“First Read” is a daily memo prepared by NBC News’ political unit, for NBC News, analyzing the morning’s political news. Please let us know what you think. Drop us a note at FirstRead@MSNBC.com.Monday, September 20, 2004| 9:25 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

First glance (43 days until Election Day)
Ten days before the first scheduled presidential debate, now expected to focus on national security (previously slated to be about domestic issues), Kerry advisors have announced to the political universe that their man is going all out on Iraq. 

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Kerry gives a foreign policy speech today at NYU at 10:00 am.  His sharpened focus on the current state of the war is timed to President Bush's speech to the United Nations tomorrow and meeting with Prime Minister Allawi on Thursday.   

The Bush campaign counters with a new TV ad on Bush's strategy to combat terrorism, and Bush is expected to comment on Iraq and the need for consistent leadership during this time of war during his "Ask President Bush" event in Derry, NH this afternoon at 1:50 pm.

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that Kerry in his speech will explain his stand on Iraq and lay out what aides say are "startling facts and figures" about the situation, including what they count are 23 different rationales provided by the Administration for going to war (WMD, an al Qaeda link, oil paying for reconstruction, Iraqi expats like Chalabi helping with a new government, etc.).  Kerry also will present a series of challenges to the President and assert that "unless the steps are taken the US will fail."  One Kerry aide says, "It's as clear as it's gonna get."

Despite previous indications that Kerry would tout domestic issues, Democrats have concluded this must be Kerry's focus until voters' impressions of Kerry on leadership and fighting terrorism improve. 

Here's where Democrats' habit of narrating their campaigns for the press, versus Republicans' closemouthed approach, doesn't do the candidate any favors: Kerry aides admit to O'Donnell that Kerry's own comments on Iraq are problematic, so the aim now is to move the ball forward to the current and future situation there, and away from the how, why, and whether the United States should be there.  One Kerry strategist says the candidate has been told that his position on Iraq might be understandable in a "30-minute conversation where an intellectual thread can be seen, but we live in a 1:40 world."  O'Donnell points out that Kerry now has a more user-friendly line in which he asks his audiences if the President is watching the same news others are.

Also, someone in Kerry World told the Washington Post over the weekend that some advisers think he should say his initial vote on the Iraq resolution was wrong, given what Bush has done with the authority, but that Kerry has resisted.  Republicans pounced on Daschle's remark on Meet the Press yesterday that Kerry's vote against the supplemental was wrong.

To accompany Kerry's offensive today, the campaign will seize on recent criticisms of the President's approach by GOP Senators Lugar, Hagel and McCain by holding a 12:30 pm press conference call with Sen. Joe Biden to discuss the speech.  The campaign also goes up with a new TV ad on how Kerry will "defend America and the middle class."  And the DNC holds a 1:00 pm presser with five mothers whose sons are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

After Iraq, Kerry turns to appeals to women and undecided voters, as MSNBC's Becky Diamond notes, by doing a Redbook Magazine luncheon and Letterman.  

Cheney has a town hall in Cornwall, PA at 11:00 am and a rally in Grove City, OH at 6:00 pm.  Edwards does a town hall in Raleigh, NC at 12 noon and attends an event in Cincinnati at 5:30 pm, then heads to Cleveland. 

Today's stops
Bush campaigns in New Hampshire today, with an "Ask President Bush" event in Derry, before he heads to New York for a fundraiser tonight.  New Hampshire's unemployment rate was 3.7% in August, down from 3.9% in July.  The Manchester Union Leader notes this is Bush's fifth visit to the Granite State during his presidency, and that all tickets to the event have been distributed.  Bush won New Hampshire in 2000 by a margin of just over 1% -- or 7,000 votes.

Kerry spends the entire day in New York, a state where Gore trounced Bush, 60% to 35%.  New York's unemployment dropped from 5.9% in July to 5.6% in August. 

MSNBC's Diamond notes that Kerry's press corps will be staying at the Sheraton in New York tonight and traveling to the Hilton for Kerry's fundraiser, while Bush's press corps will be staying at the Hilton and traveling to the Sheraton for Bush's fundraiser.  Whether the two motorcades will actually pass each other is TBD.  The New York Post notes, "The last time the candidates were in such close quarters came early last month during dual rallies in Davenport, Iowa."

The AP points out that Kerry has done other late night appearances, but has never appeared on Letterman. 

The debate about debates and candidate access
Today marks the Commission's imposed deadline for an agreement on the schedule.  A Republican source involved in the debate negotiation process confirms that a tentative agreement was reached overnight that there will be three presidential debates, along with the scheduled VP debate. 

Per the tentative deal, the first debate will focus on foreign policy, which is a switch from the Commission's proposal (which had the first debate focusing on domestic issues).  The third debate would focus on domestic issues, and the second debate would be a town hall, but details of that town hall are still being discussed.  How the undecided voter participants are selected remains an issue.

Timing of an official announcement remains TBD.

USA Today says debates "have been important factors in five of the past seven presidential elections - that is, in every contest since 1976 that was considered potentially competitive - and probably were decisive in 1960, 1980 and 2000.  This year, the debates provide the best opportunity for Sen. John Kerry to change the dynamic in a race that some national and statewide polls show moving in President Bush's favor, at least by small margins.  The encounters will be the only chance for voters to judge the candidates side-by-side after a campaign that has raised questions about each."

"Bush and Kerry have been talking about each other for some time.  But when they meet at the opening debate, it will be the first time the two men have ever spoken more than pleasantries to each other...  Bush will bring the advantages and authority of incumbency.  Kerry has an edge on debate experience and erudition.  But what really matters most in presidential debates is less content than comfort."

On his campaign plane Friday night, Kerry communications aides promised yet again that Kerry will go on the record "maybe Tuesday," and "early in the week," NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.  The Washington Post notes that Kerry "hasn't taken questions from the traveling press since Aug. 9, and President Bush has given no interviews since the GOP convention.  'The commander in chief must meet a higher standard' of accessibility than a challenger, says Kerry senior adviser Joe Lockhart, who insists that when he was at the Clinton White House, there were more press briefings while the president was traveling.  Lockhart doesn't dispute his candidate's recent unavailability."

The Washington Post editorial page says of the lack of press avails and the tentatively agreed-to debates, "Face-to-face meetings of the two candidates for a total of 4 1/2 hours also won't compensate for their lack of availability elsewhere."

National and Homeland Security
The Wall Street Journal on this week's Iraq-related events: "President Bush is moving to control the Iraq debate with a weeklong effort that signals U.S. resolve to see through that country's chaotic experiment in democracy while tapping the power of incumbency for his re-election campaign."

"Despite difficulties in Iraq, polls continue to show that voters trust Mr. Bush more than Mr. Kerry to handle the situation there, a big reason why Mr. Bush currently leads Mr. Kerry in the race.  That is in part because Mr. Bush's campaign has been far more successful than the challenger's in shaping the Iraq debate, keeping much of the attention on Mr. Kerry's complex past on the topic -- having voted for the war, but against a bill funding it; having approved of deposing Saddam Hussein, but criticizing the war.  Kerry aides have concluded that to win the election, 'we must have a real debate about whether the president's war in Iraq has made us safer,' one said."

"Mr. Bush's events carry risks as well as potential benefits...  more U.S. troops have died trying to quell the current insurgency than during direct combat with Iraqi forces...  By bringing Mr. Allawi to the White House, Mr. Bush is giving him a vote of confidence amid recent violence."

Bob Novak says there's a strong feeling within the Administration that US troops must leave Iraq by next year.  "Whether Bush or Kerry is elected, the president or president-elect will have to sit down immediately with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The military will tell the election winner there are insufficient U.S. forces in Iraq to wage effective war.  That leaves three realistic options: Increase overall U.S. military strength to reinforce Iraq, stay with the present strength to continue the war, or get out...  Well-placed sources in the administration are confident Bush's decision will be to get out."

The AP says Bush will counter Kerry's speech in New York this morning with his own remarks this afternoon in Derry, NH, in which he will say "the nation needs 'consistency' in its leadership - not a change in the middle of the war, and not a series of contradictions."

The AP reports that after McCain said yesterday that Bush has not been "'as straight as we would want him to be'" on Iraq, one "adviser to McCain, John Weaver, sought to soften McCain's remark, saying it should not be considered a broad critique of the war.  Weaver said McCain simply 'has some concerns about the day-to-day tactics.'"

The story also notes that at campaign events, "Bush almost never fields questions challenging his policies."

Republicans were quick to seize on Daschle's remark yesterday on Meet the Press that Kerry voted wrong on the Iraq supplemental. – USA Today

From the Sunday Washington Post: "Kerry has been urged by some advisers to say his initial vote (for the Iraq resolution) was wrong, given what Bush did with that authority, but he has resisted." 

Republican criticism of the President's approach in Iraq, such as from Senators Lugar and Hagel, has "emboldened Kerry advisers, who believe it is time to make the Iraq debate one that looks forward."  But: "Kerry has run into two problems of his own making, aides say: He voted to authorize the war in 2002, says today the war is wrong but will not take back his vote; and he has yet to detail a markedly different strategy than Bush's for ending the conflict.  This has allowed the president to argue -- with great success, Democrats say -- that Kerry and Bush basically agreed on the need to go to war and see eye to eye on how to get out."

"The goal of Kerry's advisers is to change the dynamics of the debate.  Kerry has revamped his stump speech with a new, toughly worded indictment of the conditions in Iraq: the increasing number of deaths, the spread of terrorists and extremists, the growing clout of anti-American insurgents, and what some say are fading hopes for the country's first-ever democratic elections in January.  He also is punctuating the speeches by accusing Bush of misleading the nation about these problems."

Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman has e-mailed supporters a clip from the HBO documentary "Nine Innings from Ground Zero," about the 2001 Yankees "and the hope and optimism their run in the World Series brought back to the people of America following September 11th," Mehlman writes.  "One segment of that documentary shows President George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch in Game Three."  The e-mail also contains the HBO schedule.

Walter Shapiro notes, "The character question helps explain the otherwise seemingly bizarre persistence of Vietnam as a campaign issue...  For all the Democratic obsession with Bush's National Guard chronology, it is hard to think of a president running for re-election who lost votes because of something he did before he took office...  With the nation waging a war in Iraq and still recovering from the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the stakes are too high to fritter away time squabbling about Vietnam and similar distractions."

The documents
Howard Kurtz reports today that the network plans to say it was misled: "It is not clear whether the statement will include an apology for a story now believed to be based on forged documents, although that is under consideration, sources familiar with the matter said.  The sources said they could not be identified because CBS is making no official statement."  CBS has been talking with media reporters, including Kurtz, about how blame for the document controversy lies with its execs: . 

The economy and health care
The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein says, "The relentless rise in healthcare costs may now be America's most pressing domestic problem, at once a threat to the economy, family budgets and the social safety net...   The number of Americans receiving healthcare on the job has dropped every year since President Bush took office...  The result is that the number of Americans without health insurance has increased to nearly 45 million, up almost 5.2 million since 2000."  Brownstein then lines up the candidates' proposals. 

The New York Times fact-checks Bush's charge that wants to raise taxes on the middle class and propose $2 trillion in more spending.  "Mr. Kerry is less devoted to tax cuts than the president, and the Democrat has proposed a raft of new spending without showing explicitly how he would pay for it.  But Mr. Bush exaggerates both points."

The Washington Times looks at the economic debate in the race over trade, jobs, tax cuts, and Social Security.

The battleground    
The Wall Street Journal tackles the divergent polls: "The reasons range from growing reluctance to participate in surveys to increasing reliance on cellphones rather than the land lines pollsters have long used to ensure demographic and geographic balance in surveys."

"Adding to the confusion is the way poll reports themselves become weapons in the campaign.  The Bush campaign swiftly touts favorable surveys and seeks to discredit those showing Mr. Kerry drawing closer.  The approach plays on the so-called bandwagon effects that energize supporters of a surging candidate and dispirit those of a lagging one.  Kerry advisers embrace dead-heat polls as a way to halt high-profile critiques of their campaign's inner workings and shift public dialogue to more fruitful ground such as violence in Iraq or domestic issues..."

"Underlying those conflicting arguments aren't just different political calculations but also differences in polling philosophy and techniques."

The New York Times notes that advertising gathered by Nielsen Monitor-Plus shows Kerry is now advertising in just 13 states, down from the 20 earlier this summer.

During the Q&A session on his press conference call yesterday, in a question about the polls, DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe admitted that Kerry needs to work on persuadable voters: "We have not closed the sale with them yet," he said, adding that Kerry will spend the final weeks in the campaign to do that.

Kerry also has lost his edge among women, according to recent polls, and the campaign acknowledges they must do better, says NBC's Kelly O'Donnell.  Part of the strategy to bolster his support among women is to do shows like Dr. Phil, which he taped over the weekend (airing October 6), and sit down for lunch today with Redbook magazine.  Tomorrow he does Regis & Kelly.  Kerry aides acknowledge that some traditional women's issues have been overshadowed in this campaign by fears related to family security, much of that inspired by the Russian school hostage crisis.  (We'd add that Kerry hasn't talked much about women's issues in general during the campaign.)

As Roll Call reports that House Republicans plan to devote part of the week marking their 10-year anniversary in the majority, the Sunday Washington Post said Kerry's "lackluster" performance has lowered Democrats' already middling hopes of retaking control of the House. – Washington Post

Kerry-Edwards
Kerry intro'ed some new language at his fundraiser Saturday night, MSNBC's Becky Diamond notes.  Example: "These folks have got me in a fighting mood, when I get in a fighting mood at the end of something... you know what happens...  Let me tell you... I feel those October juices flowing... when those juices get flowing I feel good... we feel it happening.  The reason is because the choice could not be more clear."  And on the direction of the campaign in the final stretch: "I am convinced... that what is beginning to bubble up in America... that American hope... the sense that Americans have that we can do better... and there's something about presidential races when you enter into the last days of September and October that people start to feel differently..."

The Los Angeles Times points out that Kerry has stuck to his theme of a "new direction" and "wrong choices" since the GOP convention.  "To some Democrats unnerved by President Bush's recent surge in the polls, Kerry's adoption of a clearly defined theme to draw contrasts with the Republican incumbent offers a measure of hope.  The question for Kerry is whether this new approach to framing the election comes too late to matter."

"In his travels around the country, Kerry has applied his 'wrong choices' theme to prescription drugs, civil rights, gun control, education, Halliburton defense contracts and stem-cell research."

"...[E]ven some Republicans say Kerry's new theme could be effective, but strategists say his biggest problem is timing.  Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster, said Kerry's new theme could have produced 'pretty powerful results' in the spring by driving two trends: Bush's declining job approval ratings and the rising number of voters who saw the country as moving in the wrong direction.  But now those trends are no longer in place."

The Boston Globe on the state of the Kerry campaign: "With about six weeks until Election Day, advisers to... Kerry say they believe they have turned a corner after a month on the defensive: Their campaign is reorganized and refocused, their political message is raising doubts about President Bush's choices on Iraq and jobs, a battle plan is now in place, and the candidate is on the attack, they say."

"Among Kerry's top lieutenants and closest friends, the mood is less pessimistic than clear-eyed that the race will come down to a series of factors over which the senator has varying degrees of control: how crisply Kerry draws distinctions between himself and Bush; how adroitly the two perform in the debates; how energetically the media, especially Democratic editorial pages, come out to endorse Kerry; and how likable Kerry comes off to voters, given his goal of casting Bush's leadership in negative terms while appealing to Americans as an optimistic, unifying leader."

Edwards refuted criticism that's he not being tough enough in an interview with the Washington Post.  "During two months of campaigning, Edwards has responded to verbal bombs lobbed by the Bush campaign...  What he doesn't do is go for the jugular, and mirror Cheney's role in the GOP campaign.  The vice president energizes the base, talking about war, guns and abortion and making tough and often personal attacks against the Democrats.  Edwards presents the friendly, empathetic face to voters on the fence.  It is Kerry who uses the tough rhetoric to criticize Bush's leadership and integrity."

The campaign put out Edwards to counter Hastert's criticism yesterday that al Qaeda could operate better with Kerry as president. - AP

Bush-Cheney
The New York Times takes a long look at Bush in 1972, the year he "dropped off the radar screen."  "[A] wider examination of his life in 1972, based on dozens of interviews and other documents released by the White House over the years, yields a portrait of a young man like many other young men of privilege in that turbulent time - entitled, unanchored and safe from combat, bouncing from a National Guard slot made possible by his family's prominence to a political job arranged through his father."

Making your vote count
The Chicago Tribune looks at the problems associated with provisional ballots.  "Only 416 of 5,914 provisional ballots cast in Chicago in March--about 7 percent--ultimately were counted.  The leading reason for rejection was that the form to request a provisional ballot wasn't filled out properly by the would-be voter.  There also were problems in suburban Cook County, where about 4,000 provisional ballots were cast in the primary."

"Election observers fear the process of checking provisional ballots after the voting will add yet another layer of confusion and uncertainty to this fall's election, especially in states where the practice is new."

The Washington Post covers the Justice Department's probes into potential voter fraud in certain states and Democratic criticism that the probes may intimidate voters.  "Justice officials say it is the department's duty to prosecute illegal activities at the polls, and stress that civil rights lawyers are also working to ensure that legitimate voters can cast their ballots without interference."  (We'd note that Democratic efforts to tout their own "election protection" programs and their own talk of possible voter intimidation is in part intended to motivate their base.)

The AP reports on young voters registering in droves in key states.

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