“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 27, 2004| 9:35 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

FIRST READ

First glance (36 days until Election Day)

The upcoming debate, the airing of President Bush's O'Reilly interview in which he says he'd give his "Mission Accomplished" speech again, a new Bush campaign TV ad, a Kerry town hall, and a tough Kennedy speech keep Iraq at the forefront 36 days out.  Meanwhile, a Washington Post report on stepped-up security surrounding the presidential election, and efforts by the campaigns to promote their top homeland security surrogates, keep the war against terror close behind.

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Again seeking to tie Iraq to the WOT, the Bush campaign's new ad shows Kerry making conflicting statements on Iraq and asks: "How can John Kerry protect us... when he doesn't even know where he stands?"  Meanwhile, Kennedy, per an advance text, will say in his remarks at George Washington University: "President Bush is dead wrong and John Kerry is absolutely right.  We are not safer today.  And the reason we are not safer is because of President Bush's misguided war in Iraq."

Value of Kerry and Democrats emphasizing Iraq as a top issue with just over five weeks left?  Uncertain -- especially to the degree that they emphasize it above the domestic issues on which they hold more of an edge.  MSNBC's Felix Schein notes that when Kerry landed in toss-up Wisconsin yesterday and was greeted by 150 supporters, his only comments were about Iraq.  No health care, no jobs, no broader war against terror.

Value of Kerry using Iraq to get his mojo back in time for the first and seemingly biggest presidential debate?  Potentially priceless.

After a weekend in which things looked a bit sketchy, the Commission-sponsored presidential debates now appear to be on.  Republican officials close to the negotiations say the Commission has agreed to the rules of the debates set forth by the two campaigns, and is expected to release a statement to that effect today.

Hard as it may be to comprehend for those of us who have covered this general election campaign since March, the presidential race is just starting for some voters, with the following worth keeping in mind:

Before Thursday's debate, according to our research, voters in 25 states will have already begun to vote in one way or another: Alabama, Delaware, Florida (only for overseas voters), Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania (only for overseas voters), South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

On the day of the debate, September 30, Arizonans can start voting.  Absentee ballots in Colorado and Connecticut are distributed on October 1.

Given the violence in Iraq, it's possible that what the Bush campaign assumed would be an advantage for the President, kicking off the debates with national and homeland security, may not turn out that way.  Meanwhile, the third presidential debate leading into the final 20 days of the race will focus on the domestic issues on which polls show Democrats still retain an edge.

But we doubt that Kerry intended for the debates to be his time to introduce himself to voters, and the burden of proof is as much or more on him as it is on the President.  Only 36% of voters polled in the recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey said they feel Kerry has a message and know what he'd do if elected president.  On top of that, 12 independent voters at a focus group in Kansas City, MO last week said they're looking forward to hearing Kerry explain his policy positions.  None of the 12 who took part in the Peter Hart-conducted focus group for the Annenberg Public Policy Center knew much about Kerry beyond snippets of GOP criticisms. 

Asked yesterday by NBC's John Seigenthaler about voters not knowing much about Kerry, running mate Edwards said, "I think as -- we have -- we have a few weeks left before the election.  Both around the debates and between now and the election -- and on Election Day people are gonna be intensely focused on what the differences are between George Bush and John Kerry..."

Seigenthaler: "But in the last couple of weeks by refocusing your campaign on Iraq and the war on terror, does that mean that John Kerry in some ways has put the economy on the back burner?"  Edwards: "No, far from it.  We -- what we -- what we intend to do is the first debate is focused on -- on foreign policy and -- and national security.  So in the lead-up to that debate we thought it was very important for people to know where we stand...  We will focus like a laser on jobs and the economy and health care after this first debate."

In Wisconsin today for debate prep, Kerry holds a town hall in Spring Green at 10:30 am.  Edwards campaigns in New England with Kristen Breitweiser, who lost her husband Roland Breitweiser on September 11. 

The Bush campaign is expected to make their presence known in Spring Green to respond to Kerry's charges on Iraq and the war against terror.  Meanwhile, the President does an education event in Springfield at 1:15 pm and speaks at a rally in West Chester at 4:15 pm.

And Nader beats everyone to Florida, kicking off a nine-city tour of the state today.

Today's stops
Bush travels to Ohio today.  The state's unemployment rose from 6.0% in July, to 6.3% in August.  Bush won Ohio four years ago, 50% to 46%.  The AP on Bush's stops: "Bush tends first to his political fortunes at a county fairgrounds in Springfield to speak on education.  Later Monday, his campaign bus was taking him to a rally in West Chester, near Cincinnati, at a park featuring a World War II-era Voice of America station that transmitted pro-democracy broadcasts from 1944 to 1994.  Such areas of southwestern Ohio have been a Republican stronghold for decades and gave Bush large majorities that helped build his 3.6 percentage-point victory over... Gore in the state in 2000.  Now, Bush aims to make sure those margins hold so that Kerry will be unable to pick off a state he badly wants."  This will be Bush's 26th visit to the state as President.   - AP

The Lima News emphasizes the importance of Ohio to both the Bush and the Kerry campaigns.

Kerry spends the day in Wisconsin, making one campaign stop in Spring Green.  Gore won Wisconsin in 2000 by just over 5,700 votes.  The state's unemployment numbers inched up from 4.7% in July, to 4.8% in August.  USA Today notes that while Kerry is spending his time in Spring Green for debate prep, his campaign will be organizing public events every day he is there. 

And Nader is in Florida today.  In 2000, Nader received over 97,000 votes in Florida -- a state Bush won by 537 votes.  The Sunshine State's unemployment remained steady through July and August at 4.5%. The Florida Times-Union says Nader will talk about his views on same-sex marriage, the Patriot Act, and the war in Iraq -- and then will then do a book-signing following his speech.

Making your vote count
The Washington Post reports, "Agencies across the federal government are launching an aggressive and unusually open offensive aimed at thwarting terrorist plots before and during the presidential election in November...  The government's strategy will include heavy surveillance by the FBI, increased checks of terrorism watch lists by local police and heightened security at polling places on Nov. 2, officials said."

"A national election security planning bulletin will be sent today to the 50 states and the District, containing guidelines to governors and election officials for coordination of law enforcement, polling place and ballot-counting security, legal powers to order emergency election changes and public communication from now through Election Day."

Another Post story adds, "Analysts are alarmed about the possibility of direct attacks at election sites within the United States or a domestic reprise of last spring's Madrid train bombings before national elections in Spain...  The guidance comes a little more than five weeks before Election Day on Nov. 2, as states such as Iowa and Maine have begun early voting and others have launched absentee balloting.  Many states have moved ahead independently with such planning, although most have not coordinated with one another."

"At the same time, civil rights leaders have cautioned that security measures should not discourage or intimidate citizens from voting, and state laws and customs historically have insulated election officials from gubernatorial executive powers, which include authority over emergency preparedness and public safety."

To the extent Democratic operatives and officials have been concerned that government efforts to secure the election might cross over into unintended or intended voter suppression, these concerns have gone unvoiced until now, perhaps due to fears of being accused of being anti-security.

But Democratic strategist Jim Jordan responds to the Post reports: "It looks to me like Bush-Cheney '04 has the entire federal government working overtime, as visibly as possible, to scare the hell out of the electorate.  Kerry's going to get the bulk of the least committed voters, those who are the most likely to be discouraged and scared, so a low turnout is an imperative for Bush."  Jordan calls it "the most sophisticated voter suppression strategy ever, at least since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and it fits perfectly with Bush and Cheney's creepy new rhetoric."

We'll see if more Democrats start suggesting as much...

In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of 1,006 registered voters, we sought to measure new registrants and intentions about early voting.  The poll showed 10% having registered within the past year, while 90% said they registered over a year ago. 

Asked whether they plan to vote in person, or by a mail-in, absentee, or some other form of early voting, 80% said they definitely plan to vote in person; 6% said they will probably vote in person, 5% said they will probably vote with a mail-in or absentee ballot or some other form of early voting; and 7% said they will definitely vote with a mail-in or absentee ballot or through some other form of early voting.

Among those who said they will not vote in person, 62% said they will vote as soon as they receive their ballot; 32% said they will vote closer to election day.

The Wall Street Journal writes from Iowa, where people are voting: "Analysts estimate that from 25% to 30% of the national vote may already be in before polls open on Nov. 2...  The effort to harvest the early votes began in earnest here Friday, as tens of thousands of ballots were mailed to Iowans who requested them."

"Some election experts say they don't think the process is more prone to mischief than regular voting.  On the other hand, unlike for regular voting, the two parties don't have rival poll-watchers on the scene when most absentee ballots are filled out, so it is hard to know what might go awry."

USA Today reports on the Colorado initiative to split the state's electoral votes, starting -- if it passes -- with this election: "With Bush holding a narrow lead in Colorado polls, it appears that if the Democratic-inspired amendment passes, the winner would get five electoral votes, the loser four.  A recent poll in the Rocky Mountain News found the initiative ahead, 47% to 35%, though few voters felt strongly." 

The Washington Times says, "Critics of touch-screen voting machines in the Washington region and national voting rights groups are already lining up legal challenges to any November elections marred by computer malfunctions."

In a Washington Post op-ed, Jimmy Carter writes that "[u]nfortunately,... many of the [Help America Vote Act's] key provisions have not been implemented because of inadequate funding or political disputes."  Carter also takes after Gov. Jeb Bush specifically for not enacting reforms in Florida.

National and Homeland Security
The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein wonders whether "a political environment centered on national security issues allowing the Republican Party to break the partisan deadlock that has characterized U.S. politics for the last decade?"

"Since the Vietnam War era, the default position for most voters has been to view the Republicans as tougher than Democrats on national security.  That means in any partisan argument over how to keep the country safe, most voters are probably more inclined to trust Republicans until given a good reason not to.  It's similar to the advantage that Democrats enjoy on healthcare and Social Security..."

"The problem for Democrats is that in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, security has eclipsed these domestic concerns.  In the post-Sept. 11 world, strength trumps empathy...  A telling question in recent polls has asked voters whether it is more important that the next president be a strong leader or someone who cares about people like them.  Voters, by a solid majority, have preferred a strong leader." 

Brownstein says Kerry's "real problem is that Bush has convinced most voters he has a stronger backbone and a clearer vision of how to protect America."

President Bush said in a pre-taped interview on "The O'Reilly Factor," airing today, that he does not regret donning the flight suit and making his "Mission Accomplished" speech, and that he'd do it again.  The Washington Post notes, "In April, White House senior adviser Karl Rove told an editorial board meeting with the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio that the 'Mission Accomplished' sign had been a mistake...  Arriving in Madison mid-afternoon, Kerry held a five-minute rally on the tarmac and ridiculed Bush..."

And Edwards yesterday responded, "These people are so out of touch with reality.  They are living in a fantasy world and they need to come back to planet earth," MSNBC's Tom Llamas reports.  "You can't fix something if you don't see what's wrong."

The Boston Globe says Ted Kennedy's "blistering" speech at GW today will expand on themes he outlined on talk-shows yesterday: "Today's planned address has perhaps the most explicitly political theme to it, as Kennedy repeatedly warns that the nation is less safe with Bush in power because of his 'misguided war in Iraq' and 'the catastrophic failures resulting from the Bush administration's gross incompetence in managing so many aspects of our occupation of Iraq.'"

The AP covers Bush's shift on Russia and says, "It's a shift that reflects the common cause Bush and Putin found in fighting terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the personal relationship they had developed even before then.  It's also a change that fits neatly into Bush's re-election campaign."

Build-up to Miami
The New York Times on the back-and-forth this weekend leading up to the debate: "A senior Kerry adviser, Joe Lockhart, laid out what Democrats said would most likely be another major theme for Mr. Kerry leading up to the debate, as he accused Mr. Bush of 'using the war on terror as a political tool and a political weapon' in seeking to silence dissent."

"Mr. Bush's communications director, Nicolle Devenish... offered her own sharply worded preview of the message that Mr. Bush will try to present at the debate on Thursday night in Coral Gables, Fla. 'Someone who blinks when things get hard is not the right person to win the war on terror,' Ms. Devenish said, adding: 'They are preaching retreat and defeat in the face of real challenges from an enemy bent on our destruction.  I think that's bad for the troops, it's bad for our allies and it's bad for our country.'"

The Washington Times: "The first of three confrontations... might be the last significant chance for Mr. Kerry to dent the growing lead that Mr. Bush has built in the polls six weeks before Election Day."

The AP notes the "personal pitfalls to avoid: Bush must stifle the smirk, for instance, and Kerry must cut short his rhetorical rambling."

"Kerry knows intimately the details of policymaking and how to argue any side of an issue.  And that may be his problem.  Sometimes Kerry sounds like he IS arguing every side of an issue...  Where Bush can get into trouble is if he's forced out of his comfort zone, and becomes flustered.  Or if his single-mindedness starts to look simple-minded, given the profound uncertainties surrounding Iraq, the war on terrorism and other matters..."

In a New York Times op-ed, former Timesman Adam Clymer advises the press on covering Thursday's debate: "The test for journalists is whether they can appreciate the importance of the event and help voters make sense of what is said, checking the accuracy of claims about the past and the present and the plausibility of what is claimed for the future.  It won't do to say, 'We covered that in August.'"

Asked about the debate on Saturday night, MSNBC's Felix Schein reports, Kerry avoided reporters' questions by literally jogging home rather than walking with the pool as the group left a touch-football game the campaign put on for the press.  Sunday morning, Kerry didn't show his face on the plane in his now-familiar pattern of avoiding the press.  Schein says most of the Kerry press corps won't even be staying at the same hotel as Kerry in Wisconsin, and instead will be staying 25 minutes away by car; only the pool with stay at Kerry's hotel.

Not being in the pool, Schein had yet to see Kerry's hotel as of last night, but passes on from reports that "it sounds quite distinguished, with two restaurants, a series of golf courses, pool, all-suite accommodations and fitness facilities mentioned in the brochure."

The New York Times says both Bush and Kerry shared the same oratory and debate teacher at Yale: Rollin G. Osterweis. 

MSNBC's Tom Llamas reports that Edwards will prep for the October 5 vice-presidential debate in Chautauqua, NY starting on Friday night.  He is expected to make one campaign stop (within driving distance of Chautauqua) a day leading up to the debate.  DC lawyer Robert Barnett will play Cheney; policy guru Bruce Reed will also take part.

Nader
Now on the ballot in Florida but not participating in the Miami debate, Nader kicks off his nine-city tour of Florida today, culminating in a stop in Miami Thursday night.  Nader hits Jacksonville, Gainesville, Orlando, Coral Gables, West Palm Beach, Fort Myers, Sarasota, Tampa, and Miami. 

Asked yesterday by NBC's John Seigenthaler about Democratic efforts to keep Nader off key state ballots, Edwards said, "Well, John Kerry and I have a job.  He's the presidential candidate and I'm the vice-presidential candidate.  And what we have to do is reach out to voters of all kinds.  And that includes people who would consider voting for Ralph Nader.  Ralph Nader will end up on the ballot in some places, not on the ballot in others.  Our job as the two candidates for President and Vice-President is to make sure anybody who would consider for Ralph Nader knows that a vote for John Kerry will protect exactly the same interests and will have more impact in who the next President will be."

The battleground
The Los Angeles Times focuses on the battle for Oregon, noting Kerry's slightly boosted prospects due to Nader's absence from the ballot.

Roll Call reports that Kerry's decision "to cancel advertising in several battleground states that also feature targeted Senate contests this fall is worrying Democrats in at least one, Missouri, and leaving strategists scratching their heads in two others, Colorado and Louisiana...  Democrats remain convinced, however, that a strong showing by Kerry in Pennsylvania... could provide a major boost for Rep. Joe Hoeffel's (D) underdog challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter (R)."

The Washington Post reports on the political activities being undertaken by some 501(c) groups, who don't have to disclose their donors.  Per Public Citizen, some of these groups "regularly spend more than half their budgets on political activities in violation of IRS rules."

The values debate
We haven't heard Kerry talk about stem cells lately, despite the advantage polls show he has on that issue, but the Washington Post reports two new studies show the promise of embryonic stem cell research.

"In the nine-way race to become the second U.S. state to legalize same-sex 'marriage,' New Jersey, Oregon and Washington state appear to be in the lead, lawyers and activists say." – Washington Times

The Boston Globe notes "Oregon has emerged as a key battleground in the fight over same-sex marriage...  Similar measures are being put to voters in 13 states this election season, but proponents of same-sex marriage say they are concentrating extra resources in Oregon..."

More Bush v. Kerry
The New York Times notes that Cheney rarely talks about domestic issues on the campaign trail, to the disappointment of some of his supporters.

The Chicago Tribune does it take on the "Ask President Bush" forums, at which, the paper says, Bush sometimes plays the role of Richard Simmons one moment, and Mister Rogers the next. 

USA Today counts off what it calls the 10 toughest things to do in presidential politics:

10) Speak clearly
9) Turn your own liability into an asset:
8) Turn the opponent's asset into a liability
7) Keep the discourse on favorable subjects
6) Raise the tough money
5) Deliver new voters to the polls
4) Handle debates well
3) Survive firestorms
2) Get a second chance to make an impression
1) Handle the October surprise

The Atlantic Monthly analyzes the previous campaigns Karl Rove has managed -- in particular, some little-noticed judicial races in Alabama -- and concludes that when cornered in a tight race, Rove gets nasty.  "Rove's reputation for winning is eclipsed only by his reputation for ruthlessness, and examples abound of his apparent willingness to cross moral and ethical lines...  If this year stays true to past form, the campaign will get nastier in the closing weeks, and without anyone's quite registering it, Rove will be right back in his element."

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