“First Read” is a daily memo prepared by NBC News’ political unit, for NBC News, analyzing the morning’s political news. Please let us know what you think. Drop us a note at FirstRead@MSNBC.com.

Monday, September 13, 2004 | 9:30 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

  1. Other political news of note
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    5. Fluke files to run in California

First glance (50 days until Election Day)
The nation starts getting down to the business of voting this week -- mainly absentee ballot requests, though voters in Michigan and Delaware,among other states, can cast ballots in person as early as a week from today.  But the first scheduled presidential debate is not until September 30.

Most voters who avail themselves of the option to vote early -- and more are expected to do so than ever before -- are likely to be partisans who made up their minds long ago, although some fraction of the electorate will vote early believing it's a way to avoid Florida-like snafus on election day.  Which, by the way, is not necessarily true.

Still, it's pretty amazing to think about Americans beginning to vote before the presidential candidates have had any kind of substantive exchange, and been thoroughly vetted by the media, over the future of Social Security, the deficit, the future of the airline industry, the uninsured, tax reform and a solution to the alternative minimum tax problem, trade, proposals to resolve the nation's energy issues, immigration, social issues beyond stem cell research, and an end game for Iraq which includes getting US troops home.  For starters.

The candidates, the campaigns, the parties, and the political press corps have all split their attention between issues and personal attacks, but the latter have gotten the most emphasis lately.  Digging into the origin of the CBS documents has become the Tapegate of 2004 -- the whodunit that sucks up a lot of resources but has zero to do with the future of the country.

We were struck by this graph in DC-based market analyst Stuart Sweet's recent newsletter: "With eight weeks before election day, neither George Bush nor John Kerry has offered any notion on what they will do about the gravest imbalance in the federal budget since the nation's fight for survival in World War II.  Bush's Social Security reform places a portion of Social Security taxes into personal accounts, but makes no provision for [transition costs].  Kerry's campaign agenda has no plan for Social Security, although Harvard's Professor Martin Feldstein calculates from information on the campaign web site that the Senator wants to cut Social Security benefits going to the wealthiest 3 percent of seniors by up to 80 percent...  The longer inaction continues, the higher unfunded liabilities will grow, and the more devastating eventual tax increases and spending cuts must be when reality can no longer be avoided."

Yesterday's news about North Korea possibly achieving nuclear capability did suddenly remind both campaigns that there are other pressing foreign policy issues beyond Iraq.  The Medicare debate did start in earnest last week.  The assault weapons ban expired at 12:01 am this morning.  This week in politics is beginning on a more substantive note than the last one ended.

Kerry appears at 9:30 am in DC with Sarah Brady and law enforcement officers to criticize the President for letting the ban expire.  NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports Kerry will charge that Bush "made backroom deals with the NRA" to let the ban expire, and that -- as he first suggested on Friday in St Louis -- terrorists will now see America as a source for weapons.  At 12:45 pm, the Kerry campaign holds a press conference call "to discuss George W. Bush's wrong choices on crime, including turning his back on police officers and families and letting the assault weapons ban expire," per the campaign e-mail.

President Bush is in Michigan today, talking about health care in Muskegon at 11:00 am and addressing rallies in Holland at 1:20 pm and Battle Creek at 4:35 pm.  He then heads to Kerry's birthplace of Aurora, CO. 

Nader is also in Michigan today.  And the running mates have town halls and rallies: Cheney's in Iowa and West Virginia, Edwards's in New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada.

Today's stops
Bush travels to Michigan today for two campaign rallies and a discussion on health care.  The Holland Sentinel says more than 12,000 people are expected to attend Bush's rally there today.  Michigan's unemployment numbers have risen from 6.5% in June to 6.8% in July.  In 2000, Gore won the state by more than 5 percentage points. 

The AP on Bush's Michigan stops: "It's health care that Bush stresses Monday in Muskegon, Mich., a Democratic stronghold...  Bush also is visiting Holland, Mich., where voters are more supportive of Republican candidates, and Battle Creek, Mich., a swing area of the state that Bush lost to Al Gore in 2000."

Meanwhile, Kerry spends most of the day in DC, the most Democratic-friendly area in the land: Gore beat Bush here, 85% to 9%.

Hurricane politics
A lot of Democrats, Republicans, and media folks are itching to poll Florida, where a reliable survey probably hasn't been taken since before Charley swept through -- i.e., before the Republican convention.  MSNBC/Knight Ridder pollster Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon, who has polled the state for 20 years, said yesterday that if Ivan swings farther west and misses the Panhandle, pollsters may be able to get in the field late this week.  "Conducting a poll here now would be unadvised.  Currently, the Keys are evacuated, the Panhandle is right in the bulls-eye, voters around Tampa are bracing for a possible hit, and they are still cleaning up from Frances in parts of Central and South Florida.  Even here in Jacksonville, everyone is casting a nervous eye in case it swings over the peninsula and hits us from the back door (as Charley did).  No one is focusing on the elections much, and the local media isn't even covering them right now."

The character debate
The Wall Street Journal sees the medals-and-ribbons fight for what it is: a character brawl.  "The Bush campaign and its allies want voters to see Mr. Kerry as a vacillating fraud who can't be relied on to defend the nation.  Democrats are trying to paint Mr. Bush as a dishonest scion of privilege, looking out only for his rich cronies."

"The character tilt to the campaign so far has helped Mr. Bush and could continue to give him an edge if it remains the dominant theme through the fall.  Republicans have been more persistent with personal attacks against Mr. Kerry than Democrats have been against Mr. Bush, and polls show Mr. Kerry's negative ratings rising more sharply than Mr. Bush's."

"While Democrats vow to fight back, it is harder to change public perceptions of an incumbent president than a lesser-known challenger...  Democrats also risk taking the focus off the economy, health care, and Iraq, where polls show voters still have serious concerns about Mr. Bush's record."

The Sunday Boston Globe said Bush strategists looked back to Kerry's 1996 debates with Weld in coming up with the flip-flop label.  "It is an argument that has infuriated and frustrated Democrats now for months -- even more so because Bush himself hasn't suffered for changing his position on important issues such as the rationale for invading Iraq and the ability of the United States to win the struggle against terrorism.  At the same time, Kerry advisers contend that their candidate's ability to evolve is a sign of his intellectual rigor -- especially compared with what they say is the president's stubbornness even in the face of evidence he is wrong."

The AP reports this morning, "President Bush has his own history of changing his position, from reversals on steel tariffs and 'nation-building' to reasons for invading Iraq.  Most recently, Bush did an about-face on whether the proposed new director of national intelligence should have full budget-making powers as the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission recommended.  Bush at first indicated no, then last week said yes."

"Yet so far Democratic efforts to paint Bush as 'Flip-Flopper-in-Chief,' as one Democratic news release put it, have not seemed to have had much impact on the race.  Republicans have been driving home their depiction of Kerry as a flip-flopper for months, in campaign ads, speeches and interviews.  And polls suggest this line of attack is working."

"Bush keeps revising his Iraq war rationale: The need to seize Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction until none were found; liberating the Iraqi people from a brutal dictator; fighting terrorists in Iraq not at home; spreading democracy throughout the Middle East.  Now it's a safer America and a safer world."

Medals and ribbons
The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein says it may be cathartic for Democrats to go after Bush's Guard record, but "it's another question whether the charges will help Kerry overcome Bush's lead in the race."  Brownstein notes, as we suggested last week, that "the assaults on Bush probably won't materially affect the race unless voters buy the critics' assumption that his behavior 30 years ago illuminates his values and character today.  And that link may be tougher to establish."

Brownstein points out that "the greatest threat to Bush may come if the cumulative picture of his Guard experience... portrays him as a son of privilege who has enjoyed advantages unavailable to most Americans.  That's potentially dangerous because polls show many voters already question whether Bush understands the problems of average families."

USA Today has a massive takeout on the authenticity of the documents and how "[q]uestions about President Bush's service in the Texas National Guard have been shunted to the background by" this debate.  The paper also has a story on CBS again standing by its reporting.

The Boston Globe covers the latest Kerry biopic, funded in part by friends of Kerry, which debuts tomorrow at the Toronto Film Festival: "the film, which is set to open in the United States on Oct. 1, arrives at a time when many voters are skeptical of the hagiography that envelops Kerry's wartime experiences in 'Going Upriver,' an expression for going into battle.  The movie was conceived long before a group of veterans began attacking Kerry's combat record and antiwar activism last month, but several moments in it -- particularly Kerry's remark about soldiers' 'crimes,' and scenes of him marching for peace and throwing away his combat ribbons at a Washington protest -- are bound to whip up these critics anew during the crucial final weeks of the 2004 campaign."

"The movie, which drew no funding from the campaign, was financed by a range of investors across the country, many of whom are friends of Kerry or are strongly supporting his presidential bid."

"The possibility that 'Going Upriver' could be exploited to hurt Kerry's candidacy was not lost on one of the film's executive producers, Bill Samuels..."

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that Kerry aides acknowledge some in Kerry's Boston circle are urging that Kerry say something more about his post-Vietnam protests, but an aide claims "that won't happen" and that "Kerry won't apologize."  (Who said anything about an apology?)

National and Homeland Security
Kerry called the New York Times yesterday to criticize Bush's handling of North Korea and the Times report that North Korea may be preparing for a nuclear weapons test.  "Mr. Kerry's basic argument, that the Iraq war has diverted attention from more dangerous nations like North Korea, is one he has often used on the campaign trail and in interviews over the past several months.  But his language on Sunday, calling the situation 'a nuclear nightmare' and directly accusing Mr. Bush of leaving the United States more vulnerable to North Korea, was far harsher and more incendiary than the language he has used before."

"It is also highly unusual for Mr. Kerry to seek out a reporter on a Sunday, when he had no public appearances scheduled, to attack Mr. Bush."

Late Sunday afternoon, after a morning spent trying to call reporters' attention to Colin Powell's comments on Meet the Press which arguably put Powell at odds with the President on some national security issues, but which get little notice today, the Kerry campaign issued a statement on North Korea, calling it "a massive national security failure by President Bush...  a potential route to a nuclear 9/11 is clearly visible...  What is unfolding in North Korea is exactly the kind of disaster that it is an American president's solemn duty to prevent." 

Edwards at his press conference yesterday, per MSNBC's Tom Llamas: "Today, Secretary of State Powell made it clear there is no connection between Saddam Hussein and the attacks of September 11.  From this day forward this Administration should never suggest that there is."  More Edwards: "What I'm doing is making sure when the Vice President and other members of this Administration say things to the American people that are clearly not true, for example implying there is a connection between September 11 and the attacks on September 11 and Saddam Hussein, that the American people know the truth, and I will continue to do that."  

Cheney addressed North Korea on Friday, MSNBC's Priya David notes.  A young boy asked Cheney in Milwaukee, "When you were talking about your national security, you mentioned that they had nuclear weapons ...  Do you think we're going to invade North Korea and Iran?"  Cheney: "What we're trying to do both in the case of North Korea and Iran are address those issues diplomatically, try to resolve by peaceful means, the matter of persuading them that they don't need nuclear weapons, that they shouldn't want nuclear weapons, that it's not in their interest to develop that capability...  With North Korea we're working with the Chinese, the South Koreans, the Japanese, the Russians, in a series of talks.  We should have some more talks here again in the future, where we sit down, in effect, to a six-way conversation..."

The Washington Post reports, "President Bush has risen in polls after taking the calculated risk to elevate security issues over pocketbook concerns...  But strategists in both parties said that approach leaves him with acute vulnerabilities in case of an economic shock, a terrorist attack or heavy attention to a bloody October in Iraq.  Administration officials disclosed plans yesterday that show the many ways Bush will try to emphasize his role as commander in chief.  He will interrupt his swing-state travel in just over a week to go before cameras at the United Nations with the interim president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai.  Two days later, Bush will welcome Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, to the Rose Garden."

"The exposure for Bush was clear as security spiraled out of control in Baghdad yesterday..."

"Aides said no immediately upcoming presidential event is focused on the economy, although the president will mention jobs in virtually every speech.  Some elected Republican officials in swing states said it was important for Bush to balance his messages about security and the economy."

MSNBC's David dissects how Cheney continues to assert -- while avoiding his controversial language of a week ago -- that Bush is the safer choice for voters.  David says Cheney goes from step #1, discussing how the world has changed since September 11, to step #2, talking about the threats to the nation by terrorists.  In step #3, he transitions to Bush as an experienced leader versus Kerry as a waffler who would leave the nation vulnerable.  Examples from Cheney's Wisconsin bus tour stops from last Friday:

Step #1: "Then you have to think, does the old Cold War strategy work, if you're talking about terrorists.  How do you deter a terrorist who's committed to jihad?  Whose basic game in life is to kill infidels, especially Americans?  Who has no piece of real estate anyplace that he values that you can hold at risk in order to deter him from acting against the United States.  The whole conflict doesn't make any sense when you're talking about al Qaeda.  You've got to put together a whole new approach."

Step #2: Cheney then went through explaining how the "biggest threat our nation faces" is a biological or chemical attack in a major city center, and how it is, of course, vital to safeguard against such an attack.  He moved from the September 11 attacks to attacks around the world like Madrid, Bali, Riyadh and Mombassa, to the recent Russian school hostage crisis, describing the Russian terrorists in the same terms he's used to describe al Qaeda.  "That is the kind of enemy that you can't negotiate with, you can't appease, there's no treaty at the end of the day...  All you can do is go out and defeat the enemy."

Step #3: "The significant difference... (is) their approach to the basic, fundamental question of national security and how you prosecute the war on terror."  He said, "Now we know what George Bush will do because he's done it for the last 3½ years.  But it's a little hard to tell what John Kerry would do under those circumstances, because he has yet to articulate a clear-cut position and stick with it for any length of time."

Zell Miller counters Democrats and some critical pundits in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: "my critics can call me a psychopath and fire spitballs at me...  they can call me names and ridicule my angry demeanor all day long.  But facts are facts.  And the fact is, John Kerry has a long record of proposals to weaken our national security in a time of war.  And I would never put my family's safety in those hands."

The Washington Post editorial page determines that "it isn't clear where Sen. John F. Kerry stands on either" question of, "Was the war a mistake, and what is to be done now?"

Republicans on the Hill are trying again to put Kerry on the spot with a tough vote, just as they did with the gay marriage ban which fizzled right before Kerry's Boston convention.  Now it's flag-burning. – Washington Post

Guns
The AP lays out the components of Kerry's $5 billion, 10-year anti-crime plan, which would be paid for "by a routine extension of customs fees already included in numerous pending bills".

The Washington Post: "Amid the furious political maneuvering of recent days is a situation little noticed by the public but one well known to dealers: The ban did not prevent many assault weapons from reaching the streets...  A surprising number of gun control advocates find themselves largely agreeing with that assessment, although they argue that the answer is not to end the ban but to strengthen it."

The Chicago Tribune: "If all goes as expected, workers at the ArmaLite Inc. factory here on Tuesday morning will start churning out their military-style rifles with ammunition magazines that hold 30 bullets instead of the maximum 10 rounds permitted under the Assault Weapons Ban...  The bigger magazines give criminals more firepower to use in gang warfare or against police officers, critics say."

The debate on debates
The Washington Post on Kerry's debate prep: "Kerry has told aides that Bush's debating skills, which he described privately to one aide as 'cagey' but crafty, are underestimated by many Democrats.  Among the Massachusetts senator's biggest concerns, a top aide said, is Bush's ability to lower expectations heading into debates and then to stick to a few simple messages during them."

Edwards insisted yesterday that Bush's lead in the polls was only temporary, the New York Times reports. "'What will happen now, between now and Election Day - particularly given the fact we are going to have debates, both presidential and vice-presidential debates - is the American people are going to see a very clear contrast,' he said."

Ad wars
The Media Fund holds a 1:30 pm press conference call to announce a new ad campaign targeted at African-Americans in Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.  The ads will accuse "Bush of opposing civil rights and trying to suppress black voter turnout," Howard Kurtz reports.  One spot on education "makes an explicitly racial appeal.  'Bush said he would leave no child behind.  But he wasn't talking about your child,' the narrator says.  After the screen shows such statistics as... 'The high school graduation rate gap between blacks and whites is 25 percent,' the narrator says: 'Don't keep getting played.'  A radio ad charges: 'The Republicans want you to sit out this election and simply stay home...  Who are they fooling?  These are the same folks that are against affirmative action, oppose civil rights...  Under Bush, 1.1 million more black folks live in poverty than they did before 2001.'"

"The ad contains some exaggerations.  The administration has not proposed weakening civil rights laws and is seeking to eliminate overtime only for certain employment categories."

The Los Angeles Times reports on the US Chamber of Commerce's $10 million ad campaign against trial lawyers".

Making your vote count
A Sunday AP story on early voting this year: "Election officials say early voting is convenient, but others say the trend is misguided -- depriving voters of critically important information late in the campaign cycle and undermining the nation of one of its few collective, democratic experiences."

"The trend has been steadily increasing.  Somewhere between 15 percent and 20 percent of all voters nationwide cast their ballots early, and that number is expected to rise to 25 percent this year, according to Curtis Gans at the Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate."

The New York Times says election officials are "struggling to cope" with early-voting fraud.  "Only 6 of the 19 states where polls have shown that voters are almost evenly divided between President Bush and Senator John Kerry still require witness signatures to help authenticate absentee ballots.  Fourteen of the 19 states allow political parties to collect absentee voting applications, and 7 let the parties collect completed ballots, raising the possibility that operatives could gather and then alter or discard ballots from an opponent's stronghold.  Most of the swing states even let party operatives help voters fill out their absentee ballots when the voters ask for help.  And political parties are taking advantage of vague or nonexistent state rules to influence people who vote at home."

The Wall Street Journal focuses on the potential contagion of the Colorado initiative which, if passed, would split the state's electoral votes proportionately, effective immediately.  "Analysts in both parties expect a change in Colorado would spur similar moves elsewhere and make the Electoral College system itself once again a battlefield in the war between Republicans and Democrats for control of a narrowly divided nation...  Such a change nationwide would dramatically alter presidential campaigns by giving candidates new incentives to compete in vote-rich states that now are safely in the hands of the opposition.  Republicans would spend far more time in states like California and New York that lean toward the Democrats, while Democrats would stump harder in Texas."

After all the attention paid to the California ballot during the recall, consider what the thing looks like in this regular election year: "Californians face one of the longest and most complicated ballots in the nine decades since the state invoked direct democracy," says the Los Angeles Times.  "There are 16 propositions before voters this November, including three sets that compete with each other, one rarely used referendum to overturn current law, four that were included by the Legislature and an orphan proposition cut away from its original measure."

Overall, the ballot contains "the third-highest number of measures since California instituted initiatives and referendums in 1911, according to statistics from Cal State Los Angeles."

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