“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.

Wednesday, September 8, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

  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

FIRST GLANCE (55 days until Election Day)

One thousand trumps 422 billion in this news cycle.  But while the US casualty total in Iraq packs a symbolic punch which may stall the President's post-convention momentum, the record $422 billion deficit that looms over Bush's rollout of a second-term agenda and poses a serious obstacle to reforming the tax code and Social Security, along with other projects Bush wishes to tackle starting in January 2005. 

And as MSNBC's Priya David points out, the planned Bush-Cheney criticisms of Kerry yesterday were trumped by the attack that seemed unplanned.  What was scheduled was the spotlighting of contradictory Kerry statements on Iraq -- one in which Kerry suggested the war was the right decision at the right time, and a later one in which Kerry echoed Howard Dean's position of wrong war, wrong time.

Apparently unplanned, David says, was Cheney's assertion that the nation could get hit with another terrorist attack under a President Kerry.  Beyond the statement just plain sounding extreme, getting lots of media play, and potentially causing a backlash, the risk for Bush-Cheney lies in the implication that the nation would NOT get hit with another attack in a second Bush term.  Details of Cheney walk-back efforts are below.

We have held off on predicting in this space who's going to win this election.  The race has defied precedent in so many big and small ways, and has been so driven by events beyond either candidate's control, that we don't presume to know what will take place over the next 55 days.  The makings are there for victories for both Bush and Kerry.

But we do believe that with 55 days left, it's too late for Kerry to clarify his position on Iraq and turn it into an advantage, which is a problem of his own making.  His position is too layered and too loaded with past quotes Bush-Cheney can and do throw in his face at will.  Continuing bad news out of Iraq may ultimately work to his benefit, but probably not because of anything he says about it.

Kerry can win this election on the economy and the deficit, however, and in a major speech at 9:30 am in Cincinnati, he seeks to link the deficit to Iraq by laying out how the money spent on the war could have been put to better use at home.  Kerry gives his speech in exactly the same location where President Bush in 2002 laid out his case for going to war.  The Bush campaign points out that two days after that speech, Kerry declared he would vote in favor of the Iraq resolution because "because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a real and grave threat to our security."

A Kerry campaign e-mail overnight tries hard to reframe the debate: "The reason Iraq is an issue in this campaign is NOT over the question of whether it was right to hold Saddam accountable.  The reason it is an issue is because of the way George Bush went to war, making the wrong choices and weakening the United States here at home and overseas." 

The Kerry campaign previews the speech on a press conference call at 9:00 am with a former Clinton OMB director.  Kerry also goes up today with a 10th TV ad since the GOP convention: an ad attacking Bush on Iraq which charges, "George Bush's wrong choices have weakened us here at home."

President Bush today signs into effect $2 billion in aid to Florida's hurricane victims and visits an area hard hit by Frances.

Today's stops
Bush travels to Florida today to tour areas damaged by Hurricane Frances.  The President narrowly won Florida in 2000, edging out Gore by 537 votes.  The state unemployment rate has gone down from 4.8% in June to 4.4% in July.  The South Florida Sun-Sentinel ranks hurricanes in the years 1928, 1960, 1964 and 1992 -- all election years -- among a list of the worst hurricanes to ever hit South Florida.  In three of those four years, the Republican candidate won the state.  The paper notes this will be Bush's "27th visit to Florida since being elected:".

Kerry campaigns in three battleground states, making stops in Ohio, Minnesota and Iowa.  Ohio saw a slight increase in unemployment between June and July, rising from 5.8% to 5.9%.  No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio.  The Cincinnati Enquirer previews Kerry's Iraq speech and notes he will be speaking from rotunda of the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal, the exact place where Bush, two years ago, made the case for war against Iraq.

Minnesota's unemployment numbers stayed steady through June and July at 4.4%, while Iowa's numbers have climbed from 4.3% in June to 4.4% in July.  In the past 100 years, Minnesota has voted for the incumbent all but three times -- in 1912, 1932 and 1992.  The 2000 presidential election marked the first time in Iowa's history that a candidate won the state with less than a one-percent margin.  However, there was a close call in 1976 when Ford just edged out Carter by 1.01%.

National security
USA Today on 1,000 US casualties: "Political analysts long have said that reaching the 1,000-death threshold in Iraq might intensify scrutiny of Bush's conduct of the war and occupation.  But a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Aug. 23-25 showed that 58% of those polled said the news marks a tragic loss of life but does not mean the United States should change policy in Iraq."

The Chicago Tribune says analysts are uncertain whether the 1,000 mark will impact the election.  "Gary Segura, a political scientist at the University of Iowa, said the fact that nearly one-fifth of the war deaths have come from National Guard and reserve units could mean that the death toll will have a stronger political effect...  'If a kid dies from your home town, that's a much bigger deal, because you don't have to make a very big leap from that kid to your own kid.'"

"'It [the 1,000th death] is newsworthy, and it is arbitrary, but it seems to be something of a landmark,' said John Mueller, a political science professor at Ohio State University.  'I don't think the number by itself makes all that much of a difference,' other than to draw attention to an erosion of support for the U.S. involvement, he said."

The New York Times notes that Bush never mentioned the 1,000 casualty mark yesterday.

And as Bush noted another flip-flop by Kerry on Iraq yesterday, the New York Times truth-squads those flip-flop assertions.  "Deconstructing Mr. Bush's statement on Tuesday shows that as has often been the case as the two sides fight over Iraq policy, there is a basis for his assertions about Mr. Kerry, but also that the president ignores statements by Mr. Kerry that flesh out his position in ways that make Mr. Bush's claims less persuasive...  Mr. Bush, as Democrats frequently point out, is also vulnerable to assertions of inconsistency on Iraq."

Despite advisors saying Kerry plans to focus more on the economy, Kerry delivers a major speech today on Iraq.  Spokesperson David Wade tells MSNBC's Becky Diamond, "We've made the focus on Iraq -- so, no, believe me we wouldn't have done this if we didn't think it was important, Americans look at the $200 billion and feel that George Bush's miscalculations have hurt them at home."  

Kerry also added a new line to his Iraq critique yesterday, Diamond reports, charging that Bush chose to start the war on a certain date: "It was wrong for America to choose...  He chose the date of the start of this war... and he chose for America to go it alone and today all of America is paying this price...  Nearly 90% of the cost of this war is coming out of your pocketbooks..."

"The 'only legitimate reason' for invading Iraq was the threat of weapons of mass destruction, Sen. John Kerry said yesterday, less than a month after he said he would have voted to authorize war even if he knew such weapons would not be found."  - Washington Times

The Washington Post harks back to what's become known as Kerry's "Grand Canyon moment" when he "took what two of his own aides privately called obvious political bait and declared without equivocation that 'yes, I would have voted for the authority' for Bush to" go to war in Iraq, even had he known then what he knows now.  "With one simple answer, Kerry... provided the Bush campaign the political ammunition it sought.  Kerry has since struggled to explain how he would handle Iraq differently -- and more effectively -- than Bush, as polls have shown voters losing support for his ability to do a better job than the president on this issue."

"Many Democrats say the flap over a two-year-old vote is illustrative of the mistakes made by the Kerry campaign during August and the obstacles he must clear in the next two months -- a penchant for engaging in fights over his past, conveying complicated positions that make it hard to draw contrasts with Bush and allowing a loose campaign operation to respond haphazardly to incoming fire."

"As several GOP and Democratic strategists said, every day Kerry spends explaining his past or clarifying positions is a day won by Bush."

Cheney's Tuesday
Cheney yesterday at his event in Des Moines: "It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today,... we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice, the danger is we'll get hit again... in a way that would be absolutely devastating from the standpoint of the United States."

MSNBC's Tom Llamas reports Edwards quickly labeled Cheney's remarks scare tactics that are "un-American."  "The truth is it proves once again that they'll do anything and say anything to keep their jobs," said Edwards.  "Protecting the American people from terrorist attacks and vicious terrorists is not a Republican issue, it's not a Democratic issue, it's an American issue." 

After a Cheney spokesperson said the comments were taken out of context, and Edwards aide dismissed the rebuttal, saying, "New hour, new position," and, "These are the same guys who can't decide if America can actually win the war on terror."

On the flight back to DC, MSNBC's David reports, Cheney huddled with official and campaign staffers, including Scooter Libby and spokesperson Anne Womack, for about 20 minutes.  When Womack emerged into the press section of the plane to talk with reporters, she said: "What the Vice President was saying was whoever is elected will face the possibility of a terrible attack.  The question is whether or not we have the right policies in place to protect the country."  Asked whether the Vice President stood by his statement, Womack replied, "The Vice President stands by my explanation of the statement."  She later added that Cheney stands by his statement in context, but just that one little quote -- no.

Asked to respond to Edwards's criticism of Cheney's statement, Womack said, "I'm going to leave it at what I said, I've explained what the Vice President was saying."

The Los Angeles Times: "Earlier in the day, Cheney had bemoaned the tenor of this year's campaign when asked about Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) recently calling him 'a coward' because the vice president did not serve in the military.  Harkin made the comment as he decried GOP attacks on Kerry's service record in Vietnam."

The AP notes the "candidates for president and vice president excoriated each other's positions on Iraq in unusually strong language," and says, "Cheney took the dialogue to another level entirely when he suggested, in Des Moines, that if voters elect Kerry, they would invite another deadly terrorist attack."

The Washington Post: "Cheney went beyond previous restraints to suggest that the country would be more vulnerable to attack under Kerry."

"The Kerry campaign called Cheney's allegation 'un-American' and said Bush would not be able to 'distract the American people' from problems in Iraq and with the U.S. economy.  But in a tacit acknowledgment that Kerry has had difficulty presenting a convincing critique of Bush, Kerry aides are promising a major new front in Kerry's stepped-up attack on Bush's policies beginning Wednesday..."

(Llamas notes that it's becoming standard for the campaign to put Edwards out anytime Cheney attacks Kerry.  The problem for Kerry-Edwards, Llamas observes, is that they don't hit back as hard and spend too much time complaining about what Republicans are saying.)

The deficit and the economy
The Washington Post on the $422 billion deficit: "The expected deficit for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, is $56 billion less than the CBO predicted in March...  But it is $46 billion more than last year's record shortfall, with even more red ink possible, the nonpartisan agency reported: The expected total 10-year deficit would climb from $2.3 trillion to $3.6 trillion if President Bush is able to extend the tax cuts he enacted.  They are currently set to expire in 2011."

"Both political parties seized on the CBO's findings, with Republicans stressing the $56 billion improvement over the CBO's March estimate, and Democrats focusing on the longer-term forecast...  Budget analysts said the report should not be seen as good news to either side inasmuch as neither has a detailed plan to tackle the deficit...  Both candidates have made campaign pledges that probably would worsen the government's fiscal position, although the candidates have been careful to avoid a detailed accounting."

The Los Angeles Times: "Making Bush's previous tax cuts permanent would nearly double the 10-year shortfall to $4.5 trillion, the nonpartisan agency said.  Proposals to partially privatize Social Security and scale back the alternative minimum tax, both of which have been endorsed in principle by the president, would add even more red ink."

The Wall Street Journal notes "the deepening long-term deficit suggests that both Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry would face huge hurdles in achieving their domestic agendas."  For Kerry, "the centerpiece" of his "domestic agenda is a big health-care initiative that would cost $650 billion over 10 years, possibly much more...  He also wants to spend more on education and the military by expanding the number of active-duty troops, and cut taxes for the middle class and for U.S. businesses.  The Kerry plan would offset some of those costs by repealing Mr. Bush's tax cuts for taxpayers making more than $200,000.  Several budget analysts say that taken as a whole, his plans would increase the deficit by about $1 trillion over the next decade."

Greenspan testifies on the Hill today.  Reuters reports that economists expect him to "cement forecasts for higher U.S. interest rates... after August jobs data backed his view that growth is back on solid ground."

"Greenspan will also likely repeat his concerns about the risks an aging population poses to the country's social security safety net.  In addition, Democrats on the committee will aim politically loaded questions at Greenspan critical of President Bush's tax cuts and a massive budget deficit, which are hot topics as the presidential election race enters the last eight weeks."

Hurricane politics
After noting their possible effect on monthly jobs reports, the Wall Street Journal again ties the hurricanes to the presidential campaign: "The situation is especially delicate for the incumbent Republicans, since both hurricanes swept primarily through core Republican counties in southern Florida, including several areas that were pivotal in the outcome of the protracted 2000 election and recount."

"The federal government already is pouring in billions of aid dollars to help Florida residents, and Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, is taking personal responsibility for managing much of the relief effort.  A rapid, well-coordinated response to the storms could lift the standing of both Bushes in the eyes of voters."

"However much money is made available, most residents likely will be preoccupied during the two months before the election with rebuilding, relocations and personal frustrations."

The Washington Post reports that in St. Lucie County, "which President Bush is scheduled to visit on Wednesday, fights broke out in quarter-mile-long gas lines, forcing law enforcement officers to stand guard to keep the peace.  Curfew violators were locked in a jail that had no water or electricity."

Assault weapons ban expiration
As noted here a few times before, the assault weapons ban expires on Monday.  At 11:00 am today on the Hill, several major-city police chiefs and Jim and Sarah Brady hold a press conference to call on Bush and Congress to extend the ban.  Recent Annenberg polling data shows 68% of Americans want the ban renewed, including 57% of gun owners and 61% of those Republicans polled. 

The Washington Post, in a story noting that "[g]un manufacturers... are taking orders for semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines," says, "The Senate approved a renewal of the ban earlier this year, but the provision was part of a broader bill that included other measures opposed by the White House.  House GOP leaders have given little indication that they plan to back an extension of the ban, and President Bush -- who said during the 2000 campaign that he would support an extension -- has not pushed the issue.  White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said that Bush 'supports the reauthorization of the current assault weapons ban.'  She noted that 'the president's views are well known' among GOP leaders in Congress."

Medals and ribbons
The AP FOIAed and found that "President Bush ranked in the middle of his Air National Guard flight class and flew 336 hours in a fighter jet before letting his pilot status lapse and missing a key readiness drill in 1972, according to his flight records belatedly uncovered Tuesday."

"Bush has repeatedly said he is proud of his Air National Guard service.  White House spokesmen said as late as last week the administration knew of no other records of Bush's military service."

The Boston Globe reexamines Bush's military records and finds that "Bush fell well short of meeting his military obligation...  Twice during his Guard service -- first when he joined in May 1968, and again before he transferred out of his unit in mid-1973 to attend Harvard Business School -- Bush signed documents pledging to meet training commitments or face a punitive call-up to active duty...  He didn't meet the commitments, or face the punishment, the records show.  The 1973 document has been overlooked in news media accounts.  The 1968 document has received scant notice."

"The reexamination of Bush's records by the Globe, along with interviews with military specialists who have reviewed regulations from that era, show that Bush's attendance at required training drills was so irregular that his superiors could have disciplined him or ordered him to active duty in 1972, 1973, or 1974.  But they did neither."

The debate about debates
We'll see how Missourians react: The Washington Post reports that the Bush campaign is likely to resist participating in the town hall debate scheduled for St. Louis on October 8, but is likely to do the other two.

Kerry talked about the scheduled presidential debates for the first time yesterday, MSNBC's Diamond says, and tried to manage expectations: "I look forward to them.  They are a chance for each of us to present our" thoughts or views.  Kerry also reminded the crowd and attending press, "George Bush beat Ann Richards, beat Al Gore.  He's very practiced.  In a minute and a half you fight to get your message out..."

Nader
Nader claims he's on the ballot in 23 states, says the Washington Times.  But he failed to get on the ballot in Virginia, the New York Times points out. "The ruling made Virginia the sixth state to deny Mr. Nader ballot access, leaving his name on the ballots in 22 states.  He is awaiting certifications of signatures in 14 other states and is involved in court fights to appear on the ballot in the 8 others, as well as in some states where he has already been certified."

Making your vote count
The AP reports that Nevada became the first state to use "computers that printed paper records of electronic ballots" yesterday in their primary.  "California, Washington and Illinois recently passed laws requiring a paper trail for electronic ballots, and at least 20 others are considering similar legislation."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page endorses the Electoral College, calling it one of its "great virtues" that "[u]nder normal circumstances, it strengthens the Presidency by transforming a popular plurality into a majority, or a majority into a bigger majority."

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