“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 23, 2004| 9:25 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

First glance (40 days until Election Day)
As MSNBC's Tom Llamas points out, Kerry-Edwards reacted so fast to the Bush campaign's "Windsurfing" ad yesterday that Edwards's statement didn't make sense to his traveling press corps because word of the ad hadn't reached them and aides didn't tell the reporters what Edwards was reacting to. 

  1. Other political news of note
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    5. Fluke files to run in California

Then Kerry-Edwards fired back with their toughest TV ad to date, charging Bush-Cheney with making jokes while Americans are being killed in combat and beheaded in Iraq. 

Kerry yesterday also raised the prospect of a mandatory draft in a second Bush term.  NBC's Kelly O'Donnell says Kerry aides advise to "expect more of that."

Given the escalating violence in Iraq, we assume it occurred to the Bush campaign that having the first debate focus on Iraq and other national and homeland security matters could be risky.  Per a Bush official, the campaign is stepping up its argument that a flip-flopping Kerry would be a bad president because he'd buckle under pressure -- an argument which simultaneously casts Bush's unyielding position on Iraq at such a turbulent time as a virtue.  Today, a week before that debate, the President meets with the Iraqi Prime Minister at 11:20 am, with a Rose Garden news conference 12:05 pm.  He then zips off to Bangor, ME for a rally at 4:15 pm. 

Still, we doubt that Kerry meant for the debates, starting just over one month before Election Day, to serve as his big chance to introduce himself to voters and convey his message, after campaigning for almost seven months as the Democratic nominee.

Consider the complicated picture painted by the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll (September 17-19, 1,006 RV, MOE +/- 3.1%): Bush leads Kerry by 3 points among registered voters despite 55% of those polled saying the country is worse off today than it was four years ago, and while Kerry has advantages over Bush on many issues, only 36% -- yes, 36% -- feel Kerry has a message and know what he would do if he were elected. 

And by the way, if you remove Iraq from the equation and ask voters if they're voting more on terrorism and social issues and values, or on the economy and health care, it's an even split at 44%-44%.

As our pollsters Peter Hart (D) and Bill McInturff (R) say, "Voters know what George Bush stands for and trust him on the central concern of terrorism; and he has strong backing on terrorism and from regular churchgoers.  These two elements put him in a solid position.  However, the results on the fundamental measures of the nation's direction, the economy, and foreign policy suggest an electorate that is dissatisfied with the status quo."

"Kerry has not connected with voters on a message, and yet he remains competitive with Bush on the basis of anti-Bush sentiment among Democrats.  He has a major advantage over Bush on almost all domestic issues, particularly health care, though Bush leads Kerry on most of the personal qualities tested."

And: "Iraq remains a wild card."

We know our poll was welcomed by a certain Eye Street-based campaign, but we note in the spirit of apples to apples, rather than the game of apples to oranges played by those clamoring that the race is closing, that as Hart and McInturff remind us, the last six NBC/Journal polls have all shown President Bush ahead "though still by less than five percentage points."

Kerry has changed his scheduled to get some downtime to recover from what campaign officials say is a bad cold.  He meets with the Columbus, OH Dispatch editorial board, then heads to Philadelphia, where he will have no public events until tomorrow morning.  Edwards fills in for Kerry at Kerry's scheduled town hall in Davenport, IA at 3:15 pm and rally in Cedar Rapids at 6:45 pm.

Since Kerry hasn't had many events over the past several days, MSNBC's Becky Diamond speculates he may have been overworking his voice on debate prep...

Today's stops
Bush has an afternoon rally in Bangor, ME.  Maine's unemployment rose from 4.2% in July to 4.5% in August.  Gore won the state in 2000, 49% to 44%.  The Bangor Daily News reports that protests are scheduled for the President's arrival.  The Peace and Justice Center of Eastern Maine plans to gather along the street leading to the airport for what organizers are calling peaceful protest.

WQAD reports Kerry has canceled plans to campaign in Ohio and Iowa today because of bad chest cold.  Edwards fills in in Iowa.  Iowa's unemployment rate inched up in August to 4.5%, compared with 4.4% in July.  Gore won the state in 2000 by just over 4,000 votes.  The Davenport Leader notes that today's visit by Edwards coincides with the start of early voting in Iowa.

The politics of windsurfing
The Boston Globe says of the windsurfing ad, "The image was simply too much for senior Bush media strategists to resist...  The advertisement was conceived before Kerry... launched a new effort to shed the waffler label by laying out a comprehensive proposal Monday for handling the future of Iraq.  Starting with a highly publicized address in New York, followed by a news conference on Tuesday and further remarks yesterday, Kerry launched what even some Republicans quietly said was the most effective Democratic offensive in many weeks -- directly taking on the increasing violence in Iraq and accusing Bush of ignoring what Kerry says is a worsening crisis."

"The Kerry campaign, in an unusually swift response to the Bush advertisement, attacked the president as being frivolous and cavalier with the windsurfing advertisement at a time of tragedy."

The Washington Post: "This is the first time a Kerry ad has referred to Iraq as a 'quagmire,' a word often associated with the Vietnam War.  Many critics have said that his suggestions to recruit more global allies and step up the training of Iraqis, which is underway, would have little impact on the violence there."

The Los Angeles Times: "Previously, independent anti-Kerry groups had mocked Kerry with commercials that showed him on skis or showed pictures of a family yacht.  One group this week aired an ad with a cartoon rendition of Kerry windsurfing. But Bush had not picked on Kerry's windsurfing - or any of his recreational activities - until now."

The Washington Post also notes that on many issues, Bush is just as much of a flip-flopper as Kerry is -- even though that label has mainly been directed at Kerry.  "Once such a popular perception becomes fixed, public opinion experts and strategists say, virtually every episode in the campaign is viewed through that prism, while facts that do not fit with existing assumptions -- such as Bush's history of policy shifts -- do not have much impact in the political debate."

"As Democrats see it, the flip-flopper allegation is this year's equivalent of how the GOP four years ago portrayed Al Gore as a chronic truth-stretcher, and now, as then, blame the news media for accepting and promoting a caricature."

National and Homeland Security
Kerry responded to a question about the draft at one of his events yesterday by saying, "If George Bush were to be reelected given the way he has gone about this war and his avoidance of responsibility... it is possible." 

The Washington Times says Kerry promised not to take such a step himself: "The answer, coming after his charge on Friday that Mr. Bush is planning a surprise post-election call-up of National Guard and reserve troops, is the second time in less than a week that Mr. Kerry has said the president's pursuit of the war in Iraq could have a far-reaching impact at home.  The promise drew... a stern rebuke from Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt, who compared the statement to Mr. Kerry's unwillingness earlier this week to rule out the possibility that the war in Iraq was an 'illegal war.'"

"After saying he would not reinstate the draft, Mr. Kerry quickly modified his stance to leave open that possibility if 'the United States of America faced the kind of global attack or conflagration where everybody in America understood through an open democratic process we needed to defend this nation.'"

The Wall Street Journal on Kerry's new laser focus on Iraq: "The Kerry camp will seek to sever the Iraq war in the public's mind from the broader war on terror, where polls give Mr. Bush an edge.  And the Kerry camp now sees a need to refurbish the candidate's national-security credentials tarnished during the Swift Boat controversy.  In sum, Mr. Kerry is attempting a delicate balance: energizing antiwar voters by criticizing the invasion, while comforting security-conscious voters by arguing he could better manage the fallout."

"The Journal/NBC survey... shows that the Iraq issue is on a knife's edge right now.  Americans tend to think the U.S. should have taken military action to remove Saddam Hussein.  If that's the focus of the debate, it's a plus for Mr. Bush.  But increasing numbers think that expelling the Iraqi dictator wasn't worth the cost, and that there's no clear plan to pacify Iraq.  Just 40% said that 'removing Saddam Hussein from power ... was worth the number of U.S. military casualties and the financial cost,' while 52% said it wasn't -- the biggest gap in the year since the question was first posed."

"On separate questions asked for the first time: 52% of the respondents said the incursion 'has been a poor use of money;' 53% said they weren't confident the war 'will come to a successful conclusion;' and by 47% to 41%, those polled said they did not think the war will be a victory for the United States.'"

"Still, an Iraq-centric campaign carries big risks for [Kerry].  In effect, Mr. Kerry is shifting public attention away from domestic issues where he has advantages and toward matters where, for all the public unease, the president enjoys the most trust."

USA Today: "Kerry, trying to highlight what he calls the 'chaos' in Iraq, must convince voters they will be safer if they change leaders in wartime.  He seems as eager to attack Bush's performance as commander in chief as Bush is to defend it.  Bush aides say: Bring it on.  The bigger the bonfire, their thinking goes, the better for Bush."

Taxes, jobs and the economy
The Wall Street Journal notes "one of the great uncertainties of the 2004 presidential campaign: Are the broad economic improvements that seem to be taking hold coming too late to help President Bush -- or just in time to give him a boost in the homestretch?"  Beyond the recent encouraging data, one economist "sees two dark clouds.  One is that hiring remains sluggish 'and Kerry has been pushing the job story strong.'  The other is the widening of income inequality, feeding Mr. Kerry's stump speech about 'middle-class squeeze.'"

The new NBC/Journal poll "suggests the economy represents strong political ground for Mr. Kerry right now.  A 51% majority of Americans disapprove of the president's handling of the economy.  Views of the economy's recent performance are bleaker than they have been for a year.  About 36% say the economy has gotten worse in the past 12 months, exceeding the 29% who say it has gotten better."

"In today's era of instant communications, economic changes move through the world at a far more rapid pace.  In some ways, voters' perceptions of the economy are better now than they were in 1992...  Still, Mr. Kerry runs strongest among Americans focused pre-eminently on the economy.  Roughly four in 10 voters describe the economy and health care as the most important issues in the election; they favor the Democratic challenger over the Republican incumbent by more than 40 percentage points.  A comparable number say terrorism and 'values' are most important; they back Mr. Bush over Mr. Kerry by more than 40 percentage points."

The New York Times says of yesterday's congressional deal on extending the tax cuts: "Putting aside efforts to control the federal deficit before the elections, Republican and Democratic leaders agreed Wednesday to extend $145 billion worth of tax cuts sought by President Bush without trying to pay for them...  Fearful of being attacked as supporters of higher taxes, Democrats said they would go along with an unpaid five-year extension of the $1,000 child tax credit; a four-year extension of tax breaks intended to reduce the so-called marriage penalty...; and a six-year extension of a provision that allowed more people to qualify for the lowest tax rate of 10 percent."

Not all is rosy for Bush, however: "Even as they pushed for the cuts that will add to the federal budget deficit, House Republican lawmakers said Wednesday that they hoped to have a vote soon on a [balanced budget amendment] by 2010, except if the country is at war," which "would conflict with even the Bush administration's rosiest goals for reducing the deficit, which is expected to hit $420 billion this year, a record.  Mr. Bush has promised only to cut the deficit in half by 2009."

The Los Angeles Times says congressional passage "would give Bush the opportunity to hold a Rose Garden signing ceremony to showcase what Republican leaders call 'family-friendly' tax cuts."

The documents
The CBS panel is being criticized for not including a broadcast journalist. – USA Today

The AP says that while speaking at a luncheon in Ohio, former President Bush "called a CBS News report on his son's service in the Texas Air National Guard 'disgraceful'...  'This disgraceful thing with CBS, trying to malign our son's service as a jet pilot, was insidious,' Bush said at a luncheon in Ohio."

At lunch with the Washington Times yesterday, "Karl Rove... scoffed at Democratic charges that he was somehow behind the release of faked documents to CBS...  And he returned fire, saying there are plenty of outstanding questions that Democrats must answer..."

"Republicans think they have evidence of collusion" between Burkett and the Kerry campaign.

The debate about debates
USA Today says the campaigns' demand that the debate moderators sign an agreement "is causing concern among some experts in journalism ethics."  Schieffer "said he'll abide by the request to sign - if the commission decides to accept the ground rules."

The Washington Post notes Bush and Kerry are trying to send messages in their choice of locations to prep for the debates.  "President Bush will try to project an air of routine by retiring to his ranch in Crawford, Tex., after two campaign events in Wisconsin on Friday.  He will barnstorm in Ohio on Monday and then will be out of sight again in Crawford on Tuesday.  He will make a stop in Florida on the way to the debate..."

Kerry "will hold a more traditional debate camp, heading for Wisconsin because of its status as a swing state. That follows the lead of Vice President Al Gore, who held his 2000 debate camps in Florida."

The Miami Herald says that while tickets for the upcoming debate in Miami won't be distributed until a couple days before the event, "Big-time campaign contributors and university trustees -- the kind of people who seldom have to scrounge for tickets to prime events -- find themselves frustrated and ticketless.  Political junkies and just plain folk are similarly seatless." 

The battleground    
As the Wall Street Journal writes of the new NBC/Journal poll showing a Bush lead of 3 points among registered voters, "The results of Journal/NBC survey... show a narrower lead for Mr. Bush than some recent polls, and a wider one than others.  One reason may be how different polls estimate the partisan make-up of the electorate.  The polls favoring Mr. Bush have more Republicans than Democrats, while those favoring Mr. Kerry have more Democrats.  The Journal/NBC poll respondents were nearly evenly split in partisan sympathies: 40% identified themselves as Democrats or Democratic-leaning, compared with 39% Republican.  The 2000 electorate contained four percentage points more Democrats than Republicans, according to exit polls, though the Bush campaign argues the balance could be even in 2004."

Will New Jersey in 2004 be Karl Rove's California of 2004?  Rove had lunch with the Washington Times yesterday and the result is this lead: "Bush expects to help Republicans gain up to four Senate seats and seven House seats in November and already is running Sen. John Kerry out of states that had been considered battlegrounds...  The man credited with engineering Mr. Bush's victorious 2000 campaign bragged of chasing Mr. Kerry out of a half-dozen states that were considered battlegrounds earlier in this year's contest.  He said the list soon would grow to include Ohio."

"...[Y]esterday, the Kerry team canceled plans to begin a $5 million TV commercial campaign in Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri.Campaign officials told the Associated Press that advisers concluded Mr. Kerry isn't doing well enough in those states to justify the cost.  The campaign notified television stations in the four states that Mr. Kerry would not follow through on his plans for the first week of October. "

Kerry-Edwards were back campaigning in Florida yesterday after being kept away by hurricanes.  The Miami Herald says "Kerry's campaign on Wednesday expressed confidence that the storms haven't knocked it off track, pointing to enthusiastic crowds it drew during the two-day campaign swing.  Also, Edwards will return over the weekend for another visit, as Kerry readies for the campaign's first debate Sept. 30 at the University of Miami...  The visit gave the duo a chance to evoke the ghosts of 2000 in butterfly-ballot-haunted Palm Beach County and an opportunity to court some of the party's critical constituencies: seniors and black and Jewish voters."

Nader
With the Oregon Supreme Court deciding Nader should be off the ballot there, the Nader campaign says it will take its appeal to the US Supreme Court.

Beyond Election Day
The AP reports, "President Bush's campaign is urging election regulators to allow it and rival John Kerry to raise unlimited individual donations to cover costs for a possible recount, as Bush and rival Al Gore could in 2000.  In a letter to the Federal Election Commission made public Wednesday, the Bush campaign argued that nothing in the campaign finance laws has changed on recount fund raising since 2000."

Roll Call reports on preparations already underway for the inauguration: "The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which oversees the swearing-in ceremony and related events on the Capitol grounds, has already accomplished a number of its rote responsibilities, such as printing invitations for the Jan. 20, 2005, affair."

"It remains unclear whether stricter security could impact media on hand to cover the event, but Larry Janezich, superintendent of the Senate Radio-TV Gallery, suggested members of the press could face more scrutiny when applying for credentials...  In addition, the Congressional panel is considering changes to the locations where broadcast media will be located during the swearing-in ceremony."

Candidate access
Kerry's traveling press corps finally got its press avail on Tuesday, but when they saw Kerry do a one-on-one interview on the tarmac before taking off for Ohio yesterday, MSNBC's Becky Diamond says, they found themselves upset not about a Larry King or network anchor interview -- but about 11-year-old Spencer Kovacs from the Freedom News Network (Freedom Shores Elementary School in Boyton Beach).  Per Kovacs and his shooter, 10-year-old Chloe Kovacs, they asked Kerry four questions:

  • Why should kids vote for him?  Per Kovacs, Kerry said because he would try to get them college scholarships.
  • Does he like mustard or ketchup on his hotdogs?  (Kovacs said they asked because Kerry is married to Teresa Heinz Kerry.)  Kerry reportedly replied, "I like both."
  • Does he have pets, and what he does for fun?  Per Kovacs, Kerry said he has a canary and a dog, and that he likes to bike and play soccer and hockey.
  • When Diamond asked Kerry communications director Stephanie Cutter why Kerry stopped to do an interview with kids when he won't do one-on-ones with adult reporters, she replied, "Because we only like to do interviews with those under the age of 10."

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