“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 22, 2004| 9:30 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

First glance (41 days until Election Day)
Inspired by yesterday's twin pressers by Bush and Kerry, we once again would like to pose a few of our own questions.  First, will today's political news be dominated by something other than Iraq?  Both candidates are going to at least try: After speaking with Pakistan's president earlier this morning, Bush heads to Pennsylvania to talk about education at 11:35 am, while Kerry will speak about Social Security.  In particular, says NBC's Kelly O'Donnell (and also today's newspapers), Kerry will pounce on Bush's Social Security plan, arguing that investment firms which contribute heavily to the Bush campaign would benefit under it.

  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

Second, when the campaigns revisit Iraq -- and trust us, they will -- whose view of Iraq will most resonate with voters: Bush's sunny view of shining city/democracy on a hill, or Kerry's gloomy view of violence and chaos?  (See today's New York Times article on this below.)   Indeed, we --like everyone else -- see this election to be shaping up into a straight-up fight over Iraq, in which Kerry has turned to the Left and is increasingly anti-war.  This is precisely where Team Bush wants Kerry; however, as the recent violence and beheadings there remind us, Iraq still remains a huge problem for the President.

Third, today is the deadline for the Commission on Presidential Debates to agree to the terms set by the two campaigns.  But will the commission agree on them today?  (See below.)

Fourth, just how is the presidential horserace shaping up?  For the answer, check out the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, which comes at 6:30 pm tonight.

And we're concluding with this because we've been waiting for this moment to happen: Today, the Bush campaign launches a new TV ad called "Windsurfing," which charges that Kerry's positions are every way the wind blows.  The ad will run on national cable and in select local markets.  (And yes, it has Kerry windsurfing footage.)  Surf's up, dude.

Today's stops
Bush finishes up his UN-related meetings this morning before flying to Pennsylvania to speak about education in King of Prussia and to attend a campaign rally in Westmoreland County.  The AP notes this is Bush's 37th trip to the state.  Between his events today, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Bush will tour areas of western Pennsylvania stricken by floods.  Westmoreland County was one of 19 Pennsylvania counties declared federal disaster areas by Bush.  Pennsylvania's unemployment rate rose to 5.6% in August from 5.3% in July.  Gore defeated Bush in Pennsylvania in 2000 by about 4 percentage points.

John Kerry spends his morning in Florida, campaigning in Palm Beach County -- home of the famous 2000 "butterfly ballot".  The Boca Raton News reports that Kerry's visit to West Palm Beach today is expected to draw about 1,000 people.  The paper also notes that Republicans aren't letting Kerry take the entire stage -- former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani will be speaking on behalf of the Bush campaign in West Palm Beach later this afternoon.

Kerry then heads up to Ohio to prepare for a campaign event with Edwards at Ohio State University in Columbus on Thursday. The Columbus Dispatch notes that Kerry won't be the only politician in Columbus today -- former President George H.W. Bush will be in the city campaigning for his son this morning.  Ohio's unemployment rose from 6.0% in July to 6.3% in August -- the highest it's been since July 2003.  Bush won Ohio in 2000 by 3.5% of the vote.

National and Homeland Security
A New York Times news analysis notices that, in the last two days, Bush and Kerry have been talking about two different Iraqs -- Bush describes an Iraq that's on the way to freedom and democracy, while Kerry talks about one that's crippled by chaos.  "Beyond the mutual accusations, something has changed in the last 48 hours. The question is whether it lasts. Finally, after months of arguing over their Vietnam-era service and their plans for taxes and health care reform, the two candidates are arguing about a war that has taken more than 1,000 American lives."

"With their first debate, devoted to foreign policy, little more than a week away, they are now engaging the question of who has a better plan to make Iraq stable and democratic enough to pave the way for an American exit. For both men it is a strategy filled with risks."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page says Kerry on Monday "finally did offer an internally coherent alternative to the Bush foreign policy of the past four years," and notes that "Kerry's apparent decision to close out the 2004 Presidential campaign as the 'antiwar' candidate would seem to be true to himself and to the party he now leads..."

"Let us be clear: We're not questioning Mr. Kerry's patriotism or his right to make an issue of Iraq.  But let's not kid ourselves either that the words of Presidential candidates don't have consequences.  Which brings us to the gamble inherent in Mr. Kerry's decision to mount an antiwar campaign: He risks being seen as hoping for an October of unprecedented violence in Iraq...  While it may be possible to run an antiwar campaign without appearing to root for the enemy, the record of others who've tried would not seem encouraging."

The Chicago Tribune on Kerry's speech yesterday: "With its blunt language, Kerry's speech, lasting about 45 minutes, was designed to define clear differences between him and Bush on Iraq. It signaled the intensifying of a combative tone as Kerry called for 'a great national debate on Iraq' in the six weeks before Election Day..."

The Los Angeles Times: "Kerry's persistence in putting the onus on his rival to address the ongoing unrest in Iraq came a day after he delivered his most sweeping indictment of Bush's handling of the war and its aftermath... His advisors moved quickly to keep the story alive, making Kerry available Tuesday for his first news conference since early August. Kerry used the occasion to critique Bush's United Nations address on Iraq earlier in the day, calling it ineffective, and fielded a barrage of questions about his stance on the war."

The Boston Globe says that some Kerry campaign advisers believe that Kerry is running the risk of coming off as an anti-war candidate.  "The challenge for Kerry is also making voters see all of his Iraq statements as a logical evolution -- most of all, that he voted in 2002 to threaten war, not go to war, and that he has said all along that he would not have gone to war in the same way Bush did." 

MSNBC's Becky Diamond says she heard a new line of attack from Kerry at his rally in Orlando last night.  "The President [was] standing in New York City where he was answering questions about Iraq," Kerry said. "He was asked about the CIA findings that tell the truth about what is happening in Iraq. Here is what the president of the USA, in the midst of a war...said, 'The CIA laid out a - several scenarios that said life could be lousy, life could be okay, life could be better. And they were just guessing as to what the conditions might be like...' Does that make you feel safer? No! Does that give you confidence that this President knows what he's talking about? No! The CIA was just guessing. This president ought to be turning that CIA upside down if that's all they were doing. The CIA and the nation deserve a better assessment than that by the President..."

The Washington Times writes up the Swift Boaters' latest ad "portraying Mr. Kerry as an enemy sympathizer during the Vietnam War."  The group says it's spending $1.3 million to air the ad "for six days on national cable networks and local stations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Nevada and New Mexico - states viewed as crucial by both presidential campaigns."

The debates
The Commission on Presidential Debates has informed the Bush and Kerry campaigns that it cannot accede to "their unusual request" to sign the 32-page agreement on the debates by today, the New York Times reports.  "First of all, the commission said, it has to determine which candidates have enough support in the polls to qualify for the debates, which it does not plan to do until Friday. Regardless of the timing, the new requirement that the independent commission as well as the four journalists selected to moderate the debates sign onto the pact between the two candidates has made some people involved in the process uncomfortable."

MSNBC's Priya David notes that Cheney has been doing debate prep at his residence on weekends -- with Rep. Rob Portman playing Edwards.  Several high level staffers are involved in the prep, as well as Lynne Cheney.  Meanwhile, according to MSNBC's Diamond, Kerry will be in Wisconsin early next week focusing on his own debate prep.

The documents
The New York Times says CBS said that producer Mary Mapes violated network policy by putting Bill Burkett in contact with the Kerry campaign.  "Privately, network officials said they were caught off guard on Monday when Joe Lockhart, a senior adviser to Mr. Kerry, told reporters that he had spoken to Bill Burkett, the source for the questionable documents, at the behest of Ms. Mapes."   USA Today also zeroes in on Mapes.  "CBS News staffers say they're puzzled why Mapes is still apparently actively working on the memos story.  CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius refused to comment on that."

The Washington Post's Kurtz covers the back-and-forth whether there was coordination between the Kerry campaign and CBS's flawed report -- a charge the Kerry camp denies.  "The dispute ... came as both campaigns tried to extract partisan advantage from the media furor over CBS's apology for failing to authenticate purported Guard documents... The flap resembles recent charges by Democrats that the Bush campaign had ties to the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which led to the resignation of Bush's campaign lawyer, who had advised the group."

The Washington Times focuses on the GOP claims of coordination, while the Kerry campaign tries to turn the tables by touting allegations that GOP consultant Roger Stone was involved.  The Washington Times also notes in its coverage of Kerry's presser yesterday that he was not asked about the Lockhart link.  Edwards was asked about it, however, on CNBC's Capital Report yesterday and rejected the idea that the Kerry campaign is involved.

Moreover, the RNC's conference call pm the allegations of coordination between CBS and the Kerry camp has been rescheduled to 11:00 am today.

Jobs, the economy, and Social Security
The Washington Post reports that Kerry will blast Bush's plans for Social Security by arguing that they amount to a $940 billion windfall for financial services firms (over 75 years), according to a new University of Chicago study (done by an informal Kerry economic adviser) that will be released today.  "The Democratic presidential nominee is expected to say that Bush's Social Security plan is a sop to Wall Street donors, who are among the Bush campaign's biggest financial backers."

"Scott Stanzel, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, called the analysis 'a Kerry campaign pseudo-study' and 'an attempt to divert attention from the fact that John Kerry does not have a plan to strengthen Social Security.'"

Campaigning in Cleveland yesterday, Edwards had some very sharp words about the Bush Administration's economic agenda, reports MSNBC's Tom Llamas.  Edwards said that its agenda "is the most radical and dangerous economic agenda to hit our shores since socialism a century ago. Like socialism, it corrupts the very nature of our democracy and our free enterprise tradition."  More: "This really is a do-nothing presidency: Do nothing to create jobs, do nothing to relieve the pressure on the middle class, do nothing to bring down health care costs, and do nothing to help more young people go to college."

Llamas adds that a union worker asked Edwards what the future holds for union workers and the working class if Bush is re-elected.  Edwards called it a "scary thought" but said that's part of his motivation.  "That is part of what drives me everyday by the way 18 hours a day when I see what, if I can talk about this personally first, when I see what George Bush and Dick Cheney have done to the kind of people that I grew up with in that small town in North Carolina."

Candidate access
For the first time in six weeks, John Kerry finally took questions from the travel press corps, and he opened on a note of humor.  "Where have you been?" he joked.  MSNBC's Diamond notes that Kerry took 11 questions in 30 minutes and appeared to enjoy the interaction.  She adds that he is using humor and a mocking tone to convey both comfort as well as take the edge off of attacks -- something Bush does very well.  Kerry is also increasingly on message and disciplined.  For example, she says, when he finished yesterday's presser, he simply said "Thank you" and walked from the podium, without stopping to turn and take just one more question, or to clarify himself one more time as he walked off -- which is his normal way of ending a press avail.

Diamond also says that during yesterday's press conference, Kerry repeatedly questioned Bush's character and judgment.  For instance:
"The President needs to live in the world of reality...not in the world of fantasy spin"
"The President failed to level with the world's leaders...
"He failed to talk about the realities...
"He doesn't have the credibility to lead the U.S. in the world...
"The President wants to debate fiction not reality.
"This Administration hasn't leveled with the American people.
"The President has no credibility and has no credibility with foreign leaders.
"The President wants to shift the topic - I'm not going to let him shift the topic.
"The President needs to live in the world of reality.
"The President keeps denying facts..."

The battleground   
The Boston Globe notes that "Kerry returned to politically crucial Florida yesterday after a monthlong absence caused by three hurricanes that devastated parts of the state and told supporters that President Bush has failed to help the 45 million Americans without health insurance and is misleading voters about his proposal to address the problem."

Noting that some polls show Kerry to be struggling with women voters, the New York Times describes what he is trying to do to woo them back.  "It was no accident that John Kerry appeared Tuesday on 'Live With Regis and Kelly' and recalled his days as a young prosecutor in a rape case. Or that he then flew from New York to Jacksonville, Fla., to promote his health care proposals. Or that on Thursday in Davenport, Iowa, he will preside over a forum on national security with an audience solely of women."

"These appearances are part of an energetic drive by the Kerry campaign to win back voters that Democrats think are rightfully theirs: women."  (As Kerry tries to win them back, though, we find it interesting that he hasn't said much about abortion rights.)

Combined Gallup polling shows Kerry's loss in ground among women voters – USA Today.

While Republicans may have widened their advantage in the battle for the House, the Wall Street Journal notes that the battle for the Senate has tightened: "With five Southern Democrats retiring and the rest of the 2004 Senate electoral map tilting in Republicans' favor, odds are Republicans will hold or even increase their slim Senate majority.  But Democrats are running surprisingly well in the South...  They also think they have a shot at seats in such Republican strongholds as Oklahoma, Alaska and Colorado."

Deep in the heart of Texas
The New York Times writes that a Texas grand jury yesterday indicted three aides who helped run a PAC created by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay "on charges that included raising illegal corporate contributions and funneling them to state candidates during the 2002 elections. Eight companies were also charged, including Sears Roebuck & Company and Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc."

"The charges against the aides come at a time when Mr. DeLay himself is under investigation by the House ethics committee over accusations of improper fund-raising... At his regular weekly press briefing on Tuesday, Mr. DeLay dismissed the indictments as politically motivated... But critics say the charges are an ominous development for one of the most powerful figures in Congress..."

The Washington Post: "The grand jury never questioned DeLay or sought records from him. But the panel's actions could rattle his supporters and embolden his critics because the three men indicted include some of his closest and most loyal allies. Moreover, the targeted fundraising activities were at the heart of one of DeLay's most cherished, high-profile endeavors of the past several years: giving Republicans control of the Texas legislature so the state's 32 U.S. House districts could be redrawn in a way likely to send more Republicans to Congress."

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