Bush's sole scheduled public event on this first election day of his second term is an above-the-fray photo op with the recipients of the 2005 Nobel Awards.  The latest on the Iraq debate, the detainees debate, Tom DeLay's legal proceedings, energy politics, and the House GOP's budget battle is below, while we spend our (extended) lead wallowing in today's contests.

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There doesn't appear to be much thematic string to tie together the motley assortment of candidates and measures on the ballot today.  Bush himself has become an issue in both the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races.  But a more common and telling thread for the GOP may be turnout.  As we've written here many times before, Republicans are concerned that Bush's and the party's problems at the national level (Iraq, energy prices/the economy, Libby/Rove/DeLay/Frist/Abramoff), and recent divisions within the party (Harriet Miers, spending battles), may dampen turnout among the base today.

Another theme that shouldn't get overlooked: the vast amount of money being spent on these off-year elections.  The total for the California special election may break $300 million.  Reform-talking Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and his California Recovery Team have spent nearly $32.5 million, per the latest filings online, while the state teachers union has kicked in $55 million.  In the neck-and-neck Virginia governor's race, the two major-party candidates had spent about $35 million by late October.  All final tallies are expected to be higher.

And in the New Jersey governor's race, Democrat Jon Corzine alone has spent about $30 million so far, again per the latest online filings.  Which means that Corzine will have spent around $100 million of his own money on just two campaigns for statewide office in this historically blue state.  (Corzine spent $63 million to get 50% in his US Senate bid in 2000.)  Which means one or more of the following must be true: formerly Democratic New Jersey isn't so much anymore, Corzine is a weak campaigner, and/or Corzine has an inefficient political operation.

Here's your cheat sheet on some of what Americans around the country will be voting on today.  The list is not exhaustive -- there are plenty more mayoral and other elections taking place.

Virginia governor: To the extent that the Beltway crowd was going to seize upon any of today's races as a "bellwether" for 2006, it was going to be this one -- even before President Bush parachuted in last night on behalf of GOP nominee Jerry Kilgore.  This has been a toss-up race in which both sides could always see a path to victory.  A GOP win in red state Virginia would hardly be earth-shattering; on the other hand, the party holding the White House has lost this race in every election since Jimmy Carter was president.  Plenty of non-national factors have also been at play here, including: Kilgore's highlighting the death penalty and (making its debut as a high-profile issue in the East) illegal immigration; Democratic Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine's emphasis of his Catholic faith and missionary work; and outgoing Democratic Gov. Mark Warner's sky-high popularity.

All that being said, a Kilgore win would give the national GOP a desperately needed boost and would also be a win for Bush, who would look like the candidate's last-minute savior, whereas a Kaine win would be touted by Democrats as a sign that the GOP's problems in Washington are afflicting their candidates at the local level.  Going into Election Day, Republican operatives privately concede that Kaine probably leads Kilgore by a few points, but they hope to bridge the gap through Bush's appearance last night and a superior turnout operation.

California special election: Schwarzenegger is actively campaigning for four of the eight measures on the ballot in this special election he called for today: Proposition 74, which would increase teacher tenure from two years to five; Proposition 75, which would prohibit union dues from being used for political purposes without members' permission; Proposition 76, which would impose a cap on state spending; and Proposition 77, which would place the state's redistricting process in the hands of a panel of retired judges, instead of state lawmakers.  Schwarzenegger has also endorsed Proposition 73, a proposal to require parental notification before a minor receives an abortion.  His team hopes this measure will motivate the party base to turn out and boost his propositions, which aren't faring well in the polls.  Indeed, it's possible that any or all four of them may fail.  As with the recall in 2003, the make-up of the electorate is an open question.  The CW is that Schwarzenegger's odds improve with a low turnout that presumably includes a higher proportion of conservatives.

A loss for Schwarzenegger will fuel his political foes' allegations that the election was a waste of money, prompt speculation that he may opt not to see re-election in 2006, embolden his two declared Democratic opponents, and possibly cause others -- even the Hamlet-like Warren Beatty -- to get into the race.  But bear in mind one parallel between Schwarzenegger and Bush: both are likely to perform better against identifiable opponents than against themselves.  Assuming he seeks re-election, Schwarzenegger's standing may start to improve.

New Jersey governor: Corzine and 2002 Senate candidate Doug Forrester (R) are competing to replace acting Gov. Richard Codey, who took office after incumbent Jim McGreevey (D) resigned last year.  In this race, the issues are not the issue.  The contest has drawn national attention for the extremely nasty tone it took on after Corzine's ex-wife began criticizing him in the press, and for Corzine's referencing Bush and Karl Rove in attacking Forrester.  The 11th-hour charges have made an expected Corzine victory more volatile.  If Corzine wins, he will appoint his replacement in the Senate, with an election to follow in 2006.  Assuming that this historically Democratic state is in fact becoming more competitive, then GOP investments in this race may pay off in the next one.

A Governor Corzine could appoint a Democrat who would run for a full Senate term in 2006, or he could install a caretaker and leave those truly interested in running to duke it out in next year's primary.  The CW, however, is that Corzine will take the former route, since Republicans already have a Senate candidate in Tom Kean, Jr.  In choosing his replacement, Corzine would have to weigh several considerations.  One is ethics, since public polls show that New Jersey Democrats seem vulnerable here.  "If ethics is the trump card, Democrats have to show up at the table with a hand to play," says one party operative who's watching all of this.  Another is race, since Rep. Bob Menendez wants the seat and would be the state's first Hispanic US senator.  And then there's the question of whether acting Gov. Richard Codey, whose poll numbers are higher than any other New Jersey Democrat's, is willing to move to Washington.

Also on the ballot today, compiled with help from MSNBC's Thomas Ferraro:

Election reform: Similar to California, Ohioans will vote on whether to place their redistricting process in the hands of a bipartisan commission instead of state lawmakers.  Proponents of the measure are hoping to capitalize on the backlash against GOP Gov. Bob Taft's scandal-plagued administration, and Republicans are pensively watching turnout here with an eye toward the midterm elections, in which several of their congressional seats could be vulnerable.  Other election-reform issues are also on the ballot: whether campaign contribution limits should be lowered; whether all voters should be allowed to vote early by mail; and whether partisan secretaries of state should continue to oversee the state's elections.

New York mayor: With the help of an estimated $80 million of his own money, incumbent Mike Bloomberg (R) is expected to coast to a second term in his race against Fernando Ferrer (D), even though Ferrer has constantly tied Bush to Bloomberg.  Assuming a Ferrer loss, Democrats will have been shut out of this mayoralty since the first Giuliani victory in 1993.

St. Paul mayor: Challenger Chris Coleman (D) has been beating fellow Democrat and incumbent Mayor Randy Kelly over the head with Kelly's endorsement of Bush for re-election in 2004, and Kelly is expected to lose.

San Diego mayor: Former police chief Jerry Sanders' lead over surf-shop owner and city councilwoman Donna Frye (D) is narrowing in the run-off for this nonpartisan seat.  The nation's seventh-largest city has been without a mayor since then-incumbent Dick Murphy resigned in July and, shortly after taking office, interim Mayor Michael Zucchet was convicted of taking bribes from a strip-club owner.

Gas tax repeal: Washington State's Initiative 912 would overturn a 9.5-cent/gallon gas-tax hike scheduled to be phased in over the next three years.

Intelligent design: Elections take place for the Dover, PA school board, which is in the midst of a lawsuit over its decision to require students to hear a statement about intelligent design as part of its science curriculum.

Gay marriage ban vote: Texas residents will vote on a constitutional amendment to establish marriage as being between a man and a woman.  The amendment would also prohibit the state from creating or recognizing any legal status similar to marriage.

Gay discrimination ban: A ballot proposal in Maine asks voters if they want to reject a recently enacted law protecting people from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Medical malpractice: Washington state voters face dueling ballot measures on medical malpractice.  One, supported by doctors and insurance companies, would cap non-economic damages at $350,000 and limit lawyer fees.  The other, supported by lawyers and consumer groups, would create a state-run supplemental malpractice insurance program and allow doctors' licenses to be revoked after three malpractice verdicts within 10 years.

Handgun ban: San Francisco voters decide the fate of an ordinance that would ban the manufacture, distribution, and sale of firearms and ammunition within San Francisco.  The measure would also prohibit residents from possessing handguns, except for professional purposes.

Lots more news about the top races and candidates schedules, all below.

National security politics
After Senate Democrats forced the chamber into closed session last week, the Intelligence Committee goes full-throttle this week on its continuing investigation of whether the Administration manipulated pre-war intelligence, NBC's Ken Strickland notes.  All the meetings this week are closed-press.

One of the meetings, of the bipartisan group of six US senators chosen to assess the committee's progress on the "Phase II" investigation, takes place today.  The Boston Globe covers Democrats' escalation of their calls for an inquiry into pre-war intelligence, and the GOP's reminder that "many Democrats also said Iraq was a threat before the war began."

Bush's staunch defense of US detainee policy yesterday, Vice President Cheney's longtime efforts to preserve it, and the Supreme Court's agreement yesterday to decide whether the Administration can use military tribunals to try foreign terrorism suspects all get widespread coverage.  The Court's decision sets up "a major test of the president's legal strategy against terrorism...  The justices will review a decision by a lower appeals court, which said Bush acted within his powers when he established the military tribunals.  The appeals court included John Roberts," now chief justice, who will recuse himself.  The case is likely to be heard in March. – USA Today

The sudden focus on detainee policy may fuel Democrats' questioning of Supreme Court nominee Sam Alito.  As NBC's Bob Windrem reported last week, one of the courses Alito developed himself and has taught at Seton Hall is on "Terrorism and Civil Liberties."  A 2004 syllabus reads: "This Seminar will examine constitutional and other legal questions presented by important, recently adopted antiterrorism measures.  Measures that have been proposed but not adopted may also be studied.  Among the topics that will be considered are the use of military tribunals to try suspected terrorists, the detention without trail of enemy combatants, the closing to the public of certain deportation proceedings, and the use of electronic surveillance and the information that it yields."  Alito also discussed the connection between September 11 and the detention of Taliban militants at Guantanamo Bay.

Add three Massachusetts Democrats -- Lynch, Markey and Meehan -- to the growing list of members now saying that "if they had it to do all over again, they would oppose the president’s request" to go to war in Iraq.  – AP

The Democrats' agenda
After initially planning to roll out their positive agenda in November, Democrats have now decided to delay the rollout until next year.  Party leaders and strategists think "the current political climate is paying dividends for them and that voters are not yet focused on the midterm ballots."  (That said, keep in mind that national polls show many Americans don't think much more highly of the Democratic Party than they think of the GOP.)

Making a conscious decision to avoid allowing themselves get distracted by a fight over the Alito nomination, Senate Democrats "expect to spend the weeks leading up to and immediately following Thanksgiving pounding on a three-pronged, interlocking message that hits the White House on security and intelligence issues, energy and high gas prices, and various allegations of corruption in government on the GOP’s watch," Roll Call says, while Alito gets relegated to the back burner.

Ethics
The New York Daily News, the inspiration for many tough questions about the CIA leak probe in recent White House briefings, now reports that the leak scandal has uncovered "the subtle but unmistakable erosion in the bond between President Bush and Vice President Cheney.  Multiple sources close to Bush told the Daily News that while the vice president remains his boss' valued political partner and counselor, his clout has lessened - primarily as a result of issues arising from the Iraq war."  Another senior Administration aide said this suggestion is categorically false.

Late yesterday, Rep. Tom DeLay's attorneys filed a motion with the new judge overseeing DeLay's case, seeking to have his trial moved to Fort Bend County in the Houston suburbs -- DeLay's home county, NBC's Doug Adams notes.  DeLay's attorneys argue that the former House leader can't get a fair trial in Austin because the pool of jurists there would be biased against him.  Travis County officials have filed court papers rejecting this argument.  The Houston Chronicle reports that the new judge has set the first hearing for November 22.

Energy politics
Even though they could see it coming, the oil industry might still feel like they don't know what hit them, given how quickly Hill Republicans have turned on them.  Speaker Dennis Hastert's office is touting how he has called oil company CEOs in for a private meeting this week.  And NBC's Chip Reid notes that two Senate committees will hold a joint hearing tomorrow to hear from top execs at ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, and Conoco.  Even supporters of energy companies are angry, Reid says.  Senate Energy chair Pete Domenici wants to ask what they've done with their windfall profits.  Government officials will testify about the effectiveness of anti-price gouging laws.  Some senators, including Republicans, will tell the companies they should start diverting some of their profits to low-income Americans to help pay their energy bills, and senators from both parties also will call for reinstating a windfall profits tax.

On CNBC yesterday, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman repeated the Administration's opposition to a windfall tax.  "We tried that back in the early 1980s and it proved to be totally ineffective.  We found that production actually declined."  The Administration would rather see oil companies reinvest profits into refining capacity, Bodman said.  Bodman also voiced opposition to some Senators' proposal that oil companies donate 10% of their profits to charity.

Also today, Reid reports that the new federal Winter Fuels Outlook will be released, summarizing the likely prices, supply and demand of winter fuels.  And a group of Democratic senators from cold-weather states will hold a 12:15 pm presser to call on Congress to provide urgent relief.  Per Reid, they say the low-income heating assistance program hasn't come close to keeping up with rising costs.  A DC-based consumer group says households in poverty will owe an average of 25% of their entire income for energy bills, and the news isn't much better for those just above poverty and middle-income types.

And, several organizations who represent US industries that are affected by high natural gas prices -- including the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Iron & Steel Institute, the American Forest and Paper Association, and the American Plastics Council -- hold a 10:00 am press conference at the National Press Club to "discuss the impact on their respective industries and jobs and potential solutions, including steps policymakers could and should take NOW to increase natural gas supplies and bring prices down."  The groups note that the House may vote as early as Wednesday to expand access to domestic natural gas through expanded exploration.

Even as all this goes down, the price of crude oil is staying low due to mild weather. - Bloomberg

Taxes and spending
"This week’s House vote on a nearly $54 billion budget reconciliation measure will go a long way toward establishing whether the House GOP leadership is in control of the chamber’s agenda, or whether leaders will continue to be ruled by whichever party faction appears to be able to give them the winning votes at any particular time," Roll Call observes.  Moderates are now holding sway over the budget measure.

"House Democrats and their allies are planning a weeklong assault on the GOP’s proposed budget plan," The Hill says, including "a series of coordinated floor speeches, press events and a 'mock hearing' led by the House Budget Committee’s top Democrat."

2005
In Virginia, Kaine has already cast his ballot in Richmond, and he also holds his election-night party there.  Kilgore votes in Glen Allen and -- like Kaine -- holds his party in Richmond.

Yesterday, Democrats forwarded us a transcript of robocalls a group called Honest Leadership for Virginia PAC -- which is funded by the Republican Governors Association -- is running the state's more liberal areas.  The call features Kaine's voice, and Kaine explains that he opposes gay marriage, supports restrictions on abortion, and has worked to pass a law banning the so-called partial-birth abortion procedure.  Contacted for comment, Democratic Governors Association executive director Penny Lee says the robo calls are deceitful.  “I would not feel comfortable on legal or ethical grounds for the DGA to engage in this type of activity," she tells First Read.  "Activity that seeks to deceive the listener in thinking this call actually came from Tim Kaine. It’s the sign of a desperate campaign.”

But the RGA counters that all it's doing is taking an actual radio ad Kaine has run in conservative areas of the state -- and running it in more liberal areas.  "It is probably the most honest ad from either side that has actually run," says RGA general counsel Charlie Spies, who adds that people "who are getting these calls are going berserk."  But is it illegal for Republicans to run calls like this that make it seem as if the call is coming from Kaine?  "Absolutely not," Spies replies.

Kilgore told reporters yesterday “that Bush ‘is going to be a big help.  The president is very popular in Virginia, he's coming off a successful South America trip and we're going to be very excited to see him in Richmond.  When you're down to a race that demands turnout, it's turnout and the president can turn out the base.’”  - Richmond Times Dispatch

The Washington Post, channeling First Read from yesterday, focuses on Bush's gamble in showing up for Kilgore.  "White House strategists evidently calculated that a Kilgore defeat would be seen as a defeat for Bush even if the president did not set foot on the southern side of the Potomac."  If "Kilgore wins, it would offer a well-timed vindication of Bush's clout."

The AP has more on Bush stumping for Kilgore: “‘The thing I like about this fellow is he grew up on a farm,’ Bush said...  ‘He doesn't have a lot of fancy airs.’”  It also reports on Gov. Mark Warner (D) campaigning for Kaine.  “‘If they want to compare how things are going in Washington versus how things are going in Virginia, I'll take that comparison every day of the week,’ Warner said.”

The Boston Globe's Canellos looks at the governor's race as a surrogate match-up between potential presidential candidates Sen. George Allen (R) and outgoing Gov. Mark Warner (D).

In New Jersey, Corzine has already voted in Hoboken.  He campaigns in Cherry Hill, Edgewater Park, and Hamilton, and then has his election-night rally in East Brunswick.  Forrester has already cast his vote in Princeton; he campaigns in East Windsor and Hamilton, then returns to Princeton to watch the election returns.

The Newark Star-Ledger focuses on the undecided vote: “Nearly one in 10 voters remained undecided in the last days of the campaign, according to a Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers Poll.  A similar number refused to say which way they might be leaning…  ‘It's a pretty high number of undecideds.  You have to assume it's higher than usual because it's closer than usual,’ poll director Murray Edelman said.  ‘There is clearly a lot of volatility in this race.’”

In California, Schwarzenegger and wife Maria Shriver, who did not actively campaign for her husband's initiatives, are voting in Los Angeles at this writing.  Schwarzenegger's election-night party will take place in Beverly Hills.  The Los Angeles Times covers the final day of stumping and notes labor leaders' spin that the election was "unnecessary."

The Sacramento Bee notes that although Schwarzenegger has told voters that today would be “Judgment Day,” a new Field Poll “found that as many as four out of every 10 voters likely made their judgments before today's special election by casting their votes" via absentee -- and that of the 2.75 million absentee ballots expected, a roughly even number will be cast by Democrats and Republicans.  "Historically, Republicans have outnumbered Democrats in absentee balloting.”  The poll also shows none of Schwarzenegger’s ballot measures winning majority support.

The Los Angeles Times says big spenders in this special election are "prepared to dig deep again" for the 2006 gubernatorial and midterm elections.  "No single donor in the special election has matched the California Teachers Assn," which "has contributed $55 million."

And with millions of Americans voting today, the Chicago Tribune says a group called "Why Tuesday?" is trying to get US elections moved to the weekends to bolster turnout.

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