“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 24, 2004| 9:30 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

First glance (39 days until Election Day)
Yesterday's Iraq-based attacks: Kerry criticized a foreign leader and accused Bush of causing the Fallujah problem.  Bush-Cheney continued to tie Iraq to the war on terror by jumping on Kerry for criticizing Allawi, "the man America must stand with to defeat the terrorists."

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Today's WOT-heavy menu: Kerry now seeks to distinguish between Iraq and the WOT in a 10:00 am speech in Philadelphia, then has a rally at 12 noon.  NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that Kerry will put into sharper detail his argument that Bush squandered international goodwill and diverted attention away from the "real" war on terror, per Kerry aides.  Kerry also rolls out a seven-point plan to fight terror. 

The President swears in new CIA chief Goss at 9:05 am, then talks about education in Wisconsin at 1:40 pm.  Per the campaign, Bush "will participate in a conversation with the president of Blackhawk Technical College, a small business owner and a student who participated in a dual-enrollment program" in his education event.  He has a rally in Racine, WI at 5:00 pm.  Then both candidates retire for a little debate prep.

All the talk about an "imperfect" election in Iraq -- Rumsfeld and Allawi spoke yesterday of potential voting problems in insurgent-controlled areas -- makes us think a little about what many are expecting, fearing, or building up for political reasons as a looming "imperfect' election of our own. 

The idea of poll workers potentially getting killed in the name of democracy sort of puts into perspective concerns here about poll workers not being familiar with new voting technology.  Elections in Iraq are on an upswing; here in America post-Florida, they're on a downswing. 

One nonpartisan elections expert put his concerns this way: The process is being made "bugaboo."  The two parties are using it to motivate and suppress certain groups of voters, and in doing so, people are being made to lose faith in it.  After which, the expert worries, they start to lose faith in their government.

The biggest, least-addressed voting dynamic in this presidential election is as much psychological as it is procedural.  The two parties are insinuating themselves into every level of the voting process more than ever before, from registration to early voting to vote-counting, which puts campaign operatives, campaign lawyers, and election officials in very close quarters.  Add to that an unprecedented degree of paranoia and mistrust on both sides -- but especially among Democrats after 2000.  All of which means more potential disputes, more potential for voter fraud, and just in general, an extremely ugly climate for this election.

So we remind ourselves now, and will again: Not all legal challenges in this election will be made on real legal grounds, ballot access problems are not always caused by intentional fraud, etc.

And by the way, that Colorado electoral vote initiative?  Looking likely to pass...

Vice President Cheney speaks at a breakfast for a House candidate in Lafayette, LA at 10:00 am, participates in a rally in Warrenton, MO at 1:30 pm, and speaks at a dinner for Senate candidate Tom Coburn in Tulsa, OK at 7:30 pm. 

Edwards is in DC with no public events.  

And Nader gives a speech at the University of Maryland at 7:00 pm after a 10:30 am presser calling for his inclusion in the debates.

Today's stops
President Bush travels to Janesville and Racine, WI today.  Wisconsin's unemployment inched up from 4.7% in July to 4.8% in August.  Gore won the Badger State by over 5,700 votes in 2000, but this week's Knight Ridder/MSNBC/Mason-Dixon poll shows the President leading in the state 46%-44%, with 9% undecided.  The AP notes, "The last Republican presidential candidate to win Wisconsin was Ronald Reagan in 1984.  But the traditionally Democratic state has grown more Republican in recent years, giving Bush's advisers hope they can pick it up this year."

Bush has visited Wisconsin 15 times.  Kerry, who will be arriving in Wisconsin on Sunday for debate prep, has been to the state nine times.  The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says of the location of Bush's afternoon rally, "The city of Racine has long been a stronghold for Democrats, but as the population has shifted across I-94 in recent years, Racine County has become more Republican.  Bush won the county in 2000 but lost Wisconsin, a state pegged as pivotal in this year's election, and he hopes that a few more votes here might put him over the top."

Kerry travels to Philly for two events at local universities.  After unemployment dropped to 5.3% in July, the Keystone State's unemployment was back up at 5.6% in August.  Gore won Pennsylvania's 23 electoral votes in 2000, 50% to 46%, but with 21 electoral votes on the line this year, the latest Knight Ridder/MSNBC/Mason-Dixon shows Kerry and Bush in a dead heat. 

At his first stop at Temple University, the Boston Globe says Kerry "plans to argue that his Republican opponent has botched the fight against terrorism by failing to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, and by transforming Iraq into what the country's interim prime minister admits has become a terrorist haven."  And the Inquirer previews Kerry's second stop at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Iraqi election
The Washington Post: "With the elections now seen as the barometer of Iraq's transition to democracy, the United States and Iraq appear to have decided that an imperfect poll would be better than delaying it because of an insurgency that has claimed control of key cities and provincial capitals in the Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad."

The Wall Street Journal adds, "Pentagon plans call for a temporary increase in U.S. troop levels in Iraq early next year that would coincide with elections there in January and could be used to bolster the newly elected Iraqi government...  The temporary increase in U.S. troops could allow commanders to assign more soldiers to guard polling places, protect convoys and ensure that major highways and other supply routes stay open in the event the insurgents plan a large offensive."

Kerry yesterday said Allawi's "rosy portrayal of progress toward peace in Iraq... contradicted Allawi's own statements as well as the reality on the ground...  Allawi told a joint meeting of Congress Thursday that democratic elections will take place in Iraq in January as scheduled, but Kerry said that was unrealistic."  - AP

Cheney pounced, per MSNBC's Priya David, charging yesterday that "Kerry is trying to tear down all the good that has been accomplished and his words are destructive to our efforts in Iraq and in the global war on terror.  As Prime Minister Allawi said in his speech, 'When political leaders sound the siren of defeatism in the face of terrorism, it only encourages more violence.'"

The New York Times: "By the end of the day, it was clear that Dr. Allawi's visit to Washington... was not simply a trip by a head of government but a politically charged moment in the presidential campaign."

The Boston Globe says Allawi "took on a far more significant role in the presidential campaign than any American partisan ever could" and "became the face of the Bush administration's aspirations for Iraq, and a symbol of freedom that Democrats may attack at their peril..."

The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein notes, "Allawi has emerged as an impassioned witness for the defense in America's presidential election, unambiguously echoing President Bush's key arguments about Iraq and forcing... Kerry into the unusual position of tangling with a foreign head of state during the campaign."

"If Americans see Allawi as a credible messenger, that could boost Bush - whose management of the war and the reconstruction of Iraq are under increasing fire from Kerry."  One foreign policy expert says it's "unclear whether Americans would see Allawi as a reliable source, given the continuing violence in Iraq and his vested interest in portraying events there in the most positive light.  Democrats moved quickly to fuel skepticism, denouncing Allawi's message." 

National and Homeland Security
The Washington Post notices, "Bush and leading Republicans are increasingly charging that... Kerry and others in his party are giving comfort to terrorists and undermining the war in Iraq -- a line of attack that tests the conventional bounds of political rhetoric."  The kicker: "Whatever the merits, the charges that terrorists prefer Democrats have been echoed by independent commentators and journalists."

USA Today on yesterday's back-and-forth over Iraq.  "Kerry, in speeches and public comments this week, is attempting to reframe the political debate over Iraq heading into next week's first debate by focusing on Bush's record.  Kerry strategists believe that continuing violence in Iraq, where two American contractors were beheaded this week, will make voters receptive to his pledges that he could get more help from other nations and begin withdrawing U.S. troops in the first year of a Kerry administration."

In his latest attack on Bush over Iraq, Kerry accused the President of setting the scene for the battle of Fallujah by rushing to war, asserting, "If the 4th infantry division and the diplomacy had been done with Turkey, you wouldn't have had a Fallujah."  He also stated "I've laid out a whole series of things I would have done that would have prevented Fallujah."  NBC's Scott Foster notes that while it is correct that the Pentagon planned on sending the troops overland through Turkey to secure Northern Iraq and that Turkey wouldn't allow it, it seems like a bit of a stretch to suggest that the only reason why Fallujah isn't under control is because Bush didn't do his diplomacy with Turkey.  

"One axiom of this campaign year," the Washington Post says, "is that whenever Iraq has dominated the news, President Bush has suffered politically.  What Democrats and Republicans are asking this week is how much the latest bad news from Iraq will set back a president who emerged from his convention stronger than at any point in the general election."

"Bush's advisers argue that the president enjoys a small, but solid, lead and that negative impressions of Kerry complicate his hopes of turning the race decisively in his direction.  Democrats outside the Kerry campaign agree that the challenger still has considerable work to do.  Kerry has seized on Iraq as a lifeline for a candidacy that only a few weeks ago appeared to be reeling."

Per NBC's Kelly O'Donnell, the Kerry campaign asserts the Bush team has become "wobbly" now that Kerry is making more direct arguments.  A senior advisor suggests the President is "willfully misleading" the country because "either he is so rigidly certain that his vision is correct that he can set aside contradictory information and not absorb it, which is a damning comment, or that he in fact gets this information and chooses not to share it with the American people, in which case he's deliberately misleading them.  Either one is a bad place to be as president and is evidence of a lack of true presidential leadership."

Regarding Kerry's speech today, "The larger argument we're making here is that if you don't see the mistakes in policy and acknowledge them you can't fix them," a Kerry aide told O'Donnell.  The country's not going to get any better if you can't wake up and see the error of your ways.  And that is a pattern with George Bush."

MSNBC's Tom Llamas reports on Edwards's stand-in effort for the hoarse Kerry yesterday in Davenport, IA.  Kristen Breitweiser told the crowd about losing her husband Roland Breitweiser on September 11, and also said her trip to Iowa marked the first time she had gotten on an airplane since that day; she said she got on the plane so America can "know the truth."  Breitweiser said her effort to push for the formation of what became the September 11 commission was met with stiff resistance from the White House.  Llamas says Edwards introduced Breitweiser by talking mostly about the President's handling of Iraq, including criticizing Bush's line about seeing a poll showing that right track/wrong track in Iraq.

The Washington Post on Bush's unscheduled visit with some Iraq-bound troops yesterday in Maine: "For the troops,... it was a welcome lift...  As it happens, the troops were given absentee ballots just before they departed, and there were still some undecided voters on board as Bush worked the crowd."

Howard Kurtz writes up the new TV ad from Democratic 527 The Media Fund which charges unseemly coziness between the Bush White House and the Saudi royal family.

Taxes, jobs and the economy
The Washington Post on passage of the tax-cut extensions: "With the approval of the legislation, virtually all of Bush's first-term tax agenda -- four tax measures worth nearly $1.9 trillion over 10 years -- would survive a potential second Bush term, unless Washington elects to change the tax code again.  The total is $300 billion more in tax relief than Bush envisioned with his first tax-cut proposal in 2001.  But the tax cut would exacerbate a budget deficit that will probably have to be addressed in the next presidential term, no matter who is in the Oval Office."

Medicare
The New York Times fact-checks Kerry's attack on Bush for raising Medicare premiums by 17% next year.  "Mr. Bush has done relatively little to hold down costs or to expand insurance coverage.  His bill to give limited prescription drug coverage to people on Medicare, enacted last year, is not yet in effect and is not related to the increase in premiums next year...  But the Medicare premiums will rise next year, not because the president proposed the increase or because he offered it as a solution to meeting the overall higher costs of health care, but because the premium increase was required under a formula set in a 1997 budget law that Mr. Kerry voted for and that was approved in the Senate by a vote of 85 to 15."

The politics of oil
The Bush Administration yesterday said it plans a short-term loan of oil from the SPR to help Hurricane Ivan victims.  The Wall Street Journal: "The move immediately triggered a charge from Sen. John Kerry's spokesmen that 'now that oil refineries have asked, administration officials are saying that they are finally considering action.'"

"Mr. Kerry has argued for months that the U.S. should stop buying oil for the reserve... until crude-oil and gasoline prices drop.  Vice President Cheney and other administration officials have asserted that SPR oil should be released only in case of major international supply disruptions.  Industry officials noted, however, that the U.S. has allowed swaps of crude with companies on six different occasions to alleviate temporary supply dislocations..."

The Washington Post: "Democrats immediately criticized Bush, saying the president should have acted sooner to deal with rising oil prices and supply disruptions overseas...  A spokesman for the Bush campaign, Reed Dickens, dismissed the criticism.  He said the administration has been consistent in saying it would not use the reserves to manipulate prices and would only release oil in the event of emergency."

The values debate
The RNC has said it sent sending political mailings in Arkansas and West Virginia which said that "liberals" want to ban the Bible, the New York Times writes.
"...Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, confirmed that the party had sent the mailings.  'When the Massachusetts Supreme Court sanctioned same-sex marriage and people in other states realized they could be compelled to recognize those laws, same-sex marriage became an issue,' Ms. Iverson said.  'These same activist judges also want to remove the words 'under God' from the Pledge of Allegiance.'"

"The mailing is the latest evidence of the emphasis Republicans are putting on motivating conservative Christian voters to vote this fall.  But as the appeals become public, they also risk alienating moderate and swing voters."

The AP says the House approved legislation that would protect the words "under God" in the Pledge.  "Many Democrats said the real objective of Thursday's debate was to force them into an unpopular vote as the election nears.  Aside from the constitutional issue, a large percentage of Americans, and almost all members of Congress, think 'under God' should stay in the pledge."

More Bush v. Kerry
The AP notes how Kerry "says President Bush 'failed to tell the truth' about Iraq and 'misled the American people,' but that's as far as he seems willing to take it.  He stops just short of the 'l-word' - liar."  Kerry "dips into a stack of euphemisms to suggest the president isn't telling voters the whole truth."

"By not speaking the word 'liar,' Kerry skirts a debate over his choice of word.  The focus stays on his portrayal of Bush as a leader painting rosy pictures over what Kerry says is a failed record, and Kerry avoids the awkward situation of being accused of lying about whether the president is lying."

The New York Times peers into Kerry's failed 1972 bid for Congress -- the only political race he has ever lost.  "From that election to this, his career has been marked more by cautious calculation than bold strokes, and to a striking degree, his vulnerabilities then remain his vulnerabilities now."

The battleground
The Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire says of the new NBC/Journal poll: "Bye-bye bounce: Bush lead is back to his preconvention edge...  But Bush shows gains among women...  Compared with August's poll, Kerry still gets 49% of women voters but Bush is up to 45% from 42%.  Bush keeps nine-point edge among men.  The pollsters, Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff, note Bush is faring much better than in 2000 election among married women and those ages 18 to 49."

The new Gallup poll has Bush leading Kerry among likely voters in Florida, 49% to 46%.  "Those results give Bush a lead in eight of 11 battleground states surveyed this month."  Said Stuart Rothenberg: "'...We're now looking at states that Kerry should win that Bush could steal. Instead of talking about West Virginia... we're now focused more on Iowa and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.'"

The latest AP poll also shows "President Bush solidified his advantage among men during the last month and holds his highest ratings since January on job performance, the economy and Iraq."  Bush leads Kerry among likely voters, 52% to 45%.

A new Quinnipiac poll in Florida done after the hurricane onslaught shows Bush leading Kerry, 49% to 41%.  "Though pollsters have debated whether accurate polls can be conducted in Florida,... the poll provides some of the first evidence that Bush may be aided by appearing as the comforter in chief.  Some strategists have suggested, though, that the president could be wounded if federal relief efforts falter."

After writing up Karl Rove's state-by-state predictions yesterday, the Washington Times reports on the Kerry campaign counterargument that Bush failed to take advantage of his post-convention lead.

The debate about debates
Armed with polling showing majorities want him included in the debates, Nader holds a presser today outside the Commission on Presidential Debates at 10:30 am to protest his not being invited to participate.

On Kerry's debate history, MSNBC's Becky Diamond reminds us that Kerry was the president of the Yale Political Union, the college debating society, and that the New York Times reported in March that Kerry's roommate recalled the faculty debate adviser telling him that young Kerry was the finest debater he had ever coached (other than Bill Buckley).  After Kerry honed his skills at Yale, he practiced them as a prosecutor and as a Senator.  That said, Diamond notes, Kerry's senatorial style can come across as condescending, confusing and boring.  Although Kerry never "won" any of the Democratic debates during the primaries, he arguably won them by default, choosing to appear "presidential" and not engage in the increasing acrimony and attacks. 

Nader
The New Mexico Supreme Court yesterday "halted the distribution of ballots pending the outcome of an appeal" by Nader supporters to have him included on the state ballot after a lower court ruled to leave Nader off.

Making your vote count
The Los Angeles Times says over "45 million people in 29 states and the District of Columbia are set to vote using touch-screen machines Nov. 2.  But the devices once hailed as the answer to the nation's voting woes are stirring up some serious cases of buyer's remorse..."  The story focuses on the paper receipt issue.

The Times also reports, "The Pentagon has expanded access to a website that assists soldiers and other Americans living overseas in voting, after receiving complaints that its security measures were preventing legitimate voters from using it...  Overseas voter advocates and some Democratic members of Congress complained that the security interfered with the voting rights of Americans overseas."

The Washington Times talked with DC-area election officials and concludes, "Beyond requiring applicants to sign a pledge on voter-registration forms affirming that they are U.S. citizens, there is no way to prevent the nation's estimated 8 million to 12 million illegal aliens from casting ballots in November...  Nationally, immigration experts said it is likely that illegal immigrants vote, but that only a small percentage does so."

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