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

Tuesday, September 14, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

First glance (49 days until Election Day)
A more politically loaded setting would be tough to find: President Bush talks about the nation's present wars in Iraq and against terror before an audience that invokes what has become, in this national security-dominated election, the leading character issue of his past. 

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Bush does not plan to address questions his own service in his remarks to the National Guard conference in Las Vegas at 2:10 pm.  The Bush eye view of today, per a campaign e-mail: "President Bush will contrast his strong record of support for our nation's military against John Kerry's record of playing politics with the War on Terror." 

Democrats and other Bush critics bracket the event in several ways, with varying degrees of sagacity:

The Kerry campaign stages a presser with relatives of five September 11 victims at the National Press Club "to discuss the choices in the 2004 presidential race."  The five women, all lead advocates for the formation of the September 11 commission, will endorse Kerry and whack Bush on US intelligence and homeland security.

National Guard families gather next door to the Guard convention in Las Vegas at 1:30 pm for a presser being promoted by the PR firm which represents MoveOn.org.  The families "will tell their stories and confront the administration for its betrayal of National Guard soldiers who signed up to 'stay at home and serve their country' but were sent overseas to fight a war based on lies," per the press release.

And the DNC rolls out its "Operation Fortunate Son," which will include yet another presser on Bush's Guard service at 10:30 am and, as the hook for this one, a new web video which will be e-mailed to activists.  Per a DNC source, the video "lays out the case against Bush as a 'son of privilege and fortunate son' who used connections to leapfrog into the National Guard and avoid his duties while in it."  

Kerry, meanwhile, holds a town hall on seniors' issues in Milwaukee at 9:30 am and a health care event in Toledo at 3:00 pm.  NBC's Kelly O'Donnell says to expect charts and graphs making the case that the Bush Administration is "hiding" the percentage of the Social Security benefit goes to pay the Medicare premium.  The Bush campaign responds with past Kerry votes for higher Medicare premiums.  

Hurricane politics may indirectly claim Kerry as a victim in the presidential race: Nader is back on the Florida ballot after the Republican secretary of state and the state elections supervisor, aware of the looming deadline for printing up absentee ballots and claiming concern about Ivan-caused delays, made an end run around the still-churning court battle and ordered that he be added.

And both running mates end their day in West Virginia; Cheney starts his day in Arkansas and Edwards in Oregon.

We now hand the microphone over to guest First Read DJ Felix Schein of MSNBC, who usually covers the Kerry campaign but has spent more than a week on the road interviewing, per his estimate, about 40-50 voters in West Virginia, about 40 in Ohio, 30 or so -- mostly Arab-American -- in Michigan, and maybe 25-30 in Wisconsin, on which he bases the following observations:

"On the issues," Schein writes, "there seems to be an interesting dynamic at play.  Generally, voters are split between security and the economy...  But deeper questioning seems to show that voters who rank security first are less convinced it should be their priority.  In fact, many pause after initially saying that terror is number-one on their mind, taking the time to then say, 'Well, there is the economy'...  I am not sure how that translates into raw votes, but there seem to be seeds of doubt."

"Overall, I continue to find voters are deciding for or against the President as opposed to for Kerry...  Kerry simply doesn't seem to be energizing voters and many still don't know much about what he stands for.  Instead, they know a bundle about the President and that knowledge is driving their decisions..."

And: "The flip-flop ads leveled against Kerry have had devastating results.  Voters who know nothing about him or what he stands for tell you he is a flip-flopper even if they don't know on what.  The President faces no such defining characteristic, voters who dislike him tend to be anti-Bush for specific and very well informed reasons."

Today's stops
President Bush is in Colorado today, a state he won by 8 points in 2000 and which has voted Republican in 12 out of the last 15 elections.  The unemployment rate rose to 5.1% in July from 4.9% in June.  Bush campaigns in Arapahoe County, an area the Denver Post says has roughly the same political population as the state as a whole -- 38% Republican, 29% Democrat, and 33% unaffiliated. 

Bush then addresses the National Guard conference in Las Vegas.  Bush narrowly took Nevada by a margin of 3.5% four years ago.  The state's unemployment was 4.4% in July, rising from 4.2% in June.

Kerry spends the morning in Wisconsin, where unemployment dropped from 5% in June to 4.7% in July.  Gore won Wisconsin's 11 electoral votes by less than a quarter of a percentage point -- only about 5,700 votes.  Kerry hopes to take the 10 electoral votes the state now has to offer.  He then travels to Toledo, after campaigning just last Wednesday in Cincinnati.  The Toledo Blade reports this is Kerry's fourth visit to the city, and all 350 tickets for his event have been distributed.  Ohio's unemployment rate rose from 5.8% in June to 5.9% in July.

Meanwhile, Laura Bush will speak on behalf of her husband today in Cincinnati and Columbus.  Ohio's unemployment rose from 5.8 % in June to 5.9 % in July.

The Boston Globe says "strategists on both sides of the presidential campaign are increasingly looking northward toward the Great Lakes region, eyeing three states -- Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan -- as crucial...  In the last election, Vice President Al Gore won all three states, for a combined 39 electoral votes, and it is difficult to calculate a victory for... Kerry without them this time around."

"Kerry is no longer expanding into Republican turf as much as he is defending his own."

Medals and ribbons
USA Today, in advance of Bush and Kerry's speeches to the Guard convention, reports from Vegas: "In more than two dozen interviews... current and retired Guard members offered the same advice to Bush and Kerry: Focus on the future of the military and give the rehash of Vietnam a rest...  Delegates registering at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Monday said they wanted the political debate to be about how to modernize the military, where the war on terrorism will be fought and how the Guard will fit into that struggle."

A DNC spokesperson explains why their anti-Bush video being released today focuses on the President's credibility: "Because it may be hard to sit in judgment on choices made at a confusing time -- but there's nothing confusing about telling the truth."  NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that there was some internal debate among Democrats over the possible downside of keeping the campaign back-and-forth rooted in the Vietnam era.

The Los Angeles Times covers the group of Guard families who want to confront Bush in Las Vegas today: "The demonstrators said they were not supporters of Sen. John F. Kerry,... but were trying to look after the interests of the country's guardsmen."  The lead quote from a group member attacks Bush's Guard service.

The New York Times marks the premiere of the new Kerry documentary by longtime Kerry friend George Butler today at the Toronto Film Festival, saying it will open at 200 theaters on October 1.

On the ongoing document story, CBS yesterday presented new experts to support their report on Bush's Guard records, but some of the network's correspondents are becoming increasingly jittery, says the New York Times.  

The Washington Post reports, "The lead expert retained by CBS News to examine disputed memos from President Bush's former squadron commander in the National Guard said yesterday that he examined only the late officer's signature and made no attempt to authenticate the documents themselves."

The Post notes in another story, "The White House is no longer saying the 'entire file' has been released.  In fact, the search for Bush's Guard documents continues -- and is being directed by a three-star general....  White House communications director Dan Bartlett, who has coordinated the administration's statements on the issue, says: 'My understanding is there is a constant review spearheaded by the FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] office at the Pentagon to ensure all documents are located.'"

There indeed seems to be.  An August 31 memo sent from the Pentagon's administration/management office to the Air Force Secretary, National Archives Director, Air National Guard Director, and others says, "it is now imperative that an exhaustive, system-wide search be conducted for all documents...  This thorough search must focus on any record whatsoever that contains data on President Bush's military service, whether documented in official records or unofficial files."

National and Homeland Security
The Chicago Tribune previews Bush's speech today and Kerry's on Thursday: "Concerns about strain on the Guard are held by many of the 4,700 who were on hand for the conference's opening day...  They are proud that they and reservists make up 40 percent of the troops in the Iraq, playing a high-profile role not seen since World War II, they said.  But as the 17-month conflict drags on, the citizen soldiers who make up the National Guard wonder how long they will be forced to juggle the demands of combat deployment as well as their civilian careers and family."

Not breaking through yesterday, but worth mentioning: Cheney's strikingly aggressive comments about Russia "keeping its head down" during the war on terror and getting hit anyway." 

Responding to the question, "Previously Russia hasn't always been as supportive, with recent circumstances, would Russia take a more aggressive stance and continue to fight terrorism with us around the world?" Cheney said, "You know, there's been a, in some circles, in Europe for example, some of our European friends have been somewhat ambivalent about this whole proposition with respect to how we deal with terrorist attacks.  I think some have hoped that if they kept their heads down and stayed out of the line of fire, they wouldn't get hit.  I think what happened in Russia now demonstrates pretty conclusively that everybody is a target.  That Russia, of course, didn't support us in Iraq, they didn't get involved in sending troops there, they've gotten hit anyway."

Per MSNBC's Priya David, the Bush-Cheney campaign said afterward that Cheney was talking in the broader context of the war on terror.  Spokesperson Anne Womack said that the Vice President was saying that the consequences of terrorism can affect anyone, regardless of whether they joined America in the "exercises" or not.  Kerry spokesperson Phil Singer argued that this was another example of Cheney linking September 11 and Iraq, despite Colin Powell's Sunday remarks that there is no link. 

The AP reports on the emergence of North Korea "as a hot political topic" only recently in a campaign that has been dominated for months by national security.  "It's a difficult subject for Republicans and Democrats alike.  North Korea doesn't dominate the news the way Iraq does, making it an unlikely issue for winning votes.  Moreover, both parties are vulnerable to criticism on their handling of the North Korean threat."

"Although North Korea hasn't been at the forefront for most of his campaign,... Kerry has accused Bush repeatedly of being so fixated on Iraq that he ignored the danger posed by the Kim Jong Il's government in Korea...  Bush spokesman Scott McClellan accused Kerry of wanting to return to 'the failed Clinton administration policy' on North Korea."

"Kerry has said he would be willing to negotiate directly with North Korea, alongside the six-nation talks."

Edwards yesterday attacked the Administration for being soft on Iran and North Korea on WMD, MSNBC's Tom Llamas reports, and mischaracterized the explosion in North Korea over the weekend as a weapons test.  "We know that North Korea has been marching forward, going from one to two nuclear weapons now up to as many as seven or eight.  And they had a test over the last few days and they just explained to the British what the reason was for that test, you know just to be completely honest about this we have to be awfully careful about anything that North Koreans and Kim Jong Il say about what they are doing and why they are having explosions in North Korea, but we don't know what's happening and the reason we don't know what's happening is because of this administration because of their failed policies."

Per Llamas, the campaign says Edwards was aware of initial reports saying the explosion was not a nuclear test, but meant to say North Korea has been leaning toward testing.  Edwards mentioned North Korea at his other campaign events yesterday but did not reference the explosion.

The Bush agenda
The Washington Post prices out the agenda Bush laid out at the GOP convention at "well in excess of $3 trillion over a decade."

"A staple of Bush's stump speech is his claim that [Kerry] has proposed $2 trillion in long-term spending, a figure the Massachusetts senator's campaign calls exaggerated.  But the cost of the new tax breaks and spending outlined by Bush at the GOP convention far eclipses that of the Kerry plan."

"Bush's agenda has many costs the administration has not publicly estimated.  For instance, Bush said in his speech that he would continue to try to stabilize Iraq and wage war on terrorism.  The war in Iraq alone costs $4 billion a month, but the president's annual budget does not reflect that cost."

"The president has had little to say about the deficit as he barnstorms across the country, which has prompted Democrats and some conservative groups to say Bush refuses to admit there will not be enough money in government coffers to pay for many of his plans.  Although a majority of voters say they are concerned about the deficit, most view Kerry as only marginally better able to deal with it than Bush, according to polls."

Paul O'Neill haunts Bush still.  The Washington Post also writes up this from O'Neill biographer Ron Suskind's website: "President Bush has vowed to make tax reform a centerpiece of a second term, but an internal Treasury Department study in late 2002 warned that any fundamental simplification of the nation's tax system would 'produce windfall winners and losers,' would likely lower taxes for the rich, and could have devastating political consequences for its champions." 

"In the study, Treasury economists were unambiguous in calling for the reform of a tax system that they said has grown needlessly complex, economically inefficient, unpredictable and unfair.  But they identified serious drawbacks -- both economic and political -- with each of the five reform proposals they drafted, especially a 'flat consumption' tax that shifts the tax burden from savings and investment to wages and spending."

Health care and Social Security
The AP covers Bush's counter yesterday to Democratic attacks over Social Security as "tired" and "pathetic."  "Kerry's campaign said Bush mischaracterized its health care policy, and the president's plans would indeed imperil Social Security."

The New York Times on Bush blasting Kerry on health care yesterday: "Mr. Bush never explicitly compared Mr. Kerry's health care plans to those advocated by President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton in the early 1990's, which turned into a political liability for the Democrats.  But he came close," charging that Kerry's plan amounts to "'a government takeover of health care with an enormous price tag.'"

"Mr. Kerry's campaign officials on Monday called that characterization a fabrication and a deliberate distortion."

The Los Angeles Times, noting that the emergence of health care as a top issue "has been spurred by a spate of reports documenting the rising cost of healthcare - and the dearth of adequate coverage for many," points out that "Bush and Kerry do not simply disagree on how to deal with these troubling developments.  They want to take the system in radically different directions."

"Kerry "has begun to connect his criticism of Bush's foreign policy to the administration's domestic priorities, saying the money spent on Iraq was a 'wrong choice' that shortchanged health and education needs at home."  But here's where the buzz about the Kerry campaign seeps into his coverage: "But many Democrats worry that Kerry has not succeeded in capitalizing on the issue.  They say that is partly because voters' concerns about national security have eclipsed just about every domestic policy issue.  Also, they acknowledge that it is difficult to distill such a complex issue into the shorthand of the standard stump speech."

"Still, some Democrats say Kerry's handling of the healthcare issue reflects a broader problem afflicting his campaign: an inability to effectively go on the offensive against Bush with a crisp, clear message."

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports some details on Kerry's new critique on Bush and Medicare: The campaign is assembling "charts and graphs" to attempt to show the President is "lying again" when it comes to an omission on Medicare.  The Kerry campaign charges that for years, the Medicare trustees report has included a figure for what percentage of the Social Security benefit goes to pay the Medicare premium.  They claim that actuary Rick Foster has now "hidden the cost" by not including this in the Federal Register.  During the Clinton years, according to figures provided by the Kerry campaign, the percentage of the benefit required to pay for health care went from 12% to 14%.  Now, they claim, the projected number for 2006 is 37.2%.   The campaign intends to use this to argue Bush has "squeezed seniors" and favors "special interests over seniors' interests."

USA Today reports this out: "With a new Medicare drug benefit set to begin in 2006, Americans 65 and older can expect to spend a large and growing share of their Social Security checks on Medicare premiums and expenses, previously undisclosed federal data show."

"Unless Congress does something to hold down costs confronting seniors, the official projections suggest that health spending will consume virtually the entire amount of Social Security benefits when children born today reach retirement age."

The Bush campaign prebuts Kerry's seniors' event today: "the reality is that Kerry has voted five times for higher Medicare premiums and even called the passage of a bill requiring increased Medicare premiums a 'day of vindication'...  Kerry has also voted at least eight times for higher taxes on Social Security benefits.  It is disingenuous for Kerry to say he will lower health care costs for Americans considering the non-partisan American Enterprise Institute study released today showing that Kerry's government-run health care plan will cost $1.5 trillion."

"Non-partisan?"  We don't think so.  Cheney, who also called it a "non-partisan" report yesterday, is a former AEI trustee, the Kerry camp points out, while wife Lynne is a former fellow and daughter Liz, they say, is a visiting fellow.

For the first time since August 14, MSNBC's Becky Diamond reports, Kerry ventured back to the press section of the campaign plane yesterday.  He would not discuss anything other than baseball, but did promise a press avail "soon...  very soon...  very, very soon."  Diamond says several reporters tried to engage Kerry in news of the day to no avail (no pun intended).  In response to a question about President Bush's assertion that were Kerry president, Saddam Hussein would still be in power, Kerry replied, "No I can't.  No I can't.  Baseball..." 

Per several Kerry staffers as well as the pooler, Diamond says, Kerry gave a pep talk during a daily staff meeting yesterday.  The pooler reported that Kerry told the staff "we're in the final stretch," "we can see the finish line," and "we're almost there."  One senior adviser told Diamond it was "inspirational," but did not divulge any details.  Another Kerry aide said it was a "very upbeat speech" and he had the room "cheering and laughing at a few jokes."  Per a staffer, Kerry was "really sweet" and stayed for awhile shaking hands.  He was an hour and a half late departing for Milwaukee.

Florida's elections chief has ordered that Nader be added to the state ballot despite a recent court order to the contrary: "state election director Dawn Roberts said uncertainty caused by Hurricane Ivan, which could hit parts of the state this week, forced her to act...  A hearing on a permanent injunction is scheduled for Wednesday.  But Roberts said Hurricane Ivan... 'had raised "a substantial question as to when such a hearing"' would be held.  Florida's Department of State filed an appeal against the temporary injunction, automatically lifting it.  Also on Monday, the Florida Supreme Court said it would review Nader's candidacy after [the lower court] ruling on Wednesday.  Elections supervisors face a Saturday deadline to mail absentee ballots and first must get them printed, officials said."

As Nader speaks at Loyola University today, nearly 70 former supporters and members of his "2000 Citizens Committee" will urge voters in battleground states to support Kerry-Edwards.  In a letter to be released today, the group says, "This year, we urge support for Kerry/Edwards in all 'swing states,' even while we strongly disagree with Kerry's policies on Iraq and other issues.  For people seeking progressive social change in the United States, removing George W. Bush from office should be the top priority in the 2004 presidential election."  Among those who have signed the letter are Ben & Jerry's co-founder and former Dean supporter Ben Cohen, talk show host Phil Donahue, power couple Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, and MIT's Noam Chomsky.

The Nader campaign prebutted the announcement last night in a written statement: "their statement today is not new, just repackaging of an old story...  [T]hey should realize that their support for "Anybody but Bush" is helping to make John Kerry into a weaker candidate..."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page thinks "some elected Democrats seem to be taking it too far by abusing their offices in order to keep Mr. Nader off the November ballot."

Making your vote count
The Washington Post raises concern about an overlooked voting bloc: "As swing states with large elderly populations such as Florida gear up..., a sleeper issue has been gaining attention on medical, legal and political radar screens: Many people with advanced dementia appear to be voting in elections -- including through absentee ballot."

"About 45 states have laws that address whether people who are unable to look after their own finances or health are allowed to vote...  About 25 states automatically terminate the right to vote if a person is under the care of a guardian,... but those laws are often arcane -- and unevenly enforced.  The result could hardly be worse: a pastiche of outmoded laws that are out of touch with current science and are being applied inconsistently and arbitrarily.  Many competent people in nursing facilities are being prevented from voting, advocates say, even as caregivers of other patients with severe dementia vote on their behalf."

A Harvard study released yesterday shows that "[m]ore than one-third of colleges and universities do not comply with a federal law requiring that they help students register to vote."  - LA Times

The Election Assistance Commission held their monthly public meeting yesterday to discuss poll worker issues. The EAC is launching a national poll workers initiative, which will include assistance from companies like Citigroup in encouraging their employees to volunteer at polls on election day. 

Today's primaries
In Washington state, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says that while "[p]olling places are open today from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m...  70 percent of voters are expected to cast absentee ballots, an increasingly popular way to vote." 

The hottest race in state today is the Democratic primary for governor between Attorney General Christine Gregoire and county executive Ron Sims.  The AP says "Gregoire, the state's first female attorney general, has been considered the front-runner since leaping into the race...  Her opponent,... Sims, has hitched his uphill campaign to political dynamite - a plan for a state income tax, coupled with elimination of the business and state sales tax."


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