“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 21, 2004| 9:20 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

First glance (42 days until Election Day)
This morning we have more questions than answers:

  1. Other political news of note
    1. Animated Boehner: 'There's nothing complex about the Keystone Pipeline!'

      House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.

    2. Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

How much dissonance might voters sense between continuing violence in Iraq, with another deadline set for another threatened beheading of a (possibly American) hostage, and President Bush's expected argument that Iraq is making progress toward establishing a democracy?  Bush addresses the United Nations for about 30 minutes starting at 10:30 am.

How much will the latest development in the CBS documents story, the news that a CBS producer called Kerry advisor Joe Lockhart, drag the Kerry campaign into that storyline and distract them from the main debate?  Lockhart says there is no connection between the campaign and the documents, while the Bush campaign is sending around a list of quotes from the Kerry campaign denying any involvement.  (Sidebar question for inside ballplayers: How much does Lockhart's role take him out of commission?) 

And where's the Democratic pushback against increasing GOP charges that this was all a partisan scheme?  A DNC spokesperson e-mailed this morning: "We are not backing down and plan to continue highlighting this Fortunate Son's lies about his service and what those lies say about his credibility today on issues like Iraq, the economy and health care."

How much does Kerry's stepped-up attack on Bush over Iraq appeal to the anti-war Democratic base versus swing voters?  Not only did Kerry state more emphatically than ever yesterday that he would not have gone to war in Iraq, but he told Letterman that if he had been elected in 2000, he also would not have gone to war there.

Which resonates more with voters after months of Bush campaign "flip-flop" charges, but also after months of escalating violence in Iraq: Cheney's argument that Kerry has taken his ninth position on the war, or Kerry's argument that the Administration has given 23 different rationales for going to war?  At the same time, Cheney and Dan Bartlett continued to rhetorically hug Kerry on Iraq yesterday; Cheney said that "despite all the harsh rhetoric, Senator Kerry today endorsed many of the same goals that President Bush has pursued in Iraq for months," while Bartlett is quoted saying Kerry's proposals outlined yesterday echo what the President is trying to do.  

Is today the day Kerry holds his promised press avail?

Who won the debate negotiations?  Actually, that strikes us as easy to answer.  The format seems to favor candidates who habitually give short answers (ahem) -- not to mention that the first debate, expected to get the biggest audience, will focus on national and homeland security.  Another easy answer: the Commission lost the negotiations, as the two campaigns hammered out a lengthy, tedious debate agreement on their own without input from commissioners, who are now required to sign the agreement by tomorrow -- as are the moderators -- or else all bets are off. 

Beyond his 10:30 am speech, President Bush has UN-related meetings all day in New York.

Kerry does Regis and Kelly in New York, then campaigns in Florida for the first time in almost two months -- since July 26 (though he stopped there after Hurricane Charley).  He holds a health care event in Jacksonville at 2:45 pm and meets up with Edwards for a rally in Orlando at 9:00 pm.

Edwards tapes CNBC's Capital Report and Lou Dobbs and reaches back to his primary rhetoric with a 9:00 am economic address to the Cleveland City Club about how Bush allegedly rewards wealth, not work.  MSNBC's Tom Llamas reports that Edwards will charge that Bush passed on tax programs after September 11 that could have helped both the economy and the middle class in favor of the current tax policy which favors the rich, and that Edwards will also highlight programs to help the economy in Ohio.  He then heads to Florida for a town hall on health care in Tampa at 2:45 pm, then links up with Kerry for the rally in Orlando at 9:00 pm. 

And Cheney campaigns in Ohio and Michigan.

Today's stops
President Bush spends the day in New York, where he meets with foreign dignitaries and attend the UN Secretary General Luncheon.  Bush lost the state by 25 percentage points in 2000.  The state's unemployment dropped from 5.9% in July to 5.6% in August. 

Kerry also spends the morning in New York.  But while President Bush is meeting with Kofi Annan, Kerry appears on Regis and Kelly.  He then heads to Florida, where MSNBC's Becky Diamond notes he's canceled three trips due to hurricanes.  Florida's unemployment rate, at 4.5% in August, remains unchanged from July.  The Florida Times-Union previews Kerry's town hall meeting in Jacksonville, while the Orlando Sentinel reports that the rally he and Edwards will attend this evening is open to the public.

And third-party candidate Ralph Nader holds a news conference today in DC to discuss his plans for the rest of the campaign.     Nader will spend the first half of next week touring Florida, where on Friday the state's highest court voted 6-1 to keep his name on the ballot.

National and Homeland Security
The Boston Globe's Jackson on how public opinion on whether the Iraq war has been worth it is rising despite increased casualties in recent weeks: "It appears that the simple illusion of giving the Iraqi people 'their country back,' while still maintaining 138,000 troops there, was a master stroke...  But now, despite the fact that more American soldiers have died since the handover than in the invasion itself, despite the fact that more than 700 Iraqi policemen and recruits have been killed in the last year and a half, and despite the chaos that has the US military still making retaliatory strikes that kill innocent civilians, Bush's numbers on the worth of the war have actually gone up."

The Washington Post points out that the circumstances of Bush's speech today aren't exactly auspicious: "U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan last week set the tone when he said the U.S.-led Iraq war was 'illegal' and that Iraqi elections scheduled for January might not be credible.  And Bush's reelection campaign has been mocking the world body on a near daily basis..."  Still, the story points out, voters will see Bush surrounded by world leaders who aren't booing him.

The Washington Post on Kerry yesterday and Bush's Iraq-related events this week: "Bush aides said he would use his U.N. speech to say that Iraq is making progress toward stability and democracy, despite signs that the insurgency there has gained strength.  On Thursday, Bush will host Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi at the White House.  Officials predicted Allawi would offer an assessment that will rebut what they called Kerry's grim description of conditions in Iraq."

"White House communications director Dan Bartlett said Kerry's prescription echoes what Bush already is trying to do in Iraq."

Kerry "[a]dvisers said Monday's speech would form the backbone of the case Kerry will make against the president as the two candidates prepare for their first debate Sept. 30 in Miami."

USA Today: "Kerry tried Monday to cut through all the Iraq votes and verbiage in his past and create a new bottom line: This is President Bush's war, and he's botched it.  Kerry also tried to provide what Democrats have sought for months: his prescription for Iraq.  He said allies should be pressed harder to provide troops, cash and training for Iraqi security forces, postwar efforts should focus on quick projects with big payoffs, and those who mismanaged reconstruction should be fired."

The Wall Street Journal: "Kerry advisers said the speech was meant to establish that Mr. Kerry, had he been president two years ago, wouldn't have invaded Iraq based on the facts that are known today.  Earlier statements by Mr. Kerry and his campaign staff had left open that hypothetical question.  By contrast, Mr. Bush says war would have been justified no matter the circumstances, because Saddam Hussein had weapons-making capabilities that he could have shared with terrorists."

The Chicago Tribune's analysis on Kerry's speech: "It is perhaps the most notable turn in Kerry's campaign, but one that is also freighted with risk.  The Bush campaign has sought, and successfully by many measures, to marginalize Kerry as an expedient flip-flopper...  But it was a risk Kerry was willing to take, surely knowing that it would open him up to yet more charges of a change in the name of expediency."

The New York Post's headline: "Butcher's Ouster Not Worth the War: Kerry."

The Boston Globe: "The Bush campaign's response to Kerry's attack was unusually swift, with e-mails contending inconsistencies in Kerry's statements, phone calls to reporters covering the Kerry campaign, and a statement from retired General Tommy Franks, who commanded the 2002 invasion of Iraq, criticizing Kerry directly."

The Washington Times: "Just two weeks ago, Mr. Kerry called Iraq part of the war on terror.  And in January, at a debate during the Democratic primaries, Mr. Kerry said the administration exaggerated the threat of terrorism, particularly the chance of terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction.  Yesterday, though, he called Iraq a distraction from the war on terror..."

MSNBC's Becky Diamond notes that the Kerry campaign is trying to do the same thing the Bush campaign has been doing for awhile now: throw out questions for his opponent and ask the press corps to ask.  Kerry is now asking, "The President tells us that he would do everything all over again, the same way.  How can he possibly be serious?  Is he really saying that if we knew there were no imminent threat, no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to al Qaeda, the US should have invaded Iraq?  My answer is no."    The problem, as Diamond points out, is that Kerry's past positions undermine his argument. 

Diamond also suggests Kerry is using some of the same politics of fear that Cheney has been using, telling the audience during his Iraq speech yesterday that if the nation does not change course, "there is the prospect of a war with no end in sight."  By suggesting specific dates for troop withdrawals, Kerry may also be implying that if Bush is re-elected, the troops will not come home.

The Washington Post's analysis of Kerry's proposals: "The premise in all four points is that Kerry will be able to mobilize an international community that has been alienated by President Bush's strategy of preemptive strikes and by U.S. defiance of close allies and the United Nations...  But analysts questioned whether any American leader will be able to mobilize greater international participation, given the current dangers in Iraq and domestic political considerations in countries that have resisted earlier U.S. requests to play a role."

After giving Democrats a rallying cry on Monday by criticizing the President's approach to Iraq on Sunday, Senator Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, yesterday said fellow panel member Kerry failed to use his position on the committee to offer up "alternative plans" or "constructive bipartisan criticism" of the Administration's Iraq policies, NBC's Ken Strickland reports.  In a written statement, Lugar said Kerry "has failed to participate in almost two-dozen bipartisan open oversight hearings" where members "have offered timely criticism and helped President Bush to continue to shape, refine, and improve our policies and activities in Iraq."

MSNBC's Tom Llamas reports that while Edwards spent the most of yesterday talking about Iraq, campaign officials say he will not focus on the issue as much as Kerry will.  That said, he has a USA Today op-ed this morning: "America is proud of the men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and putting their lives on the line for us. But despite their courageous efforts, Iraq is a mess.  And it's a mess because of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney's failed leadership..."

Joe Lockhart yesterday became "the second Kerry ally to confirm contact with Burkett," the AP reports.  Lockhart "says he talked to" Burkett "at the suggestion of a CBS News producer shortly before disputed documents were released by the network," but he "denied any connection between the Kerry campaign and the papers supplied to the network" by Burkett.

The New York Times says CBS's admission that the documents were not authentic "quickly reverberated on the campaign trail.  Mr. Bush's spokesman, Scott McClellan demanded that the source of the documents be found.  White House officials also called on the campaign of the Democratic presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry, to explain any contact it has had with Mr. Burkett..."

The Los Angeles Times says the producer "was still assigned to the documents story as of Monday afternoon".

Howard Kurtz writes on the Rather apology.

The Washington Post on Burkett: "The man CBS News touted as the 'unimpeachable source' of explosive documents about President Bush's National Guard service turns out to be a former Guard officer with a history of self-described mental problems who has denounced Bush as a liar with 'demonic personality shortcomings.'"

USA Today: "CBS News acknowledged Monday that it received disputed documents critical of President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard from a former Texas Guard officer who now says he lied about where he got them and has doubts about their authenticity."

The New York Sun reports that per Burkett's former attorney, Burkett plans to sue CBS, probably for "defamation and libel."  "It was Mr. Burkett who was misled, according to [his former attorney].  The lawyer said the CBS News producer, Mary Mapes, promised to protect Mr. Burkett with complete anonymity and CBS was to 'expend both time and money authenticating' the memos."

CBS is expected to shortly name an independent panel to look into its reporting and handling of the documents. - AP

The debate about debates/candidate access
Again, the format of these agreed-upon debates -- at least, the two campaigns have come to an agreement -- seem to favor one candidate over the other.  Along with short responses, rebuttals and rejoinders, the candidates have agreed not to take part in any direct questioning of each other, and have agreed to remain within a certain designated area of the stage.  In other words, neither can get in the other's face.

Given the terms of the agreement regarding short answers, the Wall Street Journal's look today at Kerry's seeming inability to speak concisely belongs here: "After an August swoon, the Kerry campaign has an expanded, more experienced management team and a sharper, more aggressive message.  But one thing hasn't changed much: the candidate, and his meandering verbosity, developed over 20 years deliberating in... the U.S. Senate.  It is an unclear, indirect style that sometimes makes it hard for Mr. Kerry to connect with audiences and leaves his words open to parsing and ridicule from Republicans eager to portray him as vacillating and confused."

"Kerry aides hope that, by the time the presidential debates begin next week, their candidate will have honed a crisper delivery style ready for prime time."

The Miami Herald has full details on the first debate to be held there on September 30:.

The Washington Times notes that a Bush spokesperson "labeled as untrue an Internet report that top Bush campaign officials want to dump Mr. Schieffer" as a debate moderator because of the CBS documents brouhaha.

The battleground  
Knight Ridder writes up Bush's leads in many of the swing-state polls -- including Iowa, Wisconsin and New Mexico -- conducted jointly with MSNBC.  "All polls are but snapshots in time.  Election Day is six weeks away and voter sentiment may well shift.  In the meantime, all swing states remain sufficiently close that the coming Bush-Kerry debates could be decisive, especially when combined with efforts by each side to turn out their voters...  Taken together, the surveys show that Bush appears to be holding his base in most of the six swing states he won in 2000 while making inroads in many of the swing states that Gore carried."

Nader holds a presser in DC today to highlight how his ticket "is now on sufficient ballots to receive over 270 electoral votes, a litigation update and plans for the remainder of the campaign."  At 1616 P Street, NW at 12:30 pm. 

The Los Angeles Times says Bush's Cuban policies regarding travel and sending money home may be costing him support in the Cuban-American community.

MSNBC's Becky Diamond reports that Kerry at the Redbook "Movers and Shakers Luncheon" yesterday failed to make any obvious appeals to women voters.  Instead, Diamond says, Kerry talked about the need for a "real dose of truth-telling" and to "put common sense back into the mainstream."  He did not mention reproductive rights once.  He did talk about a plethora of other women's issues such as health care, education, gang violence, and children.  He received sporadic applause from a crowd that should have been on their feet, Diamond suggests, and his speech was basically a long list of things that are wrong -- from big tax cuts to not enough funding for No Child Left Behind.

The AP on the aftereffects of Bush's later convention and Kerry's financial disadvantage: "Not only does Kerry have to make his $75 million in full government financing for the general-election phase of the campaign last a month longer than Bush does, but the Democratic National Committee is burning through its money to promote its nominee faster than the Republican National Committee is."


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