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

Thursday, September 16, 2004| 9:25 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

First glance (47 days until Election Day)
Ivan presumably blew out some of the national coverage of Kerry's big economic speech yesterday -- and with it, perhaps, the latest in a long string of new Kerry slogans, "the Excuse Presidency."  We'll see how long that one sticks around. 

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But the prospect of Kerry addressing the National Guard two days after President Bush and in the midst of the CBS document controversy is too juicy to get lost in the storm, even though Kerry is not expected to comment on Bush's own Guard service.  MSNBC's Becky Diamond reports that Kerry will talk about the overextension of Guard personnel and the "enormous sacrifice" made by Guard families.  He speaks in Las Vegas at 3:30 pm. 

The Bush campaign prebuts by charging that "Kerry has not only made comments denigrating the National Guard, but also voted against $87 billion in funding to support National Guard members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan with critical supplies such as body armor and ammunition."

Today we'll see what a difference Bush's convention bump, escalating violence and US casualties in Iraq, an "illegal" verdict on the war from Kofi Annan, and a whole bunch of former Clinton advisors can make.  Kerry last appeared before a military or veterans' conference when he addressed the American Legion conference in Nashville on September 1.  The news out of that speech came more from the setting and the timing -- during Bush's convention week -- than from anything Kerry had to say; his remarks didn't contain anything new on Iraq or the war on terror.  This time, the Kerry campaign promises "a tough critique of Bush's leadership."  And NBC's Kelly O'Donnell says Mike McCurry is on the plane. 

Whatever remarks Kerry offers on the war today have been preceded by his mixed-bag interview with Imus yesterday morning.  While Kerry launched one of his strongest critiques of Bush on Iraq yet, accusing Bush of misleading the country, he also twisted his Iraq position into even more of a pretzel.  Kerry said there are no "current circumstances... none that I see" under which he would have gone to war, which would appear to conflict with his August statement that he had known before what he knows now, he still would have gone to war.

President Bush, meanwhile, continues to force Democrats to defend their traditional advantages both on health care and in the state of Minnesota; which hasn't voted Republican for president since 1972.  Bush has a health care event in Blaine, MN at 1:25 pm.  He also has rallies in St. Cloud at 10:45 am and in Rochester at 5:00 pm.

The Kerry campaign rolls out what they say is "a hard-hitting new ad that puts Bush's claims about the Kerry healthcare plan to bed and shines a light on Bush's record of failure on healthcare," per a campaign e-mail.  The new ad is intro'ed by a "stimulating" press conference call with Kerry advisors at 12:15 pm.

After his Guard speech, Kerry goes to Albuquerque for an 8:15 pm rally.  Cheney precedes him there with a roundtable in Albuquerque at 1:00 pm, after which he heads to Reno for a 6:10 pm rally. 

And Edwards as a rally in Portsmouth, OH at 12:20 pm and attends a Victory Fund reception in Louisville, KY at 7:30 pm, then heads to DC.  MSNBC's Tom Llamas says Edwards is expected to make "OTR" -- i.e., "spontaneous" -- stops throughout the day.

Like the President, Nader is also in Minnesota today, giving speeches at two colleges in the evening after two speeches in Wisconsin in the morning.  He finds out by Saturday whether or not he's on the Florida ballot.

Today's stops
Bush spends his day in Minnesota, a state whose unemployment remained steady from June to July at 4.4%.  Gore won Minnesota by a margin of less than 2.5% in 2000.  The AP notes that the stops "will give Bush an opportunity to pick up some coveted local media coverage in the border states of Iowa and Wisconsin."  The AP also says "Bush has started to spend more on advertising in Minnesota, forcing Kerry to move up plans to advertise there...  Bush's trip today will be his fifth to Minnesota this year; Kerry has made six stops in the state."

Bush's first stop is in St. Cloud, where some 10,000 are expected to attend, according to the St. Cloud Times.  Attendants will not be asked to sign campaign oaths, and a campaign representative who was asked "if someone wearing a Kerry-Edwards T-shirt would be allowed to enter" said, 'If they have a ticket, I'd imagine so.'"

A Minneapolis Star-Tribune poll says attempts by the Bush campaign to label Kerry as "a flip-flopper, taking both sides of just about every issue" are sticking better than labels by the Kerry campaign that Bush is "incurably inflexible, stubbornly refusing to change course when inconvenient facts require it."  However, "Kerry remains ahead in Minnesota" by 50%-41%, according to the poll. 

Kerry heads to Nevada and New Mexico, a state Gore won by 366 votes.  Nevada's unemployment rate rose from 4.2% in June to 4.4% in July, while New Mexico's dropped from 5.4% in June to 5.3% in July. 

The Las Vegas Review Journal notes Kerry just visited Nevada a month ago.  The paper also reports that the "Kerry-Edwards campaign on Wednesday chose Las Vegas to unveil a national steering committee of veterans working to elect John Kerry."

The Albuquerque Journal notes that both Cheney and Kerry will be in New Mexico today.

Kerry-Edwards
The AP says Kerry "is attempting to steer the election to a referendum on President Bush's leadership...  Democrats hope a major shift will come from the debates, but his strategy in the meantime is based less on building himself up than on tearing down the president."

"The strategy comes late in the campaign.  Democrats acknowledge Kerry has had difficulty pinning down the message he wants voters to take to the ballot box on Nov. 2, while the Bush campaign has been more disciplined and consistent.  Now Kerry is trying to turn Bush's policy choices into character flaws."

"DNC strategist Howard Wolfson said the campaign has helped drive down the president's credibility ratings and next will raise questions about Bush's business career."

Former Gore campaign chief Tony Coelho told CBS online that "a civil war going on in... Kerry's campaign organization... has produced a weak, inconsistent message and election strategy."  Other Democratic operatives reject the argument. – Washington Times 

The New York Times writes off Imus's riff yesterday that some Democrats are concerned that Edwards isn't being tough enough.  One Kerry advisor said, "'Our vice-presidential candidate was picked for his sunny optimism.  He self-consciously eschewed negativity during his own campaign. Consequently, he doesn't make for the most effective attack dog.'"

Bob Novak says he's puzzled by Kerry's sudden move to the left:  "Last Friday, Sen. Kerry abruptly returned to the safely buried gun control issue by decrying President Bush for permitting the assault weapons ban to end.  On Saturday, he addressed the Congressional Black Caucus with a liberal harangue...  On Monday, Kerry was back boosting gun control..."

"Only two explanations are possible, and neither is reassuring to worried Democrats.  Kerry could be making a conscious, though counterproductive, decision to reassure his liberal base.  Or, he could be trapped by the calendar of events -- talking gun control because a deadline had been reached and talking civil rights because the Black Caucus invited him."  (Novak doesn't consider that emphasizing the assault weapons ban may help Kerry with women voters.)

Bush-Cheney
"President Bush is embracing troublesome topics that should be hurting him and fighting for states that should be tilting away from him in a campaign that has focused so far on character over issues," observes the AP.  "In the Bush view of things, Iraq is a political asset, voters won't punish him for an ailing economy and the race is a referendum on... Kerry - all opposites of what experts had predicted."

"This is what happens when a disciplined, focused incumbent faces a challenger who, thus far, is neither - and when voters start making gut-level choices based on notions of leadership and character rather than preferences on policy.  For Kerry to prevail, issues need to matter more.  Or voters need to think better of Kerry's character and less of the president's."

"The loss of nearly 1 million jobs during his tenure is a problem for Bush, particularly in Midwest battlegrounds such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.  But, with a flurry of excuses and statistics, he has fought Kerry to a tie on the question of who is best suited to create jobs, polls show...  Bush loads his speeches with one-sided data on the economy, including his take on the 5.4 percent unemployment rate."

The AP notes of Bush's full day at the White House yesterday, "When Kerry takes a day off from the campaign, he usually doesn't attract attention - except when photographers catch him doing something like windsurfing or riding his bicycle.  But the White House gives Bush an intense media focus that tracks everywhere he goes and everything he says in public."

The Washington Post front-pages a long look at how Bush is "among the most openly religious presidents in U.S. history," but still "has revealed only the barest outline of his beliefs...  White House aides said they do not know whether the president believes that: the Bible is without error; the theory of evolution is true; homosexuality is a sinful choice; only Christians will go to heaven; support for Israel is a biblical imperative; or the war in Iraq is part of God's plan."  The story notes there are "two versions of how he came to accept Jesus," and that he does not call himself an evangelical or born-again.

The New Republic hits the trail with Bush and says it's like being transported to a parallel universe.  "The only music is Christian rock and country tunes about plain-talking everymen.  The only people who ask the president questions are his most feverish supporters, never the press.  In this alternate universe, Iraq and Afghanistan are marching effortlessly toward democracy.  The economy is... 'the best in the world.'  John Kerry, whose platform is to the right of Clinton's in 1992, is calling for a massive expansion of government...  Bush's two most radical ideas, the ones that House Republicans privately insist will top the agenda in Washington next year if Bush wins -- a shift toward privatizing Social Security that will cost at least a trillion dollars and a move toward a flat tax -- are mentioned only in passing..."

On Cheney's five deferments, the Los Angeles Times says that although "Democrats now accuse him of ducking a war that defined his generation... when 18-year-old Dick Cheney became eligible for the draft in 1959, compulsory military service did not loom large in the future vice president's life - or for many other young men of his generation."

"Cheney has not responded to Kerry in public and his staff declined to comment for this article.  In years past, Cheney has acknowledged that he did not want to go to Vietnam."

National and Homeland Security
The Boston Globe notes that GOP Senators Lugar and Hagel "yesterday attacked the Bush administration's approach to rebuilding Iraq, in one of the strongest indictments of the administration's Iraq policy from members of President Bush's party."

The Washington Post writes up Kerry's Imus interview, leading with Kerry's charge that Bush misled the country about Iraq.  Imus also "asked Kerry whether 'there are any circumstances we should have gone to war in Iraq, any?'  Kerry said: 'Not under the current circumstances, no.  There are none that I see.'  In the past, the Kerry campaign suggested he might have, had he been president, but said Kerry did not want to answer a hypothetical question.  Asked whether Kerry's response to Imus represented a shift, spokesman David Wade said Kerry meant he would not have gone to war the way Bush did, not that he would not have gone at all."

"Kerry said Bush's policy in Iraq has made it more difficult for the Democratic nominee to detail how he would pull all U.S. troops out of that country in four years, including some during the first six months of his administration."

And: "Wading back into the dispute over his antiwar protests after serving in Vietnam, Kerry showed no signs of offering the apology his critics are seeking for comments he made about war crimes and atrocities more than three decades ago."

The Washington Times focuses on Imus saying after the interview that he "can't tell you" what Kerry said on Iraq.

The New York Sun says Democrats are about to get tougher on Bush over Iraq in their ad campaigns, including a new MoveOn.org ad being released this morning.  (Note that another ad being released by a group called the Fight Back Campaign only has $20,000 total behind it right now.)  The story points out how Kerry and Democrats have generally steered clear of taking on Bush over Iraq head-on in ads till now.  Gore campaign manager Donna "Brazile said she thought some of Mr. Bush¹s recent gains in the polls were due to the absence of a clear message on Iraq from the Kerry campaign and the so-called 527 groups."

"Mr. Kerry¹s campaign did not respond to a request for a comment for this story."

MSNBC's Tom Llamas reports Edwards served up a new line about Bush allegedly not taking responsibility for Iraq and Abu Ghraib at his town hall in Parkersburg, WV yesterday: "Iraq is a mess and it's a mess because George Bush and Dick Cheney.  It's no more complicated than that," said Edwards.  "Abu Ghraib, which you just talked about, have you heard the President or Vice President take any responsibility for what's happened there?  None.  None...  The buck never stops there with George Bush.  I mean it is always somebody else who is responsible."

The Chicago Tribune notes that Kerry isn't faring as well with women voters as Democrats normally do, mainly because of national security.  "In the past month, the president has started whittling away at a gender gap that has long provided an essential lifeline to Democrats running for the White House...  It's politically impossible for a Democrat to win the presidency without a strong majority of women.  As the race tightens, Kerry is struggling to develop the double-digit margins that propelled the candidacies of Bill Clinton and even Gore."

The Los Angeles Times reports on a new film made to counter Fahrenheit 9/11: "Made over several weeks on a $900,000 budget, 'Celsius 41.11' is scheduled to premiere Sept. 28...  The title of the movie alludes to the temperature at which the brain deteriorates from heat - in this case, from Moore's left-wing rhetoric, said writer-producer Lionel Chetwynd, one of Hollywood's most vocal Republicans."

"No contact was made with the White House, the filmmakers said.  Financial backing... comes from Citizens United," which "claims more than 100,000 politically conservative members nationwide."

The documents
The AP has heard CBS "softening" its defense of the documents over the course of interviews and statements, including one given to Howard Kurtz, which the Washington Post front-pages today under the headline, "Rather Concedes Papers Are Suspect."

"CBS News officials stopped asserting Wednesday that the papers the network had obtained were real, and said they would 'redouble' their efforts to resolve the contradictions," the Los Angeles Times reports. 

USA Today has Rather "saying that his report is true but acknowledging for the first time that legitimate questions have been raised about the authenticity of documents he used to support it."

The New York Times looks at the man some have fingered to be the source of the documents, Bill Burkett of Texas.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page declares, "However the flap... turns out, the past few weeks mark a milestone in U.S. media and politics.  Along with the Swift Boat Veterans' ads, the widespread challenge to Dan Rather's reporting -- to his credibility -- means that the liberal media establishment has ceased to set the U.S. political agenda."  "Thanks" largely to FOX and blogs, the Journal says, "the blue-state media elites no longer control America's political debate."

The economy
Knight Ridder on Kerry's critique of Bush and the response: "Kerry hit the president hard on issues that his aides believe are Bush's key vulnerabilities: unemployment, the medically uninsured, the rising costs of health care and a record deficit...  The Bush campaign responded vigorously..., linking Kerry to special interests, labeling him a tax-and-spend liberal and arguing that Bush would fight the better war on terrorism and help remove a yoke on the economy...  The crowd of 1,000 mostly business people responded politely but not wholly enthusiastically to Kerry's 43-minute speech."

Kerry's speech yesterday "was the centerpiece of a week in which the Kerry campaign has focused primarily on pocketbook issues, despite bleak news out of Iraq," says the Wall Street Journal.  "On Tuesday, Mr. Kerry talked health care in the Midwest, and tomorrow, he plans to give a speech in the West on 'corporate responsibility' and 'special interests.'"

"While Mr. Kerry hasn't offered specific new economic policies this week, he is scrambling to give his message a clearer focus, something many Democrats say is lacking."

"Voters will hear a lot more in coming weeks about Enron Corp. and Halliburton Co., the company Mr. Cheney ran before joining the Bush ticket...  The Bush campaign's response to the Kerry message has been to play down the extent of economic concerns and to parry the big-business-friendly attacks by painting Mr. Kerry as an advocate of big government."

Health care and Social Security
MSNBC's Becky Diamond notes how Kerry stopped slamming President Bush for his special interests connections during the Democratic primaries after word broke that Kerry had raised more special interest money than other Senators, and his opponents began attacking him relentlessly.  Kerry also used to talk about "Benedict Arnold companies" who set up in Bermuda to avoid paying taxes.  Now Kerry is bringing the idea back on health care, Diamond says, though in less forceful terms.  He is again mentioning the $139 billion in "windfall profits" for drug companies that is a result of the Medicare bill, and calls the President a protector "of the interests of the powerful and the few."

The AP points out that "Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson put aside any pretense of nonpartisanship at a government event to criticize Kerry for his recent attacks on the administration's management of Medicare.  Kerry and other Democrats have blamed Bush for a recently announced 17 percent increase in Medicare premiums for doctor visits.  HHS spokesman Bill Pierce said Thompson's comments were justified as a response to constant Democratic attacks on the Medicare law."

And Medicare overseer Mark McClellan got on the phone with a few networks yesterday -- he said he had spoken with other reporters and just wanted to make sure the networks were covered -- and said it's misleading for the Kerry campaign to say that by 2006, Medicare costs will go up (and thus eat into Social Security income).  Yes, McLellan said, Medicare costs are going up, but so have Medicare benefits under the new prescription drug legislation. 

There are two types of Medicare expenses, he explained: 1) the co-payment charge that Medicare covers, like hospital visits, doctor visits, etc.; and 2) treatment that Medicare doesn't cover, like nursing home expenses, eyeglasses, and drugs.  Typically, Medicare beneficiaries pay $113 per month for charges Medicare covers.  But they pay $240 per month for things Medicare doesn't cover.  In 2006, with the new prescription drug benefit, seniors will receive coverage for something they don't have.  So while their co-payments will go up, the amount of money they spend on things that Medicare doesn't cover will go down -- "by much more."

The battleground
The Washington Times says "Kerry is losing support among Democrats, independents, women, Catholics and veterans, all of whom helped give President Bush the post-convention bounce he got - and still holds - in many polls.  The Bush tide, at least for now, is running strong in several battleground states."

The Los Angeles Times looks at the demographic changes making Arizona more competitive now than it has been, though Bush retains an edge there.

DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe and leading African-American and Hispanic Democratic lawmakers hold an event at 10:30 am to launch tours of battleground states. 

Roll Call says of the 2004 Senate races, "Republican prospects up and down the ballot have brightened during the past month as President Bush... jumped into a modest but persistent lead over" Kerry.  "Democrats acknowledge that August was a poor month for Kerry as he mishandled attacks on his military record.  But they assert that Democratic Senate candidates were less affected by his slippage."

Nader
The Florida Supreme Court will hold a hearing tomorrow on whether or not Nader will be on the state ballot, and will decide before the state's Saturday deadline for mailing overseas ballots.  A lower court has ruled twice that the Reform Party, through which Nader is trying to get ballot access, is not a legit party under state law. – AP

The Miami Herald says, "The Supreme Court's decision... sets the stage for a high-stakes showdown on Friday, in which the seven justices will hear the first case involving a presidential contest since the infamous recount debate of 2000."

Candidate access
The Washington Post does the (no) access story: "Despite a growing press presence as the election nears, Kerry's direct contacts with his media entourage have dwindled."  And, "President Bush has been less available on the campaign trail, and in the White House generally...  He has not taken a question from the reporters who are following his campaign for several weeks."

"Kerry and his aides have criticized Bush's isolation from the media and have vowed to be different.  At a campaign stop in Wisconsin on Aug. 3, Kerry told reporters that as president he would hold at least one news conference a month...  Yet Kerry has also remained elusive."

"Edwards chatted up reporters on his plane... in early July, but he hasn't been back since, other than to retrieve his two youngest children...  Cheney's relationship with the press is such that his staff has denied a seat on Air Force Two to the New York Times, which has written critically about him."

"Advisers to both candidates say potential gaffes are not the reason they avoid news conferences -- rather it is the risk of losing control of the scripted daily message."

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