“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.

Tuesday, September 7, 2004 | 9:20 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

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First glance (56 days until Election Day)
With Labor Day behind us, it's back to school, back to Congress, and on the presidential campaign trail, back to Iraq.  (And also back to school, in that the Bush and Kerry camps seem to be starting third grade.)

As the US casualty count in Iraq creeps toward 1,000 on the heels of the deadliest day for US troops in four months, President Bush looks to put Kerry on the defensive on the war, accusing him for the second time in recent weeks of taking a new position, while Kerry hones his longstanding attack on the human and financial costs of the war versus funding domestic programs.

The Kerry campaign has a new overall message, "W stands for Wrong."  But when it comes to Iraq, they might have learned by now that the power of a single phrase, such as those thrown back in his face by Bush-Cheney ("sensitive war," "anti-war candidate"), defeats the power of a paragraph on the stump -- even if Kerry's position on the war is closer to that held by a lot of people, and even if his stance that presidents should consult with other leaders before going to war gets majority support in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

Fortunately for former President Clinton, who advised Kerry to zero in on the economy, he was anesthetized when Kerry launched into his Iraq critique yesterday in response to questions at his morning event outside Pittsburgh -- a critique which became an exchange that dominated the day (details below).  Double-teaming from Missouri and Iowa, Bush went after Kerry's overall "wrong war, wrong time" assertion, while Cheney focused on Kerry's charge that the allied coalition is "the phoniest thing" he has "ever heard."

NBC's Norah O'Donnell reports that the Bush campaign's response to "W is for Wrong:" JFK stands for "Just Flip-Flopping Kerry."  Bush staffers also ask, noting the time Kerry spent on the phone with former President Clinton over the weekend, "Kerry spent 90 minutes on the phone with Clinton and all he could come up with was 'W stands for wrong?'" 

Meanwhile, Kerry staffers e-mail around yesterday's Bushism: "Too many OB/GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across this country."

Kerry takes another stab at focusing on the economy today with a town hall in Greensboro, NC at 11:15 am, where he'll talk about outsourcing and charge Bush with choosing tax breaks over jobs.  Then he heads to Toledo, OH.  Edwards has a rally in Chillicothe, OH at 1:00 pm and attends a Victory Fund reception in Bloomington, IL at 8:00 pm.

President Bush is in Missouri today, speaking at a rally in Lee's Summit at 9:50 am, doing an "Ask President Bush" event in Sedalia at 1:05 pm, and addressing a rally in Columbia at 4:30 pm.  Vice President Cheney has town halls in Des Moines at 11:30 am and in Manchester, NH at 5:00 pm. 

Congress is back and homeland security is on the table.  NBC's Chip Reid advises that a bipartisan group of Senators featuring McCain and Lieberman will hold a news conference today announcing legislation to adopt all of the September 11 commission's recommendations.  House Republicans may try to pass a few more minor proposals before the weekend and the third anniversary, NBC's Mike Viqueira reports, but the heavy lifting is expected to come later in a lame-duck session.  Also on tap for Congress: The Goss nomination, 12 of 13 approps bills, the highway bill, corporate and individual tax measures, and a ton of other stuff.  The assault weapons ban is set to expire on September 13.

Today's stops
Bush makes three stops in Missouri today in his two-day tour of the state, which he narrowly won in 2000 (50.4% to 47.0%). The state unemployment rate has gone up from 5.2% in June to 5.5% in July.  In the past 24 elections (1904-1996), Missouri has voted for the winner of the presidency all but once -- in 1956.

The AP: "The president's latest visit to Missouri, which started on Labor Day, is the 21st of his presidency and his eighth trip to the state this year...  Voters in the areas of Lee's Summit and Sedalia overwhelmingly supported Bush four years ago, while he lost the county containing Columbia and the University of Missouri by less than 400 votes."

The Washington Times: "The Bush campaign was persuaded to come to this corner of the state near its borders with Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky - the largest nearby town has a population of 16,000 - after local party organizers presented a petition with 10,000 signatures."

Kerry campaigns in North Carolina today, a state Gore lost in 2000 by a wide margin.  With Edwards on the ticket, Democrats may be cautiously optimistic about winning here, but no Democrat has won the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976.  The state unemployment rate has gone down from 5.5% in June to 5.0% in July. 

The Greensboro News-Record says Kerry's event today, by ticket only, is expected to draw 500-600 people.  Kerry last visited North Carolina on August 20 and per Becky Diamond, this is the fourth visit Kerry has made to the state since he won the nomination in March.

Clinton
"Former President Clinton underwent successful quadruple coronary bypass surgery Monday and should be able to resume a full range of normal activities - including some political campaigning - within two months, his doctors said."  - LA Times

The Washington Post reports Clinton had about eight major political fundraisers in the works for the fall.  That said, "some commentators noted that Clinton's illness means that, when he does return to the trail, the event will be invested with an element of attention-getting drama and sympathy that it would not have otherwise."

Hurricane politics
President Bush will visit Florida tomorrow and has renewed his call for Congress to approve $2 billion in aid for the state.  Kerry issued a statement urging Americans to donate to charities to help.  MSNBC's Becky Diamond reports Kerry has no plans to visit Florida.

National security
MSNBC's Becky Diamond reports Kerry made news when he answered questions about Iraq at his Canonsburg, PA event yesterday morning, saying he did not envision having permanent US military bases in Iraq, his plan is to bring the troops home by the end of his first term, and that "it's the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time."  Per Diamond, Kerry again emphasized how he would have done everything differently from the President on Iraq, then said he wasn't Monday-morning quarterbacking.  He called the international coalition in Iraq "the phoniest thing I have ever heard."

MSNBC's Priya David reports Cheney did a little verbal rapid response yesterday in Clear Lake, IA (an area she notes Democrats won in 2000), responding to Kerry's comments on the coalition: "We could not have succeeded in these efforts without the help of dozens of countries around the world...  Now, when the President praises our allies, Senator Kerry today called it the phoniest thing he's ever heard...  Demeaning our allies is an interesting approach for someone seeking the office of the Presidency.  When it comes to diplomacy, it looks to me like John Kerry should stick to windsurfing."

President Bush then whacked Kerry at his evening event in Missouri: "After voting for the war but against funding it, after saying he would have voted for the war even knowing everything we know today, my opponent woke up this morning with new campaign advisors and yet another new position.  Suddenly, he's against it again.  No matter how many times Senator Kerry changes his mind -- it was right for America then and it's right for America now that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power."

The Washington Post notes that Bush "eschewed his customary Labor Day speech to union workers Monday, keeping his focus on national security issues...  Since becoming president, Bush has spent Labor Day with a trade-union audience..."

USA Today: "It was the second time in a month that Bush accused Kerry of changing his position on the war.  The first time came when Kerry said he would have voted to authorize the war even 'knowing what we know now,' that Iraq apparently did not have weapons of mass destruction.  He said it was 'the right authority for a president to have,' but Bush rushed into war without solid intelligence, a broad international coalition or a post-war plan."

And last night at his Cleveland rally, Diamond points out, Kerry then attacked Bush for attacking him on Iraq, saying, "George Bush was wrong again today on Iraq.  He claims that I have the same position as he does.  He wishes I had the same position he does...  He was wrong to rush to war without a plan to win the peace.  He was wrong to rush to war without an international coalition...  George Bush's wrongheaded go-it-alone policy has cost you already $200 billion.  That's $200 billion we're not investing in Cleveland... in No Child Left Behind... in health care... in prescription drugs... and it's $200 billion that's not going to better jobs or jobs at all..."

The Los Angeles Times: "Although Kerry engaged in sharp fashion on the war Monday, the exchange was not exactly what his campaign had in mind for the day's debate.  Kerry's advisors had hoped to focus attention on Bush's claims that jobs are coming back, releasing a report showing that the new jobs feature low pay and meager benefits."

The New York Times: "It was a measure of how Iraq has overshadowed so many other issues in the campaign that it even dominated on Labor Day, the moment Mr. Bush has often used to focus attention on job creation, one of the points of vulnerability of his campaign."

Now Republicans are e-mailing around the following pair of quotes:

March 2003: Dean Said Iraq War Was "Wrong War At Wrong Time."  "It is our patriotic duty to say to the president, 'We wish our troops well.  We hope they get home safely and soon, but Mr. President, we think this war is a mistake.' ... This is the wrong war at the wrong time."  (Christopher Graff, "Howard Dean Says He Will Back Troops, But Not War Policies," The Associated Press, 3/17/03)

September 2004: Kerry Calls Iraq War "Wrong War In The Wrong Place At The Wrong Time."  "Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry on Monday called the invasion of Iraq 'the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time' and said his goal was to withdraw U.S. troops in a first White House term." (Patricia Wilson, "Kerry On Iraq: 'Wrong War, Wrong Place, Wrong Time'," Reuters, 9/6/04)

Medals and ribbons
The Washington Post reports on "striking parallels" between the Willie Horton ad and the Swift Boaters' first ad, including: "In both the Horton and Swift boat cases, the respective Bush campaigns disclaimed responsibility, saying the ads were the work of unaffiliated groups.  But in both instances, news media reports subsequently exposed ties between the official campaigns and the independent groups."

And: "In 1988, the Bush campaign tried to paint Dukakis as a weak liberal...  The Swift boat ad has similarly reinforced the current Bush campaign's efforts to raise doubts about Kerry's character, especially to portray him as indecisive and untrustworthy."

Congress returns
The New York Times examines the differing political agendas before Election Day.  "Democrats say they will pressure the Republicans to embrace the Sept. 11 commission's 41 recommendations fully or face the political consequences.  Republicans intend to use their control of both chambers to schedule legislation in an effort to put Democrats on the spot.  In the House, the majority plans to hold a vote this month on the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and will force floor fights over abortion, taxes and reforms to the legal system.  In the Senate, Democrats say they expect a floor vote on a proposed constitutional amendment barring flag desecration."

The Wall Street Journal on what needs to get done, and likely won't: "Ten years ago, when their party controlled the government, congressional Democrats were swept out of power after fumbling health-care and crime legislation.  The question now is: Will Republicans, who similarly control Congress and the White House today, suffer too?"

"Republicans will try to pin the blame for 'obstructionism' on Democrats.  This has been a calculated strategy for months, to motivate conservative voters in November...  The risk for Republicans is that their strategy may be too obvious.  The majority has become so unyielding at times that it seems more devoted to tagging Democrats with the obstructionist label than to getting legislation passed."

"Even though Republicans and Democrats feel pressure to show voters they can be productive, many concede it will be hard to accomplish in a brief election-eve session what could not be done previously," the Los Angeles Times says of the packed congressional agenda.  "Some analysts warn that legislating under such pressure may not yield good results - especially in high-profile but complex areas such as anti-terrorism and intelligence reform..."

Jobs, taxes, and the economy
The AP on Kerry's Labor Day events: "With the quantity of jobs rising, Kerry turned to their quality."  In making his usual claim about new jobs paying $9,000 less than old jobs, a claim the Bush campaign and FactCheck.org dispute, Kerry "cited a study by the liberal Economic Policy Institute from January indicating jobs in growing industries pay $8,848 less on average than jobs in fading industries.  One-third of the new jobs are for janitors, fast-food workers and temporary employees, and they are less likely to offer health insurance than other work, his campaign said."

In Greensboro, NC today, Kerry will say "he will fight the forces sending U.S. jobs overseas, a timely topic in a state losing jobs to the manufacturing slump and international competition."  - AP

"Bounce" watch
USA Today reports out the new Gallup results: "As the campaign enters its last eight weeks, a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday shows Bush at 52%, Kerry at 45% and independent candidate Ralph Nader at 1% among likely voters.  Before the convention, Bush led Kerry by 2 percentage points.  Among registered voters, Bush was at 48%, Kerry at 46% and Nader at 4% in the first nationwide post-convention poll.  Bush's lead remains within the survey's error margin at Labor Day, the traditional start of the campaign's homestretch."

Another USA Today story: "Bush and his aides have seemed confident since the convention.  Bush's political advisers said the president's gains in the polls indicate that the campaign's goals were met at the GOP convention...  Bush strategists also said that speakers at the convention successfully shifted the focus to Bush's leadership and raised new questions about Kerry's qualifications to lead.  Bush strategists believe that if the election becomes a referendum on Kerry - not a contest based on Bush's record - the president will win."

The New York Times says Bush "seems to have hit his political stride at the very moment that Mr. Kerry is facing fundamental questions about his candidacy.  Yet if history is any guide, the contest is far from settled.  For all of Mr. Bush's success at his convention in New York last week, the underlying dynamics that have made Republicans view him as an endangered incumbent for much of this year remain very much in place..."

The Wall Street Journal: "White House aides cautioned that Mr. Bush's fortunes could easily change, and Bush strategist Karen Hughes notes it wasn't that long ago that the president seemed unable to gain momentum.  Democrats responded to the new shape of the race with finger-pointing..."

The Kerry buzz
The Boston Globe, better informed than any to report on Kerry's electoral history, says of the fall campaign, "This is the time when Kerry's near-mythic reputation as a strong closer based on his Senate campaigns dating to 1984 will be tested on a national stage.  With an infusion of new advisers over Labor Day weekend and a message focused on employment, health care, and education issues, the hope is that Kerry can spark one more stretch run to victory in the race he has been building toward throughout his public life."

"The fundamental question is, can a challenger portrayed as indecisive by his Republican opponents convince the American people that he has the vision, the convictions, and the mettle to replace an incumbent president during a time of war?"

The Washington Post prefaces its coverage of Kerry's new critique of Bush on Iraq by describing Kerry as "under pressure from Democratic leaders to draw sharper contrasts between himself and George W. Bush."

"In total, the day seemed to signal a sharper, more combative positioning for Kerry.  Campaign aides, as well as former president Bill Clinton, have been urging him in recent days to be more critical of Bush...  It also followed a weekend of staff changes...  Democrats are deeply concerned that the party's standard-bearer has allowed himself to be defined by the Bush campaign and has not presented a clear, concise message on how he differs from the president."

The Washington Times: "Despite the signs that Mr. Kerry is revamping his campaign team as Mr. Bush reaches a double-digit lead over him in the polls, the campaign adamantly says it isn't so."  On the revamped stump speech: "In an early morning front-porch gathering... yesterday, Mr. Kerry's opening remarks focused entirely on economic and domestic issues.  He didn't mention the war in Iraq or his service in Vietnam - usually staples of his stump speech - until supporters in the audience raised the issues."

The Chicago Tribune: "Kerry's campaign has a new, unofficial strategy: To get even, get mad."

More Kerry
Kerry "has made Medicare a significant part of his campaign, criticizing the prescription drug benefit President Bush signed into law last year," reports the Boston Globe.  "Among his chief complaints: The law blocks the government from using its purchasing power to squeeze drug companies for lower prices.  But the record shows Kerry cosponsored a bill four years ago with a similar ban on governmental negotiating.  The Bush campaign last week criticized Kerry's apparent shift as '100 percent political.'"

"Senate records from 2000 show that Kerry joined 32 other Democrats to support a Medicare drug proposal that explicitly prohibited the government from negotiating prices 'or otherwise interfere with the competitive nature of providing a prescription drug benefit through private entities.'"

More Bush
The Boston Herald previews Kitty Kelley's new book which alleges Bush snorted cocaine while his father was president.

Disruptions and disturbances
MSNBC's Becky Diamond, who has covered Kerry for a year now, reports the protestors at Kerry's event in Canonsburg, PA yesterday morning were the loudest and most persistent Bush supporters she has seen at a Kerry event.  A group of approximately 50, some drinking Busch beer (at 9:30 am), interrupted Kerry repeatedly as he delivered a short stump speech.  Diamond says Kerry stayed calm and even riffed off the crowd. 

Diamond says the Bush supporters did not let up shouting while an elderly woman who'd had several throat surgeries tried to tell her tale, prompting Kerry to say to the cameras and the crowd, "While the Bush people were rudely shouting... a 70-year-old woman was trying to tell the story of how she has to go out and work because she needs to take pills..."  A Bush supporter yelled, "Where is your swift boat?"

Diamond suggests Kerry lately has been trying to convince voters that the attacks against him are attacks against them, saying, "What bothers me is that they are using it to cover the attacks on YOU.  They are using it to cover what is really happening to your budget..."

MSNBC's Priya David, reporting on Cheney's town hall on the Minnesota state fairgrounds yesterday, reports that like the majority of Cheney's events, attendees had to obtain a ticket a few days in advance through the local GOP office.  David says two women protesters showed up with a white sheet spray-painted with "Shame: War Profiteer."  The gathering crowd booed the protesters.  As soon as the protesters showed up, David says, the Cheney organizers worked to have them removed.  When asked, an organizer claimed that no protesting was allowed on the fairgrounds.  First, break dancers were dispatched to distract the crowd from the protesters, then security guards physically escorted the two protesters out.  The protesters told David they wanted to let Dick Cheney know their opinion of him, but were't able to because the event was ticket-only. 

And MSNBC's Tom Llamas reports that a self-IDed Democratic voter confronted Edwards at his Wisconsin event yesterday about the Democratic ticket's response to GOP attacks.  Katie Simenson of Burlington, WI said she is concerned the Bush-Cheney campaign is gaining an upper hand in the election through negative attacks.  "They're going to run you right over and make you look like idiots and I really want you to speak up and what are you going to do," said Simenson.  The crowd of about 200 applauded loudly, Llamas reports.  Edwards said the campaign would fight and that he and Kerry are fighters.  He then moved to talking points about Kerry's service in Vietnam, prompting Simenson to shake her head in disapproval.  "Don't shake your head.  Don't shake your head we will fight, no, we will fight every way we know how.  But we are fighting for you, we are not fighting with these politicians," said Edwards. 

Asked later if Edwards answered the question to her liking, Simenson replied, "Yes and no."  She said she wanted to talk more about the issue but was unable to because Edwards wrapped up the event after he addressed her question.  Simenson told Llamas she believes Republicans are succeeding in defining Kerry as a flip-flopper and Edwards as a trial lawyer who made millions over frivolous lawsuits.

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