“First Read”,  a daily memo prepared by NBC News’ political unit, for NBC News, analyzing the morning’s political news, is coming from New York City's Madison Square Garden through the end of the GOP convention.  Please let us know what you think. Drop us a note at


Friday, September 3, 2004 | 9:30 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

First Glance (60 days until Election Day)
One hundred forty-four thousand.  A middling, adequate, tepid August jobs report is the postscript to President Bush's heavily anti-terror convention and carries us into Labor Day weekend and the fall campaign.

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Reuters: "The U.S. job market brightened in August as employers added 144,000 workers to their payrolls and hiring totals for the two prior months were revised up."  Unemployment dropped "to 5.4 percent from 5.5 percent in July.  It was the lowest rate since a matching 5.4 percent in October 2001 and was certain to be cited by President George W. Bush as a sign that his tax cuts have helped stimulate economic activity."

"The August new-job gain came in slightly below Wall Street analysts' forecasts for a 150,000-job gain but the department also revised up its totals for June and July job creation by 59,000."

We'll see what a stumping and (Republicans hope) bumping President Bush makes of that.  We know what Kerry will say.  He will argue that Bush needs to add another 1.6 million jobs by election day to avoid becoming the first president since Hoover to see a net job loss.  The Kerry camp is likely to put the report in the context of other economic data we've seen recently: Census data showing more people uninsured and more living in poverty in 2003; a GDP figure that did not meet expectations; maybe also gas prices.  They emphasize the wrong-track figure in the latest national polls as their new favorite indicator for the election.

One bit of recent economic news they probably won't mention: Greenspan predicting some necessary cuts in Social Security or a hike in the retirement age.  Kerry says Social Security just needs a few tweaks.  With Bush formally putting the issue on the table last night, we'll see how that debate shapes up.

Bush's convention wraps just in time for Frances, the climax of the Russian school hostage crisis, the jobs report, and his Democratic opponent apparently finding his footing.  As we await word of a post-convention bump, one GOP strategist advises that scattered Republican polls through the third night showed Bush gains in the South but not in Midwest -- perhaps a result of Bush shoring up his base, with the jury still out in the heartland.

The jobs report doesn't quite make it into the storyline of Bush's convention, but Kerry does, responding to four days' worth of attacks on his national security voting record and rhetoric by swiping at both Bush and Cheney for refusing to serve, singling out Cheney's five deferments, and calling Bush unfit to lead.

The Bush-Cheney campaign has steered clear of criticizing Kerry's Vietnam service and anti-war protesting pretty much so they could say, when this moment arrived, that Kerry is going where they have not.  Kerry had said in the past that he would not make Bush-Cheney's military service an issue.  Kerry spokesperson Joe Lockhart said last night that the campaign wanted to affect how Bush's speech was received: "We looked very hard at the cumulative impact of what Zell and Cheney said last night and it offered us an opportunity to highlight how negative they were and hit back on hypocrisy."

President Bush today speaks at rallies in Scranton, PA at 9:20 am, in Milwaukee, WI at 1:00 pm, and in Cedar Rapids, IA at 6:45 pm, then overnights in Cleveland.  NBC's Norah O'Donnell says 15,000 are expected to attend the Scranton rally.  He has events in Ohio and Pennsylvania tomorrow and in West Virginia on Sunday.

Vice President Cheney speaks at rallies in Pendleton, OR at 1:35 pm and in Las Vegas at 5:35 pm. 

Kerry does a front porch visit in Newark, OH at 11:30 am, and a rally there at 12:45 pm.  He then records the Democratic radio response and heads to Akron for the night.  The Kerry campaign does a 10:00 am press conference call with Gephardt and Lockhart on the new jobs numbers.

On Saturday, Kerry has a morning rally in Akron, then travels to Steubenville for an evening rally, and from there to Pittsburgh to overnight at the Heinz home.  Sunday, Kerry is down for daughter Alexandra's 31st birthday.  On Labor Day, he starts with a front porch event in Pittsburgh, then does events in West Virginia and Ohio before heading to North Carolina for the night.

Edwards, in Wisconsin, has a rally in Green Bay at 1:05 pm, a discussion on jobs in Wasau at 5:00 pm, and a rally in Stevens Point at 8:00 pm. 

The speech
The Washington Post: "The emphasis of the speech on terrorism reflected the calculation of Bush's staff that he is likely to win if he can shift the focus of public attention to national security and terrorism and away from Iraq and the economy.  The speech continued the efforts of other convention speakers... to conflate the war in Iraq, which is generally unpopular, with the war on terrorism, for which Bush still receives strong marks."

The Washington Times heard an "aggressive domestic agenda:".

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein: "by focusing more on long-term changes than immediate responses to challenges in the economy and Iraq, Bush may have left himself vulnerable to Democratic charges that he has offered few new solutions to the problems many voters consider the most pressing."

The Washington Post's analysis says "Bush offered many proposals for the economy, but before he gains acceptance for them, he may need to regain the confidence of voters who give him negative ratings for what he has done in his first term...  Bush also did not confront the enormous fiscal problem that has been created during his presidency, an explosion of the deficit brought about by recession, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the massive tax cuts he pushed and promoted even as he dramatically boosted spending on defense and homeland security.  Bush's desire to reform Social Security collides with his call to make permanent his tax cuts, and outside budget experts say it is unrealistic to expect to do both without further enlarging the deficit."

The Boston Globe says a pledge to work toward a balanced budget was consciously absent from the GOP platform.  "The change may say as much about Bush and his party as do the nationally televised speeches -- few of which, if any, deal with the deficit.  It is an acknowledgment that Bush, who came into office with a budget surplus, has been overwhelmed by the expenses of counterterrorism efforts, wars, and his tax cuts -- as well as increased spending in domestic programs."

The Wall Street Journal heard a speech "heavily laden with promises to tackle a host of domestic challenges.  He promised more and better job training, wider access to health care and the introduction of private accounts in the Social Security system, as well as a revamping of the tax code."

With Social Security and other types of personal savings accounts back on the table, so is the deficit, as the Washington Post's analysis of the potential costs of Bush's domestic proposals suggests.

The Los Angeles Times: "The chances of overhauling Social Security are considered remote unless Bush puts forward more details about how he wants to set up and finance the option to invest payroll taxes in private accounts.  Democrats are bitterly opposed to the idea."

The Chicago Tribune's analysis: "If this election were about the economy, President Bush would be in trouble.  If it were about the war in Iraq, the bag is decidedly mixed.  If it were about progress in the war on terrorism, he would be on firmer but hardly solid ground."

"So the president and his followers made this Republican National Convention largely about someone else: Sen. John Kerry."

The New York Post writes, "His speech marked the starting gun for the fall campaign and rival Sen. John Kerry - slipping behind in polls - hit back in an extraordinarily sharp personal attack by charging that Bush is 'unfit' to lead the nation."

Convention fact check
And the AP truth-squads, saying "Bush glossed over some complicating realities in Iraq, Afghanistan and the home front in arguing the case Americans are safer and his opponent cannot deliver.  On Iraq, Bush talked of a 30-member alliance standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States, masking the fact that U.S. troops are pulling by far most of the weight.  On Afghanistan and its neighbors, he gave an accounting of captured or killed terrorists, but did not address the replenishment of their ranks - or the still-missing Osama bin Laden."

"He took some license in telling Americans that... John Kerry 'is running on a platform of increasing taxes.'  Kerry would, in fact, raise taxes on the richest Americans but as part of a plan to keep the Bush tax cuts for everyone else and even cut some of them more.  That's not a tax-increase platform any more than Bush's plan for private retirement accounts is a platform to reduce Social Security benefits."

"And on education, Bush voiced an inherent contradiction, dating back to his 2000 campaign, in stating his stout support for local control of education, yet promising to toughen federal standards that override local decision-making."

"On Iraq, Bush derided Kerry for devaluing the alliance that drove out Saddam Hussein and is trying to rebuild the country...  But the United States has more than five times the number of troops in Iraq than all the other countries put together.  And, with 976 killed, Americans have suffered nearly eight times more deaths than the other allies combined."

"Nowhere did Bush mention bin Laden, nor did he account for the replacement of killed and captured al al-Qaida leaders by others."

"He attacked Kerry for voting against an $87 billion package for Iraq and Afghanistan operations that included money for extra sets of body armor and other supplies, mocking his opponent for saying the issue was complicated...  But the bill in question was not solely about supporting troops and Kerry's campaign said he ultimately voted against it because, among other reasons, it included no-bid contracts for companies."

The Washington Post says of some convention speakers' attacks on Kerry, "a number of their specific claims -- such as his votes on military programs -- are at best selective and in many cases stripped of their context, according to a review of the documentation provided by the Bush campaign."

"As a senator, Kerry has long been skeptical of big-ticket weapons systems, especially when measured against rising budget deficits, and to some extent he opened himself to this line of attack when he chose to largely skip over his Senate career... at his convention.  But the barrage by Republicans at their own convention has often misportrayed statements or votes that are years, if not decades, old."

"Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt defended the statements made by convention speakers, though he declined to address details beyond supplying the campaign's citations of votes."

The Kerry response
The Boston Globe: "The convention... may be remembered for what it brought out in the sometimes reticent Kerry: sharp attacks of his own."

The Kerry campaign says it's framing Bush's visits to battleground states by launching six new ads today, one each in Scranton, PA, Milwaukee, WI, Cedar Rapids, MI, Cleveland, OH, Erie, PA and Parkersburg, WV.  Each ad features a promise Bush made to citizens in those cities and then offers the "real record of those actions."

MSNBC's Becky Diamond points out more focused Kerry language on Iraq from Kerry's midnight rally: "This president misled America into this war.  This president... told Americans that Iraq had reconstituted a nuclear plant but they hadn't...  This president told Americans there were WMD but there weren't...  He told Americans this war would cost $100 million... but it didn't...  $200 million later Iraq is a mess..."

MSNBC's Priya David notes Cheney has always been quick to defer on the subject of his military service.  On Hannity & Colmes earlier this week, for example, he said, "I didn't have to serve in Vietnam and I try to make it a point always to thank those who did for their service, regardless of what their views are or exactly where they served during that period of time or under what circumstances." 

The Los Angeles Times notes, "Republicans have shown no signs that they'll go along with the Democrats' attempt to change the subject...  Political experts said that, in many ways, Kerry has no choice but to turn to the domestic front."

Andy Kohut of the Pew Research Center tells Diamond it's a smart strategy for Kerry to focus on the economy now.  But Kohut also says Kerry's biggest challenge at this point isn't economic -- it is "speaking clearly on Iraq (as) Iraq continues to be one area where the public is disaffected with President Bush." Kohut says Kerry has not been effective at tapping into this dissatisfaction, Diamond reports.  Asked if he thinks Kerry's confirmation that he would have voted for the war knowing then what he knows now was a mistake, Kohut emphatically replies, "Sure do."

On Kerry's rally, Diamond says the original plan for last night was for Kerry to arrive in Dayton, OH at 9:15 pm, meaning Kerry could have watched the President's speech, as could the press corps.  But the campaign switched gears and delayed departure, announcing the change mid-day on Thursday, and Kerry did not touch down in Dayton until 10:30 pm, missing Bush's speech.  A campaign spokesperson tells Diamond the trip was not rearranged so that Kerry could avoid seeing the speech and having to comment on it -- the aide says that the campaign "watched weather, no fog expected today so no worries re: getting out of here, so why go earlier than we have to."  Diamond asked whether Kerry had expressed interest in watching the speech, and the aide replied, "He hasn't had interest thus far in watching the Madison Square Garden makeover..." 

The New York Times on Kerry's speech last night: "The Kerry campaign scheduled the event days ago in an effort to reclaim the initiative in the race without letting a single news cycle pass. Mr. Kerry spoke a mere half-hour after the president had ended his acceptance speech, and Kerry aides issued his prepared text even before Mr. Bush spoke."

"The Kerry campaign will dog Bush with critical ads Friday through Sunday in six cities on his weekend itinerary.  Bush has used the technique against Kerry, but it's the first time Kerry has targeted ads to presidential visits," says USA Today.

The paper adds, "The Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee have bought $8 million of airtime for two ads starting Tuesday on national cable and local markets the campaign did not disclose.  In one spot, Bush says he'll 'spread ownership and opportunity' by making the economy more 'job friendly,' ending 'junk lawsuits' and helping small businesses buy health insurance.  An announcer in the other ad lists Bush's goals, among them 'a fairer, simpler tax code,' reducing 'dependence on foreign energy' and 'permanent tax relief.'"

Busloads of New York Democrats head to Pennsylvania today to canvass for Kerry as the last vestige of the party's convention rapid response effort.

"Bounce" watch
"Mr. Bush left New York immediately after his speech for Scranton, Pa., so, according to his campaign, he could wake up in a swing state," the Washington Times reports.  "Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said Pennsylvania, with 21 electoral votes, is now one major Democratic state whose conservative, blue-collar pro-life voters can be brought into the president's column."

"While the Bush campaign has officially declared that it expects no boost in the polls out of this convention - just as Mr. Kerry didn't get one in July - political consultants close to the campaign predict a bounce in the neighborhood of 4 percent.  One point of agreement among Bush campaign advisers, outside consultants and pollsters is that although the convention here went exceptionally well for Mr. Bush, the vast majority of viewers had already made their choice."

The Washington Post says of Miller's Wednesday night speech, "Privately, some senior Republicans agreed that red meat that tasted delicious in the convention hall did not look appetizing to independent voters watching on television."  The potential issue lies more in his delivery than in his words, the story suggests.

The Kerry buzz
Flouting tradition yet again by showing up in the middle of their opponent's convention, the Kerry campaign senior staff was New York yesterday for various Sperling-type meetings.  They laid out a fuzzy case for winning, so after the meeting, we felt a need to remind ourselves of Kerry's assets and issues, as we see them. 

Dynamics favoring Kerry:
-- more money than any presidential challenger has ever had;
-- an unprecedentedly well-funded and relatively well-organized network of 527s which are doing not only advertising, but also GOTV;
-- massive targeting and GOTV efforts, per various Democratic operatives working and not working for the Kerry campaign;
-- a base he doesn't need to spend a lot of money or time on mobilizing because they're energized by their dislike for the President;
-- a clearer shot at the middle because he hasn't been catering to the base;
-- positions on the economy and foreign policy which get majority support in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll;
-- overall, the fundamental structure of public opinion right now, with people feeling dissatisfied and open to change;
-- a still-sagging economy; and,
-- 1,000 casualties in Iraq sometime in the next few weeks.

What Kerry does not have, as was made clear by yesterday's briefing:
-- a dominant negative message like Bush's "flip-flopper" (the campaign line yesterday: "we'll hone our message in the next few weeks");
-- a dominant positive message like "strong and steady leadership" (they have "plans" but few specifics, and Kerry continues to define himself by what Bush is not);
-- a clear position on Iraq, which bugs the press if not the public;
-- a single campaign aide or advisor with ultimate decision-making authority (they appear to govern by committee);
-- a connection with the electorate (his wealth, and how he wears it, and his lack of empathy keep him from connecting with average people);
-- an instinct for the science of running campaigns, per a former longtime Kerry aide; and,
-- the respect of the press corps.

The common thread to Kerry's issues?  They are all either stylistic or psychological, stemming from the candidate himself -- his personality and decision-making habits -- or from the Democratic party culture of structuring campaigns as self-help groups as opposed to businesses, with lots of layering and decreased structure as people "pitch in," and a dilution of responsibility and accountability.

The Bush approach to governing and campaigning has its own issues, including a black-and-white view of the world that allows for less nuance at a time when most voters are somewhere in the middle on most things, and a corporate campaign structure that can mean less flexibility.  But when faced with bad news, the Bush campaign forges ahead and, however far-fetched, tries to make lemons into lemonade.  When faced with the Swift Boat ads, the Kerry camp froze.

Until post-convention polls start coming back, this race is basically tied, the resources being spent are pretty much even, the environment favors Kerry, and the Bush campaign needs a big shift in dynamics or a thorough tarnishing of Kerry to win.  The Kerry campaign's problem -- up until now, at least -- is simply that they have not been equipped to fend off that effort.  That doesn't mean they aren't figuring it out.

The Washington Times says Kerry sent his advisors to New York.

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein notes in his coverage of Bush's speech, "this week's GOP gathering could mark a turning point in the campaign.  After weeks of pounding from Bush and outside groups supporting him that have helped the president regain a narrow lead in several recent polls, the Kerry campaign appears to have concluded that it must now deliver a more assertive case for change."


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