“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.

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

First glance (54 days until Election Day)
As the whole Swift Boaters episode proved, to the extent either side has to spend a news cycle or three explaining their man's military records from the past, they lose the cycle.  New documents released by the White House just shy of 10:00 pm last night, after first being reported on CBS, add more fuel to the Ben Barnes/Boston Globe-revived debate over whether Bush fulfilled his National Guard obligations, which is likely to overshadow Bush's focus on the economy today and Kerry's focus on health care.

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NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that per aides, Kerry won't enter the fray today, leaving the tough talk about Bush's record to surrogates.  The DNC and Senator Harkin have their plans; details below.  But, as O'Donnell notes, Kerry has come closer lately to getting personal on the issue of military service by referencing Cheney's five deferments.  And sometimes it seems the guy just can't resist getting in a dig.  The campaign happened to announce yesterday that Kerry will address the National Guard convention on September 16 (we await a White House verdict on Bush's attendance).

That said, as we have mentioned here before, still hanging out there largely unaddressed are Kerry's anti-war activities, which we believe pack a potentially more powerful wallop for the Vietnam vet than the ongoing story about Bush's Guard service does for Bush. 

Beyond that, and beyond the fact that some of the new criticisms of Bush have a whiff of post-Swift Boat copycat to them, here's our thinking as to why the Guard stuff may not cut as deeply as the Swift Boaters' charges:

-- the Bush operation, for obvious reasons, has not made the President's National Guard service a focal point of his campaign the way Kerry has done with Vietnam;
-- Bush has September 11, and for many voters, that probably trumps anything from 30 years ago;
-- some people probably already figured Bush had help getting into the Guard and put in less than his required time; and,
-- the Bush campaign is better than the Kerry camp at taking a long view of the race and not getting too wrapped up in the day-to-day, even as they fight like heck to win each cycle.

Today, President Bush lays out his economic agenda in Pennsylvania; details below.  Just over 24 hours after Kerry spoke there, Cheney appears in Cincinnati for a town hall at 2:00 pm.  Cheney also campaigns in Green Bay, WI after his Cincinnati event.

Forty-eight hours after Cheney suggested America would be less safe in a Kerry Administration there, Kerry campaigns in Des Moines.  Focusing on health care, he has a roundtable at 10:00 am and a town hall at 10:35 am.  Afterward, he heads to New Orleans to address the National Baptist Convention at 5:00 pm, then goes to St. Louis.

Kerry's health care events coincide with the release of a Kaiser Foundation report on an increase in health care premiums since 2000, per the campaign.  The campaign asks in an e-mail whether Bush will comment on the report's finding, which are "expected to show that health care costs have set a new record during his four years in the White House."  Kerry's health care plan would cost an estimated $650 billion or more over 10 years.

Edwards has a town hall in Nashua, NH at 11:30 am, then heads to DC for two fundraisers.

Lastly, note that Australian officials "vow" that their October 9 election will "not to be influenced" by the deadly car bombing outside their embassy in Jakarta, says the Wall Street Journal.

Today's stops
President Bush campaigns today in Pennsylvania, which has 21 electoral votes, and which he lost to Gore in 2000 by a little more than 4%.  The Keystone State's unemployment rate dropped from 5.6% in June to 5.3% in July.  This trip will mark the President's 36th to Pennsylvania since taking office; Kerry is scheduled to visit the battleground state on Friday.  The Bucks County Intelligencer notes the President will speak to about 2,500 supporters at the Byers' Choice building in New Britain.  The 150-employee company "has prided itself on manufacturing American products and keeping jobs at home."

Kerry stops today in Iowa and Louisiana.  Iowa has seen a gradual increase in unemployment, rising from 4.3% in June to 4.4% in July.  Gore beat Bush here in 2000 by 4,144 votes.  Kerry will participate in a roundtable followed by a town hall meeting at the Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines, where the AP says he is expected to talk about the rising cost of the war in Iraq and how the president's wrong choices have taken funds away from health care and prescription drugs. 

He will then travel to Louisiana, where unemployment numbers have risen slightly from 6% in June to 6.1% in July.  Bush beat Gore in Louisiana in 2000, 52.5% to 44.8%.  Kerry will address the National Baptist Convention in New Orleans this evening.  The New Orleans Times-Picayune notes, however, that Kerry will not be the only politician addressing the predominantly African-American group: Bush HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson will speak this morning.  The paper also says that the National Baptist Convention "boasts more than 7 million members nationwide" and with over 30,000 people "attending the meeting, Kerry's speech could have implications beyond Louisiana."

Medals and ribbons
Excerpts of the Bush/Guard documents first reported by CBS.

Knight Ridder on the latest developments: "In a replay of the furor over Kerry's Vietnam service, the assaults on Bush have raised questions about the motives of his accusers, the facts behind their claims and the relevance of the attacks to the presidential campaign...  Even some political partisans are fed up with the focus on long-past events in a presidential election that's playing out amid a bloody occupation in Iraq, a broader war against terrorism, skyrocketing national debt and other urgent issues."

"White House communications director Dan Bartlett dismissed the CBS report as a partisan smear, without specifically countering any of the documents obtained by the network."  And on the Boston Globe report that Bush "failed to follow through on his commitment to report to a Boston-area National Guard unit in 1973 after leaving Texas to attend Harvard Business School," the story notes, "White House officials didn't dispute details of the news account, but they pointed to Bush's honorable discharge as evidence that he fulfilled his obligations."

An offshoot of MoveOn.org called Texans for Truth, headed by a former consultant to Ann Richards, is airing an ad charging Bush with being AWOL during his Guard service; the group is being advised by the lawyer for the DNC. 

The DNC and Democratic Members on the Hill double-team Bush on the Guard story today.  Senator Harkin, already on the record criticizing the Vice President, will hold a presser, and local vets will do pressers in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- i.e., states where the Swift Boaters ads ran.  And the DNC will release the following list of "Questions George Bush must answer about his service," including:

-- "Why did George Bush say he received 'no special treatment' when Ben Barnes says he pulled strings to secure a Guard slot for him?
-- What standard did George Bush fail to meet when he was grounded for failing to perform to US Air Force/Texas Air National Guard Standards?
-- When will George Bush produce any credible witness who can attest to his service in the Alabama Air National Guard?"

Roll Call reports the GOP-sponsored debut of a documentary "that explores how anti-war comments made three decades ago by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) affected soldiers and veterans in the Vietnam War.  The screening of the film 'Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal' this morning at the Reserve Officers Association is the latest salvo in a fierce war of words over the Democratic candidate's record during and after his service in Vietnam.  The event is slated to include remarks by former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) at a press conference prior to a screening."

"The documentary... features numerous clips of former American POWs and their wives describing Kerry as everything from a liar to a war criminal and accusing the Democratic presidential candidate of having caused the Vietnam War to drag on for an additional two years."  The filmmaker "is a three-time Purple Heart recipient who has earned a living as a journalist in recent years...  In an interview Wednesday, the veteran-turned-journalist predicted that POWs will fuel the next wave of criticism directed at Kerry - one he predicted could easily turn into a tsunami."

The Boston Herald says Dukakis believes Bush and Karl Rove are behind the Swift Boaters' ads.

The New York Post notes that Oliver North has begun to target Kerry's Vietnam record.  "In his syndicated column, North, a war hero and Fox New Channel commentator, recently issued a 'Dear John' letter that chides Kerry for testifying that U.S. troops committed atrocities in Vietnam, and points out that even 'Hanoi' Jane Fonda later apologized for some of her conduct during the war."

The Washington Post, in its coverage of Kerry's Iraq speech yesterday, notes, "As part of Kerry's new offensive, there are discussions of a speech that would explain Kerry's Vietnam experience, including his leadership role in the antiwar protests in the early 1970s and efforts to fight for veterans in the decades that followed, aides said.  The anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which has pulled its ads for a few days, is planning to hit Kerry again soon on his protests after Vietnam."

We'd add that when we asked Kerry senior staffers last week whether a fuller explanation of Kerry's anti-war activities is in the works for the fall after Kerry has refrained from really addressing it up until now, campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill responded, "We have addressed it."  How?  In their first round of ads (it was mentioned) and in their convention video (it was mentioned), she and other Kerry aides said.

National and Homeland Security
More from the Post story on Kerry's Iraq speech: "Aides said Kerry is planning a speech soon in which he will offer a detailed plan to end, or greatly curtail, the U.S. military operation in Iraq by January 2009 and reduce the cost to U.S. taxpayers in the interim."

"A problem for Kerry has been that every time he talks about Iraq, Republicans say that he is trying to have it both ways...  Kerry hammered Bush in the speech for failing to properly equip the troops, although Bush and Vice President Cheney criticize the Massachusetts senator almost daily for voting against an $87 billion bill that included money for military personnel in Iraq."

"Asked if Kerry would have attacked Iraq if he had been in Bush's position, Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said, 'We don't answer hypothetical questions.'" 

"The Kerry campaign has clearly decided the cost of the war is a subject that will resonate with the public...  The Kerry campaign's $200 billion figure is based on $144.4 billion already spent on the conflict, plus $60 billion Kerry believes the administration will ask Congress for in a supplemental request after the Nov. 2 election."

"In casting the war as a costly misadventure that has harmed Americans in their day-to-day lives, Kerry sought to reframe the Iraq debate in a way that shifted attention to domestic matters," says the Los Angeles Times

The Wall Street Journal: "In the past month, President Bush successfully altered the political calculus on Iraq, turning it from a vulnerability into an asset in his re-election campaign.  By focusing on costs, and the cutbacks the war has forced in domestic programs, Mr. Kerry aims to change that equation."  The Journal then makes this point: "Iraq in many ways symbolizes Mr. Kerry's inability so far to take full advantage of voter dissatisfaction with Mr. Bush."

The Boston Globe:  "While Kerry did not offer a detailed strategy of his own for Iraq, several advisers said they were examining options for withdrawing US troops from Iraq by the end of 2008, a goal the Democratic presidential nominee set on Monday.  Ideas include convening a series of meetings with other heads of state, first Europeans and then Middle Eastern leaders, and offering financial incentives that invite nations like Russia, France, Egypt, and Jordan to contribute troops to Iraq."

The Washington Times has a slightly blustery-sounding lede: "Bush's re-election strategists hope Sen. John Kerry keeps talking about Iraq and Vietnam for the next 54 days because they think national security is the president's strong suit."

Meanwhile, the Washington Post analyzes US troop deaths in Iraq: "more U.S. troops have died since the turnover of power to an interim Iraqi government at the end of June than were killed during the U.S.-led invasion of the country in the spring of 2003."

MSNBC's Becky Diamond reports on some results of Kerry's local interviews yesterday.  Asked by the NBC affiliate in Minneapolis whether he'd borrowed the phrase "wrong war" from Howard Dean, Kerry said, "I don't think I borrowed anything.  That's a phrase that I've used."  Kerry also told a CBS affiliate that Cheney's comment that voting for Kerry would hurt national security is "shameful."

Edwards yesterday maintained that Cheney knew what he was saying and called on President Bush to renounce the remarks, MSNBC's Tom Llamas reports.

MSNBC's Priya David reports Cheney spokesperson Anne Womack's response to Edwards's charge that Cheney's remarks were "intended to divide us... on an issue of safety and security for the American people... and it's un-American:" "The Vice President was talking about in this election that there's a choice to be made in which kind of policies are going to keep us safer.  President Bush has demonstrated that he has and will lead an aggressive war on terror by putting the country on the offense, rather than waiting to be attacked to protect Americans.  Whoever's elected in November faces the possibility of another attack, and this is about who's going to keep us safer."

USA Today reports, "Some political analysts said Cheney went over the top in election-year rhetoric but was on established historical ground in doing so.  These observers cited 'vote for us or the other guy will get you killed' precedents.  The most frequently mentioned example was a 1964 TV ad for President Johnson" -- the infamous "Daisy ad," which "caused such controversy over its fairness that it was broadcast only once."

The New York Times says Cheney's assertion "was one of the toughest attacks launched in a presidential election in 40 years...  A review of the videotape of his appearance in Des Moines suggests that his remark was spontaneous and unscripted.  There was some, though not much, cringing in Republican circles at the image of Mr. Cheney on television, characteristically unsmiling, describing a Kerry presidency in such apocalyptic terms."

"As they did in New York, when they staged a convention that featured the symbols and sadness of the terrorist attacks there, the Republicans seem to be walking a tricky line in this campaign, which the White House has always wanted fought on the issue of terrorism."

At both of his events yesterday, Kerry accused the Bush Administration of "firing" Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki for "delivering advice it did not want to hear" about more troops being needed in Iraq.  Shinseki in fact retired after testifying before Congress that hundreds of thousands of troops would be needed for post-war stabilization, which left him with no real chance to move up.

The deficit and the economy
In Pennsylvania today, President Bush will tout his economic plan "at Byers' Choice, a Colmar, Pa., company that makes the Caroler brand of Christmas figurines," the AP reports.  Bush spokesperson Nicolle Devenish "said Bush's speech will be 'the first time since the convention where he lays out his comprehensive vision for the economy.'  Devenish said Bush will expand upon his economic philosophy: that the appropriate role of the federal government is to help people improve their own lives by creating more opportunities for ownership.  That includes the chance to own small businesses, homes and control of one's own health care and retirement."

"Kerry has argued that Bush's policies benefit only the wealthy and squeeze the middle class.  The Democrat also says Bush's program has not produced a significant number of new jobs and has burdened the federal deficit."

The Washington Post tells us Greenspan yesterday said high oil prices are curbing economic growth.  "Greenspan also repeated his call for Congress to restrain the growth of the federal budget deficit. He said failure to do so could cause inflation, interest rates and government debt payments to rise to economically damaging levels in coming decades.  The Fed chairman stressed that he was speaking only for himself."

The Wall Street Journal: "While Mr. Greenspan continues to back Mr. Bush's multiple tax cuts, he made it clear yesterday that balancing the budget was more important."

The Journal observes in another story, "At last week's Republican convention, President Bush sought to seize the high ground in the battle of domestic agendas, offering plans on everything from Social Security to job training to children's health.  In the process, Mr. Bush also embraced spending increases and revenue reductions that could punch holes in his plans to curb the growing federal budget deficit, critics say."

"While details of many of Mr. Bush's initiatives aren't settled yet, even some conservatives are warning that the numbers might not add up...  Bush advisers reject claims that his new domestic program would bust the budget."

"The Kerry camp has come in for persistent criticism that its own budget math doesn't work.  Several budget analysts have said Mr. Kerry's promises would add at least $1 trillion to the 10-year deficit, despite his pledge to pay for all new initiatives."

"By far the most expensive item in Mr. Bush's agenda is his planned Social Security overhaul, which would establish individual accounts and probably slowly reduce benefits to future generations of retirees.  The Kerry camp says such plans could cost the government anywhere from $1 trillion to $2 trillion over the next decade because some payroll taxes would be diverted into the private accounts.  Bush advisers counter that the plan would actually save the government money over the several decades, so it shouldn't count as a cost."

Hurricane politics
The AP says the hurricanes have given Bush "the chance to play comforter in chief...  But both sides privately debate how the hurricanes will affect the outcome on Nov. 2.  While video of the president handing out supplies looks good, many Floridians were glued to television coverage of the hurricanes last week instead of Bush's speech at the Republican convention.  And while a quick federal response with supplies and money is appreciated now, anyone still having problems with insurance claims come November is likely to direct their ire toward the administration in Washington."

The battleground
Bush leads Kerry in Missouri and Ohio, two states he won in 2000 and probably needs to keep, per new Gallup data:  "Bush's margins in Missouri and Ohio are the first statistically significant leads that either candidate has held in a dozen surveys USA Today has taken in battleground states during this election."

"Kerry pollster Mark Mellman says the surveys, taken Friday through Tuesday, were in the field too soon after the Republican convention to be reliable."  That said, "Pennsylvania was even two weeks ago and remains essentially tied.  Washington state is a bright spot for Kerry.  He leads Bush by 8 points."

The AP reports that Kerry and Democrats are scaling back their targeted states: "After months of pledging to contest President Bush in every region of the country,... Kerry and Democrats are limiting television advertising to 14" states, knocking "GOP-leaning Missouri, Colorado, Arizona and several Southern states off the political playing field - at least for now."

"Kerry's campaign tried to make the most of its money by reserving $50 million worth of advertising time in 20 states through Election Day...  However, a close look at the advertising plans reveal that all the states won't get equal treatment and that the priorities are 14 states in which the Kerry campaign or the Democratic Party will air ads this month."

"The Kerry campaign has bought time in Florida, Ohio, Iowa, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Michigan and Oregon.  Those are the campaign's 10 most competitive states, ranking at the top of Bush's advertising priorities as well."  Between the two Democratic advertising efforts, "Virginia wasn't included at all."

The DNC is going up with a health care spot in Florida and a jobs ad in Florida, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Maine, Oregon, Washington, and West Virginia.

Guns
USA Today recaps the Tom DeLay's assertion yesterday that the assault weapons ban will not be brought up for a vote, and thus will expire:  The New York Times: "On Wednesday, a senior adviser to Mr. Kerry, Joe Lockhart, signaled that the ban would become a campaign issue.  He said that Mr. Kerry planned to discuss the ban Monday, at an event timed to coincide with its expiration."  But: "Even the ban's chief Democratic backers in Congress, Senator Feinstein and Representative Carolyn McCarthy of New York, acknowledged that Democrats were afraid to be too vocal in their support."

USA Today also reports on the new NRA infomercial against Kerry: "The National Rifle Association is spending $400,000 a week on TV ads attacking John Kerry's attempts to show himself as friendly to hunting and other gun sports.  A half-hour infomercial tells viewers that Kerry's Senate voting record shows he would try to erode gun owners' rights."

More Bush
Howard Kurtz reports, "President Bush's former sister-in-law denied yesterday that she had given author Kitty Kelley any information about allegations of past drug use by Bush.  Sharon Bush is quoted in Kelley's forthcoming book about the Bush family as making one of the allegations, and Kelley's editor said in an interview Tuesday that she had provided 'confirmation' for the information."

The New York Times says the White House is trying to counterattack the book, scheduled for publication next week, which covers Bush and Vietnam, his drinking, and allegations of drug use.  "A representative of the White House recently called Neal Shapiro, president of NBC News, to discourage that network from broadcasting interviews with Ms. Kelley about the book on its 'Today' program and on its MSNBC cable program 'Hardball With Chris Matthews,' a network executive said."

The debate about debates
MSNBC's Tom Llamas reports Edwards huddled last night with advisors in Bangor, ME for debate prep, and spotted a hotel room reserved for Democratic domestic policy guru Bruce Reed. 

Perhaps to counter the Bush debate team's inclusion of all-purpose strategist/spokespeople Mary Matalin and Karen Hughes, the Kerry campaign announces today they're adding Mike McCurry to their team.

The Washington Times says that while Bush met with lead negotiator James Baker yesterday, they "reached no decisions on where, when or how often the president will debate... Kerry, campaign officials said...  Bush spokesman Brian Jones said the president would have his work cut out for him against Mr. Kerry, whom Mr. Jones described as a skilled and proven debater."  A Kerry aide "responded by accusing the Bush camp of 'already playing the expectations game.  The president is a fantastic debater, and he has never lost a debate in his professional career,' she said."

Making your vote count
Roll Call reports, "Most secretaries of state in battlegrounds are steering clear of the partisan linkages that made Florida's then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris (R) so controversial during the month-long 2000 recount...  In interviews with secretaries of state or their aides in 15 of this year's most crucial battleground states, eight tell Roll Call that they will not serve as an honorary co-chairmen for either Bush or... Kerry.  Nor will these secretaries be making endorsements or appear jointly with their party's presidential candidate."

"Only three election overseers - Nevada's Dean Heller, Arizona's Jan Brewer and Ohio's Ken Blackwell, all Republicans - plan to endorse or appear with their party's presidential candidate this fall.  Two other secretaries of state say they are taking part in political activities because their office, unlike Harris', has no direct role in overseeing elections:" the officials in Wisconsin (D) and Michigan (R).  "In two other states, Missouri and West Virginia, the secretaries of state plan to be active in the presidential race, but" they "are themselves running for governor."

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