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

Wednesday, September 15, 2004| 9:20 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

First glance (48 days until Election Day)
Then-Candidate Bush in 2000 invaded traditional Democratic turf on education and Social Security, to some benefit.  So our curiosity was piqued when we got this e-mail from a Democratic media consultant yesterday: "This new Bush attack ad is the most audacious yet.  Can you imagine George Bush attacking on health care?!?!  You have to give them bonus points for chutzpah!"

  1. Other political news of note
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    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
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    5. Fluke files to run in California

We asked a Democratic Hill staffer with serious health care credentials: "Do you think Bush is doing as good a job blurring the lines on health care as he did on education in the 2000 campaign?"  Staffer: "God yes."

Then we asked a Democratic strategist who's looking at lots of polling: "Is Bush blurring the lines on health care?"  The strategist replies, yes, "on everything."  (His volunteered example: "He has a Guard problem, he goes to the Guard.")

Democrats will go to the mat charging that Bush's health care and prescription drug proposals collectively are fatally flawed giveaways to HMOs and drug companies that do nothing for the estimated 44 million uninsured.  And there does not appear to be much nervousness (yet) about Bush's encroachment.  But after years of Democratic dominance on health care, and despite the prescription drug "donut," Bush is at least putting the onus on them to make a case against him.  Ted Kennedy spokesperson Jim Manley: "I do have to give the Administration credit, they've done a masterful job over the years of blurring the distinctions when it comes to health care policy.  They have paid lip service to the issue and have nothing to do with real solutions."

Health care heavyweight Kennedy stumps for Kerry on the issue in Pennsylvania on Friday.  He also echoed Kerry's health care focus yesterday with a speech on the Senate floor, does so again today on the economy.

Kerry starts the day with what his campaign bills as their "major pre-election economic speech" at the Detroit Economic Club at 8:45 am.  NBC's Kelly O'Donnell notes the speech is a continuation of Kerry charges that Bush has "glossed over," "breezed by," and "hidden the truth" about crucial issues.  While acknowledging it might appear as though Kerry is "whipsawing between Iraq and the economy," a senior Kerry strategist contends that this refined attack is a thread voters can follow.

Kerry's thrust includes an intriguingly pro-Street-sounding Wall Street Journal op-ed in which he says his Administration would be better for business, touts his endorsements from Warren Buffett, Lee Iacocca and Robert Rubin, and says, "I am not trying to stop all outsourcing" -- despite having blasted outsourcing on the campaign trail for months, echoed by 527 ads doing the same.

NBC's Carl Quintanilla observes that Kerry's speech comes as everything from income growth to consumer confidence to the stock market is looking up, and that per a source familiar with the speech, Kerry will focus not on whether the economy's doing better today, but on taking Bush to task for the past three years.

Quintanilla notes the circumstances reflect a tough challenge for Kerry: How to campaign on a weak economy when there appears to be decreasing angst among voters on job growth and inflation?  Kerry will call Bush the "excuses president" -- a mocking reference to Bush's standard explanation for what happened to the economy (September 11, recession, corporate scandals).  As the Kerry source puts it, Bush likes to say he's steered the economy through the "perfect storm."  Kerry will argue that Bush made bad choices on top of that -- adding to the deficit with tax breaks, etc. 

The Bush campaign holds a 10:30 am press conference call with manager Ken Mehlman and policy director Tim Adams to rebut Kerry's speech.  Meanwhile, President Bush has events at the White House today to mark Hispanic Heritage month.

And Kerry's Imus interview this morning probably guarantees another day on the trail with with a strong Iraq undercurrent...

Today's stops
Kerry campaigns today in Michigan and Wisconsin before heading to DC to address the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.  (Bush has his own Hispanic event today: He and the First Lady speak at the Hispanic Heritage Month Concert and Reception at the White House.)  Michigan's July unemployment numbers were 6.8%, up from June's 6.5%, while Wisconsin's dropped to 4.7% in July from 5.0% in June.  Gore won Michigan in 2000 by over 217,000 votes, but he won Wisconsin by only about 5,000 votes.

USA Today: "Market share for domestic automakers is below 60% this year through August, an all-time low...  Market share for Asian automakers climbed to 34.6% through August, up from 32.6% at the end of 2003."

After Detroit, Kerry campaigns in Madison, WI.  The Wisconsin State Journal reports Kerry will appear at his rally with singer Sheryl Crow.  The paper also says the rally will be held indoors because of the weather. 

The Washington Post's own Cheesehead political reporter notes Kerry's recent "Lambert Field" slip-up in Wisconsin may have cost him enthusiasm, if not votes, and that "College Republicans in Madison... are planning to greet [Kerry] with a new sign: 'It's Lambeau, Stupid!'" 

The AP notes of Bush's rare day at the White House that he "breaks his 44-day, outside-the-Beltway streak."  Still, "[h]e gets a chance to appeal to a key constituency at a White House concert and reception Wednesday in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month."  The story adds, "most of the travel has been to the dozen or so states where he and... Kerry are fighting hardest - six trips to Ohio, five to Pennsylvania, four each to Iowa, Florida, Michigan and West Virginia, and twice to Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada and Wisconsin."

The battleground
The AP: "Both political parties now see as few as 10 states as truly competitive as Bush pulls ahead in places where the contest had been neck and neck, including Missouri, Wisconsin and Ohio...  Both parties are focusing most of their attention and advertising dollars on 10 states: Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, West Virginia and New Hampshire."

"Reflecting the changing dynamic, Bush's campaign this week increased its advertising in four states won in 2000 by... Gore: Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Michigan.  It also was cutting back on ads in states that appear to be moving out of play: Arizona and Missouri, which lean Bush's way, and Maine and Washington, which slightly favor Kerry."

"Under pressure, Kerry moved up plans to advertise in Michigan, Oregon, Maine and Minnesota - won by Gore in 2000 - and in West Virginia, won by Bush."

"Bush campaigned in Colorado on Tuesday as part of his plan to put that state, Missouri, Arizona, North Carolina, Arkansas and Louisiana out of contention before Kerry can increase his campaign effort in these second-tier battlegrounds - all won by Bush four years ago.  Kerry advisers said Tuesday said that his weaknesses in Wisconsin, Minnesota and other former Gore states seem to be partly a result of lower-than-expected support from blacks...  Aides said Kerry has stepped up his speeches to black groups, including to the Congressional Black Caucus last weekend.  Democrats said Bush's gains in some battleground states was temporary."

NBC's Carl Quintanilla says the Kerry campaign believes the post-convention "hangover" is gone, but admits they are probably just two weeks away from having to make some "tough decisions" -- one of which is whether or not to commit to Wisconsin.  For whatever reason, staffers say, Bush has made it tough for them in that state, something that will resonate when Kerry visits Madison today.  Winning there "will take a lotta effort, and a lotta money," says a campaign official.  And while it's not as crucial as, say, Ohio, "things would be a helluva lot easier with it."

That said, MSNBC's Becky Diamond notes that per Kerry national field director John Norris, Wisconsin is a "product of running a very aggressive ground game," and said the campaign has 70 or 80 staffers there.  Asked which states the campaign is focusing on now, Norris rejected the idea that they are whittling down to a few swing states at this point, and pointed to the recruitment of former Clinton aides and Democrats on the Hill who can reach out to all the battlegrounds.  When pushed to identify those states where the campaign is adding staff, Norris listed the following states in this order, "Wisconsin, we are adding, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire..."  Norris says the campaign has more than 100 staffers in Florida and Ohio.  

The Washington Times has Republican strategists starting to think about coattails.

Hurricane politics
The Washington Times reports, "The nation's second vote on a state marriage amendment, scheduled for Saturday in Louisiana, could be postponed in parts of the state if Hurricane Ivan comes too close, a state agency spokesman said yesterday...  But the rest of the state would go to the polls to elect local leaders and decide whether to define marriage in the state constitution.  Election results would be withheld until all the votes were in, a scenario that occurred two years ago, when Hurricane Lili ravaged the Gulf Coast a few days before the Oct. 5 election."

The Wall Street Journal: "Stocks are expected to open on a cautious note Wednesday as investors worry about Hurricane Ivan's effect on oil prices..."

And there's more on the Nader front in Florida; see below.

National and Homeland Security
The Wall Street Journal says Bush's position on Iraq is improving after "a spike of violence in Iraq in April similar to the one in recent days" and a loss of confidence that the war was worth it.  "Since then, Mr. Bush's position on Iraq has changed for the better, his allies believe.  He has succeeded in making more Americans see the war in Iraq as part of the broader war on terrorism, for which Mr. Bush consistently has enjoyed higher approval ratings in polls than... Kerry.  In addition, Mr. Kerry has struggled to say what he would do differently in Iraq, a shortcoming exacerbated by Republican success in highlighting his vacillations on the problem."

Imus this morning told Kerry that Kerry's position that he still would have gone to war had he known then what he knows now "doesn't make sense to me."  Kerry, responding so quickly that he interrupted Imus, said, "Yes it does, Don," and then repeated his arguments that the President rushed to war with no plan to win the peace.

The New York Times covers Bush blasting Kerry for saying that the money now being spent in Iraq could be better spent on domestic priorities.  "In a telephone interview, Rand Beers, Mr. Kerry's foreign policy adviser, said there was no contradiction in Mr. Kerry's past statement and his current critique about how much is being spent in Iraq."

USA Today on Bush's Guard speech yesterday: "Bush alternated between lauding Guard members' devotion to country and questioning whether John Kerry is tough and constant enough to be commander in chief."

"Kerry, campaigning in Toledo, Ohio, shot back with a statement contrasting Bush's optimistic view of the U.S. mission in Iraq with a surge of bloody violence that has killed more than 130 people in three days."

Knight Ridder says the two candidates gave "sharply different assessments of the outlook in Iraq on Tuesday, with Kerry suggesting that the conflict has veered way off track...  Kerry responded to Bush's optimism by accusing the president of distorting the truth...  Kerry further said Bush can't be trusted to tell the truth about Iraq."

Having been advised that Bush and Cheney would be coordinating their messages to lay out why consistency is important to the presidency, MSNBC's Priya David listened to Cheney's remarks yesterday, but heard rehashes of old Cheney lines that were an effort to bring up Howard Dean again, including this: "America faces a choice on November 2, between a strong and steadfast President and his opponent, who seems to adopt a new position every day.  Just last week, John Kerry gave us what I think is his eighth position on the war in Iraq.  He said that Iraq was, and I quote, 'the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.'  Except it turns out that is really somebody else's position.  It's former Democrat primary candidate Howard Dean's position."

The AP covered it.  An Edwards spokesperson responded by noting Cheney's five deferments.

But Dean's rhetoric was echoed on the trail in a new way yesterday.  On December 15, 2003, Dean asserted that the United States wasn't safer with Saddam Hussein's capture.  "As our military commanders said, and the President acknowledged yesterday, the capture of Saddam does not end the difficulties from the aftermath of the Administration's war to oust him.  There is the continuing challenge of securing Iraq, protecting the safety of our personnel, and helping that country get on the path to stability.  There is the need to repair our alliances and regain global support for American goals...  The capture of Saddam is a good thing which I hope very much will help keep our soldiers safer.  But the capture of Saddam has not made America safer."

At the time, many Democrats probably agreed with that statement, but Dean's primary opponents -- including Kerry -- pounced on it.  Kerry said: "I think this statement of Howard Dean's... is the equivalent of Dukakis in a tank...  I think George Bush is going to ram that so far down the Democratic throat we're going to... never get to health care, education, all the other issues we need to get to."

Yesterday, Kerry said something very close to what Dean said last year: "But you know... the world knows... the situation in Iraq is worse, not better, that whole parts of Iraq are under control by terrorists... that our troops are overextended... that this president has not done what's necessary to fight the war on terror...  I know what we need to do in Iraq and the world to fight a more effective war on terror...  I know how we can reduce the number of terrorists in the world, how we can get other countries in the world to join us..."

On the new DNC web video attacking Bush's credibility on the Guard issues, "NBC News and CBS News demanded yesterday that the Democratic National Committee remove network footage" from the video.  "NBC said it 'does not authorize its copyrighted footage to be used for partisan political purposes.'" – Washington Times

Medals and ribbons
Howard Kurtz has the latest on the CBS documents: "Two document experts retained by CBS News for the disputed '60 Minutes' story... said yesterday they had warned the program that the memos involved had significant problems but that their concerns were not heeded."

The Los Angeles Times has Killian's former typist saying "she thought four memos... were forgeries - not copies of the ones she typed at the time."  That said, "she confirmed that Killian had concerns about Bush's failure to take his physical examination in 1972, which prevented him from flying, and about efforts by higher-ups to protect the future president from the fallout."

Kerry on Imus this morning called "Unfit for Command," by Swift Boater John O'Neill, "an absolute pack of lies and I have no interest in reading it" -- his strongest comments to date on the Swift Boaters' charges.

The New York Post writes about a new Navy after-action report, obtained by a conservative TV commentator, which says that Kerry shot a lone, wounded enemy who was running away from the incident that led to Kerry's Silver Star.

Health care and Social Security
Kerry yesterday accused the Bush Administration of manipulating reports to obscure that Medicare premiums will consume 37% of the average person's Social Security income by 2006, says the New York Times.  "The policy director for Mr. Bush's campaign, Tim Adams, called the attack baseless, saying the Treasury Department had prepared the pamphlets without consulting the White House.  Mr. Adams said the table had been replaced with the line graph to illustrate costs and benefits better."

USA Today says of Kerry's health care focus yesterday: "Kerry defended his health care proposals Tuesday against President Bush's charges that he's planning a government takeover of the nation's medical system."

The Los Angeles Times: "Kerry's attack also demonstrated the central role that rising healthcare and prescription drug costs are playing in the November election.  Today, Kerry plans to start airing a Spanish-language television ad that spotlights his pledge to ensure health coverage for every child..."

The Boston Globe: "Kerry advisers said the candidate focused on health care because it is a major issue for voters this year and a Democratic priority that some of his consultants have urged him to hammer harder.  The campaign... had sent out prepared remarks for his early morning speech to retired voters in Milwaukee, a set of crisp attack lines against Bush.  But Kerry delivered few of those exact lines...  [S]enior adviser Joe Lockhart... said that a chorus of critics -- including some Democrats -- have urged the campaign to focus more on domestic issues like health care and job creation, and education, and that Kerry was seeking balance in his remarks."

The Washington Post: "After spending much of his time talking about his policies throughout the campaign, Kerry is shifting his focus to and sharpening criticism of Bush's first term in office.  Some Democrats worry Kerry may have waited too long to shape voters' views of Bush.  A top aide said Kerry was told several months ago he needed to adopt a more aggressive message, but the Democratic nominee and some top advisers resisted.  Instead, Kerry's message and slogans have changed frequently, sometimes from event to event, prompting the recent shakeup in the communications department."

The GOP agenda
The Boston Globe's adding machine also finds the Bush agenda costing over $3 trillion: "President Bush's spending and tax-cutting proposals... would probably have a deeper impact on the federal budget deficit than the plans offered by... Kerry."

"The Bush campaign maintains that the president's new spending proposals would cost only $73.4 billion over 10 years.  Campaign aides note that Bush's plan to halve the budget deficit within five years is laid out in the White House's latest budget proposal and takes into account the cost of making tax cuts that are set to expire permanent.  But the campaign's official estimate of proposed new spending includes only a handful of specific priorities Bush mentioned in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention -- not such budget-busters as the revamping of Social Security, space exploration, and most of his health-care plan."

The Wall Street Journal focuses on tax reform: "Amid a close presidential race and a current federal budget deficit of $422 billion, radical changes such as a flat tax or a national sales or consumption tax probably are too politically explosive.  So there is a good chance that in a possible second Bush term, tax overhaul might translate into something less drastic: simplifying the system and making it more taxpayer-friendly."

In the near term, USA Today says "Republican leaders plan to hold votes in the waning days of the 108th Congress on divisive issues that have little chance of becoming law but will put Democrats on the defensive.  The Senate plans to vote on a constitutional amendment that would bar desecration of the U.S. flag, a measure it has defeated three times.  The House intends to vote on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage already rejected by the Senate this summer.  The House also plans to vote to prohibit federal courts from hearing challenges to the 'under God' clause in the Pledge of Allegiance.  Democrats say Congress should instead devote its time to national security and domestic issues."

Candidate access
While Kerry continues to duck questions from a frustrated traveling press corps, promises to hold a press avail "soon, very soon," and hasn't done a big TV interview in who knows how long, MSNBC's Becky Diamond notes that he is scheduled to do Letterman on Monday.  (And of course, he did Imus today.)  This isn't the first time that Kerry has hit the late-night talk-show circuit at a time when his campaign seems to be struggling to find its footing.  In November 2003 -- on the day that two of his top-level aides quit the campaign after he let his manager go -- Kerry rode a Harley onto Leno's set.  Late last month, when the Swift Boaters were slugging his campaign, he sat down with The Daily Show's Jon Stewart. 

NBC's Carl Quintanilla reports the Letterman appearance was booked weeks ago, "when he was five points ahead," per one staffer who rejected suggestions that Kerry is going on the show to shore up his numbers.

Bush, as NBC's John Boxley points out, hit the Guard charges head-on when he did Meet the Press back in February. 

MSNBC's Becky Diamond asked Kerry communications director Stephanie Cutter why Kerry is doing Letterman but not taking questions from the traveling press.  She replied, "It's not an either-or situation."  Diamond asked if the press would get an avail before Monday and she said, "Not sure."

On the flip side, White House spokesperson Scott McLellan, when asked yesterday if the President would hold a press conference sometime soon: "I hear you, and I'll take it under advisement."

Nader
With a Saturday deadline looming to send out overseas ballots, some Florida counties are rushing to print and reprint ballots that have Nader's name both on and off the ballot.  According to the Miami Herald some counties had already printed ballots without Nader's name on them because of court ruling last week.  Then "confusion began Monday with a ruling from Republican Secretary of State Glenda Hood that restored Nader to the ballot -- days after a circuit judge in Tallahassee temporarily removed him, siding with Democrats who charged that the party backing Nader is not legitimate."  One county now says they'll print two sets of ballots.

"Nader filed a lawsuit in the wrong court in his attempt to get his name on North Carolina's ballot this fall, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.  As a result," the AP says, "a decision in the case might not be made until next week, after many ballots have been printed."

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