“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, September 6, 2004 | 9:25 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

  1. Other political news of note
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      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
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    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

First glance (57 days until Election Day)
In case the last six months weren't enough of a hint that this isn't your typical presidential election, the fall campaign begins with a convention-bolstered President Bush leading Kerry by double digits despite faring poorly on all basic measures of an incumbent's status: right direction/wrong track, re-elect, and job approval.  Voters' outlook on the economy is grim, per the late August NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, and we doubt the terrorism-focused confab last week shored up Bush on that front. 

Kerry starts the fall campaign with majority support for his approaches to foreign policy, the economy and the Bush tax cuts, per the NBC/Journal poll, but encumbered by processy buzz about his latest campaign restructuring (as we said last week, in Democratic presidential campaigns, people get layered, not fired); by fellow Democrats now openly critiquing his campaign (also typical); and by reports that a hospitalized and fidgety Bill Clinton told Kerry to get off Vietnam and talk more about the economy. 

A Kerry advisor emphasized to MSNBC's Becky Diamond that Kerry had already made that decision.

All that being said, barring another terrorist attack, the Bush campaign seems to recognize that they can't keep the race focused on fighting terrorism for the next 57 days.  So both candidates spend their Labor Day weekends talking about the economy and taxes.

Today, President Bush speak at a rally in Poplar Bluff, MO at 6:00 pm.  Cheney has a town hall in Minneapolis at 11:30 am and a picnic in Clear Lake, IA at 3:30 pm. 

Kerry has a jobs event outside Pittsburgh at 8:30 am, an appearance with mine workers in Racine, WV at 1:45 pm, and a rally in Cleveland at 6:45 pm.  Edwards has jobs events in Milwaukee and St. Paul and a rally in Kalamazoo, MI.  Their spouses are also out on the stump.  Alexis Herman announces a new economic report by the campaign on an 11:15 am press conference call; the candidates will reference the report at their events.

Of the 19 factors we listed in this space a few weeks ago which could effect the election, we've now come across 1-3: monthly job numbers, oil supply disruption, and the Republican convention.  Bush and Kerry are fighting to frame the August job numbers, with Bush touting the creation of 144,000 new jobs plus upward revisions from the last two months, and Kerry arguing that Bush is about to become the first president since Hoover to oversee a net loss in jobs.  Gas prices are high, though falling.  The convention left Bush an ersatz 11 points ahead, with GOP strategists believing Bush's lead is smaller, but solid.

As noted before, our list is not exhaustive.  For example, we certainly didn't count on a hospitalized Bill Clinton -- though we suspect that his return to the trail, if he manages to do so, will be a bigger deal than his absence from it.  Now onto items 4-8:

4. Congressional debate and actions on Bush's September 11 commission proposals.
Congress returns from recess tomorrow.  NBC's Mike Viquiera confirms that the House, at least, plans to pass some proposals before the September 11 anniversary, but the big-ticket items are likely to require more than four days' deliberation.  The White House is probably betting Democrats can't afford to look obstructionist, after Republicans hammered Democrats like Max Cleland in the 2002 election for voting against the Department of Homeland Security.

5. September 11 anniversary.
With Bush having made September 11 and anti-terror efforts the dominant theme of his convention, is there any bump left for him to gain from the anniversary itself?

6. 1,000 US troop fatalities in Iraq.
At this rate, we can expect to see the 1,000th US troop fatality sometime in the next few weeks.  Hardly Vietnam, but for a war that Bush declared over back in May, still an unfortunate milestone for him.

7. Assault weapons ban expiration: September 13.
Candidate Bush backed an extension of the assault weapons ban during the 2000 campaign.  He hasn't commented on the issue since then, though his advisers have said he would sign an extension into law if Congress passes one.  But he has done nothing visible to push for passage, and the House GOP leadership has indicated they won't bring it up.  Kerry has called for an extension of the ban, and earlier this year made a trip to DC to vote on an extension, but never got the chance to.

8. Social Security. 
The only major 2000 campaign plank he hasn't attempted to fulfill, Bush in his acceptance speech last Thursday talked up a need to reform Social Security in his second term.  The issue has been noticeably absent from the debate thus far.  Political analysts suggest that the Democratic argument against the GOP "trying to take away Social Security" may sound tired, but some Republicans are clearly nervous about starting this discussion shortly before the election.  Another big issue for Bush: paying for the transition costs. 

With what?

Today's stops
The AP the two tickets' stops today, noting that Edwards and Cheney will cross paths in St. Paul.

Kerry hits West Virginia one day after Bush, who accused Kerry of wanting to raise taxes and attacked his record on small business, per the AP.  "Bush contrasted Kerry's approach with his record.  He cited new employment figures showing that 1.7 million jobs overall were added to the economy since last August...  He did not mention that there are 900,000 fewer jobs than when he took office in January 2001, despite promises of millions being created with his tax cuts.  West Virginia has shed 11,000 manufacturing jobs on Bush's watch."

Jobs, taxes, and the economy
The Washington Post reports that as Bush called for a simpler tax system yesterday, "aides said he is considering pushing for a flat tax, which would set the same income-tax rate for most taxpayers, as a major priority if he were to win a second term."

"Kerry's campaign contends that because many such proposals do not tax investment income like interest, capital gains and dividends, such a move would have the effect of shifting the tax burden from the wealthy to the working class."

"In a new twist on his argument that Kerry is set on raising taxes, the president said the Democrat's plan to eliminate the Bush tax cuts on those making more than $200,000 would 'stifle job creation.'"  Bush said Kerry's "plan to raise taxes on those at the top end of the income tax scale will raise taxes for the 900,000 small businesses and entrepreneurs who pay at the individual rate and who are creating most of the new jobs in our changing economy.'  However, Internal Revenue Service data show that the majority of small businesses report much less than $200,000 in annual income."

Reporting from Ohio, which has lost 250,000 jobs since Bush became president, the New York Times says the economy is the central issue there -- but that it doesn't necessarily translate into votes for Kerry.

"The AFL-CIO's $45 million effort to unseat President Bush is driven by an issue that unions care passionately about, but many voters have never heard of: the makeup of the National Labor Relations Board, says the Boston Globe

The Washington Post's Birnbaum says business is going more Republican this cycle that at any time he can remember.  "Kerry's presidential campaign has released an extensive list of chief executives who support the senator's campaign, but a far longer list of corporate chieftains are backing Bush."  They're also giving to GOP downballot campaigns and to pro-Bush 527s.

Clinton
The surgery Clinton is likely to undergo today is expected to be "an ordinary replumbing of his ailing heart, not some new whiz-bang robotic or 'keyhole' surgery, leading surgeons say."  -- AP

MSNBC's Priya David reports that Cheney told reporters aboard Air Force Two about his phone conversation with Clinton: "It was fairly brief.  I just called to let him know we're thinking about him...  I've been through a similar experience before.  That the key was to have the good sense to get checked when you thought you had a problem, which he obviously did.  Went, got checked...  I've done a quadruple bypass 16 years ago.  I was living proof of the wonders of modern medicine and I'm sure everything will go fine for him too."

Medals and ribbons
On "Tour of Duty," the Boston Globe focuses on the irony of Kerry previously thinking "a book about his decorated tour of duty... might impress voters seeking a strong leader," whereas now his "record of military service in Vietnam and his opposition to the war afterward have become the single biggest challenge he has faced in his campaign for the presidency."

"Four years ago, Kerry was warned about the perils of emphasizing Vietnam in his candidacy by his friend John McCain...  The role Kerry and McCain played in normalizing US-Vietnam relations was still controversial with many veterans, McCain told him."

The book "has been a double-edged sword, like so much about that war in this race.  Kerry used Vietnam as the defining example of his leadership skills during the first seven months of 2004 -- culminating in a strategically planned pageant of war remembrance at July's Democratic convention -- only to see his war service overshadow his political message and spark a roiling crisis for his candidacy as the race enters the homestretch."

The AP says documents that should have been filled out to explain gaps in Bush's Air National Guard service are missing: "No such records have been made public and White House officials told The Associated Press in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that it has released all records it can find."

"Bounce" watch
"Democrats on Sunday said President Bush's post-convention bounce was triggered by 'four days of mean, vicious attacks' on John Kerry, and would be short-lived," says the AP.

McCain campaigned with Cheney over the weekend, and MSNBC's Priya David reports that McCain spoke highly of the convention, as well as of the Vice President.   He said the convention wasn't perfect, but it was clear from the early polling that it was very successful.  He said again that he wished Zell Miller hadn't expressed his views as strongly as he had, but that it was his privilege, as it was to give his own speech the way he wanted.  McCain also said he feels the Republicans have mischaracterized the Democrats and that, "yes, the Democrats have misrepresented the Republicans as well." 

The Kerry buzz
Longtime Kerry friend and advisor John Sasso is leaving the helm of the DNC to become "the person at [Kerry's] side through Election Day who assesses the candidate's performance, delivers bad news, and sharpens the day-to-day political message that has been criticized as lackluster by some Democrats recently," says the Boston Globe.  Field guru Michael Whouley takes over the DNC.  "Campaign officials were quick to insist that the move was not the kind of shake-up that has been rumored by some Democrats critical of Kerry.  [Mary Beth] Cahill remains campaign manager, and no one has been fired or lost a title."

In their phone conversations this past weekend, Clinton told Kerry "he must sharpen his criticism of President Bush's record and offer voters a more compelling case in his own behalf if he hopes to win the election in November," the Washington Post reports.  "Clinton... urged Kerry to draw a sharper contrast with Bush and to explain to voters the effect of going to war in Iraq on domestic policies."

"Democratic sources said that former Clinton adviser Paul Begala, who has been offering regular advice, may play a stepped-up role, but a Kerry campaign official said that Begala has no formal role."

"Kerry advisers described the moves as long planned and part of an overall effort to put the strongest possible team together for the final 60 days of the campaign.  But the decisions on Sasso and Whouley caught some staff members at the campaign and DNC by surprise and, along with the recruitment of the Clinton advisers (Joe Lockhart and Joel Johnson), were seen by other Democrats as an acknowledgment by Kerry that his campaign needed help..."

The New York Times: "On Saturday, Mr. Johnson drew applause from Democrats assembled for a weekly strategy meeting at Mr. Kerry's headquarters when he reassured aides that the campaign had settled on a clear line of attack against Mr. Bush..."

The Sunday Times: "In interviews, leading Democrats - governors, senators, fund-raisers and veteran strategists - said they had urged Mr. Kerry's campaign aides to concentrate almost exclusively on challenging President Bush on domestic issues from here on out, saying he had spent too much of the summer on national security, Mr. Bush's strongest turf."

"If nervous about the state of play going into Labor Day, Democrats were far from ready to concede defeat in a contest that typically does not engage until the start of September.  They pointed to polls showing continued unhappiness with the direction of the country and Mr. Bush's mediocre job approval ratings.  And not incidentally, they invoked Mr. Kerry's history of getting more focused on a contest only when he was faced with the prospect of imminent defeat..."

Indeed, the Los Angeles Times front-pages its look at Kerry's 1996 Senate race against William Weld, which "revealed a steel core within Kerry, observers say, along with an agile mind and tenacity that carried him through eight arduous debates."

Bob Novak writes that the Bush campaign can't believe its good fortune of how badly Kerry performed last month.  "Bush's real advantage has been Kerry.  At the Labor Day traditional campaign start, the Democratic nominee still seems undefined.  In his latest about-face, he has gone into an attack mode, however blunted."

MSNBC's Becky Diamond notes Kerry has attacked Bush in every stump speech since the convention.  She also observes Kerry fighting to gain his rhetorical footing right now.  His performances remain erratic -- some out of the ballpark, but more often than not mediocre.  With two months to go, he continues to test new lines and themes.  Diamond notes that two months before he won the Iowa caucuses, Kerry came up with a focused and forceful stump speech. 

On Saturday in Akron, Diamond says, Kerry left reporters dazed and confused after a 47-minute speech that wandered.  He interrupts himself constantly, starting a line and then going off on a tangent by telling some story related to the issue, then going back to the original thought -- by which point, the momentum is gone.  He continues to throw out old lines and themes like "let America be America again" and "help is on the way," and while some new lines are quite strong, the speech lacks an overall focus.

Diamond also reports that Kerry looked extremely irritated this past weekend as a reporter threw him about the recent poll numbers.  Kerry had just finished skeet shooting when Reuters's Patsy Wilson shouted, "Senator, now that you put the gun down, what about the polls?"  He grimaced, turned around and walked away from the press.

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein: "The first question for the campaign's last stretch: Can Bush maintain a lead more effectively than Kerry did?  The answer may turn largely on events in the economy and Iraq that neither campaign can control.  But Kerry's slide in August shows how much the contenders' campaign decisions can also affect the dynamic."

"Nervous Democrats believe three key Kerry decisions helped Bush to recover.  Many fret that Kerry didn't respond fast enough when his Vietnam War record came under assault from the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth...  Others complain that Kerry placed too much emphasis on his biography and too little on his agenda at the Democratic convention.  Others say the convention didn't deliver a strong and clear indictment of Bush's record."

"Kerry's decision to emphasize reassurance over persuasion ceded control of the day-to-day campaign debate to Bush...  Further, because Kerry has spent so much time trying to buff his credentials as commander in chief, he didn't drive a sharp message on domestic issues like the economy..."

"The campaign's next big events are the presidential debates that begin Sept. 30.  But most experts agree Kerry has to shift the momentum before then, just as Bush did in the weeks leading into his convention."

More Bush-Cheney v. Kerry-Edwards
USA Today considers the possibility of an Electoral College tie: "Shifts in electoral votes and the realities of an evenly divided nation mean there is a credible case that the final tally in Bush vs. Kerry could be 269-269...  It's also easy to calculate how Bush could lose the popular vote but win the Electoral College, as he did in 2000.  Or the reverse: how John Kerry could lose the popular vote but win the Electoral College."

"It's possible, of course, that the election on Nov. 2 won't be close; it usually isn't when a president runs for re-election.  But if it is, officials in both parties warn that another disputed election would make the task of governing treacherous for whomever takes office on Jan. 20.  And a divided outcome - in which one candidate wins the popular vote but not the Electoral College - surely would fuel support for amending the Constitution to change the nation's election system.  Proposals are pending to allocate a state's electoral votes among the candidates proportionally, or to move toward the popular election of the president altogether."

"Republicans and Democrats are enlisting litigators, running training sessions, researching state laws and organizing SWAT teams of lawyers to respond to any problems on Election Day.  Targeted are 28,000 precincts in 17 states that are expected to be close."

Here's the list we ran on August 5 of possible election dynamics, both within and beyond President Bush's control, which could affect the election outcome or otherwise play significantly in the storyline of this cycle.  In roughly chronological order:

-- the monthly job numbers (August numbers now out)
-- oil supply disruption
-- the Republican convention
-- congressional debate and actions on Bush's September 11 commission proposals
-- the September 11 anniversary
-- 1,000 US troop fatalities in Iraq
-- the assault weapons ban expiration on September 13
-- a debate over Social Security reform
-- a debate over prescription drug benefits/drug reimportation
-- early voting
-- the debt ceiling
-- the presidential debates
-- military absentee ballots (as of mid-July, 340,000 requests for military absentee ballots -- compared to 250,000 total requested in 2000)
-- the World Series
-- disruption of the vote due to a terrorist attack or terror alert
-- the Colorado electoral vote initiative
-- change in control of the Senate (and, a Louisiana Senate run-off and/or a Massachusetts Senate special)

With the campaign rhetoric heating up, the Los Angeles Times looks at some recent statements by both sides on the candidates' positions on Medicare, education, Iraq, the Defense of Marriage Act, after-school programs, and the candidates' own military service.

The Washington Times reports on Bush's efforts to court Democrats and independents yesterday in West Virginia, coming off his convention and Zell Miller's speech.

The Washington Post takes a long look at swing voters who remain unmoved by the conventions.

The Chicago Tribune examines the battle for Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin -- particularly the hunt for the undecided voters. 

This weekend an American Muslim convention prompted talk of who will get the group's endorsement.  The Boston Globe: "At the convention over the weekend, organized by the nonpartisan Islamic Society of North America, several speakers said Kerry had become too timid on civil rights issues.  They said his pledge to repeal parts of the USA Patriot Act, which gave the government broad new powers to monitor citizens, did not go far enough."

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