“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 28, 2004| 9:30 p.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Aaron Inver

First glance (35 days until Election Day)
Both candidates are down for debate prep, but armament for Thursday night continues as the two sides launch new ads daily, seek to manipulate expectations, amass surrogates, and plot Miami media briefings.

  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

After launching a tough TV ad against Kerry yesterday which takes some past Kerry statements on the war out of context, Bush-Cheney goes up with another new spot today which references the first World Trade Center bombing.  Noting "strength builds peace... weakness invites those who would do us harm," the ad accuses Kerry and "congressional liberals" of trying to cut intelligence and anti-terror weapons funding.

We wonder whether the Kerry camp will continue this latest cycle of putting up ads in response to Bush's.

Also yesterday, the Bush campaign issued a disarming-looking booklet titled, "Debate Briefing Book for Senator Kerry," which gave us a chance to brush up on our fact-checking in preparation for Thursday night.  The booklet chronicles alleged Kerry flip-flops and problematic stances on national security issues, with some charges dead-on and some wrong.  More below.

Top Bush campaign officials Mehlman and Dowd hold a 1:00 pm press conference call today to preview Thursday's debate.  The Kerry campaign has a call scheduled for tomorrow.

The Republican National Committee today releases a video (i.e., not an ad) showing what the RNC "did to get into a position to provide the best information and recommendations to others who would be working with the President to prepare for debate," per an RNC source.  Asked whether the video focuses largely on Iraq, the source responded, "LARGELY."

Meanwhile, Edwards is on day two of campaigning with Kristen Breitweiser, who said yesterday: "When I saw the Republican convention a couple weeks ago, I heard all this talk about 9/11, this invocation of 9/11, and I just sat there bewildered wondering where this interest, where this passion, where this fervor was about 9/11, because... I've been down there in the trenches trying to get 9/11 issues addressed... because I know what it's like to watch your loved one, your husband or your child..., get murdered on worldwide television." 

In an interview with MSNBC's Tom Llamas, Breitweiser said, "It has nothing to do with politics, it has to do with what I feel in my heart needs to be done so I can look in my daughter's eyes and know and tell her that she is safer living here..."

And MSNBC's Felix Schein says of Kerry that, as was the case before his convention, a different candidate seems to be emerging.  The "semicolon" candidate is slowly being replaced by a candidate who speaks in bullet points.  At his events, Schein says, Kerry is now focused on a few issues: Iraq, the economy, and an interchangeable third item (usually education and health care) -- not the litany of charges heard over the summer.  He is also more actively trying to define his own record and counteract the impression voters have of him as a flip-flopper.  Yesterday, for example, he said he has "always" had "one position" on Iraq." 

With Kerry in Wisconsin for debate prep, Edwards campaigns with Kristen Breitweiser a town hall at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh at 11:00 am, a rally in Newark, NJ at 5:15 pm, and a Victory Fund reception in East Brunswick, NJ at 7:50 pm. 

And with Bush down in Crawford for debate prep, Cheney is out campaigning in the heartland: He has a town hall in Dubuque, IA at 1:40 pm and a rally in Eau Claire, WI at 6:20 pm. 

Nader gives a speech in West Palm Beach tonight at 8:00 pm.

Today's stops
Neither Bush nor Kerry plan on making any public appearances today as both prepare for Thursday's debate.  Bush is preparing at his Crawford ranch, while Kerry is in Wisconsin.  Both candidates are expected to be in Florida tomorrow. 

Nader, although not participating in the debates, is already campaigning in the Sunshine State, where he will give a speech in West Palm Beach tonight.  Florida's unemployment remained steady through July and August at 4.5%. Nader received over 97,000 votes in Florida in 2000, amounting to 1.63% of the votes cast in the state.

Cheney is in Iowa today.  The AP quotes one Iowa academic saying if the state starts to tip toward Bush, it likely will mean trouble for Kerry everywhere.

Bush v. Kerry
The Washington Post puts Bush's lead over Kerry in the new Post/ABC poll down to "the perception that he is a stronger leader with a clearer vision, despite deep concerns about Iraq and the pace of the economic recovery."

"Bush's relentless attacks on Kerry have badly damaged the Democratic nominee...  Voters routinely describe Kerry as wishy-washy, as a flip-flopper and as a candidate they are not sure they can trust, almost as if they are reading from Bush campaign ad scripts.  But Kerry's problems are also partly of his own making."

"Bush remains a polarizing figure, strongly admired by his supporters and despised by partisans on the left.  Some swing voters who disagree with his policies nonetheless see him as a confident leader and express reluctance to vote him out of office in the middle of the struggle against terrorism, unless Kerry convinces them that he can do a better job."

"After two weeks of bad news from Iraq that has included the beheadings of two Americans, more U.S. casualties and continued bombings, a narrow majority (51 percent to 46 percent) once again says the war was not worth fighting.  Only on his handling of terrorism does Bush receive strongly positive marks, with 59 percent approving and 38 percent disapproving."

And the new Gallup poll shows "Bush leads... Kerry by 8 percentage points among likely voters...  That is a smaller advantage than the president held in mid-September but shows him maintaining a durable edge...  Among all registered voters, Bush's lead widened... to a statistically significant 11 points."

"Kerry pollster Mark Mellman says the survey is evidence that the Massachusetts senator, who has begun criticizing Bush more sharply for his handling of Iraq and terrorism, is staging a comeback...  But other findings in the survey indicate that Kerry's standing on some fundamental measures has eroded, presumably as a result of Republican hammering in TV ads and on the stump."

"However, there also are vulnerabilities for Bush.  Americans are relatively pessimistic about the situation in Iraq, despite the president's assurances that it is moving toward democracy and free elections.  A 52% majority say things are going badly for the United States in Iraq.  More than one in three want some or all of the U.S. forces in Iraq withdrawn.  And expectations are high for Bush in the debates...  By 52%-39%, voters say they expect Bush to do a better job than Kerry in the debates.  And 18% say the debates could make a difference in deciding their vote."

Build-up to Miami: National and Homeland Security
The Chicago Tribune: "With the debate only days away, both campaigns sought to reinforce negative images of their opponents.  For Bush, the strategy was to keep portraying Kerry as vacillating on the war in Iraq as well as funding for troops and rebuilding Afghanistan and Iraq.  The Democratic challenger proceeded with an aggressive effort to portray Bush as out of touch on the realities of Iraq and offering too positive a picture of a country in which insurgent violence is on the rise."

The Los Angeles Times says the candidates in their exchanges yesterday "sought to undermine voter confidence in the other man's capacity to lead a nation under threat of terrorist attack."

"Kerry advisers are convinced that the anti-American insurgency in Iraq represents the greatest threat to Bush's reelection," says the Boston Globe

Howard Kurtz notes that "allies of both candidates are running attack ads featuring Osama bin Laden."  "All told," Kurtz says, "Democrats have put out three response ads in 48 hours, underscoring their determination to quickly return fire but also allowing Bush and his allies to set the parameters of the battle.  MoveOn.org PAC, a liberal ally of Kerry's, plans to join the fray tomorrow with an ad in which the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq tearfully challenges the president's rationale for war."

We bet this becomes a topic at the debate: The New York Times says the same intelligence unit "that produced a gloomy report in July about the prospect of growing instability in Iraq warned the Bush administration about the potential costly consequences of an American-led invasion two months before the war began, government officials said Monday...  The contents of the two assessments had not been previously disclosed.  They were described by the officials after two weeks in which the White House had tried to minimize the council's latest report, which was prepared this summer and read by senior officials early this month."

Some examples from the Bush campaign's "Kerry debate prep" booklet, and our take on the charges:

Bush campaign: "You said voting against the [$87 billion] funding for the war would be 'irresponsible.'  That was before you voted against the funds." 

Our take: Kerry did say that, but he added that it was it was important to provide this funding "properly."   "The question is will we do this the best way possible so that we do the best to protect our troops and the best to advance the safety and security of the United States?" Kerry asked.  He also said in the same interview, "Senator Biden and I are introducing a effort to try to link the $87 billion to the reduction of the Bush tax cut at the high end, and we're doing that as a matter of shared sacrifice.  We believe that the American people expect that if we're going to have to ante up money additionally in order to safeguard our troops and get this job done, that there should be a shared sacrifice in America, and I believe that."

Bush campaign:"You have characterized our troops in Iraq as 'occupiers.'" 
Our take: So has Bush, to an extent.  Here's what he said in May: "On June 30th, the Coalition Provisional Authority will cease to exist, and will not be replaced.  The occupation will end, and Iraqis will govern their own affairs.  America's ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte, will present his credentials to the new president of Iraq."

Bush campaign: "You wrote in your book, The New War, that Yasser Arafat is a 'statesman' and a 'role model.'" 
Our take: This is taken out of context.  First, Kerry wrote the book in the 1990s, when there seemed to be real progress in the Middle East.  Second, per the Jerusalem Post, here's what Kerry's book says: "Terrorist organizations with specific political agendas may be encouraged and emboldened by Yasser Arafat's transformation from outlaw to statesman, while those whose only object is to disrupt society require no such 'role models.'"  

Bush campaign: "You delayed the creation of the Department of Homeland Security by 112 days because you wanted national security workers to be unionized." 

Our take: Bush originally opposed the creation of a Department of Homeland Security when Sen. Joe Lieberman proposed the idea.  And saying that Kerry delayed this because he "wanted national security workers to be unionized" is misleading.  It was Bush who insisted that they not be unionized -- and threatened to veto any legislation that did so.

Bush campaign: "Your Current Position: The removal of Saddam Hussein has left America less secure. You are currently against the war and wouldn't have gone to war, but you used to be for the war before you were against the war before you were for the war."

Our take: This is true.  In his September 20 speech, Kerry said, "we have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure." And Kerry did vote for the Iraq war authorization, then later criticized the war, and then said in August that he still would have voted for it -- even knowing what we know now about the absence of WMD there. 

More Miami build-up
The Washington Times: "During practice sessions for Thursday's debate in Coral Gables, Fla., the president worked at highlighting Mr. Kerry's record of taking both sides on issues when sparring with Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, who played the Democratic candidate, campaign officials said...  The White House continued to boost expectations for Mr. Kerry's performance."

The AP says Kerry is learning to use humor on the stump, which "heartens campaign aides who think his message is extraordinary but worry that the delivery is often ordinary."

The New York Times says the Commission will enforce many of the stipulations the Bush and Kerry campaigns agreed to, but will not sign the agreement itself -- even though the Bush camp said it might walk away if it isn't signed.  "One official said the commission would probably not abide by the agreement's stipulation that the audience at the Oct. 8 town-hall-style debate in Missouri be composed of people who are 'soft supporters' of Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush, meaning they had not solidly made up their minds but were leaning one way or another.  The commission had proposed that the audience be filled with strictly undecided voters."

Despite the jokes about the negotiations about the temperature in the debate hall, sweat is a serious matter. – Washington Times

The Miami Herald previews which Democratic and Republican surrogates most likely will attend the debate. 

And the Herald also covers tightened security:.

This strikes us a "hurricane politics," but the first debate is in Florida after all...  Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot e-mailed Bush supporters asking them to donate to the Red Cross to help hurricane victims.  "There is a time for politics, and a time to set partisanship aside and come to the aid of others.  Now is the time to help our friends, family and neighbors in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania." 

And the President yesterday asked Congress for another $7.1 billion to help hurricane victims in Florida and the Southeast.  USA Today

The economy and health care
While the candidates fixate on national security, the Washington Post writes up a liberal consumer group's study being released today which shows that "workers' costs for health insurance have risen by 36 percent since 2000, dwarfing the average 12.4 percent increase in earnings since President Bush took office."

The Wall Street Journal says "Medicare is the most worrisome factor in the government's long-term deficit outlook, a manifestation of Americans' demands for health care and politicians' reluctance to make them pay for it.  But President Bush,... Kerry and influential congressional leaders show no appetite for radical surgery...  On the campaign trail, there are few references to cutting benefits or squeezing hospitals and doctors."

Oil broke $50 per barrel yesterday.  The Journal says, "The price of oil is up roughly 75% from a year ago and some analysts predict the latest surge -- which is already hurting airlines and other big consumers -- could lead to a global recession.  Although oil is at an all-time high, prices are not at record levels when inflation is taken into account.  Adjusting for inflation, today's prices are still more than $30 below the level reached in 1981 after the Iranian revolution."

Meanwhile, another Journal story says "one of the world's most important fuel gauges -- U.S. commercial inventories of crude oil -- signaled that the surge in prices may well continue."

But USA Today reports, "Oil used to be the grim reaper of the economy: When prices spiked, recessions almost always followed.  But while oil's passing the $50 a barrel mark for the first time ever Monday is not exactly welcome news for consumers and most businesses, high energy costs are no longer the buzz-kill for the economy they once were."

"Still, some in the USA are feeling the effects of higher energy costs.  The impact is uneven across the economy, as lower-income consumers and firms in tightly competitive fields bear the brunt of the higher costs."

Making your vote count
The Los Angeles Times follows up on the latest government concerns and briefings about a terrorist attack possibly disrupting the election.  "Democrats have... asserted that the administration is using the threat of a possible attack to scare the electorate into sticking with the status quo in November.  The officials at Monday's briefing said they were speaking out, on the condition of anonymity, to put in perspective recent media reports discussing the election-related precautions they were taking.  They added that there was no evidence that terrorists viewed an attack as a way of either defeating Bush or enhancing Kerry's candidacy."

Per the AP, one SAO "said that while intelligence repeatedly indicates that al-Qaeda operatives oppose President Bush, no evidence has been found that they hope a successful attack might boost the candidacy of Democrat John Kerry.  The anti-Bush sentiments, the official said, are part of a broader hatred of the United States and Western democracies as a whole."

The Washington Times covers GOP reactions to Democratic preparations for legal recourse in the event of what they see as balloting problems: "Republican officials say the significant number of lawyers the Democrats will dispatch to oversee balloting in the presidential election indicates that Democrats plan to demand recounts in an attempt to litigate the outcome of the contest."

"Even so, Republicans will have large legal teams in battleground states.  In Ohio, for example, Republicans will have two dozen lawyers in Columbus alone to challenge ballot abuses.  This summer, the Republican National Lawyers Association has been running a 'Florida school' for hundreds of lawyers countrywide, and national party recruiters have been busy assessing legal teams put together by the state party organizations."

And Republican officials in Florida respond to Jimmy Carter's op-ed in the Washington Post yesterday, accusing Carter of "a politically motivated effort to undermine voter confidence after the Democrat said in a newspaper column that the state is 'likely' to repeat the voting problems that plagued the 2000 presidential election.  State officials also said the former president made no attempt to get up-to-date information before writing a critical opinion piece and never tried to contact the governor's office or that of Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood." – Washington Times

The Wall Street Journal editorial page calls the Democratic talk of Florida 2000 and ballot access problems "election-year demagoguery.  Democrats and their acolytes are raising this myth from the dead to scare up black turnout and lay the groundwork for challenges in court if John Kerry loses."

The AP reports that a lawsuit to require paper receipts for electronic machines in Florida was "revived" yesterday.  Currently, 15 counties in Florida use the machines.

The Miami Herald reports, "A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Glenda Hood called the ruling 'procedural' but acknowledged that the state now plans a new rule in time for the Nov. 2 elections spelling out how to do manual recounts in touch-screen counties.  How recounts would be done hasn't been decided..."

The AP covers the "flood" of newly registered voters: "Nationwide figures aren't yet available, but anecdotal evidence shows an upswing in many places, often urban but some rural.  Some wonder whether the new voters - some of whom sign up at the insistence of workers paid by get-out-the-vote organizations - will actually make it to the polls on Election Day, but few dispute the registration boom."

Absentee voting in Iowa is off to a fast start, the New York Times reports, which Kerry supporters see as a good sign.

MSNBC.com’s Tom Curry gives his take on the Colorado ballot initiative that would proportionally allocate the state's nine electoral votes.  "[O]ne might expect that Colorado could be the harbinger of a national movement if the measure is approved by the voters.  But [GOP consultant Katy] Atkinson is skeptical: She said only 16 states allow ballot initiatives and state legislators in the other states would not be likely to undertake electoral vote-splitting on their own."

The Chicago Tribune notes that Democrats have been working aggressively to keep Nader off the ballot in Wisconsin, and a judge plans to rule today on his ballot status there. 

The battleground
David Broder does the battle for New Hampshire.

The AP attributes Kerry's narrow lead in the latest Pennsylvania poll to "rising anti-war sentiment".


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