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

Friday, September 17, 2004| 9:25 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

First glance (46 days until Election Day)
We've got ballots on the brain...

  1. Other political news of note
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    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

The Florida Supreme Court holds a hearing today on whether Nader should be on the state's November ballot.  A lower court ruled that the Reform Party, through which Nader hopes to get ballot access, is not a legit party in the state, but the Republican secretary of state moved to add Nader anyway.  The Supremes must decide by tomorrow, which is the deadline for mailing out absentee ballots.  Nader has the support of McCain's Reform Institute in his effort to get on the ballot. 

Louisianans paddle, swim, and otherwise make their way to the polls tomorrow for scheduled elections, when the state will become the second (after Missouri) to vote on a gay marriage ban. 

President Bush has "signed" an e-mail to supporters in New Hampshire reading, "Starting today, you can request your ballot by mail, and soon you can cast an early ballot at early vote locations in your area.  If you're going to be busy on November 2nd, I encourage you to take this opportunity and vote early.  There's even a special page on our campaign website to make the process easier."  That page reads, "If you are a registered voter, you may be eligible to cast your vote early by mail or in person.  Please fill out the form below, and we will provide you with your local election official's information, their official ballot request form and the early voting requirements for your state."

We checked the Kerry website.  They don't have anything on early voting exactly, but they do offer information to help people to register to vote and request absentee ballots.

RNC chairman Ed Gillespie holds a presser to talk about voter registration efforts today at the RNC at 1:30 am.  (Also, Kerry advisor Joe Lockhart holds a press conference call on "the state of the race" at 10:30 am.)

Voters in a handful more states start voting in person next week.  We are realizing, in our efforts to get our arms around this vast and complex story, that the media must resign itself to playing catch-up at times, in part because there is no centralized clearinghouse for all the necessary information, and in part because we've encountered a few election officials who don't seem quite sure of all the laws and dates themselves.

As we await word on how many Commission-sponsored debates Bush and Kerry will do, it occurred to us to check into which contested states will be voting in earnest (i.e., more than just overseas ballots) before the debates even commence.  These states include Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia.  Voting begins in Arizona on September 30, the day of the first scheduled debate. 

Battleground states where voting doesn't begin, or begin in earnest, until after the final scheduled Commission-sponsored debate on October 13: Florida (overseas and some absentee ballots go out earlier), Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania (though overseas ballots are mailed out on Monday), and Washington state.

President Bush today does a couple of fundraisers in DC at 12:45 pm and in Charlotte, NC for Senate nominee Richard Burr at 5:50 pm, then he heads to Kennebunkport, ME.  His campaign launches a new TV ad titled, "Economy: Common Sense vs. Higher Taxes," which whacks Kerry for allegedly wanting to raises taxes on small businesses.  Per a Bush aide, different versions of the ad will air on national cable and in West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan.  The state-by-state tailoring is here: "President Bush and our leaders in Congress have a common sense plan...  To help 's economic recovery..."

Kerry has town halls in Albuquerque at 11:00 am and in his birthplace of Aurora, CO at 5:15 pm, then he heads to Boston.  NBC's Carl Quintanilla reports that per Kerry aides, Kerry will zero in on Cheney's pay as CEO (with some still coming in as deferred compensation), and will seek to tie it to the no-bid Halliburton contracts that have gotten the company unfavorable press.  Quintanilla notes that campaign officials say this is not an extension of Kerry's recent attempts to portray the President as dishonest or misleading -- it's an effort to strike a more populist tone.  The campaign today rolls out new proposals to reform the defense-contracting process and government accounting, as well as a new TV ad. 

The Bush campaign is already calling it "a false and baseless attack, and says Cheney "has no financial interest in Halliburton, and his separation from the company has been completely transparent."

Vice President Cheney, in Oregon, does a town hall in Oregon City at 1:05 pm and speaks at a rally in Eugene at 4:40 pm.  Edwards is down in DC.  

And Nader is in Iowa giving speeches at Northern Iowa University in Cedar Falls at 3:00 pm and the University of Iowa in Iowa City at 9:00 pm. 

Today's stops
Bush heads to North Carolina today.  The Charlotte Observer says he will talk about "women's issues," and the campaign has also invited a doctor to talk about the rising cost of malpractice insurance.  Bush then heads to a private fundraiser for Richard Burr (R), who is in a toss-up Senate race against former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles (D).  North Carolina saw its unemployment drop from 5.5% in June to 5.0% in July.  Bush defeated Gore here by a margin of more than 12% in 2000.

On Bush's fundraisers today, the AP reminds us, "Bush last appeared at a fund-raiser Aug. 13 in Seattle, and has spent far less time raising money in recent months than campaigning."

Kerry campaigns in Albuquerque and Aurora, CO before heading to Boston for the weekend.  This is Kerry's second stop in Albuquerque in two days.  Gore won New Mexico by just 366 votes.  Unemployment in the state has gone up from 4.2% in June to 4.4% in July.

In Aurora today, Kerry will do a roundtable and town hall on health care at a local high school.  The Denver Post says, "State Democratic Party workers had so many people waiting in line Thursday for tickets to see... Kerry speak today in Aurora that they put them to work" by waving signs and handing out absentee ballots.  A Rocky Mountain News poll shows the race in Colorado to be a virtual tie.  Gore lost Colorado to Bush by a margin of 8% in 2000.  Unemployment in the state has gone up from 4.9% in June to 5.1% in July.

The battleground
The AP seeks to reconcile the Pew poll showing the race basically tied and the Gallup poll showing Bush ahead by double digits: "Both campaigns say their own polling has the race close, with Bush's people seeing a slight lead for the president." 

The new Gallup result among likely voters showing a "55%-42% match-up is the first statistically significant edge either candidate has held this year...  Among registered voters, Bush is ahead 52%-44%...  The boost Bush received from the Republican convention has increased rather than dissipated, reshaping a race that for months has been nearly tied. Kerry is facing warnings from Democrats that his campaign is seriously off-track."  Still, USA Today reminds us, "Presidential candidates have won after trailing by similar margins.  One was George W. Bush himself.  In 2000, he was behind Al Gore by 10 points among registered voters in early October..."

The Wall Street Journal: "Republicans relish leads in both White House, Congress races.  While Democrats seize on polling signs that Republicans' post-convention gains are waning, Republicans say Bush continues to hold a narrow lead nationally as well as in battleground states overall.  As Kerry winnows his target-state list, he struggles even in those Gore won."

Under the headline, "President Ventures to Democratic Territory," the Washington Post reports, "Bush aides said they plan to move staff and advertising from several states where Bush won narrowly but is now running strong, including West Virginia and Missouri, into ones he wants to make... Kerry defend, notably Minnesota and Wisconsin -- two states in the upper Midwest where churchgoing is heavy and issues of values play well."

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that a Kerry advisor claims the campaign's frugality on ad buys in August and much of September has had a cost and a benefit.  The cost: a lag in polls and arguably a slow response to attacks.  The benefit: "We have more cash on hand than Bush does," and "we will have the money at the end when the candidate is at his best."  The new Kerry ad buy will be "bigger" and "show the real frame of where we are going."   Senior advisors claim to O'Donnell that the "race is coming back to us but we are still a couple of points behind nationally.  In the battleground it has tightened up quite a bit."  They say "Bush got a bounce [out of his convention] but its not a trend."

O'Donnell reports Kerry advisors are starting to talk about turnout and predict voter turnout of 116-118 million.  They also note that others project as high as 121 million, and they suggest that the higher the turnout, the more likely Kerry wins.  A Bush advisor, however, tells First Read that's not automatic, and suggests turnout will be closer to 114 million.

On reaching women voters, O'Donnell reports that Kerry aides say the campaign has reached out to women in recent days to find out more about what they want to hear from the candidates.  Aides say the recent hostage crisis in Russia particularly terrified the women voters they consulted, and that the campaign's discussion of the war on terror will often be separate from their discussion of Iraq.

Regarding that pursuit of the women's vote, NBC's traveling Kerry team reports that Kerry will tape Dr. Phil this weekend, do Letterman on Monday, and do Regis & Kelly on Tuesday.  Word is he wants to do Oprah, as well.  The campaign says Kerry probably would not have done Dr. Phil if the President and First Lady hadn't already.  (Note to the Kerry campaign: The President did Meet the Press as well...)

The Washington Post front-pages its report on changes and additions of former Clinton advisors to the Kerry upper echelon: "Democrats see the moves as a last chance to craft and execute a message for the fall campaign after their nominee's disappointing performance over the past month."

"Tony Coelho, who was chairman of Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, is pushing Kerry to trim his roster of consultants and pick one strong leader to manage the final weeks of the campaign...  Instead, the campaign is managed by something of a leadership-by-committee with Lockhart, Whouley and Sasso on top along with Cahill."

"One of the abiding truths about Kerry -- and one that is often frustrating to his aides -- is that he will listen to anyone.  He is known as a political loner, but he is also constantly on the phone and will take counsel at any time from any number of parties... Kerry is not a micro-manager, friends say, but he is prone to engaging in a vast and drawn-out process by which his decisions are informed."

The Kerry campaign has started e-mailing around polls again, though we didn't see one about the Gallup numbers...

A federal judge has given the Pentagon one week to find and publicize any unreleased files regarding Bush's Air National Guard service, reports the AP.

MSNBC's Priya David reports that Cheney's roundtable discussion yesterday in Albuquerque was his second such event, and that the campaign plans to make them part of the regular rotation.  Aides say it's a way to hear opinions and questions in a more focused manner than the larger town halls offer.  Yesterday's roundtable, for example, included doctors (mostly OBGYN's) and teachers.  Topics included medical liability reform, insurance costs, and standardized testing.  David says to expect to see roundtable discussions on small business and health care in the coming weeks.  The campaign says they're also a way to create buzz and draw people in, as they're sometimes hitting the same locations repeatedly, and want to keep attracting interest.

Of course, Cheney's message was overshadowed by his newest attack on Kerry, based on Kerry's Imus interview, with Cheney charging Kerry with being "incoherent" on Iraq...

National and Homeland Security
Rounding up the play-by-play on Iraq- and intelligence-related developments yesterday, the Los Angeles Times reports on how "escalating bloodshed, gloomy assessments and deteriorating security conditions in Iraq are challenging the Bush administration's upbeat view of the struggle to establish democracy" there.  The paper also reports that "[h]alfway into September, 52 U.S. troops have been reported killed in Iraq, making it one of the deadlier months for American forces since the war began in March 2003:".

Yesterday's rapid-fire exchanges on the campaign trail over Iraq merit recapping:
-- The DNC went up with a TV ad challenging Bush's record on Iraq and the economy.
-- MoveOn went up with a new TV ad showing a US soldier sinking into a sandy "quagmire," as the ad is titled.  Republicans took issue with the depiction of the solider in a "surrender" position and called on Kerry to denounce it.  (By this morning, the Bush campaign is calling the depicted soldier "defeated" and says to expect Bush surrogates to continue talking about this today.)
-- Cheney said at his Albuquerque town hall, hours before Kerry was due to arrive in the city, that Kerry was "incoherent" on Iraq on Imus the morning before.
-- Bush made similar remarks, without using the "incoherent" line, while campaigning in Minnesota.
-- Kerry addressed the National Guard convention in Las Vegas, delivering his harshest attack to date on Bush's Iraq policy.
-- Cheney responded to Kerry's speech in Reno, NV.

The Washington Times on Kerry's speech: "Contrary to Mr. Bush's frequent assertion that progress is being made, Mr. Kerry said the situation has deteriorated and accused Mr. Bush of hiding that fact from this audience when the president spoke here on Tuesday."

The Wall Street Journal: "If voters judge the Iraq war issue by the benefits of removing Saddam Hussein, President Bush prevails.  If the focus shifts to conditions in Iraq after Mr. Hussein's fall, Sen. John Kerry has a better chance to win in November.  That is the view of the Kerry campaign."

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein: "Kerry's changed approach may reflect both opportunity and necessity: It coincides with an upsurge in insurgent attacks across Iraq but also follows a tilt toward Bush in recent surveys on public attitudes about the war."

"Continued turmoil in Iraq could reverse Bush's gains on the issue before election day, most experts agree.  But the recent trend in opinion suggests the president is succeeding in his efforts to define the Iraq war as a critical step in the long-term struggle against terrorism.  And that is increasing pressure on Kerry to more fundamentally challenge Bush on the Iraq situation."

"Those arguments, shared by some of Kerry's foreign policy and political advisors, appeared to be influencing a long-running dispute within the Kerry camp about how aggressively the Democratic presidential candidate should criticize the president over the conflict."

Brownstein notices: "Kerry also has moved closer to embracing arguments against the Iraq war raised by... Richard A. Clarke and... Wesley K. Clark...  Rather than advancing the war on terrorism, as Bush contends, these critics maintain that the invasion of Iraq has set back America's cause by diverting resources from battling Al Qaeda terrorists and inciting anti-American attitudes in the Arab world."

Kerry in his speech criticized Bush over the latest intelligence estimates offering a grim report on the situation in Iraq.  NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that per Kerry aides, he was basing his critique on the news accounts of the report.

A senior Kerry aide told MSNBC's Becky Diamond that Kerry's Iraq remarks yesterday reflected how Kerry truly feels about the issue.  Asked whether it was Kerry who wanted to attack Bush so strongly or his new advisors, this aide said simply, "a combination."  But what was also notable, Diamond points out, was what Kerry did not say: He did not use his usual "W means wrong direction, wrong choices, wrong leadership" lines, nor did he say "wrong war, wrong time, wrong place."  Nor did he talk about bringing the troops home -- something he has been mentioning at virtually every "red meat" rally.

Diamond says Kerry got tepid applause and endured several awkward silences during his speech to this largely GOP-leaning crowd at the Guard convention yesterday.  Many of those who stood for the ovation when Kerry was introduced did not applaud again.  Several people who attended both the Bush and Kerry speeches told Diamond that Bush received approximately 15 standing ovations, compared to Kerry's two.  The line of people waiting to greet Kerry on the ropeline was thin.

NBC's Carl Quintanilla reports that the Kerry campaign feels good about his speech despite the muted audience response (about which they warned reporters early, as they did with his American Legion speech).  Aides argue that Kerry tends to do better when he's not surrounded by a completely friendly audience, which this definitely was not.

Cheney on Kerry yesterday prior to Kerry's Guard speech, per MSNBC's Priya David: "You simply cannot change your position day by day, month by month, year by year.  You've got to be able to make a decision and stick to it.  The President of the United States always casts the deciding vote...  The position seems to change with the political pressures of the moment, what's happening in the Democratic primary which leads him to shift or change his position.  To change with who his advisors are, he gets a new team of advisors on board and he changes his position.  And I think that's a concern."

The New York Times notes how Bush campaign officials and surrogates yesterday attacked MoveOn.org's latest TV ad: "Officials at MoveOn said the advertisement was not intended to depict a soldier as defeated or surrendering...  Stephanie Cutter, a Kerry spokeswoman, said she had not seen the advertisement and could not comment on it.  She said the Bush campaign did not similarly criticize advertisements run by Republican groups against Mr. Kerry.  'President Bush can't have it both ways,' she said."

The documents
The White House got more aggressive yesterday in responding to the seemingly increasing likelihood that the CBS documents are fake, particularly to Rather's suggestion that the President "answer the questions" posed about his Guard service. – Washington Times

And the Washington Times reports that "[s]ome Republicans, angered by what they call 'stonewalling' by CBS anchor Dan Rather..., are objecting to the participation of CBS in the presidential debates between Mr. Bush and John Kerry."

The Washington Post runs its profile of suspected CBS source Bill Burkett:.

Former CBS News correspondent Bernard Goldberg charges Rather and CBS with circling the wagons in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Health care
The New York Times covers Bush alleging that Kerry wants to nationalize health care.  "Mr. Bush's critique won applause from Republicans as he campaigned through Minnesota...  But his words drew a sharp rebuttal from the Kerry campaign, which said Mr. Bush was deliberately misrepresenting Mr. Kerry's plan, and from some independent analysts, who said the White House had little basis for its suggestion that Mr. Kerry was seeking to nationalize health care."

"Democrats see health care as one of Mr. Bush's greatest vulnerabilities, and Mr. Kerry has made it a central issue of his domestic agenda.  Since Mr. Bush took office, the number of uninsured people has risen by 5.2 million, to 45 million, and insurance premiums have risen sharply."

Making your vote count
Louisiana's elections will go on as scheduled tomorrow, despite Hurricane Ivan. – Times-Picayune

The AP reports a "team of international observers will travel to five states beginning today to monitor preparations for the Nov. 2 presidential election... The observers, organized by the human rights group Global Exchange, will meet with voters, voting-rights groups, and local officials to discuss voter disenfranchisement, the security of electronic voting machines, and the influence of money in politics."  The 20-member team will travel to Florida, Ohio, Arizona, Missouri, and Georgia.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the legal-eagle story of the armies of attorneys assembled by both sides who already are at work using the court system to try to smooth out obstacles to voting that they foresee.  "Already, a judge in New Mexico has rejected Republican efforts to require some voters to bring identification to the polls, while Democrats in Missouri are trying to quash a law they claim would keep some votes from being counted...  Kerry's campaign has asked the Federal Election Commission for guidance on funding a recount operation under the 2002 law overhauling campaign-finance rules.  And both parties have lined up special teams of lawyers in at least five pivotal states to be ready to conduct recount fights."

"Terry Holt, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said his party isn't matching the sophistication of the Democrats' operation.  'They have made it clear this is a political tool for them, and they've emphasized that by sharpening their blades on the Ralph Nader campaign.'"

The Washington Times reports, "Division is growing between Democratic-leaning 527 groups and black civic advocacy groups over funding and control of the issues and messages targeted toward the black community in the November presidential election.  The 527 groups... have positioned themselves as powerful players and are siphoning contributions from black voter mobilization organizations that historically have enjoyed a boost during presidential elections."

The race to succeed retiring Sen. Don Nickles (R) of Oklahoma has always been viewed as one of the nation's most competitive Senate contests.  But after former Rep. Tom Coburn (R) breezed through his primary, the conventional wisdom was that he held the upper hand against Rep. Brad Carson (D) -- due mainly to the fact that Coburn could rely on Bush coattails in this GOP-leaning state. 

But maybe no more, especially after Salon.com unearthed an old lawsuit alleging that Coburn, a doctor, might have sterilized a woman without her permission and committed Medicaid fraud.  The AP has the back-and-forth on that: "'This woman asked me to tie her tubes two times before and I refused to do it," Coburn said.  "The fact is she was sitting there dying with a belly full of blood.  Had I sterilized her before like she asked me to, she wouldn't have gotten to that.  So when she asked me to do it this time, I did it, and I'd do it again.'"

But Angela Plummer stood by her story yesterday.  – Washington Post


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