“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.

Friday, September 10, 2004 | 9:30 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

First glance (53 days until Election Day)
Trying to chart the decision-making processes of the electorate using all available scientific measures seems a lot like trying to chart the progress of a hurricane.  You think you know, but you can't be sure.  There's something about it that you just can't get a bead on.  Right now it appears to be tracking toward President Bush, but it could change course.

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Another Friday means another hurricane watch.  Floridians were at the center of a political storm in 2000 and have been braced for a repeat in 2004, but they are now utterly consumed by real storms and will be for the foreseeable future. 

The President uses his prerogative to comfort victims, haul water and diapers, and hand over $2 billion in aid, but he also runs the risk of getting blamed -- even more so since he shares the same name as the Governor -- for any lingering insurance, utility, or other issues.  Kerry, on the other hand, got in one quick non-campaign visit after Charley blew through and is now steering clear, postponing a trip that had been planned for next week.  This is a state Kerry really needs to work, probably even more so after Bush's convention.  But then again, there's no telling whether voters there even focused on the convention, caught as they were between Charley and Frances.

One top Florida campaign aide assumes Bush has a lead, but there's no way to know for sure, since polling the state is impossible with so many phones out and many residents constantly on the move or displaced.

With tourism taking a hit, the state's economic outlook is threatened.  And we doubt many seniors noticed the Medicare rate hike last Friday as Frances was bearing down.

The first presidential debate is scheduled to take place on September 30 in Miami, but weather might cause travel problems.

Imagine trying to run a presidential campaign amidst all that.  The campaign aide noted the challenge of getting a state operation up and running when all regional offices were temporarily shut down; he said some of them still don't have power.  But more importantly, he noted, you can't underestimate what the threat of a hurricane and the aftermath of one does to people's psyches.  As he warned his bosses at his campaign HQ, "don't assume that if Ivan is set to hit the state on Tuesday, the campaign can function on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday."  Voters and the local news aren't focusing on politics.  The aide noted it's tough to get into a rhythm with all this going on.

President Bush today addresses a rally in Huntington, WV at 10:45 am, does an "Ask President Bush" event in Portsmouth, OH at 1:30 pm, and speaks at a rally in Chillicothe, OH at 4:25 pm.  Vice President Cheney, in Wisconsin, does "coffee with community members" in Green Bay at 9:15 am, attends a town hall in Sheboygan Falls at 1:10 pm, and does another town hall in Milwaukee at 5:00 pm. 

Kerry records the Democratic radio address for Saturday, then does a town hall on health care in St. Louis at 10:45 am and a rally in Allentown, PA at 5:30 pm, then he heads to Boston.  Tomorrow he attends a September 11 commemoration in Boston, then returns to DC for the Congressional Black Caucus dinner.  Edwards is down in DC and tomorrow also attends the Congressional Black Caucus dinner.

Today's stops
Bush campaigns in West Virginia this morning.  In 2000, West Virginia's five electoral votes went to Bush, who defeated Gore there by 40,000 votes.  West Virginia saw a slight decrease in unemployment in July, dropping down to 5.2% from June's 5.3%.  Huntington's Herald Dispatch discusses local area preparations for Bush's visit.

The President then heads to Ohio for stops in Portsmouth and Chillicothe.  Unemployment in Ohio rose from 5.8% in June to 5.9% in July.  Cheney appeared there yesterday and Kerry spoke there on Wednesday.  Bush won the state four years ago by less than 4% of the vote.  A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released Wednesday, however, has Bush leading Kerry by 8 points among likely voters in the state.  When asked the same questions just four weeks ago, Bush and Kerry were in a statistical dead heat.  In the last 100 years, the candidate who has won Ohio has also won the Presidency in all but two elections -- 1960 and 1948, the year of the famous "Dewey Defeats Truman" newspaper mishap.

The Portsmouth Daily says this is the first stop by a sitting president to their town in 72 years.  About 2,000 people are expected to attend.

The Chillicothe Gazette says locals are preparing for about 10,000-15,000 spectators for Bush's visit.  The Gazette also says students will also get out of school early because of Bush's visit there.

Today's "trip will be Bush's 14th to West Virginia as president and his 25th to Ohio. Kerry has campaigned in West Virginia five times this year and 15 times in Ohio." – AP

Kerry campaigns in Missouri and Pennsylvania.  Missouri has seen a gradual increase in unemployment, climbing from June's 5.2% to July's 5.5%.  Bush edged out Gore here by a little over 3%.  However, the same CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released earlier this week shows that likely voters would award their 11 electoral votes to George Bush if the election were held today.  In that poll, Bush leads Kerry by 14 points.  When similar questions were posed to Missouri voters in mid-July, the two candidates were tied.

Kerry is also in Pennsylvania, a state the President rallied in yesterday.  The Keystone State's unemployment rate has dropped from 5.6% in June to 5.3% in July.  Kerry will appear at a rally at the Allentown Fairgrounds this evening.  Yesterday, the President joked during his rally in Colmar, PA about how often he comes to the state -- it was his 36th visit since taking office.  The Allentown Call notes Kerry last visited this area in March:.

The battleground
The Washington Post reports out the last Post/ABC poll: "For the first time in a Post-ABC News poll this year, a majority of probable voters say they plan to vote for Bush.  Among those most likely to vote in November, Bush holds a lead of 52 percent to 43 percent over Kerry, with independent Ralph Nader receiving 2 percent of the hypothetical vote.  Among all registered voters, Bush leads Kerry 50 percent to 44 percent."

"The poll suggests that Bush and the GOP successfully, but perhaps only temporarily, altered the issues agenda since the convention, shifting public attention away from the economy, on which voters have generally given Bush negative marks, to terrorism, an issue on which he has always been stronger."

The New York Times looks at all the post-convention polls and notes they offer a near-consensus that Bush currently has a lead of six to nine percentage points.

The documents
The New York Sun reports on the questions raised about the authenticity of the documents reported on by CBS, though the White House is not challenging them: "two forensic experts who specialize in detecting forgeries said yesterday they are suspicious of the alleged memoranda...  A third forensic specialist... saw no red flags...  CBS issued a statement yesterday saying it remains confident that the documents are genuine."

The Washington Post reports that one of CBS's sources, who was the immediate supervisor of the author of the memos in question, confirmed that the content of the memos (which were read to him over the phone) reflected the author's sentiments at that time.

But the AP notes that "in an interview... on Thursday, the officer's son, Gary Killian, said he doubted that his father had written some of the memos."

Medals and ribbons
The Boston Globe looks at Kerry's time in the Naval Reserve when he asked for an early release: "Kerry won early release and was transferred to the Naval Reserve, which the Kerry presidential campaign says required that Kerry do no more than report his whereabouts in case of an emergency call-up.  In the past, Kerry has estimated he shaved between two and five months from his active duty; this week, a campaign spokesman said it saved about six weeks."

"With the revival of questions about whether President Bush fulfilled his National Guard duty, some of Kerry's critics have begun to focus on what Kerry did in the Naval Reserve, asking why he hasn't released records of his reserve service.  The Kerry campaign says that he was on inactive status at the time and did not have to appear for Naval Reserve duty."

The New York Sun observes, "An anchor for CNN, Lou Dobbs, vowed Wednesday that his show would not carry any more reports about the candidates’ actions in the 1970s.  'That¹s our commitment here.  We¹re through with 35 years ago and we¹re moving to now and the future, said a fed-up Mr. Dobbs.  Last night, the newscaster made it a whopping eight seconds into his program before breaking his promise and mentioning the dust-up over the allegations from the Vietnam War era."

The Washington Times says, "Questions about George W. Bush's Air National Guard service during the Vietnam War have been raised by Democrats and the press in all his campaigns since 1994."

The Times also covers White House charges that the Kerry campaign is coordinating the attacks on Bush's Guard service, and notes that Kerry has refused to denounce the Texans for Truth ad.

Participating in the DNC's press conference about Bush's Guard service yesterday was retired Air Force Col. Richard Klass.  During the Q&A, Klass was asked how he came to be at the presser, and he said that a friend named Wayne Smith asked him to attend.  Klass then added that Smith had recently joined the Kerry campaign. 

The DNC is now distributing a document charging four "irrefutable" facts: 1) Bush got special treatment; 2) Bush was suspended for missing his medical exam; 3) Bush didn't fulfill his Guard requirements; and 4) the White House didn't release all documents.

MSNBC's Becky Diamond reports that for the second day in a row yesterday, Kerry refused to answer reporters' questions about Bush's Guard service.  On Wednesday, a reporter threw him a question on the tarmac, which he ignored.  On Thursday, Diamond discarded her press credentials to stand in the crowd of regulars and ask a question on the ropeline: "Senator, did President Bush fulfill his National Guard obligations?"  Kerry looked directly at Diamond, heard the question, waved his hand in "tsk tsk" fashion, shook his head slightly, and walked away. 

Kerry spokesperson David Wade told Diamond that Kerry will not comment on the National Guard story and neither will he.  He also questioned why MSNBC would cover the new documentary about Kerry's anti-war activities, saying, "You're covering a press conference of a bunch of angry guys, the same story you've been covering, what's new in it?  Nothing...  Thought MSNBC would have its hands full with other new news today." 

Well, last we heard, Kerry protested the war, some vets are angry about it, and Kerry's friend McCain seems to think it's a fair issue to discuss and cover.  The campaign's seeming denial about addressing Kerry's anti-war activities continues to puzzle us...

The Washington Post says of the DNC press conference yesterday, "Republicans are planning to fire back with a more intense attack on Kerry's antiwar protests during the early 1970s, when he conveyed stories of atrocities by U.S. troops to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and tossed war ribbons at the White House lawn.  The anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is spending nearly $700,000 on a new ad..."

The Post also notes, "In many ways, the campaigns and political parties are focusing more attention on long-ago events than on the mounting death toll in Iraq, the rising deficits and the persistent unemployment back home.  Kerry's drop in the polls, which both sides attribute to attacks on his Vietnam service and protests afterward, has only served to encourage Republicans and Democrats alike to go negative, they say."

"Bush officials say that most voters hold firm views about the president and that nothing about the distant past will change their minds.  But GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio said Bush could be damaged if he is caught -- or perceived to be caught -- in a lie..."

The Los Angeles Times: "The relish with which some launched the Democratic attack was counterbalanced, however, by some party strategists who worried that criticism of Bush's service 30 years ago would distract from issues that concern voters today."

A senior Kerry advisor describes Kerry's silence on the renewed questions about Bush's Guard service as "serious allegations that the President deserves to answer without color commentary from his opponent," NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.  On whether Kerry might reference the matter when he addresses the National Guard convention next week, the aide noted, "that's a lifetime away."  The campaign is far more willing to go after Cheney, however.  Edwards not only repeated his outrage over the "get hit again" comments for a third day yesterday, but he added more heat.  In a "while we're at it" style, O'Donnell says, Edwards tagged Cheney for the "mess" in Iraq, private meetings with energy officials, alleged Halliburton-related improprieties and how the Administration "reversed" itself on withholding payments while the company is being investigated.

CNBC's Eamon Javers reports that per a Bob Dole staffer, Dole did not attend the screening of the Kerry anti-war documentary yesterday due to a staff snafu.  Dole thought it would be a "positive veterans event" when his staff agreed to it.  The staffer said he didn't realize that it would in fact be a "Kerry-centric" event.  "It wasn't what he thought it was," said the aide.  "If he has something to say about Kerry, he'll say it.  But not at that forum."

National and Homeland Security
The Washington Post finds that GOP predictions that "Iraq problems would present no major threat to [Bush's] reelection once U.S. forces turned over authority to an interim government in Baghdad" have turned out to be "more right than wrong."

"A steady procession of U.S. military deaths, which this week resulted in the passage of the grim milestone of 1,000, has so far not caused an obvious backlash in public opinion against Bush's handling of Iraq.  This support has steadily weakened over the past two years, but not in ways that suggest a direct correlation between casualties and political support."

"Mark Mellman, a pollster for Kerry, said both polling and focus groups make him confident that Iraq is 'one of George Bush's greatest liabilities,' but he agreed that support is not tied in an immediate sense to combat deaths.  One reason, he argued, is that there is less news coverage of combat deaths after the handover of limited sovereignty.  The Bush administration has shown undue attention, Democrats have complained, to shaping that coverage.  Bush does not frequently mention casualties, and the administration has restricted news coverage of returning flag-draped caskets..."

Yesterday, MSNBC's Tom Llamas reports, Edwards said Kerry might not use the "smoothest" words when talking about Iraq.  During Edwards' town hall in Nashua, Veronica Dacey expressed concern about her son, just returned from Iraq, having to deploy again.  "We know what families are going through.  He knows on a very personal level what your family has been going through and understands it in here.  Sometimes he may not say in the smoothest possible way, just like I don't sometimes say things in the best possible way, but I know because I know this man, I know he feels it's very personal to him..."  Llamas reports the campaign said the statement speaks for itself.   

USA Today reports, "Neither candidate has offered specifics of a plan for bringing U.S. troops home.  Kerry says his goal is getting them home by the end of his first term.  [Spokesperson Joe] Lockhart said Kerry will 'at some point talk about that,' but such a speech is not imminent.  Nor is any pushback on the character attacks that Republicans and their allies waged against Kerry through the Republican convention.  Kerry is gambling that he can regain lost ground by attacking Bush's performance and judgment."

During a town hall in Cincinnati yesterday, Cheney for the first time commented on the 1,000 casualties in Iraq, MSNBC's Priya David reports.  He said, "For everyone's sake I wish that there could be no further cost or casualties.  We cannot say that."  He added that the nation must have resolve to stay the course and continue making progress in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And the Los Angeles Times reports he's still linking Iraq to al Qaeda.

Cheney also did some clean-up in Cincinnati, telling the Enquirer in an interview that "the country must brace for a potential terrorist attack no matter who is elected president...  'I did not say if Kerry is elected, we will be hit by a terrorist attack,' Cheney told the newspaper.  'Whoever is elected president has to anticipate more attacks.  My point was the question before us is: Will we have the most effective policy in place to deal with that threat?  George Bush will pursue a more effective policy than John Kerry.'"  - AP

War is to the economy...
During the same town hall meeting yesterday, David reports, Cheney was asked about the workers not included in the BLS employment figures, which only account for companies with a sizeable number of employees, and leave out the self-employed.  Cheney answered that there are many people who were left out of the survey, and offered as an example those who sell goods on E-Bay.  He said, "That's a source that didn't even exist 10 years ago.  Four hundred thousand people make some money trading on E-Bay.  It's unclear how many of those are making enough to support themselves."

Edwards quickly fired back, saying, "Bush and Cheney are so out of touch with what's going on with the economy.  Cheney said today that the reason economic reports are low is because they don't count all the money folks are making selling things on E-Bay.  I'm telling you, if we only included bake sales and how much money kids make at lemonade stands, this economy would really be cooking."

David reports that Cheney spokesperson Anne Womack responded by bringing national security into the mix, saying, "John Kerry has been unable to articulate a coherent position on Iraq -- just yesterday he outlined his eighth position.  He's unable to explain to the American people how he plans to pay for his laundry list of proposals except by raising taxes.  So it's no surprise that they're lashing out."

There actually was something of an economic debate on the campaign trail yesterday amidst the squabbling over military service. – Washington Post

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that the Kerry campaign will unveil one million "right choice, wrong choice" message cards today -- a visual aide to try to show they are talking issues and choices even if/as the tougher, "fight back" attitude escalates.

...As the economy is to health care
Bush "razzed the Democrat for refusing to reveal his tax plan until after the election," reports the Washington Times, while the paper also says Kerry in Iowa "blamed the rising costs of Medicare on President Bush and the war in Iraq yesterday in a bid to win over seniors in this state that Mr. Bush lost by 4,000 votes in the 2000 election."

The Los Angeles Times notes, "After days of sparring with President Bush over Iraq,... Kerry assailed the White House's record on poverty, civil rights and healthcare Thursday as he sought to regain momentum by drawing sharp contrasts with the administration on such issues...  Speaking to several hundred voters at a Des Moines hospital, Kerry renewed his criticism of Bush for the 17% rise in Medicare premiums announced last week and accused the president of favoring drug companies and insurers over patients."

The latest Wall Street Journal economists' survey found that "[r]egardless of whether President Bush or John Kerry wins the election, the economists believe taxes will be the policy issue with the biggest impact on the economy and financial markets in coming years.  But they believe Social Security reform would be a more influential issue under President Bush than it would be if Mr. Kerry won the election.  And they feel health care would have a bigger impact under Mr. Kerry than Mr. Bush."

"Employer-sponsored health insurance premiums rose 11.2 percent this year, registering the fourth consecutive double-digit annual increase and pushing the cost of family coverage under the most common type of plan past $10,000, according to" the new Kaiser Foundation survey. – Washington Post

"The unceasing rise will depress wages, affect hiring decisions and encourage outsourcing," said the foundation's chief.  "The Kaiser survey's findings parallel the fears surrounding public programs such as Medicare, which also have seen costs soar."

"Several national polls indicate that the cost of care is Americans' top health concern, trumping issues such as obesity, aging and access to medical care, and Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry... cited the Kaiser findings at a campaign event Thursday in Iowa."  - LA Times

"The Bush camp highlighted the Kaiser report's finding that the annual rise in health insurance premiums slowed this year for the first time since 1996 and attacked the Democratic challenger's proposals as costly."

The Bush and Kerry campaigns and the DNC are all on the air with TV ads about health care and Medicare right now.

The debate on debates
The New York Times runs its take, focusing on all the talent the Bush and Kerry teams have lined up.  "Never have the presidential debate teams been this big or this prestigious..."  The paper adds that while the Bush camp may want to participate in just two debates -- instead of the three that have been proposed -- Bush might get his way. 

Limiting access
The Washington Post reports off the Secret Service's treatment of some ACT UP activists yesterday, "The Bush campaign has made unprecedented efforts to control access to its events.  Sometimes, people are required to sign oaths of support before attending events...  At times, buses of demonstrators are diverted by police to idle in parking lots while supporters are waved in.  And the Secret Service has played an unusual role; one agent cooperated with a plan by the Bush campaign last month to prevent former senator Max Cleland (Ga.), a Kerry ally, from handing a letter to the agent outside Bush's Texas ranch."

While Democrats decry the Bush campaign's procedure of holding ticketed events, MSNBC's Becky Diamond notes that Kerry continues to avoid the national press corps.  Not only has it been over a month since he held any kind of actual press conference (two questions), but his campaign staff is ensuring that he avoids any kind of contact with the press.  On the tarmac in Des Moines yesterday, Diamond reports, the line of volunteers waiting to greet Kerry extended well within shouting distance of the press corps.  Upon realizing this, as Kerry inched closer to the reporters, an advance staffer reorganized the line into a semi-circle -- away from the press.

The Chicago Tribune:  "Kerry used to regularly assure his audiences that, if elected president, he would hold a press conference every month to communicate with the nation's citizenry...  But Kerry doesn't make that promise anymore."  The paper suggests it might be related to Kerry's Grand Canyon moment. 

More Bush
"A Republican attack on author Kitty Kelley's forthcoming (Bush) biography... is helping to build advance demand for the title scheduled to hit bookstores Tuesday," says the Wall Street Journal.  "The Republican National Committee's radio-services unit distributed a memo especially for conservative talk-show hosts that cited more than two dozen past critiques of Ms. Kelley and her works."

More Kerry
The Washington Post's Style section plays up top Kerry advisor Bob Shrum's 0-7 record on presidential campaign.

Third parties
The Miami Herald reports a judge in Florida says Nader cannot appear on the ballot in that state.  Nader says he will appeal.

The Washington Times reports, "Three third-party presidential candidates have ballot access in more states than Ralph Nader and pose as much, if not more, of a threat to President Bush than to... Kerry.  The Libertarian Party is now on the presidential ballot in 44 states and the Constitution Party in 35 states, both more than the 24 that Mr. Nader has managed amidst a concerted effort from state Democrats to thwart his bids.  The Green Party, on whose ticket Mr. Nader ran in 2000 and received 2.8 million votes, is now on the ballot in 28 states."

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